Absurdity and Corruption

Merriam Webster defines absurd as “the state or condition in which human beings exist in an irrational and meaningless universe, and in which human life has no ultimate meaning” (Merriam Webster) In Catch-22, Heller employs the Catch-22 clause, itself, as the main source of absurdity in his narrative with its numerous branches of its power extending throughout the men’s lives on Pianosa imprisoning them behind a web of meaningless regulations. In Chapter 5, Heller lays out the central manifestation of the Catch-22 clause in a discussion between Yossarian and Doc Daneeka (watch below):

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 were sane he had to fly them.” (Heller 46)

The Catch-22 clause blurs the line between sanity and insanity forcing Yossarian into a mode of constant re-evaluation of not only his own sanity and the sanity of the chaotic world around him. His superior officers abuse the paradoxical clause in a variety of ways both to avoid the set of responsibilities that accompany their positions and also to further imprison the men under their command. Colonel Korn, for instance, creates a rule stating that no one is allowed to ask questions except for those who never do (Heller 35). Korn’s absurd policy insures that the enlisted men will not be able to receive any information outside of the small amount provided to them by their superiors. Major Major Major Major refuses to see anyone in his office, unless he is not in his office. The motivations behind the Major’s use of Catch-22 to side step his duties as an officer are just as absurd as, if not more than, Korn’s no question policy. It also provides yet another example of an authority figure within the military bureaucracy replacing his duty to his men with a dependence on the absurdity of irrational rules to keep them in the dark. Furthering the purveying sense of absurdity in the narrative, the appropriately named Colonel Black declares that the men are not technically required to sign Pilchard and Wren’s Loyalty Oath, but they will be starved if they refuse (Heller 114). Black presents the squadron with a paradox that eliminates the individual’s ability to make free choices, which, in turn, renders Yossarian powerless over his own actions and mortality. On another level, Heller’s use of dark humor and satire to express his theme of absurdity within the narrative is evidenced in the names of these three generals, each of which involves a different type of comedic wordplay. Korn’s name makes use of colonel’s homonym, kernel, the Major’s title pokes fun at the literary technique of repetition, and Black’s fitting name provides an example of the dark satirical irony that Heller employs throughout Catch-22 to express the absurdity of officers and the corruption of their actions.

In Catch-22, Heller uses absurdity not merely as theme but as a lens through which the other main ideas in the novel are both perceived and expressed, specifically the corruption in the military bureaucracy and its leaders. Just like Heller uses absurdity as a filter for parts of his narrative, the superior officers on Pianosa utilize absurdity, often through some form of the Catch-22 clause, as a barrier between themselves and their men to mask the corrupt motives guiding their actions. War, in Heller’s novel, is presented as the struggle between the corrupt institution and the post-modern man fighting against it his own survival, pinning Yossarian against his own Army and leaders instead of the German enemy. Heller presents this wholesale re-evaluation of system most succinctly after Clevenger’s hearing, in the lines: “These three men who hated him spoke his language and wore his uniform, but he… understood instantly that nowhere in the world, not in all the fascist tanks or… all the beer halls in Munich, were there men who hated him more” (Heller 81). Through this passage he is pushing the notion that war novels during the post-modern age should be concerned less with a conflict between two countries and their competing ideologies, and more with the struggle of the imprisoned individual against the dehumanizing, machine-like institution that threatens his survival. Thus, Yossarian concludes that the only good officer is a dead officer, voicing his absolute distrust of the men in power over him, who apparently have little concern for the lives of the enlisted men that they arbitrarily send into danger.

CONTINUE: Analysis of Milo Minderbinder

RETURN: to Analytical Introduction to Heller 


One thought on “Absurdity and Corruption

  1. Catch-22 is another work that is extremely difficult to accurately place in the canon of American literature. A fictional work set in World War II and published during the Vietnam War, Catch-22 is most often associated with war novels. As Matt noted in his project however, beneath the surface Catch-22 is remarkably different from any other war novel published at the time. In Catch-22 Heller depicts the bureaucracy of the military in a humorous and absurd light. The importance of this in the canon is incredible. Heller’s novel helps to show the armed services in a way that previously had not existed. The inclusion of this work in the canon is incredibly important because of this unique quality of the work.

    -Stephen Huschka

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