Last Updated on August 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3229
Heller, Joseph 1923–
An American novelist and playwright, Heller is famous for Catch-22, a unique treatment of war at once horrible and humorous. His second novel, on which he has worked for more than ten years, is promised for 1974. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Like all superlative works of comedy—and I am ready to argue that this is one of the most bitterly funny works in the language—Catch-22 is based on an unconventional but utterly convincing internal logic. In the very opening pages, when we come upon a number of Air Force officers malingering in a hospital—one censoring all the modifiers out of enlisted men's letters and signing the censor's name "Washington Irving," another pursuing tedious conversations with boring Texans in order to increase his life span by making time pass slowly, still another storing horse chestnuts in his cheeks to give himself a look of innocence—it seems obvious that an inordinate number of Joseph Heller's characters are, by all conventional standards, mad. It is a triumph of Mr. Heller's skill that he is so quickly able to persuade us (1) that the most lunatic are the most logical, and (2) that it is our conventional standards which lack any logical consistency. The sanest looney of them all is the apparently harebrained central character, an American bombardier of Syrian extraction named Captain John Yossarian, who is based on a mythical Italian island (Pianosa) during World War II. For while many of his fellow officers seem indifferent to their own survival, and most of his superior officers are overtly hostile to his, Yossarian is animated solely by a desperate determination to stay alive….
According to this logic, Yossarian is surrounded on all sides by hostile forces: his enemies are distinguished less by their nationality than by their ability to get him killed. Thus, Yossarian feels a blind, electric rage against the Germans whenever they hurl flak at his easily penetrated plane; but he feels an equally profound hatred for those of his own countrymen who exercise an arbitrary power over his life and well-being. Heller's huge cast of characters, therefore, is dominated by a large number of comic malignities, genus Americanus, drawn with a grotesqueness so audacious that they somehow transcend caricature entirely and become vividly authentic….
It should be abundantly clear … that Catch-22, despite some of the most outrageous sequences since A Night at the Opera, is an intensely serious work. Heller has certain technical similarities to the Marx Brothers, Max Schulman, Kingsley Amis, Al Capp, and S. J. Perelman, but his mordant intelligence, closer to that of Nathanael West, penetrates the surface of the merely funny to expose a world of ruthless self-advancement, gruesome cruelty, and flagrant disregard for human life—a world, in short, very much like our own as seen through a magnifying glass, distorted for more perfect accuracy. Considering his indifference to surface reality, it is absurd to judge Heller by standards of psychological realism (or, for that matter, by conventional artistic standards at all, since his book is as formless as any picaresque epic). He is concerned entirely with that thin boundary of the surreal, the borderline between hilarity and horror, which, much like the apparent formlessness of the unconscious, has its own special integrity and coherence. Thus, Heller will never use comedy for its own sake; each joke has a wider significance in the intricate pattern, so that laughter becomes a prologue for some grotesque revelation. This gives the reader an effect of surrealistic dislocation, intensified by a weird, rather flat, impersonal style, full of complicated reversals, swift transitions, abrupt shifts in chronological time, and manipulated identities …, as if all mankind was determined by a mad and merciless mechanism….
I believe that Joseph Heller is one of the most extraordinary talents now among us. He has Mailer's combustible radicalism without his passion for violence and self-glorification; he has Bellow's gusto with his compulsion to affirm the unaffirmable; and he has Salinger's wit without his coquettish self-consciousness. Finding his absolutes in the freedom to be, in a world dominated by cruelty, carnage, inhumanity, and a rage to destroy itself, Heller has come upon a new morality of refusal. Perhaps—now that Catch-22 has found its most deadly nuclear form—we have reached the point where even the logic of survival is unworkable. But at least we can still contemplate the influence of its liberating honesty on a free, rebellious spirit in this explosive, bitter, subversive, brilliant book.
Robert Brustein, "Catch-22" (originally titled "The Logic of Survival in a Lunatic World"; copyright © 1961 by Harrison-Blaine, Inc.; reprinted by permission), in The Critic as Artist: Essays on Books 1920–1970, edited by Gilbert A. Harrison, Liveright, 1972, pp. 47-54.
