Academic Book Club | George Blaustein about Joseph Heller’s Catch-22

A collaboration with the Illustere School and the Academic Club

28jun2018 17.30 - 18.45


We are pleased to welcome you to our monthly book club. On Thursday June 28th Persis Bekkering will interview George Blaustein about Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

The Academic Book Club

In the meetings of the Academic Book Club we focus on one book, namely: the favorite book of a humanities scholar. The evening is led by Persis Bekkering, Literary Studies graduate of the UvA and journalist. Persis interviews her guest of the evening about the book he/she chose. Participants will receive questions and important topics regarding the book beforehand which they can keep in mind while reading. During the sessions, the ‘owner’ of the book presents a statement about the book, the book is discussed and participants are invited to ask questions and share their views.

Did not read/finish the book?  

During former Academic Book Club meetings, we would split up into small groups to discuss the book in question. As we want to present these beautiful evenings to a larger audience and also want to welcome those who are interested and possibly have not finished the book, we will discuss the book in plenary sessions so there is  ample opportunity to ask questions and discuss.

George Blaustein about Catch-22

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is one of the few novels I delight in re-reading. It is certainly the funniest novel I’ve re-read, with a daunting joke-per-page density. Or wait—is joke the right word? Catch-22 is defined less by jokes in the narrow sense than by an entire grammar of humor. Consider the sentence that serves as the novel’s catchphrase: “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22.” We are already in a world of absurd mathematics, a world in which the number line starts and ends at twenty-two and yet is still somehow infinite. The novel’s extravagant and comic reasonings remind me of when I first learned about multiplying two negative numbers and ending up with a positive one, or about the impossibility of dividing something by zero, or about the imaginary number “i.” (Multiply it by itself and you get -1.) To laugh at Catch-22 is to marvel at that grammar, on the level of a sentence and on the level of dialogue.

All of that will sound strange if you haven’t read it, but familiar if you have. And now some clearer information, since Catch-22 is a novel not about math but about war, survival, sanity, and language. It was published in 1961, and its setting is World War II. Yossarian, our narrative center among an immense cast of characters, is an Air Force pilot whose eyes are fixed either on the immediate danger at hand or on the yawning abyss beyond. (“He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive.”)

Three topics to ponder as you read:

1. Catch-22 as one of the great satires of the American Century. American culture tends to venerate and sentimentalize the World War II as a “good war” fought by the “greatest generation.” Catch-22 cuts fiercely across that grain. Its mood owes much to The Good Soldier Švejk, the Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek’s great, bleak, hilarious novel of World War I.

2. Catch-22 as a novel of bureaucracy. It says a lot about the military-industrial complex that one of the greatest novels about war would also be one of the greatest novels about bureaucracy. The word “chickenshit,” the cultural historian Paul Fussell noted, emerged during the Second World War. Modern military life was a slog; chickenshit named the stuff that made military life “worse than it need be”:

petty harassment of the weak by the strong; open scrimmage for power and authority and prestige; sadism thinly disguised as necessary discipline; a constant ‘paying off of old scores’; and insistence on the letter rather than the spirit of ordinances. Chickenshit is so called—instead of horse- or bull- or elephant shit—because it is small-minded and ignoble and takes the trivial seriously.

3. Catch-22 as a war novel. Joseph Heller had himself been a fighter pilot; he was of the same generation as J.D. Salinger, who saw some of the worst of the war. Consider Yossarian alongside Holden Caulfield. Catcher in the Rye, though not on the surface about the war, is in fact one of the profoundest American ruminations on war and its aftermath. Catch-22 is the other. Its grammar is hilarious, but through the dreamy illogic of it we glimpse war as a vivid and anarchic horror.

About the speakers

George Blaustein is assistant professor of American Studies at the University of Amsterdam. He is the author of Nightmare Envy & Other Stories: American Culture and European Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 2018). He received his doctorate in the History of American Civilization from Harvard University, and his essays and reviews have appeared in N+1Amerikastudien/American StudiesAmerican Quarterly, Vrij Nederland, and De Groene Amsterdammer. He is also the president of the Netherlands American Studies Association (NASA).

Persis Bekkering studied Greek and Latin Language and Culture in Groningen and Literary Theory at the University of Amsterdam. She is a freelance art journalist. Her specialties are classical music and literature. She works for several clients, including the Volkskrant and Elle. 

Staying for dinner?

After the Academic Book Club we will serve a Club Meal for 15 euros. Our members get a 15% discount. Please let us know if you would like to stay for dinner.


17:00 doors open
17.30 - 18.45 start Academic BookClub 
19.00 drinks and dinner

Amsterdamse Academische Club

  • Amsterdamse Academische Club (AAC)

    Oudezijds Achterburgwal 235 | 1012 DL Amsterdam
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Gepubliceerd door  Amsterdamse Academische Club