Micah Robbins — Misanthropic Humanism & the Politics of Comic Futility: Robert T. Tally Jr.’s Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel

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By Micah Robbins

Kurt Vonnegut owes a good measure of his popularity, both as novelist and public intellectual, to his gift for treating the most depressing aspects of postmodern American life with cheerful contempt. His steadfast good humor renders dissident fictions palatable for mainstream audiences, while also appealing to those more politically active readers who are convinced the core values animating contemporary American life must be revised if, as the most idealistic generation in recent memory warned, we are not to be “the last generation in the experiment with living.”¹ He is, in this regard, one of postwar America’s most politically savvy literary voices, a novelist perhaps uniquely suited to posit radical ideas within mainstream discourse. It is important to note, however, that while Vonnegut lends his voice to a number of “isms” well outside the bounds of popular American politics (socialism, pacifism, and atheism come immediately to mind), he does so while remaining conspicuously skeptical of political activism as a force for positive and lasting social change. He thus performs the paradoxical task of inculcating a progressive moralism that condemns the most troubling aspects of postmodern American life—most notably the twin forces of consumer capitalism and militarization—while at the same time insisting on the inability of progressive politics to set straight what he sees as having gone so obviously awry. At the core of his critique is a “Do-Nothing ethos,” a sort of hip resignation that suggests an inevitable descent into evermore cruel and calloused ways of being.² This ethos finds its most memorable expression in his famously fatalistic phrase, “So it goes,” which he utters like a mantra throughout Slaughterhouse-Five (1969); or, to put it differently, as he does in his less popular novel Bluebeard (1987), humankind is “doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive” (Slaughterhouse-Five 2; Bluebeard 91). It is around this fatalism that his oeuvre’s core contradiction develops. While Vonnegut’s novels may speak passionately against manifold forms of violence and oppression, they ultimately succumb to a playful nihilism that, though rich in irony and black humor, offers little by way of imagining a future beyond the sequence of traumas and disasters that characterizes our historical moment.

Irony and black humor are, to be sure, means of making the intolerable seem tolerable, as gallows humor surely attests, and in the hands of more radical satirists such as William S. Burroughs, Ishmael Reed, Thomas Pynchon, and Kathy Acker, to name just a few of Vonnegut’s contemporaries, they become discursive weapons against the violent, exploitative mentalities that continue to structure our world into the twenty-first century. But with Vonnegut, the gallows carry the day. This is not to deny that Vonnegut’s satire does much to shame prevailing sociopolitical mores. It does. It also raises a powerful alarm that something has gone horribly wrong in the world. But in the end, Vonnegut’s fiction eschews imagining acts of meaningful resistance—symbolic or actual. His work is, in this regard a surrender, for even his most politically effective novels advance an image of humanity as powerless to enact positive social change in the face of overwhelming biological and historical forces. In his well-known 1973 interview with Playboy magazine, Vonnegut goes so far as to explicitly position the political novelist as part of a biological process that functions independently of the writer’s strategic intentions, an explanation that illustrates the fatalistic paradox at the core of his politics. In response to a question regarding his motives for writing, he says, “My motives are political. I agree with Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini that the writer should serve his society. I differ with the dictators as to how writers should serve. Mainly I think they should be—and biologically have to be—agents of change” [my emphasis]. Vonnegut imagines writers as “evolutionary cells” in the “social organism,” biologically determined agents that simultaneously introduce new ideas into society and function as a central “means of responding symbolically to life.” Yet immediately after articulating his progressive political commitments, Vonnegut turns notably pessimistic, stating, “I don’t think we’re in control of what we do,” before proceeding (in characteristically self-depreciatory fashion) to dismiss his theory of the writer as a force for evolutionary social change as “horseshit.”³ He thus undermines, in a moment of what I read as impromptu candor, one of the foundational premises of political activism: that people can join in solidarity and organize around conscious acts of will to fashion a better future.