Heller claims that [Catch-22] does not attack the war or question its legitimacy; it deals with "contemporary, regimented society." His satire is directed against the institutions that make up this society, business, psychiatry, medicine, law, the military, assuming, as he says, that certain people and social groups act the same in war as they do in peace. These institutions form that familiar entity, the apparatus, which operates according to the principle of "Catch-22." Better than almost any other single war novel, Catch-22 illustrates the main issues of the "open decision," laying out clearly the factors which inhibit its highest good and suggesting ways in which those factors can be overcome. "Catch-22" is the law which the apparatus uses to bind the individual to only those possibilities which strengthen the society rather than the individual…. Catch-22 [is] a parody of the epistemology of relativity. Measuring instruments in one system "change" when that system speeds up or slows down relative to another system, but the change can never be detected by the system's instruments, for they will measure only themselves. The change, furthermore, is intelligible only with the postulation of another system….
Catch-22 is the great social tautology that imprisons every individual who takes it as a natural absolute and does not see that it is a kind of language-game. As with measuring rods and clocks, Catch-22 shrinks or expands, speeds up or slows down, to cover the situation, obscuring its own relativity….
Catch-22 is the way in which Heller expresses his understanding of the old view of reality and shows how that old view comes to invest the social apparatus with absolute power over those who are taken in. It comically exemplifies how solipsism can be taken as an objective absolute. Those who do not see its relativity become bound to it as prisoners, performing its commands in a way that reduces the avenues which, as more spontaneous beings, they might pursue….
Throughout most of the book Yossarian behaves according to Whitehead's proposition that without the living subject there is nothing, nothing, nothing. Heller's presentation of the conflict between this subject and the society that attempts to kill it claims, in principle, that right is on the side of the subject…. The contention that nothing can be important to a dead man, however true, cannot justify a man's running off from the field of battle to let others die in his place. The "open decision" is not an invitation to evading one's responsibility to other humans.
Heller realizes this, and tries to justify Yossarian's decision to desert. His attempt, unfortunately, saps Yossarian of all his zany vitality and destroys the comic tone of the book….
The principle of Catch-22 is a metaphor of the "world" of Husserl which must be bracketed, the "inauthenticity" of Heidegger, the "bad faith" of Sartre, the "false consciousness" of Mannheim, the refusal of the scientist to acknowledge all evidence. By deserting, Yossarian will scrape away all of those restrictions, prejudices, and preconceptions that confine him in a shell of reduced possibilities. Thus, Yossarian … seeks to preserve his authentic self against a suffocating system…. Heller carries [the] defiance against the military hierarchy … to its most positive end. He focuses upon the need to break with the present, as Sartre might say, and then suggests how that break might be accomplished.
Jerry H. Bryant, in his The Open Decision: The Contemporary American Novel and Its Intellectual Background (reprinted with the permission of Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc.; © 1970 by The Free Press, a Division of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.), The Free Press, 1970, pp. 156-59, 163.
Heller is obviously blessed with an imagination for incident and character of near-Dickensian dimensions, a profusion of exuberant fancy, and what appears at first to be a rich kind of Max Shulman, Goon-Show nonsense. It rapidly transmutes into something much more serious, but even the nonsense has its point. In a manner comparable to the foolishness of Ionesco's plays, it can be seen as a reflection of the breakdown of language, the inability of men to communicate, and a pervading sense of a deeper absurdité. Without this façade of nonsense, Heller would most likely have been unable to express, and we unable to bear, his bitter, Swiftian anguish.
As it is, even with its veneer of brittle idiot-comedy, [Catch-22] becomes increasingly painful to read. His fantasy and surreal exaggeration cannot hide for long the acid, anti-human depths of Heller's tragic vision. Anti-humanity, the quenching of one human soul by another, the refusal of each imprisoned ego to acknowledge even the identity of another, is Heller's major theme. Yossarian, his Alice-in-Wonderland hero, trying hopelessly to stay sane in an insane world, goes even further, and attacks the malicious, non-existent God he holds responsible for this moral chaos. But Heller has his hands full with man: inherent in every range of his absurd exaggerations, from the most trivial to the most dark, is this vision of inhuman, unloving man.
