The Vonnegut Encyclopedia – Revised and updated edition now available

The Vonnegut Encyclopedia by Marc Leeds, an invaluable reference for Vonnegut fans, has been published by Delacorte Press in a new updated edition.  To celebrate, we’re reposting a 2015 interview with Leeds, who spoke with The Daily Vonnegut about the Encyclopedia and his relationship with KV.

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The Vonnegut Encyclopedia: An Interview with Marc Leeds  

The Vonnegut Encyclopedia by Marc Leeds (Forward by Kurt Vonnegut) is a monumental achievement.   First published in 1995, the Encyclopedia is a comprehensive and descriptive catalog of the themes, characters, phrasing, and imagery found in Vonnegut’s work. For long-time Vonnegut readers, spending time with Leeds’ book is akin to visiting a museum of KV’s fictional world. Looking for insight into the major novels? Leeds has it covered, but he also includes entries on lesser-known characters like Virgil Greathouse and Daniel McCone along with real-life connections like Phoebe Hurty, the Indianapolis Times columnist for whom Vonnegut dedicated Breakfast of Champions. Over 600 pages in length, Leeds travels through every nook and cranny of the Vonnegut universe; flipping through the pages, one becomes “unstuck” in Vonnegut’s work, bouncing through the entries, from the earliest short stories to Vonnegut’s final novel Timequake.

Although difficult to find (used copies on Amazon can fetch hundreds of dollars—my own copy rivalled my car payment!) the Encyclopedia is a must-have for scholars and fans alike. Fortunately Leeds will be releasing a revised version later this year.

The Daily Vonnegut spoke with Leeds about the Encyclopedia and his relationship with KV.

Q: You’re mentioned toward the end of Timequake as one of the people who made Kurt “want to keep on going” in his sunset years. How did that make you feel? Were you surprised to find yourself a “character” in a Vonnegut novel? 

A: This is a hard one to answer. I could take the Aww shucks approach and say I was just as shocked as anyone else. I could say that it is an obviously undeserved honorific bestowed upon me by Kurt, and that would be part of my truth. To understand my reaction requires telling you how I learned of this.

Kurt sent me an unbound copy of the manuscript submitted to his editor. I had recently moved to Florida for my wife’s job and gave up my professorship in Ohio. So here I was sitting at my desk writing technical documentation for apparel industry software when I receive the package. It killed me to wait until lunch to open it. I read the first twenty pages or so when I started to get an odd sense of foreshadowing. I started speed reading, Evelyn Wood style. My finger sweeping down the pages until there it was. I sensed it. I knew it. I don’t know how. I don’t deserve it. But I’ll take it. The thought hit me that if I ever get to update the encyclopedia, I would have to include myself as a character. Pretty funny.

 Q: What was your first experience with the work of Kurt Vonnegut?

A: My older brother, Don, did something completely out of the ordinary. He asked me to join him in his friend’s yellow convertible VW bug for a trip to a bookstore in Greenwich Village. This was back when I was about fifteen. We were usually at war with each other.

I found myself in the basement of Brentano’s thumbing through the science fiction section when I came across an obviously misplaced book: Mother Night. I was a child of the 60s and 70s. I grew up on every American war film ever made. I was walking to Hebrew school when I heard about Eichmann’s capture. The narrative enthralled me. I read it instead of reading for the NY State Regents Exams.

 Q: When did you first start working on the Encyclopedia?

A: I first contacted Kurt about the proposed project in December 1987, when I received in the mail the official bound copy of my doctoral dissertation. I felt official. I had already scoped out the necessary software and computing technologies I needed. Worked up a budget with a big question mark concerning the scanning and development of the full-text database. A kind dealer of Kurzweil technology, Joyce Lawrence, took pity on me as a young academic and made the conversion from text to digital feasible. The first edition went through two full rewrites and was published by Greenwood in December 1994.