Robert T. Tally, Jr. takes up Vonnegut’s paradoxical politics in his ambitious study, Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel: A Postmodern Iconography (2011). Ranging over Vonnegut’s nearly fifty-year career, and offering commentary on all fourteen of his novels, Tally develops a theory of Vonnegut as a leading iconographer of postmodern American society. This is not to say that Vonnegut is a leading postmodernist per se —Tally suggests the label “postmodern” doesn’t quite fit—but rather that he is a writer with deep-seated modernist sensibilities whose work attempts to capture a comprehensive vision of America at the height of its power. In ranging over Vonnegut’s novels, Tally touches on some crucial theoretical and generic concerns, both of which I’ll discuss in due course, but what stands out most impressively when considering Vonnegut’s effort to construct a thoroughgoing postmodern iconography is the way in which his modernist political sensibility—rooted in utopian ideals of social wholeness and moral intelligibility—gives way to the overwhelming uncertainty and fragmentation of the postmodern age. His iconography may aim for the “comprehensiveness and unity assayed by the most wide-eyed utopians of the early modernist period,” as Tally argues early in his study, “yet Vonnegut’s world remains more fragmentary and unfixed than the elegiac modernists imagined. Hence, Vonnegut makes a botch of things” (Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel xxi). By tracking Vonnegut’s career-long attempt to negotiate the tensions between modernity and postmodernity, Tally offers a compelling literary-critical portrait of a significant (though largely neglected) American novelist grappling with the contradictions and crises of postwar American life, a portrait that helps clarify the paradoxical core of Vonnegut’s fatalistic political ethos.

Tally argues that Vonnegut’s postmodern iconography is a fundamentally modernist project in that it seeks through symbolic means to contain a cultural moment come unhinged through rapid technological development and the values associated with mass consumerism and unchecked militarization. In response to the pervasive fragmentation of American society, Vonnegut constructs an iconography intended to identify the roots of postmodern social disintegration and thus, by extension, illuminate traces of a prelapsarian integrated whole or idealized unity. We see in this effort what Tally regards as Vonnegut’s “thoroughgoing, elegiac modernism,” a perspective that leads him to revisit key modernist concerns, including “the effects of industrialization and technology, the breakup of traditional (so-called organic) communities, the relations between historical and psychological structures, between social totality and personal experience” (6 – 7). Yet because he does so within a postmodern framework, his efforts at identifying clearly defined social problems that fit within stable narrative structures are ultimately stymied by the very slippages and lack of coherence that his fiction attempts to contain. The result of this tension is a body of work that fails to effectively imagine utopian solutions precisely because it runs repeatedly into the limitations of a cultural-historical moment that denies utopian thinking as such. As Tally rightly notes, “the politics of postmodernism—by denying both an Edenic past to return to and a utopian future just over the horizon—often appears doomed to fall back into an apolitical position.” As a result of this denial, and surrounded everywhere by a breakdown in signification and its attendant political frustrations, Vonnegut’s “political forces have been driven deeply into an unconscious. A writer who desperately wants to support causes championed by a populist left, Vonnegut cannot help his general despondence over the impossibility of a genuinely political movement achieving success” (10). So while Vonnegut’s modernist sensibility may lead him to desire stable political solutions, he ultimately succumbs to a postmodern framework that all but forecloses on the utopian, redemptive promise that energizes the various “isms” I mentioned above. He thus becomes what Tally calls “a reluctant postmodernist” (7).

Although Tally makes the political dimensions of Vonnegut’s postmodern iconography clear, he tends away from situating Vonnegut within the rich and varied political discourses that shaped Cold War American society and its aftermath. He opts instead to engage literary-critical debates to argue for the significance of Vonnegut’s contribution to the development of American literature, even going so far as to suggest that Vonnegut is as good a candidate as any for having achieved some proximity to the ever-elusive “great American novel.” Indeed, Tally makes an extended claim that Vonnegut’s postmodern iconography is a noble yet failed attempt—a near miss, really—at achieving precisely such a deed. This is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, the book struggles to bear out Tally’s claim that Vonnegut’s iconography attempts the comprehensiveness associated with a project such as “the great American novel” precisely because it avoids a substantive engagement with specific sociopolitical developments in the decades following the end of the Second World War. Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel is not a work of American studies, nor does it take advantage of sociohistorical methodologies that may, in the hands of some future scholar, help place Vonnegut’s work in relation to actual politics of world-historical significance—the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements, Nixon’s ouster and the rise of Reagan, the fall of Communism, etc. On the other hand, Tally’s emphasis on literary-critical debates allows him to construct an impressive survey of Vonnegut’s work, and he makes important strides toward understanding the extent of Vonnegut’s engagement with theoretical concerns developed by some of the twentieth century’s most important continental philosophers. Figures such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Theodore Adorno, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari loom large in his study, and while their presence at times softens what could be a sharper focus on the particularities of Cold War American society, they allow Tally to make a case for Vonnegut as something more than a popular novelist. The truth is that Vonnegut is not taken very seriously within the academy, and by showing how his novels are shaped by and/or fit in relation to key theoretical insights, Tally makes a strong argument for Vonnegut’s place within a lineage of great American novelists running from Herman Melville to Thomas Pynchon.

