That’s Some Catch, That Catch-22
Catch-22 is my favorite book of all time. If you haven’t read it, go read it, then come back to Cura. Seriously. That’s how much I love it.
It’s a long book, but I’ve read it three times. I’ve flipped through it enough to have read it four.
People have asked me about page six, where Charlie is pressing on the walls and saying “I see everything twice!” It’s a riff on Catch-22. Yossarian, the hero, wants to stay in the hospital to avoid having to run more missions, and so he imitates one of the other soldiers in the ward who sees everything twice.
Actually, I can do better than that. I can crib the passage from this site, with thanks, and give you the whole context, which is spectaculawesome:
At the end of ten days, a new group of doctors came to Yossarian with bad news; he was in perfect health and had to get out. He was rescued in the nick of time by a patient across the aisle who began to see everything twice. Without warning, the patient sat up in bed and shouted.
‘I see everything twice!’
A nurse screamed and an orderly fainted. Doctors came running up from every direction with needles, lights, tubes, rubber mallets and oscillating metal tines. They rolled up complicated metal instruments on wheels. There was not enough of the patient to go around, and the specialists pushed forward in line with raw tempers and snapped at their colleagues in front to hurry up and give somebody else a chance. A colonel with a large forehead and horn-rimmed glasses soon arrived at a diagnosis.
‘It’s meningitis,’ he called out emphatically, waving the others back. ‘Although Lord knows there’s not the slightest reason for thinking so.’
‘Then why pick meningitis?’ inquired a major with a suave chuckle, ‘Why not, let’s say, acute nephritis?’
‘Because I’m a meningitis man, that’s why, and not an acute nephritis man,’ retorted the colonel. ‘And I’m not going to give him up to any of you kidney birds without a struggle. I was here first.’
In the end, the doctors were all in accord. They agreed they had no idea what was wrong with the soldier who saw everything twice, and they rolled him away into a room in the corridor and quarantined everyone else in the ward for fourteen days.
Thanksgiving day came and went without any fuss while Yossarian was still in the hospital. The only bad thing about it was the turkey for dinner, and even that was pretty good. It was the most rational Thanksgiving he had ever spent, and he took a sacred oath to spend every future Thanksgiving Day in the cloistered shelter of a hospital. He broke his sacred oath the very next year, when he spent the holiday in a hotel room instead in intellectual conversation with Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife, who had Dori Duz’s dog tags on for the occasion and who henpecked Yossarian sententiously for being cynical and callous about Thanksgiving, even though she didn’t believe in God as much as he didn’t.
‘I’m probably just as good an atheist as you are,’ she speculated boastfully. ‘But even I feel that we all have a great deal to be thankful for and that we shouldn’t be ashamed to show it.’
‘Name one thing I’ve got to be thankful for,’ Yossarian challenged her without interest.
‘Well…’ Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife mused and paused for a moment to ponder dubiously. ‘Me.’
‘Oh, come on,’ he scoffed.
She arched her eyebrows in surprise. ‘Aren’t you thankful for me?’ she asked. She frowned peevishly, her pride wounded. ‘I don’t have to shack up with you, you know,’ she told him with cold
dignity. ‘My husband has a whole squadron full of aviation cadets who would be only too happy to shack up with their commanding officer’s wife just for the added fillip it would give them.’
Yossarian decided to change the subject. ‘Now you’re changing the subject,’ he pointed out diplomatically. ‘I’ll bet I can name two things to be miserable about for every one thing you can name to be thankful for.’
‘Be thankful you’ve got me,’ she insisted.
‘I am, honey. But I’m also goddam good and miserable that I can’t have Dori Duz again, too. Or the hundreds of other girls and women I’ll see and want in my short lifetime and won’t be able to go to bed with even once.’
‘Be thankful you’re healthy’
‘Be bitter you’re not going to stay that way.’
‘Be glad you’re even alive.’
‘Be furious you’re going to die.’
‘Things could be much worse,’ she cried.
‘They could be one hell of a lot better,’ he answered heatedly.
This goes on for a bit, and finishes as such:
That was the most illogical Thanksgiving he could ever remember spending, and his thoughts returned wishfully to his halcyon fourteen-day quarantine in the hospital the year before; but even that idyll had ended on a tragic note; he was still in good health when the quarantine was over, and they told him again that he had to get out and go to war. Yossarian sat up in bed when he heard the news and shouted.
‘I see everything twice!’
Pandemonium broke loose in the ward again. The specialists came running up from all directions and ringed him in a circle of scrutiny so confining that he could feel the humid breath from their various noses blowing uncomfortable upon the different sectors of his body. They went from snooping into his eyes and ears with tiny beams of light, assaulted his legs and feet with rubber hammers and vibrating forks, drew blood from his veins, held anything handy up for him to see on the periphery of his vision.
The leader of this team of doctors was a dignified, solicitous gentleman who held one finger up directly in front of Yossarian and demanded, ‘How many fingers do you see?’
‘Two,’ said Yossarian.
‘How many fingers do you see now?’ asked the doctor, holding up two.
‘Two,’ said Yossarian.
‘And how many now?’ asked the doctor, holding up none.
‘Two,’ said Yossarian.
The doctor’s face wreathed with a smile. ‘By jove, he’s right,’ he declared jubilantly. ‘He does see everything twice.’
They rolled Yossarian away on a stretcher into the room with the other soldier who saw everything twice and quarantined everyone else in the ward for another fourteen days.
‘I see everything twice!’ the soldier who saw everything twice shouted when they rolled Yossarian in.
‘I see everything twice!’ Yossarian shouted back at him just as loudly, with a secret wink.
‘The walls! The walls!’ the other soldier cried. ‘Move back the walls!’
‘The walls! The walls!’ Yossarian cried. ‘Move back the walls!’
One of the doctors pretended to shove the walls back. ‘Is that far enough?’
The soldier who saw everything twice nodded weakly and sank back on his bed. Yossarian nodded weakly too, eyeing his talented roommate with great humility and admiration. He knew he was in the presence of a master. His talented roomate was obviously a person to be studied and emulated. During the night, his talented roomate died, and Yossarian decided that he had followed him far enough.
‘I see everything once!’ he cried quickly.
A new group of specialist came pounding up to his bedside with their instruments to find out if it was true.
‘How many fingers do you see?’ asked the leader, holding up one.
The doctor help up two fingers. ‘How many fingers do you see now?’
The doctor held up ten fingers. ‘And how many now?’
The doctor turned to the other doctors with amazement. ‘He does see everything once!’ he exclaimed. ‘We made him all better.’
Many people have despised Catch-22 for its purposeful redundancy, missing the point. They also malign Heller’s frequent (and galling) use of adverbs, but seeing the craft in the rest of the story, I do believe it’s intentional. I think he’s poking at our expectations for a story and usurping it in a brilliant way, as opposed to writing lazy. I have to, given the depth of the things he’s saying in the narrative.
Here, for instance, he’s made one of the most succinct and beautiful ways that we as a society look at anyone who doesn’t want to do what he’s told. He also skewers the practice of logic and philosophy in medicine. He lampoons optimism. He points out that we’re going to die, and that it sucks. And that’s one page. The whole book washes over you and kicks your ass stupid. It’s about war, life, death, obscenity, sex, love, hate, but most of all, it’s about the way that everything, the more you examine it, seems to contradict itself.
I love it.