Revisiting an Old Classic

12.29.12

David's Bookclub: Catch-22

I first read 'Catch-22' in high school, when it seemed to me not only hilarious, but also profoundly deep and wise.

I first read Catch-22 in high school, when it seemed to me not only hilarious, but also profoundly deep and wise.

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?

So demands the central character Yossarian, the bomber navigator who has determined to fly no more motions, the man who discovers Catch-22, the military rule that says that anybody who asks to be excused from combat on grounds of insanity must be sane. The insane people are those who don't ask to be excused - and because they don't ask, they have to go to combat too.

There was a time when I could quote large stretches of the book from memory. Those memories have been fading recently, and so this late fall, I "read" the book a second time, this time as an audiobook.

The audiobook is read brilliantly by Jay O. Sanders, who does as well with colloquial midcentury American accents as any RSC actor has ever done with the accents of Dickens. Its best scenes remain screamingly, laugh-out-loud funny. I enjoyed every page fully as much at 52 as ever at 17. Yet this time, when I finished the book and thought it over, I found myself feeling rising sympathy with Norman Podhoretz's famously scathing review of a book that he too had unreservedly praised in his own younger days.

WHAT IS the war in Catch-22 all about? For approximately the first three-quarters of this 442-page novel, the only answer anyone ever seems able to offer is that, in an armed conflict between nations, it is a noble thing to give your life for your own. This proposition Heller takes considerable pleasure in ridiculing.

"There are now 50 or 60 countries fighting in this war," an ancient Italian who has learned the arts of survival tells the idealistic and patriotic nineteen-year-old Lieutenant Nately. "Surely so many countries can't all be worth dying for." Nately is shocked by such cynicism and tries to argue, but the old man shakes his head wearily. "They're going to kill you if you don't watch out, and I can see now that you are not going to watch out." (As though to nail down his acceptance of the ancient Italian's perspective, Heller makes sure that this prophecy later comes true.) And in response to Nately's declaration that "it's better to die on one's feet than to live on one's knees," the old man tells him that the saying makes more sense if it is turned around to read, "It is better to live on one's feet than die on one's knees."

Previous celebrations of cowardice in battle have either been placed into the mouths of comic secondary characters, like Shakespeare's Falstaff, or else set in the context of wars retrospectively regarded as wrong or disastrous, as was the case with Jaroslev Hasek's Good Soldier Svejk or Robert Altman's 1970 movie M*A*S*H, purportedly about Korea, but really about Vietnam.

But to make a hero of a malingerer in World War II? To ridicule the entire U.S. military enterprise in that war as preposterous, run by idiots and crooks, and to suggest that the only sane individual response is to run away - what are we to make of that? Norman Podhoretz approvingly quotes E.L. Doctorow's 1961 assessment of Catch-22: "When Catch-22 came out, people were saying, 'Well, World War II wasn't like this.' But when we got tangled up in Vietnam, it became a sort of text for the consciousness of that time. They say fiction can't change anything, but it can certainly organize a generation's consciousness."

Which - among other things - is what this extraordinary novel did do.

Immediately after Catch-22, I read Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny. More about that book later, but for now just this one observation: leave aside some greater concision in the language and (slightly) more explicitness about sex, and The Caine Mutiny could well have been released in 1915. It is a very contemporary book, but not at all a "modern" one. Catch-22 is as modern as a book gets, and it will stay "modern," when "modern" specifies a version of antique as remote from the reader as the Augustan English of Pope and Swift is from us.

To be "modern" is to believe in nothing, and Catch-22 is a book by and for those who believe in nothing and are gleefully proud to declare it. To every summons to duty, Heller has a clever and disturbing rejoinder. "What if everybody acted like that?" a conventionally minded character challenges Heller's Captain Yossarian. "Then I'd certainly be a damn fool to act any other way, wouldn't I?" There has never been so concise and definitive a debunking of Kant's categorical imperative.

Heller leaves one big escape hatch from this nihilistic frame. Through the book, characters routinely accuse each other of being crazy. It's not impossible that we might imagine that the book's omniscient narrator is not really so omniscient after all - that he's the one who is crazy, and that this duty, honor, country stuff might have some reality to it after all. That interpretation might be wrong. Okay, it is almost certainly wrong. But it is at least what my old professor Harold Bloom would call a "bold misreading."

Otherwise, we're left with the strange paradox that the greatest and most enduring American novel of World War II is not a book about the war at all. It's a book about the experience of war that is uninterested in the issues of war. As the omniscient narrator explains, Yossarian takes it utterly for granted that the United States and its allies will win the war. On the way to winning, however, the Allies will necessarily take some casualties. Yossarian has no objection to the principle that some must die to achieve victory. He simply prefers that the "some" be somebody other than him.

