How Joseph Heller's distortions of language reveal the value of absurdism, humour, and free speech
In Joseph Heller’s manic-state comedy Catch-22, language is a zero-sum game, a conversational competition, that each player attempts to win by cheating. Language and logic become things to beat the other player over the head with.
Faced with the insubordination of Captain Yossarian – the morally wobbly protagonist of Catch-22 – who aspires to supreme selfishness, Major Danby can only think to invoke Kant’s categorical imperative: “But, Yossarian, suppose everyone felt that way.” To which he receives this particular brand of sophistry:
“Then,” said Yossarian, “I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn’t I?”
History has of course shown us that one era’s “damned fool” is another’s genius, great artist, or freedom fighter. Our pleasure as readers in reading this nonsense is, of course, recognising the nonsense for what it is. The absurdism lands only with the assistance of our reason to tell us that this is not how things really work, something is amiss, and we are “in on the joke”.
And while there is nothing less funny than a joke explained, there is something other than humour to be gained from a close look at what Heller is up to in Catch-22. So at the risk of killing the comedy but at the potential gain of insight, let’s shake Heller’s book and see what falls out.
THE INSIGNIFICANCE OF SIGNIFICANT SENTENCES
“It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.”
Catch-22 opens with this declaration that, we discover reading on, goes nowhere and has, seemingly, nothing to do with anything. We are informed here in the opening lines – which, by virtue of their being the first in the novel, imbues the announcement with no small amount of significance – that Yossarian has fallen “madly in love” with the army chaplain. This is then never addressed again for the entire rest of the novel. But does this matter?
Perhaps Heller is allowing us to see how we burden things with import, bestowing meaning on that which we assume ought to have meaning, things like the opening lines in a novel. Much is made of the first words that a great author places on the page; the way these sentences are lauded, you would think any good novel is, in its value, weighted as 60% opening lines, 30% the final words, and everything in between is filler.
It is not only the placement of these lines at the start of the novel that tricks the reader into believing that these words are lifting more weight than they are; the romantic mind of the reader, even one who would rather more war in his war novels than romance, assumes that the announcement of a pending passion is intended to set up some great drama. It is difficult to shake off the presumption that a person’s falling in love, especially when that person is our (again presumed) protagonist, will matter to the story. It cannot come as anything less than a surprise to find that it will be treated trivially – or, indeed, not treated at all.
It is a truth (Heller might be saying) that Yossarian has fallen in love, but is it relevant? People fall in love every day, but not every story is about falling in love. There is a certain mischievous chaos to this authorial inclusion and subtraction, the dangled carrot tossed casually aside, as if Heller is shrugging at us, as if to say, This is life: full of things that sometimes matter and sometimes don’t.
Trying to solve the riddle of Catch-22’s apparently portentous first sentences, which go on to signify nothing, leaves me wondering whether this is as much as these opening words do signify – that they need not mean much at all.
There is, technically, another first line in this book, a first line that really does come first. Heller’s own epigraph for the novel is:
The island of Pianosa lies in the Mediterranean Sea eight miles south of Elba. It is very small and obviously could not accommodate all of the actions described. Like the setting of this novel, the characters, too, are fictitious.
Here is Heller, the naked emperor pointing out the imaginary nature of his own non-existent garments, confessing to the reader that which we already know – well, of course it’s all fiction – and reminding us of this knowledge with specific reference to one of the fundamental falsehoods of the fiction before us. All of this is rendered most concisely in the first line of this disclosure: The island of Pianosa lies – and so does this novel.
TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN
An apocryphal story in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time tells us that a great scientist was confronted, at the end of a public lecture, by a woman who criticised his cosmology for failing to include the great turtle on whose back Earth sits in space.
“And on what,” asked the bemused scientist, “is the turtle standing?”
“On the back of another turtle, of course. It’s turtles all the way down.”
I am not inclined to think that this woman was lying about what she believed; as with all conspiracy theorists, it is entirely plausible that she was deeply convinced of her own misapprehension about the state of reality. There are many such misapprehensions in Catch-22 as well – including, for instance, the mistaken belief on the part of the government agent that the man who has been indecorously censoring letters from soldiers is named “Washington Irving”. But each misapprehension (from the woman and her cosmological turtles to the misinformed government man) is predicated on outright lies – including, for instance, Yossarian signing off letters he has censored as “Washington Irving”.
