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Monday, May 27, 2013


Opening Line: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

This blog is undergoing revision; a temporary archive of this series can be found here

It was love at first sight.

Sometimes, first sentences do not contain much of a clue.

Catch-22 is one of the most famous war novels of all time, a work of satire so precise and burning that its very title achieved the status of a cultural landmark, a phrase we didn't know we needed until we heard it. A 'catch-22' is often defined as a no-win situation, but it's more than that: a situation that rests on impenetrably circular logic, impervious madness. Who is and isn't 'crazy' is the opening theme of the book: this is a story of American war pilots being required to fly more and more missions, dying one by one, or, if they survive, returning to a world governed by petty military authority and expected, somehow, to see their situation as normal.

Yossarian, our hero, doesn't care about the rights and wrongs of the war: his character is a hymn to unashamed cowardice - or rather, to the basic animal desire to live that overwhelms all other principles when it's threatened this directly. It's easy to be brave with other people's lives, as Yossarian's commanders so fatally are, but when it looks like you might die tomorrow - and die painfully, fearfully, violently - other considerations start to look trivial. 'It was a vile and muddy war,' the narrative remarks early, 'and Yossarian could have lived without it - lived forever, perhaps. Only a fraction of his countrymen would give up their lives to win it, and it was not his ambition to be among them ... History did not demand Yossarian's premature demise, justice could be satisfied without it, progress did not hinge upon it, victory did not depend on it. That men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance.' Although that last sentence isn't strictly true: Yossarian isn't willing to be the victim of anything. It's just one among hundreds, perhaps thousands, of verbal twists, the arch shamelessness that becomes the only defence when the flat reality is that you are living under circumstances in which the most basic instinct of any living creature is forbidden, and indeed considered morally wrong: you are not allowed to protect your own life, and wanting to protect it is frowned upon. In Heller's dark vision, soldiers - Yossarian is technically a pilot, but Catch-22's satire isn't confined to the air force, so I'm using the word generically to mean 'members of the military' - are not allowed to think and feel like human beings.

A 'catch-22', then, is not just a paradoxical situation, but a state of complete insanity, or perhaps non-sanity: a state in which the most normal of all human impulses is cast as abnormal. As Anthony Burgess remarks in his introduction: 'The other day I was writing about the situation of nineteenth-century philologists. They could not teach their subject in universities without possessing a degree in it, but degrees in it would never exist until they taught the subject in universities. This, rightly I think, I designated a Catch-22 situation. But it is a genuinely deadly matter in its text of origin.' As the phrase has come loose from its book and is often - not illegitimately - used to describe the more ordinary frustrations of life, it's worth hearing the original definition to help us be clear exactly what kind of a book we're in before we look at the first sentence in depth. The quote will be long, because the complexities both of logic and tone can't really be covered in a few sentences - a point I'll return to when talking about the first sentence. Yossarian is talking to the military doctor, asking to be 'grounded' - that is, excused from flying any more missions:

'Can't you ground someone who's crazy?' 
'Oh, sure. I have to. There's a rule saying I have to ground anyone who's crazy.' 
'Then why don't you ground me? I'm crazy. Ask Clevinger.' 
'Clevinger? Where is Clevinger? You find Clevinger and I'll ask him.' 
'Then ask any of the others. They'l tell you how crazy I am.' 
'They're crazy.' 
'Then why don't you ground them?' 
'Why don't they ask me to ground them?' 
'Because they're crazy, that's why.' 
'Of course they're crazy,' Doc Daneeka replied. 'I just told you they're crazy, didn't I? And you can't let crazy people decide whether you're crazy or not, can you?' 
Yossarian looked at him soberly and tried another approach. 'Is Orr crazy?' 
'He sure is,' Doc Daneeka replied. 
'Can you ground him?' 
'I sure can. But first he has to ask me. That's part of the rule.' 
'Then why doesn't he ask you to?' 
'Because he's crazy,' Doc Daneeka said. 'He has to be crazy to keep flying combat missions after all the close calls he's had. Sure, I can ground Orr. But he has to ask me to.' 
'That's all he has to do to be grounded?' 
'That's all. Let him ask me.' 
'And then you can ground him?' Yossarian asked. 
'No. Then I can't ground him.' 
'You mean there's a catch?' 
'Sure there's a catch,' Doc Daneeka replied. 'Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy.' 
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr 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. 
Yossarian saw it clearly in all its spinning reasonableness. There was an elliptical precision about its perfect pairs of parts that was graceful and shocking, like good modern art...

