The Psychology In Catch-22 Essay, Research Paper
Catch-22 is a black comedy novel about death, about what people do when faced with the daily likelihood of annihilation. For the most part what they do is try to
survive in any way they can. The book begins, ‘The island of Pianosa lies in the Mediterranean Sea eight miles south of Elba.’ That is the geographical location of the
action. Much of the emotional plot of the book turns on the question of who’s crazy, and I suggest that it is illuminating to look at its world in Kleinian terms. The
location of the story in the inner world is the claustrum – a space inside the psychic anus, at the bottom of the psychic digestive tract, where everyone lives
perpetually in projective identification, and the only value is survival. If one is expelled from the claustrum, there are only two places to go: death or psychotic
breakdown (Meltzer, 1992). What people do in these circumstances is to erect individual and institutional defences against the psychotic anxieties engendered by
unconscious phantasies of the threat of annihilation. These defences are extreme, utterly selfish and survivalist.
In certain institutional settings they are erected against death itself and correspond to what Joan Riviere called in her essay ‘On the Genesis of Psychical Conflict in
Early Infancy’ (1952), ‘the deepest source of anxiety in human beings’ (1952, p. 43). She suggests ‘that such helplessness against destructive forces within is
ubiquitous and constitutes the greatest psychical danger-situation known to the human organism…’ (ibid.). Isabel Menzies Lyth argues that these anxieties are
re-evoked in the work of nurses, where death is present and imminent. ‘The objective situation confronting the nurse bears a striking resemblance to the phantasy
situations that exist in every individual in the deepest and most primitive levels of the mind. The intensity and complexity of the nurse’s anxieties are to be attributed
primarily to the peculiar capacity of the objective features of her work situation to stimulate afresh these early situations and their accompanying emotions’ (Lyth,
1959, pp. 46-7). There are such nurses in the perverse world of Catch 22. They tend the Man in White, in plaster from head to toe, arms and legs encased and
extended. Those whose job it is to tend him routinely take the bottle of plasma going in and the bottle of urine going out and change them round: there is no
difference between nourishment and waste, introjection and projection; fair is foul and foul is fair.
Bion describes the church and the army as exemplary organisations for embodying the pathology of group relations. Pianosa is an Army Air Corps base, run by mad,
ambitious officers, reeking of arrogance and sycophancy, for whom success and failure are the only measures of worth (p. 262) and survival is always at risk. Their
survival in career terms is maintained at the expense of the literal survival of the officers and enlisted men who lie below them in the military hierarchy. The hierarchy
includes General Dreedle, who is astonished to learn that he cannot have anyone shot who irritates him (pp. 218, 279), General Peckem, head of Special Services,
who cares only for bureaucratic power in the table of organisation and thinks it eminently rational that combat operations should come under his domain – What
could be more special? Peckem outwits Dreedle; Dreedle torments his son-in-law, Colonel Moodus, by dangling a sexy Wac before him (p. 213). Colonel
Scheisskopf outsmarts them all by getting promoted over their heads to Lt. General and is free to indulge his passion: parades, including precision marching to the
point of tying the men’s arms so they won’t swing.
The men in the squadron are directly answerable to Colonel Cathcart, who divides his fortunes into split extremes of ”Feathers in My Cap!!!!!’ and ‘Black Eyes!!!’
(p. 209; cf. p. 415) and whose sole preoccupation, after survival and sycophancy, is getting his picture into the Saturday Evening Post. His strategy is to raise the
number of missions his men must fly before being released from combat – from forty-five to seventy to eighty in the course of the book, but he will gladly go on
raising the number to 6000, if that’s what it takes to impress the generals (p. 211). What all those in the hierarchy do is to aspire. As Lt. Colonel Korn, Cathcart’s
nemesis, puts it, ‘Everyone teaches us to aspire to higher things. A general is higher than a colonel, and a colonel is higher than a lieutenant colonel. So we’re both
aspiring’ (p. 415).
The way to succeed is to humiliate, dominate and put down others, an approach exquisitely exemplified in Captain Black’s perpetual endeavours to get people to
consume themselves with envy or, as he puts it, eat their livers (pp. 110, 395). Persecution is rampant, the more pointless the better, as are blackmail, intimidation,
caprice and malice. The best persecution of all is, of course, to endanger people to the point of death by raising the number of missions. But, as Black shows, you
can persecute people about anything. Take the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade. People had to swear allegiance and disclaim communism to get a knife, fork, spoon,
food, but the main point was not to allow Major Major to sign, so he could be ostracised. Black’s bile was because Major Major had been made Squadron
Commander when Black wanted to be. So everyone had to suffer continuous harassment to indulge Black’s spite. It took the fearsome authority of Major _____ de
Coverly, a man whose one-eyed gaze frightened all, so much so that none could ask his Christian name, to put an end to the paranoid, frenzied excesses of the
crusade (pp. 112-15).
