Catch 22

Catch 22 waving bye to me not long before I fled the theater my first viewing

Several times last week I had an almost, not-quite exchange with laizzes-faire “well, this is unacceptable so certainly it will be taken care of blitheness”, variation of a too nonchalant “this too shall pass” which left me disoriented, sapped of strength, as if the words were an invisible red-and-white striped straw that had unexpectedly found vein, tapped, then breezed along. My outrage over the murderous sadism of naked bodies suspended from and dying on Terror War chains, or the routine stripping of stateside prisoners for purposes of police state humiliation and dehumanization distanced with words of a tourist casual aloofness. I was in horror of the routine humiliation of real people with names and lives, easily imagining my flesh and person in their place, when around the corner strolls a mind that touches my own and I find myself in a place where velvet crowd-control ropes direct the traffic through medieval death dungeons, the victims are historical artifacts that make the price of the ticket, the chained a perpetual fact of life, the essential oddity that makes the attraction, but quickly and ultimately a prison cell is small and boring so move along. The lack of interest embraces and seems to want to win me over to its view and carry me with it. I become detached and disoriented. So this then has no meaning? Belongs to a world of shadowy “other” that has no relation to the tourist basking in the sun. They go to find something to eat and I am left in a state of slight, mute shock. Hollowed.

It’s been a long time since I read “Catch 22”. Just thinking of it now I realize that we probably no longer have the novel. A disintegrating paperback I’ve not seen around in a long time, which means it must have fallen apart and turned landfill sometime between then and now. Had the paperback already when I was 18 or 19, but I’d not read it before I went to see the movie, “Catch 22”.

The movie was one of those special college shows. The sound was muffled. About all that I remember is the cinemotography and lighting. It seemed I’d climbed into someone else’s mind and was living their world.

And I remember two scenes from that once and only viewing of the film. The old Italian man. Did he say something about the sun being different in the Mediterranean? I’ve read this so many times elsewhere, witnessed it in photos, I don’t recollect if the old man had said this or I’ve come to attach this knowledge to this scene (though the quality of sun is different everywhere). But I recollect him talking about time, about what lasts and what doesn’t. In the book, he questions what is a country, pointing out the artificial nature of national boundaries. I don’t remember all that he said in the movie, but he shocked the soldier with whom he was speaking, telling him that America would one die, which hadn’t occurred to the GI. I’m going purely on memory here, and the movie is different from the book. He spoke against nationalism and yet something about parts of his reasoning seemed steeped through with nationalism (to me) and I felt off kilter. Perhaps “all is vanity” was the primary theme. The memory isn’t clear, only that I felt a great hostile vacuum expanding as he spoke. There is a way of approaching the vanity of the human which is hostile and a way which is compassionate. The vacuum overwhelmed and I began to drown. At least that is what I remember feeling, the sun on the movie screen weakening the thin and watery images, muffled voices disintegrating, the ragged film stock chopping up words, breaking thoughts. I started to feel physically ill.

The light. Something about the light was too much.

Then the beach scene. The screen was full with Hollywood, familiar faces, but the film was breaking them up too, splintering them, making them into a lifetime of someone else’s real memories piled up over the years, experienced in the piecemeal hash of dream review. I felt like I was in a trance. I don’t know if this is how it happens but I remember a pier, a man standing on the end, Paula Prentiss and Arkin and others wandering away, perhaps down the beach. The plane with McWatt flying it and he’s coming in to buzz the others, which he gets a kick out of doing. The man on the end of the pier is waving (Kid Sampson in the book). The plane comes in too low and off in the distance the propeller strikes the man on the pier and slices him in half. Paula screams. McWatt’s plane (we are not shown McWatt flying it I don’t believe) turns, flies high, plunges down into the ocean, McWatt killing himself. At least that is how I remember it.

And the light. The light. Which was now terrifying.