Q: The Encyclopedia is an enormous achievement. How did you compile and organize all of the information? Was there specific software involved?

A: No trade secrets. Just a lot of off the shelf stuff used in interesting combination, rigorously eyed over by me. Here’s a short list: Kurzweil scanning technology (both hardware and software); WordPerfect 5.2; WordCruncher (vital for the project’s early start); later on it involved Mac technology; conversion to Windows technology (hated that part); back to writing the second edition in Pages (far superior for wordsmiths than Word); and then an unfortunate need to convert the project into a single Word file. Lots of other stuff in there including my first experience indexing one’s own text.

Q: How long did it take to complete it?

A: The first edition took nearly eight years from permission to publication (including a change of publishers and two rewrites). I purchased back the rights to the book in 2007 and started right away with a new computer setup for the project. I am now working on the last page proofs (June 2015) as I write this reply. This second edition would have been out sooner if not for some medical problems I had, surgical complications, a coma, three-months in hospital, reconstructive abdominal surgery, awaiting more surgery as I write.

The funny thing is that I finished the manuscript the night before out-patient surgery and hung on to it thinking that I could look it over while recuperating at home. Wrong. I awoke from a coma three weeks later. I wound up sending the manuscript from a hospital bed on my iPhone with a DropBox link to the file. Kurt would probably roll his eyes. That surgery was April 10th 2013. Reconstruction was March 5, 2014. I am now awaiting another surgery to resolve the hernias that popped up in spots along the 250 sutures.

Q: In the Preface you write about developing a friendship with Kurt. How would you describe your relationship? Once you got to know him, was there anything that surprised you about him?

A: Kurt was ridiculously kind with his time and possessions. My family owns original, personalized artwork and books from him that basically showed up from nowhere. He was in the best sense of the term avuncular. Kurt was always displeased with my working at such small colleges on such big projects with no support. He always expressed in his calls concern for my family’s progress and a desire to get me better employed. He even wrote letters of recommendation on my behalf just because I mentioned my applications.

 Q: What made you decide to revise the Encyclopedia?

A: I always wanted to revise it. Hell, immediately upon finding typos in the first edition and an embarrassing omission on my part, I wanted to revise it. Still, I hoped Kurt would live longer and write even more for the next version. As is, the revision includes all the work published in his lifetime provided he approved the final copy. None of the posthumous works make that cut.

Q: When will the revised edition be published?

A: November 17, 2015. I believe that is JFK’s birthday.

Q: Why does Vonnegut’s work resonate so strongly with you?

A: In no particular order: the narratives are compelling; the characters seek truth; Kurt’s own battle with PTSD is all over the texts and so he is as compelling as his forms; his backdrops are thoughtful, full of anthropological insights about man and our repetitive destructive behaviors; he always seeks what I call that Zen moment, the moment when you can stop giving a fuck about everything that’s shitty. And there are his sentences. No one conveys as much information in as neat a package. Also, he is damned good and grafting history to his texts.

Q: Do you have a favorite book in the Vonnegut canon?

 A: I will cheap out on this question by saying that it is The Sirens of Titan. However, based upon how I have worked with the texts, I now see Kurt’s work as one stream, what Kerouac did with that first scotch-taped typescript of On the Road. For me, Kurt’s work is stretched out and attached to two poles and read as a Torah. It is all connected.

 Q: What do you think about the books that have been published posthumously?

 A: I have read some and see where Kurt was not finished with things. They have research value but should not be considered part of his official canon.

Q: Please describe your involvement with the Kurt Vonnegut Society.

A: I was a co-founder of the society along with five others. I had the good fortune of first having Robert Tally and then Gregory Sumner do the heavy lifting of conference organization. These days I am more involved as charter board member of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis. I will be starting new Web section for them later this year based on various teachable moments within Vonnegut.

 

Vonnegut on Bob Dylan

According to the website Page Six, Kurt Vonnegut, in an interview with Hustler magazine, once called Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan the “worst poet alive.”   The quote is part of a 1991 interview that will be reprinted in the December issue of Hustler.  This is the first time I’ve seen this interview referenced.

