Black Humor and Negation in Catch-22

Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 is satirical masterpiece that has been enjoyed by readers for decades. It was the first novel to transform World War II from a human tragedy into an absurdist comedy and proved that nothing is sacrosanct in literature. The novel uses satire and dark humor and a non-traditional structure to keep the reader off-balance just long enough for Heller to unleash his more serious themes. War must be the ultimate absurdity of human existence. How else to explain engaging in violence repeatedly and consistently throughout millennia in attempt to impose peace? Catch-22 was one of the first novels to portray the seriousness of war as a comedy, albeit a comedy of extraordinary darkness.

One of the missions of the novel is to expose much of the common misconceptions about the military and war, especially that it is efficient, smooth and intensely patriotic. The conventional view of military leaders as both noble warriors and men of integrity is attacked repeatedly in Catch-22. The novel’s protagonist, Yossarian, nearly reaches the point of insanity not only because the Germans seem intent on killing him with bombs and bullets, but equally so because the American colonels and generals are motivated more by career goals and getting promoted than by any real concern for the soldiers. One key element in painting this portrait of the utter lack of integrity on the part of the military’s strategic executives is that the primary concern when sending Yossarian and his fellow men on bombing runs is making sure there are superior aerial photographs of the bombings than it is that they actually destroy the intended target. The pointlessness of combat is further served by the discomforting conversation Nately has with the old man at the whorehouse. Nately represents that naïve innocence and belief in the purity of a war’s mission and is appropriately horrified by the old man’s amorality which stands in stark contrast to the view most Americans had of their military leaders at the time. However, the old man’s confession that he has at various times supported the Americans and the Germans rings disturbingly familiar. After all, for four years Americans were told there was nothing worse than a German; in the blink of an eye the same people became an ally. Few occurrences in society reach such heights of absurdity. The closest that any American comes to understanding the old man’s perspective is Yossarian, who makes the ultimate mistake of taking the fact that people are trying to kill him personally instead of realizing he is a just a necessary cog in a much larger piece of machinery.

Although the novel takes place during World War II it differs greatly from other war novels in that it is not the Nazis who are the enemy, but rather the American military bureaucracy. Beyond that, it is really about how Yossarian comes to full consciousness by recognizing that all the institutions Americans hold most dear are devised mainly for the purpose of dehumanizing us all. One particularly useful example of how the novel engages in absurdity to undermine the traditional view of the military occurs when Yossarian sneaks out in the middle of the night to move the bomb line over Bologna. The result is that now the military behaves as if Bologna actually had been overtaken, pointing out how far removed from reality bureaucracy can often be. Obviously, it is ridiculous to assume that merely moving a line on a map would convince people that an objective has been won, but is it really any more absurd than knowingly using false information to convince an entire country to support the invasion of a country that posed no threat?

The primary weapon that Joseph Heller uses to explode his satirical bombs in Catch-22 is black humor. Black humor has been defined by French surrealist Andre Breton as a “lampooning of social conventions and a profound disrespect for the nobility of literature”. The darkly-edged comic sensibility of the book is not there merely to draw gasps of outrage or shock, rather it is to lampoon the pinnacle of absurdity in human existence: that the most precious thing we have, life, is the price that must be paid for everything else we want. Each of the men in Yossarian’s unit deal with this absurdity in ever-darker ways. Yossarian revolts by stripping naked and climbing up a tree. Chief White Halfoat is a ticking time bomb who stays sane by dreaming of killing his roommate, while Hungry Joe releases his fear of instant death by having nightmares that continually cause him to wake up screaming. Probably the most darkly comedic expression of man attempting vainly to flee the approach of his own mortality is the major subplot involving Milo Minderbinder and his syndicate. Milo is an absurdist interpretation of capitalism run amok and his presence serves to constantly remind one that at the heart of the fear of Nazi aggression was the potential for economic security to be upended. Heller connects the fear of death with the need for sexual release in darkly comical ways as well. All of the women in the novel are portrayed primarily as sex objects to be dominated by men; not just the prostitutes, but the nurses as well. The connection between prostitution and nursing is not coincidental; while it may be taken to extremes to position both professions as getting paid to special care of men, the link is a valid one exactly because Heller takes it to the point where the nurses almost seem to act as prostitutes and prostitutes seem almost to serve as nurses, healing the psychic wounds of the soldiers.

The use of black humor in Catch-22 is a perfect example of its very intention, which is to temporarily distract from the principle serious of a situation by lightening the load, only to come back full force with an even deeper appreciation of that serious. While it is true that Heller engages in black humor to satirize those elements of existence that frighten us the most—loss of control and eventual death—he also uses it for a more mundane reason. By taking things past the logical expectation and introducing bizarre and outlandish situations, the reader temporarily is distracted from the ugliness of it all. Heller avoids the trap of most war novels in which the reader gradually becomes immune to authentic depictions of battle by introducing comedy and making it more grotesque. The satire of such subplots as Milo’s would not have the same effect otherwise.

