Saturday, 9 February 2019

Kurt Vonnegut - epitome of a modern evil genius

In a dark year of my life, while a House Officer (or medical 'Intern' in the US nomenclature), I went fast and deep into the works of Kurt Vonnegut - and experienced their brilliance and their despair.

I was introduced by the Scottish novelist Alasdair Gray in the autumn of 1982, when I first met him in Glasgow - he either quoted from memory or read aloud something deeply amusing from Breakfast of Champions, and lent me a copy of Slaughterhouse Five. I rapidly went on to read everything by Vonnegut written up to the middle 1970s. It made my life A Lot worse.

(...After the mid 70s publication dates, I found the work unreadable - a kind a embarrassing, contrived self-parody. Interestingly, I believe this happened because Vonnegut so insightfully explained-himself, in the non-fiction collection Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons. Having explained himself, made his methods conscious and explicit in lectures and essays; he could no longer do them spontaneously and naturally - and it destroyed his genius. This is what Glenn Gould called the 'centipedal' problem in relation to piano technique - that when the centipede tried to explain how it was he could manage to coordinate so many legs, he then found he could no longer do it: this was why Gould refused to teach pupils.)

I think Vonnegut's best work is Cat's Cradle - which is written with extraordinary wit and deftness, and is packed with very clever ideas. But it is deeply subversive and despair-inducing, exactly because it gets so deeply and sympathetically into the religious impulse, the impulse to perceive and know life as meaningful and purposive... which it then alternately mocks and pities as false: a self-gratifying and socially-beneficial delusion.

This is the Vonnegut mood: surface wit, powerful depth charge jokes; empathic explanation and description - then the resigned shrug that the whole thing is a trick; either a trick we play on ourselves to keep ourselves going, or a trick played on us by rulers who are manipulating us for their own benefit.

Vonnegut is therefore an extreme example of the nineteen-sixties counter-cultural ideology that has since grown and taken-over as the dominant mainstream. He is both a hedonist (because nothing else matters) and a pathological altruist (especially in God Bless You, Mr Rosewater).

Vonnegut combines that paralysing pacifist pity with shallow, slavish and partisan Leftism, in the way so familiar from nearly all Western ruling elites. The pity makes them feel superior, their careerist hatred of the less-extremely-Left is what daily-motivates them. 

My point is that Vonnegut really was a genius - albeit a minor genius, but undoubtedly - and consequently the harm he did (especially via Slaughterhouse Five, in context of the Vietnam War protest movement) was massively amplified in a world where the social ethos so exactly matched his own.

Vonnegut and the late sixties-early seventies shared a dangerous resonant frequency -  much as he did with my own pervasive misery, self-righteousness and failure of courage.  


Crosbie said...

I've never been able to get the idea of a karass out of my head. I hope that's not an evil idea.

Francis Berger said...

This is hands down the best and most incisive evaluation of Vonnegut and his work I have read to date. I went through a Vonnegut phase in my late teens/early twenties, which was the late 80s early 90s. I enjoyed him and eventually grew tired of him for the same reasons you outline in your post.

What really did it for me was the following quote from one of his later books, Timequake:

“Listen: We are here on Earth to fart around. Don't let anybody tell you any different!”

And that was him saying the line, not one of his characters! I remember reading that line and thinking, "What? That's it, Kurt? That's really all life amounts to for you?" Try as I might, I simply couldn't accept that view of life - the revelation that it was all a cosmic joke. His insistence that you should not let anyone tell you any different reeked of both hubris and defeat. My interest in Vonnegut waned considerably after that.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crosbie - I agree - it is a brilliant idea - and true! Like I said, the man *was* a genius.


Bruce Charlton said...

@Francis - That is a devastating explicit quote from V - but the same message is implicit in most of what he wrote; and perhaps more dangerous because implicit.

I was deep into this kind of irony at times in my life, and refused to believe that it has a truly *deadly* effect when a person - or society - begins to regard life as trivial, without real value; when all truth is understood as a trick or a mistake...

What is bizzare, is that Vonnegut was so venomous, so scathing, so moralistic in his political opinions. Did he really not see the contradiction between life being no more than a fart, and regarding political enemies as truly evil?

Crosbie said...

Vonnegut was aware of Christ: Kurt Vonnegut, Christ-Loving Atheist"

When I saw your comment, I thought, he *must* have come from a strongly religious household! But I was wrong. Seemingly he came from a long long line of 'freethinkers'.

Even before I joined church, I noticed the phenomenon of first generation non-churchgoers. It seemed to me they were conscientious and driven, more so than either churchgoers or non-churchgoers raised in non-churchgoing families.

Humanism is bizarre. Observed from afar (I don't know any personally) they really *do* seem to uphold high moral and intellectual standards and persist these over generations. It seems to be an exclusively upper middle class thing.

Matthew T said...

Very dangerous writer - I would go so far as to say that Vonnegut was one of the authors that catalyzed my nascent teenage atheism. His faux-intellectualism lent a legitimacy to my immature rebellion.

I remember the "fart around" quote, mentioned by Francis. What made a greater impression on me, in the introduction to one or the other of the books, was a play on the typical disclaimer, where Vonnegut wrote that "all persons, living or dead, or purely coincidental". It's JUST the sort of snotty, oh-so-clever remark beloved by juvenile atheists everywhere.

Knowing what I now know - I don't mean this to sound slanderous, as I of course do not have any specific evidence, but I would not be surprised to find out that Vonnegut was sexually deviant in some way.