Catch-22 at 60: Do You Recognise These?

The first chapter of Joseph Heller’s classic Catch-22 was published 60 years ago. It appeared originally as Catch-18, but had to be renamed – happily, to a more rhythmic phrase – in order to avoid confusion with a Leon Uris book.  The hilarious, caustic satire, acknowledged as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, has given us much more than that everyday phrase we use to label paradoxical situations. It is also a masterly study of organisational behaviour, counting the popular Dilbert cartoon strip among its philosophical progeny.

Catch-22: 60 years since the first chapter appeared
Catch-22: 60 years since the first chapter appeared

Over the years, many of us have come to recognise characters and situations from Catch-22 popping up in our work lives. Here, in brief extracts from the book, are some of the more memorable ones.

Recognise any?

The Catch

‘Sure there’s a catch,’ Doc Daneeka replied. ‘Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.’ There was only 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. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. ‘That’s some catch, that Catch-22,’ he observed. ‘It’s the best there is,’ Doc Daneeka agreed.

Yossarian – The Shirker

Yossarian had everything he wanted in the hospital. The food wasn’t too bad, and his meals were brought to him in bed. There were extra rations of fresh meat, and during the hot part of the afternoon he and the others were served chilled fruit juice or chilled chocolate milk. Apart from the doctors and the nurses, no one ever disturbed him. For a little while in the morning he had to censor letters, but he was free after that to spend the rest of each day lying around idly with a clear conscience. He was comfortable in the hospital, and it was easy to stay on because he always ran a temperature of 101. He was even more comfortable than Dunbar, who had to keep falling down on his face in order to get his meals brought to him in bed.

… Actually, there were many officers’ clubs that Yossarian had not helped build, but he was proudest of the one on Pianosa. It was a sturdy and complex monument to his powers of determination. Yossarian never went there to help until it was finished; then he went there often, so pleased was he with the large, fine, rambling, shingled building. It was truly a splendid structure, and Yossarian throbbed with a mighty sense of accomplishment each time he gazed at it and reflected that none of the work that had gone into it was his.

…But Yossarian knew he was right, because, as he explained to Clevinger, to the best of his knowledge he had never been wrong. Everywhere he looked was a nut, and it was all a sensible young gentleman like himself could do to maintain his perspective amid so much madness. And it was urgent that he did, for he knew his life was in peril.

…Havermeyer was a lead bombardier who never missed. Yossarian was a lead bombardier who had been demoted because he no longer gave a damn whether he missed or not. He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive.

The Bomber Crew

‘Bomb bay clear,’ Sergeant Knight in the back would announce. ‘Did we hit the bridge?’ McWatt would ask. ‘I couldn’t see, sir, I kept getting bounced around back here pretty hard and I couldn’t see. Everything’s covered with smoke now and I can’t see.’ ‘Hey, Aarfy, did the bombs hit the target?’ ‘What target?’ Captain Aardvaark, Yossarian’s plump, pipe-smoking navigator, would say from the confusion of maps he had created at Yossarian’s side in the nose of the ship. ‘I don’t think we’re at the target yet. Are we?’ ‘Yossarian, did the bombs hit the target?’ ‘What bombs?’ answered Yossarian, whose only concern had been the flak. ‘Oh, well,’ McWatt would sing, ‘what the hell.’ Yossarian did not give a damn whether he hit the target or not, just as long as Havermeyer or one of the other lead bombardiers did and they never had to go back.

Clevinger

Clevinger knew so much because Clevinger was a genius with a pounding heart and blanching face. He was a gangling, gawky, feverish, famish-eyed brain. As a Harvard undergraduate he had won prizes in scholarship for just about everything, and the only reason he had not won prizes in scholarship for everything else was that he was too busy signing petitions, circulating petitions and challenging petitions, joining discussion groups and resigning from discussion groups, attending youth congresses, picketing other youth congresses and organizing student committees in defense of dismissed faculty members. Everyone agreed that Clevinger was certain to go far in the academic world. In short, Clevinger was one of those people with lots of intelligence and no brains, and everyone knew it except those who soon found it out. In short, he was a dope. … He often looked to Yossarian like one of those people hanging around modern museums with both eyes together on one side of a face. It was an illusion, of course, generated by Clevinger’s predilection for staring fixedly at one side of a question and never seeing the other side at all. Politically, he was a humanitarian who did know right from left and was trapped uncomfortably between the two. He was constantly defending his Communist friends to his right-wing enemies and his right-wing friends to his Communist enemies, and he was thoroughly detested by both groups, who never defended him to anyone because they thought he was a dope. He was a very serious, very earnest and very conscientious dope. … He was a militant idealist who crusaded against racial bigotry by growing faint in its presence. He knew everything about literature except how to enjoy it. Yossarian tried to help him. ‘Don’t be a dope,’ he had counseled Clevinger…

