Joseph Heller was born on May 1st, 1923 near Coney Island in Brooklyn. His father, a Russian immigrant who drove a bakery delivery truck, died when Heller was five. Heller attended Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn and worked as a filing clerk and blacksmith’s assistant before enlisting in the Army. He trained as a bombardier and flew 60 combat missions near the end of World War II. While in the military, he ran across an apparent paradox in Army regulations. A pilot could be grounded if found insane, but if the pilot requested to be grounded because of insanity, the Army considered him perfectly sane for wanting to avoid danger – and would not ground him. Knowing you are insane is a sign that you are sane! This paradox defined his first novel, the satirical masterpiece Catch-22 (1961).
For Heller, delineating the foolishness of war – and perhaps of bureaucracies more generally – becomes an ecstatic project in the novel. Madness runs through every exchange; absurdity informs every character. He creates a whole universe of folly and the effect, which accumulates over hundreds of pages.
The idea of a "Catch-22" has gained popular currency because so many people in modern society are exposed to frustrating, contrary logic and along with George Orwell’s "doublethink", "Catch-22" has become one of the best-recognised ways to describe the predicament of being trapped by contradictory rules.
At Minsthorpe, a few parents sometimes show this irrational doublethink. If we said to a parent that we will not teach their child for two weeks and that s/he should catch up on the work missed in their own time they would, no doubt, complain. However, those same parents will justify taking their child out of school for a holiday and not see the contradiction in this!
As a psychologist I am all too aware of the effect that Catch-22 situations can have on people. For depressed people the very things that they need to do to get well – seek treatment, take more exercise, participate in social activities – are the very things that the illness makes it impossible for them to. Research on people with self-esteem issues has shown that the process of encouraging sufferers to think of themselves as being loveable only brings up negative thoughts related to why they feel that they are unlovable.
This is only the tip of the Catch-22 iceberg. Human psychology is full of conflict, contradiction, and paradox. If we are not careful we can tie ourselves up in knots and engage in self-defeating behaviour as a result. Thankfully, unlike Yossarian’s predicament in Catch-22, most of our catches can be remedied, if we are willing to work through them.