Study Guide

Catch-22 Language and Communication

By Joseph Heller

Language and Communication

It was a monotonous job, and Yossarian was disappointed to learn that the lives of enlisted men were only slightly more interesting than the lives of officers. After the first day he had no curiosity at all. To break the monotony he invented games. Death to all modifiers, he declared one day, and out of every letter that passed through his hands went every adverb and every adjective. The next day he made war on articles. He reached a much higher plane of creativity the following day when he blacked out everything in the letters but a, an and the. That erected more dynamic intralinear tensions, he felt, and in just about every case left a message far more universal. Soon he was proscribing parts of salutations and signatures and leaving the text untouched. (1.11)

Yossarian arbitrarily screws up the meaning of the letters with his censoring. He has no respect for the integrity of words.

"Oh, they're there, all right," Orr had assured him about the flies in Appleby's eyes after Yossarian's fist fight with Appleby in the officers' club, "although he probably doesn't even know it. That's why he can't see things as they really are." (5.68)

Appleby's idealism is caused by his blindness – those rotten insects in his eyes – from Orr's perspective. Because they're in his eyes, he cannot see them or get rid of them.

They were like Milo's disunited eyes, which never looked at the same thing at the same time. Milo could see more things than most people, but he could see none of them too distinctly. (7.67)

Milo's vision is wide but blurry. This applies to his understanding of the world, which he can see only through the perspective of the syndicate. He is blind to the fact that the Germans are America's enemy. To him, the Germans are just another shareholder in the syndicate.

[Yossarian:] "Open your eyes, Clevinger. It doesn't make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who's dead." (12.60)

Clevinger cannot see the big picture. He cares only for ideals, such as American victory. Yossarian reminds him that nothing will matter if he's dead.

"Vite! Vite!" he [Yossarian] scolded her. "Get your things on!"

"What the hell are you talking about?" she [Luciana] wanted to know.

"Fast! Fast! Can't you understand English? Get your clothes on fast!

"Stupido!" she snarled back at him. "Vite is French, not Italian. Subito, subito! That's what you mean. Subito!" (16.94-97)

Their communication fails for an instant because Yossarian mixes up languages. He thinks French is Italian, but calls it English.

[Doc Daneeka:] "I promise."

[Yossarian:] "What do you promise?"

"I promise that maybe I'll think about doing something to help if you finish your fifty-five missions and if you get McWatt to put my name on his flight log again so that I can draw my flight pay without going up in a plane." (17.97-99)

The integrity of language is so weak in Catch-22 that Doc Daneeka's promise means nothing. Usually a promise is the strongest form of language; it is a contract that is binding merely by its pronouncement. However, Doc Daneeka's promise here is full of conditionals like "maybe," "I'll think about it," "something," and "if." This weakens the promise to the point that it is hardly worth making the promise in the first place.

Thanksgiving Day came and went without any fuss while Yossarian was still in the hospital […]. It was the most rational Thanksgiving he had ever spent, and he took a sacred oath to spend every future Thanksgiving Day in the cloistered shelter of a hospital. He broke his sacred oath the very next year […]. (18.24)

Again, promises – words of obligation – mean nothing. Yossarian breaks his without a thought.

[…] he sat right back down behind his desk and made a cryptic notation on his memorandum pad to look into the whole suspicious business of the Yossarians right away. He wrote his reminder to himself in a heavy and decisive hand, amplifying it sharply with a series of coded punctuation marks and underlining the whole message twice, so that it read:

Yossarian!!!(?)!

The colonel sat back when he had finished and was extremely pleased with himself for the prompt action he had just taken to meet this sinister crisis. (21.4-6)

The Colonel's writing is ineffective. It does nothing to help his problematic situation with Yossarian. The fact that the Colonel takes his message to be effective is a sign of his own stupidity.

Yossarian – the very sight of the name made him shudder. There were so many esses in it. It just had to be subversive. It was like the word subversive itself. It was like seditious and insidious too, and like socialist, suspicious, fascist and Communist. (21.6)

Language, again, proves to be unfaithful here. Just because Cathcart plays sound association, he thinks that the English language is providing him with truth. In reality, none of it is true.

"Why isn't he wearing clothes?" General Dreedle demanded […].

"Why isn't he wearing clothes?" Colonel Korn demanded of Captain Piltchard and Captain Wren.

"A man was killed in his plane over Avignon last week and bled all over him," Captain Wren replied. "He swears he's never going to wear a uniform again."

"A man was killed in his plane over Avignon last week and bled all over him," Captain Korn reported directly to General Dreedle. "His uniform hasn't come back from the laundry yet." (21.47-52)

Colonel Korn changes the words of Captains Piltchard and Wren when explaining why Yossarian isn't wearing any clothes. He does this to lessen the absurdity of Yossarian's situation and to save face in front of his idol. He wants to gain favor with Dreedle so he can advance professionally.