…he was a dope who would rather be a corpse than bury one.

…Clevinger had a mind, and Lieutenant Scheisskopf had noticed that people with minds tended to get pretty smart at times. Such men were dangerous, and even the new cadet officers whom Clevinger had helped into office were eager to give damning testimony against him. The case against Clevinger was open and shut. The only thing missing was something to charge him with.

…Clevinger was guilty, of course, or he would not have been accused, and since the only way to prove it was to find him guilty, it was their patriotic duty to do so.

 Orr

Orr was kneeling on the floor of the tent. He worked without pause, taking the faucet apart, spreading all the tiny pieces out carefully, counting and then studying each one interminably as though he had never seen anything remotely similar before, and then reassembling the whole apparatus, over and over and over and over again, with no loss of patience or interest, no sign of fatigue, no indication of ever concluding. Yossarian watched him tinkering and felt certain he would be compelled to murder him in cold blood if he did not stop.

General Peckem

General Peckem was a general with whom neatness definitely counted. He was a spry, suave and very precise general who knew the circumference of the equator and always wrote ‘enhanced’ when he meant ‘increased’. He was a prick, and no one knew this better than General Dreedle, who was incensed by General Peckem’s recent directive requiring all tents in the Mediterranean theater of operations to be pitched along parallel lines with entrances facing back proudly toward the Washington Monument.

Colonel Cargill

Colonel Cargill, General Peckem’s troubleshooter, was a forceful, ruddy man. Before the war he had been an alert, hardhitting, aggressive marketing executive. He was a very bad marketing executive. Colonel Cargill was so awful a marketing executive that his services were much sought after by firms eager to establish losses for tax purposes. Throughout the civilized world, from Battery Park to Fulton Street, he was known as a dependable man for a fast tax write-off. His prices were high, for failure often did not come easily. He had to start at the top and work his way down, and with sympathetic friends in Washington, losing money was no simple matter. It took months of hard work and careful misplanning. A person misplaced, disorganized, miscalculated, overlooked everything and opened every loophole, and just when he thought he had it made, the government gave him a lake or a forest or an oilfield and spoiled everything. Even with such handicaps, Colonel Cargill could be relied on to run the most prosperous enterprise into the ground. He was a self-made man who owed his lack of success to nobody.

…‘It takes brains not to make money,’ Colonel Cargill wrote in one of the homiletic memoranda he regularly prepared for circulation over General Peckem’s signature. ‘Any fool can make money these days and most of them do. But what about people with talent and brains? Name, for example, one poet who makes money.’ ‘T. S. Eliot,’ ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen said in his mail-sorting cubicle at Twenty-seventh Air Force Headquarters, and slammed down the telephone without identifying himself. Colonel Cargill, in Rome, was perplexed.

The Texan

The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him.

The Hospital Process for Soldiers in White

The soldier in white was encased from head to toe in plaster and gauze. He had two useless legs and two useless arms. He had been smuggled into the ward during the night, and the men had no idea he was among them until they awoke in the morning and saw the two strange legs hoisted from the hips, the two strange arms anchored up perpendicularly, all four limbs pinioned strangely in air by lead weights suspended darkly above him that never moved. Sewn into the bandages over the insides of both elbows were zippered lips through which he was fed clear fluid from a clear jar. A silent zinc pipe rose from the cement on his groin and was coupled to a slim rubber hose that carried waste from his kidneys and dripped it efficiently into a clear, stoppered jar on the floor. When the jar on the floor was full, the jar feeding his elbow was empty, and the two were simply switched quickly so that the stuff could drip back into him.

Milo Minderbinder, man of enterprise

[Milo’s face] was the face of a man of hardened integrity who 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.

