Comment: The Catch-22 that covers all of our lives

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"SURE I can ground Orr," says Doc Daneeka to Yossarian in chapter five. "But first he has to ask me to."

"That's all he has to do to be grounded?"

"That's all. Let him ask me."

"And then you can ground him?" Yossarian asked.

"No. Then I can't ground him."

"You mean there's a catch?"

"Sure there's a catch," Doc Daneeka replied. "Catch 22. Anybody who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy."

Joseph Heller's masterpiece is all about logic. The characters talk in a wired, antiphonal banter, a sort of Socratic dialogue with wisecracks. Heller's expository passages, describing the inhabitants of the wartime US aircraft base, are bravura displays of self-cancelling, contradictory syllogisms.

In presenting a world gone mad, Heller did it with faultless intellectual good manners. That is why Heller fans flinch when they hear Catch-22 described as an "anti-war novel".

It isn't anything of the sort. It is not about the horrors of war. It takes war as a given - a deranged donne - and examines how a community conducts itself under its vast and looming shadow. But some critics forget that the book was written over the eight years 1953-61 when Heller was working in New York as an advertising copywriter. The stratagems of persuasion, of hard and soft sell, of sloganeering anddubious marketing, or preying on consumer insecurities - are all absorbed into the weave of Catch-22 as surely as is the lore of USAF life.

Heller himself insisted that the book is about, not war, but what he saw happening to Western society: public consumerism eclipsing private contentment, image starting to occlude reality. His characters are warped by market economics, by public relations or craven love of authority, rather than bullets.

He himself went on 60 near-lethal bombing missions from an air base in Corsica. But, as he explained to me in New York: "None of the characters are representative of the actual people in the army. I was writing in the postwar world, and I was dealing with much that was happening after the war. It wasn't about the army, it was about the birth of the multinational corporation. I saw the mess officer building up a local syndicate, then a multinational, then a global economy."

Economic Man, Political Man, PR Man, Young Executive Man, Radical Chic Man - you'd swear Heller invented the world of "scripted sincerity" and weasel jargon. He is astonishingly modern. Look at the character of Colonel Cathcart, "a slick, successful, slipshod, unhappy man of 36 who lumbered when he walked and wanted to be a general".

Heller describes a man permanently dissatisfied with his life despite its success, because of his wholesale lack of inner resources. "Colonel Cathcart was impervious to absolutes. He could measure his own progress only in relationship to others, and his idea of excellence was to do something as least as well as all the men his own age who were doing the same thing even better".

As for the discussion between Colonel Korn and Colonel Cathcart about how to explain why Yossarian's plane flew twice around the target zone before bombing it ("That might be the answer - to act boastfully about something we ought to be ashamed of. That's a trick that never seems to fail") you realise with a thrill that you're hearing the voice of the first modern spin-doctor.

Of course Catch-22 is a war novel in a sense - nobody could read the climactic scene of the bombardier Snowden's death without gagging with horror - but its true brilliance lies elsewhere: in presenting the strange, faultlessly logical journeys made by the masters, the courtiers and bureaucrats of a postwar system, from economic and political necessity into mad realms of inhumanity.