Yet even when Tally focuses on continental philosophy to make literary-critical claims about Vonnegut’s work, and particularly when he does so in relation to how Vonnegut negotiates the tension between modernist and postmodernist narrative techniques, he still manages to present important insights vis-à-vis Vonnegut’s paradoxical politics. For example, in his chapter on Vonnegut’s most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, Tally draws extensively on Nietzsche’s theory of the “eternal return”—the idea that a finite universe exists in infinite time and space and thus must recur ad infinitum—as a key to understanding the novel’s “Tralfamadorian style.” Named after the bizarre alien life forms that abduct the book’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, and display him in a sort of zoo/natural history museum on their home planet Tralfamador, Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorian style is rooted in a cosmological concept that, much like Nietzsche’s eternal return, asserts “all moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist” (Vonnegut 1969, 34). Tralfamadorians experience such simultaneity literally, seeing all time arrayed before them as if it were a mountain chain over which their consciousnesses may range at will. Billy also experiences something approaching this simultaneity after coming “unstuck in time,” and his subsequent and varied shifts between the past, present, and future allow Vonnegut to dispose of linear storytelling and engage in altogether more experimental narrative techniques (29). Armed with Nietzsche’s theory of the eternal return, Tally argues that these techniques, though relying on apparent narrative instability and its associated fragmentation of experience, are actually evidence of Vonnegut’s attempt to achieve a more rigorous realism than that which more conventional narrative forms allow. If reality is determined by an eternal recurrence, as Nietzsche asserts, and all moments in time exist simultaneously, than it only makes sense that Slaughterhouse-Five’s narrative structure move beyond representing the world as if “one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever” (Vonnegut 1969, 34). The novel’s fragmented narrative form thus becomes an exercise in constructing a cosmological unity, with past, present, and future held simultaneously in view and nothing left to slip away beyond our reach. For Tally, this is wholly “characteristic of Vonnegut’s modernism: the need for experimental narrative techniques (such as stream-of-consciousness, collage, time-warps) to do justice to what is really real, something that the older modes of realism were seemingly unable to accomplish. This marks Vonnegut’s wholly modernist view of reality” (78).

Though questions regarding Vonnegut’s narrative techniques may seem to be of limited literary-critical interest, Tally shows how they prove reflective of Vonnegut’s “Tralfamadorian ethics,” an ethics infused with Nietzschean amor fati, or “love of fate,” and one that Tally argues is peculiarly “suited to Vonnegut’s modernist approach to the postmodern condition” (71). Billy’s disillusionment with time as linear phenomenon not only affects the novel’s narrative structure, but it also leads him to accept that which he has no power to change, namely the pervasive reality of death. Billy articulates this acceptance in a letter he writes to the editors of his local newspaper, an example Tally highlights as evidence of his peculiar ethics: “When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes’” (34). The specific context of Billy’s struggle with death is the trauma he experiences after witnessing the American firebombing of Dresden, an event that Vonnegut also witnessed during his military service in World War Two. Hundreds of thousands of German civilians perished during the attack, and Billy’s postwar experiences—including the experience of seeing his son deploy to fight in Vietnam, a detail that provides the immediate political context of this self-professed anti-war novel—are haunted by his memories of the Dresden dead. Slaughterhouse-Five is, to a significant degree, an attempt to grapple with a world in which even those forces that seem most committed to liberty and justice engage in indiscriminate acts of mass murder. Nietzsche’s eternal return, a theory meant to liberate human psychology from the anxiety and resentment bound up in the wish to both alter the past and change an inevitable future, provides Tally with the theoretical means to figure the fatalism expressed in the phrase “So it goes” as the “appropriate response to death, as well as an affirmation of life” (75). It also allows him to synthesize Vonnegut’s style and ethics in such a way as to illuminate the paradox at the core of Vonnegut’s seemingly progressive politics, namely the belief that the world is as it is because it cannot be otherwise.

