Books by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., discussed in this essay:
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was, above all, a curmudgeon. As an old curmudgeon, he became at times cranky and splenetic. But as a young curmudgeon, he was an unpredictable and wickedly equal opportunity critic, skewering the Left, the Right, and the apathetic. Like other acute critics on the Left—George Orwell, Christopher Lasch, and Wilson Carey McWilliams come to mind—Vonnegut refused to brook the idiocy and hubris of his fellow leftists. At his best, he challenged them from a traditionalist philosophical base that amounted to a kind of intuitive Aristotelianism, a far cry from the misanthropic temptations of his later years especially.
Vonnegut was from the middle of the Midwest, a child of Indianapolis during the Depression, and a member of "the greatest generation." He served as an infantryman in the German theater of World War II, where famously he was captured and imprisoned in Dresden and survived the firebombing of that city in February 1945. Witnessing the killing of thousands of civilians in a city of dubious strategic importance, he was deeply affected by the experience, which became the basis of one of his best-known novels, Slaughterhouse-Five (1972). He attended four colleges without graduating—among them Cornell, which he left in 1943 to enlist in the army—before holding a series of jobs ending with a stint in public relations for General Electric. He walked away from that job in 1951 to write fiction, a career that began with little success and dubious promise. His early books—including Player Piano (1952) and The Sirens of Titan (1959)—earned him a reputation as a science fiction writer, a label that stuck with him through much of his career although he denied belonging in that niche.
Vonnegut's early writing career consisted mainly of publishing stories in still-vibrant general interest magazines like Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Ladies Home Journal, and even Cosmopolitan. My own introduction to Vonnegut came through a collection of this short fiction (Welcome to the Monkey House, 1968), which I found on the family bookshelf when I was about 14. Reading randomly in its pages I became smitten by the author's ingenious satire. Vonnegut appealed especially to the young, as evidenced by the numerous graduation addresses he was invited to deliver over the course of his career. He was definitely a part of my college education, and that of many of my friends. On the morning I learned of his death (he died April 11, 2007), I asked the students I was teaching whether any had read Vonnegut, and of the hundred-plus in the class only a smattering raised their hands. Today's students seem seldom to read for pleasure in the way that once was an integral part of the college experience. They latch on to YouTube downloads rather than authors.
Suspicion of Progress
Vonnegut was an unusual mid-century American because he broke so strenuously with the American belief in progress. His suspicion of progress put Vonnegut in the good company of such authors as Melville, Hawthorne, and above all—the writer after whom he most styled himself—Mark Twain. Like Twain, he was a harsh critic of the American belief in the goodness of machines and, more broadly, of our faith in technology and moral progress. The denial of progress is a golden thread running through Vonnegut's literary and non-fiction writings, expressed with particular force in his earliest works, in which he attacked mostly the liberal mainstream. Later in life—beginning perhaps in his 1990 novel Hocus Pocus, which he said he wrote in criticism of neoconservatism, and culminating in his last book, the autobiographical A Man Without a Country(2005) he poured his ire primarily upon conservatives, who seemed to share the liberal certainty that they could "solve" the problems human life unavoidably entails. Vonnegut's move from being a frequent critic of the Left to his later vituperative attacks on the Right perhaps had much to do with his preternatural inclination to criticize those in power, and thus, within the American context, those most apt to apply technology to try to cure the human condition. Because Vonnegut was himself a man of the Left, however, it is his criticisms of the Left that remain the most interesting, well-informed, and enduring.
His notion that humans tend to abuse their technological prowess partly condensed into a hatred of weaponry, which became thematic in his forceful critique of scientific obtuseness, Cat's Cradle (1963). Among his finest novels, Cat's Cradleportrays the consequences of the invention of a new form of ice—"ice nine"—created by a brilliant but oblivious scientist who fails to see that this invention will, and does, lead to the destruction of the world. But in Vonnegut's view technology was even more problematic when used by those with good intentions, who sought to alleviate all forms of human suffering and unhappiness. He brilliantly satirized this liberal utopianism in "Harrison Bergeron," one of my favorite stories fromWelcome to the Monkey House, and among the few Vonnegut pieces that conservatives have widely appreciated. It begins: "The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal…. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution." The story describes a world in which every form of inequality is "equalized" by the Handicapper General: those who are faster or stronger are required to wear weights, those who are more beautiful are forced to wear masks that make them look average, and those who are smarter wear headphones emitting noises that break concentration. Other stories in the volume similarly and eerily predict the do-gooders' tendency to misuse technology. In one ("Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow") the year is 2158 and a drug called "anti-gerasone" has halted the aging process and effectively created immortality. The consequence of this "blessing" is overpopulation and the generational tyranny of the old over the young. The old possess "all the money and votes" and occupy the best rooms in apartment buildings overflowing with multiple generations. The old take from the young and forestall their ascent to positions of maturity and independence. The ability of humans to extend the human lifespan results in a breakdown of generational obligations and undermines the natural inclination of the older to make sacrifices for the younger. This and other stories—like "Unready to Wear," which describes a future in which some humans abandon their bodies to live as incorporeal spirits without care or obligation—portray technology's tendency to undermine human dignity and love, obscure the demands and rewards of duty, and exacerbate human self-centeredness.
