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The title implies — states outright, rather — that Joseph Heller waves the truth in front of the reader in his novel Catch-22 — based on Heller’s experiences in WWII, the novel follows a bombardier stationed on the island of Pianosa — but all the while directing the reader to anywhere but the truth, the result of which is an increasingly convoluted web of half-truths that only allow the reader access to the full truth being waved in front of them when the web that had been woven by Heller on a series of technicalities falls apart — just as does this sentence.
In Catch-22, Joseph Heller uses a non-linear structure and a constantly changing point of view to demonstrate the struggle of sanity versus insanity in the context of an insane setting — war — and how the mind deals with the trauma of a society asking the impossible of the individual through the characters Milo Minderbinder and “Yo-Yo” Yossarian.
Initially, Catch-22—switching focus onto one character to another, whirling drunkenly through a frankenstein of burlesque antics, grotesque horrors, bizzare anecdotes, and aimless digressions—may well make the reader try to rub the flies out of his eyes and wonder where the Snowdens of yesteryear or any year fit in.
But there is a method to Heller’s madness just as there is none to Chaplain Tappmann’s thoughts on “Déjà vu. The subtle recurring confusion between illusion and reality that was characteristic of paramnesia fascinated the chaplain, and he knew a number of things about it.
He knew, for example, that it was called paramnesia and he was interested as well in such corollary optical phenomena as jamais vu, never seen, and presque vu, almost seen. ” (Heller 20.52-53). Déjà vu, firstly, is the primary tool that allows the reader to understand Heller’s organized chaos. Heller uses déjà vu to give the reader the “sensation of having experienced the identical situation before,” the impetus to “trap and nourish the impression,” and the infuriation of watching “the afflatus” melt “away unproductively.”(all Heller X.x) Only as the novel progresses, and as Yossarian comes to terms with and begins to understand what has and is happening to him does the reader receive the privilege of understanding what really happened. Déjà vu, secondly, lays the foundation for the technique Heller uses to conjure the thematic schema of the novel. He choreographs the protagonist, antagonists, events, and situations into ornate parallels which, through disparity, elucidate the novel’s core themes. He thereby gives the reader the sense of seeing everything twice, of ‘having experienced the identical situation before’ because it parallels other situations and is related to others thematically through more parallels. (Heller X.x) Heller uses this idea of parallelism to set two spheres of people in the novel against each other — the people with power, and their victims. This David and Goliath leads to, as Yossarian refers to it, a circular situation in which there is no way out. .Déjà vu: “Constructing a narrative interplay between the past and the present, contriving elaborate parallel repetitions of and variations on his central themes” (Bloom X.x) since 1961, as the modern college student might put it, being avid students of counter-culture, seeing everything twice, while most likely entirely missing the point about how Heller’s narrative interplay between the past and the present, his elaborate parallel repetitions of and variations on his themes create the discernible, ordered patterns that form the very essence of art.
Parallels are not the extent of Heller’s art — he is a master of scaling the levels of abstraction to the point where even a semiconductor engineer might get a migraine. “The story is told in third person. Sometimes the narrative is omniscient … Sometimes, however, the narrator’s vision is somewhat limited: we see things as if through a particular character’s eyes.”(Teigen X.x) While the parallels allow the plot, the abstraction allows understanding. It provides context for the reader not stuck in bureaucracy defined by the tautologically absurd in a race to the bottom. It allows the reader to see the perspective of the characters.“For example, the first several chapters are really from the point of view of Yossarian, but then in chapter nine we pull back and see the larger picture. This switching from limited to omniscient narration allows Heller to focus on the big picture or just one character.” (Teigen X.x). This abstraction puts excessive authority and obsolete traditions in the mental grasp of the reader.“Heller sets up the novel to reveal just as much as the characters sometimes, and sometimes a lot more than the characters to help bring his message across. ” (Bloom X.x) It is this understanding that the abstraction brings that unlocks a mental understanding of how the parallels exemplify the thematic elements and how they all go together — creating the discernable, ordered patterns that form the very essence of art.
