Study Guide

Catch-22 Absurdity

By Joseph Heller

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After he made up his mind to spend the rest of the war in the hospital, Yossarian wrote letters to everyone he knew saying that he was in the hospital but never mentioning why. One day he had a better idea. To everyone he knew he wrote that he was going on a very dangerous mission. "They asked for volunteers. It's very dangerous, but someone has to do it. I'll write you the instant I get back." And he had not written anyone since. (1.10)

Yossarian is mad because he deliberately cuts himself off from all outside contact in the hospital by lying to his friends and family and letting them all think he is dead.

[On the soldier in white]: 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 stuff could drip back into him. (1.19)

The jar holding the contents of the soldier in white's groin is presumably waste, and the fact that the two jars are switched means that waste drips out of him only to go back in. This is an unhealthy and illogical procedure. No wonder the poor man dies.

"You killed him because he was a n*****," Dunbar said.

"You fellas are crazy," the Texan cried. "They don't allow n*****s in here. They got a special place for n*****s." (1.31-32)

The Texan is so blinded by his bigotry that he completely misses the point. Instead of defending himself rationally, saying that he did not kill the soldier in white, the Texan instead goes off on a tangent, spurred on by his prejudice against African-Americans.

The chaplain…had placed himself a bit to one side, and the captain's bars on the tab of his shift collar were all the insignia Yossarian could see. Yossarian had no idea who he was and just took it for granted that he was either another doctor or another madman. (1.38)

Yossarian believes everyone at the ward falls into two categories – doctor or madman. There is no other category. Because the doctors are stupid and incompetent, this leaves absolutely no room in which human reason and wisdom can exist. Men are either stupid or mad, according to Yossarian.

"Be careful in the other wards, Father," Yossarian warned. "That's where they keep the mental cases. They're filled with lunatics…

"I'm dead serious about those other wards," Yossarian continued grimly. M.P.s won't protect you, because they're the craziest of all. I'd go with you myself, but I'm scared stiff. Insanity is contagious. This is the only sane ward in the whole hospital. This is probably the only sane ward in the whole world, for that matter." (1.89)

Yossarian claims madness is like a disease – infectious to all in its proximity. We know that this claim is an exaggeration because one does not catch madness just from knowing a mad person.

"Can I do anything at all to help you?" the chaplain asked.

Yossarian shook his head, still grinning. "No, I'm sorry. I have everything I need and I'm quite comfortable. In fact, I'm not even sick." "That's good." (1.75-77)

The chaplain misses the irony. If Yossarian is not sick, he shouldn't be in the hospital. If he's well, he should be out on active duty.

The colonel dwelt in a vortex of specialists who were still specializing in trying to determine what was troubling him. They hurled lights in his eyes to see if he could see, rammed needles into nerves to hear if he could feel. There was a urologist for his urine, a lymphologist for his lymph, an endocrinologist for his endocrines, a psychologist for his psyche, a dermatologist for his derma; there was a pathologist for his pathos, and cystologist for his cysts […]

The colonel had really been investigated. There was not an organ of his body that had not been drugged and derogated, dusted and dredged, fingered and photographed, removed, plundered, and replaced. (1.100-101)

Some of the things listed in the first paragraph are not really what these types of doctors investigate. A pathologist deals with disorders and disease, not pathos. Also, it is funny that all these specialists can't determine what's wrong with the colonel. It shows how ineffective they are.

[…] outside the hospital the war was still going on. Men went mad and were rewarded with medals. All over the world, boys on every side of the bomb line were laying down their lives for what they had been told was their country and no one seemed to mind, least of all the boys who were laying down their young lives. (2.1)

This is absurd because it makes no sense that men would be rewarded for their madness or that boys would lay down their lives so casually.

"They're trying to kill me," Yossarian told him calmly.

"No one's trying to kill you," Clevinger cried.

"Then why are they shooting at me?" Yossarian asked.

"They're shooting at everyone," Clevinger answered. "They're trying to kill everyone."

"And what difference does that make?" (2.5-10)

Yossarian's logic goes against our normal conceptions of enemies and war. He accurately notices that they all are trying to kill him. However, he fails to recognize that they are all technically his enemies, or the enemy of the group of American soldiers, of which he is a member. However, taken out of the context of war, Yossarian's logic would be perfectly rational. This, then, points to the absurdity and horror of war itself.

"Why did you walk around with crab apples in your cheeks? Yossarian asked again. "That's what I asked."

"Because they've got a better shape than horse chestnuts," Orr answered. "I just told you that."

