“Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.”
It's more than fifty years old and still holds. Catch-22 is the story of Yossarian, a hero endlessly inventive in his schemes to save his skin from the horrible chances of war in Italy during World War II.
Yossarian's real problem however is not the external enemy—it is his own army. Colonel Cathcart keeps increasing the number of missions the men must fly to complete their service. In the story, if Yossarian makes any attempt to excuse himself from the perilous missions he’s assigned, he’ll be in violation of Catch-22.
This is a hilariously sinister bureaucratic rule by which a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but if he makes a formal request to be removed from duty, he is proven sane and therefore ineligible to be relieved.
In August 1944 Heller flew on a mission over the French town of Avignon. As he was sitting in the plexiglass nose cone of a B-25 bomber, he faced the possibility of death for the first time.
That mission, says Tracy Daugherty in Just one Catch: a Biography of Joseph Heller, shaped the way Heller thought about war. “After that mission over Avignon, Heller really understood that this is not an abstraction,” says Daugherty. “They are out to kill me personally, and he didn't like it — and Yossarian doesn't either.”
Yossarian figures it out fairly quickly:
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's 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.
Once something begins —in the novel's instance war— we begin glorifying it without truly understanding the implications of our actions.
Anyone who has ever found themselves spinning in frustration and dig in ever deeper as they try harder and harder to dig themselves out will appreciate how it feels. Especially as in the end, like the character's, we find out, “but we don't want what we want!”
Joseph Heller published the novel on October 11, 1961.
In Just one Catch Daugherty says, “What was being stated publicly [in the mid-1960s] was clashing so obviously with the images we were seeing on our television screens. And so I think in a large sense, the entire culture began to distrust language. We were being told one thing and seeing another, and there's the paradox. That's the heart of Catch-22.”
Catch-22 is a paradoxical concept everyone can understand.
It often results from rules, regulations, or procedures that an individual is subject to but has no control over because to fight the rule means to accept it. An example would be that to work in a certain industry we need to have a few years of experience in that industry. But in order to gain experience, one needs to get a job first.
A situation in which someone is in need of something that can only be had by not being in need of it is another example of catch-22.
The creators of the “catch-22” have created arbitrary rules in order to justify and conceal their own abuse of power. “You know, that might be the answer —to act boastfully about something we ought to be ashamed of. That’s a trick that never seems to fail,” says Heller.