“It’s a catch-22; you gotta have money to make money.” “It’s a catch-22; you can’t get a job without experience, and you can’t get experience without a job.” Saying something is a catch-22 is quite common. The problem arises when we make this claim when it is not in the proper context. People say that something is a catch-22 when there is not a resolution to resolve the factors within a situation (as the examples above illustrate). While the true definition of a catch-22 is “a situation in which paradoxical rules make the desired outcome impossible to achieve,” the origin of the term came from a war novel from the 1960s.
In the 1961 World War II novel, Catch-22, is a bureaucratic clause. Joseph Heller’s novel (which is one of the most significant novels of the twentieth century) centers around Captain John Yossarian, a U.S. Army Air Force B-25 bombardier, and company attempt to keep sane while serving in the Air Force. Catch-22 is a disparaging war novel that gives a glimpse of war and the irrational life that soldiers live. A Catch-22 is a paradoxical situation. The paradox in this novel is a catch used against the members of the U.S. Air Force. The catch, as described in the novel, makes it impossible to be exempt from the bombing missions on the grounds of insanity. The catch came when the applicant applied for the exemption. The applicant is proven sane after seeking an exemption because that is what any sane person would do. It was an acknowledgment of their insanity if they did not apply, but to say that you were crazy made them ineligible. The catch creates the paradox.
It is the characters themselves that explain the catch best.
Yossarian looked at him soberly and tried another approach. “Is Orr crazy?”
“He sure is,” Doc Daneeka said.
“Can you ground him?”
“I sure can. But first he has to ask me to. That’s part of the rule.”
“Then why doesn’t he ask you to?”
“Because he’s crazy,” Doc Daneeka said. “He has to be crazy to keep flying combat missions after all the close calls he’s had. Sure, I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to.”
“That’s all he has to do to be grounded?”
“That’s all. Let him ask me.”
“And then you can ground him?” Yossarian asked.
“No. Then I can’t ground him.”
“You mean there’s a catch?”
“Sure there’s a catch,” Doc Daneeka replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.
As you can see from the text, the Catch-22 creates a paradox. It creates a loop or some vicious circle to keep an answer from presenting itself (think of the ‘what came first the chicken or the egg’ scenario). The characters are in a living-breathing dam*ed if you do and dam*ed if you don’t scenario. While the term Catch-22 receives a lot of use, it is an extremely misused phrase. So before you say that something is a Catch-22, stop and think if what you are describing is truly a paradox.
Money by HappyHayk – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39198796
First edition cover of Catch-22 attributed to Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19732528
Logo for Catch-22 by Machete kills – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79170934
Featured Image – B-25 used in the Catch 22 movie by Bill Larkins, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29358590
Orpington Chicken Head, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=219520
Chicken Eggs in Straw accredited to Source, GFDL 1.2, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=318951