"Why," swore Yossarian at him approvingly, "you evil-eyed, mechanically-aptituded, disaffiliated son of a b****, did you walk around with anything in your cheeks?"

"I didn't," Orr said, "walk around with anything in my cheeks. I walked around with crab apples in my cheeks. When I couldn't get crab apples, I walked around with horse chestnuts. In my cheeks." (3.10-13)

Orr deliberately baits Yossarian with his circular answers. In the end, his questions never get answered satisfactorily, which brings up the question of why this really random topic was brought up in the first place.

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. To General Dreedle…it seemed like a lot of crap. Furthermore, it was none of General Peckem's goddamn business how the tents in General Dreedle's wing were pitched. There then followed a hectic jurisdictional dispute between these overlords that was decided in General Dreedle's favor by ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen, mail clerk at Twenty-seventh Air Force Headquarters. Wintergreen determined the outcome by throwing all communications from General Peckem into the wastebasket. He found them too prolix. General Dreedle's views, expressed in less pretentious literary style, pleased ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen and were sped along by him in zealous observance of regulations. (3.42)

Not only is the cause of the argument absurd, but also the way in which the winner is decided has nothing whatsoever to do with the content of the argument.

Havermeyer was the best damned bombardier they had, but he flew straight and level all the way from the I.P to the target, and even far beyond the target until he saw the falling bombs strike ground and explode in a darting spurt of abrupt orange that flashed beneath the swirling pall of smoke and pulverized debris geysering up wildly in huge, rolling waves of gray and black. Havermeyer held mortal men rigid in six planes as steady and still as sitting ducks while he followed the bombs all the way down through the Plexiglas nose with deep interest and gave the German gunners below all the time they needed to set their sights and take their aim and pull their triggers or lanyards or switches or whatever the hell they did pull when they wanted to kill people they didn't know. (3.57)

In any other book, Havermeyer might be considered brave and courageous since he makes sure that he hits his target every time and never breaks formation until he is sure of his success. But in Catch-22, he is considered off-kilter for being callous about his men's lives. Men die for Havermeyer's exaggerated bravery.

All men reporting on sick call with temperatures above 102 were rushed to the hospital. All men reporting on sick call with temperatures below 102 had their gums and toes painted with gentian violet solution and were given a laxative to throw away into the bushes. All those reporting on sick call with temperatures of exactly 102 were asked to return in an hour to have their temperatures taken again. (4.5)

Gus and Wes's system has little to do with actual medicine. What they are doing is based on a random number – 102 – and their solution for those below 102 has nothing to do with helping the men get better. They do not even consider other symptoms besides body temperature. Their bizarre strategy and methods make the service ineffective.

He (Clevinger) was a militant idealist who crusaded against racial bigotry by growing faint in its presence. (8.3)

This is a way of saying that Clevinger is a coward when it comes to combating racial bigotry. The crux here is the word "crusaded," which implies a certain degree of bravery and martyrdom in pursuing one's cause.

"Justice?" The Colonel was astounded. "What is justice?"

"Justice, sir –"

"That's not what justice is," the colonel jeered, and began pounding the table again with his big fat hand. "That's what Karl Marx is. I'll tell you what justice is. Justice is a knee in the gut from the floor on the chin at night sneaky with a knife brought up down on the magazine of a battleship sandbagged underhanded in the dark without a word of warning. Garroting. That's what justice is when we've all got to be tough…(8.187-189)

The colonel gives a definition of justice that makes no sense and is full of violent images. The administration obviously doesn't care for any sort of equity of justice in dealing with its men. The fact that the colonel was "astounded" and questioned the meaning of justice indicates that it is not discussed very often in the administration.

Captain Piltchard and Captain Wren, the inoffensive joint squadron operations officers, were both mild, soft-spoken men of less than middle height who enjoyed flying combat missions and begged nothing more of life and Colonel Cathcart than the opportunity to continue flying them. They had flown hundreds of combat missions and wanted to fly hundreds more. They assigned themselves to every one. Nothing so wonderful as war had ever happened to them before; and they were afraid it might never happen to them again. (15.1)

As implied in Heller's logic before, one must be crazy to enjoy war and constantly risk one's life. These soldiers love what every man fears – combat missions. This passage is funny, also, because of the disparity between the men's docile appearances and their bloodlust for war.

