All Too Human: On Kurt Vonnegut’s Legacy
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Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel : A Postmodern Iconography
author: Robert T. Tally Jr.
publisher: Continuum Literary Studies
pub date: 10.13.2011
pp: 208
tags: Literary Criticism

Wilson Taylor and Matthew Gannon on Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel : A Postmodern Iconography

All Too Human: On Kurt Vonnegut’s Legacy

February 27th, 2014 reset - +

KURT VONNEGUT first exploded into the nation’s consciousness in 1969 with the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five. The novel’s distinctive and ethical voice resonated with young Americans, and his appeal to countercultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s made him a reluctant literary celebrity. Absurdist novels such as Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions offered new ways of thinking about the self, the nation, and the world, and Vonnegut’s avuncular wisdom and anti-war sentiment appealed to the skeptical idealism of late-century America. Even as his celebrity waned, he continued to write poignant, experimental novels of the American experience, and his influence and appeal remained potent.

Although he quietly shelved his fiction career with 1997’s Timequake, Vonnegut’s appeal to youth crested for a second time around the new millennium. As disillusionment with the banal hegemony of neoliberalism spread, his biting criticisms of the United States and the Bush Administration, published in In These Times and collected in 2004’s A Man Without a Country, re-established the satirist as a leading political voice for a new generation. Vonnegut’s distinctive blend of cynicism and sincerity, and his heartbroken paeans for a more just world, helped ensure that his literary and political views resonated anew.

His death in 2007 precipitated a third wave of popular and critical attention. His books have been re-released with whimsical new covers, and collections of previously unpublished work have further expanded his corpus. Several popular biographies have been released since his death (most notably Charles Shield’s exhaustive So It Goes and Greg Sumner’s Unstuck in Time), as well as an acclaimed and comprehensive collection of letters. His recent canonization by the Library of America underscores the endurance of his wit and wisdom.

Readers and scholars have also resurrected Vonnegut as a critical and literary subject, placing greater emphasis on more abstract and theoretical aspects of his work. Robert T. Tally, Jr., has helped lead this critical reassessment with his Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel: A Postmodern Iconography, which deftly places Vonnegut in conversation with literary theory, continental philosophy, and contours of American literature. While anti-theory sentiments persist in the academic study of Vonnegut, Tally’s invigorating study enriches Vonnegut through a discussion of indispensible thinkers as diverse as Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus, Adorno and Horkheimer, Deleuze and Guattari, Lacan, and Fredric Jameson. Tally offers a refreshingly rigorous consideration of Vonnegut, and a rare work of criticism that opens the source material to a variety of hermeneutics. (His work also dovetails nicely with our own work at The Vonnegut Review, which tries to underscore the literary, cultural, and political richness of Vonnegut’s writing.)

Though Tally proposes many specific interpretations of Vonnegut's novels, his ultimate motive is to lay the broad foundation for ongoing critical studies of Vonnegut. To lay this foundation, Tally uses critical theory and continental philosophy (including existentialism, phenomenology, absurdism, the Frankfurt School, psychoanalysis, and post-structuralism) to interpret Vonnegut. Secondly, Tally argues something that readers have intuited for decades — that Vonnegut's writing itself is made from the same stuff as critical theory. In his interrogation of society, structural critique of the political status quo, evocations of alternate political, social, and psychological possibilities, and absurdist and existential imagination, Vonnegut interrogates culture, society, existence, and the American condition.

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Tally elevates Vonnegut’s diverse corpus as an attempt to “register the nation’s shifting and evanescent identity,” which he likens as a pursuit of that white whale of American letters, the “great American novel.” Vonnegut attempts to “provide a comprehensive image of American experience in the postmodern condition of the late 20th century.” Vonnegut emerges in this account as a “reluctant postmodernist” and a “misanthropic humanist.”

Central to Tally’s reading is Nietzsche’s elegant rejoinder, “human, all too human,” which he views as an absurdist and existential touchstone for Vonnegut’s sensibility. Vonnegut’s Nietzschean sensibilities are visible, Tally argues, in the author’s evocation of the “failed promise of modernism,” where “Vonnegut’s existentialism unfolds into a critique of modernity itself.” With Nietzsche’s existentialist aphorism as a foundation, Tally traces the twin sensibilities of the “reluctant postmodernist” and “misanthropic humanist” through his fourteen novels, weaving a broad narrative of Vonnegut’s distinctive blend of hope and despair.

