Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Stuck between a rock and a hard place. Lose-lose situation. Often these idioms are used in place of "catch-22," but none quite capture the tangled, philosophical weight associated with the original phrase.
The phrase is the logical paradox that holds Joseph Heller's 1961 anti-war satire of the same name, Catch-22, together. Before watching George Clooney's star-studded TV adaptation of Heller's novel (it hits Hulu on 17th May and Channel 4 in the UK a little later), it'll help to actually know what a catch-22 really is.
The YouTube channel Philosophy Tube puts the complicated idea succinctly: "A catch-22 is a paradoxical situation from which there is no escape because of contradictory logical rules." Likely, you've lived through a catch-22 while searching for a job: You need work experience to be hired, but you need to be hired to get work experience.
So how does this fit into the book? In Catch-22, WWII pilot John Yossarian (Girls star Christopher Abbott in the show) thinks he's found a way to save his life: If he pleads insanity, he'll get out of flying planes. Then, he runs into a logical loophole embedded in the bureaucracy — a "catch."
Follow this logic. According to Doc Daneeka, one of the book's characters, there's a rule saying he has to ground any pilot who's crazy — and flying dangerous combat planes, like the bomber pilot Orr does, certainly is a crazy thing to do. But the second the pilot asks to be grounded, he runs into the catch-22: "Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy," Doc says.
After this passage, Heller elaborates on the central paradox. "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 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."
Essentially, there's no way for Yossarian to get out of combat.
Since the publication of Heller's novel, "catch-22" has been embedded into our vocabulary. With Catch-22, Heller identified a phenomenon that existed long before the book: the double bind. Or, as Cambridge Dictionary puts it, it's "an impossible situation where you are prevented from doing one thing until you have done another thing that you cannot do until you have done the first thing."
But the book was almost called a different name. Its original title was Catch 18. Heller's editor, Robert Gottlieb, suggested a title change: 22 was "funnier than 18."
So, the next time you lock your car keys inside your car, thank Joseph Heller. Now you have a word for that extremely, no-win situation of needing to open the car to get the keys, but needing the keys to open the car.
Catch-22 starts on Hulu on 17th May and will air in the UK on Channel 4 later this year