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Thursday, 14 March, 2002, 17:50 GMT
Read with us on World Book Day
This is World Book Day. To mark the occasion, BBC News Online users voted to read Joseph Heller's classic Catch-22.Disclaimer: The BBC will put up as many of your comments as possible but we cannot guarantee that all e-mails will be published. The BBC reserves the right to edit comments that are published.
This experiment in creating an online reading group reaches its climax here as BBC News Online users and journalists discuss the book.
Hundreds of you have sent comments over the last two weeks since the Reading Group was launched, but this is now the opportunity to debate some of the key themes.
Please send your comments about the book, and take part in this e-mail debate which will run throughout World Book Day.
Some particular themes of Catch-22 you might like to consider are:
A significant number of us hold an important role in "just following orders" - "you are not paid to think". In a large corporation this ensures the company as a whole moves in the same direction to achieve set goals. To balance this there must be enough individuals who will speak out "stick there heads above the parapet" when just following orders turns to madness.
Ciaran Maguire London
I suppose Heller's portrayal of war contains the same ridiculous bureaucracy we see today. War is shown as mostly humdrum and the individual powerless. A person's influence over proceedings in a large corporation is at most tangential and more often irrelevant. Life at a desk is boring.
People don't (normally) die in the office, however, but they can play the same absurd games. Bureaucratic systems are there to be messed with. In the book non-existent or dead people play a role (e.g.Irving Washington). The characters are all caught in the mechanism and cannot escape, because it is war - and this is perhaps where the book differs to the modern workplace, and where it's historical context has to be remembered. I sometimes feel the architects of corporate structures should read Catch-22. Perhaps they would lighten up a bit and take themselves less seriously. When the mechanisms/paperwork become a smokescreen to hide behind, then they should be got rid of.
The "Catch-22" of this issue is the never-ending debate on whether you can make any difference (or subvert the system) while you are within the bureaucratic structure. More often than not (sadly) an individual attempting to subvert the system fails miserably and only succeeds in enhancing the dominant ideologies.
I first read Catch-22 as a young member of the USAF while stationed at RAF Woodbridge, England, in the early 1960s. This small military installation was concerned with the threat of a Soviet invasion of Europe.
As a note, it was also an active fighter base in WWII. My group commander at the time was a famous WWII pilot whom later went on to become a famous Viet Nam fighter ace. After my tour in England , I too found myself in the Southeast Asia conflict in Viet Nam. Reading Catch-22 the first time was exciting and monumental.
Its effect upon me has lived on over all these years. Personalities such as Major Major Major and ex-PFC Wintergreen became catch phrases in my everyday communications. Today, after once more reading Catch-22, I am very saddened by what I read. It has affected me profoundly in a spiritual and philisophical manner I would have never conceived possible as a young man. In the world of today, life is just as dangerous, if not more so, than when I first picked up Heller's book in 1964. More to the point, it still is very dangerous to be sane.
Milo Minderbinder's activities start off seemingly pretty harmless, just as a matter of getting fresh eggs. But they grow into M&M Enterprises and he eventually bombs his own side on contract for the Germans. He escapes punishment because he can show how much money everyone's made. The view seems to be that the main redeeming characteristic of capitalism is that it improves the menu. But what does it say for the moral effect?
Milo reminds me of Brecht's character Mother Courage - both use war to make personal profit. I don't think Heller shows immense disapproval for this (Milo is extremely successful)and perhaps the book would be more effective if we saw him suffer for his actions and if he was not so successful.
In terms of the deabte on capitalism and war, I think Catch-22 shows capitalism in a very clever light - free enterprise above all else. This is really amoral, and in Milo Minderbinder's character I am reminded of Ares, the Greek God who himself was amoral and was very happy to swop sides, like Milo does. In Ares case it was the slaughter itself which was the end goal. In Milo's case it is money - the syndicate, yet the analogy seems quite clear to me. If Milo is Ares, then Yossarian has to be the God Mercury in his lateral logic, his witticism, playfulness and the fact that he does go to hell (Hades) and back. In this sense Yossarian is a "messenger of the gods", so what's the message?
Milo's role in Catch-22 is not primarily, for me, to provide a role for Heller to satirise Capitalism. Instead he appears to have achieved what Yossarian cannot: an escape from the madness of war. He has done this by simply ignoring the whole nightmare and getting on with the grocery trade in which he specialises. He is a huge success because everyone - on all sides - wants nice food and everyone wants to make a profit, everyone gets a share.
