Senior HTF Member
- May 22, 1999
- Real Name
SATIRE BRINGS THE MESSAGE HOME
SATIRE BRINGS THE MESSAGE HOME
Funny, yes, but not in a “That is so delightfully humorous” way, but rather in a “These characters are exaggerated beyond belief, and do crazy things that make me laugh, but only because I can see human nature sticking out through every seam and see aspects of my friends and myself in them. The exaggeration and recognition of it are funny, not the characters or events of the story in themselves.” But that could be said to be a rough definition of “satire.” And with Joseph Heller’s first – and, for nineteen years, his only – novel, satire is the driving force, and the book is top-heavy with bizarre personalities who, if taken at face value, one would never (expect to) find in the U.S. Air Force, let alone in commanding positions.
You can’t take the characters at face value, though, because they are caricatures. The sole exception is probably Yossarian, through whose eyes we experience the delirium within a bombardier squadron stationed in Italy. Every blink of his eye and every word he speaks seems eminently sane because it is tucked neatly and inescapably within the invisible walls of a psychotic prison guarded by men whose circular thinking and backward logic spin him to the point of insanity. But not quite to the point of insanity, which brings us to the book’s title, now an iconic phrase used to describe any situation in which one simply can’t win.
War, it seems to me, is by definition something that can’t be won. Not really. There are tremendous casualties, economic devastation, and post-war trauma that can last a lifetime. And that’s for the side that supposedly “wins.” Add to the losers’ booty a loss of morale, power and world opinion, plus – especially in the case of the Japanese after 1945 – lingering physical and psychological ailments, many eventually fatal.
So, if the explanation given to Yossarian for the term “Catch-22" is that you can get out of active service if you’re crazy, but you have to ask to be released, and by doing so prove you aren’t really crazy, then one explanation of war is that it isn’t inevitable, but in order to avoid it, societies (including the politicians and generals) have to admit it is barbaric, but having done so need to prolong, engage in or initiate wars in order to keep a perceived enemy from attacking us.
The purest of adult absurdism goes with the Kafka principle:
it is entirely framed by itself [and] invites the reader into a world that
is constructed solely out of a discontinuous and wilfully unassimilated
logic, that just happens to be coextensive with our own. (Self)
Because Yossarian is forced by geography, military law and the nuttiest line-up of leaders imaginable who create an air base on which absolutely nothing makes logical sense, and because he is totally at the mercy of these elements, he could easily be seen as a Kafkaesque victim. He is blind-sided by the sheer lunacy of the rules and the behavior of both his peers and his commanding officers, unable to understand why he is constantly persecuted, just as Josef K. is arrested and detained for reasons unknown in Kafka’s The Trial.
Aren’t we all on trial, at least a little bit, for reasons we cannot fathom? I would argue that, in contemporary U.S. society, we are very much on trial for actions our Constitution is supposed to permit us without admonishment, such as speaking out publicly against our government, or joining a controversial but non-violent organization. Is this funny? Not ostensibly. But if such oppression was to be exaggerated way beyond reality, and the people surrounding the events were made into cartoonish buffoons, we would laugh at the recognition of human nature within the caricatures, while on another level grow more aware of, and more uncomfortable with, the underlying truths. Stand-up humor, political cartoons, even protest songs have often been used as a means of slipping social comment into one’s entertainment in order to soften an audience’s resistence. The same stuff that makes you slap your knee and laugh helplessly until you’re breathless can also break your heart or make you angry.
On that level, Catch 22 works as well as a Will Ferrell impression of George W. Bush, or this (excerpted) Phil Ochs song called “Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends.”
Look outside the window, there’s a woman being grabbed
They’ve dragged her to the bushes and now she’s being stabbed.
Maybe we should call the cops and try to stop the pain
but Monopoly is so much fun and I’d hate to blow the game.
And I’m sure it wouldn’t interest
anybody outside of a small circle of friends (Ochs).
Somehow, Ochs was able to turn our mass indifference to violence and an unwillingness to get involved into something that could make us laugh, but always there remains the aftertaste of truth to sober us up and get us thinking. Heller accomplishes this result using the horrors of war as his topic. Would either the Ochs song or the Heller novel be as effective as protest had they not employed humor to nudge their points across? I doubt it. People are in denial about so many things. Only by having our resistence broken down by a tone that seems frivolous do most of us allow the social commentary to slip unnoticed into our psyches. This is a nearly subliminal thing while it is occurring, yet we can emerge from a theater having just seen, for instance, the 1970 film version of CATCH-22 murmuring how insane war really is, and how do we keep on getting sucked into it all the time?
