Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Catch-22. Novel. Joseph Heller.

New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc. 1955/1961.

Why read it? "Set on an imaginary Pacific island of Pianosa during World War II, the novel centers on the anti-hero Captain Yossarian and his attempts to survive the fanatical lunacy of his bomber squadron's commanders long enough to get home. With the death toll rising, the quota of bombing missions required for home-leave is repeatedly increased. By pleading insanity, Yossarian hopes to find a way out until the doctor quotes the notorious Catch-22: A man would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't, he was sane and had to. The phrase became a part of the American lexicon, indicating any dilemma, especially one that seems diabolically constructed." From Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia.

To anyone who has ever participated in the military, the thought has had to cross the mind about the irony of an autocratic society’s safeguarding the freedom-loving democratic United States. The two societies are absolutely opposed to each other. But then again so is the society of business corporations. This irony is clearly displayed throughout the novel, Catch-22. Heller pokes fun at military thinking and autocratic illogic in which subordinates are at the mercy of the arbitrary commands of higher ranking officers. Books and films reveal the psychotic thinking of power-hungry officers in the U.S. military. The closest parallel to Catch-22 is in the essays of Tolstoy that are included in War and Peace. Anyone who wants to see illustrations of the concept of irony need only read either of these novels. Another example of poking fun at military thinking is in the film M*A*S*H.

I think being in the military is the best guarantee that democracy will survive in the U.S. On the other hand, many people like being told what to do and not to have to think for themselves. Someone once told me that that attitude was the reason for the popularity of the Mormon religion. Maybe democracy is not so secure after all.

Some sample quotes:

“The frog is almost five hundred million years old; could you really say with much certainty that America, with all its strength and prosperity, with its fighting man that is second to none, and with its standard of living that is the highest in the world, will last as long as…the frog?” p. 249. ………. “He was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them.” ………. “Hungry Joe collected lists of fatal diseases and arranged them in alphabetical order so that he could put his finger without delay on any one he wanted to worry about.” p. 177.

“Colonel Cathcart was indefatigable that way, an industrious, intense, dedicated military tactician who calculated day and night in the service of himself.” p. 193. ………. “…brooded inconsolably over the terrible ineradicable impressions he knew he kept making on people of prominence who were scarcely aware that he was even alive.” p. 193. ………. “Colonel Cathcart lived by his wits in an unstable arithmetical world…of overwhelmingly imaginary triumphs and catastrophic imaginary defeats.” p. 193.

“He oscillated hourly between anguish and exhilaration, multiplying fantastically the grandeur of his victories and exaggerating tragically the seriousness of his defeats.” p. 193. ………. “…sensitive to everyone’s weakness but his own and found everyone absurd but himself.” p. 328. ………. “That goddam, red-faced, big-cheeked curly headed, buck-toothed rat bastard son of a bitch!” p. 156.

“What preposterous madness to float in thin air two miles high on an inch or two of metal, sustained from death by the meager skill and intelligence of two vapid strangers, a beardless kid named Huple and a nervous nut like Dobbs.” p. 340. ………. “And don’t tell me God works in mysterious ways, Yossarian continued…. There’s nothing so mysterious about it; He’s not working at all; He’s playing or else He’s forgotten all about us.” p. 184. ………. “…the lifelong trust he had placed in the wisdom and justice of an immortal, omnipotent, omniscient, humane, universal, anthropomorphic, English-speaking, Anglo-Saxon, pro-American God….”

The curse on p. 156 is one of the better ones I have heard or read. Heller explodes more than one myth in Catch-22. These quotes are just the beginning of Heller’s outrageous report on the world as it is and people as they are. RayS.

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