In what is his most significant contribution to our understanding of Vonnegut’s work, Tally proposes the term “misanthropic humanism” to describe Vonnegut’s cheerful fatalism. Misanthropic humanism is a useful term because it explains how a body of work can seem committed to a radical project for progressive sociopolitical change, while simultaneously holding forth a constant reminder that cruelty, injustice, stupidity, and death are inevitabilities that strike at all in the end. There can be no question that Vonnegut cares deeply about the fate of humanity; his best novels expose the sometimes subtle pathologies that produce unparalleled suffering in the contemporary world, and they do so in such a way as to stir lasting sympathies in his audience. But the humanity Vonnegut cares so deeply about is, in his view, a species with self-destructive tendencies written into its very biology. The notion that human beings function as cells in a social organism, and biologically have to be a certain way, as Vonnegut insists they must in his Playboy interview, underwrites his misanthropic humanism and infuses his fiction with the humor of those destined for the gallows without hope of escape. Indeed, there is no hope for escape precisely because we are human. Tally argues that Vonnegut’s work “shows how human beings themselves are the greatest, indeed perhaps the only, impediment to human freedom and happiness,” and that this circumstance cannot be otherwise because our most debilitating qualities emerge from the inevitable inner-failing of human nature itself (23). Tally has a keen eye for how Vonnegut’s misanthropic humanism manifests itself through nearly every one of his novels, and though his study cannot ultimately resolve the contradiction of a progressive politics that denies the possibility of progress (this is Vonnegut’s failure, not Tally’s), it goes a long way toward clarifying some of the more paradoxical aspects of Vonnegut’s politics.

Vonnegut stresses a pointed view of humanity as innately self-destructive throughout his oeuvre, beginning with his 1952 debut novel Player Piano, and extending into the late stages of his long career (his 1985 novel Galápagos is a good example). Indeed, in ranging over each of Vonnegut’s fourteen novels, Tally reveals the far-reaching ways in which Vonnegut’s work not only highlights humanity’s self-destructive tendencies, but also suggests that human beings lack basic free will. For example, he draws on Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, to illustrate how his fiction “blurs the lines between man and machine, showing not just how humans are being replaced by machines or how machines have dehumanized American society (the ostensible themes of Player Piano), but that humans are themselves machines” (21; my emphasis). Set in a dystopian America in which an automated economy has deprived most people of meaningful work, Player Piano expresses the pervasive sense of corporate, middle-class angst captured most famously by Sloan Wilson’s novel The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1955). However, Vonnegut’s debut differs from most other 1950s novels of its sort by imagining a revolutionary movement that acts to restore power and dignity to a people dispossessed by a technocratic economic-political system. In this regard, Vonnegut’s fiction anticipates sociologist Theodore Roszak’s important study of the New Left’s opposition to technocratic values in his book The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition (1969). Yet unlike those New Left activists motivated by the belief that a better world is possible, Vonnegut has his revolution fail at the very moment of its success. Immediately after Vonnegut’s dissident neo-Luddite zealots smash all the machines, they begin testing their technical know-how by first explaining and then repairing the technology they have just destroyed, thus taking the first step toward reestablishing the technocratic regime that had dispossessed them in the first place. It’s as if they can’t help but undermine their own liberation. In other words, the revolution fails not because it runs up against an implacable, dehumanizing system, but rather because such failure is written into human nature itself.

