“Catch-22” has come to be a popular phrase that today means “a frustrating situation in which one feels trapped by contradictory regulations or conditions.” It comes from Joseph Heller’s breakthrough novel of the same name.
Yossarian, the main character of Catch-22, would be right at home dealing with the American bureaucracy in the second decade of the twenty-first century. His particular frustration came in dealing with the bureaucracy of the U.S. Army during World War II. But people who have to make their way through today’s heavily regulated society often invoke the phrase, or the spirit, of Catch-22.
Yossarian wanted to stop flying missions in the war. But he saw what happened to his buddy Orr. As Joseph Heller describes it in his groundbreaking novel:
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.
Published in 1961, Catch-22 is ranked as the seventh-greatest English language novel of the twentieth century by The Modern Library, while The Observer lists it as one of the 100 greatest novels of all time.