Catch-22: A Brief History

Catch-22

Joseph Heller began working on Catch-22 in 1953 and it was published in 1961. The term “Catch-22” has been around as long as I can remember. I didn’t realize the term was actually coined by Joseph Heller in his book, Catch-22. I have always assumed that the phrase came before the book, and not the other way around. I wasn’t able to find the exact year that Catch-22 was entered into the dictionary, so if you know this, please let me know!

Merriam-Webster defines the word as:

1 :  a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem or by a rule <the show-business catch–22—no work unless you have an agent, no agent unless you’ve worked — Mary Murphy>; also :  the circumstance or rule that denies a solution

a :  an illogical, unreasonable, or senseless situation

   b :  a measure or policy whose effect is the opposite of what was intended
   c :  a situation presenting two equally undesirable alternatives
3:  a hidden difficulty or means of entrapment 
The term is first introduced by Doc Daneeka, when Yossarian visits him to try to get out of combat duty:

“You mean there’s a catch?””Sure there’s a catch”, Doc Daneeka replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”

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. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

The number 22 seems to have no apparent meaning, but Heller and his publisher liked the repetitiveness of the number two. The first chapter was originally published in New World Writing as Catch-18, but in 1961, Mila 18, another book about World War II was published, and so Heller was asked to reconsider the number. After trying a series of other numbers (including 11, 14), 22 was decided on. Can you imagine saying Catch-14 instead of Catch-22?

I’m slowly making my way through this book. It’s definitely one of the denser books that I’ve started to read this year. I’ve found myself needing to take notes throughout the book in order to keep track of who’s who and what’s what, so I can’t read the book mindlessly on my commute to work. I’m on page 100 so far, and I’m finding it worth the effort. It’s laugh-out-loud funny at times, and I’m excited to share more with you as I discover it!

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