04 Apr Kurt Vonnegut’s Humanism: An Interview with Wayne Laufert, author of Behaving Decently: Kurt Vonnegut’s Humanism
Kurt Vonnegut’s Humanism: An Interview with Wayne Laufert, author of Behaving Decently: Kurt Vonnegut’s Humanism
In his late career book God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead.” Throughout his career, Vonnegut often wrote of his humanist views, tracing them back to his “freethinking” ancestors in Indiana. A former honorary president of the American Humanist Association, Vonnegut, a man who avoided labels, referred to himself at different times as an atheist, an agnostic, and a secular humanist. Yet he also wrote often and admiringly about Jesus Christ and The Sermon on the Mount, and his life advice included suggestions for people to join a church.
In his new book, Behaving Decently: Kurt Vonnegut’s Humanism, author Wayne Laufert explores Vonnegut’s lifelong interest in humanist thought. Vonnegut scholar Marc Leeds, author of The Vonnegut Encyclopedia, writes that Laufert, “lifts the veils of various psychological and literary readings of Vonnegut to lay bare the essential values informing Kurt Vonnegut’s work.”
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A former newspaper reporter and editor, Laufert runs the Vonnegut Baltimore book club and is a member of the humanist Baltimore Ethical Society. He shared his thoughts with The Daily Vonnegut.
Q: To start, how do you define humanism?
Wayne Laufert: It makes sense to start where Vonnegut did. He called himself a humanist, which means in part that he tried to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishments after he’s dead. That’s where the title of the book comes from, Behaving Decently. Now, he did say “in part,” so he acknowledged that it’s not a complete definition. Not having faith or certainty about an afterlife is a major part of most humanists’ beliefs. But to me, the important belief in humanism is the assumption that people, not a superior being, are responsible for what happens on Earth. They’re responsible for providing their own meaning in their lives, and they don’t look to a higher power for help. Most humanists don’t even believe there is a higher power, at least not one that answers prayers or concerns itself with rituals or traditions that are associated with organized religions.
Atheism says what you don’t believe, while humanism dwells more on what humans can do, that we can create our own meaning and that we can change the world for the better—without necessarily assuming that we will. I think that’s an important distinction. I wanted that in the book a little bit. You’re not necessarily saying that human beings are great and we’re going to tackle every problem we have. It’s just that we believe we’re responsible for solving our problems, and we can do it. We have the ability. But whether we will do it is another matter. It’s really up to us.
Q: I appreciate your contrast with atheism. It’s an important and valuable distinction. What led you to write a book on this topic?
Wayne Laufert: I’d been a fan of Vonnegut’s for a long time, since high school, and I was involved in, and still am, in a Vonnegut book club. So he was on my mind a lot anyway. I’d been a member of the Baltimore Ethical Society for a few years at that point already. It’s a humanist group, and a fellow member there knew I was a Vonnegut fan, and he told me about the American Humanist Association (AHA) having put out a call for someone to, as they said, curate a book of quotes by Vonnegut about humanism and to write a short biography. That was what they put out as the project, and so I responded to that. I thought, “Boy, I’d like to see that book, and maybe I’m the person who could write it because I’m involved in Vonnegut all the time anyway and thinking about him for this book club.” Occasionally I put together handouts about whatever book we were reading. So that was a natural, and here I was involved with the humanist group.
But I thought that the book really should be more than just a collection of quotes and a short bio, but rather it should be broken down by subject, by the kind of topics that most humanists would be interested in. To do it that way, presenting what Vonnegut said and wrote about the topics, was a good way to handle it, I thought. It would appeal to Vonnegut fans, but also would appeal to humanists because they like to think about these things anyway.
It was harder than what AHA originally suggested. But I thought, “This is the book I want to read,” and convinced myself that I could do it. I had worked at a community newspaper for 24 years and fancied myself a writer. So I set out to write the book I wanted to read.
Q: How did Vonnegut come to his humanist views?
Wayne Laufert: From his ancestors. A few of them came over in the mid-19th century from Germany, and they were freethinkers; they didn’t belong to organized religions. They were more or less what we call humanists. They didn’t use that term back then. Both his parents brought him up without any particular religious beliefs. He learned some things about Jesus and the Bible from the family’s housekeeper, Ida Young, but not from his parents. That was his background, and he said he was comfortable with that. He said, “They say there are no atheists in foxholes, but I was one, and it was a comfort to me.”
