Catch 22 Analysis about What Life Means

The body is a weak vessel for the human spirit. Although the human spirit has caused history’s greatest achievements, such as the Roman Empire, the weakness of the human body allowed these achievements to become just what they are – history. Mao Ze Dong’s closed-door policy on China ended the moment he passed away. Pompeii’s vibrant streets are now mere artifacts because all of the residents are now dead. After death the spirit is gone, and the body is left to rot away. Pushing an athlete over may cause him to fracture his leg, rendering him unable to play, and causing him to waste away. Even if he recovers and wins the gold medal at the Olympics, he will still die. What use is a lifetime of medals to a dead athlete? His family and peers may celebrate him, but he shall remain in his coffin, dead, with no company but the dirt and worms around him. No man or civilization is immune to Mother Nature. This is the secret of life, of mortality, and Snowden’s secret - a secret that Yossarian struggles to clearly see in Heller’s novel, Catch-22. As Yossarian’s experience and knowledge is relayed in nonlinear time, Snowden’s secret becomes slowly becomes clear throughout a series of absurd and illogical events, starting from Yossarian’s argument with Clevinger to Yossarian’s nader in Rome, finally cumulating in Yossarian’s reacquisition of not only his sanity, but also his spirit.

Yossarian’s argument with Clevinger reveals the absurdity of war, and contrasts between the Yossarian’s belief that war and death is personal, and Clevinger’s protective rationalization. Yossarian’s paranoia stems from his belief that everyone is out to kill him, or as Major Sanderson put it, “a morbid aversion to dying” (303). Although Yossarian, like any sane man, wishes for the war to end in favor of the Allies, his belief that the war personally affects him is what saves him from insanity and keeps him alive. However, Yossarian is still unable to fully comprehend why war and death is personal. In Chapter two, Yossarian infuriates Clevinger by insisting that “somebody was always hatching a plot to kill him,” and Clevinger is convinced that Yossarian is mad (19). In retrospect, everyone is trying to kill Yossarian because he is at war. At first, Clevinger seems to make a far more sane argument, because he is capable of seeing the larger picture and realizes that while they may be shot at, “they’re trying to kill everyone” (16). His argument at first makes sense because it is the argument that everyone else makes about war, and is the foundation for all things patriotic. How dare Yossarian care about his own mortality!

However, Yossarian reveals to Clevinger that it does not matter who is trying to kill him or anyone else at all, but the most important fact of life was simply the fact that his own life was on the line. Later on, Yossarian is able to more clearly understand the personal aspect of war and death. In his argument with Clevinger about Bologna, he comes to the realization that “the enemy. . . is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on” (124). However, despite this revelation, Clevinger continues to cling onto his protective rationalization, fiercely refusing to acknowledge that the patriotic ideal that he holds so dearly may cause his imminent death. For Yossarian, “it doesn’t make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who’s dead” (124). After death, the body is left to rot, and the life formerly lived no longer matters to a pile of decomposing flesh. The argument finally comes to a conclusion after Clevinger dies, proving that death is the final solution, and most important life is one spent living. Yossarian’s position may have seemed selfish, or even worse, unpatriotic, but it was one that allowed him to live, and led to Clevinger to death.

While death may be inevitable and final, it is also an extremely unpredictable game of chance. Yossarian constantly escapes to the hospital to protect himself from the innumerable dangers of the real world, but is forced to confront his own mortality anyways. There is a certain safety associated with hospitals, which are, after all, where people go to get better. At least in a hospital, Yossarian could not “freeze to death in the blazing summertime the way Snowden had frozen” (166). Even better, there was “none of that tricky now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t business that was so much in vogue outside the hospital” (166). In a hospital, Yossarian could live in the comfort of knowing that if he did die, he would die knowing his impending doom, instead of being suddenly gunned down or hit by a falling piano. Or being bitten by a venomous snake. Or strangled to death by a stray power chord. There were simply “too many dangers for Yossarian to think of,” but they would not harm him in the hospital (171). While he can escape death by electrocution, Yossarian cannot escape the prospect of death altogether. After being asked to pretend to be a dead soldier for a visiting family, Yossarian agrees to, but insists that his name is Yossarian, not Giuseppe, to the visiting mother. The mother replies “what difference does it make? He’s dying” to the father who reminds her that her son was actually named Yossarian (185). After death, Yossarian’s name would no longer matter, but rather serve as a testament to the fact that he is dead. The mother understands this, both life and death, and tells Yossarian to “dress warm” (186), as if she knew of the way that Snowden had died. Staying in the hospital may keep Yossarian from being blown apart like Snowden, but it would not protect him from Snowden’s eventual fate.

