Catch-22 and the Humor of Black Humor

One can't help but note that in the critical commentary about the fiction of the 1950s and 60s known as "black humor" there is much discussion of what makes such fiction "black", but little of its humor. The most famous expression of this tendency occurs in probably the most frequently cited book on black humor, Max Schulz's Black Humor Fiction of the Sixties. "I have shied away from the humor in Black Humor," writes Schulz. Choosing instead to focus on what he calls the "cosmic labyrinth," Schulz claims that "to give equal value to humor in any consideration of this literature is possibly to let oneself be trapped by a term that came into being somewhat capriciously and may not accurately describe that literature." While it may be true that several of the novels labeled as black humor at one time or another are not "humorous" in a narrow sense, and that the term itself was adapted somewhat arbitrarily, Schulz's reluctance to deal at length with books such as Catch-22 or Stanley Elkin's A Bad Man, clearly funny books by any measure, evidences a common scholarly preference for the "cosmic" at the expense of the comic.

It might reasonably be assumed that criticism of individual novels would confront more directly the vital role of comedy in their aesthetic and rhetorical operations. Such attention would seem to be in order especially for Catch-22, which relies so systematically on what Frederick Karl has catalogued as "puns, high jinks, slapstick, [and] witty dialogue." However, by far most writing about Catch-22 has focused like Schulz on more portentous issues of politics, philosophy, economics, and even theology. In fact, to the extent that aesthetic or expressly literary issues are raised seriously at all, they tend to be restricted to relatively traditional studies of sources and precursors, or broadly thematic discussions of Heller's sense of what critics have chosen to term "the absurd." While the novel clearly has affinities with absurdism, these affinities have generally been used to distance Catch-22 from the kind of comedy associated with the devices Heller exploits for absurdist effect. While not everyone who examines the novel neglect Heller’s skill as a literary comedian, it is not unfair to cite the following statement by Leon F. Seltzer as typical of the general thrust of opinion about the role of comedy in Catch-22: "the novel's absurdities--comic and otherwise--operate almost always to expose the alarming inhumanities which pollute our political, social, and economic systems” (Critical Essays on Joseph Heller, 1984)

My intention is not to deny that Catch-22 does expose such inhumanities (clearly it does just that for many readers), nor even for that matter to criticize the substance of previous commentary on the novel, but to point out the implicit dichotomy between the "comic" and the "serious" created by this commentary. Precisely because Catch-22 seems to most readers a fundamentally serious work, a reflexive critical assumption comes into play whereby comedy and humor are seen as necessarily in service of something else, something more worthwhile, more identifiably meaningful. In short, the logical inference to draw from the kinds of statements I have quoted is that the comic cannot itself be serious.

An exception to the approach taken by most critics of Catch-22 is Morton Gurewitch in his book Comedy: The Irrational Vision. Gurewitch sees Catch-22 as above all a "mad farce" so unrelenting as to effectively overwhelm any narrower didactic or satiric impulses. "The satire," writes Gurewitch, "is devoured ... by omnivorous nonsense." In some ways this view could seem reminiscent of early responses to the novel which deemed it unworthy of sustained attention precisely because it seemed like “nonsense.” However, Gurewitch intends his assertion to be taken as a laudatory judgment, and as such it is welcome recognition that the "merely funny" pervades Catch-22, to the extent that analysis focusing on worldview or ideology are at the very least problematic if not outright misleading. At the same time, Gurewitch's use of the word "nonsense" risks propping up the same opposition between the comic and the serious I have described. It implies a comedy defined by the absence of any positive content (although it must be said that Gurewitch celebrates comedy for what he calls its "irrational freedom"). Opposing "sense" with "nonsense" does not finally overcome what seems to be an inherent devaluation--embedded in critical discourse itself--of the comedic impulse.

Despite the foregrounding of more solemn issues by critics such as Schulz and Seltzer, Catch-22 provides ample opportunity to explore this impulse. In fact, in my analysis Catch-22 is first and foremost a comic novel whose primary structural principle is the joke and whose design and execution are most appropriately construed as the vehicles of mirth. This description is also intended to underscore the book's accomplishment, but without divorcing its comedy from its overall seriousness of purpose. In my attempt to establish the inherent respectability of comedy as a mode creating its own kind of meaning, I draw on Jerry Palmer's analysis in his book. The Logic of the Absurd, which develops a convincing account of both the internal mechanism of the joke and the effect successful jokes have on our reception of the texts which employ them. Although Palmer's book focuses on film and television comedy, the burden of much of the discussion that follows is precisely that Catch-22 shares essential characteristics with these forms. (As does, moreover, an entire strain of contemporary American fiction, encompassing loosely American "postmodern" writers and including Joseph Heller, which not only uses comedy extensively but relies on strategies and conventions derived as much from popular sources such as film and vaudeville as from purely literary traditions.)

