Catch-22: The awful truth people miss about Heller's great novel.

Scrutinizing culture.
Aug. 2 2011 12:57 PM

Seeing Catch-22 Twice

The awful truth people miss about Heller's great novel.

Joseph Heller. Click image to expand.
Joseph Heller

I still fondly remember the day my father told me, "Hey, I just got a letter from Joseph Heller."

Now, my father wasn't a big reader and rarely wrote letters, much less to authors. But when I went through a phase in high school of constantly carrying Catch-22 around and quoting from it and writing things like, "There was only one catch and that was catch-22" in magic marker on phone booths in the supermarket parking lot where I worked as a shopping cart retriever (superdistinguished summer job!), my father asked to borrow my copy and, to my surprise, became an instant fan.

I guess it shouldn't have been so surprising. He had served as a wartime second lieutenant and was fond of quoting to me and my sister such profound military maxims as, "There's a right way, a wrong way and the army way." (Which meant: Do things my way, right or wrong.)

And I think he was impressed when I stumped him with what I would later come to think of as Joseph Heller's hilarious refutation of Kant's Categorical Imperative.

There's a scene in the World War II novel when some officer or other reproves the novel's anti-hero, Capt. Yossarian, for trying to escape another of the ever-escalating number of dangerous bombing missions he's ordered to fly.

"Suppose everybody on our side felt that way," the officer demands, echoing Kant's imperative—that one should decide how to act by envisioning the consequences if everyone else acted that way. It's a maxim much beloved by parents. Mine, anyway.

So, if everybody else acted that way? "Then I'd certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way," Yossarian says.

Beautiful! It was one of the reasons I fell madly in love with the novel. Almost the way Yossarian says he fell for the chaplain in the first lines of the book. (Heller said he found a way to start writing Catch-22 when he heard in his head a version of the first lines: "It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.") It's one of the novel's amazing achievements that it may be the darkest, most profoundly negative vision of existence in modern fiction, yet it leaves you with a feeling of mad love for its crazy beauty.

Anyway my father was moved enough by his love of the novel to write a letter to Heller telling him how perfectly he had captured the absurdity of military life ("the army way") and how much it had moved him that someone understood. And it moved me that we could share this literary affection. So I was even more affected that Heller would take the time—a year after publication, just when Catch-22 was taking off and becoming the multimillion-copy best-seller it would be—to write a letter to my father thanking him for sharing his experience with the war and the military mind.

Every time I recall that, I think about the way reading Catch-22 changed my life. Maybe not for the better. Sometimes I think the book predisposed me to tangle with authority, and made me think that all authority was a joke founded upon pretense. (It's not?) But even though the book shaped me from a young age, the way I think about it changed, somewhat abruptly, about a dozen years ago.

If you remember the novel, you'll remember the chapter in the middle of the book about the soldier who "sees everything twice." (If you haven't read it, you really should get yourself a copy, and now is an optimal moment: The book is 50 years old; a biography of Heller and a memoir by his daughter are both just hitting bookstore shelves; and there's a 50th anniversary edition already in stores with an affectionate and perceptive introduction by Christopher Buckley, who became a close friend of Heller's later in his life.)

Curiously enough it was something Christopher's father, William F. Buckley Jr., published in his magazine the National Review some years ago that caused me to rethink why I like Catch-22— led me, in effect, to see Catch-22 twice. And even more curious than that was the fact that what Buckley pere had published was an attack on the novel by Norman Podhoretz, who had something of a negative obsession with the book.

Before I seek to explain my second sight (my new vision) I should probably mention that Simon & Schuster, which is publishing the 50th-anniversary edition, also published my most recent book—about what you might call the catch-22 of nuclear deterrence.

Most people see Catch-22 as an "anti-war novel." But I'm not sure that's exactly right, or that it goes far enough.

