A book that was widely acclaimed a classic upon its appearance and that has suffered no loss of critical esteem deserves many critical examinations. Now, more than ten years after its first publication in 1961, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 may justify another attempt to fix certain qualities in it more precisely than has yet been done. My special concern here is the pattern of dramatic tension between the preposterous events of the story and the built-in dimension of laughter. It is part of the pattern that the laughter, intermittent and trailing away just before the end, contributes to a catharsis in which the grimness of war provides the dominant memory.
It is part of the book's greatness that its hilarious force comes so near to a standoff with the grimness. Heller has achieved his declared purpose, mentioned elsewhere, not to use humor as a goal, but as a means to an end. "The ultimate effect is not frivolity but bitter pessimism," he said (Time, Mar. 4, 1966). And yet the alternating play of humor and horror creates a dramatic tension throughout that allows the book to be labeled as a classic both of humor and of war. It is not "a comic war novel" despite the fact that comedy and war are held more or less in solution, for the war is not comic but horrible—this we are not allowed to forget. The laughter repeatedly breaks through the tight net of frustration in which the characters struggle only to sink back as the net repairs itself and holds the reader prisoned in its outrageous bonds.
Right here the unskillful reader may protest that Catch-22 is a comic war novel. For who could believe that war is conducted as the novel pictures it—realism blandly ignored, motivations distorted beyond recognition, plausibility constantly violated. Even conceding that war is not peace, that the conditions of any war are abnormal, could any serious work stray so far from what we know of human character?
The answer lies in an artistic strategy relating to the thesis of the novel, which, put simply, is this: War is irrational; and the representative things that happen in war are likewise irrational, including man's behavior in war. This thesis is an underlying assumption, a donnee, illustrated not documentarily but imaginatively throughout the book. It is, in terms of the book, unarguable—you take it or leave it—for the author has seen to it that all the evidence favors his thesis. What he asks, and it is everything, is that his readers accept the credibility of his characters and their actions, if not at face value, then as wild, ingratiating exaggeration that nevertheless carries the indestructible truth that war is irrational.
It would be an uncritical reader indeed who would accept at face value the greater part of what is related in this hilarious, harrowing book. For the absurd, the ridiculous, the ludicrous, are pyramided, chapter after chapter, through the lengthy book's entire 463 pages.
Starting with the opening page in which Captain Yossarian, the book's nonhero, is goldbricking in a hospital bed and censoring letters which he as censoring officer signs "Washington Irving" and sometimes with variant whimsicality "Irving Washington," to the last page in which "Nately's whore" makes a final but unsuccessful attempt to stab Yossarian because he had told her of Nately's death—through all this the predominance of the outre in events and behavior is unchallenged. One such episode has Yossarian appearing naked in formation to be pinned with the Distinguished Flying Cross by General Dreedle. Another has Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder directing his buddies in the bombing of their own camp and leaving the runways and the mess halls intact so they could make a proper return landing and have a warm snack before retiring. But it is useless to enumerate. "So many monstrous events were occurring that he (the chaplain) was no longer positive which events were monstrous and which were really taking place." That quoted sentence can stand as characterizing the events of the entire book.
The effect of such wildly imagined actions is an artistic triumph in which the reader perceives the author's attitude as overtly playful in expression and managed event, this being the only way, or at least a meritoriously acceptable way, of facing the fundamental inhumanity and irrationality of war. The author begins with an absurdum, though the reader does not always recognize it as such, and makes it into a further and unmistakable reductio ad absurdum. It thus becomes unabashed hyperbole; its literary costume is familiar to one who has read Cervantes, or Rabelais, or Swift, or the American humorists of the Old Southwest and their principal heir Mark Twain who could be as darkly pessimistic as is the author of Catch-22.
Heller's comic genius, however, does not come to rest in the mere contrivances of exaggeration, daft though the exaggerations are. No part of the whole texture of objectively rendered dialogue, narrative, description, and introspective characterization fails to enhance the total artistry. Of random examples, let us cite first a bit of comic circularity—not hard to find—such as this one in which the staff psychiatrist, Major Sanderson, questions Yossarian:
"Hasn't it ever occurred to you that in your promiscuous pursuit of women you are merely trying to assuage your subconscious fears of sexual impotence?"
"Yes, sir, it has."
"Then why do you do it?"
"To assuage my fears of sexual impotence."
