Monday, 11 July 2016

Catch 22 by John A. A. Logan



The last time I’d been in town, only a few days after the EU referendum, there’d been a fractured, distressed, angry vibe in the air.
A confusion in the fabric of the country that I’d never sensed there before.
Now, only eight days later, it was a sunny day as I waited between buses in town and that disturbance in the air’s molecules seemed to have gone.
The next bus took me nine miles out into the pollen-crazed countryside. From there, the day’s tasks required me to walk another eight miles, across rough land with three-feet-high grass, up and down several very steep hills, following tractor tracks with my boots.
Some of the walking had to be done on the main road and the worst section was the bypass by the village. Vehicles came past at 70 miles-per-hour, only inches away. Huge rural vehicles that might as well be lorries, and now and then a real lorry hurtling past. I tried to stay on the road, no pavement around obviously, but then a smell of meat filled the air halfway between the corner and the village. I hadn’t eaten any meat for twenty years but I recognised it and looked around. There it was, a few feet ahead, on the road. When I came level with it, I saw that the flies encrusted upon it had found a new object of worship. The thing itself was nearly three feet long, it had been pounded and tenderised, battered by passing vehicles, hairless now, bloodless now, headless now, legless now, tail-less now. Conceivably, it might have been a dog a few hours earlier, out for a misguided sniff among these long grasses.
Right, Fxxk this then. I climbed up onto the embankment verge among the long grasses. I was off the road now, but having to walk on rough ground I couldn’t see beneath the long grass. There was the danger of tripping, stumbling, falling down among the 70-mph-ing Land Rovers that whizzed past only inches from my left leg and arm. But I had to keep moving, to get the day’s tasks done, they could not be left undone. Sometimes I would stare at the next approaching vehicle windscreen, with hate, wondering why they didn’t even slow down a little, when they saw a person trying to walk there.
The flies followed me, persecuting, clustered around my eyes and mouth, founding yet another brand new religion among the sweat and strain of this bypass road’s unfettered opportunities…

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Catch 22 then, after all…



“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 were 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.”

“Catch-22 states that agents enforcing Catch-22 need not prove that Catch-22 actually contains whatever provision the accused violator is accused of violating.”

“Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing.”

Joseph Heller’s satirical novel, Catch 22, published in 1961.
In 1982, my English teacher, who was also my Italian teacher, told me that I should read a novel called Catch 22 when I was a bit older…a few years later I did.

I recognised immediately the dark, absorbent translucency at the core of that book.
I also recognised that a great many people, families, even classes and castes of persons, even whole countries, have become lost in this agonising world of “Catch 22”…
Some, of course, stay lost there for such a long time it may even come to resemble that mythical “forever”.
Instinctively, I felt the worst and strangest thing of all would be for some country, through war or political upheaval, to find itself sent right over the precipice, hurtling into that alternative reality/Bermuda Triangle of Catch 22 logic…where nothing is clearly up or down any more, nothing objectively east or west anymore…and where even being able to tell “a hawk from handsaw” may no longer be quite so simple.
Those were the feelings I had, on first reading the novel aged 17 in 1985.

It’s a frightening place, the land of Catch 22.
It might be fun to read about, or to meditate on later if you’ve survived and escaped that zone…but you don’t want to get trapped there…as a person or as a country…you don’t want to live there…

Bloody revolutions have let Catch 22 through from whatever alternative dimension it usually resides in…political vacuums have done likewise to many nations.

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If Catch 22 really gains a strong foothold in a society or culture, there can perhaps be no going back, at least not for a very long time (as in the French Revolution, or the Russian Revolution, or the Khmer Rouge’s Year Zero, or Chairman Mao’s China…)

The exiled novelist, Milan Kundera, warned the West decades ago against the kind of opaque political atmosphere where nothing any longer could be counted on as true or real.



Kundera opens his 1979 novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, with an account of the airbrushing from history of communist minister, Vladimir Clementis. He describes a photograph from 21 February 1948, where Clementis stands next to Communist Party leader, Klement Gottwald. Hundreds of thousands of copies of this photograph were subsequently distributed by the Czech propaganda department.
But, when Clementis was later charged with treason in 1950, he was erased from the photograph by the propaganda department and from then on in Czechoslovakia only the “updated” photo, without Clementis, remained in official circulation.

Thus, Clementis had been effectively erased, and “forgotten”…his reality, and the past’s reality, altered, cancelled…

Hazy memory, disturbed perceptions, deep division and uncertainty, may be a sign, and a side effect, of Catch 22 beginning to take its strong foothold in a culture or country…and I suspect this is a process which can arrive out of the blue and take effect very quickly, more quickly than would be believed possible in “normal” times.
But when a political vacuum takes hold of the land, much chaos can ensue, and the demagogues can begin to pitch their tents, set their wares upon the ground, for “the people” to peruse:

“Yossarian comes to realize that Catch-22 does not actually exist, but because the powers that be claim it does, and the world believes it does, it nevertheless has potent effects. Indeed, because it does not exist, there is no way it can be repealed, undone, overthrown, or denounced. The combination of force with specious and spurious legalistic justification is one of the book's primary motifs.”

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After all, if you venture into Wonderland or through the Looking Glass…how can you complain if you now live in a region of White Rabbits, Cheshire Cats, Mad Hatters and Dormice, deadly Queens and March Hares…what, after all, did you expect to find over there?