Major Major only became a major because an IBM machine had ‘a sense of humor almost as keen as his father’s’ (p. 85), whose sadism had killed the boy’s
mother and blighted his son’s life. Major Major Major was hated by all for his nonconformity, which consisted of being good, polite and honourable and following all
the Christian virtues (p. 83). The effect of his experiences in the military was to lead him to sign the name Washington Irving on all censored letters, thus evoking an
investigation by the CID which continues throughout the novel and finally lands on an innocent and incompetent chaplain, who is as undeserving of persecution as the
major. Nevertheless, he is interrogated and found guilty in a chapter reminiscent of Kafka’s The Trial (ch. 36). Major Major also evolved the perfect strategy of
command. He instructed his orderly that all visitors should be told that he is in when he was out and out when he was in. This approach almost always obviated
A commander who would not command was complemented by a doctor who responded to all patients’ complaints by telling them his troubles. Everyone who came
to Doc Daneeka’s dispensary was dealt with by his orderlies, Gus and Wes, who painted their gums purple with gentian violet. Doc Daneeka was a decent man
whose rise to financial security had been cruelly destroyed when he was drafted, and he never tired of complaining about his financial losses. He drew extra flight pay
by getting himself signed onto the records when ever McWatt flew, but this killed him when McWatt flew into mountainside for a reason I’ll mention anon, and the
inexorable paperwork declared him dead and it was just too complicated to unscramble, not to mention too profitable for his wife. So he became an un-person, one
of a number who lived in the woods near the base and did not officially exist.
This theme of bureaucracy being more real than flesh and blood could have its compensations, as happened when the book’s hero, Yossarian, moved the line on the
map which showed the forward point of the allied troops so as to make it unsafe to bomb Bologna, a notorious death trap because of flak. It took a long time for the
higher-ups to figure out that they were suffering from the fallacy of misplaced concreteness: the line had been taken for the reality so literally that when it was
mischievously moved, the reality was thought to have changed. Days of respite from the threat of death were gained.
The central moral conflict of the book lies in the relationship between the system and its rules and the humanity which pays the price for the defences of those in
charge and the system they created and maintain at the expense of human decency. This is the point of the book’s title. Whenever you try to behave sensibly and
look after yourself in a crazy world, there’s a catch, a catch which has entered the language as a result of Heller’s book. Catch-22 takes many forms, but the central
one is that you don’t have to fly any more missions if you’re crazy, but you have to ask first, and anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t crazy (p.46)
‘There was only one catch and that was catch 22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the
process of a rational mind. Orr [Yossarian's tent-mate and a pilot who kept crashing and of whom more anon] 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. Yossarian was moved very
deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
‘”That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.
‘”It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed (p. 46).
Catch-22 appears at intervals throughout the book (e.g., pp. 104,172-3), but it is revealed most clearly in two incidents, the first when an old Italian woman unpacks
it to its essence when Yossarian asks her by what right the Military Police chased all the girls away from the airman’s favourite haunt: ‘Catch-22. Catch-22 says they
have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing’. The women had done nothing wrong but were still chased away. When challenged the M.P.s kept saying
‘”They don’t have to show us Catch-22,” the old woman answered.
‘”The law says they don’t have to.”
‘”What law says they don’t have to?”
‘”Catch-22″‘ (p. 398).
Yossarian strode away, ‘cursing Catch-22 vehemently as he descended the stairs, even though he knew there was no such thing. 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, criticise, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit a, rip to shreds, trample upon or burn up’ (p. 400).
The final appearance of Catch-22 is when Yossarian finally refuses to fly any more missions. He is hauled up before Colonels Cathcart and Korn and told he will be
court-martialled if he does not accept a deal they are proposing. It looks lovely. They are going to promote him, give him another medal and send him home as a
hero to do morale-boosting campaigns and sell war bonds. He’ll get what he has always wanted – out. They begin by telling him that there’s a catch – Catch-22 -
and go on for some time explaining what a despicable deal it is, how self-serving for them, how betraying of his comrades. But none of this is the essence. That’s the
easiest part, they claim, but it’s the one thing which he eventually finds he cannot do. They want him to like them (p. 416).