David Littlejohn, in his Interruptions (copyright © 1970 by David Littlejohn; reprinted by permission of Grossman Publishers), Grossman, 1970, p. 27.
Joseph Heller's Catch-22 deals with more than the lusty evils of battle; it is a book written for a decade of readers who have been warned about the dangers of the military-industrial complex. It too strikes back at an institution that usurps man's power over his own life, an institution that is a pure threat to the basic maintenance of life. The enemy in Heller's book is not simply the chaos of war, but also the deadly inhuman bureaucracy of the military-economic establishment which claims to be a stay against chaos while it threatens human life more insidiously than battle itself. "The enemy is anybody who's going to get you killed, no matter which side he's on." Heller finds it confusing and difficult always to condemn the act of war—to say it was evil to fight against Hitler—but he is unqualified in his condemnation of the military institution that springs from the necessities of battle. The establishment that runs the war goes so far to destroy sanity and life and the human spirit that Heller finds war's greatest evil is its responsibility for the production of organized military inhumanity. Catch-22 does not really deal with the chaos of war—although that is its persistent backdrop. The emphasis is never on battle, and even the antiwar theme is soft-pedaled when the question of relative morality involves choosing between life-negating war or life-negating bureaucracy. Heller deals instead with one real terror that haunts the novel of the sixties—the organized institution which in the name of reason, patriotism, and righteousness has seized control over man's life….
Catch-22 is the principle that informs the military-economic machine, giving it power and making war possible in the first place. It is the law that says what it commands is right because it is commanded, and the illogical must be done because the command says it is logical. Catch-22 is the untouchable power that has usurped man's control over his own life and handed it over to an institution which manufactures fatal and incredible death traps. Heller gives us the feeling that this power could possibly be beyond even the institution that uses it. It is an abstraction that can be evoked any time we find man subjugated to the absurd—it is the reason, we would be told, for his subjugation….
Yossarian's [final] choice is meant to prove that no matter what else a man does he must find a way to affirm life over death. But, happily for the novel, the alternative is not a concrete proposal for universal human action, as some critics have taken it to be. We need not all literally go to Sweden. Heller's ending is like many other endings in the novel of the sixties; its affirmation is possible only through a symbolic gesture. What is important to Heller is that man need not be beaten—the choices may be extreme, and like Yossarian, man may always be plagued by Nately's Whore, something popping up everywhere to threaten life; but still, life is possible and man can always find some way to assert the human spirit. There is something undeniably bleak about an alternative which leads the Grail Knight to depart from the waste land in order to survive, especially when we consider our long tradition of employing the pattern of withdrawal and return. But Heller's fable of madness makes it very clear that any grander plan, any hope that an individual redeemer, a super-Yossarian, can return to benefit all men is as black a joke as the cat on Hungry Joe's face.
Raymond M. Olderman, "The Grail Knight Departs," in his Beyond the Waste Land: A Study of the American Novel in the Nineteen-Sixties, Yale University Press, 1972, pp. 94-116.
Despite the constant episodic zigzags which comprise Catch-22's narrative surface, the novel is built on a central conflict, two sub-plots, and a host of motifs. What Heller has done is to break up the logical and chronological development of these narrative elements by taking bits and pieces of all three and mixing them together with dashes of expository and rhetorical comment without regard to logical or temporal or spatial connection. The result is an apparent—but only apparent—jumble of comment, character, and event consistent with contemporary esthetic tendencies away from reason, time, and space as ordering categories.