… ‘What’s this?’ cried McWatt, staring in mystification at the ripped half of his bedsheet. ‘It’s half of the bedsheet that was stolen from your tent this morning,’ Milo explained. ‘I’ll bet you didn’t even know it was stolen.’ ‘Why should anyone want to steal half a bedsheet?’ Yossarian asked. Milo grew flustered. ‘You don’t understand,’ he protested. ‘He stole the whole bedsheet, and I got it back with the package of pitted dates you invested. That’s why the quarter of the bedsheet is yours. You made a very handsome return on your investment, particularly since you’ve gotten back every pitted date you gave me.’ Milo next addressed himself to McWatt. ‘Half the bedsheet is yours because it was all yours to begin with, and I really don’t understand what you’re complaining about, since you wouldn’t have any part of it if Captain Yossarian and I hadn’t intervened in your behalf.’ ‘Who’s complaining?’ McWatt exclaimed. ‘I’m just trying to figure out what I can do with half a bedsheet.’ ‘There are lots of things you can do with half a bedsheet,’ Milo assured him. ‘The remaining quarter of the bedsheet I’ve set aside for myself as a reward for my enterprise, work and initiative. It’s not for myself, you understand, but for the syndicate. That’s something you might do with half the bedsheet. You can leave it in the syndicate and watch it grow.’

…Don’t you understand?’ But Yossarian still didn’t understand either how Milo could buy eggs in Malta for seven cents apiece and sell them at a profit in Pianosa for five cents.

Doc Daneeka, the whiner

‘You think you’ve got troubles?’ Doc Daneeka rebuked him grievingly. ‘What about me? I lived on peanuts for eight years while I learned how to be a doctor. After the peanuts, I lived on chicken feed in my own office until I could build up a practice decent enough to even pay expenses. Then, just as the shop was finally starting to show a profit, they drafted me. I don’t know what you’re complaining about.’

.. ‘Oh, I’m not complaining. I know there’s a war on. I know a lot of people are going to have to suffer for us to win it. But why must I be one of them? Why don’t they draft some of these old doctors who keep shooting their kissers off in public about what big sacrifices the medical game stands ready to make? I don’t want to make sacrifices. I want to make dough.’ Doc Daneeka was a very neat, clean man whose idea of a good time was to sulk. …Doc Daneeka was personally familiar with a number of things that were drastically wrong… He was like a man who had grown frozen with horror once and had never come completely unthawed… Actually, he was a very warm, compassionate man who never stopped feeling sorry for himself.

Catch-22 at the ‘Educational Sessions’

Group Headquarters was alarmed, for there was no telling what people might find out once they felt free to ask whatever questions they wanted to [at the educational sessions]. Colonel Cathcart sent Colonel Korn to stop it, and Colonel Korn succeeded with a rule governing the asking of questions. Colonel Korn’s rule was a stroke of genius, Colonel Korn explained in his report to Colonel Cathcart. Under Colonel Korn’s rule, the only people permitted to ask questions were those who never did. Soon the only people attending were those who never asked questions, and the sessions were discontinued altogether, since Clevinger, the corporal and Colonel Korn agreed that it was neither possible nor necessary to educate people who never questioned anything.

Lieutenant Scheisskopf

Lieutenant Scheisskopf was an R.O.T.C. graduate who was rather glad that war had broken out, since it gave him an opportunity to wear an officer’s uniform every day and say ‘Men’ in a clipped, military voice to the bunches of kids who fell into his clutches every eight weeks on their way to the butcher’s block. He was an ambitious and humorless Lieutenant Scheisskopf, who confronted his responsibilities soberly and smiled only when some rival officer at the Santa Ana Army Air Force Base came down with a lingering disease. He had poor eyesight and chronic sinus trouble, which made war especially exciting for him, since he was in no danger of going overseas.

Team Training & Development

General Dreedle wanted his men to spend as much time out on the skeet-shooting range as the facilities and their flight schedule would allow. Shooting skeet eight hours a month was excellent training for them. It trained them to shoot skeet.