The Page Six story can be read at the following link:

Vonnegut Calls Dylan Worst Poet Alive

 

2011 Interview with Donald Farber

Check out this 2011 interview with Vonnegut’s long-time agent, business manager, and friend Donald Farber.

Donald Farber on the Legacy of Kurt Vonnegut

Interestingly, Farber is asked about Vonnegut’s final, unfinished novel, If God Were Alive Today.  On the question of whether or not it would ever see the light of day, Farber responds, “…of course I’ve thought about it.  But it’s unfinished, and there’s no point in publishing an unfinished work. Kurt had said everything he had to say.”  Farber later states, “We will not publish Kurt’s unfinished work.”

Despite Farber’s comments, If God Were Alive Today was eventually published in 2012, the year after the interview, as part of the book We Are What We Pretend to Be.

 

 

Bookmarked: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: An Interview with Curtis Smith

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five by Curtis Smith, part of Ig Publishing’s Bookmarked series, is one writer’s thoughts and reflections through the lens of Vonnegut’s great novel. Neither literary criticism nor memoir, the book contains elements of both, as Smith explores the novel’s themes as they relate to history, time, mortality, and the arc of Smith’s own life.  

Curtis Smith shared his thoughts with The Daily Vonnegut. 

Q: How would you describe the book to a potential reader? 

A: It’s a riff on the original—part of it is playing with Vonnegut’s narrative and ideas and trying to relate them to my own experiences. Part of it is taking his themes—war, death, time, horror, humor—and investigating them at another level than what’s presented in the Slaughterhouse. I think my book is original enough so that one wouldn’t necessarily have to have already read Slaughterhouse—but it’s definitely an homage to both the book and Vonnegut.

Q: How did you come to write the book? Was it written specifically for the Bookmarked series?  

A: The guest editor, Kirby Gann, approached me and asked if I’d be interested. At first I shied away—I didn’t want to write a piece of literary criticism—then Kirby and the folks at Ig assured me what they were looking for was a kind of free-form take on the original through the eyes of someone who’d been influenced by the work. They gave me a contract and a deadline and then left me alone. It took about nine or so months—and it was a lot of work—the research and weaving together the book’s strands—but it was also a lot of fun. I found myself anxious to get up every morning so I could have a quiet hour to dedicate to the pages. I couldn’t ask for much more in terms of reward or engagement.

Q: Tell us about your first experience reading Slaughterhouse-Five. 

A: Part of the book addresses this—and the fact is, I can’t actually remember it—which kind of dovetails into the book’s notion of time being a slippery thing. But I do know the approximate details—I was in high school—probably a sophomore or junior—and at that time, I was reading all the Vonnegut I could get my hands on. And while I can’t pinpoint the time exactly, I know Vonnegut, through all his works, was having an influence on me and the way I viewed the world.

Q: The book is written in small segments, usually no more than one or two pages. This mirrors the structure of Slaughterhouse-Five. Was that always your intention, or did the shape take form during the writing? 

A: Yes, that was the intention from the start. It’s such a great structure—in the book I talk about art and I contend collage and assemblage are the art forms truest to how we perceive the world—the taking of disparate fragments and weaving them into a whole. And I think that’s what Vonnegut did in books like Slaughterhouse and Breakfast of Champions. It’s masterful, and he often doesn’t get the serious, literary credit he’s due because he’s so damn funny.

Q: A theme of the book is the almost unavoidable instinct to “look back?” Did writing the book cause you to look back on parts of your life and see them differently? 

A: Perhaps some—but more so I found myself looking forward—imagining the time when I wouldn’t be healthy and happy and not a burden to anyone. Looking at it from that end made me appreciate how good today—or any day when I’m still kicking—is.

Q: Your son is featured throughout the book. Has fatherhood changed how you read Slaughterhouse-Five? 

