Sunday, November 8, 2009

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

'Catch-22’ has passed into the language as a description of the impossible bind:

Yossarian looked at him soberly and tried another approach. ‘Is Orr crazy?’
‘He sure is,’ Doc Daneeka said.
‘Can you ground him?’
‘I sure can. But first he has to ask me to. That’s part of the rule.’ [...]
‘And then you can ground him?’ Yossarian asked.
‘No. Then I can’t ground him.’
‘You mean there’s a catch?’
‘Sure there’s a catch,’ Doe Daneeka replied. ‘Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.’

Orr is crazy, and can be grounded, but if he asks to be grounded he is sane - and he can only be grounded if he asks. Joseph Heller complained that the phrase ‘a Catch-22 situation’ was often used by people who did not seem to understand what it meant. Given the mental contortions of the catch, this is not surprising.

But it could have been Catch-18. This was Heller’s original title - and his title throughout all the long years of composition, from 1953 to 1961. However, just before the book was published Leon Uris produced his novel Mila 18. Heller’s publishers, Simon and Schuster, thought two books with ‘18’ in the title in one year was one book too many, and suggested a change. Heller was distraught (‘I thought 18 was the only number’ he said in an interview) and there began a long period of numerical agonizing in which numbers such as 11 and 14 were considered and rejected. Finally Robert Gottlieb at Simon and Schuster suggested 22, which Heller approved as a more significant number, reflecting the theme of doubling: Yossarian bombs Ferrara twice, Giuseppe sees everything twice, all Yossarian can say to the dying Snowden is ‘There, there’, and to comfort his mistress, ‘Please, please’ – and Major Major is actually Major Major Major Major. As Yossarian comments of the Catch, ‘There was an elliptical precision about its perfect pairs of parts that was graceful and shocking, like good modern art…’

Greenfeld, Josh: ’22 was Funnier than 14’, New York Times Review of Books, March 3 1968
Nagel, James, ed.: Critical Essays on Catch-22 (Dickenson, 1972)
Sorkin, Adam J, ed.: Conversations with Joseph Heller (University Press of Mississippi, 1993)
JP Stern, ‘War and the Comic Muse: The Good Soldier Schweik and Catch-22’, Comparative Literature, 20 (1968)

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