‘I see people cashing in.’ Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Joseph Heller (1923-99), Catch-22. Everyman’s Library, 1995 (19611)

 I finally decided it was time to read this famous novel after watching the first few episodes of the new TV dramatization, produced by George Clooney (who plays the gloriously named  Col. Scheisskopf – all the names are exorbitant in this novel – ludicrously obsessed with pointless, mechanistic parades). The filmed version does a pretty good job, but although it includes some of the darker elements of the novel, still unsurprisingly sanitises the narrative.

Captain Yossarian is the Everyman figure caught in the middle of the absurdity and horror in WWII of flying missions for a US Army airforce unit based at a fictitious island called Pianosa off the mainland of Italy. The Germans are in retreat so the war is in its final stages. And Yossarian has had – and seen – enough.

The novel opens with him feigning an unspecified disease in his liver. The doctors, like all the military personnel in this crazy army, are so incompetent they’re ‘puzzled by the fact that it wasn’t quite jaundice. If it became jaundice they could treat it. If it didn’t become jaundice and went away they could discharge him. But this being just short of jaundice all the time confused them.’

That’s typical of the demotic, looping style of the satiric, wittily sardonic narrative voice. It shares some of the characteristics in tone and style of the amphetamine rush and surreal, jazzy angst and hedonism of Beat writers: novelists like Kerouac (On the Road was published in 1955, two years after Heller started drafting this novel).

Heller Catch-22 coverIn structure too Catch-22 shows its allegiance to the nascent anarchic, counter-cultural post-war reactions of the younger generation to the institutionalised, corporate capitalism and cynical opportunism (political and commercial) that had started to thrive during the war – always a good theatre for entrepreneurs – and had prospered further during the cold war. Each of the 42 chapters focuses on a single character or set of related events. These stand alone almost like short stories, but are connected thematically, and the episodes often recur in later chapters (like the  terrible death of Yossarian’s colleague Snowden, slowly revealed across the 500 pages), repeating, rearranging and accreting details (déja vu is a leitmotif; arbitrarily redacting the enlisted men’s letters home another – it’s a network of redactions and rewritings), as the narrative does at the level of the sentence, shown in that quotation above.

In this respect the novel’s development is similar to the iterative narratives of a patient undergoing therapy, talking to the analyst who gradually encourages them to remove the defensive veils that shield them from the traumas their psyche is attempting to defend itself from, by revisiting and re-narrating the events that triggered the trauma (as Salinger shows with Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, published soon after the war). Yossarian doesn’t explicitly undergo such therapy in the novel, but his frequent exchanges with anyone who’ll listen to his frenzied attempts to stop getting killed in action fulfil a similar function.

At first it’s Doc Daneeka, but he’s so disaffected at having been drafted into the military just as his civilian practice began to become financially successful (we later learn this was largely because of his dodgy dealings with drugs – he too is corrupt and amoral, like all the military in Heller’s satiric portrait) that his unsympathetic, selfish response to complaints and requests like Yossarian’s or any of his other terrified comrades is: ‘“He thinks he’s got troubles? What about me?”’ He doesn’t want to make sacrifices, he snarls; ‘”I want to make dough”’.

Later it’s the ineffective timid chaplain (who’s lost his faith), incapable of standing up to the intimidating senior officers he’d have to confront if he were to carry out Yossarian’s anguished appeal for his intercession – to have him grounded, sent home, taken out of the hellish bombing raids he has to fly.

Yossarian’s terror is exacerbated by the camp’s senior officer, Col. Cathcart, interested only in getting his name into the popular press, and thwarting officer rivals in their attempts to gain promotion ahead of him. His petty obsessions result in his regularly, callously increasing the number of missions his men have to fly. Each time Yossarian reaches or nears the magical limit – which means going home to safety – Cathcart bumps up the total, deepening Yossarian’s despair and frustration.

Yossarian readily admits he’s a coward. He’s seen too much death and mutilation suffered in a war directed by incompetent madmen like Cathcart. Nowadays we’d probably consider him to be suffering from PTSD. Yossarian’s rejection of traditional military and patriotic values, of heroism and sacrifice for one’s country and fellow servicemen, is the central feature of Heller’s satire. For all morality and human decency, values and virtues, have been inverted, perverted, replaced by inhumane, cynical self-serving amibition, and greed. Everyone in the military, he insists with sound logic, is crazy, but you’d have to be crazier to fly missions – hence the infamous ‘catch’ that thwarts him: he must be sane to know that.

