A catch-22 is frustrating situation in which the attempt to escape makes escape impossible, a situation in which the desired outcome is impossible to attain because of a set of inherently illogical rules or conditions.
You could also describe it as: ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t.’ Or, perhaps, ‘heads I win, tails you lose.’ Along with George Orwell’s ‘doublethink,’ ‘catch-22’ has become one of the best-recognized terms to describe the predicament of being trapped by contradictory rules. However, the phrase is now often misapplied to any problematic or unwelcome situation.
The term was coined by Joseph Heller in his 1961 novel Catch-22, which describes ridiculous bureaucratic constraints on soldiers in World War II. The term is introduced by the character Doc Daneeka, an army psychiatrist who invokes ‘Catch 22’ to explain why any pilot requesting a mental fitness evaluation—hoping to be found not sane enough to fly and thereby escape dangerous missions—demonstrates his own sanity by creating the request and thus cannot be declared insane.
Doc Daneeka said, “Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”
Catch-22 specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of real danger was the process of a rational mind. Orr, the pilot, was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask, which proved he wasn’t 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. This clause of Catch-22 was amazing in its absolute simplicity.
Different formulations of ‘Catch-22’ appear throughout the novel. The term is applied to various loopholes and quirks of the military system, always with the implication that rules are inaccessible to and slanted against those lower in the hierarchy.
A current example would be: “How am I supposed to gain experience (to find a good job) if I’m constantly turned down for not having any?”
At another point in the book, a prostitute explains to Yossarian that she cannot marry him because he is crazy, and she will never marry a crazy man. She considers any man crazy who would marry a woman who is not a virgin. This closed logic loop clearly illustrated Catch-22 because by her logic, all men who refuse to marry her are sane and thus she would consider marriage to them; but as soon as a man agrees to marry her, he becomes crazy for wanting to marry a non-virgin, and is instantly rejected.
I’m glad I never signed up for military duty.