It was love at first sight. The first time I read Catch-22 I fell madly in love with it. It’s strange to think that a book so consumed with rage, so bound up in attacking the idiocies of man and the absurdities of war, would provide me with so much hope. But that is exactly what Joseph Heller’s novel does, with a chaos and absurdity which awakens a deep sense of compassion within the reader.
Absurdity permeates the novel, ridiculousness runs through its situations like a thread, and is what makes it so memorable for me. This is evident in the circularity of Catch-22 which “specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind”. It’s an illogical sort of logic, whereby if you prove you’re insane, you’re allowed not to fly anymore, but the very fact you don’t want to fly more missions proves you are sane.
It’s then we realise the absurdity in the novel serves to illuminate the horror of the arbitrary nature of these crimes, and the callousness of war
Such rhetorical traps recur throughout the novel, for example in the illness which afflicts the protagonist Yossarian at the novel’s outset. He’s in hospital with liver pain which falls just short of jaundice and therefore can’t be treated, but his pain hasn’t gone away either, meaning he can’t be discharged. The characters in the novel are trapped in a linguistic limbo, governed by unseen laws which snare them in a stasis, making them truly pathetic. Action, and therefore freedom, is rendered irrelevant by arbitrary logic.
This absurdity reaches its pinnacle through the character of Milo Minderbinder, the mess officer. Milo begins running his own company, M&M Enterprises, where he arranges with the Germans to carpet bomb his own side’s airfield due to overspending on Egyptian cotton. The bombing is devastatingly funny, hysterical in the sense that it seems ridiculous a man should bomb his own planes and base because “the Germans are not our enemies” and that he has to “respect the sanctity of my contract with Germany”. It seems preposterous, Milo suffers no repercussions, as he discloses the profits he’s made with the government, absolving him of his crimes. It’s then we realise the absurdity in the novel serves to illuminate the horror of the arbitrary nature of these crimes, and the callousness of war.
Catch-22 means something to me because it teaches the value of human compassion
However, the novel is important to me because it teems with humanity. Nowhere is this more evident than in the compassion and pity of Yossarian. At the end of the novel, after a disastrous mission to Avignon, Yossarian cradles the body of dying bombardier Snowden in his arms. Yossarian thinks he’s tending to Snowden’s wounds, when in fact a gaping hole in Snowden’s side means his vital organs are spilling out. It’s a brutal moment: where Yossarian faces the realities of war and finds himself falling short, he can only meet Snowden’s pleas of “I’m cold, I’m cold” with “There, There”, a repeated refrain which highlights his humanity, offering a banal comfort to a dying boy.
Yossarian means something to me because he represents the humanity with which we would hope to act when faced with the absurdity of an impossible situation. “They’ve got all my pals,” he cries at the end of the novel, even Hungry Joe, dying of the cat he always feared would sit on his face. As Yossarian lists the number he has lost due to Catch-22, we feel an intense compassion for him, a man who has simply been trying to survive, and in turn lost all his friends.
Catch-22 means something to me because it teaches the value of human compassion. Amid the absurdities and brutality of an insane situation, Yossarian teaches us to value human life, and though we may not be up to much, to do our best in every situation.