What is fascinating about Yossarian’s extensive lying is how utterly unpragmatic it is; there is rarely a clear benefit he takes from many of his distortions of truth. Granted, the original lie on which the novel’s opening scene relies – that he is unwell when in fact he is fine – makes utilitarian sense, allowing Yossarian to abscond from his military duties and relax in a hospital bed. Once here, however, his lies take on an absurdly “useless” dimension:
He writes to his loved ones that he has volunteered for a dangerous mission (a lie) and will write when he returns (also a lie);
he censors letters from soldiers to their families as required by the military but, in one, informs its recipient that the letter comes from one R O Shipman (it doesn’t) who “yearn[s] for you tragically” (he doesn’t);
he signs his name on countless letters as “Washington Irving” and then as “Irving Washington”.
Despite a complete lack of any apparent gain, Yossarian piles lies upon lies. Like the turtles, it is lies “all the way down”.
The reader cannot help but wonder what schemes are at hand, what set-up is being set up, a payoff undoubtedly in the offing. But the book offers none of these, and while many trails that appear to immediately trail off into nowhere are happily picked up much later (the fragmentation of time in Heller’s novel could provide me with enough to write its own essay about), there are just as many other absurdities that confound our readerly expectations of narrative logic.
Yossarian’s inexplicable lies are just one kind of the many reversals and non-sequiturs in Catch-22 that, in their broken or absent chains of causality, imply a hidden deeper meaning and yet promise (and deliver) nothing of the kind. We learn that Yossarian quit playing chees with the artillery captain because “the games were so interesting as to be foolish”. The Texan who takes a nearby bed in the hospital ward is “good-natured, generous and likeable. In three days no one could stand him”. Searching for meaning in what may well prove to be meaningless statements is an exercise in Camus’ Absurdity. That way madness lies.
THE FAILURE OF LANGUAGE
Catch-22 presents itself to us as a novel in which lies, misapprehension, and miscommunication converge and offer us a taste of the absurdity of war, of masculinity, or of capitalism, take your pick. By the end of the opening chapter, language itself is revealed as a convoluted construct that is constantly capitulating to the circumstances of its conception – words are made malleable, are adapted and fudged to fit their current usage. This often leads to outright failure.
Take, for example, the colonel who dwells in a “vortex of specialists who were still specializing in trying to determine what was troubling him”. We are told that the colonel has “a pathologist for his pathos” (God knows what good that expertise will do for that unrelated phenomenon), a “cystologist for his cysts” (cystologists don’t exist – this is a misspelling of cytologist), and a “cetologist from the zoology department at Harvard” who is roped into this by a fault in a machine allocating jobs. This misplaced practitioner of marine study simply spends his sessions with the colonel uselessly “trying to discuss Moby Dick with him”.
Language is the great Catch-22 of the human condition: It is the very possibility of communicating with others that creates the desire to do so – after all, who or what would (or could) want what it doesn’t even know it could have? – and granted this desire by language, language then fails our every effort to scratch that itch. The band Protest The Hero describe our linguistic situation in the song ‘Spoils’:
“Language is the heart’s lament, a weak attempt to circumvent the loneliness inherent in the search for permanence.”
We humans – “future ghosts who scratch their names in wet cement” – reach out across the existential void separating each person from every other person, using language to compose rough drafts of abstract ideas from feelings to thoughts. We attempt to directly deliver abstractions from our own minds into the minds of others via language that makes these ideas tangible, turning concepts into words and ideas into sentences.
However, our ability to communicate is itself an impediment to communication. Language simultaneously brings us closer than any other tool we have to bridging the distance between us and yet builds in distance by filtering the pure meaning of our first-person experience through the inherently unstable translation service of words, which are only ever approximations of that which they are supposed to represent. Language is like Plato’s conception of art – a poor simulacrum of the shadows that are our own understanding of what is going on within the cave of the self.