Few novels in fact offer comedy as pure as that offered in Catch-22. No situation, not even the bloodiest or most fearful, is insulated from the further indignity of the joke, or exempt from the comedic reductio ad absurdum; no character, not even the apparent protagonist, escapes the ravages of mockery and ridicule. While such thoroughgoing comedy is familiar to us in film--particularly the American comic film descended from Mack Sennett--it is undoubtedly disconcerting to find it in a purportedly "serious" work of literature depicting a subject as forbidding as war and its consequences. Nevertheless, this brand of comedy distinguishes Catch-22 from the primary line of twentieth-century comic fiction which uses comedy as a strategy to clearly satirical or discursive ends, and it is here that Palmer's view of the comic process is most illuminating.

Palmer argues for the necessity of a theory of comedy which values it for its own sake: "by reducing comedy to the play of serious values (attacking A, promoting B) the nature of the process, the pleasure which is specific to comedy and humour is lost." Palmer contends that comedy has a force of its own which inevitably muddies the thematic waters a text might otherwise seem to be navigating. His book's thesis, he writes, is that "ambiguities are built into the reception of comedy and humour, and this for reasons that are fundamental to their nature.” He goes on to analyze in impressive and compelling detail the operations inherent in comedy, constructing a model which provides a basis for understanding the way jokes and gags unfold, and which also explains their success or failure. On one level, Palmer's account seems remarkably simple, as he divides the comic event into two distinct moments, one during which occurs a disruption of narrative or contextual expectations, and a second which leads to a laugh-producing contradiction: that the cause of the disruption—either a verbal remark or visual image—is implausible yet at the same time contains a kind of plausibility after all. The clarity provided by this formulation, however, as well as its potential relevance in a wide range of contexts and across generic boundaries, make it an effective tool for appreciating particular comic effects. It is especially insightful when applied to a text like Catch-22, whose comic effects have struck so many as being at best in conflict with an overarching seriousness of purpose.

That Catch-22 engages in broad comedy is readily apparent from its first chapter, indeed its very first sentence. But the reader attentive to comic structure and pattern will not fail to appreciate a passage such as the following:

    The colonel dwelt in a vortex of specialists who were still specializing in trying to determine what was troubling him. They hurled lights in his eyes to see if he could see, rammed needles into nerves to hear if he could feel. There was a urologist for his urine, a lymphologist for his lymph, an endocrinologist for his endocrines, a psychologist for his psyche, a dermatologist for his derma; there was a pathologist for his pathos, a cystologist for his cysts, and a bald and pedantic cetologist from the zoology department at Harvard who had been shanghaied ruthlessly into the Medical Corps by an faulty anode in an I.B.M. machine and spent his sessions with the dying colonel trying to discuss Moby Dick with him.(9)

One almost waits for the rimshots at the end of such a performance (it has the feel in particular of a more verbally playful Woody Allen joke). Although the ultimate effect of humor such as this may be to contribute to the novel's overall sense of absurdity, it should be emphasized that the immediate effect is laughter, and that the novel's knitting together of such moments is its primary narrative strategy.

While "jokes" in the most conventional sense do not necessarily dominate the pages of Catch-22--they are nevertheless plentiful--the spirit and substance of comedy like the above does inform much of the novel's exposition, as well as many of its character exchanges. Chapter II, "Clevinger," for example, opens to a brief dialogue between the title character and Yossarian, the tenor of which is  echoed in subsequent dialogue as well:

    Clevinger had stared at him with apoplectic rage and indignation and, clawing the table with both hands, had shouted, "You're crazy!"

    "Clevinger, what do you want from people?" Dunbar had replied wearily above the noises of the officers' club.

    "I'm not joking," Clevinger persisted.

    "They're trying to kill me," Yossarian told him calmly.

    "No one's trying to kill you," Clevinger cried.

    "Then why are they shooting at me?" Yossarian asked.

    "They're shooting at everyone," Clevinger answered. "They're trying to kill everyone."

