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For many people, the COVID-19 pandemic will make death come alive again. With the escalating fatalities and the decimation of countless jobs and livelihoods, nothing is guaranteed anymore and the spring sunshine now brims with the transience of all things. In such circumstances, it is best for a writer to write something grand and splendid – something that will last and that is about an important theme. I have always wanted to review Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) and it is one of those novels that I have been holding back until my writing has more power or I have decided that I am more worldly-wise. Yet somewhere out there, in a bat’s armpit in Mongolia, there is almost certainly a new coronavirus biding its time, with an even nastier mortality rate (if it breaks out in 2022, it will be officially COVID-22). So perhaps it will not do to keep Catch-22 waiting any longer.

Catch-22 is one of the few items on my bookshelf to feel big enough to retain the normal proportions of a novel during these big times. It might have always contained the shock of the pandemic – you just needed to know that it was in there. The whole book is a kind of brilliant dentistry that chatters in the chill headwind of death. “‘I’m cold,’ Snowden whimpered. ‘I’m cold.’” The disembowelment of this luckless airman, in the chapter before last, is the moment of the memento mori’s unveiling:

It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall.  Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garage. The spirit gone, man is garbage.

Today, Heller’s book feels very fresh. This is in part because, rather as with George Orwell’s novels, the adaptations of Catch-22 for television and cinema always look remarkably undistinguished. The novel’s originality seems to be verified anew on each occasion that its imagery cannot be memorably converted into images. Like a fish out of water, Captain John Yossarian, the hero, can only flop about pathetically and shrivel up once he is extracted from Heller’s zinging prose.

Orwell and Heller both wrote satires with an unprecedented base of horror to them. Orwell was the lonelier man, both as a writer and an individual. Catch-22 would be joined later in the sixties by Kurt Vonnegut’s novels Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five; Vonnegut would arrive hotfoot at Heller’s heels like a deputy dawg, with much the same singsong and the same memento mori. Literature otherwise moved swiftly and silently on. Nobody today hatches bestsellers of the magnitude of Catch-22 (or, for that matter, of Nineteen Eighty-Four).  

The first time that I read Catch-22 I was about twenty-five and it was out-and-out hilarious. I was also mildly disconcerted by what I saw as its innocence and its virility. When a man is in the middle of being hanged, all eyes should not be drawn to the phallus. I doubted that any European writer could have responded to World War Two in anything near to the same frame of mind.

In this, I was probably prejudiced by the anti-Americanism of two novels that had had a deep influence upon me, Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One (1948) and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1955). Both of these are satires that insist that the USA is an almost dysfunctionally juvenile world culture. They correspondingly lay claim to a sanity that is richly European and careworn and supposedly unavailable to uncomprehending Americans. This interpretation is correct to the extent that Catch-22 was a uniquely American phenomenon. Only an American could have been relaxed enough in the 1950s to devise Catch-22.  

When I read the book again five years later, it was still a big wow but the dichotomy between American innocence and European maturity no longer held quite so firm. For a start, the riddlesome, roundabout dialogue of Catch-22 sounded ever more familiar from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). With this, a small shadow fell over the uniqueness of Catch-22. Behind all of his Yankee pep, had Heller been taught every trick in his book by Carroll, rather as kittens learn how to be cats straight from their mothers?  Moreover the morality of Catch-22 looked increasingly like a privileged, local take upon a universal crisis within civilisation. Indeed, I had lately grown alert to the creeping affinities between it and Waugh’s The Sword of Honour trilogy (1952-).

The third time that I reread this novel was during the COVID-19 emergency. My Corgi edition with its battered scarlet cover is now like an acorn that has sprouted three separate oak trees. This time, Catch-22 felt like one of the bleakest books that I had ever read. Maybe I was finally able to hold all of its layers in my mind, but one of the newer ones was an awareness of its failings. Catch-22 now struck me as being altogether less effective. I had previously categorised the rubber-ball irrepressibility of the novel’s prose alongside the quaintness of cartoons from the same period (Wile E. Coyote had started his career in 1948). Now, however, Catch-22 had generated a surface so sterile as to liken it to kitsch or Pop Art.

And once again Waugh was at my side. I became interested in the underwhelmed stance that he had affected towards Catch-22. When a publicist wrote to him to solicit a helpful blurb, he replied as though he had mistakenly assumed that he was being roped in to rescue the novel. “It should be cut by about a half,” he advised, twinkling with mischief. He added that, “You are mistaken in calling it a novel. It is a collection of sketches—often repetitive—totally without structure.” It would be easy to attribute this to the envy of a spent writer, were it not for the regal timbre of his self-assurance. I have a feeling that he had immediately registered the weaknesses of Catch-22, whereas I had needed to read it three times over twelve years to become similarly conscious of them.  