After Snowden’s death, Yossarian immediately shed himself of clothing and rejected the military, bringing him back to a time of innocence. He stays “completely nude but for a pair of crepe-soled sandals”, unlike the serpent-like Milo who was “completely dressed in a coarse olive-drab woolen uniform” (262). Ironically, even though Yossarian was naked, he felt absolutely no shame, while he feels too much shame to put his uniform back on. This rejection of the uniform, and of the military’s protective rationalization, allows him to return back to innocence, and back to a time when he did not say yes to the military’s demands (to put his clothes back on). The most hilariously ironic point in the book occurs when the chaplain, while reading the sermon for Snowden’s funeral, sees Yossarian sitting naked in the tree of life. Although Yossarian took his surprise “to be a climactic part of the funeral rite”, the chaplain believed that he had seen a sign from God, and is able to renew is faith (264). Yossarian, who had loved the chaplain because his spirit was dying, was able to serve as a source of faith to a man of God at a time when Yossarian’s own spirit had been nearly dead. The chaplain’s renewal of faith through Yossarian’s naked body serves as a reminder that, perhaps anything, even miracles, could be derived through simple things such as a nude man sitting in a tree.

Unlike the chaplain’s rationalization of the naked man in the tree that renewed his faith, Yossarian is tempted by Milo’s offer to participate in the Egyptian cotton market and the chocolate covered cotton that is the military’s protective rationalization. In the tree of life and knowledge of good and evil, a naked man takes a bite out of a ball of brown cotton and spits it out, insisting that no one would ever eat it. Milo begs Yossarian to finish the rest of the cotton and to help him make the rest of the men eat it, insisting, “this stuff is better than cotton candy, really it is. It’s made out of real cotton” (264). Eating a chocolate covered cotton ball makes absolutely zero sense, and is the perfect representation of the absurdity of war. No matter how sweet the chocolate may be, a chocolate covered cotton ball is still a cotton ball. However, this chocolate covered cotton ball is also a rather unappetizing form of protective rationalization, as the sweet chocolate lie pitifully coats the truth that cotton balls are not delicious at all, and makes no logical sense to anyone but Milo himself. Yossarian refuses to help Milo sell the cotton, suggesting that he “bribe it” instead, thus realizing that Milo is a corrupt man who had embraced the insanity of war because it was profitable, and rejecting the tempting cotton ball of Milo’s protective rationalization (265). Yossarian’s understanding that Milo was able to indirectly kill his own men for the sake of money lead him to more experiences to the dehumanization of soldiers in the military. The greatest symbol of the result of the military-industrial complex is the soldier in white, a man who is not recognizable at all because he is covered head to toe by bandages. He has been processed to the point where the men in the hospital question his existence, and whether if “he’s even alive” (169). Even though this is the second soldier in white that Yossarian had witnessed, and has a slightly different stature than the last one, he is still the same. He has completely loss his identity to the military-industrial complex, and is now simply yet another soldier covered in bandages (or the same?). Yossarian also experiences a loss of his individuality when he is injured in the leg, and sent to the hospital. Nurse Cramer stops his shenanigans when she exclaims that his “leg belongs to the U.S. government. It’s no different than a gear or a bedpan” (291). Contrary to Yossarian’s previous beliefs, his body did not belong to him at all. None of the men in the military owned themselves.

