I’ve been reading Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel Catch-22 again, for the first time in thirty years or so. The story of Captain Yossarian and his fellow bomber crews in World War II Italy first attracted me as a young warbird enthusiast, but soon I understood how it had become a document of ongoing social significance. Decades later, this is a book which has been so successful that it’s both difficult to recognize its original innovations, and, more problematically, to not notice its contemporary datedness.
Beyond a doubt, Catch-22 is one of the most critically acclaimed, most studied, and most popular works of fiction of all time. It is also a pillar of mid-Twentieth Century western culture: its themes of existential angst, the horrors of state-sanctioned violence, and the absurdities of mass society have resonated across many works and mediums before and after, and it’s easy to imagine Holden Caulfield, Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer, Jack Nicholson’s George Hanson, an adult Charlie Brown and an Americanized Vladimir and Estragon riding B-25s alongside Yossarian, Nately, McWatt, Aarfy and Hungry Joe. (For a very distant precursor, I’d recommend V.M. Yeates’ 1934 novel Winged Victory – different war, different air force, and different airplanes, but similar scenes of exhausted flyers trying to make sense of the senseless.) Catch-22 debuted just three years before Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, and both black comedies have become landmark indictments of militarism, bureaucracy, and convention.
Yet not all of Heller’s material has aged well. Some passages of Catch-22 remain sharply poignant: the descriptions of Major Major’s loneliness, Chaplain Tappman’s faltering faith, Yossarian’s vain vigil for the unlucky pilot Orr, and the gradual revelation of Snowden’s death on the Avignon raid are as moving in 2014 as they were in 1961. Many of the farcical elements, though, now seem overdone: the circular dialogues between mutually uncomprehending characters, the minute depictions of pointless Army protocols, Milo Minderbinder’s entrepreneurial capitalism, the Zen-like paradox at the heart of the Catch-22 regulation itself. Catch-22 came out at exactly the right time, during the depths of the suicidal Cold War and as America’s Vietnam debacle gained momentum. While appealing to a wide readership, its most appreciative audience was among youth, for whom the entire “straight” world of their elders could be perceived as a giant, heartless organization structured on folly and deceit – Yossarian’s squadron writ large.
One reason Heller’s worldview has edged toward obsolescence is because, in many ways, it was adopted by so many other people since the novel appeared. Mike Nichols’ 1970 movie version of Catch-22 was critically panned, but the film actually did a pretty good job of condensing the sprawling story; its real weakness was in coming too late to have the impact of the original. At the time, reviewer Stanley Kauffman saw the underlying problem:
Since 1961 no other novel, American or otherwise, has supplanted Catch-22 as a tonal center, which says something about the novel form as such because Heller’s book has been supplanted – by a combination of rock and psychedelia and films and astrology and social activism…Today’s young men – more liberated, less addicted to disillusion, in some ways precociously mature – know before they get into a uniform what Yossarian had to learn the hard way.
In other words, Catch-22‘s philosophy was so accepted in so many quarters that it was superseded by its own influence. It’s interesting to note that in the early 1970s a pilot for a Catch-22 TV series was produced (Richard Dreyfuss was cast as Yossarian), which quite likely could have aired alongside M*A*S*H as a weekly satire of patriotism, propriety, and all things uptight. But eventually that cynical outlook itself would have become a kind of orthodoxy, as it did with the novel. Ask an Afghani girl who’s had acid thrown in her face by the Taliban if there are no causes risking one’s life for; ask the Dutch civilians liberated by Canadian troops in 1944-45 whether war is merely a vast insanity whose final outcome is irrelevant. Still, there should always remain a part of our collective psychology cowering with Yossarian on his bomb runs, just to remember the fundamental surrealisms of the modern human experience. Re-reading Catch-22, I can still conclude my evaluation the way the flawed, foolish, but profoundly moral narrative began: It was love at first sight.