Heller makes one question what, who, and their dog is sane — and what isn’t, and whether Yossarian & co. are actually in a completely normal, sane environment or vice versa.When one is desentized to unspeakable horrors by daily inculcation, how can one determine the border between sanity and insanity. The men talk about how Major Major Major Major’s father’s “specialty was alfalfa, and he made a good thing out of not growing any. The government paid him well for every bushel of alfalfa he did not grow. The more alfalfa he did not grow, the more money the government gave him, and he spent every penny he didn’t earn on new land to increase the amount of alfalfa he did not produce. Major Major’s father worked without rest at not growing alfalfa. On long winter evenings he remained indoors and did not mend harness, and he sprang out of bed at the crack of noon every day just to make certain that the chores would not be done. He invested in land wisely and soon was not growing more alfalfa than any other man in the county. Neighbours sought him out for advice on all subjects, for he had made much money and was therefore wise. “As ye sow, so shall ye reap,” he counselled one and all, and everyone said “Amen.” (Heller X.x). The inculcation results in the officers using the very language that enables “the most outrageous fantasies go unchallenged if ‘verified’ by the appropriate forms of the Air Corps’ language and logic. Yossarian’s joke about the Germans’ ‘Lepage glue gun’ (a weapon which ‘glues a whole formation of planes together in mid-air’) takes on the conditions of a ‘reality’ when it is repeated to him by the squadron’s intelligence officer. Yossarian’s immediate reaction is to cry out, ‘My God, it’s true.’” (Bloom Ch6) themselves. This language is systematic of a mind presented with true and grammatically correct arguments without meaning that contradict themselves. Examples of such tautologically absurd language include such gems as: “‘Men,’ he began his address to the officers, measuring his pauses carefully. ‘You’re American officers. The officers of no other army in the world can make that statement. Think about it.’” (Heller X.x) and “Dear Mrs., Mr., Miss or Mr. and Mrs. Daneeka: Words cannot express the deep personal grief I experienced when your husband, son, father or brother was killed, wounded or reported missing in action.” (Heller X.x) Hungry Joe goes insane — he buzzes the camp, and shoots rodents that he lures with peanut butter. Yossarian eventually comes to the realization that there is a way out of such a lose-lose situation — which is just to flee.
Most of the new soldiers become frustrated with Yossarian because of his assertion that the enemy is out to get him because they shoot at him — because their dogma is that it is a collective conflict. Unlike the young and disillusioned fresh cannon fodder, Yossarian understands that the power grabs by the upper administration that send him out to get shot are just as after his life as are the Fascists trying to shoot him. So “‘From now on I’m thinking only of me.’ Major Danby replied indulgently with a superior smile: ‘But, Yossarian, suppose everyone felt that way.’ ‘Then,’ said Yossarian, ‘I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn’t I?’ ” (Heller X.x). This causes the patriotic to stumble as Yossarian’s logic is impeccable, and yet he is just wrong. Clevinger has continuous tirades with Yossarian:
“They’re trying to kill me,’ Yossarian told him calmly.
No one’s trying to kill you,’ Clevinger cried.
Then why are they shooting at me?’ Yossarian asked.
They’re shooting at everyone,’ Clevinger answered. ‘They’re trying to kill everyone.’
And what difference does that make?”
‘“Who’s they?’ He wanted to know. ‘Who, specifically, do you think is trying to murder you?’
‘Every one of them,’ Yossarian told him.
‘Every one of whom?’
‘Every one of whom do you think?’
‘I haven’t any idea.’
‘Then how do you know they aren’t?’
