Contemporary Literary Criticism

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Title: 'Catch-22' and the Debasement of Language

Author(s): Carol Pearson

Publication Details: The CEA Critic. (Nov. 1974): p30-35.

Source: Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Dedria Bryfonski. Vol. 11. Detroit: Gale Research, 1979. From Literature Resource Center.

Document Type: Critical essay

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Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1979 Gale Research, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning


'Catch-22' and the Debasement of Language

Catch-22 is a linguistic construct that requires people to do whatever their superiors wish. The novel is an examination of the destructive power of language when language is used for manipulation rather than communication. It is based on the existential premise that although the universe is irrational, people create rational systems. The linguistic expressions of these rational systems are cultural myths. People live by these myths whether or not they describe reality.... Catch-22, accordingly, points out the discrepancy between our myths and our realities and suggests that we would do better to stop creating rational systems and to start living in tune with an irrational universe. In doing so, it rejects abstract, rational language in favor of nonrational, metaphoric language.

To understand the causes and consequences of the debasement of American language, it is useful to see why Heller's characters accept myths as true which are in violent contradiction to their experience and to see who benefits from the acceptance of such myths. The characters in Catch-22 court comforting lies rather than [face] unpleasant truths. When Snowden's insides slither onto the floor, Yossarian realizes that “Man was matter, that was Snowden's secret.” ... (pp. 30–1)

But Yossarian can find no transcendental comfort to explain suffering and to make life meaningful. As Vance Ramsey explains, people react to meaninglessness by renouncing their humanity, becoming cogs in the machine.

With no logical explanation to make suffering and death meaningful and acceptable, people renounce their power to think and retreat to a simple-minded respect for law and accepted “truth.” In Rome the M.P.'s exemplify the overly law-abiding person who obeys law with no regard for humanity. They arrest Yossarian who is AWOL, but ignore the murdered girl on the street. By acting with pure rationality, like computers programmed only to enforce army regulations, they have become mechanical men. ...

In the society which results when men fear thought so much that they merely accept what others tell them, the law becomes merely a facade covering humanity's basest instincts. Society becomes only an institution to perpetuate these instincts and to help the victims adapt to the order of Darwinian nature. The victims share responsibility with their tormentors for their debasement and suffering because they do not reject their tormentors or the system that perpetuates suffering. This conspiracy of suffering is demonstrated most effectively in the “Eternal City” episodes. ... This picture of humankind preying upon one another with the blessings of every institution of society is consistently maintained in the novel. (p. 31)

That people should accept such a world depends upon their inability to question it and upon a fundamental despair which makes change seem impossible. People need insight and hope in order to revolt, but the desire to escape the horror of accepting responsibility in a meaningless and seemingly cruel universe has made them psychological cripples. In order to shelter its citizens from fear, society enfeebles language, for it is through language that we understand and share our understanding of reality. (pp. 31–2)

Ordinarily, people remain completely sheltered from terror, never questioning the assumptions of society.... A blanket of idealistic language so successfully shelters the characters that they are as unable to comprehend death or fear as they are to value human dignity or worth. Hence, language is made into an object of deception rather than of expression, examination, or communication, and the dominant occupation of men and of society becomes “protective rationalization.” ...

Most of the characters in the novel, however, acknowledge the power and authenticity of language as a closed nonreferential system. Language becomes so important that Wintergreen can effectively control generals and their men because he runs the mimeograph machine....

Language is powerful because it is equated with reality: Captain Black believes, for example, “The more loyalty oaths a person signed, the more loyal he was.” ... When experience conflicts with linguistic reality, the characters disregard experience....

In a world in which language is equated with reality, words, such as patriotism, duty, honor, courage, and loyalty, are employed to dupe them men into risking their lives for a tighter bomb pattern. The logical provisions of Catch-22 parody this use of language. In the most notable example of Catch-22, the men are forced to keep killing others and risking their own deaths by its provisions. (p. 32)

Other provisions of Catch-22 are equally absurd, contradictory, and mechanical, and each is a rationalization for brute power, which entraps and victimizes those without power. (p. 33)

However, Catch-22 only works when the victim believes in the power and authenticity of language and fears reality too much to question what he is told. Yossarian finally discovers that “Catch-22 did not exist ... but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon or burn up.” ... Even though Catch-22 does not exist as a law, the characters of the novel believe it does. Language, therefore, does not describe their actions, it prescribes them.

By the end of the novel, Yossarian rejects abstract language because it invariably cloaks self-interest.... [But] even from the beginning of the novel, Yossarian is conscious that his experience clashes with the myths of his society. Therefore, his views seem insane to those around him.... The hospital psychiatrist declares Yossarian insane, but Yossarian concludes that his whole society is crazy, since “all over the world” “men went mad and were rewarded with medals.” ... (pp. 334)

Finally, the question of Yossarian's sanity reduces to the discrepancy between the world of abstract language epitomized by Catch-22 and the sensory world of the brothel. Nately's discussions with the old man in the brothel cogently reflect this disparity.... Although the old man's hedonistic morality is limited, Heller presents him as more “sane” than those who willingly die for Colonel Cathcart or for a tighter bomb pattern. To be crazy enough to refuse to die for a “principle” that is merely a rationale for another's gain, is moral. Dr. Stubbs summarizes the judgment of the novel when he responds to the news of Yossarian's refusal to fly by commenting: “That crazy bastard [Yossarian] may be the only sane one left.” ... To be insane is to be in tune with a universe that is fundamentally irrational and chaotic. (p. 34)

The positive irrationality of Dunbar, Orr and Nately's whore parallels the irrationality of many countercultural groups of the 1960's. For example, the YIPPIE's idea of political action was to run a pig for president. The popularity of Catch-22 in the sixties and seventies may partially result from Heller's rejection of the rationalist tradition. Critics who complain that the ending of Catch-22 is impossible and irrational—that Orr could not literally row to Sweden in a life raft, for example—miss this point. Catch-22 rejects reason and abstract, rationalist language as tools that an oppressive culture uses to deceive us. A discussion of Catch-22, therefore, while helping students identify the causes and consequences of the debasement of language in our culture, can also lead to thought-provoking debates on the future of rationality and language in our culture and on the possible consequences and dangers of asserting irrationality as a value. Since Heller uses language effectively to convince us of the failure of language, he causes us to reexamine the language of literature as a means of discovery and communication, suggesting that we should look to the artist rather than the politician to teach us about ourselves and our reality. (p. 35)

Source Citation

Pearson, Carol. "'Catch-22' and the Debasement of Language." The CEA Critic (Nov. 1974): 30-35. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Dedria Bryfonski. Vol. 11. Detroit: Gale Research, 1979. Literature Resource Center. Web. 2 May. 2011.

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