Why Should We Read Kurt Vonnegut? An Animated Video Makes the Case

Beneath Kurt Vonnegut’s grim, absur­dist humor beat the heart of a human­ist, but not, by any stretch, an opti­mist. Von­negut looked bale­ful­ly at every project intend­ed to improve the sor­ry state of human affairs. In Play­er Piano, for exam­ple, he imag­ines a future very much like that envi­sioned for us by our con­tem­po­rary tech­no­crat­ic elite: near­ly all work has been auto­mat­ed and the mass of unem­ployed are giv­en a mod­est stipend for their liv­ing and fun­neled into what anthro­pol­o­gist David Grae­ber might call “bull­shit jobs.”

“Final­ly,” Ed O’Loughlin writes at The Irish Times, “Vonnegut’s non-tech pro­les rise up against the machines that have per­verse­ly enslaved them, smash­ing all that they can find. For Von­negut, ever the pes­simist, this is not a hap­py end­ing; the rev­o­lu­tion runs out of steam, col­laps­es inter­nal­ly, and the remain­ing rebels go hap­pi­ly to work in the wreck­age of their strug­gle, eager­ly repair­ing the machines that they destroyed them­selves.” This bleak satire can seem almost upbeat next to the fatal­ism of his most famous nov­el, Slaugh­ter­house-Five.

In this book, Von­negut uses an alien race called the Tralfamado­ri­ans to illus­trate the idea that “all moments—past, present, and future—always have exist­ed… always will exist,” as the Mia Naca­mul­li-script­ed TED-Ed ani­ma­tion above explains. The aliens keep the novel’s hero, Bil­ly Pil­grim, in a human zoo, where they patient­ly explain to him the inevitabil­i­ty of all things, includ­ing the bomb­ing of Dres­den, an event Von­negut per­son­al­ly sur­vived, “only to be sent into the ruins as prison labor,” notes Paul Har­ris at The Guardian, “in order to col­lect and burn the corpses.”

To say that Von­negut, who once worked as a press writer for Gen­er­al Elec­tric, was skep­ti­cal of sci­en­tif­ic plans for man­ag­ing nature, human or oth­er­wise, would be a major under­state­ment. As he watched GE sci­en­tists embark on a project for con­trol­ling the weath­er (while the company’s “mil­i­tary col­lab­o­ra­tors have more aggres­sive plans in mind”), Von­negut began to demand “an answer to one of science’s great­est eth­i­cal ques­tions,” writes WNYC: “are sci­en­tists respon­si­ble for the pur­suit of knowl­edge alone, or are they also respon­si­ble for the con­se­quences of that knowl­edge?”

The ques­tion becomes even more com­pli­cat­ed if we accept the premise that the future is fore­or­dained, but with­out the inter­ven­tion of all-see­ing aliens, there is no reli­able way for us to pre­dict it. Vonnegut’s expe­ri­ences at GE formed the basis of his 1963 nov­el Cat’s Cra­dle, in which a mil­i­tary tech­nol­o­gy called Ice-nine ends up freez­ing all of the world’s oceans and bring­ing on cat­a­clysmic storms. Cat’s Cra­dle’s char­ac­ters sur­vive by adopt­ing a reli­gion in which they tell them­selves and oth­ers delib­er­ate lies, and by so doing, invent a kind of mean­ing in the midst of hope­less­ness.

Von­negut stressed the impor­tance of con­tin­gency, of “grow­ing where you’re plant­ed,” so to speak. The best options for his char­ac­ters involve car­ing for the peo­ple who just hap­pen to be around. “We are here to help each oth­er through this thing,” he wrote, “what­ev­er it is.” That last phrase is not an eva­sion; the com­plex­i­ties of the uni­verse are too much for humans to grasp, Von­negut thought. Our attempts to cre­ate sta­ble truths and certainties—whether through abstract in-group iden­ti­ties or grand tech­no­log­i­cal designs—seem bound to cause expo­nen­tial­ly more suf­fer­ing than they solve.

Von­negut may have achieved far more acclaim in his life­time than his con­tem­po­rary Philip K. Dick, but he felt sim­i­lar­ly neglect­ed by the “lit­er­ary estab­lish­ment,” Har­ris writes. “They inter­pret­ed his sim­plis­tic style, love of sci­ence fic­tion and Mid­west­ern val­ues as being beneath seri­ous study.” (See, for exam­ple the 1969 New York Times review of Slaugh­ter­house-Five.) But per­haps even more than the peren­ni­al­ly rel­e­vant Dick, Vonnegut’s work speaks to us of our cur­rent predica­ment, and offers, if not opti­mism, at least a very lim­it­ed form of hope, in our capac­i­ty to “help each through this thing,” what­ev­er it is.

If you want to ful­ly immerse your­self in Von­negut’s body of work, the Library of Amer­i­ca has cre­at­ed a box set that con­tains all 14 nov­els plus a selec­tion of the best of his sto­ries.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Kurt Von­negut Offers 8 Tips on How to Write Good Short Sto­ries (and Amus­ing­ly Graphs the Shapes Those Sto­ries Can Take)

Kurt Von­negut Maps Out the Uni­ver­sal Shapes of Our Favorite Sto­ries

Kurt Von­negut Cre­ates a Report Card for His Nov­els, Rank­ing Them From A+ to D

Hear Kurt Von­negut Read Slaugh­ter­house-Five, Cat’s Cra­dle & Oth­er Nov­els

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • Christopher Miller says:

    I always try to find how Von­negut is con­sid­ered a pes­simist. His mes­sage is a human­ist vision of a world where peo­ple take care of each oth­er like Mr. Rose­wa­ter does.

  • JV says:

    I agree, I don’t find Von­negut to be a pes­simist. Rather, I think he’s real­is­tic about human ambi­tion and lim­i­ta­tions. In the end, love is all you need, is basi­cal­ly what he’s say­ing.

  • Alison says:

    Too bad about that lost syl­la­ble in Bokonon­ism. So it goes.

  • David Ewers says:

    I must know what you mean.

  • Wayne says:

    I agree with Ali­son about “Bokon­ism,” and I don’t pro­nounce “karass” the way the nar­ra­tor does. As for whether Von­negut was an opti­mist or a pes­simist, he claimed to be both at dif­fer­ent times through­out his life, so it’s not true that he was “not, by any stretch, an opti­mist.” I hope that, despite these mis­steps, the video and text encour­age new Von­negut read­ers.

  • Justin says:

    Bas­ing any assump­tion about Von­negut pure­ly on his nov­els alone is not see­ing the entire pic­ture of the man. Sure­ly, he is one of the most overt­ly auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal fic­tion writ­ers; after all, many of his expe­ri­ences and ideas about the world bleed into his fic­tion. How­ev­er, all you need to do is look to his speech­es and essays to know that he was less pes­simistic about the world than a lot of peo­ple make him out to be. He has a sar­don­ic tone, obvi­ous­ly, but it’s a brand of humor that is attempt­ing to make peo­ple laugh in the face of a cru­el world (see Bokonon’s note at the end of Cat’s Cra­dle). Thus, it seems to me that Von­negut would believe that you need to laugh at the absur­di­ty of the world in order to sur­vive it, and, of course, you should­n’t take every­thing so seri­ous­ly.

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