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Book Report: Catch-22

Catch-22 is my usual example of a perfect book, that is, a book that couldn't possibly be any better without being a good deal worse. I can't say much more about it at present, as I don't want to get all shaken up again. You see, I read almost all of the book a month ago, but didn't have time to read the last few chapters, which meant when I got my hands on a copy again, I started with Yossarian wandering the streets of Rome looking for Nately's whore's kid sister, which is (for me) the most brutal scene of the book. "I only raped her once," says Aarfy. Shudder.

OK, on a less awful note, but gripier and all, let me register a complaint about how the phrase Catch-22 entered our language. I know, it's wrong to insist that the phrase maintain the "original" "author's" "intent", but it's annoying that the bit that gets remembered about Catch-22 is the most trivial bit of it. I mean, it's an annoying, but predictable thing about society.

Right. You all know about Catch-22, Gentle Readers? The bit that gets remembered is clever and, in fact, memorable. Doc Daneeka can ground any flyer who is crazy, but only if he asks to be grounded, but asking to be grounded is a sign of sanity, since you'd need to be crazy to want to fly more missions. So Doc can ground anybody who doesn't ask, but only if they ask, and he can't ground anybody who asks. That's some catch.

But that's not the only thing in Catch-22. Over the book, Catch-22 keeps turning up as the authorization for whatever the people in power want to do, until finally the soldiers who destroy the whorehouse and throw Nately's whore's kid sister into the street state it baldly: Catch-22 says they have the right to do anything you can't stop them from doing. That's what Catch-22 is. In fact, Yossarian realizes, there is no Catch-22. "Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attack amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon or burn up." That's what Catch-22 is. It's the invisible hand of authority, the thing that makes us unwilling to demand to hold authority accountable. That lets due process, adherence to the text of the law, and humanity fall prey to mobs with clubs.

I understand that Mr. Heller's beautifully written introduction to the Catch is the bit that people remember. And, of course, it's helpful to have a phrase that describes the way moderately sensible but conflicting rules prevent any actually reasonable action. On the other hand, at the moment, I think it's sad the way we, as a society, shut away the real meaning of Catch-22, which is, of course, why Catch-22 works.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

Postscript: In between my committing the above screed to floppy and actually getting it blogged, jdh92 used the term in its contemporary manner, that is, to describe a situation where individually sensible (or apparently sensible) but conflicting rules prevent any actually reasonable action, or any action at all. This is a reminder to me to stress that I am not ranting about individuals who use the term (properly) the way people use it. I’m just annoyed that the way people use it is how it is. Given the way it is, people should use it how people use it (to, you know, communicate), and the academic gypsy did so. I don’t blame him for the greater societal failure to deal with the more brutal implications of the phrase. In fact, should somebody explain the actions at, say, Abu Ghraib as Catch-22, that is, that they have the right to do anything they can’t be stopped from doing, well, nobody would get it and communication would not have been achieved. I just wish things weren’t how they are, that’s all.


I wish things weren't how they are in a different way: things like Abu Ghraib just reinforce my worldview that "anyone has the right to do anything you can't stop them from doing" is the way the world works: you don't need a clever term for it because it's, well, just life. Though I associate that lesson more with Lord of the Flies (perhaps largely because I've never read Catch-22).

Whereas the bureaucratic incongruities like what jdh92 pointed out, while common, are not entirely just the way the world works and merit pointing out: thus a clever term is useful.

I don't propose the above as a reason why "catch-22" means what it does today, but merely as an explanation of why I'm not surprised why society has apparently forgotten the real meaning of "catch-22".

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