The black humour that comes in eventually when everyone gets a share of war itself as well as a share of the profits, is evidence that it is still not possible for Milo to escape the war - he is caught too, because the war affected everything.
Milo is mad as a hatter and ironically, this mad man excels in capatalism, such a strap must surely reflect Heller's anticapitalist stance.
Yes, your country is worth fighting for, I
June Meredith, Canada
The old man who Nately meets in the Italian whorehouse says there is more point living for your country than dying for it. He says: "There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can't all be worth dying for." I can't help thinking, though, that however hard it may have been fighting in World War II, Joseph Heller would surely have found more material to help him portray man's inhumanity to man if the Nazis had won.
Is anything worth dying for? Western democracies had, in WWII assumed the moral high-ground, a place which they continue to occupy to this day. I think it is this assumption that "we" are right & the "bad guys" are wrong, is what Heller is ultimately questioning in parts of the book.
Why should our young men & women fight & die to expedite a conflict which is more closely allied to the public perception of politicians & the needs of big business, than it has to any real moral purpose, and how true is that moral premise anyway? This is more true today than it ever has been, as the lines between good & bad become ever more blurred.
It is ironic that we should ask this question in the aftermath of September 11. America is imbued with a selfless patriotism the like of which has not been known for years. This sort of patriotism went out of fashion during the Vietnam war and was replaced by a deep-seated cynicism, of which Catch 22, Mad magazine and the film and TV series MASH were the foremost examples.
But it is too simplistic to say Yossarian does not believe any country is worth dying for. As an Armenian-American fighting in Italy, he is in a strange position.
He certainly seems to be war-weary and tries every trick in the book to get out of the bombing sorties which threaten his own life.
Maybe he simply doesn't feel the liberation of Italy is worth dying for.
Or maybe, deep down he feels guilty for his cowardice and covers it with his acerbic wit and cynicism.
The war Joseph Heller's characters are involved in is not the war we look back on more than 50 years later. We have an historical understanding of what took place that the characters cannot have. They are involved in something much bigger than themselves, that they cannot possibly understand or make sense of.
Today we may say it was a good thing that the Nazis lost, or that army bureaucracy has its role to play in organisation on such a vast scale, etc. However, part of what Joseph Heller is drawing attention to, is that when you are sitting in the cockpit of a B-52 while what seems like an entire army is doing its level best to kill you, abstractions like patriotism, capitalism and bureaucracy don't mean a great deal.
In fact they show the war in a far more inhuman light than even a battle of Democracy against the Nazi threat suggests, which at least has the merit of standing for something. Yossarian's complaint that "they are trying to kill me", is laughed off as insane.
Yossarian is taking the war personally, on a human level, but the dark reality Heller is trying to show us is that there is something completely inhuman about the whole thing. The scary thing is that no one is trying to kill Yossarian, no one cares.
Trench or battlefield humour, has always been raw. And the accompanying emotions have always been extreme. Who can fail to have been moved to laughter and tears in the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth?
Jonathan Grant, UK
The characters in the book are a group of people thrown together in an attempt to solve a common goal.
Alan Every, Bath, England
One theme (the most obvious) is the absolute futility of war, but more than this, the absoulte futility of being part of a war is portrayed with astounding clarity. The crewmember who dies before revealing his secret, the talented room-mate in hospital, the Chaplain, Major Major. All diplay futility in their actions either by living or dying. I would say that this was the most powerful theme of the book. When faced with overwhelming circumstances their actions & reactions can only be futile & meaningless
Your other comments:
Ihor Hrytsiuk, Ukraine
Catch-22 is a book
for all times. I have written my MA
thesis on this book in 1976. I keep it on my shelf for frequent reference...
The greatest moment for me in the book comes very near the end, when Yossarian hears that Orr has made it to Switzerland. The enduring image of the man who everyone underestimated having subverted the system so elegantly and tenaciously is as inspiring to me as it is to Yossarian and the chaplain. I loved every minute of this book.