Language has become as unstable as sanity; semantics are unclear. Linguistic play, puns, paradox and literary allusion and intertextuality abound: Dostoevsky is namechecked explicitly several times; Kafka’s voice is implicitly omnipresent – for example, when the chaplain is interrogated with ‘immoral logic’ by sinister agents who accuse him of crimes of which they are as yet unaware – as he is.

The absurd black humour serves to heighten the dark moral message. When Capt. Aardvark, the navigator on one mission, is asked by the pilot if the bombs had hit the target, he asks, ‘”What target?”’ Yossarian, the bombardier, asked in exasperation the same question, responds, ‘”What bombs?” His ‘only concern had been the flak.’

It’s one of the most searing indictments of the absurdity of war that I’ve ever encountered. It’s not just the physical and emotional torture endured by the combatants and civilians affected, which tends to be at the heart of canonical anti-war literature from Remarque and Barbusse to Wilfred Owen, Hemingway and…well, Helen Zenna Smith. Heller’s most acrid satire takes what Smith started to do in Not So Quiet…and increases it to monstrous, Rabelaisian proportions.

Heller takes this anti-war anger and disillusionment to a different, ferocious level. The most shocking element in his carnival of dark grotesquerie is the cynical entrepreneurship of mess sergeant, Minderbinder. He has assembled a corrupt ‘syndicate’ that harnesses the graft, villainy and amorality of the Mafia with the corporate ruthlessness of big business. His dodgy import-export scams exploit the greed of officers like Cathcart, only too happy to profit from his use of military aircraft to move his wares around the world (with making money his only cynical concern; I’m reminded of the banking crisis in 2008, and what caused it). His lust for profit takes precedence over every decent consideration. When it seems he couldn’t become more fiendishly capitalistic, he starts dealing with the Germans, aiding their war effort against the Americans for cash, culminating in the horrific bombing and strafing of his own airbase – with huge loss of life of his comrades (a detail redacted in the TV version).

This vision of a hellishly corrupt and depraved corporate-military complex is mitigated in the dramatization. There’s less, too, of the dated sexism and misogyny that mars some of the novel; the scenes in the Rome brothel, although contributing to the theme of cynical commercialism and profiteering from war, display some disconcerting attitudes to women.

But the Rome scenes also produce one of the most chilling and disturbing sequences in the novel, near the end when Yossarian seeks out the sex worker who his friend Nately naively believed he would marry. He needs to tell her Nately has been killed in action. His descent through the noxious alleys of the city’s lower depths is like the harrowing of Hell, or Dante’s progress through those tormented circles of doom accompanied by Vergil. Raskolnikov gets one of his mentions in this section. He witnesses depraved acts of cruelty, sees the poverty, suffering and despair of the innocent while the ‘ingenious and unscrupulous handful’ of corrupt sinners thrive. The narrative takes on Yossarian’s voice:

What a lousy earth! He wondered how many people were destitute that same night even in his own prosperous country, how many homes were shanties, how many husbands were drunk and wives socked, and how many children were bullied, abused or abandoned. How many families hungered for food they could not afford to buy? [and so on for a dozen more lines]…Yossarian walked in lonely torture, feeling estranged…[next page] The night was filled with horrors, and he thought he knew how Christ must have felt as he walked through the world, like a psychiatrist through a ward full of nuts, like a victim through a prison full of thieves.

This catalogue of depravity reveals Heller’s purpose beneath the black comedy: Yossarian’s sense yet again here of déja vu – of ‘sinister coincidence’ – underlines the scorching message of social criticism in the novel. The act of rape and murder that follows, and the injustice with which it’s met, indicate its shift into a nightmare world of perversion and craziness that outKafkas Kafka.

As ever I’ve gone on for far too long, but it’s difficult to be brief in assessing this complex, extraordinary novel (despite its flaws). Near the end, as Yossarian’s disgust with military corruption and incompetence reaches its climax, and we hear the final version of the death of Snowden – a terrible unfolding that explains much of his desperate condition – he has an exchange with a sympathetic but deluded officer. He tries to explain why ‘ideals’ are no longer valid:

‘You must try not to think of them,’ Major Danby advised affirmatively. ‘And you must never let them change your values. Ideals are good, but people are sometimes not so good. You must try to look up at the big picture.’

Yossarian rejected the advice with a skeptical shake of his head. ‘When I look up, I see people cashing in. I don’t see heaven or saints or angels. I see people cashing in on every decent impulse and every human tragedy.’