There is also an irony to savour in Waugh’s reception of what was meant to be an anti-war novel. The publicity campaign for Catch-22 was in itself rather like a war effort, with all sorts of important literary voices making announcements and with mass adulation duly flowing from the public. Ten million copies were sold. Against this, Waugh was setting himself up as a lone dissenter – a conscientious objector, as it were.

Waugh had ruled that “the activities of ‘Milo’ should be eliminated or greatly reduced.” Many readers will shake their heads over this, in thinking that Milo is where Heller’s instincts are operating at their keenest. For me, Catch-22 is actually most vulnerable in the chapter entitled “Nately’s Whore.”

In Rome and away from the Italian island of Pianosa, where the novel is chiefly set, a general and his staff are trapped in a brothel. The airman Dunbar has thrown all of their clothes out of the window. All official authority here goes cascading away with the underpants, apparently anticipating the medievalism of Snowden’s innards and the great levelling that occurs with death. But the general is unexpectedly “a calm, slender jaded-looking man who had not even stirred from his armchair.” For once an armchair general proves to be pretty devastating. He admires Dunbar’s cleverness and tells his staff to “relax.” Later the unruly Dunbar disappears and he is said to have been “disappeared.”

However ridiculous the military system might be, whenever anybody tries to challenge it, it is suddenly resourceful, powerful, and “calm.” The trouble is that this outcome is essentially contrived and a magical one. In order for the spell to work, realism has to drop discreetly out of the loop, rather than being suspended simply as an aesthetic bonus.   

In their practical applications, the rival ideologies within Catch-22 often look sinisterly alike. The novel concludes with the advent of a fascistic, parade-fixated antichrist with a German name that in English means “General Shithead.” Still, we need never concern ourselves with these ominous correspondences once the novel has weaved its magic. The military system, with its escalating bureaucracy, and with its Catch-22s multiplying everywhere like Nazi swastikas, and with its genie Milo magicking war-torn Europe into an overflowing cornucopia of bargain goods, renders any prospective mutiny instantly, pitifully, exhausted.

Had some early version of Catch-22 ever been published within fascist countries, ideologues might have flocked to it for all the wrong reasons. Heller’s book derives its virility and its triumphalism from the sheer might of its Catch-22s. The splendour of Milo’s syndicate, for example, comes from its magical freedom from all of the constraints that the war should place on it, to the extent that Milo can be contracted to bomb his own airbase by the enemy and still death-defyingly flourish.   

Catch-22 is craftier in its instinct for self-preservation than Yossarian is. It is always being merely rueful about of the folly of the powers-that-be rather taking a deep breath and committing to civil disobedience or an armed uprising. It might seem a magnificent scandal that a novel could emerge from and about the American military in which absolutely every rational character is extravagantly cowardly. The top brass reassure each other that they will not be exposed to any danger; the vanguard become recognisably sane only once they are trying to wriggle out of flying combat missions.

If Yossarian and Dunbar’s cowardice is the source of their sanity, then unhappily this cowardice proves to be a material that the military system can absorb and exploit to its own advantage. This can be observed when the airmen are ordered to “create a roadblock,” by bombing an Italian village that is wobbling on the edge of a cliff. Dunbar protests that the villagers have not been warned to evacuate. Colonel Korn arrives to smoothly quash this mutiny. He achieves immediate compliance by inquiring whether the airmen are volunteering to be personally put in danger instead of the villagers.

 Aerial bombardment is, of course, the most intrinsically cowardly means of modern warfare. It displaces most of the risks of a war onto the civilians, whilst ensuring that the combatants enjoy maximum protection and convenience. It is equally a supremely imperialistic modus operandi. The colonisers in Catch-22 behave rather like the elite on Jonathan Swift’s flying island of Laputa (i.e. “the whore”), in their perfect technological separation from the society that they are lording it over. Cleanly mirroring these Laputas of the skies, the land below is represented exclusively by its whores. There are otherwise no indigenous Italian combatants to be seen anywhere in the story.

Perhaps Yossarian’s cowardice is just the latest fruit of a military machine that is unerringly risk-averse and, as a consequence, peripheral to the wider suffering of the Second World War. Sanity is bestowed on Yossarian like a runners-up prize, but it is a runners-up prize because it is socially irrelevant. From the story’s very beginning, Yossarian personifies the most basic animal instinct for survival. He doesn’t understand why liberalism is a cut above Nazism any more than a hungry dog could be expected to. He is rendered extra powerless by his indignation and the naivety that lies behind it. He appears to be astonished that people die in wars and that his military employer manipulates its labour.

It becomes something of a defect, therefore, that the liberalism that Yossarian refuses to fight for continues to be the standard against which all of the folly around him is measured. Such a weakness grows problematic enough for Heller to worriedly kit Yossarian out with an unimpeachable alibi. Yossarian comes into possession of his sanity only by virtue of a post-traumatic crisis. A gaping portal to death is opened for Yossarian, as an onlooker, when Snowden’s “matter” is intimately and hauntingly burst open. We will be here shocked into sympathising with Yossarian but this experience is never so transcendental that we will be able to empathise with him. On a dry, theoretical level, some of us might feel more rebellious than Yossarian is, even though we have not experienced the emotional trauma that inspires his rebellion.