At the heart of Catch-22 lies betrayal of decent values, the requirement that one sell one’s soul to survive. The book turns on the axis of hope and decency versus
despair and cynicism. The logic of the system is what the chaplain rightly calls ‘immoral logic’ (p. 380). Everyone gives in to it at one point or another, except that the
chaplain and Major Danby and Yossarian, along with the women, retain some ability to think and try to live out decent values. Yossarian puts it undramatically near
the end: ‘I wouldn’t want to live without strong misgivings’ (p. 441).
Yossarian is sometimes hysterical, as when he screams at McWatt to take evasive action from German anti-aircraft flak after bombs away. He even strangles him at
one point. He also has ideas of reference. Since the impersonal forms of persecution have such life-threatening effects, they might as well – better – be seen as
vendetta rather than anonymous (p. 170-71). But for the most part he lives in the depressive position, for example, with compassion for insensitive, boisterous new
flyers. ‘And it wasn’t their fault that they were courageous, confident and carefree. He would just have to be patient with them until one or two were killed and the
rest wounded, and then they would all turn out okay’ (p. 343). He was also very clear about how very mixed his motives were for refusing to fly any more missions,
and he could candidly admit that it didn’t make fully logical sense (p. 392). So, even though he managed to live in the depressive position more than the others, he
lost it from time to time. Nevertheless, when they thought he was crazy he was usually nothing of the sort, as his interview with the psychiatrist hilariously shows (pp.
297-8). He admits to all the symptoms he is accused of having. He is unable to adjust to the idea of war, has a morbid aversion to dying, suffers from survival
anxieties, is depressed by misery, humiliation, ignorance, slums, violence, greed, crime, corruption. The list of symptoms covers a page, and Yossarian – in touch with
all this pathology – freely admits he is crazy in an these ways (pp. 297-8). He was even obsessed by death and dreamed and daydreamed about it (pp. 312, 339,
340). All of this is most ironic, since he was the squadron’s most admired hero, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for going over Ferrera twice and
destroying the target (p. 391), and many admired him clandestinely for his final stand (pp. 393-4).
But there is much more to say about this twenty-eight year old oddball bombardier, with a name that made Colonel Cathcart shudder and create malicious free
associations to it. He was truly alien to the heritage of the Cathcarts, Peckems and Dreedles (p. 207). At various points it is made clear that he is Adam, Pilgrim,
Everyman. Indeed, he appears naked in a tree, watching the burial of Snowden and says to the inquisitive Milo, ‘It’s the tree of life… and of knowledge of good and
evil, too’ (p. 257), just as he appears nude on parade to receive his medal from General Dreedle, once again because of his horror over the fate of Snowden.
Milo Minderbinder and Snowden (whose Christian name, like those of most characters, we are never given) – are the other 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. He sits beside Yossarian in the tree, o’erlooking Snowden’s burial without
comprehending anything, with a perfect surface innocence, trying to persuade Yossarian of his patriotic duty to eat chocolate-covered cotton (seeds and all),
because Milo has unwisely cornered the Egyptian cotton crop and has to get rid of it somehow. He is the exemplar of the logic of capital and its amorality. If the
vicissitudes of the market dictate it, you remove the parachutes from your comrades’ planes, take the CO2 out of their life preservers, remove the morphine from
their first aid kits (pp. 426, 428) and bomb and strafe your own airfield, causing heavy casualties (pp. 210, 252-4). The strafing was in the contract. He didn’t start
the war, after all; he’s only trying to put it on a business-like basis. (p. 251). Noble mottoes are painted over, and the logo of his M&M Enterprises replaces them.
It’s all okay, because the food is good and ‘everybody has a share’ (p. 228). I lost count of the commodity deals he made – exotic spiders, chick-peas, unripened
red bananas, endive, mushrooms, artichokes, vanilla beans, cinnamon sticks, caraway seeds, tangerines, cocoa (e.g., 226-7, 231, 248, 273, 365). In the process he
becomes Mayor of Palermo, Assistant Governor General of Malta, Vice-Shah of Oran and the Sheikh of Araby (pp. 229-30, 232, 239). His credo, of course, is
the worship of supply and demand and ‘the right of free men to pay as much as they had to for the things they needed in order to survive’ (p. 362). He began as a
Uriah Heep mess officer but became a huge dealer in everything, crossing all lines – including the German lines – in the name of business. (One is reminded of the role
of the capitalists in ‘Oh, What a Lovely War!’) He was also a master of hypocrisy: ‘Milo’s eyes were liquid with integrity, and his artless and uncorrupted face was
lustrous with a mixture of sweat and insect repellent’ (p. 251). Milo provides a perfect compliment to the unjust persecution of the chaplain in the immediately
preceding chapter where he and the colonels devise a perfect rationalisation for his never having to fly combat missions, since his deals are so important to the war
effort. The consequence, of course, is that someone else’s life will be put more at risk.
