It irritates me slightly when people misuse the term 'catch-22', since the definition is somewhat more complex than a simple paradox. In fact the catch is as follows:
'Fear in the face of danger that is real and immediate is the product of a sane and rational mind'
This is only a paradox when combined with the fact that the Doc has to pronounce you mad before you can be sent home. It is therefore a 'catch' - a snag or flaw in the simple plan to escape the horror of war by saying you've gone mad. It is the simple beauty of the catch that fascinates Yossarin; it is inescapable yet subtle. Similar situations are: getting a job without a house or getting anything without experience.
20th June 2001:

I recently thought of a reasonable example of a catch-22 that follows the spirit of the origional. Consider checking out books from a library; to the librarian, this is bound to lead to damage - since the outside world is full of book-damaging situations. Therefore, the following rule is the only sensible solution:

Sensible library users are those who would not allow books to become damaged.
Combined with the rule that says borrowers can only be sensible users, this means that by asking to become a borrower you disqualify yourself. Actually, the job/house or job/experience paradoxes (which were very much on my mind a year ago:) are not like this - they are bootstrap problems.

A true catch-22 is a locked loop, where you can be in one of two states, A or B. If you are in A you are allowed to be in B - but by moving to state B, you disqualify yourself from remaining in that state.

Catch-22 is Joseph Heller's best known novel, and a masterpiece of American literature. It is his expression of the futility, frustration, and utter chaos behind war. The book's characters, (especially Yossarian) spend whole of the book trapped in a series of weird situations that they are unable to explain, rectify, or even understand. The phrase "Catch-22" is basically a reference to a supposed law that covers The Army's Big Olive Drab Ass on almost anything it feels it needs to do, but most importantly it prevents pilots from being grounded from flight duties on the basis of insanity. If a pilot is sane enough to realize that flying is dangerous, and that pilot requests to be grounded then he is obviously sane enough to continue flying. The only way a pilot can be grounded though is by request. Tricky eh?

Catch-22 was a novel that took seven years to write. From a critical perspective, it was a book that was very much the product of Joseph Heller's times, depicting a military machine that treated its personnel as little other than cogs and gears was a parallel of the American Dream realized in the 1950s, where men and women were raised and bred to be consumers in a society that valued getting ahead of the Joneses as an art form, and buying useless products to be the highest form of self-gratification.

Although Catch-22 was written after the more timely works of Jack Kerouac and other beatnik writers, it still held their ideas at its core. Yossarian, the protagonist, is a captain in the army air force, but his promotion from lieutenant could have easily been a court-martial- his superiors wanted to take some of the credit for the very risky move Yossarian had pulled on a mission (that had gotten one of his friends killed by Germain antiaircraft fire), and so they gave him a medal and promoted him.

Corporate structure and consumerism ideology is displayed in many scenes involving the officers. The unfortunate individual named Major Major Major was promoted quickly to his rank, becoming Major Major Major Major, although he very little combat experience. The other officers all assumed he had some sort of "in," and he was universally despised by his fellow officers. Lieutenant Scheisskopf, another example of incompetance, worked as a marching instructor for years, ignoring the pleas of chocolate and his lonely wife in favor of setting a bunch of wooden figures in row and moving them in pretty circles. He also has a unique way of looking at the soldiers- having considered joining each individual rank and file by threading a length of copper wire through their hands, only discounting the idea when he realizes that good, quality copper wire would be hard to find in wartime.

The higher levels of command are just as bad. The two generals in charge of their theater in Europe are General Dreedle, a cynical individual knowing others desire his position and being unable to do anything about it, meanwhile wishing nothing more than to cause trouble for their incompetant son-in-law (who happens to be working directly under you as a receptionist), and General Peckem, who is intent on gaining control of all the forces in the western hemisphere by sending out prolix memos that might well have been the predecessors of the current business buzzwords. Of course, in the end, Lieutanant Scheisskopf is promoted to general status and all of Peckem's plans fall through in the end, but the military is crazy like that.