A: Fatherhood has changed how I look at the book’s angle of war being a Children’s Crusade. I think of Billy Pilgrim and Kurt Vonnegut—and they’re less than ten years older than my son—and when I see the spectacle of war through the eyes of children, it hits home in a way it hadn’t (or probably couldn’t) before.

Another aspect that parenthood impacts is the concept of time past and present—what parent doesn’t look into their child’s eyes and see and echo of themselves? It’s an odd sensation—sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes joyous.

Q: Have you had any contact with or response from the Vonnegut estate regarding the book? 

A: No—but it would be cool if they did. My sincerest hope would be that someone from that end would read it and think I did the man and his work justice.

Q: You mention Bluebeard as your second favorite Vonnegut novel. I’ve always thought his later books deserve more attention than they get. Why is Bluebeard one of your favorites? 

A: I loved the book’s time period—and the whole abstract impressionist aspect of it. I loved the fact that it was happy, at least in its own way, and that it was a celebration of art and expression and survival—even if Rabo’s own creations were destined to fade. In some ways, it’s one of the more optimistic of Vonnegut’s pieces—although I’ve always thought there was a heavy current of optimism in his work beneath the disgust he sometimes saw in the world—I think that balance of wonder and horror is one of the most enduring aspects of his worldview.

Q: You’ve had a career in education, and one of my favorite sentences in the book is: “This is my fear—the interests behind the Core don’t desire a country of literature lovers but of proficient manual readers and report writers.” Unfortunately, I think your fear is reality. What does a writer like Vonnegut have to offer that is lacking in a test-crazed curriculum?   How would you respond to someone who says, “Why should I read Slaughterhouse-Five when there are cool things to stare at on my phone?” 

A:There are a lot of cool things to look at on one’s phone—but they don’t offer the immersion a book can, especially a book like Slaughterhouse. I’ve got to think different parts of the brain are stimulated—even though the body is in the same, observing posture. Not to sound like a crank, but there’s something off-putting about a glowing screen—it repels while a printed page draws one in. I know there are fewer and fewer folks who think the same way—but I’ve got to believe there are enough of us to keep the print industry alive.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the experience of reading your book?  

A: I think the best thing that can come from my book is steering folks back to Vonnegut’s work. And after that, if my book can make some people think about time and science and history and war just a bit differently, then I’ll be happy.

Curtis Smith has published over one hundred stories and essays, and his work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. He’s worked with indie presses to put out ten previous books, his most recent being Beasts and Men (stories, Press 53) and Communion (essays, Dock Street Press). His take on Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the initial offerings of Ig Publishing’s new Bookmarked series. You can find him on Facebook or at www.curtisjsmith.com.”

Kurt Vonnegut, The Lapsed Secularist

By Josh Privett

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., in a commencement address at Bennington College in 1970, recounts how as a young man he was very optimistic about the promise of science to improve human life, thanks in part to his older brother, Bernard, who was an accomplished atmospheric scientist. “Scientific truth was going to make us so happy and comfortable,” he says, summarizing the enthusiasm for science that pervaded the interwar culture and characterized the golden age of science fiction.

His enthusiasm turned into horror when he learned the United States had dropped an atomic bomb on Japan: “we dropped scientific truth on Hiroshima,” he tells his audience. “We killed everyone there” (Wampeters 161). Disillusioned by the moral failures of science, Vonnegut concludes:

We would be a lot safer if the Government would take its money out of science and put it into astrology and the reading of palms. I used to think that science would save us, and science certainly tried. But we can’t stand any more tremendous explosions, either for or against democracy. Only in superstition is there hope. (163)

This is a shocking indictment coming from the erstwhile honorary president of the American Humanist Association. Although some may question the dichotomy Vonnegut erects between science and religion, he characterizes his family’s irreligion along these lines, informing one interviewer that his ancestors were “influenced by science, not what was in the Old Testament” (McCartan 167). In other words, Vonnegut regards science as advancing a secular explanation of reality that opposes spiritual or religious ones. This premise is not without merit: after all, one persuasive analysis of the Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution it precipitated, is that it contributed to the rise of secularization in the West.