I've been very disappointed with the book. It offered nothing that hadn't been said better before (Chekhov and Dostoyevsky come to mind) and been said better since. Those authors managed to get across their message in a far more subtle and interesting manner. I practically gave up reading it when 50 odd pages in the whole Catch-22 situation is spelled out for the reader in case they are too daft to pick up on it themselves. That said I am sticking with it, though more out of determination not to be defeated than any great interest in the book. I read on this site how the book was slated when first released and finally found public favour during the vietnam war. It is easy to see why this was the case. The rhetoric is just rammed down your throat with no objectivity or consideration for anything other than the message. It feels like it's preaching to the converted.
I'm now 200+ pages in and confused to hell. Funny - yes. Confusing - yes. Baffling - hell yeah! Unfortunately, I'm starting to find it very 'put-downable'.
Catch-22 is good but flawed. It is too long and the aerial combat scenes are extremely dull - it should have occurred to Heller that if he was going to write an iconoclastic anti-war book, it would have been even cleverer and more effective not to depict war at all. "Something Happened" is Heller's best book, far superior to Catch-22 and just as funny, but much much blacker and more painful. If it achieves one new reader because of the renewed popularity of Catch-22 then this Reading Group has been worthwhile.
I agree with Alan Simpson - the book is flawed. It is very fragmentary and difficult to read. The humour is not that great. Heller raises some very important issues but does not make it clear where he stands. Finally, for those people who regard Yossarian as a 'hero' does nobody think he is cruel, petty and inhumane?
Louise in doesn't find much humour in the book. Wow!!! It is on every page!!! It is absurdist humour; humour that twists everything to extremes. So a weird sort of reality is created where nothing is simple. Major Major's father was subsidized for not growing alfalfa, the less he grew the bigger his subsidy!
This is funny!!! and all too similar to the Euopean Common Agricultural Policy!
I read it the first time as an American GI
in 1970. Yossarian became my hero, I wanted
to be him ! My favourite part of the
book was about ex-PfC wintergreen getting
promoted to ex-sear gent and how he became
the most powerful man in the squadron by
being in charge of the mail room.
I read Catch-22 as a student and have been meaning to re-read it ever since. I may actually do it now, my interest having been piqued by the comments here. BTW, isn't it interesting that the majority of comments are from men? Most book groups are very female dominated - perhaps they are reading the "wrong" books...
It is interesting that Alan Simpson feels that Something Happened is a better book.
Richard Earney, UK
[NB Richard's father was the editor at the Corgi publishers who bought the paperback rights to the book in the UK. It appears to be the same edition that Ihor Hrytsiuk is reading in the photograph above.]
I knew very little of the book, apart of course that the title came to be part of the English language. I never realised just how funny a book it is and very much look forward to reading the rest of it. My favourite bit so far? Well, I couldn't explain why... But the bit where he is censoring the letters and decides to attack all the verbs in the letter was hilarious... I wonder if the follow up is as good?
It seems the magic of Catch-22 doesn't seem to fade!
I read the book back in the 70s and now I am reading it again. Heller's genius is the way he explores the paradoxical nature of life to the nth degree. The author tests each paradox to breaking point, and then some more! It is a pity there aren't books of this calibre in the book world. This "wake up and smell the coffee" book is a true modern classic!
"He decided to live forever or die trying"- Yossarian's philosophy, now that's classic CATCH 22!
When the soldier in bandages in the hospital is attached to two drips, and the nurses regularly change the jars so that the contents of one jar drip through him into the other, Yossarian wonders "why not link up the two jars together and eliminate the middleman?" Also "There were vast graven images of Milo standing over blood spattered altars"
Catch-22 as a book IS flawed (aren't we all). It is very fragmentary & difficult to read, if it were otherwise then what would be the attraction of reading it. To reduce everything to a single timeline & easily explained characters & plot would leave us all in "Harry Potter Land". Nothing is perfect in this world, and thank God for that. If everything in life were easily achievable then there would be no challenge. With books, as with women, trust your instincts & persevere in the face of difficulty, incomprehension, & increasing incredulity. Read Joyce, Heinlein, Welsh, and many others. All with an open mind & a desire to learn new ways of thinking, not with a desire to re-enforce your own stereotypical view of life & people. Then you will be in a position to learn.
Hmmm I feel a bit left out!. Only just got my copy from the library yesterday. I'm reading as fast as I can. The comments are intriguing and I am looking forward to really getting into the book.
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