Study Guide

Catch-22 Philosophical Viewpoints: Cynicism and Chance

By Joseph Heller

Philosophical Viewpoints: Cynicism and Chance

[…] a stove exploded in the mess hall and set fire to one side of the kitchen…In about fifteen minutes the crash trucks from the airfield arrived to fight the fire. For a frantic half-hour it was touch and go. Then the firemen began to get the upper hand. Suddenly there was the monotonous old drone of bombers returning from a mission, and the firemen had to roll up their hoses and speed back to the field in case one of the planes crashed and caught fire. The planes landed safely. As soon as the last one was down, the firemen wheeled their trucks around and raced back up the hill to resume their fight with the fire at the hospital. When they got there, the blaze was out. It had died of its own accord, expired completely without even an ember to be watered down, and there was nothing for the disappointed firemen to do but drink tepid coffee and hang around trying to screw the nurses. (1.37)

The firemen's efforts to put out the stove fire prove futile. They were attending to a secondary concern, and then the fire died out on its own. This episode throws the effectiveness of the firemen into doubt.

"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.

"Who was it?" asked General Peckem.

"I don't know," Colonel Cargill replied.

"What did he want?"

"I don't know."

"Well, what did he say?"

"'T.S. Eliot,'" Colonel Cargill informed him.

"What's that?"

"'T.S. Eliot'" Colonel Cargill repeated…

"I wonder what it means," General Peckem reflected…

General Peckem roused himself after a moment with an unctuous and benignant smile. His expression was shrewd and sophisticated. His eyes gleamed maliciously. "Have someone get me General Dreedle," he requested Colonel Cargill. "Don't let him know who's calling."

Colonel Cargill handed him the phone.

"T.S. Eliot," General Peckem said, and hung up. (4.39-58)

In this passage, an answer to a question is not recognized as such. In fact, because it is given anonymously and without context, the answer is interpreted as a puzzle. And later it is used to confuse. Words lose their purpose and becomes lost in the confusion.

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. (5.64)

Catch-22 does not allow anyone to get out of combat duty. This puts men in the worst position possible because they are soldiers and must follow these regulations.

"Catch-22?" Yossarian was stunned. "What the hell has Catch-22 got to do with it?"

"Catch-22," Doc Daneeka answered patiently, when Hungry Joe had flown Yossarian back to Pianosa, "says you've always got to do what our commanding officer tells you to."

"But Twenty-seventh Air Force says I can go home with forty missions."

"But they don't say you have to go home. And regulations do say you have to obey every order. That's the catch. Even if the colonel were disobeying a Twenty-seventh Air Force order by making you fly more missions, you'd still have to fly them, or you'd be guilty of disobeying an order of his. And then Twenty-seventh Air Force Headquarters would really jump on you." (6.48-51)

Again, the logic of Catch-22 makes it futile to try to get out of combat duty. Men are forced to suffer through no fault of their own.

"Tu sei pazzo," she (Luciana) told him with a pleasant laugh.

"Why am I crazy?" he asked.

"Perchè non posso sposare."

"Why can't you get married?"

"Because I am not a virgin," she answered.

"What has that got to do with it?

"Who will marry me? No one wants a girl who is not a virgin."

"I will, I will marry you."

"Ma non posso sposarti."

"Why can't you marry me?"

"Perchè tu sei pazzo."

"Why am I crazy?"

"Perchè vuoi sposarmi."

Yossarian wrinkled his forehead with quizzical amusement. "You won't marry me because I'm crazy, and you say I'm crazy because I want to marry you? Is that right?"

"Sì." (16.61-75)

Fate or Catch-22 here decrees that Yossarian cannot marry Luciana and still remain sane. The blame falls on Luciana for buying into such contradictory logic.

[A warrant officer:] "There just doesn't seem to be any logic to this system of rewards and punishment. Look what happened to me. If I had gotten syphilis or a dose of clap for my five minutes of passion on the beach instead of this damned mosquito bite, I could see some justice. But malaria? Malaria? Who can explain malaria as a consequence of fornication?"

[…]

"Just for once I'd like to see all these things sort of straightened out, with each person getting exactly what he deserves. It might give me some confidence in this universe." (17.45-47)

The warrant officer comments on the arbitrariness of the universe in dealing out reward and punishment for men's actions.

[Yossarian:] "I'll bet I can name two things to be miserable about for every one you can name to be thankful for…"

[Mrs. Scheisskopf:] "Be thankful you're healthy."

"Be bitter you're not going to stay that way."

"Be glad you're even alive."

"Be furious you're going to die."

"Things could be much worse," she cried.