For many writers of Vonnegut’s generation, the dropping of the atomic bomb was the catalyst for interrogating the modern project’s confidence in rationalism and science. These writers expose not only the moral failures of modernity but also the ecological and psychological consequences of its secular assumptions. Scholar John McClure examines how contemporary American authors reject secularism’s “disenchanted construction of reality and the self” for religious and spiritual explanations of the world and human subjectivity (“Culture”). Their literature often traces the spiritual awakenings of secular-minded characters, but as McClure explains, these conversions “do not lead back to already existing faith systems, but . . . try instead to work out some kind of synthesis between secular and sacred ways of seeing” (“Culture”). The redemption these characters seek is worldly, not transcendent, and their spiritual quests usually remain incomplete, partial, or open-ended. McClure calls these narratives postsecular because they challenge the hegemony of secularism but stop short of affirming orthodox religious faith, opting instead for provisional and unconventional spiritual expressions and experiences.

In much the same way, Kurt Vonnegut’s 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions narrates a partial return to religion in light of the repercussions of secular disenchantment. The novel’s genre supports interpreting the narrative as the spiritual awakening of its secular-minded author. But this conversion is characteristically postsecular because the novel not only articulates an idiosyncratic spirituality but also weakens orthodox doctrine.

Admittedly, the genre of Breakfast of Champions is difficult to define. The book is part road novel, part metafiction, part anti-novel (accompanied by Vonnegut’s cartoonish drawings), part Menippean satire, part absurdist fiction, and part Bildungsroman—specifically the subgenre Kunstlerroman, the novel of an artist’s maturation, the classic example being A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. Vonnegut’s novel can, and should, be read from each of these perspectives. But the narrative model of the Kunstlerroman, which traces an author’s moral, spiritual, and artistic development, harmonizes with reading the novel as a conversion narrative. The epigraph, from the Book of Job, “When he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold,” lays the foundation for interpreting it as a novel of formation. Vonnegut emphasizes this theme in the preface as well. “I think I am trying to clear my head of all the junk in there,” he writes. “I think I am trying to make my head as empty as it was when I was born onto this damaged planet fifty years ago. . . . The things other people have put into my head . . . do not fit together nicely, are often useless and ugly, are out of proportion with one another, are out of proportion with life as it really is outside my head” (5).

The novel is not, of course, a conventional Kunstlerroman. For one thing, the majority of the novel focuses not on Kurt Vonnegut but on Kilgore Trout, an obscure science fiction writer, and Dwayne Hoover, an automobile salesman in Midland City. (Those familiar with Vonnegut’s life and work may recognize correspondences between these characters and Vonnegut, who was considered by many during his life to be a hack science fiction writer, a label he tried to shake, and who operated a Saab dealership on Cape Cod for a brief time in the 1950s.) The plot follows their eventual rendezvous at an arts festival in Midland City, jumping between the two men’s chaotic experiences, until in the final third of the novel Kurt Vonnegut inserts himself as a character into the story. Unlike the typical protagonist of a Kunstlerroman, Vonnegut is also not a novice writer, but instead is the middle-aged, critically acclaimed author of Slaughterhouse-Five. Breakfast of Champions is his attempt to travel back in time to his birth, November 11, 1922, when there was still “a sacred day called Armistice Day” (6). In other words, it is a novel of re-formation.