Yossarian knows that these people are out to kill him simply by being indifferent to the fact that he risks his life every time he flys a mission. The fact that Colonel Cathcart, his mission controller, continues to raise the number of missions that his pilots must fly in order to transfer back home to look good in the eyes of his superiors, is proof of this. He tries to hide out in the hospital, complaining of a pain in his liver, an illness in his jaw, and a number of other illnesses, but in the end it doesn't change anything- he is still under their control, and is dancing at the end of their strings, nothing more than a part of their machine.

When he is caught going AWOL in Italy, Yossarian is faced with a decision proposed by his superiors. They offer him a choice- he can either accept a court martial for leaving his post, or he can accept another promotion and go home in exchange for praising his superiors among the popular elite; in essence, he can either embrace the system and become part of it, or he can rot away as punishment for resisting their efforts. The beakniks that would arise in the 1950s would face this decision later, and they would eventually come to the same conclusion that Yossarian would find- the third choice of simply refusing to take part in the system, the choice of not accepting the roles handed down from up high and living as one wants to. While Yossarian simply leaves the army hospital (after having getting stabbed after his meeting with Colonel Cathcart) and heads for Sweden, the beatniks, for whom travelling to Europe was a bit more of a stretch quit their jobs and looked for the meaning of life outside the Way of the 9-to-5 Employment.

While not a work that glorified the beatnik lifestyle, Catch-22 does explain the reasons why someone in the 1950s would quit their job and take up a life that alternated between reciting bad poetry, drinking profusely, and smoking hashish. The novel quickly became popular in the early 1960s, as while the beatnik undercurrent was beginning to wane by that time, its ideas were quickly being adopted by the proponents of the social revolution that would forever mark the decade. And besides that, it's a damn good read even if you aren't a fan of WWII or of critical reading- more attention goes to the pilot's off-time and the people that work behind the scenes than goes to the planes themselves.

A novel by the late Joseph Heller about a fictional bombadier named Yossarian. It was formerly one of the most influential books of its time, a peer of The Catcher in the Rye and Slaughterhouse Five, but has of late fallen into disuse.

The original Catch-22 was this: In order to be grounded you had to be declared crazy by the doctor. Everyone was crazy to fly. But to be grounded you had ask the doctor (who was rather brutally portrayed). This was an act of self-protection and thus sanity so you couldn't be grounded. Fly and be insane, and possibly dead or ask to be grounded and still fly and possibly die.

Capitalism is harshly criticized in the form of Milo Mindbender who even bombs his own squadron but is excused when it is shown how he made a profit. Even in the end the chance for profit makes him abandon the one he owes the most to, (Yossarian).

Each member of the group deals in his own way. For instance, Dunbar knows he may die any moment so he tries to extend his perceived life by being miserable. Any activity that makes him miserable makes him happy.

This is an American classic black comedy/social commentary. The characters are generally exaggerated aspects of society and generally stupid with the exception of Yossarian, Orr and Milo Mindbender.

There was also a movie.

I'm listening to Keasbey nights by Catch 22 the ska punk band under Victory Records as I type this.

The characters in Catch-22 are to a large extent subjugated to the authorial message about the role of the war and the concomitant institution of the air force in their lives. Using a tableau of characters with varying roles, Heller puts across to the reader the idea that these people are only a handful of those that are victim to (and those that sustain) the callous institutions he presents. This impression is created by the surreal and highly improbable way they act, which draws out the common feature of lunacy and detracts from each individual's story. Having commented on this, we can still make some interesting observations about each of the characters. Robert M. Young points out some significant symbolism in his psychoanalysis essay, 'Deadly Unconscious Logics in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22'.

Milo Minderbinder and Snowden are two main symbolic figures in the novel. Milo does everything; Snowden does one: he dies. Milo is pure opportunist, Snowden pure victim. Milo is the spirit of capitalism incarnate, as well as the embodiment of its false consciousness, its confidence tricks and its painted smiles.
We might say that Milo represents what it is the American air force is fighting for, a view consistent with the fact that he is allowed to pursue his farcical activities unchecked by his superiors. Yossarian and his colleagues constantly have their lives pointlessly and unfairly put in danger, for example when American planes bomb the base for profit, on behalf of the Germans but at Milo’s command.