Even in a paragraph of only ten lines, Heller can blend a telling bit of narrative with characterization and cynical reflective analysis:
Nately was a sensitive, rich, goodlooking boy with dark hair, trusting eyes, and a pain in his neck when he awoke on the sofa early the next morning and wondered dully where he was. His nature was invariably gentle and polite. He had lived for almost twenty years without trauma, tension, hate, or neurosis, which was proof to Yossarian of just how crazy he really was. His childhood had been a pleasant, though disciplined, one. He got on well with his brothers and sisters, and he did not hate his mother and father, even though they had both been very good to him.
Verbal humor crops up with considerable frequency in Catch-22. Yossarian, for example, said he "would rather die than to be killed in combat." A certain apartment maid in Rome (who wore lime colored panties) "was the most virtuous woman alive: she laid for everybody, regardless of race, creed, color or place of national origin...." Often the irony is both humorous and grim, as in Corporal Whitcomb's form letter for Colonel Cathcart's self-serving and hypocritical condolence:
Dear Mrs., Mr., Miss, or Mr. and Mrs: Words cannot express the deep personal grief I experienced when your husband, son, father or brother was killed, wounded or reported missing in action.
Much of the verbal humor still more acutely serves Heller's almost constant preoccupation with characterization, as when Colonel Cathcart adjures his men to attend a U.S.O. show.
"... Now, men, don't misunderstand me. This is all voluntary, of course. I'd be the last colonel in the world to order you to go to that U.S.O. show and have a good time, but I want every one of you who isn't sick enough to be in a hospital to go to that U.S.O. show right now and have a good time, and that's an order!"
Some indication of the mixture of horror and hilarity appears in examples already cited. But not enough to show how the cumulus of horror maintains itself against the pull of hilarity and finally establishes its ascendancy. Reappearing periodically throughout is Yossarian's memory of the bombing flight over Avignon when Snowden is mortally wounded and Yossarian as bombadier bandages a thigh wound of Snowden only to find that "whole mottled quarts" of Snowden's guts fall out when Yossarian rips open the injured man's flak suit. Memory of this experience recurs to Yossarian at intervals throughout the book, but it is so metered that it is only in the second to the last chapter that the horrible trauma experienced by Yossarian is brought home to the reader, helping to provide a clinching explanation of his refusal to obey any further flying orders and his decision to desert.
But there are other notable horror scenes of a different kind. In a chapter called "The Eternal City," Yossarian wanders through the bombed ruins of Rome compassionately in search of a twelve-year-old girl who has been made homeless. It is a dark night of the soul, a nightmare of the bizarre and the surrealistic typified by a blue neon sign reading: "TONY'S RESTAURANT. FINE FOOD AND DRINK. KEEP OUT." As Yossarian tramps the streets in the raw, rainy night,
A boy in a thin shirt and thin tattered trousers walked out of the darkness on bare feet. His sickly face was pale and sad. His feet made grisly, soft, sucking sounds in the ram puddles on the wet pavement as he passed, and Yossarian was moved by such intense pity for his poverty that he wanted to smash his pale, sad, sickly face with his fist and knock him out of existence because he brought to mind all the pale, sad, sickly children in Italy.... He made Yossarian think of cripples and of cold and hungry men and women, and of all the dumb, passive, devout mothers with catatonic eyes nursing infants outdoors that same night with chilled animal udders bared insensibly to that same raw rain.
Other similarly pathetic sights whip up in Yossarian a tide of frenzied anguished questions.
The night was filled with horrors, and he thought he knew how Christ must have felt as he walked through the world, like a psychiatist through a ward full of nuts, like a victim through a prison full of thieves.
Another dramatically moving horror scene centers on an unfortunate character whose name, given him by a father with a bizarre sense of humor, is Major Major Major. By the whim of an IBM machine he is vaulted from private to major in four days; later he is arbitrarily named squadron commander by Colonel Cathcart, whereupon Major Major Major Major is dogged by ineptitude, loneliness, and ostracism. In a desperate attempt at fellowship he joins in an outdoor basketball game, first disguising himself with dark glasses and a false moustache. The scene that follows gradually takes on the ritual killing of a scapegoat reminiscent of Shirley Jackson's brilliant horror story, "The Lottery."