    "And what difference does that make?" (pp. 11-12)

The tone of this interchange is suggestive of nothing so much as the patter of a vaudeville team, and the humor evoked by such a passage clearly relies on the basic strategies of comedy, surprise and incongruity. In replying "what difference does that make?" to Clevinger's declaration, Yossarian is clearly disrupting the logical case Clevinger is trying to make for Yossarian's "craziness." At first we find Yossarian's defense quite implausible (and therefore are perhaps inclined to agree with Clevinger) but on second thought it makes its own kind of sense. What difference does it make to Yossarian if he is in fact killed that everyone else is a target? The ambiguity ensuing from these disparate responses provokes our laughter. It is this instinctive, largely subconscious reaction which is prompted by what Palmer terms the "logic of the absurd.”

Moreover, Clevinger's disclaimer—“I'm not joking!”—ultiimately works to highlight his position as the butt of the joke being set up at his expense, both by Yossarian and by the shape of the scene's own comic logic. Ironically, by the end of Chapter II Yossarian finds the tables turned as he himself becomes the butt of the joke whose absurd but ruthless logic provides the novel its title and controlling metaphor: Catch-22. Doc Daneeka informs him that the required number of missions has been raised (from 44 to 50 at this point), and throughout the rest of the book Yossarian struggles against the inescapable force of Catch-22, sometimes resisting actively and at others more passively cutting his losses in his effort to somehow get the last laugh on the system it represents. Doc Daneeka's explanation of the principle of Catch-22 suggests further the relevance of Palmer' s schema; indeed, what is most disturbing about the whole idea of Catch-22  is explicable through its terms. We--and the airmen on Pianosa--are surprised by the obvious manipulation and injustice embodied in this unofficial law. Its main tenet--that anyone who would continue to fly missions after what Yossarian, Orr, and the others have been through would be crazy, but that "anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy" seems a perversely implausible distortion of logic, but at the same time has a certain monstrous plausibility as well. Even Yossarian is moved to admire such a catch, and Doc Daneeka pronounces it "the best there is.” If the world of Catch-22 is indeed "crazy," it is largely because it is so thoroughly informed by the rigorous logic of comedy.

Not only is Yossarian repeatedly taken aback by the ubiquity of this logic, but readers of Catch-22 must also be surprised by the unremitting manifestations of its all-encompassing joke in an incongruous setting of bloody air war and inhuman exploitation where fear and misery are translated into comic pratfalls. A large part of the book's artistic interest, I would argue, lies precisely in the way in which Heller sustains his comic routines over the course of nearly 500 pages, as well as the way in which he joins these routines into a compelling, albeit highly fragmented, narrative. Heller succeeds both in creating consistently startling comic moments and in tying these moments together in a way that reflects and reinforces the fundamental nature of the joke itself. Palmer describes two kinds of narrative which incorporate gags and jokes. The first gathers such gags into an essentially self-sufficient sequence, while the second subordinates the gags to an otherwise non-comic story. In the former case, comedy is presumed to be capable of producing its own kind of satisfaction; in the latter, the comedy is employed as a supplement to the story's non-comic core.

While Palmer is perhaps correct to contend that narratives of the first kind are rarely found in practice (especially in literature), Catch-22 comes as close to this kind of narrative as any text in modern fiction. Further, while such a strategy might seem a threat to narrative unity, in Catch-22 it actually provides a kind of unity that has previously been overlooked. What has appeared to be an excessively fragmented narrative (or at least a too randomly fragmented one) can be read as a mammoth orchestration of individual comic bits and routines into a kaleidoscopic comedy revue, the cumulative effect of which is to situate Yossarian ever more irretrievably in the world defined by Catch-22. The chronological fluidity of the story is partly induced by the logic of an absurdity as overwhelming as this, and is partly an opportunity for the reader to reflect on the logic of the absurd itself as played out under this text's conditions: that a world so irrational, where distinctions between past, present, and future collapse, could actually exist seems implausible in the extreme, yet when judged by the terms of its governing assumptions, the confusions of such a world seem plausible indeed.

