Appreciating Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

— D.C. Faye

KURT VONNEGUT, JR. passed away on April 11, 2007, from a head injury sustained from a recent fall. Despite his best efforts to do away with himself by smoking heavily for many years, cigarettes, he had joked, were unable to do the job they promised. “If the washing don’t get you, the rinsing will” as the blues song says. So it goes.

Vonnegut’s mother committed suicide while he was a young man, which obviously affected him greatly. It seems to be the background music of his novels, infusing his prose with its characteristic melancholic resignation, and prompting a seemingly dogged determination to see the momentous events of his life through to the end.

Those events were, in part:  serving time as a POW of the Germans in World War II, abandoning a career with General Electric to work as a fiction writer full-time, negotiating two marriages (one with the noted photographer Jill Krementz), and adopting three children from his deceased sister’s family. I guess after surviving the firestorm at Dresden, Germany as a POW every other choice of vocation seemed innocuous by comparison — even attempting a career as a mixed-genre science fiction writer.

But Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. had what every great writer needs: an acute sensitivity toward fellow human beings — their petty foibles and sometimes terrible flaws, along with their tremendous capacity to surprise by acts of heroic kindness.

War does strange things to people. For Vonnegut it opened his eyes wider, and enlarged his powers of perception. His novels show that just beneath the surface of contemporary life — underneath the banalities of small talk at Holiday Inns and car dealerships, within mundane suburban life and piano lounges — something else is lurking, something more real is going on, another life altogether is taking place.

For Vonnegut, peoples’ souls seem to exist in a different dimension than their physical locale. That tension between the mechanistic ticking of peoples’ workday clocks with its incessant material demands, and the hidden world of soul life — a world of coincidence, parallels, synchronicities, intuition and imagination — gives Vonnegut’s universe of the fantastic an uncanny resemblance to reality. A question for the reader then becomes “Which is more real?”

Art of Protest and Humor

Breakfast of Champions is the voice of an author who sees clearly the insufficiency of our cultural and religious institutional supports in the face of all the forces of bigotry, ignorance, provincialism and materialism. And despite the fact that he saw glaringly how inadequate individual coping skills often were, he had a huge store of compassion for all those souls who were and still are subject to that bigotry, ignorance, provincialism, and materialism — those unable to rise to a higher and wider perspective, either by their own efforts or with the aid of a society that was never equipped for the job.

Through his novels, Vonnegut did what he could do: drew attention to a need where he saw a need. In a few areas progress has been made, but for the most part societal problems of the 1960s remain significant today. No wonder Vonnegut’s books are a comfort to those who, like him, are often baffled by the seemingly inexplicable forces that shaped society in the 20th and now the 21st century.

No wonder either that Vonnegut still appeals to young readers, most of whom are first forced to discover for themselves the stresses created by an unbalanced society, and who, after reading their first Vonnegut book, recognize the experienced voice of a kindred spirit airing the same complaints. Add the fact that Vonnegut was able to master the art of protest and humor in the same paragraph and it makes that rapport irresistible.

Seeing the Powerless

Billy dozed, awakened in the prison hospital again. The sun was high. Outside were Golgotha sounds of strong men digging holes for upright timbers in hard, hard ground.

“No, no,” says Billy serenely. “It is time for you to go home to your wives and children, and it is time for me to be dead for a little while — and then live again.” At that moment, Billy’s high forehead is in the cross hairs of a high-powered laser gun . . . .
The cattle are lowing,
The Baby awakes.
But the little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes.
          —Slaughterhouse Five

The final quote given above, taken from a Christmas carol, is the epigraph: Billy Pilgrim’s tears are few for all the cruelty he’s witnessed and endured. The second quote paraphrases a verse from the Gospel of John (16.16): “A little while, and you will see me no more; again a little while, and you will see me.”

In Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim is a sort of stand-in for the Son of the Most-High. Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s alter-ego who often serves as the author’s mouthpiece, writes a fictitious novel called The Gospel from Outer Space in which people have learned not to crucify anyone with divine connections because of possible bad consequences, but they continue to persecute with imagined impunity anyone without the power to strike back.

In Trout’s novel, after one particular “nobody,” a bum, is lynched, God adopts him as His son, giving him the power and privilege to punish anyone who torments “a bum who has no connections!” In Vonnegut’s actual novel, Billy Pilgrim is that “nobody,” except without the power or inclination to punish his persecutors, which would put him closer in spirit to the hero of the gospels as we know them.