While satire is often termed a literary "mode" or is classified
as a characteristic tone or attitude, two main traditions of satire as genre,
both with classical origins, have generally been recognized. The first is
formal verse satire, the tradition stemming from Horace and Juvenal, in
which the satirist (or satiric persona) directly attacks a particular manifestation of
vice or folly. The second is Menippean (i.e., discursive, principally prose)
satire, which typically employs a borrowed structure or "fable" in which
the author qua satirist plays a more oblique or even invisible role (Cook, 16)
We are likely to be more familiar with the second type of satire mentioned by Cook, which, besides prose, can work through such forms as stand-up comedy and film. The “invisible role” of which Cook speaks would, in this case, be that of author Heller, who seemingly stands back and lets the nut case characters he’s created and the bizarre plot turns dictate the satirical content. Heller distances himself – and us – from reality by introducing characters who names alone are absurd, and then by structuring his book in a time warp. This is a deliberately non-linear book, whose chaotic tone is sustained as much by its yo-yo chronology as by it characters.
A careful examination of Heller's novel reveals not only that it
has form, but that this form is carefully constructed to support the pervasive
theme of absurdity. . . . The most significant aspect of the structure of
Catch-22 is its chronology. Behind what appears to be merely random events
lies a careful system of time-sequences involving two distinct and mutually
contradictory chronologies. The major part of the novel, focussed [sic] on
Yossarian, moves forward and back from a pivotal point in time [Snowden’s
death]. Yossarian, like many anti-heroes of modern fiction, lives in a world
dominated not by chronological but by psychological time. Yossarian's time
is punctuated, if not ordered, by the inexorable increases in the number of
missions and by the repetitious returns to the relative safety and sanity of the
hospital. . . . While the dominant sequence of events shifts back and forth from
the present to the past treating any period of time as equally present, equally
immediate, a counter-motion controls the time of the history of Milo Minder-
binder. Across the see-saw pattern of events in the rest of the novel Minder-
binder moves directly forward from one success to the next . . . . Independently,
each chronology is valid and logical; together, the two time schemes are
impossible. By manipulating the points at which the different systems cross,
Heller creates a structural absurdity enforcing the absurdity of character
and event in the novel (Gaukroger).
Milo Minderbinder. There is one of those names. What does his character do? He creates M & M Enterprises, which basically buys goods worldwide and sells them on the black market. But many people do things like this in real life, and there is generally no humor in it. In Milo’s case, however, the business grows so absurd it falls outside of any reality we are familiar with (until recently, that is). Milo issues “shares” in his company to those from whom he steals supplies on the air base. These includes even morphine, and many a man suffers because there is none available to ease their pain after being wounded during a mission. He actually hires the Germans to bomb his own base, a deal which proves highly profitable, although putting the American war effort in Italy in jeopardy. We can laugh at this because it is so outrageous, but lurking in the back of our minds will be such contemporary luminaries as Bernard Madoff and his ponzi schemes. We’d have laughed at Madoff had he appeared as a character in a book many years ago. Catch-22 proved to be frighteningly prophetic. Some author may need to exaggerate the Madoff character in a future satire of his or her own, because ponzi schemes are too old hat!
Col. Cathcart is a man with a mission: to assign as many missions as possible to his fliers so that he will earn a promotion based on his flight records. “For the men of the Army Air Corps in early World War II, the chance of surviving the obligatory twenty-five missions without death, injury, or imprisonment was one in three.” (Morris, vii). He “volunteers” his men for increasing numbers of these dangerous missions, way beyond the mandatory number. If there is one man responsible for the bulk of Yossarian’s woes, it would be Cathcart, whose behavior is so ridiculous one laughs at his pomposity and blithe willingness to sacrifice others for the sake of his own career. But while laughing at this, one can start to feel the tug of George W. Bush on one’s shirt sleeves. Again, Bush’s very real appearance on the U.S.S. Lincoln wearing full military regalia and backed by a “Mission Accomplished” banner would have seemed hilarious in a satirical book a few decades ago. Today, that president’s willingness to put hundreds of thousands in harm’s way to satisfy his personal psychological needs is nothing but shameful, and to think that Catch-22 presented us with his prototype 48 years ago...
