Friday, April 13, 2007

Vonnegut, Anti-Nihilist

Peter Lawler has noted that I "heart" Vonnegut, and has raised the serious question over whether Vonnegut - while certainly a great articulator of modern loneliness - was at base a nihilist who couldn't articulate what made us "lonely" and wasn't able to speak about what was to be done.

Peter raises a legitimate question, and there is much in Vonnegut that might lead one to conclude he was a nihilist (his experience in Dresden - a prisoner of war during the firebombing - was certainly as defining for him as Oliver Wendell Holmes's experience of the Civil War). Yet, I would contend not only was Vonnegut not a nihilist, but that he was remarkably Lawlerian in his outlook and conclusions.

Let me refer to an address he delivered to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1971, and which is collected in the volume "Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons" (173-181). In that address he speaks of his brief period of graduate work at the University of Chicago, and of his encounter with the cultural anthropologist Robert Redfield. One of Redfield's articles - "The Folk Society," published in the "American Journal of Sociology," 52 (1947): 293-308 - was formative in Vonnegut's thought. This is how Vonnegut summarized Redfield's article:

"[Redfield] acknowledged that primitive societies were bewilderingly various. He begged us to admit, though, that all of them had certain characteristics in common. For instance: they were so small that everybody knew everyone well, and associations lasted for a lifetime. The members communicated intimately with one another, and very little with anyone else....

"I say to you we are full of chemicals which require us to belong to folk socieites, or, failing that, to feel lousy all the time. We are chemically engineered to live in folk societies, just as fish are chemically engineered to live in clean water - and there aren't any folk societies for us any more.

"How lucky you are to be here today, for I can explain everything. Sigmund Freud admitted that he did not know what women wanted. I know what they want. Cosmopolitan magazine says that they want orgasms, which can only be a partial answer at best. Here is what women really want: they want to live in folk societies, wherein everyone is a friendly relative, and no act or object is without holiness. Chemicals make them want that. Chemicals make us all want that.

"Chemicals make us furious when we are treated as things rather than persons. When anything happens to us which would not happen to us in a folk society, our chemicals make us feel like fish out of water. Our chemicals demand that we get back into the water again. If we become increasingly wild and preposterous in modern times - well, so do fish on river banks, for awhile.

"If we become increasingly apathetic in modern times - well, so do fish on river banks, after awhile. Our children often come to resemble apathetic fish - except that fish can't play guitars. And what do many of our children attempt to do? They attempt to form folk societies, which they call "communes." They fail. The generation gap is an argument between those who belive folk societies are still possible and those who know they aren't" (178-179).

Vonnegut argues that we moderns are lonely and restless because of nature: it is our nature to live in certain kinds of societies, and our modern loneliness stems from the fact that modernity has extirpated those societies (in Player Piano, Vonnegut turned to the American extermination of Indian culture as an example of this - an argument that has been recently revisited by Jonathan Lear in his book "Radical Hope," which itself received a noteworthy review by Charles Taylor in the most recent issue of "The New York Review of Books"). Vonnegut's understanding of the human creature possessing a nature that inclines it to live best in certain kinds of settings resembles Aristotle, not Nietzsche.

Now, some of this is not much different than many romantic fantasies about our lost golden past - Rousseau comes to mind - but Vonnegut, notice, recognizes that grown-ups must acknowledge that there is no going back. Much of what he writes seeks to resist the romantic urge either to withdraw into isolation, on the one hand, or to seek to remake the world in its own image, on the other (i.e., Vonnegut disagrees with Rousseau, and many communitarians). Vonnegut commends "granfalloons" - artificial and otherwise meaningless groups that help give us a sense of belonging, and inculcate a spirit of community - rather than any kind of effort to make the world anew. My favorite example of this is described in "Slapstick": in order to make us "Lonesome no More," the President assigns every American a new middle name and subsequently every American receives a phone book with every other American who shares that new middle name. Presto - instant extended family. Yes, the recommendation is absurd. But, our homelessness can't be addressed "logically": it was the logic of modernity that made us particularly lonely. And, when I was suggeting a few weeks ago that "guvment" will need to be part of the cure, it was in part with Vonnegut's kind of piecemeal "policy" in mind, not the wholesale remaking of the modern project.

Vonnegut doesn't allow us easy answers. His fiction and essays suggest that it is also our nature to supercede our nature. In his novel Galapagos, he wrote that it was because of our big brain and our opposable thumb that we humans have made ourselves so miserable. Technology is a big part of the problem - especially technology that seeks to get us out of our misery by making ourselves completely equal ("Harrison Bergeron") or completely free of our bodies ("Unready to Wear") or immortal ("Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow" - all short stories in "Welcome to the Monkey House"). It's our nature to want to live in folk societies, and our nature to devise ways to get out of them. Perhaps Vonnegut's was always a basic teaching, but an important one, one that we have a tendency to forget or ignore (especially because we believe our opposable thumb and big brain will get us out of whatever mess they get us into), and above all, one that resists any easy dismissal as fundamentally nihilist.


Russell Arben Fox said...


You may have received the e-mail I sent this out as part of, but just in case you didn't, one quick note: I must take issue with your lumping of Rousseau in with "romantic fantasists," unless I misunderstand your point. My reading of Rousseau is that he didn't think we could ever get back to nature, and that therefore the project of the general will was a bit of a "granfalloon" itself: not a "universal" solution to the human condition, but a culturally specific and thus "general" attempt to eliminate, for a while, the affects of dependency, and thus recover real freedom and equality. A romantic and communitarian project, to be sure, but not necessarily, I think, one involving a remaking of the world.

Anyway, fine comments on Vonnegut. He is one of the many authors whom, once I have the time someday to read fiction more often, I must re-acquaint myself with.

Patrick Deneen said...

Russell, I agree that Rousseau doesn't believe that one can simply "go back" to an idyllic golden age. I named him more as a representative thinker who, in various guises, thinks about either "remaking" humankind - at least suggesting the possiblity in that passage of the "Social Contract" in which the Legislator is said to "change human nature itself, as it were." This is NOT what Vonnegut meant by granfalloon, to be sure (A good example of a granfalloon is the category "Hoosier" - hardly a remade humanity). Alternatively, Rousseau elsewhere sympathetically portrayed an idyllic family-based commune (in "The Nouvelle Heloise") or argued on behalf of thoroughgoing withdrawal and isolation in "Reveries of a Solitary Walker." While I concur that Rousseau was one of the great diagnosticians of the dislocation and even alienation of the modern age, I find his "solutions" to be utterly "romantic."