How then should the United States as a predominantly Christian nation treat the powerless, the unrepresented, and the unconverted? This is at the crux of the deep controversy at the heart of Vonnegut’s work, and one reason readers and critics are often conflicted regarding it. While Christians of every denomination stand pointing to Christ as their savior and their hope for the future, Vonnegut, it seems, stands pointing at them, as one of our best hopes for not only the future, but more urgently for the present —the here and now.

In Vonnegut’s world, it’s imperative for Christians to take this New Testament Gospel of Matthew (25.40) verse literally: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” — otherwise the moral teaching of the gospels collapses, and becomes unworkable pragmatically. Selective application of its doctrine only serves to undermine its basis and to make Christians in effect either no different from pagans, or worse, a cause of calamity to others by preoccupation with the possibility of a heavenly afterlife at the cost of practical, workable solutions to current problems which themselves are exacerbated by religious tensions.

In Vonnegut’s view, progress on these problems begins by including Muslims, Atheists, Socialists, Buddhists and others under the umbrella group given in the quote above: “the least of these my brethren.”

Unstuck in Time

Sometimes Vonnegut will self-reference the technique of his novels within them, as he does instructively in Slaughterhouse Five where Billy Pilgrim asks the Tralfamadorians if the “clumps of symbols” in their books are telegrams:

"There are no telegrams on Tralfamadore. But you’re right: each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message — describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time."

Becoming “unstuck in time” is thus not only the fate of Billy Pilgrim, who is able to time travel, but the method of the author who “has chosen the messages carefully” in order to show them “all at once.” The effect of that strategy is to dim the focus on war per se, and to shine some extra light on the meaningful moments that occur in spite of war, and even because of it. A heightened awareness of our mortality causes us to see and feel life more immediately.

This approach also harmonizes conveniently with the imagined aerial view of aliens in spaceships, who would have a wider visual perspective, are telepathic, and who are purported to see in four dimensions. And it begs the intriguing question of what the narrator’s relationship is to Billy and the Tralfamadorians. The narrator does appear in the novel a couple of times as a fellow POW at the slaughterhouse, but nothing is said about how he has come to know all about Billy’s life.

The ambiguous nature of that relationship creates a deliberate background of uncertainty that leaves an impression of a kind of unspoken mystical connection between the Tralfamadorians, Billy, and the narrator, as if Billy and the omniscient narrator, who is yet on the fringes of the plot, might be close, or in some way might both be “disciples” of Tralfamadorians. This is very clever of Vonnegut: it’s as if an alternative trinity is given life.

A theme undergirding Vonnegut’s work is a rebellion against provinciality. Provinciality has a direct relationship to perceiving oneself as different in significant ways from others. The hubris of nationalistic pride is one result. Provinciality provokes war because it refuses to see that similarities between people and cultures are greater than their dif- ferences. Vonnegut brought that theme to life by writing aliens into certain novels as adversaries in an effort to get people to see more clearly the commonalities that exist within all humanity.

For instance, in Sirens of Titan, when the protagonist Rumfoord instigates a Martian war against Earth, the Martians are slaughtered with comic ease by Earth’s civilians, who are suddenly united against a common and pitifully overmatched enemy. Vonnegut is wise enough to know that this also is an expression of provincialism, but please — one step at a time — provincialism in space is sort of okay for now, or was in the 1960s.

So war, of course, is a hellish sentence for everyone involved.  Injustice is a constant. Greed and materialism are inescapable. These are all taken for granted, accepted as fact, by Vonnegut. But they’re also simply moments in time — moments among many moments — stretching from the ancient past into the distant future.

We can all make a small start toward bettering that future by shedding cultural and religious biases one by one, and by applying egalitarian principles even in the most challenging circumstances. If you really like Vonnegut and would like to honor his memory in some way, you may also discard whatever traces of provincialism remain in your soul, for the good of the world.

So for Indianapolis residents, I guess, Vonnegut was a native son, but in reality he would say he belongs to the cosmos like everyone else.  And meanwhile Vonnegut’s chorus of eternity chirps on:

“Poo-tee-weet?”

from ATC 132 (January/February 2008)

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