The idea that Vonnegut is trying to purge from his mind is a secular interpretation of reality, which he inherited from his great-grandfather Clemens Vonnegut, a freethinker and atheist whom Vonnegut greatly admired. In his autobiographical collage, Palm Sunday, Vonnegut characterizes his “ancestral religion,” freethought, as a rejection of supernatural revelation and religious teaching for rational thought and scientific knowledge. Pride for his family’s irreligion “is the most evident thing in my writing, I think” (Palm Sunday 195). This admission clarifies his intellectual orientation at the beginning of Breakfast of Champions, where he explains, “The suspicion I express in this book [is] that human beings are robots, are machines.” He formed this conviction in his childhood, when he observed a man suffering from syphilis stagger across the street “as though he had a small motor which was idling inside.” His mother’s suicide by a drug overdose when he was a young adult convinces him that human beings are “huge, rubbery test tubes . . . with chemical reactions seething inside” (3).

These hyperbolic descriptions are, of course, characteristic of Vonnegut’s black comedy and also somewhat accurate, since the body’s processes are largely automatic. I contend, however, that Vonnegut is purposefully reducing human beings to the physical body, advancing a secular explanation of the self that precludes any spiritual or religious one—namely, the idea of an soul or spirit. His portrayal of the self resembles that of philosopher John Searle, whose theory of biological naturalism conceives of the brain as “a biological machine” and reduces mental consciousness to the brain’s physical and chemical processes (“Biological Naturalism”). Later in the novel, Vonnegut confirms the secular assumptions underpinning his worldview: “I had come to the conclusion that there was nothing sacred about myself or about any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide,” he writes. “I no more harbored sacredness than did a Pontiac, a mousetrap, or a South Bend Lathe” (225).

It is no surprise that Vonnegut’s secular outlook would influence how he represents human beings in his fiction. He admits in the preface, “It is a big temptation to me, when I create a character for a novel, to say that he is what he is because of faulty wiring, or because of microscopic amounts of chemicals which he ate or failed to eat on that particular day” (4). As the story unfolds, Vonnegut does just that, frequently attributing Dwayne Hoover’s psychopathic behavior to a chemical imbalance in his brain, such as when “an unfortunate chemical reaction” causes Dwayne to insult one of his employees (46) or when his “bad chemicals made him take a loaded thirty-eight caliber revolver . . . and stick it in his mouth” (49). Throughout the novel, Vonnegut likewise represents his characters as machines, like when he describes Dwayne’s mother as “a defective child-bearing machine” that “destroyed herself automatically while giving birth to Dwayne” (45-46) and when he depicts Dwayne’s secretary, Francine Pefko, as “a machine made of meat—a typing machine, a filing machine” (193). And to maintain the perception that his characters are machines, Vonnegut measures their body parts in meticulous detail, listing their bust sizes and penis lengths rather than portraying their individual consciousness.

Obviously, this characterization is intentionally hyperbolic, but it also points to an implicit critique of a secularism. For one thing, as an anti-novel, Breakfast of Champions deconstructs the conventional notion of a fictional character. Because Vonnegut describes his characters as if they were machines, they neither develop as characters nor possess a realized individual interiority. The emphasis on their exteriority impedes any attempt by the reader to empathize with these characters. The implication is that if a human being is reduced only to the processes of the physical body, as a secular construction of the self would suggest, there are no grounds for authentic human relationship or empathy.

Vonnegut applies this point to American history. As he recounts his formative education, he points out that the slave trade in the United States, along with the resulting legacy of racism, was contingent on the theory that black people are “machines made out of meat.” By using their slaves “as agricultural machinery” (73), Southern slave owners were in fact endorsing a secular construction of the self. In other words, the secular idea that human beings are merely intricate machines, inherited from the Enlightenment, which undermined the religious belief in the human soul, is in part culpable for the human rights violations of institutional slavery.

Vonnegut further illustrates the moral repercussions of secularism through Dwayne Hoover’s treatment of his friends and family. When Dwayne finally meets Kilgore Trout in Midland City, he reads one of Trout’s novels, Now It Can Be Told, “a book . . . in the form of a long letter from the Creator of the Universe to [an] experimental creature” who alone has free will, while “all the other creatures [are] fully-programmed robots” (178). Dwayne believes that the novel is addressed to him and accepts its message as gospel, concluding that “everybody on Earth was a robot, with one exception—Dwayne Hoover” (15).