And it goes on, Yossarian's narrative drifting straight into another conversation with another equally circular thinker, getting maddened by their lack of reason and then drifting straight on to yet another comrade, who he tries to confuse by telling him the same thing, passing on the abuse because if he can't be sane, neither can anyone else - or else, perhaps to test reality and see if any new witnesses can make sense of it. Reality is like a sore tooth in Catch-22, constantly poked at and explored and never yielding any relief.

As I said, it's a long extract to quote, but while 'Catch-22' itself is simple and precise, the tone of the book is not so straightforward. Savage, frustrated humour animates it throughout, but the savagery is expressed in dialogue: you need two players for it to work. Once the catch has been explained to Yossarian he can reflect on it privately, and there, Heller shows a lyrical hand, relaxing from endless contradictions into the eloquence of 'spinning reasonableness' and 'graceful and shocking'. But here's the thing: I could have just quoted the paragraph that explains 'Catch-22' without any dialogue: 'There was only one catch and that was Catch-22...' But if I'd done that on its own, it would have been a little hard to follow, wouldn't it? Packed tight on the page, expressed in logical detail, it becomes like a mathematical equation: Heller has to explain it three times to make it perfectly clear. Following the dialogue between Yossarian and Doc Daneeka, though, is altogether easier. It's not just that we learn from watching someone else be taught: it's that the nature of 'Catch-22' is that it's an answer - an answer to a specific question, and that answer is 'no'. Can a soldier protect himself? No. Under this circumstance? No. Under that circumstance? No. Under any circumstance? No. Put in that way, it's very simple: the logic may be twisted, but the situation it creates is always the same: you have to die. And that being the answer, dialogue is the cleanest way to present it, because it is, as well as an assault on logic, an assault on Yossarian's actual physical safety: what we see in the dialogue is a man repeatedly running into a wall, and it's only by watching him crash and crash that we can witness not only the craziness but the aggression of 'Catch-22', its heartlessness in the face of genuine human fear.

Which is why, when we turn to the first sentence, it seems uncharacteristic of the book. Catch-22 is a book of paradoxes, and a paradox needs two sides. You can write a single-sentence paradox if you choose, but Heller's style favours the call-and-response, the ask and the rebuff, and for that, you need more than one sentence. No single sentence - or at least, no sentence arresting enough to start a book - could contain it.

So, we have 'It was love at first sight.' Not romantic love; this is a heterosexual male world in which women are primarily prostitutes on the sidelines and falling in love with a woman is just one more minor variation on the craziness that afflicts every single character in the book. No, the second sentence informs us - already setting up the one-two-punch rhythm of Catch-22 - it's something else: 'The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.' This is an intellectual love, the same love that Yossarian feels at the contradictions and the opportunities for mayhem that provide the only kind of relief from the ever-present threat of death: the chaplain is a well-meaning innocent, utterly out of his depth in this terrible world, and Yossarian takes a great liking to him precisely because he's so easily confused and embarrassed. In a world where most military figures - or at least, those who don't actually have to go into combat themselves - feel no shame at telling a man he has no right to live, that is quite a find: the capacity to get embarrassed depends on feeling the humanity of other people, and the capacity to get confused depends on the belief that things ought to make sense. Empathy and logic are in desperately short supply, enough to make a man feel 'love' - comical love, to be sure, rhetorically exaggerated love, but a genuine positive emotion - at the very sight of a man who still possesses them.