If millions of us play some vaguely delineated “game”, never setting out the rules too clearly in advance, and we play it in a huge rye field right at the edge of a cliff…will our Holden Caulfield magically turn up and be our “Catcher in the Rye”…will he catch us, grab us round our guts, if, in our abandon at playing the game so excitedly we come close to running right off the edge of the cliff?

Ah, who knows…what may now seem to some the wrong way may prove later to be the right way after all…who can know?

‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.'
Julian of Norwich, 1373; T. S. Eliot (Little Gidding) 1942

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In any case, hours and hours later, I find myself back in the Highland Scottish town getting off another bus.
I stagger into McDonalds for a tea.
There seems to be no confusion in the air now. No political unrest or vacuum here. The media, the politicians, Facebook, the internet websites and newspaper articles…they seem to have left no mark on the streets or faces here.

A dog runs along the street outside the wide downstairs McDonalds window, short-legged, leadless, fearless and ownerless, happy and rapt in some canine fictive dream as it noses warm litter.

Violently and powerfully, a drumming suddenly starts up from nowhere, out on the street, followed by the beginning of a plaintive wailing scream that becomes musical at its apex…bagpipes…drums…the martial call to arms, furthest thing from a vacuum perhaps.
They fill the street now, beyond the window, the Scottish marching band, uniformed, male and female, piping, drumming, stepping. Two Polish girls by the window just along from me have their mobile phones out, recording the spectacle and sound…Indian, Japanese and American tourists, in McDonalds and on the street outside, stop to watch the band.
It goes on for half an hour beyond the window, a good enough distraction from my tired legs and pollen-filled red eyes.
Strangely, this very traditionally uniformed Scottish marching band has four mascots that walk the street ahead of them and behind…a 7-foot tall Scooby Doo, a 7-foot-tall Tigger (I look around for Winnie the Pooh but he is absent…two fat Bumble Bees are there, though, walking by the drummers, as though they have been feeding all day long on Pooh’s secret honey pot and are now dancing the energy away)…
The streets outside are thick with people, all watching the band. Inside McDonalds the little children are calling out, pointing beyond the windows, they have seen Tigger and Scooby Doo…one, about six years old, runs to the glass window, gets up on the stool right beside me, starts hammering at the glass…in the noise and heat of the street beyond, Tigger sees her and breaks off from the band, walks up to the window where the little girl is almost quivering with excitement, she cries out as Tigger high-fives the glass window in front of her, she high-fives it, too…
The front doors of McDonalds open, the band marches in, playing pipes and drums. They stop and march in place, once they are all inside the restaurant, drumsticks slapping, pipes wailing. The noise is incredible and the little children scream now, unrestrained, as a 7-foot Tigger and a 7-foot Scooby Doo, walk among them, and sit with them at their tables. To the skirl of bagpipes the 7-foot Scooby Doo walks over to the two Polish girls, puts its paws on their shoulders, cocks its head, and poses to be photographed.
I sip my tea, not even sure if I might not be smiling a bit through these pollen-swelled red eyes.
No real vacuums here it would seem, not yet anyway. Maybe the people know that, when the vacuums appear on the horizon, and the TV, internet, and newspapers implode, that just means the people have to start doing it for themselves, imagining their own futures into being, picturing some Secret Wonderful Something out of all that vast, black nothingness opening up ahead.








2 comments:

literaryleila said...

What a brilliant, captivating essay! Even the City dog, nosing "warm litter" in the safety of the structured City fares better than the Country dog, who crazily wandered into the unknown of thick grasses and unpredictable traffic.

That McDonald's, though, is one of those portals into the dangerous world of Catch 22 and black nothingness. On the surface there is a comforting sameness in the McDonald's "brand," one of the "wares spread on the ground" by the demagogues, swallowing up cultural diversity around the world. Likewise the giant furry Tigger, Bumble Bees and Scooby Doo - totems of that place we really do not want to inhabit, luring even or maybe especially children into cultural homogeneity, oblivious to the literature that produced Tigger, and diverting their attention from the pipe and drum corps, uniquely identified with Scotland.

Your essay fades from "dark, absorbent translucence" in Catch 22, harbinger of the corporate dictatorship, to the opacity of a Communist world where everything looks the same in the dark. But the pipes save the day. And in doing, your essay allow us to understand more clearly one of the dilemmas facing the U.K., and more particularly Scotland, in the wake of Brexit.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Very fine piece of writing, John, for which many thanks. Thank-you too for reminding me of Catch 22 which I read a long time ago and was both captivated and disturbed by it. It's strange in Scotland right now, though, isn't it? Strangely calm, with the country holding its breath. A friend today said she wakes up every morning thinking it must all have been a nightmare and then she remembers it's true and ongoing. Last Saturday, one of the last comments from one of the panelists on BBC R4's Any Questions was a glib 'suck it up' And it clarified a couple of things for me. That it doesn't now feel as though Scotland is leaving England so much as England removing itself from the rest of the UK. There's a clear sense of fracture, a sense of being cut adrift, already going our own way and realising that it isn't so scary after all. And there's also a sense that if we're going to have to suck it up in one way or another - and it seems we are - we might as well suck it up for Scotland as part of Europe, rather than being dragged along in England's tired old wake. I certainly know a number of people who voted 'no' in the Scottish referendum who have changed their minds. I love your reflection on people doing it for themselves. Talking to young people here that's how they feel too - imagining their own futures into being rather than having them imposed. All the same, I'm seriously considering applying for a Polish passport!