Armed with this new knowledge, Dwayne goes on a rampage, attacking his secretary, his son, Kilgore Trout, along with seven other victims. He smashes his son’s head into a piano keyboard, calling him a “cock-sucking machine” because he is gay (265). He also punches two women—one on the jaw, the other in the stomach—because “he honestly believed they were all unfeeling machines” (266). Through Dwayne, Vonnegut warns that a secular understanding of human beings, if applied consistently, will result in apathy, abuse, and oppression:

“I used to think the electric chair was a shame. I used to think war was a shame—and automobile accidents and cancer,” he [Dwayne] said, and so on.

He didn’t think they were shames anymore. “Why should I care what happens to machines?” he said. (270)

This scenario is, of course, melodramatic, but as a parable it illustrates the moral implications of a secular construction of the self: if a human being is merely a complex biological machine, why shouldn’t we dispose of his or her body if it malfunctions or is deemed unnecessary?

In the final third of the novel, what Vonnegut calls “the spiritual climax of this book,” the author and narrator incarnates himself into the story as a character and experiences a spiritual awakening. He joins his characters in Midland City, which is hosting an arts festival, although it is cancelled after Dwayne Hoover attacks several visiting artists and members of the community. Vonnegut writes, “It is at this point that I, the author, am suddenly transformed by what I have done so far. This is why I had gone to Midland City: to be born again” (Breakfast 224). As the evangelical parlance suggests, this scene is central to understanding his conversion.

While in Midland City, Vonnegut meets an abstract expressionist painter named Rabo Karabekian. Like many of Vonnegut’s characters, Karabekian makes several appearances throughout Vonnegut’s novels. For the arts festival, Rabo is displaying his painting The Temptation of Saint Anthony, which is twenty feet wide and sixteen feet high and consists of a field of green paint intersected, on the left side, by a piece of orange fluorescent reflective tape.

According to Rabo, his painting is:

a picture of the awareness of every animal. It is the immaterial core of every animal—the ‘I am’ to which all messages are sent. It is all that is alive in any of us—in a mouse, in a deer, in a cocktail waitress. It is unwavering and pure, no matter what preposterous adventure may befall us. A sacred picture of Saint Anthony is one vertical, unwavering band of light. If a cockroach were near him, or a cocktail waitress, the picture would show two such bands of light. Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery. (226)

These words effect in Vonnegut a conversion to a religiously inflected construction of the self. Vonnegut immediately evinces a transformed mindset. He revises how he depicts his characters by identifying “the sacred part” in them—their awareness—for the rest of the novel. He addresses his readers, assuring them that “at the core of each person who reads this book is a band of unwavering light.” He even recognizes that he—a “writing meat machine”—possesses “something sacred” at his core (231). In a gesture that confirms a shift in his intellectual orientation, Vonnegut turns his attention to Einstein’s formulation E=Mc2 and concludes that it is a “flawed equation” because it does not account for human awareness, “without which the ‘E’ and the ‘M’ and the ‘c’ . . . could not exist” (247). And in the novel’s final scene, a conversation between Vonnegut and one of his characters, Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut releases Trout from the narrative itself: “Under similar spiritual conditions,” Vonnegut tells Trout, “Count Tolstoi freed his serfs. Thomas Jefferson freed his slaves. I am going to set at liberty all the literary characters who have served me so loyally during my writing career. . . . Arise, Mr. Trout, your are free, you are free” (301). This act is a fitting conclusion to this postmodern Kunstlerroman because it confirms that Vonnegut recognizes that his characters are not machines to be programmed by their author, but human beings who possess something sacred within them: an individual consciousness.

