I cannot document when and where exactly it has occurred, but two or three years ago I started to notice stations for depositing books to share with others around Paris. Below is the one in the train station Versailles Chantiers. The book shelf is at my apartment complex in Meudon. Now it is not uncommon to see a pile on the sidewalk.
Recently I found a bag of books in front of the house where the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva lived in the 1920s and possessed me to reconsider the house and its old occupant in my previous article. It seems to be a single family home now, but it must have housed several families during Tsvetaeva’s time. It is constructed of meuliére, a siliceous rock taken from quarries and deposits located in the Paris basin and used as a construction material from about 1880 to 1930. It gives a unique quality to homes in the area. Besides Marina and the house, I also took interest in the books.that included many books in English.
The typically perceptive LRC reader has surmised from the title of this article that one of the books I took from the bag in front of the house of Marina Tsvetaeva was Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (free online version). I had never read it and only vaguely recall the film (until I just watched it here).
The book is best known as a black comedy that “examines the absurdity of war and military life.” I will add my own judgment but first something about the writing style. The comedy is built upon what could be called an anti-SAT, reverse logic. That is, for any phrase, or list, like one might find on an SAT question, an absurd element follows instead of the logical one. Here are several examples.
“The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him.”
“Colonel Cargill, General Peckem’s troubleshooter, was a forceful, ruddy man. Before the war he had been an alert, hard hitting, aggressive marketing executive. He was a very bad marketing executive. Colonel Cargill was so awful a marketing executive that his services were much sought after by firms eager to establish losses for tax purposes. Throughout the civilized world, from Battery Park to Fulton Street, he was known as a dependable man for a fast tax write-off. His prices were high, for failure often did not come easily. He had to start at the top and work his way down, and with sympathetic friends in Washington, losing money was no simple matter. It took months of hard work and careful mis-planning. A person misplaced, disorganized, miscalculated, overlooked everything and opened every loophole, and just when he thought he had it made, the government gave him a lake or a forest or an oilfield and spoiled everything. Even with such handicaps, Colonel Cargill could be relied on to run the most prosperous enterprise into the ground. He was a self-made man who owed his lack of success to nobody.”
“Clevinger knew so much because Clevinger was a genius with a pounding heart and blanching face. He was a gangling, gawky, feverish, famish-eyed brain. As a Harvard undergraduate he had won prizes in scholarship for just about everything, and the only reason he had not won prizes in scholarship for everything else was that he was too busy signing petitions, circulating petitions and challenging petitions, joining discussion groups and resigning from discussion groups, attending youth congresses,picketing other youth congresses and organizing student committees in defense of dismissed faculty members. Everyone agreed that Clevinger was certain to go far in the academic world. In short, Clevinger was one of those people with lots of intelligence and no brains, and everyone knew it except those who soon found it out. In short, he was a dope. He often looked to Yossarian like one of those people hanging around modern museums with both eyes together on one side of a face. It was an illusion, of course, generated by Clevinger’s predilection for staring fixedly at one side of a question and never seeing the other side at all. Politically, he was a humanitarian who did know right from left and was trapped uncomfortably between the two. He was constantly defending his Communist friends to his right-wing enemies and his right-wing friends to his Communist enemies, and he was thoroughly detested by both groups, who never defended him to anyone because they thought he was a dope.”
“Major Major’s father was a sober God-fearing man whose idea of a good joke was to lie about his age. He was a long-limbed farmer, a God-fearing, freedom-loving, law-abiding rugged individualist who held that federal aid to anyone but farmers was creeping socialism. He advocated thrift and hard work and disapproved of loose women who turned him down. His specialty was alfalfa, and he made a good thing out of not growing any. The government paid him well for every bushel of alfalfa he did not grow. The more alfalfa he did not grow, the more money the government gave him, and he spent every penny he didn’t earn on new land to increase the amount of alfalfa he did not produce. Major Major’s father worked without rest at not growing alfalfa. On long winter evenings he remained indoors and did not mend harness, and he sprang out of bed at the crack of noon every day just to make certain that the chores would not be done. He invested in land wisely and soon was not growing more alfalfa than any other man in the county. Neighbors sought him out for advice on all subjects, for he had made much money and was therefore wise. ‘As ye sow, so shall ye reap,’ he counseled one and all, and everyone said, ‘Amen.’”
