yossarian lives! (and he’s an octogenarian)

Es­ti­mated reading time is 7 min­utes.

I JUST FOUND THIS GROOVY AR­TICLE titled “Catch-22: A Paradox Turns 50 And Still Rings True,” by Lynn Neary for NPR Books and thought, “Holy Min­derbinder! It’s Yossarian’s birthday and I al­most forgot!” I thought this be­cause I saw the Oc­tober in the article’s date­line and reg­is­tered it as for this Oc­tober. It is not—it was for 2011, meaning that I did forget Yossarian’s birthday.

And Doc Daneeka’s and Orr’s and Aarfy’s and Milo’s. But so what! It’s never too late to cel­e­brate the great char­ac­ters of a great book . . . 

This is not a book re­view: if you are over 50—or if you are one of the un­usu­ally lit­erate among the seem­ingly func­tion­ally il­lit­erate gen­er­a­tions that have been fol­lowed us (you know, the ‘I‑can’t‑read-or-write-cursive-or-sit-through-a-whole-book-and-don’t‑give-a-damn’ crowd foisted upon us by an un­der­funded school system, a lost civ­i­liza­tion, and de­ranged politi­cians who seem hell bent on cre­ating the ne­ces­sity for an ever greater wel­fare so­ciety while damning wel­fare simultaneously)—and you haven’t read Catch-22, you are missing a touch­stone of the post-WWII Amer­ican cul­tural psyche of the ‘we-are‑f*cking-up-badly-and-I-still-give-a-damn’ crowd.


The book’s bitter but ironic de­scrip­tion of modern war-making de­scribes the hypocrisy and in­sanity of our times.


This latter crowd is sim­ilar to, but not nec­es­sarily syn­ony­mous with, such groups as those termed ‘li­brulls’ and ‘pro­gres­sives’ and ‘six­ties left­overs.’ They are not to be con­fused with the con­ser­v­a­tive ‘everybody-else-is‑f*cking-up-badly-and-I-still-give-a-damn’ crowd, be­tween which there are more sim­i­lar­i­ties than THEIR leaders want they and us to be aware of.

Why is Catch-22 a touch­stone? The book’s bitter but ironic de­scrip­tion of modern war-making specif­i­cally, and all other forms of uni­lat­eral, au­thor­i­tarian decision-making gen­er­ally, de­scribes the hypocrisy and in­sanity of our times—and jus­ti­fies the para­noia of everyone—better than any screed ever written by a rad­ical lefty or righty!



This is the cover art de­sign by Paul Bacon for the dust jacket of the first Simon & Schuster hard­back edi­tion of Catch-22 in 1961.

There was only one catch

Merriam-Webster de­fines catch as a noun as “a hidden problem that makes some­thing more com­pli­cated or dif­fi­cult to do.” In Heller’s story, there was only one catch and that was Catch-22.

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which spec­i­fied that a con­cern for one’s safety in the face of dan­gers that were real and im­me­diate was the process of a ra­tional mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded.

All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more mis­sions. Orr would be crazy to fly more mis­sions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.”

Since the above ex­ample is spe­cific to the plot and char­ac­ters of Heller’s novel, here is a more gen­er­al­ized de­f­i­n­i­tion of the ‘logic’ be­hind Heller’s con­cept for prac­tical, everyday usage:

“A catch-22 is a para­dox­ical sit­u­a­tion from which an in­di­vidual cannot es­cape be­cause of con­tra­dic­tory rules. Catch-22s often re­sult from rules, reg­u­la­tions, or pro­ce­dures that an in­di­vidual is sub­ject to but has no con­trol over be­cause to fight the rule is to ac­cept it.

An­other ex­ample is a sit­u­a­tion in which someone is in need of some­thing that can only be had by not being in need of it. One con­no­ta­tion of the term is that the cre­ators of the catch-22 have cre­ated ar­bi­trary rules in order to jus­tify and con­ceal their own abuse of power.” (Wikipedia)

The novel’s nar­ra­tive deals with everyman Yossarian’s at­tempts to get past the catch and find a way out of the war and back home to nor­malcy. (Of course, as so many vet­erans of the Eu­ro­pean and Pa­cific the­aters of op­er­a­tion dis­cov­ered when they did re­turn home in 1946, their ‘nor­malcy’ wasn’t everyone else’s ‘normal’ any­more.) I am not going to say any­thing more, ex­cept that the im­por­tance of the book is not in the plot . . .

A corol­lary to the main meaning of catch-22 also found in the book is that “Catch-22 states that agents en­forcing Catch-22 need not prove that Catch-22 ac­tu­ally con­tains what­ever pro­vi­sion the ac­cused vi­o­lator is ac­cused of vi­o­lating.” In the case of the novel, the “agent” stating the corol­lary is an MP, so one could apply this corol­lary to anyone with a police-state men­tality, who ap­pear to abound in our society.

All catch-22s exist as a threat to the freedom and dig­nity of the in­di­vidual, which should make them very catch-22 some­thing to be loathed by ALL, in­cluding those very conservatives!