Vonnegut’s conversion is, of course, partial and open-ended. The spirituality Rabo articulates is a provisional pantheism of his own making rather than a declaration of religious orthodoxy or an initiation into a formal religious system. It synthesizes secular and sacred interpretations of reality and the self. Even though the abstract expressionist painting The Temptation of Saint Anthony is devoid of any actual religious content, and though Rabo admits that he does not even know who Saint Anthony is, his explanation of the painting functions for Vonnegut as a postmodern faith that “renews” Vonnegut’s life (229) and “rescues” him (225) from the moral implications of hegemonic secularism. As he tells Trout in the conclusion, “I am cleansing and renewing myself for the very different sorts of years to come” (301).

This regeneration causes Vonnegut to want to repair the chaos in the world, beginning with the chaos in his own book. He confesses to Trout that his fiction, emanating from his secular orientation, has contributed to Trout’s oppression: “Mr. Trout, I love you. . . I have broken your mind to pieces. I want to make it whole. I want you to feel a wholeness and inner harmony such as I have never allowed you to feel before” (300). In an act that orthodox readers may find heretical, but one that conveys a postsecular weakening of religious doctrine, Vonnegut offers Trout the Edenic apple, which he calls “a symbol of wholeness and harmony and nourishment” (300), rather than of man’s first disobedience. With this critical revision to the biblical story in Genesis, Vonnegut suggests that religion—albeit a postmodern spirituality, what Jacques Derrida calls “religion without religion”—can and should remain a useful discourse in our secular age.

Near the end of his Bennington College address, Vonnegut admonishes those who believe that science has obviated the need for religion:

A great swindle of our time is the assumption that science has made religion obsolete. All science has damaged is the story of Adam and Eve and the story of Jonah and the Whale. Everything else holds up pretty well, particularly the lessons about fairness and gentleness. People who find those lessons irrelevant in the twentieth century are simply using science as an excuse for greed and harshness. (Wampeters 166)

Vonnegut stresses that, “if things are to become better on earth,” human beings “don’t need more information. We don’t need bigger brains. All that is required is that we become less selfish than we are.” He turned to Thomas Aquinas’s theology and Jesus’s teachings (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) for that instruction, concluding that these sources have not been “made ridiculous by computers and trips to the moon and television sets” (166). I am not sure how Vonnegut would have responded to the harangues against religion by contemporary atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. But that a secular-minded author like Kurt Vonnegut, one of the most ethical writers of the twentieth century, looked to religion—more often than not, Christianity—for moral guidance should give us pause.

Works Cited

“Biological Naturalism.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 31 May 2015. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.

McCartan, Tom, ed. Kurt Vonnegut: The Last Interview and Other Conversations. Brooklyn: Melville House, 2011. Print.

McClure, John A. “Post-Secular Culture: The Return of Religion in Contemporary Theory and Literature.” Cross Currents 47.3 (1997): n. pag. Humanities International Complete. Web. 8 July 2015.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday. 1973. New York: Dial, 1999. Print.

—. Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage. New York: Laurel, 1984. Print.

—. Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons. New York: Dell, 1974. Print.

Josh Privett is a Ph.D. student at Georgia State University, where he studies twentieth- and twenty-first century American literature and teaches freshman composition. He has published an article on Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, in New Academia: An International Journal of English Language, Literature, and Literary Theory and has spoken on Vonnegut at several academic conferences. This essay is adapted from a conference presentation he gave in Michigan in February, 2016. He welcomes any feedback at jprivett1@gsu.edu.  

 

A Writer’s Roots: Kurt Vonnegut’s Indiana

WFYI in Indianapolis has produced a new documentary, “A Writer’s Roots: Kurt Vonnegut’s Indiana.”  The hour-long film explores Vonnegut’s family history and childhood along with the Hoosier state’s long influence on Vonnegut’s life and art.

Originally airing on December 28, 2015, it is available for viewing at the following link:

A Writer’s Roots: Kurt Vonnegut’s Indiana

Definitely worth watching–start the New Year with this engaging documentary.