The Eternal Sophomore

Kurt Vonnegut is dead. So it goes. Scott McLemee gets unstuck in time.

April 18, 2007

“It has been my experience with literary critics and academics in this country,” wrote Kurt Vonnegut in an essay published in 1981, “that clarity looks a lot like laziness and childishness and cheapness to them. Any idea which can be grasped immediately is for them, by definition, something they knew all the time. So it is with literary experimentation, too. If a literary experiment works like a dream, is easy to read and enjoy, the experimenter is a hack. The only way to get full credit as a fearless experimenter is to fail and fail.”

The anger in that statement had been building up for at least a couple of decades. Much of Vonnegut’s early work was classified as science fiction – a filing-cabinet drawer that, as he once put it, academics tended to confuse with a urinal. He was later discovered by people who didn't read science fiction, and most of his books stayed in print. But that just meant he had failed to fail, so the charge of being a hack was still in the air.

In some respects, though, his complaints were already out of date when he made them; for by the early 1980s, there was already a scholarly industry in Vonnegut criticism. It now runs to some three dozen books, not to mention more journal articles than anyone would want to count.

During the original wave of speculation on postmodernism during the 1960s and early ‘70s – when that notion was relatively untheoretical, a label applied to emergent literary tendencies more than the name for some vast cultural problematic – it was very often the work of Kurt Vonnegut that people had in mind as an exemplary instance. Parataxis, metafiction, blurring of the distinction between mass-culture genres and modernistic formal experimentation -- all of this, you found in Vonnegut. His novels were chemically pure samples of the postmodern condition.

And then came the definitive moment documenting Vonnegut’s place in the literary curriculum: the film "Back to School" (1986), in which the author had a cameo role.

In that landmark work, as you may recall, Rodney Dangerfield played Thornton Mellon, a millionaire who returns to college for the educational opportunities involved in partying with coeds in bikinis. When an English professor assigns a paper on Vonnegut’s fiction, Dangerfield hires the novelist himself to write the analysis. The paper receives a failing grade. (Someone in Hollywood must be a fan of Northrop Frye, who once said that whatever else one might say about Wordsworth’s preface to the Lyrical Ballads, as a piece of Wordsworth criticism it only merited a B plus.)

Given such clear evidence of canonization, it was a surprise to notice that a couple of friends responded to the news of Vonnegut’s death last week with slightly embarrassed sadness. Both are graduate students in the humanities. One called his novels a “guilty pleasure.” Another mentioned how much Vonnegut’s work had meant to him “even if he’s not considered that great or serious a writer.”

I suspect that such feelings about Vonnegut are pretty widespread -- that the shelves of secondary literature don’t really quell a certain ambivalence among readers who feel both deep affection for his work combined with a certain keen nervousness about his cultural status. Unfortunately Vonnegut did not make things any easier by publishing so many novels that devolved into self-parody. If he had quit after Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five, the ratio of wheat to chaff in his fiction would be much more favorable.

But the ambivalence itself is not, I think, a response to the uneven quality of his work -- nor even the product of some misguided notion that a funny author can’t be taken seriously. Rather, the problem may be that Vonnegut is an author one tends to discover in adolescence. Defensiveness about the attachment one feel to his work is, in part, a matter of wanting to protect the part of oneself that seemed to come into being upon first reading him. “I deal with sophomoric questions that full adults regard as settled,” he told an interviewer once.

He had, for example, a large capacity for facing brute contingency as part of human existence. A great deal of life is chance. (The fact that you were born, for example. Think how arbitrary that is.) And much of the rest of life consists of learning to evade that truth – walling it off, away from consciousness, because otherwise the reality of it would be too hard to fathom. Instead, we throw ourselves into fictions of power and belonging: nationalism, militarism, religion, the acquisition of cool stuff. These are ways to contain both the vulnerability before chance and the terrors of loneliness. In Vonnegut’s understanding of the world, loneliness is a fundamental part of human experience that became much, much worse in the United States, somehow, during the second half of the twentieth century – with no particular reason to think it will get better anytime soon.

As contributions to the cultural history of mankind, such thoughts are pretty small beer. On the other hand, just try to escape their implications. To call a point simple is the cheapest and least effective means of gainsaying it.

On Monday, at about the time I sat writing that paragraph about chance and terror and helplessness, someone was walking around a university campus shooting people at random. This was a coincidence. It was chance. That thought is no comfort. As one of the Tralfamidorians says in Slaughterhouse Five: “Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.” So it goes.

Vonnegut (who once called himself “a Christ-worshiping agnostic”) drew from the ground truth of existential terror a moral conclusion that it made sense to try to love your neighbor as yourself – or at least to treat other people with radical decency. This sounds simplistic until you actually try doing it.

He was a socialist in the old Midwestern tradition best expressed in a famous statement by Eugene Debs that went: "Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free." Quoting that was about as close to a theoretical statement as Vonnegut ever got. The rest of his outlook he regarded as common sense.

“Everything I believe,” he said, “I was taught in junior civics during the Great Depression – at School 43 in Indianapolis, with full approval of the school board. School 43 wasn’t a radical school. American was an idealistic, pacifistic nation at that time. I was taught in the sixth grade to be proud that we had a standing Army of just over a hundred thousand men and that the generals has nothing to say about what was done in Washington. I was taught to be proud of that and to pity Europe for having more than a million men under arms and spending all their money on airplanes and tanks. I simply never unlearned junior civics. I still believe in it. I got a very good grade.”

Someone with such attitudes must necessarily be an anachronism, of course, and anachronisms tend to be either funny or sad. His books, at their best, were both. A few of them will survive because they hold those qualities in such beautiful proportion. “Laughter,” as Vonnegut once put it, “is a response to frustration, just as tears are, and it solves nothing, just as tears solve nothing. Laughter or crying is what a human being does when there’s nothing else he can do.”


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