Q: That quote is used quite effectively in the book. You write extensively on God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, which doesn’t get as much attention as some of Vonnegut’s other works. How does Rosewater reflect his humanist views?
Wayne Laufert: The title character, Eliot Rosewater, conducts an experiment in humanism, and for that matter, in socialism too. He feels guilty about this vast inheritance that he has, and he focuses his wealth on the people of Rosewater County. He chooses to live among them in Middle America, and he’s sloppy, and he’s a drunk and an embarrassment to his father, who’s a pompous US senator, who believes Eliot is wasting his time. So Eliot’s just a contrast to that. He’s no savior, but he does what he can and helps one person at a time, sometimes through small sums of money. Most often, though, by simply listening to them, showing compassion. He critiques capitalism as heartless.
When Vonnegut started voting, he voted for socialist candidates. There were such things back then. It was a minor political movement, but it was real back then, and certainly attractive to people having just lived through the Depression. In the so-called Humanist Manifesto, or “Humanism and Its Aspirations,” the quote is, “We support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort.” So you want to share what you have with people who have much less. And Eliot Rosewater eventually gives away his entire fortune and it’s a very Christian thing to do, although his motive is to get out of a trumped-up paternity suit. And then, at the end he even says, “Tell them that their father loves them, no matter what they may turn out to be.” That’s very Christian too.
I hadn’t even noticed that when I first wrote the book, but I went back, and I came across that quote again. In the novel, there are speeches that go back and forth between the characters. One will say he wants to give away all his money, and then another, usually a lawyer, will say, “No, no, no, you’ve got to keep what you have. You’re lucky. Don’t get rid of it.” There’s that kind of tension there. But it’s clear what side Vonnegut comes down on.
Eliot makes the ethical choice, the humanist decision. He favors individuals over what he says is a flawed system, refuting his father’s heartless ways. There’s no reliance on a higher power. It’s just in his power to do this, and he feels it’s his responsibility to share this vast wealth that he inherited and did nothing to gain. He’s guilty about that. He’s guilty about some other things, too, things he did in the war and at other times in his life. But he very much makes that decision to go against the way his father wanted things done, and it has to do with helping individual people. That really fits in with the humanist desire and the hope that things get spread out more among the people of the world. So that was Eliot’s world. He did what he could, in his own way, to affect that.
Q: You mentioned the Christian elements. Vonnegut wrote a lot about Christ, calling himself a Christ-loving atheist. How do we account for his seemingly strong connection to Christ, considering his self-professed humanism?
Wayne Laufert: Yeah, he called himself an atheist. He called himself a humanist. He said, “When people try to get a spiritual fix on me, I say I’m a Unitarian” because they meet in churches, and people are more familiar with that. As far as I know, it’s just one time that he called himself a “Christ-worshiping agnostic.”
He used that term. That description works when you keep in mind that he didn’t mean worshiping literally. He meant valuing and respecting. And he mentioned Jesus all the time, of course, I think for a couple reasons. One, he really loved the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” The Beatitudes. He mentioned them all the time in his novels and in his speeches. Those are the merciful words of Jesus. That’s what he was attracted to, and he thought it would be good if Christians practiced them more.
He knew most Americans were Christian. If they weren’t, they probably knew the story of Jesus. It was just so well-known. He wanted a big audience and found it easier to address Christians, he said, than, for example, Zoroastrians. So that’s who he was writing for, a big audience that knew about Jesus, and he knew that most people’s morality comes through organized religion. He was coming at morality in his way, without the belief, but he was latching onto something that everybody knew something about. He was promoting what he liked about Jesus, the part that fit in with his humanistic goals.
In doing that, he helps expand what humanism means, because as the question implies, there seems to be a disconnect between humanism and atheism or agnosticism. Why would he talk about Jesus all the time? Well, because there are some things that Jesus said that are worthwhile, and he finds a common point between believers and non-believers. Boy, don’t we need more of that! Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Why don’t we focus on that? Good Christians want to help people, and good humanists want to help people. So there’s a point through Jesus, the words of Jesus, at least, where there’s a commonality.
So yeah, he focuses on Jesus as a character. He doesn’t have to take him literally, or think he literally even existed. He could talk about him as you talk about Santa Claus, but he thinks the real value is in Jesus’ message. It’s important, it’s merciful, and so let’s focus on that. Christians and non-believers can do that, and Christians should do it more. He finds that common ground.
