Kurt Vonnegut and Romanticism

The problem with rapid advances in society and technology is that often we’re so concerned with answering the question, can we, that we forget to ask, should we. This question is much more difficult to answer, and in the rush to develop the next big breakthrough, people raising legitimate concerns are often drowned out in the discussion of how far we can push the limit. Still these concerns deserve to be heard. By modifying crops to make them more resistant to pests, do we run the risk of making them inedible to humans and animals? Mechanization can free us from labor, but then what happens to the legion of workers who previously performed those activities? These aren’t easy questions to answer, but if we are to deal with the consequences wrought by technology in modern society, they must be addressed.

Is it any wonder that so many people feel alienated by the modern world? The rise of fundamentalism, the rejection of science and technology, the nostalgia for simpler times and less complex ways of living, are all reactions to the increasingly complex world in which we find ourselves. None of this is new, however, as people have been dealing with questions such as these throughout recorded history. It’s no surprise that most of the great art movements of the past few centuries have followed rapid changes in the established social order. Dadaism sprang up as a reaction to World War I and its shocking level of brutality and the aftermath of World War II in the U.S. gave us such authors as Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, and J. D. Salinger, while artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein employed pop culture motifs inspired by the growth of mass media and commercialism in the late 20th century. Art comments on the world around it, and when life becomes increasingly complex, it’s the job of artists to try to make some sense of it all. This is probably why absurdist writers such as Beckett, Pinter and Camus flourished as the world was gripped by the uncertainties of the Cold War, and fears of nuclear annihilation. In a crazy world, sometimes nonsense makes more sense than rationality.

Romanticism arose during the early days of the Industrial Revolution and frequently lamented the potential of industrialized society to rob us of our individuality and humanity. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelly (1818), was a perfect expression of this — humanity reborn without a soul. The creature was a modern vision of humankind, stitched together from many sources and reanimated through unnatural means. It represented the final evolution, humans as creator gods, and raised frightening questions for its author and all who read it. Can one wield the power of a god without the wisdom of a god? It’s ironic how often technological innovation is driven by the need to kill, conquer and subjugate, only discovering non-lethal applications as an afterthought. Splitting the atom first led to weapons of warfare, then to electric power plants.

Science fiction is an outgrowth of Romanticism, and as such is often skeptical about social and technological advances. Nowhere is this better expressed than in the works of Kurt Vonnegut in novels such as Breakfast of Champions, Cat’s Cradle, and Slapstick. Vonnegut witnessed, first hand, the destructive side of human nature in all its technological infamy, by being front and center at the Allied bombing of Dresden in February of 1945, the event which inspired what is perhaps his best-known work, Slaughterhouse-Five. In it Billy Pilgrim becomes a metaphor for post-World War II America, hurtling toward a confusing future, longing for the simplicity of earlier times, and slowly losing his grip on what constitutes reality. “Listen. Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” The Tralfamadorians, the aliens Billy encounters, who have the ability to see time all at once, in a clear, unchangeable present, speak of the futility of free will. Events are inevitable, and nothing can change them or stop them from happening.

Vonnegut rarely described himself as a science fiction writer, though he acknowledged that people regarded him as such. Rather, he used the conventions of science fiction to tell his story, which any good writer of science or conventional fiction might do. A number of his stories, such as Mother Night and Deadeye Dick, aren’t heavily reliant on science fiction, at all, but depict characters famous or infamous for what they’ve done, or are perceived to have done. At heart, Vonnegut shares a kinship with the Romantics in his cynicism for modern humans and the direction evolution seems to be taking us. He tended to blame our “big brains” for most human foibles, and the eventual loss of this biological innovation by humanity in his novel Galapagos, is the salvation of humankind, as the species reverts back to being just another equal player in the natural cycle of predator and prey on earth.

In Player Piano, Vonnegut’s first novel, the lead characters destroy the dominant technology, only to see their followers rebuild the most vapid remnants of it to amuse themselves. Vonnegut seems to believe humans can learn from history, but refuse to do so, and it’s this refusal that contributes to their worst tendencies. Technology itself is never the villain in Vonnegut’s world, except in the ways humans use it to further their own selfish ends. The culprit for Vonnegut is the belief by humans that they’re far more clever than they actually are, believing they’ve become masters of the world, when in fact their intervention in the ways of nature often makes things much worse.

Despite his sometimes crusty cynicism, Vonnegut nevertheless remained hopeful that humanity could overcome its worst tendencies and somehow live up to its better nature. In his essays, he often cited those he identified as “angels” who were working to combat a host of societal ills such as racism and poverty. An avowed Atheist, he nonetheless admired the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount, and frequently counseled people to show kindness toward one another, reassuring them “you are not alone.” In novels such as Slapstick and Cat’s Cradle, he tackled the existential problem of living among many, yet still feeling alone and alienated. His principal characters are almost always struggling against the absurdities of human interactions, constantly being victimized by those of lesser mind who are carrying out their own agendas for less than noble purposes. Organized religion was often a favorite target, as was the human tendency to create heroes out of the thinnest of provocations, only to tear them down when the situation changed.

It’s probably no surprise that in many of Vonnegut’s novels, the world or the established social order is destroyed and those left are forced to start over with something new, but not necessarily better. Vonnegut seems to view this as the natural progression of life. The old world passes away and is replaced by another, equally confounding one. Through it all, though, Vonnegut refuses to give up hope and encourages us to do the same. In an ever-shrinking world where events on the other side of the globe have the immediacy of what’s happening outside our front doors, and many dissonant viewpoints compete for our attention, Kurt Vonnegut still has a voice which rises above the din, guiding us toward a better way of seeing the world and our place in it. It’s definitely worth our time to listen.

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