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July 24, 2008

All the screwy, bitter black comedy of Catch-22 (I could fill up pages of this blog with a comedic greatest hits) crawls to a climax near the end of the book in The Eternal City episode.   It is a classic night journey, a wandering among horrors, perhaps hallucinatory, perhaps not.  Perceptive early critics called this nightmarish chapter a Walpurgisnacht—a journey through the dark, a screaming blackness where all the novel’s humor falls away like an unneeded carapace, leaving Yossarian  alone with the horror and his real self.  The reader can only hope that the dawn will come soon.  And it does—with Yossarian, free, taking off for Sweden.  But before that dawn, comes the dark.  With faint echoes of Joyce’s Ulysses’ Circe/Nighttown episode, Yossarian represents everyman encountering the bleak Beckettian reality of 20th century life, ruins, whores and all:

“Rome was in ruins, he saw, when the plane was down.  The airdrome had been bombed eight months before, and knobby slabs of white stone rubble had been bulldozed into flat-topped heaps on both sides of the entrance through the wire fence surround the field.  The Coliseum was a dilapidated shell, and the Arch of Constantine had fallen.  Nately’s whore’s apartment was a shambles.” 

Where are all the girls, where did they go? Yossarian asks an old woman, alone in the ruins.  Gone, she says, chased away.  By who? 

“The mean tall soldiers with the hard white hats and clubs…” 

By what right? Yossarian asks. 

“Catch-22.  What? Yossarian froze in his tracks with fear and alarm….what did you say?

“Catch-22,” the old woman repeated, rocking her head up and down.  “Catch-22.  Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.”

I catch a whiff of good old ‘60s countercultural paranoia there, subsequently mined by all sorts of writers. Pynchon, of course, in The Crying of Lot 49 or Gravity’s Rainbow.  To a reader today, a Nixonian scent, and now Bushian power grabs waft from the pages. 

(By the way, what’s going on with the repeated Catch-22, Catch-22—the dualism built-in to the phrase?  It’s excess, the lunacy of 20th century life and Yossarian’s life.  The entire novel is repetitive—Yossarian’s crazy.  “I’m crazy, doc.”  He’s crazy.  The repetition is part of the book’s humor, a sort-of Marxist (Groucho and Zeppo) schtik.)

And like the night journeys through the surrealistic, blasted nighttime landscapes of Pynchon’s Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow (Germany) and Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49 (San Francisco), Yossarian sees everything that’s wrong and evil—rape, murder of innocents and he’s even wrongly accused and arrested by thuggish MPs. The red, white and blue of Tony’s Restaurant with its unwelcoming sign is ominous, particularly to anybody comfortable in mid-century America:

“Yossarian walked out of the office and down the stairs into the dark, tomblike street, passing in the hall the stout woman with warts and two chins, who was already on her way back in.  There was no sign of Milo outside.  There were no lights in any of the windows.  The deserted sidewalk rose steeply and continuously for several blocks.  He could see the glare of a broad avenue at the top of the long cobblestone incline.  The police station was almost at the bottom; the yellow bulbs at the entrance sizzled in the dampness like wet torches.  A frigid, fine rain was falling.  He began walking slowly, pushing uphill.  Soon he came to a quiet, cozy, inviting restaurant with red velvet drapes in the windows and a blue neon sign near the door that said: TONY’S RESTAURANT. FINE FOOD AND DRINK.  KEEP OUT….the tops of the sheer building slanted in weird, surrealistic perspective, and the street seemed tilted.”

In long unbroken paragraphs that go on for two or three pages, Heller’s prose rises and Yossarian peaks and we see that this is what it’s about.  This is what it’s about:

“What a lousy earth!  He wondered how many people were destitute that same night even in his own prosperous country, how many homes were shanties, how many husbands were drunk and wives socked and how many children were bullied, abused or abandoned.  How many families hungered for food they could not afford to buy?  How many hearts were broken?…how many straight –and-narrow paths were crooked paths?”

What about the War Effort?  What if everybody behaved like Yossarian and wanted out of the war?  Surely then we’d all be in trouble.  As Yossarian says, if everybody felt that way, he’d be a damn fool to behave otherwise.   Writing in the New York Times in 1986, on the 25th anniversary of its publication, John Aldridge said, “Yossarian, alone of them all, has managed to remain morally alive and able to take responsibility for his life ina totally irresponsible world.”  Anarchic, yes.  Satisfying, yes.



From → Catch 22

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