It is easy to recall Catch-22 (especially as refracted through the film version) largely as black humour and to forget what a profound morality it is. It could be said
that the whole book is constructed around the languid unravelling of the agony of Snowden’s death over Avignon, the final description of which reminds one of the
unbearable scene in the bomb crater in All Quiet on the Western Front, where one soldier watches another die. The story unfolds in small revelations throughout the
text, and we are not really clear about it until the penultimate chapter. The quality of these passages is dream-like, and Snowden’s death is at the heart of Yossarian’s
relationship to the war. In early chapters we learn that Yossarian takes the war very personally and insists that people are trying to kill him. This is an enduring feature
of his world view. In the sequel, Closing Time, the narrator, reflecting on the events in Catch-22, recalls him as that crazy bombardier who used to say that ‘he
would rather die than be killed… and had made up his mind to live forever, or at least die trying’ (Heller, 1993. p. 20). He also takes personally God’s creation of
pain, phlegm, tooth decay, and the incontinence of the old (p. 178). This brings to mind a similar passage in The Brothers Karamazov, in which Ivan gives this sort
of mundane, gratuitous personal suffering as part of his reason for turning in his ticket to God.
Indeed, this is one facet of ‘the secret Snowden had spilled to him on the mission to Avignon – they were out to get him; and Snowden had spilled it all over the back
of the plane’ (pp. 170-71). In spite of his being wounded, Yossarian’s most intimate experience of death is Snowden’s demise on the way back from Avignon. At
first it is thought that Yossarian has been hit and people call though the intercom to help the bombardier. Yossarian asks many questions about the war, but they all
boil down to one ‘which had no answer’: ‘Where are the Snowdens of Yesteryear?’ (pp. 34-5). Snowden keeps saying he is cold, and Yossarian does all he can to
help by making him comfortable and putting a tourniquet on the shrapnel wound in his leg. In one of the most touching passages in the book we are with Yossarian
when he finally discovers that there is another wound. ‘Snowden was wounded inside his flak suit. Yossarian ripped opened the snaps of Snowden’s flak suit and
heard himself scream wildly as Snowden’s insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out. Another chunk of flak more than three inches
big had shot into his other side just underneath the arm and blasted all the way thorough, drawing mottled quarts of Snowden along with it through the gigantic hole in
his ribs it made as it blasted out. Yossarian screamed a second time and squeezed both hands over his eyes His teeth were chattering in horror. He forced himself to
look again. Here was God’s plenty all right, he thought bitterly as he stared – liver, lungs, kidneys, ribs, stomach and bits of the stewed tomatoes Snowden had eaten
that day for lunch’ (429)
Snowden said again that he was cold, and Yossarian said again ‘There, there.’
‘Yossarian was cold, too, and shivering uncontrollably. He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had
spilled all over the messy floor. 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 garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all’ (pp.
There are two other passages written at this level of rhetorical power. One conveys great tenderness and is about Yossarian’s loving Nurse Duckett as they lie by
the seaside. This flows into his reflections on people who die under water, his missing friends and his first sight of a corpse, and it ends with an account of the
gratuitous death of Kid Sampson, as McWatt buzzes the swimming raft and makes a tiny miscalculation ‘which slices the boy half away’, followed by a sound, ‘tsst’,
and the legs and hips toppled backwards, and then it rained Kid Sampson on all of them (pp. 331-2). This is but one of many deaths which take us completely by
surprise. They appear in the middle of a paragraph, sometimes in a subordinate clause, almost by the way, and convey an awful contingency, a callousness of God,
nature and human depravity. Two of the most amusing minor characters – Nately and Hungry Joe – die in this off-hand way. Similarly, the frat-man Aarfy rapes a
woman and throws her out a window, blandly, and gets away with it in the teeth of Yossarian’s shouting that it is wrong, and he will be punished (p.409).
