Joseph Heller Catch-22 50th Anniversary: How the Novel Changed America

Joseph Heller’s iconic novel “Catch-22” set the political and moral agenda of the last 50 years with its hilarious cynical viewpoint says Morris Dickstein.

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Most books disappear quickly down the memory hole. Even powerful literary works rarely outlast their generation. The world moves on and last year’s sensation can seem as dated as yesterday’s papers. For a book to survive half a century it must excite passion in individual readers and touch a nerve in the national psyche. Joseph Heller’s much-loved 1961 novel Catch-22 is just such a book, as unkillable as Yossarian, its stubbornly nay-saying anti-hero. The novel did not take off immediately, despite the publisher’s brilliantly conceived roll-out, but it broke through the following year as a mass-market paperback when young people could afford to buy it. Mixed reviews showed that its farcical deflation of a Mediterranean bombing campaign late in the “good war,” and especially its cartoonish technique, could make it a closed book to many older readers. But word-of-mouth and changing times soon made it a classic.

What made Catch-22 so appealing to the young, no doubt, was its bracing cynicism, which rapidly became the default mindset of undergraduates everywhere. Flying in the face of what everyone imagined about the “greatest generation,” it mocked heroic ideals as little more than manipulative rhetoric, eviscerated mass organizations as totalitarian institutions that chewed up individual lives, treated the army as a system for killing its own men more than the enemy, and sent up its vaunted officers, for all their medals, as pompous, dull-witted, vainglorious fools. For the soldier caught up in this operational nightmare, the only escape was to look out for number one, to save one’s own skin. Yossarian is rightly accused of having “no respect for excessive authority or obsolete traditions.” One of the book’s sharpest reviewers, Robert Brustein, called this “a new morality based on an old ideal, the morality of refusal.”

As the sixties wore on this morality seemed ahead of its time. It was as if Heller had anticipated the carnage and miscalculations of the Vietnam War, the stealth and deceit with which the war was escalated. By the late sixties, seeing through everything became the most convincing way of looking at the world. This morality of refusal motivated protesters, draft resisters, and deserters alike. As a bombardier Yossarian is “the best man in the group at evasive action.” He has hatched the peculiar notion that people are trying to kill him. “No one’s trying to kill you,” says his straight-arrow friend Clevinger, a Harvard intellectual (“one of those people with lots of intelligence and no brains”). “Then why are they shooting at me?” he asks. “They’re shooting at everyone. They’re trying to kill everyone,” Clevinger replies. Well, this is cold comfort. “It was a vile and muddy war, and Yossarian could have lived without it—lived forever, perhaps. Only a fraction of his countrymen would give up their lives to win it, and it was not his ambition to be among them.” As a result, “his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive.” Evasion is the survival strategy, paranoia makes perfect sense, while rationality comes to look crazy.

Where did Heller come up with this take on the war but also on life itself? For all its low comedy, Catch-22 ultimately treats war as a metaphor for a Pascalian universe, a prison-house from which each of us is led off to die. This vision belongs to the dark side of the 1950s, but its radically disillusioned sense of absurdity and collective insanity became a theme song of the following decade. It is rooted in a grunt’s-eye view of war that had been a staple of comedy going back to Aristophanes and Shakespeare. When Prince Hal tells Falstaff that “thou owest God a death,” he demurs. “‘Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before his day.” Careful of his own tender flesh, proud of his cowardice and his cunning, Falstaff ridicules honor as an empty word, a posthumous achievement: “Who hath it? He that died o-Wednesday.” The insane trench warfare of World War I, with its astronomical loss of human life, brought this home afresh. A curdled view of military valor soon burst into modern literature with Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk and Céline’s scabrous Journey to the End of Night, both rich literary models for Heller.

Death and madness were part of the mental climate as the fifties turned into the sixties. The death camps and the Bomb had cast a sickening glow on what had once seemed like a morally uncomplicated war. Existentialism was the hot philosophy of the moment; its influence could been seen in works as different as Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro,” Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night, and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. These writings, like Heller’s, deflate rationality as a rationale for regimentation and look to madness as an authentic response to a world out of kilter. A more sober critique of organized society was voiced by commentators like William Whyte in The Organization Man and Paul Goodman in Growing Up Absurd and in straightforward realistic novels like Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. But the hip new literary works came out in wild metaphors, like the paradox of Catch-22, or the insane logic that leads Milo, the ultimate capitalist, to bomb his own squadron. With such outrageous twists, Heller’s book hit home in a new way, giving the conventional critique the sharp bite of satire, the resonance of myth, and the emotional depth of black comedy.

