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.71).

"Captain Black was deeply disillusioned by this treacherous stab in

the back... `Oh, it doesn't bother me a bit,' he responded cheerfully

to everyone who came to him with sympathy" (p.120).

"`Everything is going to be all right,' his visitors tell the dying men."


Denying Reality

One of the ego defense mechanisms, denial of reality, plays an important role in several psychopathologies, including borderline personality organization (instability, drastic mood shifts and behavior problems, disturbance in basic identity) and narcissistic character disorder (an extreme sense of self-importance, a constant need of attention, and a lack of caring for others).

"`Aarfy, are you insane?' Yossarian was almost speechless.

`You killed a girl. They're going to put you in jail!' `Oh, no,'

Aarfy answered with a forced smile. `Not me. They aren't

going to put good old Aarfy in jail. Not for killing her.'

`But you threw her out the window. She's lying there dead

in the street.' `She has no right to be there,' Aarfy

answered. `It's after curfew"' (pp.427-428).

His doctors have encased the "soldier in white" of the following quote in bandages; the only communication with him occurs through the thermometer placed in a hole covering his mouth. His fellow patients accuse the nurse of his death:

"...if she had not read the thermometer and reported what

she had found, the soldier in white might still be lying

there alive..." (p.171).

Absolute Literalness

Though it has a comic, "who's on first," quality, absolute literalness has the characteristics of a deadly ploy, with schizophrenic ingredients. Divesting words and expressions of their extra meanings renders communication sometimes grotesque, often impossible:

"`I'd give everything I own to Yossarian,' Milo persevered

gamely in Yossarian's behalf. `But since I don't own

everything, I can't give everything to him, can I?"'

(p 384).

"`In what state were you born?' `In a state of innocence"'


"John Milton proved fruitful in still one more respect. He

was versatile, and Major Major soon found himself

incorporating the signature in fragments of imaginary

dialogues. Thus, typical endorsements on the official

documents might read, `John, Milton is a sadist or `Have

you seen Milton, John?' One signature of which he was

especially proud read, `Is anybody in the John, Milton?"'


"`Now, where were we? Read me back the last line.' "`Read

me back the last line,"' read back the corporal, who could

take shorthand. `Not my last line, stupid!' the colonel

shouted. `Somebody else's.' "`Read me back the last line,"'

read back the corporal. `That's my last line again!' shrieked

the colonel, turning purple with anger. `Oh, no, sir,'

corrected the corporal. `That's my last line. I read it to you

just a moment ago"' (p.80).

Mistaking the Map for the Territory

The dictum, "The map is not the territory," suggests the frequent lack of differentiation between signifier and signified. We can trace back several types of irrational thought processes (such as reification and superstitious thought, see Moore, 1981) to this confusion. In Heller's novel the fighter pilots violate this principle when they treat the ribbon on the map as the cause, rather than the effect of their dangerous bombing missions (1):

"In the middle of the night Yossarian knocked on wood,

crossed his fingers, and tiptoed out of his tent to move the

bomb line over Bologna" (p.123).

The Army regards Doc Daneeka's name appearing on the pilot's manifest as more real than his physical presence:

"`You're dead, sir,' one of his two enlisted men explained...

You've probably been dead all this time and we just didn't

detect it... The records show that you went up in McWatt's

plane to collect some flight time.

You didn't come down in a parachute, so you must have been

killed in the crash."'

Another instance of the alleged superiority of documents over human communication:

"`I'm not Fortiori, sir,' he said timidly. `I'm Yossarian.' `You're

who?' `My name is Yossarian, sir. And I'm in the hospital with a

wounded leg.' `Your name is Fortiori,' Major Sanderson

contradicted him belligerently. `And you're in the hospital for a

stone in your salivary gland.' `Oh, come on, Major!' Yossarian

exploded. `I ought to know who I am.' `And I've got an official

Army record here to prove it,' Major Sanderson retorted"


Levels of reality become confused in the Major Major Major business (p.88), as well, when an IBM computer promotes him to the rank of Major.

The following three pathological communication patterns (circular reasoning, non sequitur, and contradictions) defy the rules of logic and undermine critical thinking.

Circular Reasoning

"How can he see he's got flies in his eyes if he's got flies in his

eyes?" (p.47).

"`Don't contradict me,' Colonel Cathcart said. `We're all in

enough trouble.' `I'm not contradicting you, sir.' `Yes you are.

Even that's a contradiction"' (p.142).

"'You won't marry me because I'm crazy, and you say I'm crazy

because I want to marry you?"' (p.164).