Chief White Halfoat, anti-racist

“Some of those invitations were mighty generous, but we couldn’t accept any because we were Indians and all the best hotels that were inviting us wouldn’t accept Indians as guests. Racial prejudice is a terrible thing, Yossarian. It really is. It’s a terrible thing to treat a decent, loyal Indian like a nigger, kike, wop or spic.” Chief White Halfoat nodded slowly with conviction.

Hungry Joe and his Nerves

Hungry Joe was too firmly embedded in calamities of his own to care how Doc Daneeka felt. There were the noises, for instance. Small ones enraged him and he hollered himself hoarse at Aarfy for the wet, sucking sounds he made puffing on his pipe, at Orr for tinkering, at McWatt for the explosive snap he gave each card he turned over when he dealt at blackjack or poker, at Dobbs for letting his teeth chatter as he went blundering clumsily about bumping into things. Hungry Joe was a throbbing, ragged mass of motile irritability. The steady ticking of a watch in a quiet room crashed like torture against his unshielded brain.

Colonel Cathcart, Consummate Manager  

Colonel Cathcart had courage and never hesitated to volunteer his men for any target available. No target was too dangerous for his group to attack…

…Colonel Cathcart was infused with the democratic spirit: he believed that all men were created equal, and he therefore spurned all men outside Group Headquarters with equal fervor. Nevertheless, he believed in his men. As he told them frequently in the briefing room, he believed they were at least ten missions better than any other outfit and felt that any who did not share this confidence he had placed in them could get the hell out. The only way they could get the hell out, though, as Yossarian learned when he flew to visit ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen, was by flying the extra ten missions.

… Colonel Cathcart was a slick, successful, slipshod, unhappy man of thirty-six who lumbered when he walked and wanted to be a general. He was dashing and dejected, poised and chagrined. He was complacent and insecure, daring in the administrative stratagems he employed to bring himself to the attention of his superiors and craven in his concern that his schemes might all backfire. He was handsome and unattractive, a swashbuckling, beefy, conceited man who was putting on fat and was tormented chronically by prolonged seizures of apprehension. Colonel Cathcart was conceited because he was a full colonel with a combat command at the age of only thirty-six; and Colonel Cathcart was dejected because although he was already thirty-six he was still only a full colonel… He was tense, irritable, bitter and smug. He was a valorous opportunist who pounced hoggishly upon every opportunity Colonel Korn discovered for him and trembled in damp despair immediately afterward at the possible consequences he might suffer. He collected rumors greedily and treasured gossip. He believed all the news he heard and had faith in none. He was on the alert constantly for every signal, shrewdly sensitive to relationships and situations that did not exist. He was someone in the know who was always striving pathetically to find out what was going on. He was a blustering, intrepid bully who brooded inconsolably over the terrible ineradicable impressions he knew he kept making on people of prominence who were scarcely aware that he was even alive.

The Quandary of ‘Constructive Feedback’

‘I’m going to tell him,’ Clevinger insisted, as the two of them sat high in the reviewing stands looking down on the auxiliary parade ground at Lieutenant Scheisskopf raging back and forth like a beardless Lear. ‘Why me?’ Lieutenant Scheisskopf wailed. ‘Keep still, idiot,’ Yossarian advised Clevinger avuncularly. ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Clevinger objected. ‘I know enough to keep still, idiot.’ Lieutenant Scheisskopf tore his hair and gnashed his teeth. His rubbery cheeks shook with gusts of anguish. His problem was a squadron of aviation cadets with low morale who marched atrociously in the parade competition that took place every Sunday afternoon. Their morale was low because they did not want to march in parades every Sunday afternoon and because Lieutenant Scheisskopf had appointed cadet officers from their ranks instead of permitting them to elect their own. ‘I want someone to tell me,’ Lieutenant Scheisskopf beseeched them all prayerfully. ‘If any of it is my fault, I want to be told.’ ‘He wants someone to tell him,’ Clevinger said. ‘He wants everyone to keep still, idiot,’ Yossarian answered. ‘Didn’t you hear him?’ Clevinger argued. ‘I heard him,’ Yossarian replied. ‘I heard him say very loudly and very distinctly that he wants every one of us to keep our mouths shut if we know what’s good for us.’ ‘I won’t punish you,’ Lieutenant Scheisskopf swore. ‘He says he won’t punish me,’ said Clevinger. ‘He’ll castrate you,’ said Yossarian. ‘I swear I won’t punish you,’ said Lieutenant Scheisskopf. ‘I’ll be grateful to the man who tells me the truth.’ ‘He’ll hate you,’ said Yossarian. ‘To his dying day he’ll hate you.’