THE DEFENCE OF THE INDEFENSIBLE
There is no single Catch-22 in Heller’s novel; it varies from that which most of us are familiar with – if you are crazy, you can be excused from flying missions; all you have to do is ask; of course, to ask not to fly such life-threatening missions is a sane thing to request, meaning you are not crazy and thus have to fly the missions – to the statement that agents enforcing Catch-22 need not prove that Catch-22 covers whatever violation it is being invoked to condemn. In other words, “Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.” In light of this, I have often thought that a decent reduction of Catch-22 to a first principle would be that it is an ironclad law that changes with the whims and needs of authority.
Given the special utility of a good Catch-22 for a malevolent person of power, what halfway adequate tyrant wouldn’t make use of the Catch-22 that is language? What would-be dictator wouldn’t wrangle words to suit his needs, twisting syntax and garbling grammar to mask his malicious machinations? Orwell described this kind of political speech and writing as “the defence of the indefensible”. This is achieved through the use of “euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness”, all deliberate distortions of the clarity that language, in every honest endeavour, is aimed at conveying.
Add this kind of deliberate misuse to the detriments bleeding out of the wounds caused by sloppy speech (of the kind that led an expert on whales to treating a colonel in Catch-22) and senseless inconsistency (like that of the arbitrarily dishonest Yossarian), and the gift of language looks more like a curse. Lies and miscommunications are more than mere errors; failures of language are failures of meaning. This, it could be said in the end, might be what Catch-22 is all about.
THE INDISPENSABILITY OF LANGUAGE
In his memoir-novel Harp, John Gregory Dunne writes of those people for whom writing is an essential part of understanding. For these people:
“Clarity only comes when pen is in hand, or at the typewriter or the word processor, clarity about what we feel and what we think, how we love and how we mourn; the words on the page constitute the benediction, the declaration, the confession of the emotionally inarticulate.”
This observation likely has much to do with the fact that some of the most eloquent writers are the most bumbling and graceless speakers other people could have the misfortune to fall into conversation with. Nabokov once wrote, “I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child.” (This is why he claimed he had “never delivered to [his] audience one scrap of information not prepared in typescript beforehand”.) For we who need the space in time and in paper to work out what we want to articulate and how best to articulate it, the insufficiencies of language will never negate its indispensability.
There is no running shoe that will win every race and no pot that will prepare a perfect meal; as with every other tool we have developed, language will always fall short – but we gain more than we would without it. And those who would control us will always make use of this tool, so we who would resist such authoritarianism need tools of our own with which to fight back against abuses of language.
It is said that bad speech ought be fought with better speech. This is a blandishment to those who already understand the importance of the freedom of ideas (their freedom to be exposed to scrutiny and to take hold where deserved). But the riposte from a well-meaning yet ultimately indefensible movement taking ascendency in our culture is that bad speech should simply be silenced.
But how would we recognise bad speech without understanding the mechanics of speech itself? How would we know what to look for if we ourselves aren’t as well-versed in rhetoric and literate in language as those whom use what we are reductively calling “bad speech”? It is only because the reader understands that Heller has misspelled cytologist and sees the alliterative link between that and cetologist that she gets the joke. It is only because the reader appreciates the usual conventions of narrative and storytelling that the lies and miscommunications of Catch-22 are identifiable.
It is in the process of practicing “good speech” – honest, clear, intelligent, and intelligible – and using it publicly to demonstrate to others what is right about one mode of language and damaging about another that the values we articulate are upheld. Our conversations with those who would manipulate words to ends we don’t want to reach are what ensure everyone else sees the “bad speech” for what it is. There is no better tool against this kind of linguistic oppression than this.
There is a constant call from certain factions of the culture war for freedom of speech. Instead of making speech itself the object of our emancipating, we would do much better to see how it is speech – spoken and written – that emancipates us. Freedom of speech, yes; but only because speech brings freedom.
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• Catch-22, Joseph Heller (1961)
• A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking (1988)
• “Spoils” from Fortress, Protest The Hero (2008)
• Politics and the English Language, George Orwell (1946)
• Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare (1595)
• Harp, John Gregory Dunne (1989)
• Strong Opinions, Vladimir Nabokov (1973)