Catch-22 Essay, Research Paper
Through religion, philosophy, science, art, and mathematics, humans quest for an Absolute. They seek to find a “still point” where conflict cannot burgeon and principles may converge to an essential Truth. However, in Catch-22 Joseph Heller suggests the unsettling idea that Life holds no pervasive absolute because in actuality Life is the continual clash of absolutes. Through the main character Yossarian, one is able to understand how the individual creates a world applicable only to himself; how when these differing worlds are collectively applied, the natural course of society is to be chaotic and Life, paradoxical; and how together these concepts emulate the conflict modernist minds had within a postmodernist society.
Since the individuals within the society of Catch-22 create worlds where each perpetuates his idea of what is right and wrong, the concept of a prevailing Absolute is nonexistent. Their worlds which encase what they believe as the only belief follows the ideas of Existentialism that states since oneself is the only frame of reference to what may be True, the only valid absolute is one created by the individual. For example, Colonel Cathcart’s continual increase in the number of missions the soldiers must complete is an endless frustration that adds to the impermanence of the soldiers’ stay in the Army. However, to power-hungry Cathcart the apathy he expresses for the lives of his soldiers is perfectly acceptable because within his own sphere his concern is increasing his rank by any means. “[He] was a . . . dedicated military tactician who calculated day and night in service of himself” (198). Thus, Cathcart’s actions have two very unlike implications in his and the soldiers’ spheres. Similarly, Milo Minderbinder’s construction of a syndicate that serves his increasing desire to make profit provides him with a reason for his existence–essentially his own absolute. Milo even tries imposing on the soldiers his belief that M & M Enterprises is the only admirable and desirable way to governs one’s life. However, the duplicitous motives behind Milo’s syndicate become evident as he continues to jeopardize the army’s best interests for his own. When Milo agrees to attacking a German bridge for America and defending the same German bridge for Germany for the sake of “private enterprise . . . and fantastic profit” (265), he risks shattering the expansive world his actions effect for the sake of keeping his world together because to him his world is all that is worth acting upon. “[He] just saw a wonderful opportunity to make some profit out of the mission, and . . . took it” (265). Since both Cathcart and Milo choose to follow their own desires, confusion grows between the subordinates and powers of the society because no man tries to work in accordance with another; thus no man is able to believe in an Absolute true not only to himself, but society. Thus, this conflict among individuals’ purported absolutes seems to be an endless Catch-22. One can never satisfy the following statement: what one sees true to himself is true to those around him. The catch seems to illustrate the differentiation between simply believing in an Absolute than to applying it to Life–where it shall always be in the face of contradiction.
As Yossarian’s sees the effect of clashing spheres within the army, he realizes that the absolutes individuals choose to believe make contradiction an inherent a part of society and life. As a result, Yossarian asks “the ultimate question as to the conditions of life” that Friedrich Nietzsche’s put forth in the The Gay Science–”To what extent can truth endure incorporation?” When Yossarian travels to the Eternal City, his question gongs louder as he sees his life in the army mirrored by life in the Eternal City where “every victim was a culprit, every culprit a victim” (416). Yossarian’s thrust into a reality of human suffering brings about his feeling of betrayal for believing that an essential Truth existed. His hopes that the world outside the army would redeem his spirit and reinstill his faith in Life dissolves into Nothingness. Instead, the images of a dilapidated Rome, an old man kicking his dog, and sick, starved children make Life appear evermore stark and dismal to Yossarian. “His spirit was sick” (427). When an elderly woman dolefully tells Yossarian of the girls chased onto the street by soldiers monotonously repeating, “Catch-22″, he is taken aback (417). It dawns on Yossarian how Catch-22 is also an Absolute created and believed by the individual. Although it is not a tangible law, he understands that because so many believe in Catch-22’s existence that that is enough to make it absolute within the individual’s mind. However, the ultimate irony in the Absolute these individuals have chosen to believe is that Catch-22 itself is a statement that Life is an endless confrontation with Paradox. Yossarian’s understanding that within society there is no unifying Absolute is similar to physicists gradual understanding of the quantum theory that showed the physical world was more chaotic than ever presumed. The theory according to Paul Davies’ Other World, “shows that reality, inasmuch as it has any meaning at all, is not a property of the external world on its own but it intimately bound up with our perception of the world.” Thus, the quantum theory produced a doubt in the Absolutes created in science; instead, it became understood that the Absolute was more dependent on human perception. Just as the quantum theory shows contradiction within the physicist’s world so does the Eternal City within Yossarian’s world. Imagine the Eternal City as being one of those mysterious subatomic particles that Yossarian is trying to decipher. Upon the veneer it seems just intriguingly different from past particles or environments in which he has studied. However, on a deeper level he realizes that this infinitesimal world actually holds a fundamental answer to the nature of Life–it being the ultimate catch-22. When Yossarian hears of Orr’s successful trip to Sweden finally something impossible becomes possible in Yossarian’s mind and he grasps for that last hope to believe one can free himself from the seemingly ubiquitous Catch-22. However, the absurdity of Yossarian’s escape reflects the absurdity of the solution. In a way, the improbable success of Yossarian’s exodus to Sweden from Italy and on a dinky raft is an implication that life truly is an inescapable paradox.
Based on the idea that the individuals within the Army accept the paradox of life, and Yossarian accepts it reluctantly illustrates two prevalent philosophies during the 20th century, postmodernism and modernism. The Army reflects a postmodernist society because it functions according to each individual’s principles only upheld within his own world, while in Life each contradicts another. For example, Franz Kafka explains that individuals tend only to seek knowledge of what is good and evil, not knowledge of actual life; thus, human ideals are often in conflict with the ways of Reality. Kafka seems to say that although humans have eaten the fruit of desire for what is absolute, they have yet to eat the fruit of Life that would reveal Life has no actual Absolute. Kafka writes in On Parables that humans operate on two planes: one where they seek the absolute in mind and the other where they try apply these Absolutes in reality making possible harmony of the two impossible. Thus, Kafka essentially answers, “no” to Nietzsche’s question of whether Truth prevails when incorporated into Life. On the other hand, Yossarian reflects the modernist individual mired in a postmodernist society because he still desires meaning from Life although the desire ends with the postmodernist conclusion. Yossarian’s search for Truth in this postmodernist society that has already accepted Truth does not exist is most vividly illustrated in modern art or the Cubist movement. Because Art has often been a medium in which the artist paints his perception of the individual, Cubism specifically concentrates not seeing the individual from the perception of form, but soul. And since most of Catch-22 is Yossarian’s intricate, mindboggling, and hopeful quest for himself in terms of society, he becomes the perfect subject for an artist within the Cubist movement. However, Cubists attempt to understand the human soul conclude in paintings with shapes and colors that juxtapose each other and end up illustrating the dichotomy existent within the Modernist individual. Thus, Cubism finds a visual method to illustrate how the individual, as Yossarian, is torn between his absolute Self and a paradoxical society. Ultimately, Yossarian’s struggle and realization of the contradiction that is a part of Life leads one to ask if Yossarian can now say to Life, as Rumi writes in the poem Sublime Generosity, “that I am part of the ploys / of this game makes me / amazingly happy.”