Aarfy was like an eerie ogre in a dream, incapable of being bruised or evaded, and Yossarian dreaded him for a complex of reasons he was too petrified to untangle. Wind whistling up through the jagged gash in the floor kept the myriad bits of paper circulating like alabaster particles in a paperweight and contributed to a sensation of lacquered waterlogged unreality. Everything seemed strange, so tawdry and grotesque. His head was throbbing from a shrill clamor that drilled relentlessly into both ears. It was McWatt, begging for directions in an incoherent frenzy. Yossarian continued staring in tormented fascination at Aarfy's spherical countenance beaming at him so serenely and vacantly through the drifting whorls of white paper bits and concluded that he was a raving lunatic just as eight bursts of flak broke open successively at eye level…(15.39)

Aarfy's bizarre fearlessness and the strange sight of paper particles "snowing" down in the plane create a surreal, dreamlike state where time slows. Yossarian briefly loses his ability to understand anything; he cannot "untangle" why Aarfy scares him; McWatt's pleading for instructions is only an "incoherent frenzy". Fear creates this absurd mindset in Yossarian's head.

[Yossarian:] "I'm asking you to save my life."

"It's not my business to save lives," Doc Daneeka retorted sullenly.

"What is your business?"

"I don't know what my business is. All they ever told me was to uphold the ethics of my profession and never give testimony against another physician." (17.86-89)

It is absurd that Doc Daneeka does not know what his business is, especially since he denies that his job – as a doctor – is to save lives. This is another instance of incompetence and/or carelessness.

For a few precarious seconds, the chaplain tingled with a weird, occult sensation of having experienced the identical situation before in some prior time or existence. He endeavored to trap and nourish the impression in order to predict, and perhaps even control, what incident would occur next, but the afflatus melted away unproductively, as he had known beforehand it would. Déjà vu. The subtle recurring confusion between illusion and reality that was characteristic of paramnesia fascinated the chaplain, and he knew a number of things about it. He knew, for example, that it was called paramnesia and he was interested as well in such corollary optical phenomena as jamais vu, never seen, and presque vu, almost seen. There were terrifying, sudden moments when objects, concepts and even people that the chaplain had lived with almost all his life inexplicably took on an unfamiliar and irregular aspect that he had never seen before and which made them seem totally strange: jamais vu. And there were other moments when he almost saw absolute truth in brilliant flashes of clarity that almost came to him: presque vu. The episode of the naked man in the tree at Snowden's funeral mystified him thoroughly. It was not déjà vu, for at the time he had experienced no sensation of ever having seen a naked man in a tree at Snowden's funeral before. It was not jamais vu, since the apparition was not of someone, or something, familiar appearing to him in an unfamiliar guise. And it was certainly not presque vu, for the chaplain did see him…

Had the naked man in the tree at Snowden's funeral been merely a hallucination? Or had it been a true revelation? (20.52-53)

The chaplain has a surreal experience – that of seeing a naked man in a tree at Snowden's funeral. What's funny is that he tries to explain it using scientific terms.

Milo was not only the Vice-Shah or Oran, as it turned out, but also the Caliph of Baghdad, the Imam of Damascus, and the Sheik of Araby. Milo was the corn god, the rain god and the rice god in backward regions where such crude gods were still worshipped by ignorant and superstitious people, and deep inside the jungles of Africa, he intimated with becoming modesty, large graven images of his mustached face could be found overlooking primitive stone altars red with human blood. Everywhere they touched he was acclaimed with honor, and it was one triumphal ovation after another for him in city after city…(22.129)

It is absurd for one man to be celebrated in so many different countries of the world simply because he brings money to the nation. As a symbol, Milo represents American capitalism. Although this economic system is widespread across the globe, it is not worshipped unquestionably by every nation. The depiction of Milo as a celebrity in every country is thus a gross exaggeration.

"You see? Imagine a man his age risking what little life he has left for something so absurd as a country!" he declared.

Nately was instantly up in arms again. "There is nothing so absurd about risking your life for your country!" he declared.

"Isn't there?" asked the old man. "What is a country? A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can't all be worth dying for." (23.54-56)

The old man makes patriotism seem absurd by reducing the definition of a country to a purely geographical essence. And he further ridicules the concept of nationhood by pointing out how arbitrary countries' borders are. Thus, he makes it seem like soldiers from each country fight only for a random piece of land. This renders the concept of war absurd.

