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  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!
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.