"They could be one hell of a lot better," he answered heatedly. (18.30-38)

Yossarian's pessimistic outlook on the world is absolute. He staunchly refuses to see any positive possibility.

In a world in which success was the only virtue, he had resigned himself to failure. He was painfully aware that he lacked the ecclesiastical aplomb and savoir-faire that enabled so many of his colleagues in other faiths and sects to get ahead. He was just not equipped to excel. He thought of himself as ugly and wanted daily to be home with his wife. (25.2)

The chaplain considers himself a failure out of sheer unluckiness. He thinks he is out of place among the army men and attributes it to nothing less than his own ineptitude.

He [the chaplain] could feel the skillful hand of fate motivating him imperatively. Twice that day already, he realized now, Major Major had come racing toward him inside the ditch; and twice that day the chaplain had stupidly postponed the destined meeting by bolting into the forest. (25.30)

After looking for Major all morning and missing him twice, the chaplain considers himself destined to meet with Major Major and help Yossarian reduce the number of missions. But all comes to naught when the chaplain fails to see Major Major and, worse, thinks that the Major has no intention of helping Yossarian.

There were no miracles; prayers went unanswered, and misfortune tramped with equal brutality on the virtuous and the corrupt […] (25.129)

The chaplain almost loses his faith here after failing to meet Major Major and help Yossarian. Worse still, Whitcomb outdoes him. The tragedy is that the chaplain is a virtuous man subject to the same cruelty as everyone else, even those not as faithful or good-hearted as he.

In a way it was all Yossarian's fault, for if he had not moved the bomb line during the Big Siege of Bologna, Major -------- de Coverley might still be around to save him, and if he had not stocked the enlisted men's apartment with girls who had no other place to live, Nately might never have fallen in love with his whore as she sat naked from the waist down in the room full of grumpy blackjack players who ignored her. (26.1)

It is only by chance that Major -------- de Coverley goes to Bologna, thinking it safe, and only by chance that Nately falls in love at Yossarian's blackjack game.

"They had no right to lie to me!" Colonel Scheisskopf protested, his eyes wetting with indignation.

"Of course they had a right," General Peckem snapped with cold and calculated severity…"People have a right to do anything that's not forbidden by law, and there's no law against lying to you." (29.30-29.31)

This passage is cynical because it assumes that, given the chance, man will automatically act in the worst way possible. It assumes that people are naturally base and morally corrupt.

He [Yossarian] studied every floating object fearfully for some gruesome sign of Clevinger and Orr, prepared for any morbid shock but the shock McWatt gave him one day with the plane that came blasting suddenly into sight out of the distant stillness and hurtled mercilessly along the shore line with a great growling, clattering roar over the bobbing raft on which blond, pale Kid Sampson, his naked sides scrawny even from so far away, leaped clownishly up to touch it at the exact moment some arbitrary gust of wind or minor miscalculation of McWatt's senses dropped the speeding plane down just low enough for a propeller to slice him half away. (30.33)

It is sheer bad luck – an "arbitrary gust of wind or minor miscalculation" – that kills Kid Sampson, and not any direct fault of McWatt. Yet this event has dire consequences: McWatt's guilt and suicide, Doc Daneeka's fake death, and the mission increase to seventy.

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 cynical about the new generation, with their constant pranks and fun.

But Chief White Halfoat felt cold and was already making plans to move up into the hospital to die of pneumonia […] Captain Flume had moved back into his trailer. Here was an omen of unmistakable meaning. (32.13)

This is absurd because Halfoat takes Flume's return as an omen of his coming death. But there was an earlier allusion to Flume's promise to come back when Halfoat dies of pneumonia (which he prophesied). Apparently Halfoat has taken on that mentality, which is even more absurd because it was the chaplain who heard the prophecy, not Halfoat.

[…] Yossarian was moved by such intense pity for his poverty that he wanted to smash his pale, sad, sickly face with his fist and knock him out of existence because he brought to mind all the pale, sad, sickly children in Italy that same night who needed haircuts and needed shoes and socks. He made Yossarian think of cripples and of cold and hungry men and women, and of all the dumb, passive, devout mothers with catatonic eyes nursing infants outdoors that same night with chilled animal udders bared insensibly to that same raw rain. Cows. Almost on cue, a nursing mother padded past holding an infant in black rags, and Yossarian wanted to smash her too, because she reminded him of the barefoot boy in the thin shirt and thin, tattered trousers and of all the shivering, stupefying misery in a world that never yet had provided enough heat and food and justice for all but an ingenious and unscrupulous handful. What a lousy earth! (39.15)

All this misery is caused by Fate. There is nothing that Yossarian can do about it but rage against the injustice of it all and show pity for the few he can help.