There's something, too, in the immediacy of the sentence that fits with the texture of Catch-22: military logic runs round an unending track and you can't argue your way into or out of it. Reality, genuine truth, is perceived instinctually and by flashes: Yossarian ends the book with a sudden decision to desert based on a realisation about a friend having done the same, a realisation that actually, yes, escape is possible: 'Yossarian leaped out of bed with an incredulous yelp when he finally understood.' It's so instantaneous an understanding that he literally jumps to his feet. Orr, the apparent idiot, has slipped through the cracks and shown up safe in Sweden, and Yossarian realises with a thrill that his idiocy must have been a mask, a pretence to allay suspicion, under the protection of which he could run for his life. Very little makes sense in the world of Catch-22, and you can't understand it by thinking: the whole nature of 'Catch-22' is that it subverts thought. All you can see for sure, you see in 'first sight' revelations. The chaplain is a decent man. Don't argue; run. I don't want to die.

That, really, is why the first sentence isn't much of a clue to most of the book. It's a flash of insight, and we have to be familiar with the background mania before those flashes become illuminating. The chaplain is going to be a friend, an ally who supports Yossarian's right to run in the final chapter: he's too normal for this story. We don't really see all that much of him for most of the book. Why do we begin with him? Because he's one of the few people who can be contained in a simple, isolated, declarative sentence. Everybody else needs paradoxes to express them: the true rarity is a man you can just flat-out like.

At the same time, this first sentence phrase about him is a cliche, and cliches are important to Catch-22. As a culture, it's through cliche that we express conventional wisdom, societal norms. And what greater societal norm than this one: it's a good thing for a soldier to lay down his life for his country? The word 'subvert' is often over-used in literary discussions, but for Catch-22 that really is the appropriate term: cliches are part of its vocabulary precisely because it's only by subverting them that the narrative can rebel against the conventional wisdom, backed up by armed authority, that destroys the characters in the story. Casualties are victims of circumstance. What's good for business is good for the country. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. When there's a war behind them, these are conventions that kill. Catch-22 doesn't argue with them. It uses them, flips and spins them, recites them with manic enthusiasm until it drives everyone sane.

So with 'love at first sight': divorce the sentence from its context, and this could be the opening of a piece of terrible romantic hack-work. It's not the phrase itself, but how it's used, that actually matters, and to understand it - to find the clue it's hiding - we have to read further, go further in and further down.

The first sentence is ironic but direct and truer than it seems, and what it gives us is one of the rare moments of seeing clearly: love of life, love of decency, inexpressible in plain, sane speech. Because here's the other thing about Catch-22, the less famous but absolutely important thing: slipped between the looping layers of madness are moments of pure, graphic horror. 'Catch-22' is a thing of intellectual beauty, a kind of polished, heedless madness ... but then there's the death of Snowden. The narrative flicks back and back to it, mentioning the death as early as the fourth chapter and gradually unpeeling more and more from the memory, like a kind of ever-worsening flashback, until we finally see the scene: Snowden, wounded terribly in the leg; Yossarian relieved that it's no worse than a case of exposed muscles twitching like 'live hamburger meat', then seeing that Snowden is wounded in the stomach and watching him die as his shattered insides all slide out. The language is sickening: 'was that a tube of slimy bone he saw running deep inside the gory scarlet flowed behind the twitching, startling fibers of weird muscle?' Yossarian wonders wildly, only to see Snowden's body fall apart and conclude that, '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.'

