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(November 2004)

Catch-22 The Novel by Joseph HellerWe at The Toast were with a couple of young friends recently when one tried to explain to the other the meaning of the phrase “Catch-22”. She fumbled around for a little while then came up with “Its like being between a rock and a hard place”. We liked that answer, its fairly close. When we inquired if they knew the origin of the expression, all we got back were blank stares.

It’s fascinating how words and expressions enter our language. In this case “Catch-22” is from a novel of the same name published in 1961 and written by Joseph Heller. The story is of an American bombardier in World War II who is trying desperately to escape the insanity of war and get out of more bombing missions by declaring himself “crazy”. Within the book the military has a rule, Catch-22, the circular logic of which prevents anyone from avoiding combat duty. It’s a parody of the military mentality and bureaucratic society in general. Catch-22:

  1. One may only be excused from flying bombing missions on the grounds of insanity.
  2. One must request to be excused.
  3. One who requests being excused is presumably in fear for his life. This, of course, is proof that he is not insane and therefore he cannot be excused from flying missions.
  4. One who is truly insane would not make the request. Therefore he would continue flying missions even though he could be excused because of his insanity if only he would request it.
  5. See the first rule.

Alan ArkinThe novel was a huge success and was followed in 1970 with a feature film starring Alan Arkin and Art Garfunkel (these names also brought blank stares, our young friends were really young). Alan Arkin is a gifted character actor who later starred in such favorite movies as Wait Until Dark (1967), Freebie and The Bean (1974), and Grosse Point Blank and Gattaca (both 1997). Art Garfunkel was one half of the famous singing duo Simon and Garfunkel. Not the greatest actor around he nevertheless had a couple of interesting roles in a couple of interesting movies including Carnal Knowledge (1971).

Art GarfunkelSo now, the dictionary defines Catch-22 as a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem or by a rule; i.e. in show business you can’t get any work unless you have an agent, you can’t get an agent unless you’ve worked. ‘Between a rock and a hard place.’

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