Tally suggests that Vonnegut’s early novels attempt, but ultimately fail, to overcome this misanthropic despair, creating a need for near-utopian resolution that he would spend decades seeking. By the penultimate chapter of his book, “Apocalypse in the Optative Mood,” Tally finds such resolution in one of Vonnegut’s later novels, Galápagos. That novel imagines a post-human paradise, where humanity, forever victim to their “grotesquely oversized brains,” evolves into a seal-like creature “at peace with nature.” Tally considers Galápagos to be a “great cosmic joke, the Hegelian ruse of history writ large.” More fundamentally, though, Galápagos is the “apotheosis” of Vonnegut’s novels, in which the author’s humanism supersedes his misanthropy, ironically only after the extinction of humanity. Vonnegut “liberates himself from his misanthropic humanism” and completes his “lifelong project of bringing sense to the nonsense of postmodern American life.” However, Tally argues that Vonnegut “negates” this optimistic narrative through his “open-ended coda” of Vonnegut’s final pair of novels, Hocus Pocus and Timequake, where the wreckage of the modern and postmodern subsumes any transcendent vision of the (all too) human.

Tally’s Vonnegut is a modernist in a postmodernist’s clothing, channeling a modernist sensibility through a postmodern hermeneutic. This version of Vonnegut is riddled with self-conscious contradictions: a “modernist in the postmodern condition,” “a poetic modernist in a most prosaic postmodernity,” an “atheistic religious nut,” and a “reluctant postmodernist” interrogating the “ungraspable phantom” of the American condition. In the quintessentially American tradition of Whitman, Tally’s Vonnegut contains multitudes.

Vonnegut speaks to an “unresolved tension” between modernism and postmodernism. Central to his modernist sensibility is a utopian impulse, which can be read through his entire corpus. Vonnegut “remains a modernist who desires a form of completeness and semic stability that remains elusive,” Tally writes. “The modernist eulogizes a lost home, community, or prelapsarian status.” From the failed revolution of Player Piano (Vonnegut’s debut novel), through the overt Thoreauvian yearnings of The Sirens of Titan, the idealist communitarian politics of Slapstick, and the post-human paradise of Galápagos, Vonnegut’s desire to reclaim Eden motivates his humanistic vision. Vonnegut’s fictions, which “bemoaning the fragmentation of what was once whole,” express a modernist hope for transcendence.

This urge toward completeness, however, is undercut by Vonnegut’s postmodern visions and imaginations. “Like the rest of us, he has had postmodernity thrust upon him.” Tally attests that Vonnegut’s literary project is to construct a “postmodern iconography” of contemporary America, reflected through what T. S. Eliot refers to as a “heap of broken images.” Indeed, Vonnegut describes his bizarre and sublime novel Breakfast of Champions as a “sidewalk strewn with junk,” and terms his own literary style “telegraphic schizophrenic,” a term employed to communicate his skepticism toward the coherence of time, the reliability of narrative, and the efficacy of the subject.

Tally suggests that Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s most successful attempt at “fulfilling the modernist project of representing and re-integrating the fragmentary, perhaps chaotic, pieces of culture.” Identifying Vonnegut’s masterpiece as “a book of retrospection,” Tally suggests that Vonnegut attempts to construct a humanistic ethic based on the Nietzschean concept of eternal recurrence. Slaughterhouse-Five is a meditation on the indeterminate human awash in the fickle currents of time, history, and fate. Billy Pilgrim’s temporal spasticity, his peculiar quality of being “unstuck in time,” signifies the unmoored self in modernity. Slaughterhouse-Five, which Vonnegut identifies as a “failure,” attempts to establish an “ethical affirmation of life” through the modernist novel. Vonnegut’s narrative — his experiments with time, space, collage, metafiction — attempts to produce what the Tralfamadorians (an alien species from that novel) describe as “an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep.”

Vonnegut’s “telegraphic schizophrenic novel,” then, offers a resolute defense of the human even as it deconstructs the notion of the self. What Vonnegut returns to, in his exploration of eternal recurrence and Tralfamadorian ethics, is what Nietzsche refers to as amor fati, or the love of fate. Amidst the terror of history and the trauma of war, Vonnegut, yearning to recover a lost wholeness, shores up the ruins of modernity in the fragments of narrative.