There's a brief passage in Chris Buckley's introduction to the new edition in which he quotes from a letter written to Heller by Stephen Ambrose the historian: "For sixteen years," Ambrose wrote, I have been waiting for the great anti-war book which I knew WWII must produce. I rather doubted, however, that it would come out of America; I would have guessed Germany. I am happy to have been wrong. Thank you."

This is a bit puzzling: Wasn't World War II supposed to have been "the good war," one of the few in history in which there was relative moral clarity? And didn't Ambrose write Band of Brothers for Spielberg, a script that was realistic about war but not anti-war. We were seeking to defeat Adolf Hitler after all.

This was the point that Podhoretz was making in his attack on the novel:

In due course even World War II fell victim to the onslaught of the antiheroic ethos that was resurrected in the Sixties and given even greater currency by Vietnam. Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22 is the key document here. Though published in the early days of American involvement in Vietnam, Catch-22 was a product of the new climate, and so powerful was this climate already becoming that Heller not only got away with but was even applauded for what a few years earlier would have been thought virtually blasphemous—showing up World War II as in effect no different from or better than World War I. As Heller portrayed it, there were no heroes in that war; there were only victims of a racket run by idiots, hustlers and thieves.

I think I can speak for my father in saying that Podhoretz, who has written repeated attacks on the book, has missed the point, or lets a lack of a sense of humor obscure it. But sometimes an attack can have a clarifying effect on why one really values a book and this was the case here. I remember being indignant when I when I first read it. For Podhoretz, Yossarian was not the lovable, shambolic, subversive anti-war anti-hero I (and almost everyone else, particularly of the Vietnam generation) thought him to be. He was a shameless, shameful shirker.

In refusing to go on bombing missions after the requisite number kept being raised by self-serving commanders every time Yossarian came near fulfilling the quota, and by causing the scrubbing of planned missions, Yossarian was either condemning others to die or risk death in his place. He was undermining, Podhoretz argues, in an immoral, cowardly way, what was generally agreed to be a virtuous cause, however bungled its execution.

The people who defended Heller, Yossarian, and Catch-22 from critiques like Podhoretz's tended to say, Well, the war was just about all over! Already won! The missions were hardly even necessary; the commanders were foolishly and unnecessarily condemning the fliers to death by ordering extra missions.

I was satisfied with that for a while, and I kept on rereading Catch-22 with even more defiant pleasure. But after a while, probably after the time I spent writing Explaining Hitler, I began to rethink that defense, and to find it deficient. And re-examining the book opened the door to a new way of looking at Catch-22, one that saw it as even more profound.

First the factual background: If you examine the state of the war at the time when the novel is set more closely, you have to concede the war wasn't "over," in the sense of having been definitively won. (I've just done a new introduction to the 50th-anniversary edition of William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which sensitized me to the chronology of the war.) There is no mention of Normandy in the novel, the Herman Goering Division is still a force to be reckoned with, even the Italian campaign was not a done deal. Mussolini is still in power in the novel, so its time frame must be 1943. Which means there was a lot of significant, potentially disastrous fighting yet to be done and that those bombing runs that Yossarian is shirking—even if they were ordered by preening idiots with no concern for the air crews or the war beyond the opportunity for self-promotion—had significance.

Which means that on strictly moral grounds, Podhoretz may have had a point. If you want to admire Catch-22 as an anti-war novel, you can only reasonably do so from a strictly pacifist position. What if everyone acted like Yossarian? Well, maybe he'd be a fool not to have done so, but Hitler might well have remained in control of Europe.

So where does that leave us? It left me thinking that to regard Catch-22 merely as an anti-war novel is a mistake. Even to regard it, as many critics do, as about "mortality" diminishes its scope. After all, Yossarian's much ballyhooed "discovery" of mortality at the end of the novel is not much of a discovery, however "hands on" it may be. (Spoiler alert: His fellow crewman Snowden suffers a horrendous flak wound and literally spills his guts into Yossarian's hands; the incident, recounted at the end of the book, takes place early on in the chronology and may well be what triggered the overt symptoms of rebellion we see in Yossarian throughout.) Even so, there's no shortage of novels that dwell on the tragedy of mortality.

