Harmful Untruths – An Interview with Kevin Brown

One of Kurt Vonnegut’s most enduring phrases is foma, harmless untruths that can make life easier. Yet Vonnegut also explored the opposite—harmful untruths, lies people believe which create havoc for individuals and society. Professor Kevin Brown, in an essay titled “No All Untruths are Harmless: Minor Characters’ Narratives in Slaughterhouse-Five,” examined how Vonnegut brought these harmful untruths to life in his classic novel.  Brown presented the essay to the Kurt Vonnegut Society at the American Literature Association conference in 2017.

Brown shared his thoughts with The Daily Vonnegut.

Q: There are two dominant critical interpretations of Billy Pilgrim’s creation of Tralfamadore in Slaughterhouse-Five. One sees it as a coping mechanism, the other as a means of escape. Which interpretation do you argue in your essay?  

A: I argue that Billy’s creation of Tralfamadore is a means of escape, that he is unable to cope with what he saw in Dresden and the emptiness of his life otherwise. I can understand how other critics view Tralfamadore as a creative and productive reaction for Billy, I just don’t see enough evidence in the novel that Billy ever copes with what he has experienced. His acceptance of the Tralfamadorian philosophy of fatalism (or quietism, as some say) seems to go against everything else Vonnegut seems to be doing in this novel and in his other works.

For the complete interview, click below:

Harmful Untruths – An Interview with Kevin Brown

Vonnegut and Hemingway: An Interview with Lawrence R. Broer

Vonnegut & Hemingway: Writers at War – An Interview with Lawrence R. Broer  

While a surface reading of each man’s fiction might find little connection between Kurt Vonnegut and Ernest Hemingway beyond the trauma of war, as Lawrence R. Broer shows in Vonnegut & Hemingway: Writers at War (The University of South Carolina Press, 2011) the relationship between the two writers is deep and complex. Broer’s work “maps the striking intersections of biography and artistry” between Vonnegut and Hemingway, exploring the ways in which they blend life and art.

A long-time Vonnegut scholar, Broer’s earlier book, Sanity Plea: Schizophrenia in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut, offered a broad psychoanalytic study of the author’s work, and was called by the Journal of Popular Culture “…among the very best in Vonnegut studies.”

Broer shared his thoughts with The Daily Vonnegut.

Q: In Vonnegut & Hemingway: Writers at War, you describe Hemingway as the “secret sharer” of Vonnegut’s literary imagination. How so?

A: I, of course, allude to Joseph Conrad’s wonderful novella, “The Secret Sharer,” about two sea Captains who represent opposing sides of the same individual, mankind’s impulse to cruelty and violence versus a capacity for self-awareness, control, and cooperation. Like Conrad, like Einstein and Freud, Vonnegut understood that unless human beings learn to understand and control their destructive tendencies, civilization is doomed. Vonnegut viewed Hemingway’s love of blood sports, killing big animals for pleasure, in this context. But just as in Conrad’s story where the protagonist’s bestial self is unconscious, I suspect Vonnegut was never fully aware of the deeper, more personal reason for his compulsive portrayal of Hemingway as his “bête noir,” a fatalistic self for whom suicide was forecast from an early age, and to which Vonnegut repeatedly refers in and out of his fiction, e.g., “I had recently turned seventy-three. My mother made it to seventy-two. Hemingway almost made it to sixty-two” (Timequake). I think Vonnegut believed that resisting the pull of his defeatist self was necessary not only to fulfilling his role as canary-bird-in-the-coal mine, but to life itself. As I wrote in Vonnegut and Hemingway: Writers at War, Hemingway joins Billy Pilgrim, Kilgore Trout, and Kurt Vonnegut Sr. as the author’s chief scapegoats, carrying his burden of trauma and despair.

Read the complete interview here:

Vonnegut and Hemingway – An Interview with Lawrence R. Broer