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Amidst these ruins of modernity, according to Tally, Vonnegut recovers the wholeness he so desperately seeks. This wholeness is not found in escapist imaginings of pristine worlds waiting to be discovered, but, fittingly, it is through the act of writing — through the construction of narratives — that we find redemption. Through literary narrative, Vonnegut transmutes an acute sense of the absurd into a transcendent affirmation of human life. Ambitiously trying to synthesize a theory of the novel from Vonnegut’s literature, Tally discovers within Vonnegut’s writing a Nietzschean desire to return.

This accounts for the recurrence of certain key historical events and characters that return as motifs within novels and even from novel to novel. While Vonnegut’s fiction is often fragmented, non-linear, and metafictional, it is also anchored by such unchangeable moments as the 1945 firebombing of Dresden, the atomic bomb, and other prominent political and social crises of the20th century.

This process of rearticulating objective moments in time through the subjectivity of fiction is a literary version of Nietzsche’s amor fati and eternal return. Writing is itself an affirmation of life. Vonnegut’s iconography is thus simultaneously an embrace and a powerful critique of our postmodern existence. By allowing readers and writers to return to the past, contemplate the future, and freely associate between objective reality and subjectively lived experience, “the novel embodies an ethos that allows Vonnegut to cope with postmodern American life while also encouraging one to become what one is.” The coherence of narrative helps us navigate our increasingly incoherent lives. Vonnegut’s literary strategy is one of displacement and alienation, and his use of irony and fragmentation serves to jostle his readers into a new consciousness. Thus, he often relies on what Bertolt Brecht named the Verfremdungseffekt, or estrangement effect.

For Tally, the novel is a work of ethics in which “the ethical affirmation of life is thus tied to the ethos of writing, of the novel as form itself” because writing forces us to eternally return to ourselves. We can distance ourselves from the self through fiction, but through writing we necessarily confront the self. The forms a cycle that generates its own ethics by providing meaning and making sense of how we ought to be. Tally argues that in novelist form, “One’s life becomes a story, one that may be told and retold in numerous ways, over and over.” Nietzsche’s amor fati becomes a theory of aesthetics, what Tally describes as “an ethical program rooted in the absolute affirmation of life.”

In this light Vonnegut’s magnum opus Slaughterhouse-Five adopts new, even heroic dimensions. The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, rudely unstuck in time, whisked from one moment in his life to the next, is forced eternally to confront his life. Slaughterhouse-Five is, of course, quasi-autobiographical. In its preface, Vonnegut acknowledges that it is his attempt to come to terms with his haunted memories of being a POW in Nazi Germany. He compares the pain of looking back at the destruction of Dresden to that of Lot’s wife, who God turns into a pillar of salt. She was told not to look back at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, “But she did look back, and I love her for that,” writes Vonnegut, “because it was so human.” So it goes. “People aren't supposed to look back,” he admits. But Vonnegut too looked back, eternally. Slaughterhouse-Five, he writes, “was written by a pillar of salt.” And that is why Vonnegut’s novels are so vital. As Nietzsche writes in The Birth of Tragedy, “our highest dignity lies in our significance as works of art — for only as aesthetic phenomenon is existence and the world eternally justified.”

Vonnegut finds redemptive potential in narrative in the same way that Nietzsche found redemption in embracing life in the eternal return. Despite their labyrinthine structures, Vonnegut’s novels often arrive at coherent narrative resolutions. Much of Vonnegut’s writings, Tally posits, “for all its formal weirdness, is rather traditional.” The point of storytelling, he reminds us, is to “rearrange the chaos of our lives and put it into some meaningful order, if only temporarily and provisionally.” Vonnegut’s ultimate adherence to narrative form tempers his disjointed pastiche style, and his “postmodern iconography” is truly misanthropically humanist and only reluctantly postmodern. Like Hamlet, Vonnegut lived in a time out of joint and sought to put it right.

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Among Tally’s keenest insights into Vonnegut’s underlying philosophy is the underdeveloped and underappreciated concept of the granfallon. This term is one of the many that arose from Vonnegut’s invented religion of Bokonism from his 1963 apocalyptic novel Cat’s Cradle. The granfalloon is defined almost exclusively in negative terms, usually contrasted with the more favored karass. A karass, the narrator of Cat’s Cradle explains, is a “team” designed to “do God's Will without ever discovering what they are doing.” Such teams are structured around a central object invested with meaning, like the Holy Grail (an example Vonnegut was fond of) or the fictional substance ice-nine from Cat’s Cradle. Whereas a karass is designed to do God’s will, a granfalloon is a group of people deluded into thinking they are bound together by divine intervention or cosmic importance. A granfalloon, as Vonnegut wrote in his 1974 book of essays Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons, is “a proud and meaningless association of human beings.” His examples include such proud and meaningless groups as Hoosiers, the General Electric Company, and “any nation, anytime, anywhere.”