Human Dignity and Human Nature
Vonnegut developed this theme to near-perfection in one of his finest books and his first novel, Player Piano, a chillingly prescient account of the rise of a meritocratic, automated America in which advancement up the economic ladder becomes the main measure of human success. Test scores and I.Q.s obsess those who seek entry into the meritocratic ascendancy. Degrees must be from the "right" college, and no one with a decent job lacks an advanced degree (even the secretaries have Ph.D.s). Because the production of goods can be increasingly accomplished by machines, the world is not divided between haves and have-nots (even the least well-off workers live in middle-class comfort) but between those accorded dignity and those denied it. The visiting shah of Bratpuhr regards workers (most of whom dig holes on the government payroll) as nothing more than takaru, or slaves. In one telling scene, the secretary of state attempts to explain to the shah that these are actually citizens, but the shah understands citizen merely to be the translation of the word takaru. His interpreter explains, "In the Shah's land are only the Elite and the Takaru."
According to the trajectories observed by Vonnegut, Bratpuhr does not lie so far ahead in America's economic future, which will consist of an upwardly mobile and successful elite versus a mass of increasingly underemployed service-industry workers who seek above all not the comprehensive equality of "Harrison Bergeron" but the dignity of knowing their life and work matter. As a revolutionary in Player Piano explains, "At the bottom of [the longing for a savior] will be a promise of regaining the feeling of participation, the feeling of being needed on earth—hell, dignity." What citizens seek is the knowledge that their lives have mattered; that their efforts can contribute to the good of the polity and the benefit of future generations. The practical result of much technology, even when pursued for seemingly good ends, Vonnegut argues, is to render human work increasingly meaningless and human relationships irrelevant. Vonnegut's critique would remind us that there is a pleasure, a reward to playing a piano with one's own hands that cannot be captured in the perfect mechanism of a player piano.
Many Vonnegut stories and novels point implicitly to the idea that humans have certain natural ends whose realization is necessary to live a good life. A fully realized human life would encourage the ties that bind the generations together, honor contributions to our communal good, and attain dignity for ourselves through our participation in the community. This is a conception of human good that would accept the limits of nature (like mortality) as a necessary boundary to the indiscriminate employment of technology, and defend culture as the necessary precondition of human flourishing.
Lonely and Restless
Vonnegut's belief in a discernible human nature that requires a certain culture and cultivation for full flourishing was awakened, or perhaps confirmed by, his brief experience from 1945-1947 as a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Chicago. In an address to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1971 (included in a volume of non-fiction writings, Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons, 1974), Vonnegut speaks of his encounter in Chicago with the cultural anthropologist Robert Redfield, whose essay "The Folk Society" was formative to the novelist's thought.
[Redfield] acknowledged that primitive societies were bewilderingly various. He begged us to admit, though, that all of them had certain characteristics in common. For instance: They were all so small that everybody knew everybody well, and associations lasted for life. The members communicated intimately with one another, and very little with anybody else…. There was no access to the experience and thought of the past, except through memory. The old were treasured for their memories. There was little change….
I say to you that we are full of chemicals which require us to belong to folk societies, or failing that, to feel lousy all the time. We are chemically engineered to live in folk societies, just as fish are chemically engineered to live in clean water—and there aren't any folk societies for us anymore.
How lucky you are to be here today, for I can explain everything. Sigmund Freud admitted that he did not know what women wanted. I know what they want. Cosmopolitan magazine says they want orgasms, which can only be a partial answer at best. Here is what women really want: They want lives in folk societies, wherein everyone is a friendly relative, and no act or object is without holiness. Chemicals make them want that. Chemicals make us all want that.
