(First published in Urban Times on 16th Oct 2011)
“Ok, let me see if I’ve got this straight. In order to be grounded, I’ve got to be crazy. And I must be crazy to keep flying. But if I ask to be grounded, that means I’m not crazy anymore, and I have to keep flying.”
“You got it, that’s Catch-22.”
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Things have not been making much sense lately, and the world has been reeling as a result. Our operating systems have been put under microscope in an effort to find what lies behind the number of problems we are faced with. From Egypt to Athens to Wall Street, the world under pressure, with people of all sorts looking for answers and, more importantly, solutions.
The quest for a fairer world is flummoxed by issues of practicality. The better world we seek involves jobs and money, care and opportunity. But those very same jobs and money and care and opportunity we require, those benefits we hate being stripped of and those jobs we want, are part of the problem we are trying to solve. We want less taxes but no government layoffs; more benefits but less national deficit; less business but no recession; more efficiency but a weaker private sector; more freedom but no dissent among our own.
There’s a name for this kind of thinking. It’s called having our cake and eating it too, or at least wanting to.
Why do we operate like this? What is driving this contradictory, irreconcilable way of life?
The answer lies in absurdity. Life seems to be absurd – but not in the obnoxious kind, as in, the promises Bernie Madoff made to his investors were totally absurd when you really think about it, or, the Tea Party has made some pretty absurd demands. I am talking about a deeper, more hardwired paradox that seems to pervade life through and through, from the smallest scales to the bigger ones, from the weakest to the strongest, from the beginning of time to present day and, most probably, way into the future.
Catch-22 is a book that identifies this paradox brilliantly, exposing it for us to see, in plain sight. I haven’t read it, but I have watched them movie. It is superb. Everything we need to know about the ludicrousness of the human condition is there, laid out for us to see in an endless string of madness that has no beginning and no end. Catch-22 is the perfect loop.
The story is set in WWII, in Italy, where everything is subject to the madness of war and reckless profiteering. Much of the story centers around Yossarian, a bombardier who doesn’t want to fly anymore. His attempts to escape the loop get him nowhere, driving him deeper into madness. The world disintegrates around him, yet he seems to be the only one aware of it. Sanity proves a poor asset to have when surrounded by lunatics.
The overall message of the movie is admittedly bleak, but it is given through humor that makes it palatable. It is easy to identify with some aspect or other of the absurd, we have all been through it, to some extent, its setting being a perfect microcosm of the real world – and we the unwitting Yossarians and Co.
Yet this story is not about bureaucracy alone, nor war, nor callousness and profiteering. It’s about the entire human condition: an overall loopy arrangement, by default. A superb piece of dialog somewhere in the middle of the story drives the point home.
The discussion is set in a brothel, framing the general scope of the paradox appropriately and revealing how deep the mad coil goes. The topic centers around the secret of life, the wax and wane of empires, and the merits of survival, laying out in darkly comic terms how when all is said and done, and despite our moral estimations of where life has gone wrong and what we could do to improve it, life has always been, and always will be, absurd. Because that is what has enabled it to exist in the first place: the absurdity of having to evolve out of dead ends and mad conundrums. Without them there would have been no need for fish to come out of the water, for insects to fly, for opposable thumbs, for any of those truly absurd developments that have enabled us to be here.
Which creates our own Catch-22. We exist because life is absurd. And in order to keep existing we need to stop being absurd. But if we stop being absurd we cease to exist, so we have to remain absurd in order to exist.