Tally explores the concept of the granfalloon — what he identifies as “the single most important concept that Kurt Vonnegut introduced to the world,” — as a necessary fiction that allows people to define themselves socially and ontologically. Tally celebrates the granfalloon, which some readers mistakenly interpret negatively, “because it is not real, precisely because it is an artificial, manmade grouping, with all the failings that things of such construction inevitably have.” The entire invented religion of Bokononism is based on foma, or harmless untruths, and Cat’s Cradle begins with the paradoxical epigraph, “Nothing in this book is true.” The Book of Bokonon, the foundational text of that fictional religion, asserts “Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.” Tally explains that “the granfalloon, by being an entirely human and not divine form of teamwork, is actually more critical to the work of coping with life.” In Vonnegut’s ironic and self-aware religion of Bokononism, the apparent truth of the karass belies its falsity, where the obvious fiction of the granfalloon underscores its paradoxical authenticity. The realization that existence is meaningless allows us the space in which to create meaning, and, in Vonnegut’s Nietzschean blend of aesthetic existentialism, meaning must be actively cultivated. Vonnegut’s career exemplifies Sartre’s dictum that existentialism is a humanism, in which doubt and despair foster creation and meaning. This is why Tally claims that the novel, a pinnacle of creative writing, embodies the existential affirmation of life, as well as why the granfalloon trumps the karass. Consider Sisyphus, forever damned to climb the mountaintop of cosmic time, and Camus’s exhortation that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy” as he nurtures his self-hood and existential meaning despite his burden. Likewise, one must imagine Billy Pilgrim happy.

Tally notes that we live in what Georg Lukács described as “a world abandoned by God.” In the face of a world that invites nihilism — something to which postmodernism can succumb — Vonnegut insists we “live by the foma that makes [us] brave and kind and healthy and happy.” Rather than falling into ennui, Vonnegut compels his characters and readers into “participating in a collective project with the aim of understanding the meaningless immensities of the world.” Tally favorably likens Vonnegut to Herman Melville, particularly through his leviathan of Moby-Dick. Both authors explore the shifting American identity from a cosmopolitan perspective and portray a relentless “quest for community, even as the quest involves the destruction of the world through the desire for knowledge of it.” (Ishmael may be as much an ancestor to Vonnegut as Twain.) The Sirens of Titan is illustrative of this Melvillean outlook, as after the banal revelation of humanity’s insignificance sets in, the characters have the existential space to carve out a liberating existence. They shed the truths they have been indoctrinated with and cultivate their own harmless untruths. “A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it,” one character muses, “is to love whoever is around to be loved.” This sentiment perfectly captures the essence of the granfalloon, and Tally’s critical resurrection of Vonnegut is also an attempt to carve out and share such an existential space that, in accordance with Vonnegut’s sensibility, aspires to joy.

Granfalloons, Tally writes, are “happily established through the human, all-too-human relations that make life so dreadfully messy and painful and wonderful and worthwhile all at once.” Such all-too-human relations are the core subject matter of Vonnegut’s literary effort to survey and synthesize modern and postmodern American experience. The granfalloonery at work in Vonnegut’s writing also spurs this latest wave of critical interest in Vonnegut. In the 21st century, we must approach Vonnegut with equal doses of admiration, critical intrigue, and irreverence in order to engage what Tally calls “harmless granfalloonery,” or self-conscious and communal creativity for constructive purposes. He likens harmless granfalloonery to a poignant passage from Nietzsche’s The Twilight of the Idols: “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.” Tally exemplifies this cheerful and harmless granfalloonery while applying the highest levels of theoretical rigor in his efforts to understand Vonnegut’s postmodern iconography. Through his efforts, he uncovers the beloved author's lasting influence on contemporary critical thought and American identity.

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Matthew Gannon is a writer and critic from Rhode Island (@ragpicker_poet).

Wilson Taylor is a writer and teacher (@wilsonltaylor).

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