Chemicals make us furious when we are treated as things rather than persons. When anything happens to us which would not happen to us in a folk society, our chemicals make us feel like fish out of water. Our chemicals demand that we get back into water again. If we become increasingly wild and preposterous in modern times—well, so do fish on river banks, for a little while.
If we become increasingly apathetic in modern times—well, so do fish on river banks, after awhile. Our children often come to resemble apathetic fish—except that fish can't play guitars. And what do many of our children attempt to do? They attempt to form folk societies, which they call "communes." They fail. The generation gap is an argument between those who believe folk societies are still possible and those who know they aren't.
Vonnegut argued that modern humans are lonely and restless because of their "chemicals," a pseudo-scientific word (in an address delivered to science lovers) for what might just as well be called "nature." It is our nature to live in certain kinds of societies, and our modern loneliness, indignity, and unhappiness stem from the fact that modernity has extirpated those societies. Of course, folk societies are not the same thing as the polis, which Aristotle declared was man's natural home, but then again, neither is the modern nation state; and so there may be as many unasked questions and unexamined assumptions in Vonnegut's notions as in many of our own. Nonetheless, Vonnegut seeks to point out that it is the human propensity and natural ability to invent machines and devices that help makes the extirpation of natural communities possible, even inevitable. Our ability to manipulate our environments—to conquer nature, with the exception, it seems, of human nature—contributes unavoidably to human unhappiness. In a novel he considered to be his finest (Galapagos,1985), Vonnegut portrayed a future in which Darwinian evolution results in the loss of our opposable thumbs and our dangerously large brains, two features that turn out to have been unmitigated disasters for humanity and the planet. Having abandoned our natural condition which demands that we live in "folk societies," Vonnegut argues that nature will reassert itself and undo what technology has artificially created. An overarching theme of his work seems to be that nature will reassert its governance over humanity, unless we humans do ourselves in first.
Sense of Loss
This bleak and even misanthropic turn in Vonnegut's thought is unfortunate, though understandable in the shadow of the darker moments of the 20th century. I am more attracted to the Vonnegut who remains truer to his intuitive Aristotelianism, a Vonnegut who, like Tocqueville, recognized that in America forms of life that support the fruition of our nature would have to be (in Tocqueville's words) "artificially created." Vonnegut commended "granfalloons," artificial and otherwise meaningless groups that help give us a sense of participation in endeavors that are larger than ourselves. These networks inculcate a spirit of community and self-sacrifice, a kind of piecemeal and small-scale sense of belonging that forestalls those horrific modern efforts to remake the world to try to make us completely at home in it. My favorite example of such "artificially created" forms of folk society within the reality of a mobile, individualistic America is described in his novel Slapstick, or Lonesome No More! (1976): in order to make us "lonesome no more," the newly elected president assigns every American a new middle name along with a phone book listing every other American who shares that new name. Presto—an instant extended family, a "granfalloon" of otherwise disconnected Americans who now have an excuse to speak with one another and even ask for help in times of need.
Vonnegut saw that the American inclination toward isolation and individualism, and the technological advances that made such disconnection ever more feasible if ultimately untenable, left a void in the modern soul. He sought to commend its alleviation not in the way so many people today attempt to assuage their longings—technological distractions, especially—but through the effort to re-create forms of "folk societies." These efforts recall above all Tocqueville's commendation of "the arts of association." We might think Vonnegut a hypocrite for living most of his adult life in an apartment in New York City. Yet, perhaps it was his own keen sense of loss that prompted him to write so passionately, and for so many, persuasively, of the need to cultivate community in times that make community so difficult. Asked this very question once—why not live as he thought human nature demanded—he responded,
Well, I'm used to the rootlessness that goes with my profession. But I would like people to be able to stay in one community for a lifetime, to travel away from it to see the world, but always to come home again. This is comforting. Whenever I go to Indianapolis now, a childish question nags at me, and I finally have to say it out loud: "Where is my bed?" I grew up there, and nearly 1,000,000 people live there now, but there is no place in that city where a bed is mine. So I ask, "Where is my bed?"—and then wind up in a Holiday Inn. You can't go home again.
Kurt Vonnegut helped me and my generation want to find our way home, for which I am ever grateful.
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For Correspondence on this essay, click here.