The others pretended not to recognize him, and he began to have fun. Just as he finished congratulating himserf on his innocent ruse he was bumped hard by one of his opponents and knocked to his knees. Soon he was bumped hard again, and it dawned on him that they did recognize him and that they were using his disguise as a license to elbow, tap and maul him. They did not want him at all. And just as he did realize this, the players on his team fused instinctively with the players on the other team into a single, howling, bloodthirsty mob that descended upon him from all sides with foul curses and swinging fists. They knocked him to the ground, kicked him while he was on the ground, attacked him again after he had struggled blindly to his feet. He covered his face with his hands and could not see. They swarmed all over each other in their frenzied compulsion to bludgeon him, kick him, gouge him, trample him. He was pummeled spinning to the edge of the ditch and sent slithering down on his head and shoulders. At the bottom he found his footing, clambered up the other wall and staggered away beneath the hail of hoots and stones with which they pelted him until he lurched into shelter around a corner of the orderly room tent.
Of course, Yossarian is no King Lear whose single tragic fault causes him to fall from on high. He lies, goldbricks, fornicates, cheats at gambling, even for a time goes about naked. Yet he is more sinned against than sinning. The military organization, commanded by a vain, selfish publicity seeking, ambitious, greedy and unscrupulous authoritarian, has persecuted his squadron beyond endurance by periodically raising the number of missions required before a flier can be sent home. The number starts at twenty-five and moves by stages up to eighty. It is only after Yossarian points out that he has now flown seventy-one "goddam combat missions" that his rebellion becomes final and he refuses to fly any more missions.
The central actions of Yossarian are nevertheless not to be seen as those of a strong-minded individualist. The entire sense of the book is that war, in itself irrational, makes everyone connected with it irrational. There are no good guys in this book. Just about everyone of the approximately two score characters of some importance is called crazy at one time or another. Not only can Nature be hostile ("There was nothing funny about living like a bum in a tent in Pianosa between fat mountains behind him and a placid blue sea in front that could gulp down a person with a cramp in a twinkling of an eye"); the Deity is likewise roundly vituperated by Yossarian. In an adulterous visit to Lieutenant Scheisskopf s wife (on Thanksgiving!) he argues with her about God.
"And don't tell me God works in mysterious ways," Yossanan 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. That's the kind of God you people talk about—a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed. What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatalogical mind of His when He robbed old people of power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did he ever create pain?"
Even the chaplain is not immune from what seems the universal corruption of war. He
had mastered, in a moment of divine intuition, the handy technique of protective rationalization, and he was exhilarated at his discovery. It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character. With effervescent agility the chaplain ran through the whole gamut of orthodox immoralities....
The responsive reader of Catch-22 is thus made to walk a tightrope as he leans first to riotous humor and then tips to the side of black tragedy. There is much in the book that illustrates Charlie Chaplin's dictum that humor is "playful pain." "The minute a thing is overtragic," says Chaplin, "it is funny." And he is supported emotionally, if not logically, by W. C. Fields, who said "I never saw anything funny that wasn't terrible. If it causes pain, it's funny, if it doesn't it isn't." The humor in Catch-22, we are forced to conclude, is only secondary. Where Heller comes through in unalleviated horror is where the message lies. The book's humor does not alleviate the horror, it heightens it by contrast.
It is not therefore the disinterestedness of pure humor that we find in Catch-22. It does not accept the pain of life with wry resignation. Instead it flaunts in bitterness the desperate flag of resistance to the wrongs of this life—wrongs suffered, not by the wholly innocent, but by the insufficiently guilty. And the wrongs are perpetrated not only by unscrupulous, ignorant, and power-hungry men, but also by the inscrutable Deity.
Source: Louis Hasley, "Dramatic Tension in Catch-22," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 2, January, 1974, pp. 190-197.
Yossarian of Joseph Heller's Catch-22 has been called a coward, an amoralist, a cop-out, a traitor. Others see him as a casualty, an individualist, a prophet of love, the last soul true to himself. The first readers object primarily because he "takes off," claiming this is artistically, patriotically, or morally no way to end the book.
Yet Yossarian gives up safety, rewards, and a hero's homecoming when he flees. He is in fact following an American tradition—escaping, or trying to escape, in order to save himself from absurdity, compromise, or despair. In what Hemingway called the source of modern American literature, Huckleberry Finn, Twain's puckish hero (after surviving a river's length of encounters with man's hideous inhumanity to man) also "lights out" for the Indian Territory. The similarity is striking when we realize that Yossarian leaves rather than be comfortably tamed and returned as a hero to the civilized States (for the glory of Colonels Cathcart and Korn) and that Huck leaves to avoid the comfortable (but to him confining and compromising) civilized family life.