I didn’t know if I was sick already and had just begun to feel it while watching the film. But I was overcome and unable to tolerate the film anymore, had to get out of there. I felt as if I’d received a terrible shock and the world had split apart at the seams with screaming hell pouring out of its core. I wasn’t the only one leaving as my husband was with me, and I felt terribly out of place as I made my way up the aisle, which was difficult. I was struggling not to pass out. The faces in the auditorium were bright with the light reflected off the screen, all caught up in the movie, and it felt odd having to turn my back on the film. I wanted to forget. The cheapness of life. Alienation. A person as hunk of flesh that when ruptured revealed only meat, was already only meat animated by futile sense of self in which no one else participated, all selves orbiting their own heart-suns until the heart stops and the sun simultaneously darkens and all the worlds that were in one perish in the freezing cold. I wondered why I was the only one who had to leave. And the film followed. The old Italian. The sun. The watery images. Kid Sampson waving one second and sawn in two the next.

I felt weak, as if I was missing something that should have been able to keep me in my seat with the others. I felt ashamed that I couldn’t stomach it. None of the ideas explored in the black comedy were new to me, but for some reason I’d not been able to confine this particular film to fiction, to movie magic. I was thinking the movie wasn’t even that good. Disjointed. But the disjointedness, the light had amplified the alienation.

As it turned out, I was physically ill. Quite sick. But that night and the following days I had a difficult time sorting out the physical from the emotional and mental shock I’d gotten in the theater. There is illness that can make one more susceptible, marrow deep.

It was a number of years before I could bring myself to read the book. I’d pick it up and examine it. Joseph Heller. Catch 22. A slim book with yellowed pages brown at the edges and the paper brittling. The glue of the binding brittled and no longer holding.

Books don’t remain static for me, changing sometimes as I change. I might pick it up today and reading it would be a new experience.

So, last week, feeling somewhat disjointed from lots of Benadryl fighting a particularly bad week of allergies, I was thinking of the devastating weaponry of humiliation and dehumanization and of the brand of “this too shall pass” that casually distances and makes all meaningless and I thought of “Catch 22” and the old man and the futile vacuum and of the hell of Kid Sampson evaporating into no meaning whatsoever. It’s the kind of hell I taste singeing the edges when I collide with commodity culture.

Not that my life is bursting at the seams with meaning. But commodity culture is pretty remote from it.

Considering my intense reaction to the light, I find it interesting to read that the DVD release has Nichols talking about the cinematographer, how Watkins insistence on the perfect natural light meant sometimes there was only shooting for two hours a day.

On Monday Son went to see the new Grossology exhibit at the Natural History Museum. He loves the Natural History Museum. When he was five he liked the Science Museum though confused by the stuffed animals on exhibit. I knew the question would come sooner or later as he stood and stared. Why did they do that to the animal? At the Natural History Museum the exhibit before this one was on Frogs. He loves frogs. They had as part of the exhibit a display to do with a dissected frog. Son came home and said he was not going back to the museum until the dissected frog was gone. “Why did they do that to the frog?” So he went back after the Frog exhibit was gone and before the new exhibit opened. And then was all eager for the new exhibit to open. As soon as his dad was up Monday morning, Son was sayng, “Let’s go! Let’s go!” The exhibit is billed as a gross delight for kids dealing with the human body. Son got there and saw giant steroided-out Mad Magazine constructions of intestines and stuff and said it was gross and promptly wanted to leave and said he wasn’t going back until that exhibit was gone. He wasn’t amused.

Maybe because everything is already big to my son. Amplified. And the whole world is alive and talking. He’s like me when I was his age. Like I still am, actually. Other children can look at water coming out the faucet into the sink and wonder where it comes from, what’s the conduit. My son looks and sees water alive and talks to it and think it’s talking. He used to ask what is the water feeling.

Intestines on steroids were too much.

I later thought of Yossarian and the soldier with the intestines spilling out of his body.

I ought to read the book again. Perhaps I should see the film again. But I should read the book again. I wonder if any kids in high school now are reading “Catch 22” for class, are thinking about the war being fought by the military professionals and hawks as different from the war fought by Yossarian, who pragmatically is simply interested in living, the legalized insanity of war driving him into a state of paranoia where Nately’s “whore” suddenly appears everywhere trying to kill him after he delivers the message to her of Nately’s death.

What are they teaching kids in school today about war?