What character, then, can we identify with in this book? By default, it is Captain John Yossarian, through whose eyes we see the bulk of the story, and who is still mentally grounded enough to seem “normal.” We all perceive ourselves to be normal, so this is the man we side with. His observations of the goings on in Italy during World War II reflect the absurd and surreal and make us smile, not because they are humorous, but because they contain nuggets of human nature we recognize in ourselves and those around us, (toned-down to “acceptable” levels, of course).
Yossarian’s plight becomes ours: we must escape from the asylum or almost certainly be killed by the inmates. We reach a point at which we can no longer laugh at the craziness surrounding Yoassarian/us. The horrible truths have become too hard to ignore and the satire has metamorphosed into the single-minded determination to survive.
Catch-22 is concerned with both the inefficiency and self-
perpetuation of bureaucracies and the cold greed at the heart of
capitalism. The tendency of the military to objectify friend and foe is
another problem. All three are symbolized by the ultimate meaning of
Catch-22: "They have a right to do anything we can't stop them from
doing." The novel is structured in a fragmented manner, in which
chronology is discarded and some episodes reappear with differences
while others are echoed by strikingly similar new ones. Thus, the reader,
who laughs at the black humor of the early chapters, is later implicated
in the abuses of power revealed to have been beneath the humor. Rather
than be a part of this cycle of victims and victimizers, Yossarian deserts,
seeking to escape the system completely (McLaughlin, 248).
Catch-22 feels like the kind of book its author has been storing up inside of him, allowing it to simmer and thicken for half his lifetime before putting pen to paper (to use an anachronistic term). Having seen the war from the air himself, as a bombardier stationed in Europe, and having no doubt personally witnessed much of the near-insanity he was able to then blow up to humorous proportions for his novel, he had the foundation to prepare him for Catch-22 ...except hindsight, which can be a valuable tool for an author. Humor = tragedy + time, as the saying in the comedy trade goes. The sixteen years between the end of WWI and the publication of Catch-22 allowed Heller to distance himself from the real-life tragedies he’d witnessed in order to make the material more palatable, as satire, for his readers. But he did not compromise one little bit. The horror is all very much there on the printed page. One merely laughs one’s way across it, only to feel it more potently on the other end.
In Schizophrenia [sic], the foremost psychotic disorder, patients
suffer from thought and communication breakdown. One of the theories
concerning the development of schizophrenia ties it to patterns of
pathological communication within the family ... Involvement in an
intense relationship where accurate discrimination of the message has
vital importance for the individual; the other person expresses two orders
and one of these denies the other; the individual cannot react to the
contradictory messages (cannot metacommunicate). The protagonist
of Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22 finds himself in an extended relationship
teeming with these characteristics. Indeed, I regard the entire novel as an
inventory of the major pathologies of thought and communication (Moore).
Sometimes I feel, perhaps we all feel, as though we are living in an insane world and that our personal goal must be, if not to circumvent it, at least to find a way to remain rational within it. Heller’s Catch-22 uses satire to stoke the embers of irrationality and turn them into full-flame, humorous psychosis to attract our attention and divert us from the underlying message. Within the ashes that remain lies the essence of evil and destruction that is anything but funny, and we will see it, perhaps only after the fire dies away.
Horses (i.e. we) can’t be made to drink the water, but a good satire is a great tool for leading us to it, and we’re bound to get thirsty along the way.
Cook, Jonathan A. Satirical Apocalypse: An Anatomy of Melville’s The Confidence Man. Westport, Ct.: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Gaukroger, Doug. “Time Structure In Catch-22.” Critique 12.2 (1970): 71.
McLaughlin, Robert L. War and American Popular Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. Westport, Ct.: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Moore, Michael. “Pathological communications patterns in [sic] Heller’s Catch-22.” ETC.: A Review of General Semantics 52.4. (1995): 431+
Morris, Rob. Untold Valor: Forgotten Stories of American Bomber Crews over Europe in World War II. Dulles, VA: Potomac Press, Inc., 2006.
Ochs, Phil. “Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends.” Pleasures Of the Harbor. A&M, 1967.
Self, Will. “Stop Making Sense: It Is a Cousin to Satire, Surrealism, Whimsy and Slapstick, but the Absurd Inhabits a Weird World All of Its Own.” New Statesman, Vol. 135, October
Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1970.