This is not what we were prepared for by the barracks shenanigans and gallows humour of the opening chapters. Many people start Catch-22 and drift off early, in fact, because something happens to it around halfway through: having dropped us into a group of maddening people, wisecracking pilots all brandishing their craziness like a badge of belonging and terrible officers with parodic names like 'Lieutenant Scheisskopf' (that's 'Lieutenant Shithead', for those who don't speak German), we begin as the new kid on the base, rather dizzied with all these strange new people who seem so much more savvy than us. Incident follows incident out of chronological sequence with no clear storyline: everyone is going mad, missions have to be flown, more and more strange new faces pop up, each chapter title the name of a character until we start to wonder if we'll ever stop getting introduced to new people, new variants on the theme of craziness, or if this relentless jumping back and forth in time will ever start to make sense. But Catch-22 is cumulative. It drives us crazy ... until we start to get enough pieces to assemble into some kind of sanity, and about halfway through, we pass some kind of tipping point, and you freeze to the page. Incidents that get replayed and replayed start to become more real with each iteration: we start to see just how serious, under the joking, the situation really is. The silly number-juggling of capitalism that begins with an earnest mess officer becomes 'M & M Enterprises', the company that bombs its own side for profit and robs people until Yossarian has to care for the dying Snowden with no morphine because there's nothing in the case but a note reading 'What's good for M & M Enterprises is good for the country.' The missions rise and rise to the point where mention of them is less a laugh than a sob: after a particularly grisly and awful death scene, for example, one chapter ends with the deadpan statement, 'Colonel Cathcart was so upset by the deaths of Kid Sampson and McWatt that he raised the missions to sixty-five.' People we've gotten to know and like, to enjoy as comic characters with their own quirky variants on the general policy of insanity, get killed, suddenly, brutally, vividly before our eyes. Yossarian may be burned out when we start the book, but we aren't. It just takes us a while to catch up to him.

So it is with the first sentence, 'It was love at first sight.' It's a joke, really, harmless-sounding, a little silly: a man sees a chaplain and finds him so sweetly raw that it's described as falling in love. It's a cliche, amusingly misapplied. It's nothing serious.

Then we see men torn apart and their blood sprays across the page, and we forget that we ever knew how to laugh.

We begin ignorant, and have to learn a new language, catch the rhythms of craziness; we have to learn who's who. But just when we're finding our feet, we are knocked off them again. We begin with the mental horror, and then, mercilessly, we are hurled up against the physical. Catch-22 is, fundamentally, not funny ... but it takes us a long time to learn that secret.

(Incidentally, a note for those who've noticed that the title of this seems to be 'Opening Line', not 'First sentences': I'm making a change. At some point I plan to record some of the better posts of this series and release them in podcast form; right now I'm waiting on the composer to get the intro music finished, but hopefully they'll be along soon.

As close reading of the kind I'm promoting here will easily show, 'first sentences' is not a phrase that trips easily off the tongue. It was never really a title, more a placeholder to explain what I was doing, because I didn't expect the series to meet with the success it has. Now it's taking off and I'm planning to release it in new forms, it needs a more permanent and less linguistically sticky name. Opening Line it is.)
Interesting analysis. It's been a while since I read the book, but I remember feeling quite detached from the deaths and sadness throughout. I wonder if that was part of the role of the pervasive comedy - not just to lighten the tone, but also to make even the tragedy seem so farcical that we're shielded from it to some extent?
A podcast? What a wonderful idea. I'm looking forward to that.

You know, I'd forgotten a lot of the horror of Catch-22, but now you mention it, yes, it comes back to me. It's a book with many tricks up its sleeve, isn't it?

I always laughed when i read this book
Yossa became my favourite. In fact, every character of this book is memorable. Yossa, Doc, Milo,Major Major, Dunbar, Joe...everyone.
The books is all about paradoxes and opposing terms.
Awesome experience i had.
This is a great essay. I remember when the book came out and my father would have us in stitches, reading us absurd scenes, like Major Major explaining that he would only see people when he was out.

And then, years later, I read it. It's still just about the funniest thing I've ever read, but I saw that it is deadly serious.

And whenever I think about it I come back to the horrible scene of Snowden's death.

"I'm cold."
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