Q: That brings us to his most famous character, Kilgore Trout. Behaving Decently devotes a chapter to Trout. How does Trout act as a vehicle for Vonnegut’s humanist thoughts?
Wayne Laufert: From the first novel where Trout appears, in the aforementioned God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, he’s a mouthpiece for Vonnegut’s ideas about humanity. He’s kind of an alter ego for Vonnegut, the forgotten science fiction writer he feared he would become. But Trout’s words often are very wise, and they say good things about how human beings should behave. In Rosewater, he defends Eliot’s method of philanthropy, that experiment that Eliot was conducting. He defends it to Eliot’s father, who doesn’t really grasp what Trout is about. What Trout says about Eliot is right on point. It’s something that Vonnegut would’ve said about valuing the people that everybody else doesn’t care about, people that the rest of the world has no use for. What do you do about those people? How do you love those people? That’s a very humanistic message, and it comes from this author, Trout, that nobody cares about.
And then later Trout shows up as a major character in Breakfast of Champions, and he even answers, “What is the purpose of life?” It’s a question scrawled on a men’s room wall. But his answer is, “To be the eyes and ears and conscience of the creator of the universe,” which is a nice way to think about the purpose of life. And in Timequake, Vonnegut’s last novel, Trout urges people to wake up. That’s another thing that echoes Vonnegut. He stresses the importance of awareness in a lot of his writing. In a lot of the novels, you get these synopses of Trout’s fiction, his novels and stories, and they are parables. They’re statements of morality with a moral message. So even though Trout is often a grumpy, weird kind of a figure that people would avoid and that no one ever reads, he has this message, and it’s the same kind of message that Vonnegut himself had.
Q: In Behaving Decently you track the different depictions of Trout. For example he shows up as Robert Fender in Jailbird. Perhaps it’s Vonnegut’s way of seeing himself change over the years. Trout is a flexible character; he’s certainly not fixed.
Wayne Laufert: It was a lot of fun to write the chapter for that reason. There are other scholars who have commented about how Trout, as you said, reflects where Vonnegut was at that time in his life. But I had fun with it.
Q: If you had to pick one Vonnegut novel that you think a budding humanist should read to best capture Vonnegut’s views, which book would you choose?
Wayne Laufert: I don’t know if there’s one classic go-to, because it depends on the reader’s interests. Humanism is such a big topic. Cat’s Cradle addresses the role of religion head on. Vonnegut finds practical value for religion, even though he’s skewering it as obviously made up. So if you want to focus on that, Cat’s Cradle is a good one. Slaughterhouse-Five has to be my favorite. But Galápagos, my secret favorite, tracks the evolution of humans; they become these seal-like creatures, and there are pluses and minuses about that. It features Trout too. But he’s funny and entertaining as a character, so the novels that include Kilgore Trout are recommended: Rosewater, Breakfast of Champions, Timequake, and as I started to mention, Galápagos. He’s in there, although he’s speaking from the afterlife. So those might appeal to people too since Trout is so entertaining.
You also have to consider the acknowledged masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five. Trout there is less cuddly. He’s a little more bitter in that one, but one of his parables in the novel is about Jesus being a mere mortal, and he’s adopted by God at the last second, as he’s dying on the cross. The point is that he was a regular person, and he gets rewarded. So it’s more about the compassionate, merciful message of Jesus. So there’s Vonnegut getting his point out about Jesus and about his humanistic values. For anyone who’s into Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I always say, “Well, you have to read The Sirens of Titan.” I mean, that’s kind of a template for Douglas Adams.
I don’t tell people, “You have to read” this or that, because it really depends. But I tell Douglas Adams fans, “You have to read The Sirens of Titan.” And it works for humanists too, because a character in The Sirens of Titan says, “A purpose of human life is to love whoever’s around to be loved,” and that’s a nice, human-focused thought. So no, I wouldn’t say there is just one, go-to book, but there are different ones that maybe appeal to budding humanists for different reasons.
Q: While you were researching this book, did anything that you learned surprise you?