The nature of insanity is a running theme throughout Catch-22; the title, in fact, reflects the very nature of how sanity is judged. It is the mental state of Yossarian that drives his actions; he is too sane for his survival. Despite the fact he engages in deviant behavior such as stripping off his clothes for an extended period of time, Yossarian is all too sane by society’s standards. He recognizes that he is putting his life on the line and getting very little in return. Obviously, one cannot be truly insane if one recognizes the value of his life and that people and events are conspiring all around him to snuff out that life. The great irony of Yossarian’s life is that many around him truly do believe he is insane, but he can’t convince the one person he needs to safe his life. Considering the sometimes psychotic actions of those other men, however, it may be merely that case that Daneeka is considering the source. For instance, if Hungry Joe were to try to convince Doc Daneeka that Yossarian was insane, he would immediately be questioned over concerns of his own insanity. Hungry Joe’s actions and deeds would suggest that he must clearly be disturbed, from his nightmare screams to little photography habit. But there is never any question that Hungry Joe is actually disturbed due to the lingering presence of death all around him. While Yossarian seems rational and intelligent to most readers, Hungry Joe definitely comes off as unhinged, yet both are merely reacting in their own individual ways to the nearness of death.

The absurd themes that Heller attacks in Catch-22 are realized through his use of language. The novel is not structured in a traditional linear way; events occur out of sequence or are repeated from differing perspective. This technique is fully employed in the dialogue sequences which often seem quite unreal and sometimes verge into quite funny comedy. What Heller is attempting is a negation whereby the real intent of language is hidden by inverting it. Heller uses irony as a means of inverting the meaning in order to satirize various things. The use of twisted dialogue that eventually becomes devoid of all meaning is the way the novel satirizes the corruption of the people who misappropriate the most sacred institutions and responsibilities. The use of off-kilter language and strange logic serves to underline the overwhelming absurdity. One example is the casual yet completely bizarre observation of Colonel Cargill that no other army can call themselves American. In addition, Heller also serves to negate reality through the use of symbols, such the idea of the flies Appleby’s eyes or the weird little story of Orr’s stuffing crab apples or horse chestnuts into his mouth. These are all indications of a world that is not as it should be and is the novel’s way of asking why. When Captain Black says signing the loyalty oath is completely voluntary, but then immediately asserts that anyone who does not sign will be starved to death it is funny, but it also has an element of truth in it. Black’s coerced volunteerism really isn’t so different from the attempts to coerce people into supporting the actions of their President by telling them if they don’t then they aren’t supporting the troops. One thing has absolutely nothing to do with the other. It is all a negation of the very foundation of reality.

Heller’s use of negation also extends to the deeds of his characters. Yossarian stripping off his clothes is his attempt to negate the reality of military service. Since everything in the military depends on rank and rank is expressed through stripes on a sleeve, Yossarian’s rejection of the very fabric of a soldier amounts to an attempt to negate all that it represents. He becomes like a child, even to the point of climbing a tree. But even in the safety of those confines, Heller introduces an action that is even more absurd a negation than Yossarian’s. When Milo offers him the chocolate-covered cotton and tells him it is candy even though Yossarian can plainly see it’s not, Milo is engaging in the negation of all reality that his capitalist heart admires. Society is built upon exactly Milo’s type of capitalist excess and his desire to advertise to Yossarian something that is not is expressed every day in thousands of commercials and advertisements. Milo’s crusade is the greatest symbol of negation in the entire book because his actions serve to negate the very basis for the war. By engaging in business with the enemy, Milo ultimately serves to prove beyond a doubt that war is utterly meaningless. The opposing sides will always reconcile and start doing business.

Catch-22 uses absurdity and satire to make a powerful indictment against not only war itself, but the agents of war. Beyond that, the book also implicates many other institutions as it paints a world where everything is topsy-turvy. The primary focus of the satire is on the war machine that dehumanizes soldiers in an attempt to turn them into unquestioning and blindly loyal killing machines. The architects of war who sit comfortably away from the bombs are more concerned with getting ahead than protecting the men doing the fighting for them. And the men are so afraid of death that the only comfort they can take is turning every available woman into a sex object. The central thematic concern at stake is the question of insanity and Heller proves that in a world that glorifies war, there is no such thing as true insanity unless you recognize that it is in your own best interest to opt out. Yossarian’s final flight from the brutal realities of war is considered by man to be an act of cowardice, but closer scrutiny reveals that it is the first truly sane decision any character makes in the entire book. Ironically, Heller achieves heroism for Yossarian in the end not by making him a warrior, but by making him a deserter. It is the ultimate act of negation in a book that attempts to negate every conception of war that was previously held. Yossarian’s claim to heroism is the definitive clause of Catch-22.

Works Cited

“Contemporary Black Humor: INTRODUCTION.” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Tom Burns and Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 196. Thomson Gale, 2005.

Darren Felty. “Catch-22: Issues of Social Order and Responsibility in the War Novel.” Novels for Students. Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 1998.

Gaukroger, Doug. “Time Structure in Catch-22.” Critique 12.2 (1970): 70-85.

Podhoretz, Norman. “Looking Back at “Catch-22″.” Commentary Feb. 2000: 32

Louis Hasley. “Catch-22: Dramatic Tension in Catch-22.” Novels for Students. Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 1998.

Walter R. McDonald. “Catch-22: He Took Off: Yossarian and the Different Drummer.” Novels for Students. Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 1998.