Thus does one of the most basic of comedic devices--the joke--serve both as the foundation of individual scenes and episodes and as a central organizing principle of the novel as a whole, with consequent ramifications not only for its aesthetic structure but also for any philosophical or political positions it may be presumed to be advancing. Even more examples of scenes and situations in Catch-22 explicable in terms of jokes and related kinds of "low" humor could be adduced here--the "atheist" scene between the chaplain and Colonel Cathcart, for example, in which the Colonel "plays dumb" (although he isn't really playing) in his astonishment that atheism is legal, that the enlisted men pray to the same God as the officers, etc. But while many readers might reluctantly acknowledge the book's reliance on such humor, it is the marginal status of this kind of comedy that provokes even admirers to attribute supplemental value to its use in order to "raise" the text to a more respectable and more suitably meaningful level of discourse.

Again, examining the mechanism of the joke can help to explain why this happens. The balance between the plausible and the implausible in a given joke is often delicate, and can itself determine the impact of that joke. Palmer argues, for example, that contemporary audiences may see only the implausible in silent film comedies, and therefore judge them to be merely silly. Some audiences at the time, however, attended mostly to the plausible—that is, currently relevant—features and thus, notably, "found them excessively 'black,' too abrasive to be funny.” Substituting "serious" or "disturbing" for "abrasive" in this statement, we can perhaps begin to see how contemporary literary critics avoid or overlook the humor of black humor.

Implicit in Palmer's account of the operation of comedy is a kind of self-consciousness which, if not expressed directly through the text, is potentially induced on the reader's side by the text. Thus while comic fiction is not necessarily self-reflexive in the mode of more strictly defined metafictions (e.g., John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse or Robert Coover's Universal Baseball Association), that which, like Catch-22, unleashes the logic of the absurd does encourage an awareness of textuality in those moments when the very mechanism of this logic compels the reader to note the disruption of textual continuity. When the joke opens an especially wide gap—that is, when the imbalance between the plausible and the implausible seems, initially at least, very pronounced—such awareness can only increase. Here is perhaps the source of both the primary effect of humor—laughter—and the temptation to devalue mere laughter, an apparent paradox that can be illustrated by looking at a scene skeptical readers could well point to as fundamentally non-comic.

The scene inside Yossarian's airplane after it has been hit and his fellow airman Snowden wounded is probably one of the most memorable episodes in Catch-22. Although portions of this scene are replayed throughout the novel, its full impact is registered near the end in a final flashback. Yossarian's memory does indeed for the most part unfold with appropriate sobriety:

    Yossarian bent forward to peer and saw a strange colored stain seeping through the coveralls just above the armhole of Snowden's flak suit. Yossarian felt his heart stop, then pound so violently he found it difficult to breathe. Snowden was wounded inside his flak suit.

But even here the solemnity and outright horror of the situation can easily be interrupted by a joke:

    A chunk of flak more than three inches big had shot into his other side just underneath the arm and blasted all the way through, drawing whole mottled quarts of Snowden along with it through the gigantic hole in his ribs it made as it blasted out ... Here was God's plenty, all right [Yossarian] thought bitterly as he stared--liver, lungs, kidneys, ribs, stomach, and bits of the stewed tomatoes Snowden had eaten that day for lunch. Yossarian hated stewed tomatoes and turned away dizzily and began to vomit, clutching his burning throat.

No doubt such a moment can, and has, been interpreted differently. Some might find it merely tasteless; most probably assume it has some comprehensible relationship to the scene's—and the book's—aesthetic or thematic design, and look to subordinate it to that design—thus the joke serves to heighten the horror, reinforce the anti-war message, etc. While I would not deny that it does either or both of these things, what gets overlooked in such an interpretation is the sheer disruptiveness of the joke, the way it actually takes our attention away from the grossness of "God's plenty" to contemplate the implausibility of the joke itself entering the narrative space otherwise occupied by Snowden's internal organs. As Palmer has it, "any gag works by contradicting discursively defined expectations,” and the starkness of the contradiction involved here makes for a particularly strong sense of implausibility—so much so that Heller might seem to risk alienating readers for whom such a situation "deserve[s] only serious treatment or behavior.” Yet reflection does indeed suggest it is plausible after all that Yossarian, continuously immersed as he is in death and mayhem, would be sickened only at the sight of the less familiar stewed tomatoes.

In a scene like this, the comedic element is so unsettling that one's awareness of the discordant note introduced can produce either the sense that Yossarian's squeamishness is mordantly funny or that its origin in the repulsiveness of war makes its comic quality secondary. Readers whose response is the latter are likely to find that perceptual gap created by the logic of the absurd to be an abyss into which received notions of literary significance could disappear. But those whose immediate response is laughter are acknowledging the integrity and the vitality of comedy, although it would not be accurate to say such readers thus ignore the potentially provocative insinuations of context--in fact, a definition of "black humor" would have to emphasize the obvious way in which this particular brand of levity depends on a corresponding contextual gravity.

