Three Reasons The World Needs Vonnegut More Than Ever
Both of my parents constantly read throughout my childhood. Books forever littered the end tables and armrests adorning our home. The TV room was more library than home theatre. A floor-to-ceiling bookshelf lined two walls and was always a couple books deep on each shelf. As a young child, these books were largely ignored. But as I found myself on the cusp of adulthood, I began “stealing” books from said shelves. The volumes, which were mostly remnants of my parents’ college days, travelled with me as I embarked on my undergraduate foray. I plowed through their favorites: Salinger, Brautigan, Kesey, and other largely counterculture authors of their time. Then one fateful day, I pulled out a beat up novel that would lead me on a path to devoting my scholarly and professional pursuits to the written word: Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut.
Most readers are introduced to Vonnegut through his famous WW2 treatise, Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children’s Crusade. Well, Mother Night quickly led me there and then on to all of his other novels - The Sirens of Titan becoming my favorite. I then devoured his nonfiction works. I re-read everything. And then I re-read my favorites several more times, which I continue to do.
While I loved all things Vonnegut, I knew that I had to face a sad reality: he really wasn’t for me. To be clear, what I mean by this is that all of his works of fiction had been completed years before I cracked open Mother Night. My beloved Sirens of Titan was penned in 1959, well before even my parents had been introduced to the iconic writer. Vonnegut became something of a literary celebrity, a voice contributing to the counterculture of the ‘60s and ‘70s. And that ship had long sailed by the time I was skirting my own collegiate responsibilities to pour over Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions.
While I take some comfort in the fact that several of his nonfiction works came out in more recent years and addressed contemporary issues, Vonnegut’s groundbreaking works speak more to years passed. Or so I believed, until the other day. While the general populace of 2015 was clearly not Vonnegut’s intended audience, I’ve recently come to realize that the messages buried beneath his eclectic stories are actually even more relevant in today’s world. Not just relevant, but essential. To illuminate this, here is a look at some major themes within Vonnegut’s works and why they are necessary points of consideration in present day America.
1. Criticism of War
Look no further than Slaughterhouse-Five to find Vonnegut’s impressions of warfare. While armed conflict plays a part in other Vonnegut novels, such as Sirens of Titan, Bluebeard, Galapagos, and others, it’s the central element in his most iconic work. It obviously bears mentioning that the author, himself, was a WW2 veteran who happened to be a POW held in the German city of Dresden during the horrific Allied Forces firebombing - which killed more people than the atomic bombs in Japan. The secondary title of the novel is The Children’s Crusade, which indicates Vonnegut’s stated belief that war inevitably equates to sending extremely young men off to die - largely for conflicts they know nothing about. Ironically, Vonnegut states in Slaughterhouse-Five that writing an anti-war book is like writing an anti-glacier book, in that they are both always going to happen and resisting them is futile. Yet, it is clear through his construction of the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, and the debilitating traumatic effects of war that he endures, Vonnegut has loaded his novel with anti-war messages.
Vonnegut’s opinions on war are more relevant now than they were in the 60s, when the book was actually published, because we are all currently witnessing the terrible long-term impact that war has on the emotional and psychic state of returning veterans. Vonnegut was able to express this long before the feature was common knowledge and before the diagnosis of PTSD existed. Billy Pilgrim develops an intense fantasy world to cope with the horror he witnessed. While this is just fiction, it springs from Vonnegut’s own struggles - he even places himself in the narration at times to remind readers that he was actually there. Understanding the traumatic effects of warfare is a necessity in today’s America, as we continuously wage our endless wars.
Key Quote: "There are plenty of good reasons for fighting, but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too.” -Mother Night
2. Fear of Unchecked “Progress”
Kurt Vonnegut was a man of science. His first job was with General Electric. His only brother, Bernard, was an atmospheric scientist. So his wariness about unmitigated scientific and technological advancement did not come from a place of irrationality nor ignorance. Yet, this fear was present in Vonnegut’s writing on more than one occasion. His first novel, Player Piano, was set in a world where all blue-collar jobs have become automated and filled by machines. This is a dystopian novel where most Americans have no employment, and, according to Vonnegut, no purpose in life. While Player Piano, lacks the eccentricity that would define Vonnegut’s other work, its darkly humorous tone elucidates Vonnegut’s genuine fear of what the future could possibly hold.
Vonnegut’s boldest warning surrounding unchecked progress comes from his fantastic, biting satire: Cat’s Cradle. Cat’s Cradle, which is extremely multifaceted and complex, contains a side story involving a government-funded scientist who creates a modified water particle called “Ice-9”. The particle was invented to turn all water with which it comes in contact instantly into ice. It was created with the best of possible intentions: to help our soldiers and military vehicles when they get bogged down in mud, thus giving us an advantage in war. This allegory for the atomic bomb and all other war technology shows how “progress” can actually lead to humanity’s own destruction. This same idea is later reinforced in Vonnegut’s underrated Galapagos. Here, the premise of the novel is that human intelligence is an evolutionary mistake - that our ingenuity is more of a detriment to the world, than an advantage.
Vonnegut’s warnings against progress have never been more appropriate. In a world where we collectively only wonder if we can do things, the works of Kurt Vonnegut challenge us to ask if we should. As our technology grows exponentially, we must be challenged to assess periphery and long-term costs. It’s the thoughtless progress-for progress’ sake that Vonnegut feared, as should we all.
Key Quote: “I thought scientists were going to find out exactly how everything worked, and then make it work better… Scientific truth was going to make us so happy and comfortable. What actually happened when I was twenty-one was that we dropped scientific truth on Hiroshima.” -from keynote speech at Bennington College (1970)
3. Challenging Organized Religion
Kurt Vonnegut was once the honorary president of the American Humanist Association. He was openly secular in his views and identified himself as a “free-thinker”. It should come as no shock then that a number of his works challenged a dogmatic and orthodox approach to religion. The aforementioned Cat’s Cradle set up a fake (and hilarious) religion called Bokononism. Bokononism identifies itself as a complete lie to its followers, yet they still devoutly follow it. It is clearly set up as a system of intentional control, in order to suppress a largely uneducated population. He also presents the idea that it is an inherent feature of human beings to try to make sense of the world - religion fills this need.
Another sharp critique of organized religion comes from Sirens of Titan. A side plot involves the founding of The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. In the novel, this becomes the dominant religion in America. The basic tenant of the church is that God doesn’t care about anything we do. It essentially, then, obliterates organized religion and worship as people no longer seek deeper meaning nor live their lives by prescribed theological rules.
We can clearly see in today’s world how literal interpretations of religion can be damaging. Whether it be terror campaigns motivated by a misguided reading of the Qur’an, or cherrypicking the Bible to deny other Americans’ rights, Vonnegut would challenge it all as immoral. His novels contain messages of humanism and doing what is morally right for its own sake. He uses satire and absurdity to poke fun at the often untouchable topic of religion, and infusing humor into this realm is what the world may need today.
Key Quote: “Luck is not the hand of God…Luck is the way the wind swirls eons after God has passed by.” -The Sirens of Titan
Cole Gelrod is an educator and writer. He lives in Denver with his wife, Joni, and their daughter, Juniper.