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Catch 22

01 Jul 2016

There are many books that for one reason or another exist in my mind as part of a list of classics. Books that I feel are quoted or read widely enough that I feel lacking by not having read them. Catch 22 fits into that category in my mind and I have now moved it over to the read side.

Catch 22 is a good book, I do not consider it to be great by an stretch of the imagination mostly because it is overly long and incredibly repeatative. You feel like you get the joke in the first 100 pages or so and then it is just the same joke over and over again. However, it was worth it to make it all the way to the end. I came away with two meanings from the book. The first being the more obvious which is the definition of Catch 22, namely that there are inate contradictions in life when you consider a limited context which lead to tough situations. The one that keeps recuring in this book was that you need to be sane to fly a bombing mission, but only a crazy person would want to do it. Therefore, if you say you do not want to fly the mission because you are worried about dying, then you are sane enough to fly so you have to, but if you say you do want to fly because you are crazy then you cannot fly. The book is full of little contradictions like this.

That men would die was a matter of necessity, which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance.

There are also a bunch of related phrases that are intended to be absurd that are not directly Catch 22s, but are in the same vein. Sentences like this come to mind:

To simulate gravity, feign grief and pretend supernatural intelligence of the hereafter in so fearsome and arcane a circumstance as death seemed the most criminal of offenses.

The other big theme is the idealism of purpose when there are shithead people along for the ride and where to draw the moral line between the big picture and not enabling free riders.

The other major theme I got out of the book is related to where the line between idealism at the macro level and freeloaders on a micro level. For instance, if you are flying planes and risking your life for the good of your country you are also helping your superiors. In this case, once the war was basically already won, you are no longer really helping the country as much as you are just doing it for your boss. So there is a freerider problem and you have to balance your morality with your comfort level of that problem. This leads to other absurdities around morality.

The chaplain had mastered, in a moment of divine intuition, the handy technique of protective rationalization, and he was exhilarated by his discovery. It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it, it require no brains at all. It merely required no character.

Contradictions and the absurd arise all the time in my life. However, I find that by expanding the context you can usually eliminate contradictions and by contract the context you can usually eliminate the absurd. It all becomes a matter of perspective. But this is a discussion for another day.

I would recommend reading this book if you have some free time to plunder through the same stuff over and over again. If for some reason you decide to stop early, at least make it through Chapter 15, Piltchard & Wren, it is near the best in the book.


Category: book