Certainly not all scenes in Catch-22 are comic in the way I have described. Yossarian's descent into the underworld on the streets of Rome, for example, seems clearly meant to convey a sobering impression (although even here his obvious helplessness finally only reinforces an overall view of him as a comic figure). Furthermore, comedy as absolute as Catch-22 at its most extreme does almost unavoidably provoke consideration of its implications, formal and thematic. It is finally only testimony to the impact of comedy, its capacity to be meaningful in a variety of contexts, that the novel has drawn the weighty interpretations I adduced previously. Misunderstanding and distortion result when the hermeneutic operations involved in such interpretations are insufficiently distinguished from the operations of comedy proper, or these latter operations are disregarded entirely. In effect, humor is erased as a significant element of the text, becoming merely an incidental effect. Certainly joking in a context perceived as especially serious or disturbing could elicit laughter resonant with questions (not only "Why am I laughing?" but undoubtedly following from that immediate response), but the joke itself remains separate from such questions, its structure independent of context. The force of a given joke may indeed be related to its context, of course: the blackness of black humor, while often overemphasized, cannot be ignored and is obviously meaningless except through reference to context. The term "black humor," then, is perhaps most appropriately defined as an unapologetic, unalloyed use of comedy in extreme situations that implicitly raise very large, even profound, questions. Black humor of the sort found in Catch-22 neither trivializes such questions nor foregrounds them, but rather broadens the range of experience to which comedy is relevant.

The conclusion to Catch-22 has struck many readers as a particularly extreme situation, or at least one with important implications for the novel's ostensible thematic concerns. Many who see Catch-22 as a satire or a philosophical treatise find the ending a cop-out. Why does Yossarian choose to run away, they implicitly ask, rather than stay and work to change the system? (Although such criticism overlooks the fact that the chaplain proposes to do just that.) Should one conclude that the book is insufficiently serious from the outset, the ending could conceivably seem a transparent attempt to graft on an explicitly antiwar message. A more accurate assessment would conclude that the ending does leave a message, but also point out that it is a message entirely consistent with the novel's preponderant use of comedy. If the world depicted on Pianosa could be changed, surely by the end of this long novel a sign of such a change would reveal itself. Yet Yossarian's lived-world remains essentially the same at the end as it was when we first experienced it in the hospital ward. Nor are we as readers likely to feel that the conditions of that lived-world have been neutralized, much less altered, by the extended comic treatment of them. Instead, the comedy of Catch-22 is ultimately nonregenerative: its relentless, frequently black humor does not finally call attention to situations, issues, or problems that could be improved, resolved, or eliminated through more concerted human effort. The blackness of the humor, in fact, may be a function of this final despair. In the face of a world so wholly irredeemable, Yossarian's only alternative is to abandon it in a gesture of personal survival. He may have managed to get the last laugh, but it is a feeble one, and his apparent optimism about the possibilities of "Sweden" make this reader feel the joke is still on him.

Palmer ultimately addresses what he calls the "effectivity" of comedy. He concludes that humor "is neither essentially liberatory nor conservative, for its nature is such that it always refuses to make any commitment to any 'opinion' about anything (except of course the opinion that levity is appropriate under these circumstances).” Possibly what has driven scholars to neglect the role of comedy in Catch-22 is the sense that under the circumstances portrayed by this novel—war, death, systemic oppression—“levity” assuredly does not seem appropriate. Perhaps there are situations, attitudes, and beliefs that are off limits to comic treatment, but surely comic art can be served only by those who reject taboos of decorum and give free rein to the logic of comedy; the unrestrained play of this logic once unleashed achieves the only truly serious purpose of comedy, which is finally to expose the potentially ridiculous even if what is exposed proves disturbing or offensive. Joseph Heller does so unleash the inherent force and energy of the comic impulse, and this more than its concern with the "alarming inhumanities" of the system makes Catch-22 a sobering work of literature. Thus, while "black humor fiction" may do little to enhance our knowledge of the "cosmic labyrinth," it does greatly enhance our understanding of the legitimate reach of comedy: even the gravest or the most exalted of subjects can be submitted to the logic of the absurd. Catch-22 will not tell you how to live or what to think or even what's worth thinking about. It will tell you what's worth laughing at.


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