Study Guide

Catch-22 Passivity

By Joseph Heller

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He coughed quietly, gingerly, and dabbed the pads slowly at his lips with a distaste that had become automatic. (1.99)

This colonel has been in the ward so long that all his actions, even those related to his health condition, have become automatic and are done without feeling.

But there was no enthusiasm in Yossarian's group. In Yossarian's group there was only a mounting number of enlisted men and officers who found their way solemnly to Sergeant Towser several times a day to ask if the orders sending them home had come in. They were men who had finished their fifty missions. There were more of them now than when Yossarian had gone into the hospital, and they were still waiting. They worried and bit their nails. They were grotesque, like useless young men in a depression. They moved sideways, like crabs […].

They were in a race and knew it, because they knew from bitter experience that Colonel Cathcart might raise the number of missions again at any time. They had nothing better to do than wait. (3.44-45)

Fear of losing their lives and anxiety over not going home have made the men apathetic. They can do nothing but wait and grow cynical. In fact, the long wait has affected some men so much that they begin to lose their humanity. Hence the description of moving "like crabs."

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. (3.58)

Yossarian has risked his life so many times for seemingly pointless missions that he no longer cares whether or not he succeeds. All he cares about is surviving. This reveals his apathy towards the outcome of the war.

"Maybe a long life does have to be filled with many unpleasant conditions if it's to seem long. But in that event, who wants one?"

"I do," Dunbar told him.

"Why?" Clevinger asked.

"What else is there?" (4.104-106)

The combat men have become so accustomed to the mad logic of war that they have become hardened . Dunbar no longer cares about suffering; he just wants to live a long life. He feels as if there is nothing else to live for – showing a depressing degree of apathy and cynicism about human life.

[…] Dunbar, who had resigned himself submissively to the idea that he must die someday. (5.92)

Dunbar no longer cares for his life. He has seen so much peril that he has resigned himself to it and no longer lives in fear. Curiously, this apathy gives him a sort of freedom and courage that Yossarian does not have.

The nightmares appeared to Hungry Joe with celestial punctuality every single night he spent in the squadron throughout the whole harrowing ordeal when he was not flying combat missions and was waiting once again for the orders sending him home that never came […].

Every time Colonel Cathcart increased the number of missions and returned Hungry Joe to combat duty, the nightmares stopped and Hungry Joe settled down into a normal state of terror with a smile of relief. Yossarian read Hungry Joe's shrunken face like a headline. It was good when Hungry Joe looked bad and terrible when Hungry Joe looked good. Hungry Joe's inverted set of responses was a curious phenomenon to everyone […]. (6.12-13)

Hungry Joe has become so used to flying dangerous missions that he finds more comfort in flying than waiting for his instructions to go home. He has become apathetic to the peril of flying and the inevitability of being discharged.

[Dr. Stubbs]: "I used to get a big kick out of saving people's lives. Now I wonder what the hell's the point, since they all have to die anyways." (10.47)

Dr. Stubbs shows apathy for his career. What used to be rewarding has now become futile.

"Sir," said the chaplain, "some of the men are very upset since you raised the number of missions to sixty. They've asked me to speak to you about it."

The colonel was silent. The chaplain's face reddened to the roots of his sandy hair as he waited. The colonel kept him squirming a long time with a fixed, uninterested look devoid of emotion.

"Tell them there's a war going on," he advised finally in a flat voice. (19.72-74)

The Colonel is numb to the emotions of his men; he has no compassion for them and no concept of humanity. This reveals the distance between the enlisted men and their administration.

Nately felt himself at an embarrassing loss. His own girl sat sprawled out gracelessly on an overstuffed sofa with an expression of otiose boredom. Nately was unnerved by her torpid indifference to him, by the same sleepy and inert pose that he remembered so vividly, so sweetly, and so miserably from the first rime she had seen him […]. Her lax mouth hung open in a perfect O, and God alone knew at what her glazed and smoky eyes were staring in such brute apathy. (23.25)

Nately's prostitute is bored, even though her lover is there and wants her badly. She does not care for him or his desires. Her indifference to Nately embarrasses him.

Yossarian was unmoved by the fustian charade of the burial ceremony and by Milo's crushing bereavement. (24.114)

Yossarian has been so battered by fear in endless battle that he finds himself unable to sympathize with Milo's disappointing cotton crop or the pretentious funeral held for his friend Snowden.

Gus and Wes listened to Sergeant Towser with looks of stoic surprise and said not a word about their bereavement to anyone else until Doc Daneeka himself came in about an hour afterward to have his temperature taken for the third time that day and his blood pressure checked […]. The fixed, vacant, wooden stares of his two enlisted men were even more irritating than always. (31.3)

Gus and Wes show no reaction to news of Doc Daneeka's death, nor surprise at the fact that he comes to see them alive.. They are apathetic towards him and aren't interested in the conflicting news.

He [Yossarian] could not make them (the new roomies) understand that he was a crotchety old fogey of twenty-eight, that he belonged to another generation, another era, another world, that having a good time bored him and was not worth the effort, and that they bored him, too. (32.11)

Yossarian is indifferent towards having fun. He finds it boring or not worth the effort. War has rendered everything decidedly not fun and put Yossarian in a permanent state of paranoia and exhaustion.

She didn't care about them a bit, and it upset them terribly. They shook her roughly each time she yawned. She did not seem to care about anything, not even when they threatened to throw her out the window. They were utterly demoralized men of distinction. She was bored and indifferent and wanted very much to sleep. (33.23)

The apathy of Nately's prostitute affects the German officers badly. They obtain no joy from her because she doesn't care what they do to her. So they are happy to get rid of her when the Americans arrive.

One of the three sitting men cursed pugnaciously and hurled a wine bottle down at Yossarian when he turned to look up. The bottle shattered harmlessly far away with a brief and muted noise. Yossarian continued walking away at the same listless, unhurried pace, hands buried in his pockets. (39.81)

Yossarian is so dazed and jaded by the many tragedies around him in Rome that he does not even stop to help the woman getting raped.

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