Trauma voids Yossarian of all moral usefulness, since it implies that those who are still supporting the war effort are innocents rather than active wrongdoers. The option of flying away to Sweden, like the Lost Boys escaping to Neverland, makes the novel’s morality even more insincere. A moral compass is not meant to have Sweden literally marked out on it.

Let us consult another conscientious objector. I am always hunting down Harold Bloom’s opinions upon literary problems and these tend to receive their most characteristic expression in the bewildering format of the Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations series. Each edition compiles dense critical essays upon a leading work of fiction. Each is capped with a few sprinkled words of introduction from the great man himself, in which he often thrillingly belittles and dismisses the book he is supposed to be commemorating, apparently out of absent-mindedness. It is like rocking up at an attractive restaurant, to be greeted at the door by the proprietor who crows that, “the food is junk, come on in!” If this process sounds a lot like another of Heller’s Catch-22s then the Catch-22 edition is a beauty of its kind.

Like Heller, Bloom is an American and a Jew, so we need not be detained by the obvious handicap of Waugh’s Eurocentric snobbery. Rifling through Catch-22, Bloom sniffs that, “the mockery loses control and enters the space of literary irreality, where only a few masters have been able to survive. Heller was not one of them.” He becomes most impatient with what he regards as the book’s absence of moral realism. He complains that, “the war against Hitler, the SS, and the deathcamps was neither World War I nor the Vietnam debacle.” This leads him to conclude that, “Heller isolates the reader from the historical reality of Hitler’s evil.”

One might glibly reply that Yossarian is not so much fighting Hitler as bombing defenceless Italian villages and making “bombing patterns” that are art for art’s sake. To resume more seriously, it might be said that Catch-22 gets nowhere in what it is doing precisely because its characters exist in conditions where personal morality is redundant. In Yossarian’s fight against Hitler, his individual moral agency has been subsumed within some extremely substandard, industrialised proxy.  

In 1898, President William McKinley had claimed that he had fallen to his knees to ask for God’s help about the wisdom of intervening militarily in Cuba. The satirist Ambrose Bierce subsequently snarled that he had difficulty “conceiving Jesus Christ in command of a battleship.” Nonetheless, this is the challenge that is laid down by Catch-22. The excruciating failure to successfully resurrect the Messiah on an American airbase in Pianosa demonstrates either the ultimate uselessness of Christ’s compassion or the barbarity of any warfare that dispenses with it.

This challenge is given an additional irony due to its Jewish starting-point or its assumption that Christ was never really anything special. In Catch-22, Christ and his dismayed, ineffective tenderness are endlessly reissued, to the point where every sane character becomes a dutiful copy of Christ in Gethsemane. The whores in Rome pair these Christs with Magdalenas.

Nobody in Catch-22 ever consciously identifies with Christ but something of his presence remains uneradicated. This unspoken Christian influence is the very opposite of the archaic and obscure words that the novel is always rolling off, words that will impress the reader even though their meaning is typically defunct. In an age before smartphones, one wonders how many of Catch-22’s ten million readers had readily known what “bursitis,” “afflatus,” “concupiscent” or “callipygous” meant.

Christ lingers even as the novel’s bouts of more classical American imagery chime nonsensically. The great American writers Washington Irving and T.S. Eliot become names that wink unrecognised amidst official communications. Major —— de Coverley, with his “clear, full-bodied voice that was gruff with age and resonant with ancient eminence and authority” comes to resemble a founding father who has been swallowed whole by Nazism.

Yossarian is here a chief amongst equals. The genius of his name is that it sounds like that of Jesus in a dead language. Jesus’s name apparently derives from that of Yehoshua. In Greek Jesus was Ἰησοῦς [Iēsous]; in medieval English he was Iesu. The chaplain, at once the only sane authority figure in the novel and totally marginalised, contemplates Yossarian and gains an impression of “a significant encounter… in some remote, submerged and perhaps even entirely spiritual epoch in which he had made the identical, foredooming admission that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, he could do to help him.”

The blood of Kid Sampson – yet another Christ but a vaporised rather than a crucified one – is sprayed over a crowd, shared like Communion wine, in an epic symbolism of sacrifice. Doc Daneeka appears, like Jesus, after he has been certified dead. Yet the novel’s crown of thorns is its line that: “The night was filled with horrors, and he thought he knew how Christ must have felt as he walked through the world, like a psychiatrist through a ward full of nuts.” Contrary to Bloom’s assertion that Catch-22 is “neither apocalyptic nor a masterpiece,” there is an important element of apocalypse in this reimagining of the Messiah. The Messiah is everybody – there is an entire army of them – but deliverance will come only when they combine meaningfully, to fight in the final messianic crunch.