Catch-22 constantly links the war with insanity, and inherent in this seems to be immense brutality. Of all the recurring episodes throughout the novel, the one we see the most, and indeed seems to haunt Yossarian terribly, is the incident in which he is unable to save Snowden from an horrific death. The discovery that Snowden’s guts are falling out of his body is described graphically to the reader. The intermingling of such scenes with scenes of comic madness on the part of the likes of Colonel Cathcart leaves us with a clear picture of the link between the callous, selfish actions of the officers and the suffering that occurs. Indeed, the brutality is so all-encompassing that not even civilians are safe from the arrogance and lunacy of those in the military, as we see by the rape and murder of prostitutes in Rome by air force men.

In the context of scenes like this, the character of Snowden comes in as almost the polar reverse of characters like Milo and Colonel Cathcart, the victim of the former’s reckless and dubiously justified drive for profits over safety, and the latter's careerism, which causes him to keep perversely increasing the number of missions the men must fly. Indeed, Cathcart acts in a manner that perfectly typifies the attitude of the senior officers – it is as if they and Milo are in collusion to victimise the lesser men; as good an example as Snowden would be Mudd, the dead man in Yossarian's tent, who serves no other purpose in the novel than being dead. Interesting to note, as part of the deliberate unrealisticness of the characters, is their appositely humorous names, such as the unpleasant Lieutenant Scheisskopf (in English, 'shit head') or the unfortunate Major Major Major Major who is forever ostracised, his laughable name a further curse and the subject of mockery. The name Snowden echoes the phrase 'snowed in', perhaps a deliberate reflection of his helpless situation.

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There was, of course, a catch.

"Catch-22?" inquired Yossarian.

"Of course," Captain Korn answered pleasantly....

Joseph Heller, Catch-22

"Catch-22" (the phrase) always reminds me of a discussion I had with John, my then-roommate, and with another friend of mine. We were discussing—well, I don't remember exactly what we were discussing, but this friend says something about the "contemporary lexicon," and right then John says "Okay, you can leave."

"What?" says my friend.

"Leave. Just go."


"Nobody uses that word in my apartment."

And the funny thing about John was, although he should have been kidding, he wasn't. That's just the sort of thing he'd have said to me if I started on with words like "postmodern" or "paradigm" or any other pretentious bullshit. Okay, "lexicon" is special, because it has the "x" that makes you sort of half-lisp when you're saying it, so you end up sounding like Anthony Michael Hall during his John Hughes days. And by-God if you were gonna discuss it, you'd better not be on John's turf.

Which brings us back to Catch-22, because you can't read a review of either the novel or the film without the subject coming up. And to be fair, Joe Heller is one of the few writers in the latter half of the Twentieth Century to coin such a pervasive phrase (I guess William Gibson ("cyberspace") comes to mind).

Well, this introduction is getting a little long, but this is pretty heavy material, so I hope you'll forgive me. What follows is (1) a definition of "Catch-22," (2) a review of the novel, and (3) a review of the Mike Nichols film adaptation.

1. Definition

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for ones 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.

Joseph Heller

And, as Catch-22's protagonist says, "That's some catch, that Catch-22." Practically speaking, a "catch-22" is a paradoxical clause of some sort, often referred to as "Damned if you do; damned if you don't." Which, in my opinion, sums it up nicely.

2. The Novel

Catch-22 (1961)

Catch-22 is not really a book, It does not even seem to have been written. Instead, it gives the impression that it was shouted onto paper.

The New Yorker

To summarize the plot of Catch-22: Yossarian is in a hospital, but before he is in the hospital he is outside the hospital where people are being killed, and there's nothing funny about it. And if that isn't funny, a lot of things aren't even funnier: like the way Snowden is cold and Snowden is of course dying, and Snowden is cold and Yossarian is patching up Snowden's leg and Snowden is of course dying, and Snowden is cold and Yossarian is patching up Snowden's leg and Snowden shows Yossarian his secret which falls out all over his flack jacket and Snowden is of course dying; like the way M + M enterprises, which is really just Milo Minderbinder's initials with a "+" added to sound official, begins to contract work with the Germans and the Americans because he's in favor of free enterprise and organizes bombings and organizes the preparations of those to be bombed, so the bombing is really just a foregone conclusion and need not be actually carried out, and then bombs his own camp and is of course congratulated for his brilliance; like Nately's whore whom Nately falls in love with and who will sleep with other men but never Nately; like the fact that the Colonel Cathcart keeps raising the number of missions and the only way to get him to stop is to pretend to like him; like the CID man who sneaks into the hospital to find Washington Irving or Irving Washington and ends up getting sick amongst the fakers; like Doc Daneeka watching himself die in a ball of fire and debris. Of course this plot outline is far too linear, and as such had to be staggered and scattered around in a mess of flash-forwards and flashbacks.

