Catch-22’: A War on Our Conscience

Ruiyi Li

Set on the small fictional island of Pianosa, where the 256th squadron is stationed, “Catch-22”, a gloomy, comic, preposterous World War II novel written by Joseph Heller 55 years ago, confronts us with chaos and asks us to overcome it each in our own way.

Captain Yossarian, a cynical, young bombardier, has no problem being an antihero. With his goal of “living forever or die in the attempt,” he actively engages himself in efforts to get grounded or sent to hospital, but Catch-22, the imaginary rule of the 256th Squadron, the omnipresent double bind, always stops him at the last minute. If he is crazy, rule Catch-22 states, he does not have to fly more missions; but if he applies not to fly missions, he is not crazy. “That’s some catch, that Catch-22.” Even Yossarian respects its ingenuity.

Following Yossarian’s grotesque journey out of the war, I find myself frequently confused and challenged by Heller’s sharp, quizzical comments.

“Anything worth living for is worth dying for,” Nately says.

“Anything worth dying for is worth living for,” the old man from the brothel says.

Conversations like these tear open my preconceived ideals of justice and crime, bravery and cowardice, love and hate, and make me think more than twice about what’s right and what’s wrong.

The characters, too, seem to be the embodiment of conflicting qualities. Milo, the considerate, affectionate mess officer, ruthlessly accumulates wealth for his syndicate under the mask of patriotism. Orr, a small, simple-minded pilot, has a disastrous record of plane crashes, which turn out to be practice for his final escape. Is he good? Is he evil? Is he crazy? Is he not? Even the simplest questions have no simple answer for these men and women living in the upside-down world so close to our own.

By throwing us into a chaotic ocean of confusion and uncertainty, “Catch-22” helps us learn to swim in it. It also inspires me to see the world beneath its appearance, where the real-life Catch-22s exist. As a Chinese in America, do I stay in my own culture or try to integrate into another that I may never fully understand? Do we choose to be disheartened by the thorny problems of contemporary society or pretend to have solved them by moving up the “satin-ribbon bombing line” on the map? After witnessing the war’s mercilessness and struggling through internal conflicts, Yossarian is firmer than ever in his will to survive. After experiencing “Catch-22,” literary or real, we are called to strengthen our own character by trying to answer the hardest questions and making the toughest choices.

Watch out! Catch-22 is always there to mess with your best-laid plans.