There is in American fiction a tradition of heroes who "take off," or who renounce ease, or who deny themselves pleasure in quest of individual rather than conventional fulfillment. This radical individualism—absurd, perhaps, or ascetic—shows Yossarian at the end of the story to be not a cop-out, but one of many rebels in a tradition of rebels.
Thoreau set the tradition's example and gave it voice in the concluding chapter of Walden: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." Such a code romanticizes Natty Bumppo, for example, who refuses the comfort of the Effinghams' cabin in The Pioneers, preferring the free wilderness (and see his Lone Ranger solitude in the other Leatherstocking tales, as well).
In a spirit of free renunciation and penitence, Hester Prynne resumes her symbol in The Scarlet Letter, long after anyone requires it. Hawthorne speculates that Pearl would "most joyfully" have entertained her mother in England in regal comfort. But Hester hears a drum no others hear.
However much we may think Lambert Strether's ethics are precious and overstrained at the end of The Ambassadors, we recognize in him another American individualist denying himself pleasure (marriage to Miss Gostrey) in order to save his concept of honor.
As if reading Thoreau's urging as a command ("Enjoy the land, but own it not," from "Baker Farm" in Walden), Faulkner's Ike McCaslin renounces his birthright to save himself and, he hopes, the land, which has been cursed by slavery. Repeatedly, his cousin McCaslin Edmonds urges him to inherit the land and demands a reason for his refusal. The involuted Part IV of "The Bear" is Ike's attempt to explain the call of the different drummer he hears. Finally, even the temptation of his bride's sweet body is not enough to break his resolve, and Ike becomes uncle to half a county and father to none.
With Frederick Henry the tradition begins to involve patriotism rather than mere personal gain. But since it is the Italian Army, most readers easily allow him to take his farewell to Italian arms without rebuke. His desertion seems hardly that, justified as it is by the absurd circumstances. Justified also by this American code of individualism, he deserves to escape, deserves better surely than the tragic end, his farewell to Catherine Barkley's English arms.
Because life in those times played such dirty tricks on individuals, we even allow an American like Jake Barnes to exile himself in Europe after the war (The Sun Also Rises). Life in exile may not have been as simple as a hero's return; it may, in fact, have required a certain asceticism for Jake Barnes to endure the sad desperate crowd of his lost generation. But it is his solitary choice, preferring his troubled priestly life among the lost to the sterile homecoming of young Krebs in "Soldier's Home."
But it is Yossarian himself, literally marching backwards with his gun on his hip, who is the fullest example of Thoreau's man marching to a different drummer. At this same time of rebellion, he refuses to fly any more missions because, as the final blow, Nately has been killed. It is this point, it would seem, which critics would object to, rather than his actual desertion. For it is at this time, not when he runs away, that Yossarian quits the fight.
When he refuses to fly, his superiors have two choices: to court-martial him or to let it pass. Seeing a chance for profit to themselves, Colonels Cathcart and Korn offer him a deal: as Yossarian summarizes for the chaplain, "They'll let me go home a big hero if I say nice things about them to everybody and never criticize them to anyone for making the rest of the men fly more missions." It is such a "good deal" that Colonel Korn says, "'You'd have to be a fool to throw it all away just for a moral principle.'"
But that is exactly what Yossarian does. The passage is Heller's donnee, the stipulation of the rules the rest of his fiction is to be played by. The "deal" is what takes Yossarian out of the war. He does not desert from combat; he takes off from a "luxurious, privileged existence" that he would "have to be a fool" to turn down.
At first, even though he knows it would be "a pretty scummy trick" he would be playing on the men in his squadron who would have to remain, Yossarian leaves his new "pals" the colonels exhilarated. "He was home free, he had pulled it off, his act of rebellion had succeeded, he was safe, and he had nothing to be ashamed of to anyone."
But after Nately's whore stabs him and as he is recovering in the hospital, Yossarian cannot go through with "the odious deal." The colonels have even compounded the lie by writing in the official report that Yossarian has been stabbed while heroically saving his colonels from a Nazi spy. Yossarian's "moral principle" which Colonel Korn has scorned interferes: "'Let them send me home because I flew more than fifty missions,' Yossarian said, 'and not because I was stabbed by that girl, or because I've turned into such a stubborn son of a bitch.'"