The Budding ‘Leader’

Lieutenant Scheisskopf longed desperately to win parades and sat up half the night working on it… He read books on marching. He manipulated boxes of chocolate soldiers until they melted in his hands and then maneuvered in ranks of twelve a set of plastic cowboys he had bought from a mail-order house under an assumed name and kept locked away from everyone’s eyes during the day… Leonardo’s exercises in anatomy proved indispensable… Finishing last in three successive parades had given Lieutenant Scheisskopf an unsavory reputation, and he considered every means of improvement, even nailing the twelve men in each rank to a long two-by-four beam of seasoned oak to keep them in line. The plan was not feasible, for making a ninety-degree turn would have been impossible without nickel-alloy swivels inserted in the small of every man’s back, and Lieutenant Scheisskopf was not sanguine at all about obtaining that many nickel-alloy swivels from Quartermaster or enlisting the cooperation of the surgeons at the hospital.

Major Major Major Major and the Need to Conform

Major Major had been born too late and too mediocre. Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.

…He was polite to his elders, who disliked him. Whatever his elders told him to do, he did. They told him to look before he leaped, and he always looked before he leaped. They told him never to put off until the next day what he could do the day before, and he never did. He was told to honor his father and his mother, and he honored his father and his mother. He was told that he should not kill, and he did not kill, until he got into the Army. Then he was told to kill, and he killed. He turned the other cheek on every occasion and always did unto others exactly as he would have had others do unto him. When he gave to charity, his left hand never knew what his right hand was doing. He never once took the name of the Lord his God in vain, committed adultery or coveted his neighbor’s ass. In fact, he loved his neighbor and never even bore false witness against him.

Major Major’s elders disliked him because he was such a flagrant nonconformist.

.. Major Major had lied, and it was good. He was not really surprised that it was good, for he had observed that people who did lie were, on the whole, more resourceful and ambitious and successful than people who did not lie.

Chain Mail

Inevitably, every document he signed came back with a fresh page added for a new signature by him after intervals of from two to ten days. They were always much thicker than formerly, for in between the sheet bearing his last endorsement and the sheet added for his new endorsement were the sheets bearing the most recent endorsements of all the other officers in scattered locations who were also occupied in signing their names to that same official document. Major Major grew despondent as he watched simple communications swell prodigiously into huge manuscripts. No matter how many times he signed one, it always came back for still another signature, and he began to despair of ever being free of any of them. One day—it was the day after the C.I.D. man’s first visit—Major Major signed Washington Irving’s name to one of the documents instead of his own, just to see how it would feel. He liked it. He liked it so much that for the rest of that afternoon he did the same with all the official documents. It was an act of impulsive frivolity and rebellion for which he knew afterward he would be punished severely. The next morning he entered his office in trepidation and waited to see what would happen. Nothing happened.

Colonel Korn

‘Why don’t we give him a medal?’ Colonel Korn proposed. ‘For going around twice? What can we give him a medal for?’ ‘For going around twice,’ Colonel Korn answered with a reflective, self-satisfied smile. ‘After all, I suppose it did take a lot of courage to go over that target a second time with no other planes around to divert the antiaircraft fire. And he did hit the bridge. You know, 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.’

Wintergreen

Ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen was a snide little punk who enjoyed working at cross-purposes. Each time he went AWOL, he was caught and sentenced to dig and fill up holes six feet deep, wide and long for a specified length of time. Each time he finished his sentence, he went AWOL again. Ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen accepted his role of digging and filling up holes with all the uncomplaining dedication of a true patriot. ‘It’s not a bad life,’ he would observe philosophically. ‘And I guess somebody has to do it.’ He had wisdom enough to understand that digging holes in Colorado was not such a bad assignment in wartime. Since the holes were in no great demand, he could dig them and fill them up at a leisurely pace, and he was seldom overworked. On the other hand, he was busted down to buck private each time he was court-martialed. He regretted this loss of rank keenly.

CATCH22. Copyright (c) Joseph Heller, 1955, 1961.

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