I think Heller's argument was not with war or with death but with God. That the novel is less about the death of Snowden than "the death of God," as that theological tendency was known back then. That what the novel is really about is theodicy. Theodicy being of course the subcategory of theology which attempts (and studies the attempts) to reconcile human suffering, cruelty, and evil with the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God. Heller doesn't think it can be done.

He makes this extremely daring, radically blasphemous argument—essentially that God is, if not evil, then hopelessly incompetent—most explicitly in the chapter about the soldier who "sees everything twice."

It's in Chapter 18. (Purely coincidence I'm sure, but by now everyone knows the story of how Heller had originally titled his novel Catch-18 but—because he learned at the last minute that popular novelist Leon Uris was coming out with a book entitled Mila 18—he and his editor and publisher decided to change the title to Catch-22. There has been much speculation about why they chose 22, as opposed to another number, and I have a theory I shall relate in a moment.)

But to set the stage: Chapter 18 takes place in the airbase hospital to which Yossarian has once again repaired, hoping to convince the doctors he's sick enough to avoid flying any more missions even though he's perfectly healthy.

This dodge has been wearing thin, which is all the more reason Yossarian is impressed by the scam invented by a fellow airman in his ward. The guy suddenly sits up and shouts, "I see everything twice!"

Chaos follows. "A nurse screamed and an orderly fainted," Heller writes, "Doctors came running up from every direction with needles, lights, tubes, rubber mallets and oscillating metal tines. They rolled up complicated instruments. ..."

It's in keeping with the novel's trademark absurdist genius that everyone seems to take terribly seriously the condition of "seeing everything twice" even though, if you stop and try to think what that means, it makes no logical sense at all. (It's not double vision.) And yet it seems incredibly suggestive, whatever it is. Perhaps a distant reference to Marx's version of Hegel in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon:Everything in history happens twice: First time as tragedy, second time as farce. Not a bad definition of Catch-22's literary genre: tragedy/farce.

The doctors struggle to decide which specialist should get to treat this unique but inexplicable syndrome and the airman gets to stay in the hospital. Before long Yossarian tries this gambit himself:

"The leader of this team of doctors was a dignified, solicitous gentleman who held up one finger directly in front of Yossarian and demanded, 'How many fingers do you see?' "

"Two," said Yossarian.

"How many fingers do you see now?" asked the doctor, holding up two.

"Two" said Yossarian.

"And how many now?" asked the doctor, holding up none.

"Two"" said Yossarian.

"The doctor's face wreathed with a smile. 'By Jove he's right,' he declared jubilantly. 'He does see everything twice.' "

"They rolled Yossarian away on a stretcher ... and quarantined everyone else in the ward for another fourteen days."

I always loved this scene for its Marx Bros. refusal of logic and the fact that everyone accepts it as logically possible. And I think the scene is a key analog to another instance of the genre of black humor/aburdism that was so influential in American culture of the latter half of the 20th century. I have a strong feeling the awareness of the "seeing everything twice" line crept into Bob Dylan's absurdist "Stuck Inside of Mobile (With the Memphis Blues Again)". In those lines Dylan sings: "An' here I sit so patiently/Waiting to find out what price/You have to pay to get out of/going though all these things twice." It's no fun going from tragedy to farce.

But for me, the high point of the "I see everything twice" chapter, perhaps the thematic high point of the book, is Yossarian's astonishingly scathing denunciation of God.

It comes between the first time he sees the soldier who sees everything twice and his decision to pretend that he does, too.

This is the key theodicy (or anti-theodicy) passage that makes Catch-22 in its own way a religious (or anti-religious) novel. It grows out of an argument Yossarian recounts having the following year (time schemes are not rigidly adhered to in Catch-22), an argument with the wife of his commanding officer Lt. Scheisskopf. (Occasionally, subtlety isn't either.)