‘Because…’ Clevinger sputtered, and turned speechless with frustration.’ (Heller X.x)
Although most ignore Milo Minderbinder, he represents the penultimate form of Catch-22, the insular logic that leads to partial world domination by M & M Enterprises. He is what most American parents wish their children to be: industrious, competent, pleasant, engaging, and sexually moral. And yet he is the definition of moral insanity. Although Heller’s negative estimate of Milo’s mercenary character is never really in question, he does take pains—even while attacking him—to create in the reader a certain positive respect for him. Milo has a “hardened integrity” where he does not steal or bribe, and always completes his contractual obligations completely and timely — even if they are absurd: he made a deal with the Germans to defend a bridge against an American attack (an attack which, bizarrely, represents a business deal made with American authorities), but the author must still concede that ‘the arrangements were fair to both sides.’ As Heller puts it, Milo ‘could no more consciously violate the moral principles on which his virtue rested than he could transform himself into a despicable toad. One of these moral principles was that it was never a sin to charge as much as the traffic would bear.’ Milo also believes in loyalty to his squadron; he pompously rebukes Yossarian late in the novel for his refusal to fly more missions for the insatiable Cathcart. We are told that Milo ‘shook his head reproachfully and, with pious lips pursed, informed Yossarian in ecclesiastical tones that he was ashamed of him.’ Such indignation not only points toward Milo’s utter insensitivity to death, but anticipates Yossarian’s devastating attack on the military police in Rome four pages later. Milo’s own dedication to his country, however, runs a distant second to his devotion to unbridled private enterprise. He has in fact argued earlier that the squadron should be loyal enough to his syndicate to buy its cotton ’till it hurts so that they can keep right on buying my cotton till it hurts them some more’—one more indication that his total absorption with monetary gain has dispossessed him of all empathy. He has firmly convinced himself that for the syndicate’s well-being the men should be willing to risk theirs and consume his urgently concocted chocolate-covered cotton—even though, as Yossarian wearily pleads with him, ‘People can’t eat cotton.’ Heller’s absurdist brand of allegory should be clear enough: Milo’s ruthlessly capitalistic commitments do not, and cannot, support life.
The temptation of Yossarian alludes to the Bible, Genesis specifically. At Snowden’s funeral, Yossarian is alike with Adam as he sits naked in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Like his predestinator in Eden, Yossarian is reduced to gaping mutely at the mysteries of death. Like Adam, he was ‘born in … innocence’ and generally prefers nudity to the wearing of clothes.Yet, unlike his predecessor, Yossarian rejects his tempter, Milo Minderbinder, and thus does not reenact the crucial failure. This important reversal of the original scenario significantly dismantles the old myth in the novel.On the second page of Catch-22, Yossarian observes the ability of language to create and destroy whole worlds with the flick of his pen. From then on, the novel tells a tale of Yossarian’s budding knowledge of the catastrophic abilities of language. The destructive power of language codified into rules, regulations, and systems is, of course, epitomized by the catch-all catch-can Catch-22. As Doc Daneeka first explains it, Catch-22 is that military rule used to explain why both sane and insane must continue to fly their missions: “There was one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own 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 was 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.” There is no way out of the tautological absurdity of a regulation that asserts only the sane have to fly, kill, and die, and that men are only too sane when they don’t want to do these things and ask to be relieved from them. The second definition of Catch-22 reinforces the circular logic of all totalitarianism based on an a priori authority that is not actually present: ‘Catch-22 … says you’ve always got to do what your commanding officer tells you to.’ The final definition of Catch-22 accounts for all the others and is explained to Yossarian by the old woman in the raided whorehouse in Rome: ‘Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.’ Yossarian comes to find that the sinister Schopenhaueresque expression of will is the ‘inherited habit’ of language. Man has witlessly locked himself into a brutal and absurd form of behavior, predicated upon a mindless obedience to all those authorities never really present in Catch-22.
War is traumatic as to where it can break language, while simultaneously remaining correct, to the point where the mind is broken, lost between two absolutes, effectively gone morally insane, as expressed by Milo, and carried out by Yossarian, in an ordered pattern of parallels and abstractions, showing that the only way to write a war novel, to express these emotions that are silently screamed by those who have suffered it is to write an absurdity, a Catch-22.
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