But by now he is trapped: as Major Danby explains, "'If you don't go through with the deal, they're going to institute courtmartial proceedings as soon as you sign out of the hospital.'" If he goes through with the deal, he violates his moral principle, dupes his country, and betrays his fellows. If he refuses and is courtmartialed, he risks becoming another Billy Budd, whom Captain Vere martyred to preserve discipline. For if Yossanan is found innocent, "'Other men would probably refuse to fly missions, too ... and the military efficiency of the unit might be destroyed. So in that way,'" Major Danby concludes, "'it would be for the good of the country to have you found guilty and put in prison, even though you are innocent.'"
Here, Heller is carefully plotting, ethically walking the thin line between anarchy and individualism, and even doing so conservatively. Yossarian is in an absurd dilemma; he is faced with preposterous alternatives. Given such a situation, he invents a compromise: he does not want "to destroy the military efficiency of the unit"; neither does he want to be the pampered bellwether of the colonels' flock. So he says, "'I can run away.... Desert. Take off. I can turn my back on the whole damned mess and start running.'" Even before he hears that Orr has arnved in Sweden, Yossarian has decided to light out for the Territory. Orr's escape merely injects more hope into him.
Yet it is no life of ease Yossarian seeks in Sweden now, as he once has yearned for. Before things come to a crisis, Sweden has represented Elysium to him: Yossarian "would certainly have preferred Sweden, where the level of intelligence was high and where he could swim nude with beautiful girls with low demurring voices." But Sweden then "was out of reach," and at the story's close it may still be. Though the movie makes Yossarian ridiculous, rowing hopelessly away in his tiny raft for Sweden, the novel's Yossarian is more realistic:
"'You'll never get there,'" Major Danby warns. "'You can't run away to Sweden. You can't even row.'"
"'But I can get to Rome,'" Yossarian says, "'if you'll keep your mouth shut when you leave here and give me a chance to catch a ride.'"
Rather than swimming nude with beautiful girls, Yossarian's goal is more spartan now, to live accordingly to his "moral pnnciple" or "responsibilities"—to march not in Scheisskopf's parade nor in Cathcart's and Korn's, but to the beat of his own drummer—specifically, at first, to rescue Nately's whore's kid sister from the hell of "The Eternal City" and save her life by taking her with him to Sweden.
He has chosen the harder way. Although he refuses the martyrdom of a court-martial, he has also renounced the free trip home to a hero's welcome. "'Your conscience will never let you rest,'" Danby warns, but Yossarian laughs: "'God bless it.... I wouldn't want to live without strong misgivings.'" Yossarian has not bought a ticket to safety, either. The last time we see him, that latter-day fury Nately's whore slashes out at him. "The knife came down, missing him by inches."
"He took off," therefore, running not away from but toward his own honor. Like many in American fiction before him, by rebelling, he denies himself the easy, comfortable way. When I asked Heller if he was conscious of this radical tradition of renunciation, he replied in a letter dated February 8, 1971:
I conceived the ending to my book first and wrote the book, and it was only in the years since that I dwelled upon it as being in an old tradition of alienation and renunciation To the protagonists you mention [see above, Huck, Hester, Ike, etc.] can be added Ahab, Bartleby, Hightower (again Faulkner), to name a few.
The difference, though, is that Yossarian does not make good his escape, but only tries, and that this attempt is illegal and turns him into a fugitive, thereby instituting a struggle between him and the authorities in the environment he repudiates. It may have been an easy way out for me, but definitely not for him, who could have more safely and comfortably accepted the offer of the Colonels to turn him into a hero and send him home. My purpose was to raise a question rather than answer one; his action institutes a conflict rather than evades one. And if his mood is one of elation at the end, it is mainly because he has moved off dead center finally and begun to act for himself.
Yossarian, marching backwards by himself and then renouncing a hero's comfortable role, is our clearest dramatization of Thoreau's man who steps to the beat of a different drummer. In Heller's intention, Yossarian is not copping out, is not taking the easy way, but rather "moved off dead center finally." And in his peculiar world of horror and absurdity, he is ironically a "traditional" American rebel, like so many other cultural mavericks who have made their separate, principled peace.
Source: Walter R. McDonald, "He Took Off: Yossarian and the Different Drummer," in The CEA Critic, Vol. 36, No. 1, November, 1973, pp. 1416.