Vonnegut’s work suggests that such failures are more than political; they are an innate part of human biology, which is hardwired for self-destructive behavior. This belief is what allows Vonnegut to care so deeply about humanity while simultaneously holding it squarely responsible for all of the world’s troubles. Tally makes this point clear when he writes, “Vonnegut sees most people as fundamentally flawed, petty, avaricious, and prone to acts of almost incredible cruelty. Yet, for all that, Vonnegut also cannot abandon humanity; he marvels at man’s folly, noting sadly or just curiously man’s absurd perseverance, as in the bittersweet image of the triumphant Luddites who, at the end of Player Piano, proudly put back together the very machines they had broken. In Galápagos, Vonnegut takes further pity on people, arguing that it was never their fault that they were silly, arrogant, and cruel. It was all due to their grotesquely oversized brains” (131). Absurd as this may sound, Vonnegut’s late novel Galápagos does indeed blame the evolutionary accident that led to our current brain size for everything from predatory economics and war to suicidal thoughts. In fact, the narrative fantasizes a world in which humans, through a dangerous mix of nuclear radiation and natural selection, evolve out of their debilitating brain size and into simpler brains incapable of advanced logical and/or moral reasoning. Only after humanity evolves into a species of seal-like creatures does the world achieve a sense of equilibrium. The joke is more-or-less transparent: we humans, with our advanced cognitive processes and opposable thumbs, our integrated economies and technologized wars, are a far baser lot than the simple-minded creatures splashing along the shores of the Galápagos islands. Better to be an animal than a human being when humans have done so much to degrade the world. But behind Vonnegut’s joke is a pathetic fatalism that holds forth biological evolution as the only feasible solution to the very real problems facing our world. According to this view, humanity will only be relieved of the destruction it visits upon itself and its environment when it ceases to be comprised of humans. A posthuman condition—or as Tally would have it, “a new humanism without the human”—thus becomes the only way to overcome the compelling, though ultimately frustrating misanthropy that infuses Vonnegut’s important body of work (132).

Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel does much to reposition Vonnegut as a major American writer. By approaching Vonnegut’s oeuvre as an integrated postmodern iconography, a strategic project bridging the gap between modernism and postmodernism, Tally reveals Vonnegut to be a serious, deeply imaginative writer whose fictions intervene in major intellectual debates—political and theoretical—that continue to impact contemporary social developments. Tally thus begins to correct the general paucity of scholarship on Vonnegut’s work, and he does so with a critical agility that not only allows him to touch on all of Vonnegut’s major fictions, but also to situate those fictions in relation to American literary history, continental philosophy, modernist and postmodernist aesthetics, and progressive politics. But what stands out most remarkably in this study is Tally’s theory of Vonnegut as misanthropic humanist. In bringing together these two seemingly oppositional terms, Tally lays bare the raison d’être of Vonnegut’s black humor, which is to find a way to embrace a self-degrading humanity that—through inevitable historical forces and biological determinism—cannot do otherwise but construct the mechanisms of its own destruction. Vonnegut’s black humor thus reveals the contours of what I now think of as a politics of comic futility. It’s important to note, however, that despite the fatalism that underwrites Vonnegut’s misanthropic humanism, his novels do struggle against seemingly insurmountable forms of violence and injustice, and they do so while maintaining a cheerful spirit that encourages political engagement even as they dismiss political activism as a quixotic pursuit of the impossible. As Tally notes at the conclusion of his illuminating study, Vonnegut “recognizes the demeanor and comportment best suited for engaging in a project such as he faces, and we face at the end of the American Century, and moving into another, as yet unknown, era. As Nietzsche put it, ‘Maintaining cheerfulness in the midst of a gloomy affair, fraught with immeasurable responsibility, is no small feat; and yet what is needed more than cheerfulness? Nothing succeeds without high spirits having a part in it’” (159).

Micah Robbins is Assistant Professor of English at the American University in Dubai. His work focuses on the intersections between contemporary literature, radical politics, and small press publishing/alternative media, especially as these relate to the cultures of dissent that developed during the Cold War. He is currently revising his book manuscript, Total Assault on the Culture! Radical Satire and the Rhetoric of Liberation. You can learn more about his work at micahrobbins.com.

Notes

1. Tom Hayden et al., “Port Huron Statement,” H-Net, accessed August 19, 2015, http://www.h-net.org/~hst306/documents/huron.html.
2. For more on this ethos and how it diminishes the force of Vonnegut’s satire, see Steven Weisenburger, Fables of Subversion: Satire and the American Novel, 1930-1980 (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 176.
3. Kurt Vonnegut, interviewed by David Standish, “Playboy Interview,” in Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut, ed. William Rodney Allen (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988), 76-77.

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