However, because Yossarian refuses to accept the military’s rules, he goes on an unapproved leave to Rome. When Yossarian hears that Nately’s whore’s younger sister had been thrown onto the streets, he immediately heads over to the eternal city of Rome, where he is plunged into despair by the human suffering he sees. Left to wander alone after Milo ran off to pursue the illegal tobacco trade, Yossarian sees countless acts of cruelty by human beings. He recoiled at the sight of “a man beating a small boy brutally in the midst of an immobile crowd. . . [and] was certain he had witnessed the same horrible scene sometime before” (415). He experiences this horrible déjà vu over and over again as he walks through the streets of Rome, and felt that “he knew how Christ must have felt as he walked through the world, like a psychiatrist through a ward full of nuts”, and realized “what a welcome sight a leper must have been!” (415). The leper had been afflicted with simply a physical disease that could have been cured. A knife wound could be sewn back up, broken legs could be placed in casts, and sicknesses could be cured with pills. But there was no pill for the mentally sick, or plaster of Paris for broken spirits. The horrors Yossarian witnessed were caused by mental illnesses like cruelty and hatred, ones that could not be cured. And there were simply far too many people in need of help. Baptized by the “raw rain”, Yossarian continues to despair at the sickening sights he encounters (412).

Although the hell-like streets of Rome frighten and sicken Yossarian, he becomes sickened by the realization of his own actions. He wants to help a troubled old woman chasing after someone else, waiting for a simple request from her. However, she ignores him, so he “tore his eyes from her and hurried away in shame because he had done nothing to assist her” (416). Yossarian desperately wished that he could have helped her, not only for the old woman’s sake, but also for his own, in order to affirm the fact that he was a good person. Had she simply looked at him as if she wanted him to chase with her, he would have chased the younger woman down. Help must be acquired by first, the recognition of the need for help, and second, the act of actually asking for it. Yossarian is sickened by the realization that prior to Snowden’s death, he had been constantly saying yes to a system that caused so many deaths, and “his spirit was sick” (417). Before he can help anyone else, he must save his own spirit. The girls he had slept with to fill the hole in his heart and satiate his lust were all gone, and he desperately needed a permanent solution for his dying spirit.

Unfortunately, the next woman Yossarian sees is the mangled body of the maid Michaela, who abruptly extinguishes Yossarian’s desire to sleep with a woman. Michaela, although ugly, was the image of innocence. She was a “happy, simple-minded, hard-working girl” who was reduced to a “pitiful, ominous gory spectacle” by Aarfy (417). Yossarian is mortified by her dead body, and goes upstairs to confront Aarfy, who had raped and murdered her. Here, Aarfy’s protective rationalization allows him to feel absolutely no guilt. The girl was, after all, at fault, since “she has no right to be there. . . it’s after curfew” (418). This type of Catch-22 logic turns Michaela from a victim to an offender. How dare she lay her mutilated body upon the pavement when all of the other Italians had to stay inside this time at night! What is even worse is that Aarfy insists that he will not get arrested because he “hardly thinks they’re going to make too much of a fuss over one poor Italian servant girl when so many thousands of lives are being lost everyday” (418). For Aarfy and the rest of the military, the loss of one life could hardly be considered significant compared to the total loss of lives. One more dead would not greatly affect the overall numbers, so a few more deaths should not cause any concern at all. Unfortunately for Yossarian and Michaela, Aarfy was correct. As the M.P.’s heavy boots marched up the stairs to the apartment, Yossarian was sure that Aarfy would be arrested. Instead, Yossarian was taken away for being in Italy without a pass, and the M.P.s “apologized to Aarfy for intruding”, clearly ignoring the corpse outside of the building (419). The military is far more concerned by the violation of a tiny military code, and chose to turn a blind eye to a rape and murder. Rules against the rape and murder of civilians had not been established yet.