It's Thanksgiving Day and she's reproving Yossarian for not being thankful, and he says, "I bet I can name two things to be miserable about for every one you can name to be thankful for."

Among her responses: "Be thankful you're healthy."

"Be bitter you're not going to stay that way," he says.

"Be glad you're even alive," she says.

"Be furious you're going to die," he counters.

They continue until Yossarian launches into a pagelong denunciation of God that I think is the blasphemous heart of the book:

"And don't tell me God works in mysterious ways," Yossarian continued, hurtling over her objections. "There's nothing so mysterious about it. He's not working at all. He's playing or else He's forgotten all about us. That's the kind of God you people talk about—a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed. Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation? What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when He robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did he ever create pain? ... Oh, He was really being charitable to us when He gave us pain! [to warn us of danger] Why couldn't He have used a doorbell instead to notify us, or one of His celestial choirs? Or a system of blue-and-red neon tubes right in the middle of each person's forehead. Any jukebox manufacturer worth his salt could have done that. Why couldn't He? ... What a colossal, immortal blunderer! When you consider the opportunity and power He had to really do a job, and then look at the stupid, ugly little mess He made of it instead, His sheer incompetence is almost staggering. ..."

Wow! It's a tour de force of anti-Deism. People speak too narrowly when they talk of Catch-22 as a satire of humanity. It's that, yes, and there are few better. But it's really a vicious satiric attack on God, as much as his poorly made creatures. This denunciation of God comes from the heart—Yossarian's, anyway—and transcends any denunciation of the evil of war. It's about the evil of existence itself and the creator of that existence and that evil.

I actually think that the importance of this passage dwarfs the obviousness of the passage about Snowden's death, which critics tirelessly tell us is the supreme moment of the novel. Yossarian's supposedly shocking discovery of mortality just does not live up to the metaphysical venom of this novel. OK, it's horrible to have someone's guts spill into your hands, but give me a break, he's been through war, he's seen death.

But the passage in the "I see everything twice" chapter is far more caustic, scathing, and deeply shocking and disturbing. Because it's not saying "death is bad." It's saying life is bad, existence is horrible. Why, in fact, get all upset about leaving the shambles of existence this deranged "country bumpkin" Creator has bequeathed us?

Once you get this you see Catch-22 twice or maybe for the first time.

I still love the book the way I used to, I still find it funnier than almost any other piece of literature. But there is a hidden "what's so funny here, anyway" aspect to the book as well, once you get beyond the war-is-hell and the officers-are-idiots. Life is hell. What kind of God created a world in which we'd have a Hitler to fight in the first place? Oh, it's a test, you say? Give me a spinal tap (in fact, give me Spinal Tap) instead.

Indeed, thinking about it in this way I wonder if both my father and I were touched by the same intuition that the novel is both tragedy and farce with a bleak vision of existence that encompasses far more than mere military madness.

And rereading the "everything twice" chapter for maybe the 10th time I had another intuition, perhaps a bit far-fetched: I think this passage is so fundamental I'd speculate that the choice of Catch-22 to replace Catch-18 can perhaps be linked to the "I see everything twice" chapter. Maybe it was unconscious, but think of the number 22: It's seeing two, twice. I rest my case.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 23 2014 12:43 PM Occupy Wall Street How can Hillary Clinton be both a limousine liberal and a Saul Alinsky radical?
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 12:36 PM Krispy Kreme Stuffed Half a Million Calories Into One Box of Doughnuts
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 23 2014 11:33 AM High-Concept Stuff Designed to Remind People That They Don’t Need Stuff  
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 11:13 AM Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 11:48 AM Punky Brewster, the Feminist Punk Icon Who Wasn’t
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 10:51 AM Is Apple Picking a Fight With the U.S. Government? Not exactly.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 23 2014 11:00 AM Google Exec: Climate Change Deniers Are “Just Literally Lying”
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.