Heller's novel is brilliant, funny, tragic, sometimes profound, and difficult to read. Read it anyway. Funnier than M*A*S*H on even its best day, Catch-22 is a World War II novel that is really a criticism of Cold War, Red Scare type practices, masquerading as a comic mess of word-play. It begins hilarious, then spirals between grotesque, brutal scenes and dark comedy (emphasis on the comedy). I was three-quarters finished with this novel before I realized it was serious, and that it was maybe the best novel I'd ever read, and that it was probably going to grow more serious and better until the end. Which, of course, it did.

The story is simple: Captain John Yossarian (Yo-yo to his friends) is a bombadier who believes people are trying to kill him because they shoot at him every time he tries to bomb them. He's told "they're shooting at everyone." "What difference does that make?" he says. And since Doc Daneeka won't ground him, Yossarian must take matters into his own hands (cue dramatic music).... Well, that's sort of the story—that's as simple as I can make it. And of course the novel is just about as complex as Heller can make it. Read it. Twice. Then maybe you'll follow what I'm getting at.

3. The Film

Catch-221 (1970)  War Comedy
      Director:                  Mike Nichols
      Writer:                    Buck Henry
      Producer:                  Martin Ransohoff
      Captain John Yossarian     Alan Arkin
      Colonel Cathcart           Martin Balsam
      Major Danby                Richard Benjamin
      Captain Nately             Art Garfunkel
      Captain 'Doc' Daneeka      Jack Gilford
      Lt. Colonel Korn           Buck Henry
      Major Major Major Major    Bob Newhart
      Chaplain Tappman           Anthony Perkins
      Nurse Duckett              Paula Prentiss
      1st Lt. Dobbs              Martin Sheen
      1st Lt. Milo Minderbinder  Jon Voight
      Brig. General Dreedle      Orson Welles
      Captain Orr                Bob Balaban
      Dreedle's WAC              Susan Benton
      1st. Sergeant Towser       Norman Fell

Let's start with the one-sentence critique: Read the book first. The film works mostly as a reference to the novel, with undeveloped characters and inexplicable scenes, for those without the prior knowledge that the novel provides. In fact, most of the minor characters in this film seem to be caricatures of their textual counterparts, as the insanity of the system, in the film, must be expressed through the characters rather than through a narrator interpreting the characters.

I don't know, maybe I'm wrong—the first time I saw Catch-22 was just after I read the novel, so I haven't seen it without that foreknowledge—but a couple friends who watched it with me complained, after, that it didn't really make any sense. The film follows, basically, the plot-line of the novel—which is to say a vague and confusing chronology. The punch of Catch-22 relies on returning, repeatedly, to the scene of the death of Snowden, with flashbacks and flash-forwards to air battles and (various) hospital scenes and bar scenes and r&r trips—and the whole thing works, just barely, if you already have a good understanding of where everything should fit.

And I'm not making any value-judgments on this matter, because, well, maybe it isn't such a bad thing to require a little background to understand a film. As an idea, I suppose that could work. But in preserving the spirit of the novel, the film is uneven. Catch-22 is black humor, based on the juxtaposition of hilarity and brutality, the highs and lows, and although the film captures the lows quite well, showing the paranoid menace and alienation Yossarian feels toward the end of the film, the highs of absurd comedy that pulled the novel through its opening half seem a bit empty.

I'm not trying to imply that I didn't enjoy Catch-22—I certainly did—but just to say that it's a good, rather than great, film. The performances of a number of characters are excellent (Arkin, as Yossarian, for example), and the film was visually quite interesting; the problem was, like many films based on unconventional novels, the material just was not quite fit for the transformation to the screen.

1 Blatantly stolen from

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