Fi­nally, the book is beau­ti­fully written, mostly funny (if black hu­mor­ously so), oc­ca­sion­ally tragic, and al­ways en­ter­taining and pos­sibly even il­lu­mi­nating! A must-read to be read now for anyone who has for­gotten the spirit of ‘the Six­ties’ or just never grokked it!



This is the Dell pa­per­back edi­tion of Catch-22 (“Over 1 mil­lion sold!”) that I found at Back Date Books & Mag­a­zines on South Main Street in Wilkes Barre (pa­per­backs were ten cents each or three for a quarter, with or without the cover in­tact) and read in the late ’60s. Those were the end of my in­car­cer­a­tion in public schools and pol­i­tics was get­ting more and more of my at­ten­tion (well, what at­ten­tion I wasn’t giving to girls).

Catch-22 as a money-losing movie

In 1970, Para­mount Pic­tures turned the suc­cessful novel into an un­suc­cessful movie: Catch-22 was pro­duced by John Calley and Martin Ran­so­hoff and was di­rected by Mike Nichols from a screen­play by Buck Henry. It starred Alan Arkin as Yos­sarian and in­cluded Bob Bal­aban, Martin Balsam, Richard Ben­jamin, Art Gar­funkel, Jack Gil­ford, Charles Grodin, Bob Newhart, An­thony Perkins, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Orson Welles, and the goofily sexy Paula Prentiss.

By “un­suc­cessful” above I mean that it did not light the fire of many a critic and was a box-office dis­aster, losing mil­lions for Calley and Ransa­hoff and Para­mount. For some of us, it was an as­tounding adap­ta­tion of por­tions of the book that cap­tured the black humor, bleak out­look, sur­real sit­u­a­tions (I loved Jon Voight as Milo Min­derbinder ex­plaining his deal with the Ger­mans about bombing one another’s camps as ‘our’ planes bomb ‘our’ base to save time and money). One of the best films of 1970, a year full of ‘best films.’

Catch-22 was not re­garded as a great suc­cess with the con­tem­po­rary [1970] public or critics. The film ap­peared as Amer­i­cans were be­coming re­sentful of the bitter and ugly ex­pe­ri­ence of the Vietnam War, leading movie­goers to quit seeing [most] war movies of all kinds. Critic Lucia Boz­zola wrote, ‘Para­mount spent a great deal of money on Catch-22, but it wound up get­ting trumped by an­other 1970 anti-war farce, Robert Alt­man’s M*A*S*H.’

De­spite the film’s com­mer­cial and crit­ical fail­ures, it was nom­i­nated for a BAFTA Award for Best Cin­e­matog­raphy and re­tained a cult fol­lowing. A modern re­assess­ment has made the film a cult fa­vorite; it presently holds an 88% Fresh rating on Rotten Toma­toes.” (Wikipedia)



This is the mod­i­fied cover de­sign for the dust jacket of Catch-22 for Simon & Schus­ter’s 50th-anniversary hard­back edi­tion in 2011.

If this film had been made in Europe

As one who saw the movie in the the­aters in 1970 and re­calls en­joying it and rec­om­mending it. Now I ain’t stoopit (most of the time) and I know the film had some flaws, but based on memory, I would give it 3.5 outta five stars. I am pleased to see its having achieved a fol­lowing decades later, even if a ‘cult’ fol­lowing (usu­ally small but often the most vo­cif­erous ad­vo­cates for a film of book or record).

If memory serves me well (as it still usu­ally does), a very fa­vor­able re­view ap­peared in a hip mag­a­zine (I think it was Rolling Stone) that said some­thing along the line of ‘If this film had been made in Eu­rope in black and white and came in sub-titles it would be a crit­ical rave and an art-house fave.’ (And I para­phrase with impunity!)

Writing this piece made me re­alize that I had not seen the movie in a long time, so I just placed a hold on a copy through the King Country Li­brary System, which pos­sesses five copies on DVD.



Easily my fa­vorite art­work for any edi­tion of Catch-22 is this Finnish edi­tion, where the title (“Me Sota-Sankarit”) trans­lates as “The War Hero.” 

Another blessing from the internet

Prior to the In­ternet, you would have had to have been a col­lector who haunted spe­cialist used book stores—and most of them were (and still are) in a handful of the larger cities—to see any­thing but new books or common used books. Now, finding var­ious edi­tions of fa­vorite books from sundry pub­lishers in dif­ferent coun­ties can be done in a few min­utes at your computer!

Yos­sarian Lives! And a be­lated Happy Birthday wishes to Yos­sarian and Colonel Cath­cart and Major Major and Milo and Orr and the whole zany cast of un­for­get­table char­ac­ters and to Catch-22, one of the most im­por­tant Amer­ican novels of the second half of the 20th century!


Catch22 photo Arkin finger 1400

FEA­TURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page is Yos­sarian (Alan Arkin) ex­pressing his view on being forced to fly yet an­other combat mis­sion. Yos­sarian is the only person sane enough to rec­og­nize the in­sanity around him—but as everyone else is glee­fully part of the in­sanity, it’s Yos­sarian who is the odd man out.



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