Yossarian is brought back by the M.P. from Rome to Pianosa, where he experiences and almost falls for the final temptation. Expecting to be court marshaled, Yossarian is caught by surprise when he finds out from Colonel Korn and Cathcart that he is going to be sent home instead. This seems simply too good to be true, especially when his own patriotism is questioned. Colonel Korn asks “won’t you fight for your country? Won’t you give up your life for Colonel Cathcart and me?” (423). Yossarian points out that the two are not the same, but is told that, there is actually no difference between the two at all. The men who fight in the war fight for the bureaucracy that keep them in the military, and the generals who use their deaths as feathers in their own caps. Indeed, this offer is too good to be true. There is a catch, and there is always a catch. This horrible catch, as Colonel Korn, is to “like us. Join us. Be our pal” (426). Yossarian immediately agrees to this deal, coming dangerously close to falling to the temptation of agreeing with the military’s protective rationalization, and losing his spirit. Thankfully, as Yossarian exits the corridor, natural order, in the form of Nately’s whore, “Lunged at him murderously with a bone-handled knife that caught him in the side”, and sends him to the hospital, preventing him from falling to temptation (429).

While he is in the hospital recovering, Yossarian is finally able to clearly see Snowden’s death and learn his secret. He had been absolutely frightened by the flak that had struck the plane, and even worse, there was a man injured on the floor. Yossarian dug desperately through the first-aid through the first-aid kit for something that would ease Snowden’s pain, only to find that “the twelve syrettes of morphine had been stolen from their case and replaced by a cleanly lettered note” (436). Milo had taken the morphine to be sold on the black market, showing that human suffering was a small price to pay for money. Although Snowden’s leg wound had been tended to, he was still dying. Suddenly Yossarian realizes that there is another wound in Snowden’s side, and cuts through the fabric. All of Snowden’s insides plop out of his body, including the “liver, lungs, kidneys, ribs, and bits of the stewed tomatoes Snowden had eaten that day for lunch” (439). The same exact stewed tomatoes that Milo had sold were now spilling out of Snowden, and the fruit of protective rationalization that Snowden had swallowed were glaring back at Yossarian. The piece of flak that pierced through Snowden had only been about three-inches long, yet it was capable of completely piercing and killing him. As Yossarian is confronted by the gory sight of Snowden’s body, he realizes that “he spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all” (440).

Now able to clearly see Snowden’s secret, Yossarian realizes that he must first save his own spirit, which was in danger of dying. He refuses to take the temptation of Cathcart’s offer, realizing that although he may be saving his own life, he would be giving up his spirit completely by accepting the military system. Rather than lying to himself and his peers about the reason why he was sent home, Yossarian wants “them to send me home because I flew more than fifty missions” (442). Just as Major Danby insists that Yossarian would be court marshaled for his refusal to fly more missions, the chaplain comes in with the news that Orr had washed ashore in Sweden, which he called “a miracle of human perseverance” (449). As it turned out, Orr had been purposely trying to send himself home for this whole entire time, and his idiotic actions were actually attempts to leave the military. This news invigorates Yossarian and he decides to also escape to Sweden to save his own life. For him, he was not “running away from [his] responsibilities. [He is] running to them” (451). After all, his greatest responsibility was to save himself, and to keep himself alive.

Yossarian’s final confrontation with Snowden’s death and his own mortality allows him to realize that while saving his own life is important, saving his own spirit was far more important. The path that was laid out by Colonel Korn and Cathcart was appealing, but in order to save himself, he must go on his own journey. His realization is one that countless people, like Milo Minderbender had given up on. While it would have been best to live comfortably to live comfortably as a hero in the United States, Yossarian simply could not stand the thought of betraying not only his fellow soldiers, but also himself. Unfortunately, for many, the spirit is often sacrificed for the sake of physical comfort, and people often take bribes and betray their own friends for more money, or a better job. As the body relishes in material comforts, the spirit is left to rot.


Catch 22, by Joseph Heller

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