"Oooooooooooooooooooooh," Yossarian moaned a fourth time, this time loudly enough for everyone to hear him distinctly.

"Are you crazy?" Nately hissed vehemently. "You'll get into trouble."

"Oooooooooooooooooooooh," Dunbar answered Yossarian from the opposite end of the room.

Nately recognized Dunbar's voice. The situation was not out of control, and he turned away with a small moan. "Ooh."

"Oooooooooooooooooooooh," Dunbar moaned back at him again.

"Oooooooooooooooooooooh," Nately moaned out loud in exasperation when he realized that he had just moaned.

"Oooooooooooooooooooooh," Dunbar moaned back at him again.

"Oooooooooooooooooooooh," someone entirely new chimed in from another section of the room, and Nately's hair stood on end.

Yossarian and Dunbar both replied while Nately cringed and hunted about futilely for some hole in which to hide and take Yossarian with him. A sprinkling of people were smothering laughter. An elfin impulse possessed Nately and he moaned intentionally the next time there was a lull. Another new voice answered. The flavor of disobedience was titillating, and Nately moaned deliberately again, the next time he could squeeze one in edgewise. Still another new voice echoed him. The room was boiling irrepressibly into bedlam. (21.77-85)

Yossarian's moan – which starts off as an expression of lust for General Dreedle's nurse – is not directly understood by anybody. However, it quickly becomes an instrument for a new form of communication. Using Yossarian's wordless moan, the men communicate their desire to disobey orders to each other. Even though the original meaning of the moan is lost, it takes on a new meaning that is understood by everyone.

"But Milo," Major Danby interrupted timidly, "we're at war with Germany and those are German planes."

"They are no such thing!" Milo retorted furiously. "Those planes belong to the syndicate, and everybody has a share. (24.40-41)

Milo's obsession with the syndicate has blinded him to the fact that the Germans are America's enemy and that doing with business with them is against the wartime spirit. He fails to see them as enemies; he can only see them as shareholders in his syndicate.

It was an ideal arrangement for everyone but the dead man in Yossarian's tent, who was killed over the target the day he arrived.

"I didn't kill him!" Milo kept replying passionately to Yossarian's angry protest. "I wasn't even there that day, I tell you. Do you think I was down there on the ground firing an antiaircraft gun when the planes came over?

"But you organized the whole thing, didn't you?" Yossarian shouted back at him in the velvet darkness cloaking the path leading past the still vehicles of the motor pool to the open-air movie theater.

"And I didn't organize anything," Milo answered indignantly, drawing great agitated sniffs of air in through his hissing, pale, twitching nose. "The Germans have the bridge, and we were going to bomb it, whether I stepped into the picture or not. I just saw a wonderful opportunity to make some profit out of the mission, and I took it. What's so terrible about that?"

"What so terrible about it? Milo, a man in my tent was killed on that mission before he could even unpack his bags."

"But I didn't kill him."

"You got a thousand dollars extra for it."

"But I didn't kill him. I wasn't even there, I tell you. I was in Barcelona buying olive oil and skinless and boneless sardines, and I've got the purchase orders to prove it. And I didn't get the thousand dollars. That thousand dollars went to the syndicate, and everybody got a share, even you." Milo was appealing to Yossarian from the bottom of his soul. "Look, I didn't start this war, Yossarian…I'm just trying to put it on a businesslike basis. Is anything wrong with that? You know, a thousand dollars ain't such a bad price for a medium bomber and a crew. If I can persuade the Germans to pay me a thousand dollars for every plane they shoot down, why shouldn't I take it?

"Because you're dealing with the enemy, that's why. Can't you understand that we're fighting a war? People are dying. Look around you, for Christ's sake!"

Milo shook his head with weary forbearance. "And the Germans are not our enemies," he declared. "Oh, I know what you're going to say. Sure we're at war with them. But the Germans are also members in good standing of the syndicate, and it's my job to protect their rights as shareholders….Don't you understand that I have to respect the sanctity of my contract with Germany?"

"No," Yossarian rebuffed him harshly. (24.45-55)

Milo is blind to the fact that he has a share of blame in Mudd's death. Because he can only see the world in terms of the syndicate, Milo doesn't see himself as holding any responsibility in killing Mudd. The "velvet darkness" through which Yossarian and Milo argue makes Milo literally blind and makes both men unable to see or stomach the other's point of view.

"Where do you sleep?"

Swiftly the captain ducked down into a crouch and began backing away. "You too?" he cried frantically.

"Oh, no," cried the chaplain. "I swear to you."

You do want to cut my throat!" the captain hissed. (25.69-72)

Suffering from paranoia, Captain Flume mistakes the chaplain's honest question about his woodland lifestyle for a threat to his life.

