Today is the anniversary of the 1961 publication of the Joseph Heller novel Catch-22. In the novel, the anti-hero Captain Yossarian serves in the United States Air Force on a Mediterranean island near Italy during World War II. In order to survive the war, Yossarian attempts to avoid flying on dangerous bombing missions. His efforts are thwarted, however, by the paradoxical rule called Catch-22:
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. [Bomber pilot] 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.
According to Twentieth Century Words, the expression catch-22 to refer to “a supposed law or regulation containing provisions which are mutually frustrating” began to gain widespread use after the release of a film version of the novel in 1970 (1). The fact that the title of a novel took on a life of its own and developed a generic meaning in the language is a unique occurrence. For example, even a person who has never heard of Yossarian or Heller’s novel might be aware of the expression. After a job interview, for example, a frustrated teenager might return home and tell his mother: “They won’t hire me unless I have experience, but how can I get experience if no one will hire me? I’m caught in a catch-22.”
A catch-22, then, is a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ type of situation. It’s a no-win situation; a chicken and egg problem that traps you in a double bind of circular logic wrapped around a conundrum. In other words, it’s a kind of paradox.
A paradox is a statement that seems to contradict itself, yet is true. In a paradox, truth and falsehood collide and synthesize into wisdom. Great quotes, great poetry, and great speeches of all kinds are full of paradox. The etymology of paradox is Greek paradoxon, meaning conflicting with expectation. An excellent anthology of paradoxes, is the book Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit and Wisdom from History’s Greatest Wordsmiths. In this book, Dr. Mardy Grothe has collected over one thousand examples of paradoxical quotes, including the following one from Joseph Heller: When I grow up I want to be a little boy.
Today’s Challenge: True Lies
What are some examples of quotations that express paradoxical truth? Do some research to find a paradoxical statement that you think shows great insight about a universal idea, such as the examples below. Record the complete quotation and cite its author; then, explain what specifically you like about the paradox.
-Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s own ignorance. -Confucius
-When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other. -Eric Hoffer
-We are in bondage to the law in order that we may be free. -Cicero
-The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth. -Jean Cocteau
-Success is ninety-nine percent failure. -Soichiro Honda
(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)
Quotation of the Day: A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it. -Mark Twain
1- Ayto, John. Twentieth Century Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
2-Grothe, Mardy. Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit and Wisdom from History’s Greatest Wordsmiths. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.