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Juli Kearns

Juli Kearns is the author of Thunderbird and the Ball of Twine and Unending Wonders of a Subatomic World (or) In Search of the Great Penguin. She is also an artist/photographer, and the person behind the web alter of "Idyllopus Press".

6 thoughts on “Catch 22”

  1. I look forward daily to your flow of consciousness. It deserves a wide audience.

    I recently rented Coming Home, and was surprised by its quality. I expect it would be a good film for high school students to watch.

    I also attended our small town Memorial Day parade, and–seated in the shade next to a teenager–watched the veterans and scouts and flags pass, followed by church and peace groups with their anti-war banners, and found I could appreciate the need for acknowledgment of both sacrifice and folly.

    But what impressed me the most was when the middle-teen boy pulled out a cell phone and called in his report to the school paper, with all the subdued drama and gravity of Edward R. Murrow, and said, “A million Phillipinos, fourteen million Native Americans, two million Vietnamese–we can do better people.”

  2. Thanks, Jay.

    I saw “Coming Home” when it first came out and didn’t care for it. I liked Fonda and Voight in films and I don’t even remember their performances in “Coming Home”. (Whereas Fonda in “Klute” sticks with me, as well as Sutherland, and I see scene after scene in memory.) I remember the ending and I think I may have felt that it didn’t fit. I don’t know how I’d feel about it today. As said, sometimes my feelings on things change.

    Thanks for relating the story about the teen reporter. I’m impressed. Sounds like you were sitting in the right spot.

    One of the best anti-war films I’ve ever seen is Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory.”

  3. what a wonderful blog, no wonder arvin hill likes you. I read Catch 22 in 1984 when I was in jr college. I could see rereading it, but I couldn’t imagine rereading the Fountainhead or Madame Bovary,both of which I also read when I was pretty young. Yes, I know Bovary is supposed to be sublime, but I found it turgid, admittedly at 16 or 17. The Fountainhead inevitably impresses you when you’re 18, but seems silly years later– at least that’s how I remember it.

    I’m thinking that 18 or 19 is probably the best time to read Kerouac too; I (think) I might like to reread On the Road, but I wonder how it would wear.

  4. They are teaching kids about war today the same thing they taught kids about war when I was a child, which is that war is a glorious venture where our soldiers defend our nation’s freedoms, and nobody actually, like, really DIES in a war. Oh sure, they’ll say something like “50,000 soldiers died at Gettysburg”, but that’s not PEOPLE dying, that’s just a dry, dusty statistic. That is not a young life snuffed out forever, intestines spilling out through the rent in his uniform made by bieng struck by many rounds of grapeshot, a young wife at home newly widowed who will wail in sorrow upon hearing the news, a young child growing up who will never know his father, no, it’s just a NUMBER. Nothing. Less than nothing. Meaningless.

    And the children play war, and shoot their toy guns at each other or use sticks or fingers if their parents are pacifists, and dream of the day when they, too, will be old enough to participate in the glorious venture of killing other people. Most grow out of it. Some do not. And some do not, yet are too chicken to join the military, and instead place themselves into positions of power where they can push tin soldiers around on a map and play war, never really concieving that those are actual flesh and blood men and women whose lives are actually being lost as a result of those orders coming down from upon high where they play with their tin soldiers…

  5. Madame Bovary. We read it in my Humanities class. The translation used by the college, the professor hated and he had us get another one. I couldn’t begin to recollect who was the translator but it was lively whereas the other was, as you say, turgid. But would I reread Madame Bovary now? No. And it wasn’t a book that I ever pulled out to reread special passages.

    I read Kerouac too when I was 18 and for several years reread passages but when I pulled it back out in my 30s it wasn’t wearing well, not as a whole, but was still good for passages. I don’t know about now. (I had some problems with misogyny that struck me as not a plot device but a way of viewing women.) When the scroll came through town I did go to see it but the one question I had about it couldn’t be answered because the last part of it was missing. I still haven’t seen the movie treatment of Subterraneans and would love to as I read it is terrible.

    Have a funny story about how I came to read the Fountainhead. Started to read when in college but didn’t read until several years later. The writing struck me as an overblown romance novel. I haven’t blogged about how I came to read it and I keep intending to.

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