He remembered very distinctly – or was under the impression he remembered very distinctly – his feeling that he had met Yossarian somewhere before the first time he had met Yossarian lying in bed in the hospital. He remembered experiencing the same disquieting sensation almost two weeks later when Yossarian appeared at his tent to ask to be taken off combat duty. By that time, of course, the chaplain had met Yossarian somewhere before, in that odd, unorthodox ward in which every patient seemed delinquent but the unfortunate patient covered from head to toe in white bandages and plaster who was found dead one day with a thermometer in his mouth. But the chaplain's impression of a prior meeting was of some occasion far more momentous and occult than that, of a significant encounter with Yossarian in some remote, submerged, and perhaps even entirely spiritual epoch in which he had made the identical, foredooming admission that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, he could do to help him. (25.4)

The chaplain has an episode of déjà vu when he meets Yossarian in the hospital ward for the first time. He doesn't know it, but he has seen Yossarian naked before in a tree at Snowden's funeral. So the chaplain's feeling of surrealism is based on fact. Also, towards the end of the passage, the chaplain's identity starts to merge with that of Major Major, who refused Yossarian help in being taken off duty.

There was no mistaking the awesome implications of the chaplain's revelation: it was either an insight of divine origin or a hallucination; he was either blessed or losing his mind. Both prospects fill him with equal fear and depression. (25.6)

The chaplain interprets his "vision" of a naked man in a tree during Snowden's funeral as either heavenly and supernatural, or the product of a delusional mind. He narrows the possibilities down to just those two, which creates only two possible worlds – the divine and the mad.

[Major Sanderson:] "You have a morbid aversion to dying. You probably resent the fact that you're at war and might get your head blown off any second."

"I more than resent it, sir. I'm absolutely incensed."

"You have deep-seated survival anxieties. And you don't like bigots, bullies, snobs or hypocrites. Subconsciously there are many people you hate."

"Consciously, sir, consciously," Yossarian corrected in an effort to help. "I hate them consciously."

"You're antagonistic to the idea of being robbed, exploited, degraded, humiliated or deceived. Misery depresses you. Ignorance depresses you. Persecution depresses you. Violence depresses you. Slums depress you. Greed depresses you. Crime depresses you. Corruption depresses you. You know, it wouldn't surprise me if you're a manic-depressive!"…

"Then you admit you're crazy, do you?" (27.144-152)

The psychiatrist's logic is flawed. He names things commonly accepted as negative in society like death, bullies, misery, violence, and corruption, and sees Yossarian as mad for not accepting them.

Yossarian answered in a collapsing voice, weary suddenly of shouting so much, of the whole frustrating, exasperating, ridiculous situation. He was dying and no one took notice. (26.31)

This is an absurd situation because no one, not even his friend Aarfy, acknowledges that Yossarian is dying, much less shows concern. Death is a momentous occasion in the lives of most people and the fact that it is being ignored here is strange, to say the least.

[Nately:] "Prostitution is bad! Everybody knows that, even him." He turned with confidence to experienced old man. "Am I right?"

"You're wrong," answered the old man. "Prostitution gives her an opportunity to meet people. It provides fresh air and wholesome exercise, and it keeps her out of trouble." (33.108-109)

The old man's logic is flawed by traditional moral standards. Americans would argue indignantly that there are better ways to meet people than prostitution, not to mention the legal and health dangers of such activities. Only in the madness of Catch-22 does this old man make sense.

The chaplain had mastered, in a moment of divine intuition, the handy technique of protective rationalization, and he was exhilarated by his discovery. It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character. (34.16)

This is absurd because one cannot imagine vice turning into virtue or any other of these 180-degree transformations. This, we realize, is the beauty of Catch-22: the ability to make the bad sound good and vice versa.

[…] with an air of disillusioned disgust, he tossed down on the table the pad on which the chaplain had signed his name. "This isn't your handwriting." The chaplain blinked rapidly with amazement. "But of course it's my handwriting."

"No it isn't, Chaplain, You're lying again."

"But I just wrote it!" the chaplain cried in exasperation. "You just saw me write it." (36.44-47)

This is absurd because the chaplain just wrote on the paper. It is his handwriting, but the officials refuse to recognize it.

[An old woman:] "Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing." (39.21)

The old woman says something that should be common sense, but is made absurd by repeating the obvious.

At the next corner a man was beating a small boy brutally in the midst of an immobile crowd of adult spectators who made no effort to intervene. Yossarian recoiled with sickening recognition. He was certain he had witnessed that same horrible scene sometime before. Déjà vu? The sinister coincidence shook him and filled him with doubt and dread. It was the same scene he had witnessed a block before, although everything in it seemed quite different. (39.81)

Yossarian experiences déjà vu, a sort of dream-like atmosphere. Then he realizes why: he has seen a tragically similar scene just a street earlier.

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