Kurt Vonnegut, The Lapsed Secularist by Josh Privett

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.