Nevertheless, a basic narrative structure can be discovered holding the novel subtly together. This structure can best be visualized as a kind of narrative tree, with the trunk comprised primarily of the main plot (Yossarian's efforts to get off flying status either by achieving the required number of missions or by having himself declared insane) and two sub-plots (the struggle between Peckem and Dreedle for command of the Wing, and Milo's syndicate). Around this trunk grow in abundance two kinds of branches, arranged for visual convenience one on either side. Those on the left, whether simple references or detailed episodes, are expository flashbacks made once for informational purposes or repeated for thematic effect. Those on the right are a different kind of flashback, one which I have not encountered elsewhere. The best way to describe them, I think, is to call them foreshadowing flashbacks; that is, again whether simple reference or detailed episode, most of them after the first add links in a chain of information drawn out and completed at some length. Thereafter, references to these subjects become conventional flashbacks repeated for thematic effect. The result is the paradox of suspense through flashbacks; and, I think, as this paradox suggests, an ingenious fusion of time planes into the simultaneity of existential time, a fusion entirely consistent with what seems to me the fundamental existential theme of the work.
Visualizing this narrative tree and looking down it, one discovers that Heller has done something in each chapter to link it to the preceding chapter—a continuing action or condition, references to time or to historical events, mention of the number of missions required or flown….
Despite Catch-22's many and sudden shifts in scene, episode, character, motif, and time, then, the narrative trunk makes it clear that Heller has distributed sufficient elements of continuity and transition to give the work a controlling structural design beneath its kaleidoscopic surface. However much this narrative may disguise it, Catch-22 is built on a five-part alternating structure in which sections developing the central conflict and sub-plots in the narrative present (parts one, three, and five) alternate with long flashback sections providing additional background and exposition and also [function] to fuse the work's time planes (parts two and four)….
Despite its occasional flaws, Heller's artistry in Catch-22 is both more effective and also more impressive than is sometimes granted. Moreover, this artistry is thematically significant. Its combination of formal elements working subtly within and sustaining an obvious surface formlessness argues strongly that the novel's bombardment of jokes and its satiric barrage are equally linked and that both derive from a shaping thematic concern at its core….
Clinton S. Burhans, "Spindrift and the Sea: Structural Patterns and Unifying Elements in Catch-22," in Twentieth Century Literature, October, 1973, pp. 239-49.
There are so many villains and power-mongers in Catch-22 that it is easy to minimize or overlook Yossarian's culpability in the world Heller describes. The characters in the novel who are most often cited as the "real" controllers of power are Milo Minderbinder and ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen…. Yossarian, on the other hand, is generally identified with the powerless….
In one sense, of course, these positions are unchallengeable. Milo and Wintergreen, or their real-life counterparts, must have greatly influenced the outcome of the war, while the Yossarians undoubtedly had little effect at all. In the fictional sense, however, it is Yossarian who controls things, not Wintergreen or Milo. In one way or another, Yossarian is responsible for nearly every significant event mentioned in the novel, including most of the deaths we witness. Within the framework of the novel, Yossarian cannot be considered the helpless victim of a monolithic system. In fact, he wields more potential power than any other character in the book. Until he learns to use it, however, his efforts to save himself from destruction are not only futile, but lead to catastrophe and death for those around him. The irony of the novel is that Yossarian is unaware of his power and spends much of his time blaming others—Cathcart, Milo, "they"—for his predicament. What Yossarian learns in the course of the book is that he, and no-one else, is in control of his fate. The novel seems to be designed to hide this fact from the reader until Yossarian himself sees it. The world in which he exists is made to appear inescapable and uncontrollable, but the sequence of events we are shown and Yossarian's relationship to them [indicate] that he is the center of his universe and, though he does not know it at first, capable of turning it topsy-turvy or setting it straight….
Yossarian is guilty of complicity. His essential sin is in lending his presence and his tacit sanction to the system perpetrated by the USAF and distorted by Cathcart and Korn. By not deserting and by continuing to fly missions, his feeble protests against bureaucracy are worse than useless because they not only do not stop anyone from getting killed but they engender further tragedy….
By making everything in the novel, the good as well as the evil, Yossarian's "fault," Heller argues that the individual, not bureaucracy or the establishment, still holds the final trump.
Stephen L. Sniderman, "'It Was All Yossarian's Fault': Power and Responsibility in Catch-22," in Twentieth Century Literature, October, 1973, pp. 251-58.
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