Language and the Human Condition in Catch-22

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is a literary work which is known to be based in the satire of the structures which existed at the time of WWII and the subsequent periods of the Korean and Cold Wars.  By most, this satire is seen to fulfill the purpose of generating and memorializing anti-war sentiment by demonstrating the irrationality of the effort and the conflicts of interest existing throughout.  Of course, with war, at many points in history, being the defining characteristic of humanity, it is easy for this piece to be considered a satirical reflection on the human condition, particularly, as Philip Toynbee puts it in his review “Here’s Greatness–In Satire,” as “the object of Mr. Heller’s outraged fury and disgust.”  Heller’s achievement of this end is primarily through his use of language, through which he both manages to demonstrate Modernist styles and display language’s capability to be obfuscating, a theme through which he also addresses some aspects of the rationality in the novel in terms of self-perception from the perspective of the said human condition.

The clearest example of the mentioned obfuscation by language is the novel’s namesake: Catch-22 itself.  It is described initially by Heller stating, “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 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” (46).  Now of course, in Heller’s modernist style of using layers (like ogres) to add thickness to his language, he goes on to repeat the final part of that description in a variety of increasingly confusing terms.  Nevertheless, the fact remains that this catch and its description lay rooted in two distinct perceptions of the ridiculousness of the human condition.  The first would be, of course, the misuse of language to oppress.  While Catch-22 is official enough to legitimately prevent grounding, there’s the idea that Heller discusses in his interview above that “Yossarian is convinced that there is no such thing as Catch-22, but it doesn’t matter as long as people believe there is.”  This entire concept parodies the core human idea that language is the basis of advanced function, and that, though belief can inspire and dictate in the greater perception of life, it often shouldn’t be a system against one’s own interests.  This belief that has been reinforced to a point beyond existence on paper was created as a protection and an enforcement that would’ve supported the greater cause, but has become a trap that prevents escape.  Much like religion, Heller makes it out to be exactly that: a self-developing object that serves primarily malicious interests.

The secondary aspect of the human condition which is addressed by Heller is the idea of insanity contrasted with rationality.  The language of the catch itself makes there out to be a clear distinction, leaving little to no room to consider the subjectivity of this concept.  That, too, is an idea that is mocked by Heller out of disgust: that the human system, through its consistency, encourages consideration from no more than a single perspective, maximally reducing subjectivity.  This consideration is expanded by the fact that the evaluation of these characteristics is often from a perspective which would distinctly be considered incapable of accurate evaluation, such as Major Sanderson, a psychiatrist who seems more troubled than his patients.  The irony that Heller presents is such that perhaps the true perception would be that insanity has no core form in which it exists, and that perhaps any form of the human condition could be considered insanity from one perspective or another.  While insanity is characterized as the desire to fly into combat in this novel, the sort of inconsistent belief that is characterized by Catch-22 could just as well argue that insanity would be not wanting to do so for the sake of patriotism and moral righteousness (perhaps the realistic perspective of actual WWII soldiers).  If rationality is characterized by a desire to fail to serve one’s national interests by not flying missions, is perhaps rationality perhaps a desire for death in some other way (falling to the Nazis – the war certainly wasn’t won at this point)?  If not death or sex, what is the aim of the human condition?  Or is, perhaps, the human condition characterized by an inability to realize this, hence the reference to it being a condition?  In grappling with these concepts, it is clear that the parody by Heller is driven by an element of disgust, considering the willingness to violate core beliefs and morals in the aim of creating something of an anti-hero as a symbolic figure of rebellion.

A direr perspective presented by Heller in his analysis of the human condition is with the consideration of Snowden as the keeper of the secret of life.  In many ways, his interaction with language truly represents how, at its most obfuscating, this core human feature serves to remind us of the true basis of the human condition: that this condition is not a matter of intrinsic difference or uniqueness as contrasted with the rest of nature, but rather a matter of misconception of this sort of difference.  Snowden’s reduction to the point of being unable to say anything besides “‘I’m cold'” (437), and Yossarian’s subsequent inability to respond with any words besides “‘There, there'” (437) indicate the uselessness of human language at its core.  The human condition seems to be demonstrated to be the fact that our unique capabilities have no purpose when the end is near or when they are most needed.  His secret as “Man was matter… The spirit gone, mane is garbage… Ripeness was all” (440) seems to put this ideal into words by referencing the idea that the human condition is really the same as the condition of all else in existence: as temporary and part of an ongoing cycle.  Analysis may be an advanced capability, but it does not characterize the species as different on any notable level.  The contrast of the discovery of this “secret” with the seemingly useless aims of a variety of the characters in the book (Colonel Cathcart and his Saturday Evening Post, Colonel Sheisskopf and his parades, etc.) aims to make the extremes show the existence of such a skew in worldview in a way that it is recognizable to all and visible as an object to change.  If not written solely out of disillusionment, Heller must have at least aimed for this possibility.

The human condition from a modernist perspective is parodied by Heller by showing both extremes of the obfuscation of language.  He contrasts the overuse of language to a point of transcendence and the skew of belief with the incapability for language to be used effectively in dire situations to demonstrate that the human condition is not indeed defined by any sort of consistent systems, and that indeed the “condition” that is referenced is an issue of perception.  Language may, at various points in time, bring humans to a point of seeming uniqueness in their environment, but it does not isolate them from it, no matter how hard they try to achieve this.


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