[Nurse Cramer:] "Sue Ann, he said something absolutely horrible to me. Oh, I can't even make myself repeat it!"

"She called me a gear," Yossarian said. (26.61-62)

Both people overreact in the conversation. Nurse Cramer treats Yossarian's order to "screw" or get lost as something much worse than it really is. She doesn't understand his joking tone. Yossarian's intent was not to hurt her. Yossarian, on the other hand, misinterprets Cramer's sentence. She said he was "like a gear," not a gear itself. Language here is both misunderstood and misquoted.

General Peckem laid great, fastidious stress on small matters of taste and style. He was always augmenting things. Approaching events were never coming, but always upcoming. It was not true that he wrote memorandums praising himself and recommending that his authority be enhanced to include all combat operations; he wrote memoranda. And the prose in the memoranda of other officers was always turgid, stilted, or ambiguous. The errors of others were inevitably deplorable. Regulations were stringent, and his data never was obtained from a reliable source, but always were obtained. General Peckem was frequently constrained. Things were often incumbent upon him, and he frequently acted with greatest reluctance. It never escaped his memory that neither black nor white was a color, and he never used verbal when he meant oral. (29.6)

This passage shows how ineffective and pretentious jargon can be. Peckem comes across as pompous and erudite rather than efficient and professional.

[General Peckem:] "A bomb pattern is a term I dreamed up just several weeks ago. It means nothing, but you'd be surprised at how rapidly it's caught on. Why, I've got all sorts of people convinced I think it's important for the bombs to explode close together and make a neat aerial photograph." (29.54)

Even though Peckem's term, bomb pattern, means nothing, people still pick up on it and try to give it meaning. Ironically this meaningless term comes to spell trouble for the squadron.

Mrs. Daneeka, Doc Daneeka's wife, was not glad that doc Daneeka was gone and split the peaceful Staten Island night with woeful shrieks of lamentation when she learned by War Department telegram that her husband had been killed in action […]. Just as she was growing resigned to her loss, the postman rang with a bolt from the blue – a letter from overseas that was signed with her husband's signature and urged her frantically to disregard any bad news concerning him [...]. She dashed a grateful note off to her husband pressing him for details and sent a wire informing the War Department of its error. The War Department replied touchily that there had been no error and that she was undoubtedly the victim of some sadistic and psychotic forger in her husband's squadron. The letter to her husband was returned unopened, stamped KILLED IN ACTION. (30.17)

The letters are not a reliable source of information and they drive Mrs. Daneeka crazy trying to figure out whose words to trust. The last inscription, "KILLED IN ACTION" constitutes a direct lie.

"Say uncle," they said to her.

"Uncle," she said.

"No, no. Say uncle."

"Uncle," she said.

"She still doesn't understand."

"You still don't understand, do you? We can't really make you say uncle unless you don't want to say uncle. Don't you see? Don't say uncle when I tell you to say uncle. Okay? Say uncle."

"Uncle," she said.

"No, don't say uncle. Say uncle."

She didn't say uncle.

"That's good!" (33.4-13)

The German officers have a twisted understanding of the word uncle. This compromises the integrity of meaning of words, and reminds us that Catch-22 absurdity is prevalent among the Germans as well as the Americans and Italians.

He [Milo] proved as good as his word when a rawboned major from Minnesota curled his lip in rebellious disavowal and demanded his share of the syndicate Milo kept saying everybody owned. Milo met the challenge by writing the words "A Share" on the nearest scrap of paper and handing it away with a virtuous disdain that won the envy and admiration of almost everyone who knew him. (35.13)

The scrap of paper with the words "A Share" means nothing because the enlisted men are not benefiting from Milo's syndicate. That each person admires Milo for handling the situation reveals his or her misplaced belief in words.

"Please," he urged her inarticulately with his arm about her shoulders, recollecting with pained sadness how inarticulate and enfeebled he had felt in the plane coming back from Avignon when Snowden kept whimpering to him that he was cold, he was cold, and all Yossarian could offer him in return was "there, there. There, there." "Please," he repeated to her sympathetically. "Please, please." (39.21)

Yossarian's repeated "please" means nothing to Nately's prostitute and does little to comfort her.

Yossarian kept nodding in the co-pilot's seat and tried not to listen as Milo prattled on. (39.2)

Milo's words of condemnation fall on deaf ears. Yossarian pretends to agree with Milo's criticism by nodding, when, in fact, he is not listening.

"I'm cold," Snowden said again in a frail, childlike voice. "I'm cold."

"There, there," Yossarian said, because he did not know what else to say. "There, there." (41.8-9)

Yossarian's words do not comfort Snowden, and Yossarian is so overcome by emotion that he cannot articulate his true feelings. Yet his words reflect a genuine attempt to nurture. This could arguably be the one time in Catch-22 when words are effective and real.