The Vonnegut Statement: Essays on the Life and Work of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Between Time and Timbuktu or Prometheus 5
Breakfast of Champions or Goodbye, Blue Monday
Kurt Vonnegut’s fiction is full of bleak, sour views of our dismal mortal lot. “Maturity,” a character says in Cat’s Cradle (1963), “is a bitter disappointment”; and the same character thinks of writing a “history of human stupidity.” There is a dark metaphor hidden in the book’s title. A painting described in the text shows a cat’s cradle strung between fingers and the narrator wonders whether these small black scratches on canvas are not the “sticky nets of human futility hung up on a moonless night to dry.”
Vonnegut’s characters cry out at the passing of time. “Where have all the years gone?” a man asks himself in Slaughterhouse Five (1969). An old woman in the same book struggles to articulate a last, desperate question: “How did I get so old?” Above all, people in Vonnegut’s fiction crack up, slip quietly into a dim, calm, hideously ordinary anguish and madness, into the zone of modest, manageable insanity which is Vonnegut’s special domain. The hero of Slaughterhouse Five is a decent, rich citizen, member of the Lions’ Club in Ilium, New York, shareholder in the new Holiday Inn on Route 54, and proud father of a sergeant in the Green Berets. Only recently he has taken to crying a lot, very discreetly, and Vonnegut offers us this eloquent, arresting image: a man on his bed in his cozy house, the blinds drawn, a vibrator shaking his mattress, gently jiggling him as he weeps: despair in the comfort of your own home.
Yet Vonnegut is famous, apparently, not for his visions of middle-class despair but for his rosy mythologies. Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five give us other, cheerier visions too: joyous lies, new dreams. The novels themselves are not sticky nets of human futility but means of escaping from such nets. Cat’s Cradle is built around a jaunty, hip, fatalistic gospel delivered mainly in calypsoes, and based on the principle that everything that happens has to happen; that a conflict between good and evil, if properly, skeptically staged, is a fine, constructive fiction. It keeps people busy, takes their minds off their moral and economic misery. Slaughterhouse Five tells us time is an eternal present tense, so that no one dies, but merely seems to be in bad shape at the moment of death. The general message is put more crudely in the course of the book: “Everything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does.” So we are to “ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones”; “stare only at pretty things as eternity fails to go by.” Hence the ghastly epitaph haunting the book, and sounding like so many recent popular songs: “Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.”
Clearly Vonnegut intends some kind of dialectic here between a despair which is intolerable and a set of mythologies, born of that despair, which are untenable, silly, even inhuman. Equally clearly the dialectic never really gets off the ground in Vonnegut’s most famous novels. The despair and the mythologies simply face each other, too far apart for interaction, and the reader takes his pick. Since the despair tends to be understated and the mythologies are scored for full, whimsical orchestra, the reader usually picks the mythologies, and the number of people who think the inanities illustrated in the previous paragraph are some kind of wisdom is larger than I care to think about.
But things are not much better if the reader should chance to pick the despair, since he is likely then, I think, to enact what I’ll call the liberal’s dance with reality. This used to happen a lot with Arthur Miller, as Robert Warshow once lucidly demonstrated. It happens with countless Hollywood “problem” films—Polansky’s Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here is a good, fairly recent example. The dance consists of the following very simple steps. You are persuaded that a book or a movie offers you an unbearably intense view of the horrors of life, particularly of the horrors of guilt and responsibility (for Hiroshima, for the bombing of Dresden, for the age of McCarthy, for our treatment of the American Indians). The view is in fact not only bearable but quite enjoyable, a piece of entertainment. You leave the cinema, however, or put the book down, convinced that you have not been entertained at all but have sat unflinching through a nightmare, stared a grim reality full in the face. This is a very satisfying feeling, and for many people takes the place of political action.
Behind the dance, of course, is the longing for a perspective which would allow us to hang on to our consciences without ever having to say we are sorry, and Vonnegut, in The Sirens of Titan (1959), offers a perfect image for the consummation of this longing. There are spots in space, he tells us, where time is bent in such a way that two people who disagree totally about everything can come to understand how they are both right, because all the truths they both know now fit flawlessly together. Hitler was right too, you see, out there in the fourth dimension. Everything is beautiful.
But this image is a fragment of utopia in The Sirens of Titan, and The Sirens of Titan, in spite of disclaimers from Vonnegut and his more serious-minded fans, is a science fiction novel, and a remarkably good one. Utopias in science fiction are always wreathed in ironies, and Vonnegut’s gradual retreat from the genre, his purely whimsical application of occasional science fiction props and tricks, goes a long way toward explaining the failed ironies of Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five.