This comes at the end of a sustained walk through the streets of Rome, where he sees tableau after tableau of cruelty, rape, gang rape, beating of children and a dog
(which reminds him of the beating of the horse in Raskolnikov’s dream (p. 405), thus evoking the ubiquity of the theme of pointless suffering and murder. There is a
long passage on hypocrisy and the perverse inversion of values: ‘What a lousy earth! …How many winners were losers, successes failures, rich men poor men? How
many wise guys were stupid? How many happy endings were unhappy endings? How many honest men were liars, brave men cowards, loyal men traitors, how
many sainted men were corrupt, how many people in positions of trust had sold their souls to blackguards for petty cash, how many had never had souls? How
many straight-and-narrow paths were crooked paths? How many best families were worst families and how many good people were bad people? When you added
them all up and then subtracted, you might be left with only the children, and perhaps with Albert Einstein and an old violinist or sculptor somewhere’ (p. 403). He is
here at the brink of cynicism, experiencing life as a nightmare, and is sorely in need of redemption: ‘The night was filled with horrors, and he thought he knew how
Christ might have felt as he walked through the world, like a psychiatrist through a ward full of nuts, like a victim through a prison full of thieves. What a welcome
sight a leper must have been!’ (p. 405).
I have, of course, had in mind contemporary events as I have written this essay. I have, that is, returned to Catch-22, because present events in the world have
revived the sense that wanton destructiveness lies very near the surface of human nature and can break through at any time in any place. In recent public discussions,
the author has been heard to say that now is a good time to be old, since it is so hard to maintain hope in the face of the current manifestations of cruelty and the
moral maze of the times. For his generation the axis of good and evil had – or was thought to have – a single fulcrum. Now the debate among competing goods and
evils is bewildering and easily leads to despair. This novel – one of the century’s greatest and one whose subtleties I have only begun to convey – turns on what
happens at the intersection of character and the institutionalised reifications and cruelties of debased societies and societies at war, internally and with nominally
external enemies. There is a fine line, a thin veneer, represented in the book by Yossarian and the chaplain, Captain R. O. Shipman, one an Assyrian, the other an
Anabaptist. I take this to mean that Joseph Heller believes that insofar as decency is being husbanded and cultured, it is not in the mainstream of the society. This
was undoubtedly true in the period when he was a young man in the 1930s and 1940s, as he recalled in a recent television interview: the left was marginalised but
had morality on its side.
The line between integrity and selling out and entering the morass of moral relativism is easily crossed. When they had the chaplain cornered, he dreamed up a
disease for himself. He lied. ‘The chaplain had sinned, and it was good. Common sense told him that telling lies and defecting from duty were sins. On the other
hand, everyone knew that sin was evil and that no good could come from evil. But he did feel good; he felt positively marvellous. Consequently, it followed logically
that telling lies and defecting from duty could not be sins. The chaplain had mastered, in a moment of divine intuition, the handy technique of protective rationalization,
and he was exhilarated by his discovery. It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into
abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody
could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character’ (p. 356). Hannah Arendt has essayed soberly on the most alarming point about this in her
study of Eichmann in Jerusalem, subtitled A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). I wonder how she would have responded to the Kleinian psychoanalytic
notions of the ubiquity of psychotic anxieties and the idea of the inhumanity of groups and bureaucracies as an institutional defence against them (Bion, 1961; Jaques,
1955; Lyth, 1959; Young, 1992, in press).
Yossarian bears it all, contains it all and lives a life ruled by psychotic anxieties, and in defence against the terror of disintegration, all the rules make group relations
sense, i.e., they are mad. He and his tentmate Orr survive – he through psychical distress and insight and knowing when to stand and when to run (p. 440), Orr
through rigorous training in physical hardship, won through repeated crashes, the cunning point of which Yossarian only grasps at the very end when Orr turns out to
have rowed all the way to Sweden and freedom. Unlike my other two favourite anti-authoritarian hard cases – Randle McMurtry of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s
Nest and Cool Hand Luke – Yossarian stops short of provoking the system into destroying him. He knows when to take off on his own path to redemption – ‘to
split’ in the depressive sense.
It is ultimately a book about ideals, about the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions and about how hard it is for people to behave well, especially in groups and
institutions under duress. ‘That’s my trouble, you know,’ Yossarian mused sympathetically, folding his arms. ‘Between me and every ideal I always find
Scheisskopfs, Peckems, Korns and Cathcarts. And that sort of changes the ideal.’
‘You must try not to think of them,’ Major Danby advised affirmatively, ‘And you must never let them change your values. Ideals are good, but people are
sometimes not so good. You must try to look up at the big picture.’
Yossarian rejected the advice with a sceptical shake of his head. ‘When I look up, I see people cashing in. I don’t see heaven or saints or angels. I see people
cashing in on every decent impulse and every human tragedy.’ (435)
…’From now on I’m thinking only of me.’
‘But Yossarian, suppose everyone felt that way.’
‘Then I’d be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn’t I?’ (p. 436, cf. pp. 58, 102)