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On Vonnegut and the (Post)Modern Condition

If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be a homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts.

~Kurt Vonnegut

I confess I don’t know much what to make of Kurt Vonnegut. I first picked up a novel of his – Slaughterhouse Five – in high school. I didn’t get very far in it, mostly because I couldn’t quite get a fix on what I was supposed to think about what was going on. It all seemed a jumble to me, and weirdly empty of…of something. I read Cat’s Cradle in college and felt much the same way. “What the hell is with this guy?” I thought. I was surrounded by people who worshiped him – said he was funny, poignant, the best American author of the modern era. I just didn’t get it.

Pictured: Great Author I Don’t Get

Fast-foward to this past week, where I finally sat myself down and read Slaughterhouse Five all the way through. It is a brilliant work, no doubt – age and experience and the state of being a writer has taught me to notice good fiction even if I don’t care for it – but I still don’t know quite what to make of it all. I did not dislike the book, but I also cannot say with any truth that I liked it. I am left in a kind of artistic limbo.

The word that most strikes me when I read Vonnegut is “empty.” Not that nothing happens, but that no motives, no reasons are allowed to attach to the events. People just are the way they are. Things happen because they do. So it goes.

This is a derivation of postmodern thought, clearly. Vonnegut is quite adept at pointing out the absurdity of the human condition, and expounding upon how that absurdity is compounded by the human race’s fervent desire to prove that it isn’t absurd at all, but instead invested with deep meaning. He is by no means the only author to do this, nor do I dislike those other authors necessarily, so it isn’t Vonnegut’s philosophical grounding that alienates me from his work. Indeed, I find it really fascinating how he can be so aggressively post-modern without being bitter or angry or horrified.

But then, part of me I guess wants him to be bitter and angry and horrified. I don’t, in the end, find his dark brand of humor funny because I guess I care too much to laugh. I find myself flailing around in his books for something to hold on to and it just isn’t there. There’s nothing – it’s all absurd, it’s all nonsense. And there’s Vonnegut, evidently kicking back and relaxing despite all this. Just shrugging, saying “So it goes,” as though the tragedies he just described don’t matter.

And I guess he’s right – they don’t, not in any cosmic sense – but to me, I feel they ought to. Each time a bomb goes off because some ridiculous asshole decides to blow himself up for his imaginary, absurd vision of the divine (or his bitter hatred of his mother or because he’s a closeted homosexual and can’t handle it or because of no reason at all), I am of two minds. The first is horrified, angry, and craving justice. My heart weeps for the victims – innocent girls, this time – and I want very much to do something. But then there’s that second mind, that dark, postmodern one: 22 dead people, in the end, don’t really matter much. If 120,000 people could die on one day in Dresden and the world kept turning, no amount of stupid little kitchen-made bombs made by bitter, angry men will make much difference. In the Second World War an average of about 27,000 people died each day. And yet the world is still here, making the same damned mistakes, giving power to the same damned monsters, and spouting the same damned bullshit. Same with any other war. We don’t learn.

I gotta say, I hate the part of my brain that thinks this way. It’s defeatist, even if it does seem to be right. And maybe that’s my problem with Vonnegut, too – he might be right, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

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