Two years after publishing The Sirens of Titan, in any case, borrowing from two other genres (the spy story and war memoirs), Vonnegut wrote a small masterpiece, where all his ironies were intact, enriched even, and where the dialectic between despair and its mythologies was dazzling, very funny, and very disturbing. The book was called Mother Night, and the name of the principal mythology was schizophrenia, a “simple and widespread boon to modern mankind.” Howard J. Campbell, Jr., is an American-born Nazi propagandist who is also an American secret agent, broadcasting vital information by means of coughs and stutters in his hate-filled diatribes against Roosevelt (alias Rosenfeld) and the Jews. He writes his memoirs as he awaits his trial in a Jerusalem jail. He broods on his past, and particularly on the day when he learned that he had probably been more useful to the Germans after all than he could possibly have been to the Allies. His father-in-law, the chief of the Berlin police, told him that his propaganda work had helped him not to feel ashamed of anything he had felt or done as a Nazi, and neither Hitler nor Goebbels nor Himmler had done as much. “You alone,” Campbell hears, “kept me from concluding that Germany had gone insane.”
Similarly the American spymaster who knows Campbell was an American agent, since he recruited him himself, still hates Campbell the Nazi with bitter sincerity, since Campbell was a Nazi too. For good comic measure, and to corroborate the pattern, one of Campbell’s guards in Jerusalem tells Campbell how he infiltrated the SS during the war, and is angry at the memory of a leak in security, although he was himself that leak. Like Campbell, he had become what he was pretending to be. Campbell was a man, Vonnegut tells us, who “served evil too openly and good too secretly, the crime of his times.”
What is impressive about Mother Night is its extraordinary tone which allows Vonnegut to be very funny without being crass or unfeeling. The casualness, the faint, brittle toughness fools no one:
My mother and father died. Some say they died of broken hearts. They died in their middle sixties, at any rate, when hearts break easily.
There are few funnier scenes in recent fiction than that provided by the appearance of Lionel J. D. Jones, the fascist dentist, and his antique cronies, August Krapptauer of the German-American Bund, Father Keeley, an unfrocked Catholic priest, and Robert Sterling Wilson, the Black Führer of Harlem. They come to visit Campbell in his attic in Greenwich Village, the whole crew wheezing up the stairs, pausing every few steps to count, panting, up to twenty, because two of them have bad hearts. Chaplin said in his autobiography that he could not have made The Great Dictator if he had known about the concentration camps. Mother Night is The Great Dictator made in full awareness of the camps. It is not an attempt to defeat an enemy by ridicule, but an attempt to contemplate horror by means of laughter, because laughter, of all our inappropriate responses to total, terminal horror, seems the least inappropriate, the least inhuman.
Vonnegut himself, thinking of the radio comedians of the Depression days, says something like this in the conversation with Robert Scholes which is recorded in The Vonnegut Statement, and the thought also recalls Vonnegut’s preface to Welcome to the Monkey House (1968), a collection of his short stories. Vonnegut remembers his sister’s death and her dying words. “No pain,” she said. She was dying of cancer. The words, like the sharp, crazy gags of Mother Night, were a brave cry, a rejection of reality uttered while reality was making itself felt.
Vonnegut seems to have come to confuse such heroic untruths with simple denials of reality, with the anesthetized daydreams that float through his later work, and that are not rejections of reality’s ugliness or pain but a refusal to experience reality at all. And he has been looking, since Mother Night, for that tone he found once and can’t find again, which sounds heartless but which signals profound feeling. “So it goes,” the refrain of Slaughterhouse Five which greets all deaths in the book, is a feeble approximation, either unfeeling or sarcastic but never both together.
In Mother Night, on the other hand, the balance holds. Eichmann, like Campbell, is writing his memoirs, and has a sudden burst of bonhomie. “Listen,” he says to Campbell, “about those six million…. I could spare you a few for your book. I don’t think I really need them all.” Not only is flippancy not unfeeling here, it has somehow become a form of sensibility, a language which remains when more dignified languages are dumb.
A curious uneasiness runs through the twelve essays and one interview which make up The Vonnegut Statement, a sense of writers wishing they knew how to express their reservations about Vonnegut without seeming disloyal or ungrateful, not so much to Vonnegut himself or his work as to the constituency this book clearly represents: a whole clan of writers and critics and students who badly need Vonnegut to be a bigger figure than he is. The book is thus an oblique expression of that odd, attractive, idiotic American habit of believing that something exists because you need it. What we need, the buried, piecemeal argument of the book runs, is a great, accessible, popular modern writer, a writer who would be funny and sharp and moral and relevant and powerful and towering and not at all difficult to read. Vonnegut looks a bit like what we need, therefore Vonnegut is what we need. Vonnegut is all of those things except towering and powerful and great. In fact, it probably isn’t possible to be a great and accessible writer any more, and we may need accessible writers more than we need great ones.