Crazy to be sane: Catch 22 turns 50

There’s something about 2011. Besides being the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it’s the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Wall, the 100th of the neon light, the 200th birthday of Franz Liszt, the 400th birthday of the King James Bible – and the half-century mark for Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22”. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Virtually unique among modern novels, it’s very title snaps into clarity whether one has read the book or not. It has become a clarifying term bringing an ancient truth about the world into modern linguistic garb.

“Catch 22” takes place on the Mediterranean island of Pianosa where the US Army Air Force has a airfield during World War II. As one of its characters, Doc Daneeka, explains to Yossarian, a bombardier and the novel’s central figure, about yet another flyer’s situation “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.” Now, doesn’t that finally explain how the world really works?

Author Joseph Heller had been in the war himself and had actually flown some 60 combat missions. Given the enormous attrition among bomber crews, his mission total meant that statistically Heller shouldn’t have survived the war. As it was, it took him seven years to complete the book and it surely served as a form of therapy for a delayed case of battle fatigue (today known as post-traumatic stress disorder). Unlike more heroic war novels like “From Here to Eternity,” or even “The Thin Red Line”, “Catch 22” is one of those picaresque works that reaches back through “Slaughterhouse 5” and on to “The Good Soldier Svejk” and ultimately to “Don Quixote”.

In fact, Heller said he never could have written his novel if it hadn’t been for the inspiration of “Svejk”.  And Kurt Vonnegut, the author of that other iconic, angry, surreal, absurdist novels from the war, “Slaughterhouse 5”, had exclaimed upon hearing of Heller’s death in 1999, “Oh God, this is a calamity for American literature!”

When it was first published, “Catch 22” garnered modest critical regard. But, in succeeding years, as the horror and futility of the Vietnam War came into clearer focus, Heller’s novel grew in importance and impact. While its explanations of war’s futility remain true, descriptions of another of the book’s characters, supply sergeant Milo Minderbinder, with his business interests selling building materials to the enemy offers more than a frisson of contemporary astonishment, now that it has emerged Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya was also a partner in the CIA’s extraordinary renditions. Eventually, it came to be understood as a work that mercilessly exposed the reality that war was an insane project which a sane man would desperately try to avoid. Now, of course, “Catch 22” is a required work for literature courses around the world – and it remains a great read for us all. DM

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