"`I didn't steal it from Colonel Cathcart!' `Then why are you so

guilty, if you didn't steal it?' `I'm not guilty!' `Then why would we

be questioning you if you weren't guilty?"' (p.393).

Non Sequitur

"The chaplain had sinned, and it was good... Common sense told

him that telling lies and defecting from duty were sins. On the

other hand, everyone knew that sin was evil and that no good

could come from evil. But he did feel good; he felt positively

marvelous. Consequently, it followed logically that telling lies and

defecting from duty could not be sins" (p.372).

"`Bribery is against the law, and you know it. But it's not against

the law for me to make a profit, is it? So it can't be against the

law for me to bribe someone in order to make a fair profit, can it?

No, of course not!"' (p.272).

Real and Apparent Contradictions

"Yossarian stopped playing chess with him because the games

were so interesting they were foolish" (p.9).

"The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable.

In three days no one could stand him" (p.10).

"Yossarian was sorry to hear they had a mutual friend. It seemed

there was a basis to their conversation after all" (p.12).

"`I won't take the valve apart now,' he said, and began taking it

apart" (p.319).

The contradictions often have a blatantly paradoxical character (2):

"How many winners were losers, successes failures, rich men

poor men? How marry wise guys were stupid? How many happy

endings were unhappy endings? How many honest men were

liars, brave men cowards, loyal men traitors...?" (pp.421-2).

"There were usually not nearly as many sick people inside

the hospital as Yossarian saw outside the hospital..."


"Racial prejudice is a terrible thing Yossarian. It really is.

It's a terrible thing to treat a decent, loyal Indian like a

rigger, kike, wop or spic" (P.45).

"`Look at our own recent history. Italy won a war in

Ethiopia and promptly stumbled into serious trouble.

Victory gave us such insane delusions of grandeur that we

helped start a world war we hadn't a chance winning. But

now that we are losing again, everything has taken a turn

for the better, and we will certainly come out on top again

if we succeed in being defeated"'


The atmosphere has additional schizophrenogenic ingredients. Yossarian reacts to a crazy world ("Everywhere he looked was a nut...," p.21), where double binds rule:

"...the only people permitted to ask questions were those

who never did" (p.36).

"She ordered Yossarian to get right back into his bed and

blocked his path so he couldn't comply" (p.300).

Word salads add to the schizoid atmosphere: "`Who is Spain?' `Why is Hitler?' `...How was trump at Munich?' `Ho-ho beriberi"' (p.35).

And, of course, at last we encounter the major Catch. The paradox inherent in the twisted logic of Catch-22 type regulations seems analogous to schizophrenogenic double binds:

"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" (p.47).


Toward the end of Heller's book its protagonist has a schizophrenic breakdown: His hallucinations have distinct paranoid ingredients (pp.406-407, 439). What a befitting result of a history of communication pathologies! While the author has taken some poetic license in letting Yossarian develop schizophrenia within a few months' military service, he has amply illustrated the crucial importance of semantic hygiene for mental health.


(1.) Compare with a Letter to the Editor, in Time magazine, August 8, 1994, p.3, concerning the Soccer World Cup: "In Germany some people sat in front of their TV screen shouting commands to players who were thousands of kilometers away."

(2.) These resemble some of Villon's ballads (cca. 1460; see Bonner, 1960). One, subtitled Of Counter-truths contains the following lines: "There is no joy except in sickness,/ nor truth outside the theater,/ nor coward like a knightly man,/ nor grimmer sound than melody..."


Bateson, G., Jackson, D. D., Haley, J. & Weakland, J. H. (1956). Toward a theory of schizophrenia. Behavioral Science, 1, 251-264.

Bonner, A. (1960). The Complete Works of Francois Villon. New York: McKay.

Heller, J. (1970). Catch 22. New York: Dell. (Original year of publication, 1961)

Moore, M. (1981). An edited collection of superstitions collected in Hungary in the 1870's. National Auxiliary Pub. Serv., Document # 03856.

Palazzoli, M. S., Boscolo, L., Cecchin, G. & Prate, G. (1978). Paradox and Counterparadox. New York: Jason Aronson.

Weakland, J. H. (1960). The "Double-Bind" hypothesis of schizophrenia and three-party interaction. In D. D. Jackson (Ed.), The Etiology of Schizophrenia. New York: Basic Books.

Dr. Michael Moore is a member of the Department of Education in Science and Technology at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology at Haifa, Israel. He has been a visiting Professor at the University of California, Davis.

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