Wayne Laufert: No big surprises because I’d read all his books by that time anyway, and I kind of knew what to expect. But I think I underestimated how willing he was, a couple of times, to adopt a faithful Christian perspective. I talked about him thinking of Jesus as a character and not believing in him as the Son of God, but he published a very pious children’s Christmas play in Better Homes and Gardens in 1962, when he was still writing for the magazine market. He hadn’t made it as a novelist yet. So that’s fairly understandable. He was supporting a wife and six children at the time. And again, it was a Christmas piece, so he’s going to write about Jesus for this mass market publication, and everybody would know what he was talking about. So you can kind of get that.
But much later, in 1980, after he was famous, and he could choose his projects much more carefully, he kind of did it again. He published Sun Moon Star. He wrote the text to accompany these very simple illustrations by Ivan Chermayeff. The text describes what the infant Jesus was seeing as he was born. It refers to a virgin with child, and it says, “God is with us.” So Vonnegut would do things to throw people off, even to upset them sometimes. But that one is a little hard to figure. I guess that was kind of surprising.
Also, I realized that Vonnegut’s first-person accounts of his visits to Biafra and Mozambique were worth their own chapter, as a focus on his journalism, which is overlooked. Vonnegut himself downplayed it. He said, “Am I a new journalist? I guess.” Oh, well. But he just felt he could tell the truth better through fiction. I liked both of those essays anyway but putting them together and thinking about the journalistic part of his writing, I really valued it even more and made it into a whole chapter, which I felt was important for humanists too because we want to know about the world, and we want to know the truth about things, and journalism is supposed to give us that. Vonnegut did that very well. So I wish there were more examples of it, but that’s okay because he gave us plenty of other work, too.
Q: You lead a Vonnegut book club in the Baltimore area. What has that experience been like?
Wayne Laufert: Yes, Vonnegut Baltimore. We’re still going strong. We’re in our 13th season reading books by and about and somehow related to Kurt Vonnegut. We go through all 14 of his novels and the four main works of non-fiction in order of publication. It takes us about three years to do that, to cycle through. We mix in books about Vonnegut. We throw in a Mark Vonnegut memoir once in a while, and we include a wild card every year, something that’s not Vonnegut, but it’s maybe somewhat similar, ranging from predictable choices like Catch-22 and Fahrenheit 451 to more contemporary books like The Sellout by Paul Beatty or Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami.
We used to meet in person at various places in town, but we’ve been on Zoom since the pandemic began, and that has brought in people from all over. We have a regular who comes to every meeting from Germany. We have one from Honolulu, one from Indianapolis, and others from various cities. We’re on Facebook as Vonnegut Baltimore, and we have a great time. I really, really like that group. It’s one of the reasons I think I wrote the book. I was involved in the book club and thinking about Vonnegut all the time, and the other folks do, too. We have great discussions because that’s what his books generate.
Q: What was the first Vonnegut book that you read?
Wayne Laufert: Slaughterhouse-Five. It was at a Catholic high school, of all things. I was 14 or 15 years old, and an English teacher, Michael McDermott, had a reading list that had Slaughterhouse-Five on it. I’d never heard of it, but he knew I was into comic books and monsters and science fiction, so he figured I was open to kind of weird fiction. After class one day, he recommended that I read Slaughterhouse-Five. Michael McDermott was this wiry guy with these intense eyes, and he says to me, “It begins with, ‘Look: Billy Pilgrim is unstuck in time.’” He tells me there are aliens in it, and it’s about the stupidity of war, and his description of it hooked me. I read it, and it was really entertaining, but I also felt that Vonnegut was onto something with the tone of the book, the resignation about the human condition, but with so much humor. It felt real and unreal at the same time.
Q: What were some of the challenges in writing the book?
Wayne Laufert: Getting permission from Vonnegut’s current publishers and his estate was laborious and time consuming. The book has a lot of quotes, and they all had to be accounted for. Writing all the citations was tedious. And I wish there were more illustrations. I did the layout, the storyboards, as it were, for a two-page comic based on a brief passage from Cat’s Cradle. The AHA’s graphic design manager, Sharon McGill, redrew it, cleaned it up. I love how it turned out. It’s one of the best things in the book. I wanted to do more comics, but there just wasn’t time after waiting for months to get permission for just that one. I had to focus on the text.
Vonnegut’s writing can present challenges too, because he could contradict himself, so sometimes I had to account for inconsistencies. One example: He kept going back and forth over whether he was an optimist or a pessimist. That got me to thinking about whether most humanists are optimists or pessimists. I think I reached the only sensible conclusion: Sometimes you’re one, sometimes the other.