Curiously, earlier in the same year, John F. Kennedy had offered a different vision that also spoke strongly to the young. In his Inaugural Address he famously issued a summons to service and idealism: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” He exhorted the nation to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” For all its high-flown rhetoric, the call was realized in New Frontier programs like the Peace Corps and helped inspire the youthful rebellions of the decade. Marking the 50th anniversary of that occasion, Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr. recalled that “I fell in love with the speech when I was young, purchasing a long-playing record of Kennedy addresses for 99 cents at the supermarket and listening to it over and over after the assassination.” But subsequent history from Vietnam to Watergate, from Nixon’s lies to Bush’s wars, dimmed youthful idealism, stoked disenchantment, and turned peaceful protest into cynicism and rage. Kennedy had a vision; Catch-22 had legs. The state of the world conspired to keep it in play.

With his morning-in-America language and his denunciations of the Evil Empire, Ronald Reagan tried to lay the Vietnam syndrome to rest. There was no Jimmy Carter-style “malaise” in his upbeat vocabulary. But his insistence that greed was good, that self-seeking was the American way, only fueled the national cynicism. As an ethical outlook it was Yossarian personified, Yossarian squared, yet it also unleashed the corporate culture that Heller and his contemporaries had loathed. It was certainly not the communal ethic of service and sacrifice affirmed by Kennedy, or by FDR before him. For all his idealization of American life, Reagan left the impression that ideals were for chumps compared to the solemn obligation of getting ahead.

Bill Clinton’s conversion to humanitarian intervention made a difference. So did the bustling economy and the soft uses of American power during his administration. But the only real challenge to disillusioned cynicism came after the 9/11 attacks, which briefly restored a sense of patriotism and national unity not seen in this country since the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Then, as Heller later recalled, there was almost no one his age who was not eager to sign up. It is no small irony that the 50th anniversary of Catch-22 should coincide so closely with the 10th anniversary of 9/11. No one can fail to recall the eerie chill that settled on the city, the haunting images of the towers falling, the clouds of toxic dust, the bouquets of flowers in front of the firehouses, the grim, troubled faces of people on the subway, the unsmiling doormen in front of residential buildings, the political quarrels that shattered long friendships but also the amazing drop in local crime, which withered in the wake of a huge national crime. Older writers like Mailer and Susan Sontag were outspoken in their hatred of the new patriotism, which proved short-lived, since it was soon kidnapped by Bush and Cheney for their agenda of reshaping the world in our image. This did little to restore our sense of national purpose.

Joseph Heller always made it clear that it was not World War II that inspired the sardonic cast of Catch-22 but the postwar years of cold war, political stalemate, nuclear anxieties, smug intolerance, Red-hunting, and corporate bureaucracy. As an airman flying 60 missions Heller himself had actually had a good war, or so he claimed: “I was an ignorant kid. I was a hero in a movie. I did not believe for a second that I could be injured. I did not really believe that anyone was being injured... I’m telling you, the war was wonderful... I had no idea what war was like until I read about the Vietnam War ... I don’t consider that I’ve been in combat with my 10 months overseas.” After the war this youthful sense of adventure foundered in struggle and disappointment, which Heller projected back onto the war. The sour corporate and family life of Heller’s harsh second novel, Something Happened (1974), is really a prologue to the darkening comedy and metastasizing horror of Catch-22.

The genius of Catch-22 is not so much in its point of view as in the explosive originality of its technique. Many writers of the late 1950s had made the same points about the loss of self in mass organizations, the hollow rhetoric of idealism, or the existential vulnerability of Lear’s unaccommodated man, that poor forked animal. These were commonplace notions of a cultural moment rich with metaphysical angst and keen social criticism. But Heller, by turning these truisms into whiplash Abbott-and-Costello routines, gave them fresh and indelible form.

Catch-22 is so funny that I almost failed to read it. After seeing a roommate of mine laugh out loud on every page I assumed it was little more than an army joke-book, something like No Time for Sergeants. It was years before I picked up the book and discovered how wrong I was. Heller’s comic-book realism and razor-sharp language, ramped up from his own experience, give the novel a reach and profundity that make you pay dearly for having been so amused. Seemingly broad, formless, and anecdotal, the book circles around leitmotifs that take on the ring of inevitability. When freezing Snowden spills his guts in the back of a plane and Yossarian tries helplessly to comfort him—the scene toward which the book has been building throughout—Heller brings war, death, and the pitfalls of the human condition home to us. The stand-up routines have not prepared us for this bleak revelation, though it is foreshadowed on every page. The death of Kid Sampson, sliced in half by the propeller of McWatt’s plane, his organs raining down on those frolicking on the beach, prepares us for the long-awaited exposure of Snowden’s secret. We learn what we already knew, that man is disposable matter, an imperiled creature of flesh and blood. Catch-22 is less a war novel than a timeless act of existential protest, a cri de coeur that makes comedy heartbreaking and cynicism poignant. No wonder the writer had so much trouble topping his first act.