Kurt Vonnegut: Charming Nihilist

It’s a little difficult to understand the continuing popularity of Kurt Vonnegut. It’s not that Vonnegut is not an entertaining writer. He is. Time magazine has aptly called him “the most distinctive voice in recent American fiction.”

What makes his popularity puzzling is his nihilistic world view, which runs counter to the present popularity of the search for final truth. Vonnegut doesn’t even believe in final truth.

There is, of course, his charm. He admits he can be very charming when he wants to be. Apparently when he’s writing he wants to be. His candor must be given credit for part of that charm. In the face of dozens of conflicting world views, each claiming to have the right answer, Vonnegut has the modesty and candor to say: “I don’t know.”

In his novels he continually raises the question of what people are for. His own answer is, “I don’t know.”

However, Vonnegut is holding out on us. Like most good teachers he knows more than he’s admitting. He knows it’s good (but probably impossible) for people to be happy. Just how he knows this is not clear. The Vonnegutian epistemology is as whimsical as the rest of his philosophy. He believes something (such as the miracles of Madame Blavatsky) if it pleases him.

Now the thing that will make us happiest, Vonnegut thinks, is to believe that man is the center of the universe. As his gift to mankind he offers us the opportunity to believe in “the most ridiculous superstition of all: That humanity is at the center of the universe, the fulfiller or the frustrator of the grandest dreams of God Almighty” (Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons, 1974).

“If you can believe that,” he continues, “and make others believe it there might be hope for us. Human beings might stop treating each other like garbage, might begin to treasure each other instead.”

Vonnegut likes the arts, religion, and astrology better than science precisely because they “use frauds in order to make human beings seem more wonderful than they are.”

Art makes human conversation seem more entertaining than it really is. It makes human activity seem more important than it is. Astrology gives every man a symbol, a color, a metal—a destiny!

And religion is able to make people happy by telling them all sorts of neat lies. In Vonnegut’s novels religion is faulted not for being the opiate of the people but for not being a better one. Religion’s job is to anesthetize man for his life imprisonment in the universe. A religion is not true or false but merely useful or not useful depending on how happy it makes people. People need lies to live by.

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Science and technology get their lumps from Vonnegut. Science is the great dehumanizer because it does not place man at the center of things.

Vonnegut is not naïve about the nature of man. He’s no dreamy-eyed liberal extolling the essential goodness of human nature.

“All human beings are to some extent greedy and cruel—and angry without cause,” he points out. In his novel Cat’s Cradle, the Fourteenth Book of Bokonon (the bible of an invented religion) is titled “What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?” The book consists of one word: “Nothing.”

He also repeatedly refers to the stupidity and unreasonableness of mankind. “If you would be unloved and forgotten,” writes the protagonist in one novel, “be reasonable.”

In addition, his novels are peopled with an assorted lot of crazies and halfcrazies, including a drunk schizophrenic, a pyromaniac whore, an ugly virgin “too dumb to live,” a decadent poet, a science-fiction writer, a U. S. senator, a midget, a Pontiac dealer, a scientist, and a homosexual piano player. If this is a cross-section of humanity, it’s a puzzle why Vonnegut wants to put this animal at the center of the universe.

But he does. And if we could get everyone to think this way, reasons Vonnegut, we could bring into existence a sort of Vonnegut utopia. Utopia is tied up with his longing for “community.” If we can all set our minds to believe the lie that man is the center of the universe, we can begin treasuring one another and stop being lonesome. He says it’s the rich who keep us apart from our neighbors because they want us lonesome. “Lonesome no more!” is his war cry for the American people.

Vonnegut whimsically suggests that everyone throw out his middle name and substitute whatever name the computers give—names of Greek gods, colors, chemical elements, flowers, animals. Each person would then have a family of 20,000 all with the same middle name. That way no one would feel alone.

He points out that the drug thing among young people gave them a community. “If you become a user of any drug, you can pick up a set of friends you’ll see day after day, because of the urgency of getting drugs all the time.”

It’s perhaps in this humanism that Vonnegut has his greatest appeal after all. There lurks within each of us a virulent strain of humanism waiting for the proper culture in which to grow. Vonnegut provides the culture.

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Let yourself go, he says. Believe a lie. And it’s a lie that humans want to believe—that we’re the center of the universe. Let’s create a great fellowship where we worship our collective being. After all, there’s only a consonant of difference between having “men” at the center of the universe and having “me” there.

But the lie that Vonnegut wants us to believe won’t really do the trick. Once God ceases to be at the center, it makes little difference whether he is replaced with homo sapiens or hominy grits—with ideals or an idol. The ultimate result is horror.

The very exhalting of humanity always results in the inhumanity that creates Vonnegut’s despair. The moral horrors of our modern age derive not from the haters of mankind” but from the lovers of supermankind. They have less to do with Jesus of Nazareth than Friedrich of Saxony.

There is, of course, a proper humanism. People are important. They have the importance assigned them by God—not that which they choose for themselves. The crucifixion is God’s assignment of value. We are objects of God’s redeeming love—a little lower than the angels in the created order.

Too long a look at mankind can only bring despair. The effects of looking too closely are already beginning to tell on Vonnegut. Suicide, he admits, is at the heart of his last novel Breakfast of Champions.

Another element that seems to loom large in Vonnegut’s present thinking is his need for a “culture.”

“What I say didactically in the introduction to Breakfast of Champions is that I can’t live without a culture anymore, that I realize I don’t have one. What passes for a culture in my head is really a bunch of commercials and it is intolerable.”

He’s right. Without this sort of culture, or point of integration, human life is fragmented and pointless.

Vonnegut reports that a twelve-year-old after reading Breakfast of Champions wrote him a note saying “Please don’t commit suicide.” Let us join this sensitive youngster—in imploring Mr. Vonnegut not to commit suicide, but to look away from humanity, the object of his affection and despair, to Jesus, the Lord of humanity.

There, Vonnegut, you’ll find a culture men have found worth dying for when dying became necessary. You’ll find a community that has outlasted all other communities—the people of God.


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