Pathological Communication Patterns in Heller's 'Catch-22.'

By Moore, Michael | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

Pathological Communication Patterns in Heller's 'Catch-22.'


Moore, Michael, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


In Schizophrenia, the foremost psychotic disorder, patients suffer from thought and communication breakdown. One of the theories concerning the development of schizophrenia ties it to patterns of pathological communication within the family (Bateson et al., 1956). Weakland (1960, pp.374-375) listed the following combination of processes, characteristic of schizophrenogenic interactions: 1) Involvement in an intense relationship where accurate discrimination of the message has vital importance for the individual; 2) the other person expresses two orders and one of these denies the other; 3) the individual cannot react to the contradictory messages (cannot metacommunicate). The protagonist of Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22 (1961) finds himself in an extended relationship teeming with these characteristics. Indeed, I regard the entire novel as an inventory of the major pathologies of thought and communication. (For a related list of the communicational maneuvers which characterize schizophrenic transactions, see Palazzoli et al., 1978, p.25). I shall illustrate several such pathologies by quotes from the text.

Not Listening

The simplest case of not listening and perhaps the most frequently encountered one, results from self-centeredness:

"Doe Daneeka wasn't interested. `You think you've got

troubles?' he wanted to know. `What about me?"' (p.40).

A more extreme type of not listening is disconfirmation, that is, neither a confirmation nor an outright rejection:

"`Darling, we're going to have a baby again,' she would say

to her husband. `I haven't the time,' Lieutenant Scheisskopf

would grumble petulantly. `Don't you know there's a

parade going on?"' (p.72).

"`I don't want any special dishes. I want exactly what you

serve all the other officers... Is that clear?' `Yes, sir,' said

Milo. `That's very clear. I've got some live Maine lobsters

hidden away that I can serve you tonight with an excellent

Roquefort salad and two frozen eclairs... Will that do for a

start?' `No.' `Yes, sir. I understand.' For dinner that night

Milo served him broiled lobster with excellent Roquefort

salad and two frozen eclairs" (p.103).

In the following example disconfirmation by the total disregarding of the other's communication (and, in this case, of the other's apparently lethal condition) hits the reader directly in the eye. One must know, of course, that Aarfy has perfect hearing:

"`Aarfy, help me,' he pleaded almost weeping. `I'm hit! I'm

hit!' Aarfy turned slowly with a blind, quizzical

grin. `What?' `I'm hit, Aarfy! Help me!' Aarfy grinned again and

shrugged amiably. `I can't hear you,' he said. `Can't you hear me?'

Yossarian cried incredulously, and he pointed to the deepening pool

of blood... `I'm wounded! Help me, for God's sake! Aarfy, help

me!' `I still can't hear you,' Aarfy complained tolerantly... `What did

you say?"' (p.297).

Not Meaning What You Say

Those who do not mean what they say remove the very foundation of communication, for the naive audience tends to react to the manifest meaning of their messages. More sophisticated collocutors find themselves in a dilemma: When should they act upon the obvious meaning, and when should they reverse it?

"`I want someone to tell me,' Lieutenant Scheisskopf beseeched

them all prayerfully. `If any of it is my fault, I want to be told.' `He

wants someone to tell him,' Clevinger said. `He wants everyone to

keep still, idiot,' Yossarian answered. `Didn't you hear him?'

Clevinger argued. `I heard him,' Yossarian replied. `I heard him say

very loudly and very distinctly that he wants every one of us to

keep our mouths shut if we know what's good for us"' (p. …

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