With no escape from the inevitable, to where does a sane person turn?
By Mathilda Heller: Culture Columnist
Everyone knows the phrase Catch-22: it is ubiquitous. The phrase aptly encapsulates any experience with contradictory paths, where any decision has equally unfavourable outcomes.
Catch-22 is the phrase that best describes the antithesis that is life. It describes how, at times, hardship can be inescapable. How situations manifest in an impossibly vicious cycle.
So where did this famous phrase come from?
Catch-22, published in 1961 by Joseph Heller, is considered one of the greatest books of all time and a key text in the American cannon. The novel is famous not just for its wit and black humour, or its complicated, philosophical writing style, but for its intelligent and empathetic portrayal of human nature. The term had such a strong positive reaction that it soon made it into the American Heritage Dictionary as “a situation in which a desired outcome or solution is impossible to attain because of a set of inherently contradictory rules or condition”. It is rare that a fiction novel coins a phrase that subsequently enters the English Language, let alone a dictionary.
Heller uses his protagonist Yossarian, a begrudging WW2 fighter pilot, to reflect on what it means to be in a polarised situation. Yossarian wishes to leave the air force and stop fighting but is forbidden from doing so because he is considered too “sane” to be deemed “mad”. And if he is sane, he is fit for service.
‘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 a 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.
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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.
The idea of Catch-22 is both incredibly simple and rational and yet also completely ludicrous. It is a never ending, circular dilemma with no solution.
And yet, so is life. In his article 22 Going on 50: Catch-22 Turns 50, Richard King gives the example of Nixon’s attorney saying “you cannot impeach a president without evidence, and […] collecting such evidence is a Federal crime”: a true contradictory dilemma. King goes on to say “Catch-22 is a tool to think with, to press into service whenever the cause of political perspicuity demands it”, thus commenting on how a phrase that concerns illogical thinking has become the most logical way to approach certain problems.
Before the novel, there was no term for such a dilemma. One could say “predicament”, perhaps, or maybe “conundrum”, but neither fully describes the intense conflict that Catch-22 so successfully does. “Predicament” and “conundrum” feels slightly trivial, whereas a “Catch-22” is both serious and profound. It can be applied to situations of never-ending bureaucracy where each option contradicts the other (for example, needing education to earn money, but needing money to access that education). It is used in socioeconomics. It is used in politics (aiming for freedom from oppression, but oppressing freedom to achieve that). It is used in AI and mathematical logic.
Catch-22’s legacy exists in all fields of knowledge. It is not just a dilemma; it is the dilemma. It has become a rational description for indescribably irrational issues. Catch-22 has changed the way we think about problems, making it not just the greatest literary conundrum of all time, but one of the most seminal and significant coinages in literary history.
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