Joseph Heller does not have the full courage of his own literary convictions on this point. Heller does not present his protagonist as fundamentally and wholly a coward. Heller refers to a past in which Yossarian was brave. In one of the novel's many flashbacks, Yossarian makes a dangerous command decision to try a second run at a bombing target. The second run succeeds. Yossarian's superiors are displeased at this initiative. They threaten him with court martial. Then they decide that such a court-martial would embarrass them. Instead, they decorate Yossarian for gallantry. They never forgive Yossarian for placing them in this awkward situation - and their continuing malice enables Heller to maintain an equally continuing reader awareness that Yossarian's cowardice is induced; that it is a natural response to the extremities and absurdities of war.

Yossarian serves aboard a bomber, one of the very most dangerous jobs in the U.S. forces of World War II. War planners could calculate a pilot's odds of survival quite precisely. They set a limit of missions - 25 if I remember rightly - that offered the bomber crews a 50% chance of survival. Yossarian's vainglorious commanders raise the number of required missions and raise them again and again. They do so not for any reason of military necessity (fresh crews are waiting in abundance in North African bases to replace the hapless band on Yossarian's little Mediterranean island), but entirely to advance their own reputations and careers. Yossarian becomes convinced that he will be made to keep flying until he is killed. The arithmetic of bombing is just that remorseless, leading to the novel's most famous joke: "People are trying to kill me." "Nonsense, nobody is trying to kill you." "Then why are they shooting at me?"

Yet here is something strange: although the novel is obsessed with the danger of combat, death itself remains a remote off-stage presence through most of the book. Three men die in full reader view in the course of the book: one is a young airman gruesomely disemboweled by a piece of flack during a bombing run over Bologna. Another is an under-age recruit sliced in half in a freak military accident: leaping up from a bathing raft to salute a plane buzzing the beach as a stunt. A third is a suicide, when the pilot responsible for the freak accident executes judgment upon himself by deliberately crashing his plane.

Otherwise, death takes highly abstract and generally absurd forms. The only conventionally brave character in the whole book vanishes into a cloud, and is never seen again. Yossarian shares his tent with a dead man, whose effects cannot be removed because he was killed before he was registered as having joined the unit: since he never officially arrived, he cannot be made to go away.

Here's what never happens in the course of Catch-22. Nobody misses a meal. (In fact, the high quality of the food procured for the unit by the corrupt mess officer Milo Minderbinder forms a running joke through the novel.) Nobody is ever wet or cold. No officer ever shows any concern for his men. Nobody ever displays leadership in any form other than finding comfortable quarters for an officers club in a newly liberated Italian city. Nobody ever shows any heroism that is not ultimately exposed as fraud.

When the men are not flying, discipline is extraordinarily lax. When one of them becomes terrified that his tent-mate intends to murder him, he vanishes into the hills and nobody ever makes much effort to find him. They take leave in Rome, enjoy bars and brothels, and always have money to spend.

The distinctive horror of Joseph Heller's war is not body-crushing violence or stomach-squeezing privation. It is brain-numbing bureaucracy. You could almost see that Catch-22 is a novel about bureaucracy - sprinkled with a heaping serving of criticism of American society and American capitalism. The officers are cartoons drawn from a Popular Front comic strip. They express astonishment that atheism is not illegal. They cannot comprehend that enlisted men are human beings like themselves. They shamelessly enrich themselves at taxpayer expense. They look the other way as Milo Minderbender accumulates a fortune trading with the enemy, even at one point accepting German money to bomb his own airbase. As Minderbinder explains, he's not the one trading with the enemy. It's all done on behalf of a syndicate, in which "everybody has a share."

Catch-22 is a hilarious book. But on finishing the book, the pleasure of its dark humor does not sit easy on the conscience. Heller is right about one thing: Somebody did have to die to win World War II. By the good luck of chronology, it wasn't us, and it doesn't feel right to laugh hard at the time-wasting idiocies of those who did the job that we've been spared. The war was won by the sacrifice and suffering of a terrible number of people, in many countries, almost all of whom would have considered a billet in Yossarian's bomber command the most astounding good fortune and luxury, 50% risk of death and all. Many of the American officers who participated in that war surely behaved as stupidly as Heller describes. Much of the American war was surely conducted as absurdly. The story Heller tells is not untrue. It just isn't a very large piece of the truth, and it's not a very universal truth.

I still laugh. But I no longer applaud.