“They took Yossarian’s clothes away and put him in a ward, where he was very happy when no one was snoring nearby. In the morning a helpful young English intern popped in to ask him about his liver.
‘I think it’s my appendix that’s bothering me,’ Yossarian told him.
‘Your appendix is no good,’ the Englishman declared with jaunty authority. ‘If your appendix goes wrong, we can take it out and have you back on active duty in almost no time at all. But come to us with a liver complaint and you can fool us for weeks. The liver, you see, is a large, ugly mystery to us. If you’ve ever eaten liver you know what I mean. We’re pretty sure today that the liver exists and we have a fairly good idea of what it does whenever it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing. Beyond that, we’re really in the dark. After all, what is a liver? My father, for example, died of cancer of the liver and was never sick a day of his life right up till the moment it killed him. Never felt a twinge of pain. In a way, that was too bad, since I hated my father. Lust for my mother, you know.’”
In a later chapter titled The Eternal city the narrative drifts from black comedy to pure blackness.as the antihero Yossarian wanders the streets of Rome encountering one scene of horror after another like a montage from Hieronymus Bosch. Here is a snippet from the several dense pages of dense gloom.
“What a lousy earth! He wondered how many people were destitute that same night even in his own prosperous country, how many homes were shanties, how many husbands were drunk and wives socked, and how many children were bullied, abused or abandoned. How many families hungered for food they could not afford to buy? How many hearts were broken? How many suicides would take place that same night, how many people would go insane? How many cockroaches and landlords would triumph? How many winners were losers, successes failures, rich men poor men? How many wise guys were stupid? How many happy endings were unhappy endings? How many honest men were liars, brave men cowards, loyal men traitors, how many sainted men were corrupt, how many people in positions of trust had sold their souls to blackguards for petty cash, how many had never had souls? How many straight-and-narrow paths were crooked paths? How many best families were worst families and how many good people were bad people? When you added them all up and then subtracted, you might be left with only the children, and perhaps with Albert Einstein and an old violinist or sculptor somewhere. Yossarian walked in lonely torture, feeling estranged, and could not wipe from his mind the excruciating image of the barefoot boy with sickly cheeks until he turned the corner into the avenue finally and came upon an Allied soldier having convulsions on the ground, a young lieutenant with a small, pale, boyish face.”
Another obvious aspect of Catch-22 that does not take a feminist ideologue to think true, is that it is Incredibly sexist, even misogynist. Women are only considered as sex objects. Maybe Heller’s own experience in Europe during WWII influenced what might have been typical behaviour (e.g., see Rape during the liberation of France – Wikipedia).
The term Catch-22 was totally invented by Heller. Originally he chose 18, but Leon Uris was about to publish Mila-18. It was an editor who had the inspiration for “22.” The online definition of Catch-22 is “a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem or by a rule.” In other words, it is not so much the war that is the problem, though most of Yossarian’s friends die.The ultimate problem is that the military is ruled by a bureaucratic dystopia. Every aspect of the life and death of the airmen (Yossarian is a bombardier) is dominated by the self-interested officers and opaque, officiuse sargeants who are even more tyrannical than the officers. An example, Milo Minderbinder is the sociopathic young and brilliant war profiteer who turns control of the mess hall into an enterprise that deals with all comers, including the German enemy. He is played in the film by a young Jon Voight that reminds me of Mark Zuckerberg.
So what is Catch-2022? The tyrannical, ridiculous bureaucracy has spread from the military to every aspect of everyone’s life on the planet. Today, instead of saying Catch-22 or even Catch-2022, to tell us about a tyrannical, ridiculous rule the Colonel Cathcarts like Justin Trudeau just say “Covid-19.” In one horrific scene the chaplain disappeared and put on “trial” without any charge. The Catch-2022 is the indictment, trial, conviction, and penalty in milliseconds through artificial intelligence. Needless to say, it is not a good thing to be caught by a Catch-22 or a Catch-2022.
The next book from the bag is….