Yesterday I picked up something special. A special Vintage edition of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Fans of the book would agree with me that there hasn’t been a book written like Catch-22, ever. Apart from being funny as hell, the mastery which Heller holds over dialogues between Yossarian and the others in his doomed battalion, is a study in squeezing every bit out of the semantic framework of the english language. The novel is full of spoken renditions of perpetual motion – where the answer to a question leads back to the question itself – hence leading the conversation in a theoretical infinite loop. Much like the iconic title of the book which signifies the absense of real choice among the offered alternatives.

I call this the Semantic Loop and there are two varieties – one based on the how words with different meaning sound similar. The simplest one would be:

Man 1: “What’s your name?”
Man 2: “Watt”
Man 1: “What’s your name?”

Here the dialogue is independent of how it is written, and is based on how it sounds when spoken. For eg. “What” and “Watt” sound the same, even if they are written differently. The second kind of semantic loops which Heller uses to side-splitting results are based on logical anomalies. Another one from Catch-22:

Yossarian: “Appleby, you have flies in your eyes.”
Appleby: “What? I can’t see them.”
Yossarian: “Appleby, you have flies in your eyes. That’s why you cannot see them!”

In this dialogue, Appleby can never deny the hypothesis that he has flies in his eyes – because the confirmation of the hypothesis is dependent on the hypothesis itself. Confusing… you should read Catch-22 to know what confusing is!

The best writers of comedy have achieved some kind of mastery on creating these loops, some of them lasting over several lines of dialogue. It is not easy… and you should give it a try yourself.

Here is another example:

Man: “Doctor am I crazy?”
Doctor: “Do you think you are crazy?”
Man: “I am.”
Doctor: “How can I believe you if you are crazy?”

or in the case of Catch-22

Doctor: “Obviously you are sane enough to know you are crazy, hence you are not.”

Try your hand on some semantic loops… great way to spend a lazy afternoon. 🙂