Vonnegut's Breakfast… and so on.

In high school, my humanities class was assigned to create a work of art bearing similarity to the work of an artist we admired.  I did photography – a cop-out to say the least.  However, a classmate wrote a few chapters of a novel with a fictional plot, while also including herself autobiographically in the story as well.  The paragraphs were short and direct, but they jumped all over, addressing a plethora of topics.  Her work was intended to reflect the style of Kurt Vonnegut.

Vonnegut was and is an American icon.  His wildly popular books include classics such as Slaughterhouse Five, Cat’s Cradle, and Timequake.  His style is unique, random, and wildly popular among young people even today.

To find out why he is so well-liked, I picked up Breakfast of Champions.  I finished in a matter of hours; it was smooth and easy reading (at least, so far as the grammar was concerned).  The story begins… well, no, it does not at first.  Vonnegut starts by sharing random things about his life, people he knew and appreciated, topics that interest or annoy him.  For a fan of classic fiction such as myself, it was downright weird.  It would only get worse.

The story does eventually start, but it reads like the most unfocused person you can imagine speaks.  Yes, somewhere in there is a plot about one old man traveling to a convention.  Meanwhile, another old man likes the first man’s stories, and he is also going crazy.  In the end he hurts a bunch of people.  The end.

Plot comes through in bits and pieces, each portion launching long digressions into stories, commentary, and personal perspective on the state of things.  One moment he gives a condescending discussion of the pornography industry and its regulators, the next he describes an imaginary story of Hawaiian natives forced to hang from helium balloons because the “owners” of their land refuse to let them live there.  He draws pictures of underpants and guns and lambs and Holiday Inn signs.  In short, it seems an exercise in randomness.  Here is an example, found in a scene when one of the main characters is having an affair with his secretary:

“You know what I keep thinking?” said Francine.  Dwayne snuffled.  “This would be a very good location for a Colonel Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise.”

Dwayne’s relaxed body contracted as though each muscle in it had been stung by a drop of lemon juice.

Here was the problem:  Dwayne wanted Francine to love him for his body and soul, not for what his money could buy.  He thought Francine was hinting that he should buy her a Colonel Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, which was a scheme for selling fried chicken.

A chicken was a flightless bird which looked like this:

(Here Vonnegut drew a felt-tip pen picture of a chicken)

The idea was to kill it and pull out all its feathers, and cut off its head and feet and scoop out its internal organs- and then chop it into pieces and fry the pieces, and put the pieces in a waxed paper bucket with a lid on it, so it looked like this:

(Here Vonnegut drew a felt-tip pen picture of bucket of fried chicken)

Impressively, Vonnegut takes this sort of stuff (though generally of a more vulgar variety), weaves it together, making random comments in one place that helpfully explain a joke ten chapters later.  This flavor of brilliantly interconnected language, nonsense, and sarcasm pervades his writing.  However, that is a mild example.  The primary reason for the digressions is criticism; Vonnegut uses his powers of description and satire to pick on authority in general, whether it is government regulators, perpetuators of war, businesses that pollute the earth, leaders who fail to feed the hungry, property owners, or white people.

It is here that Vonnegut is at his most effective: satirical critique.  He has a powerful way of oversimplifying problems in ways that make authority figures look like jerks and those not in authority look like victims.  It is a humanistic, victimized, classist worldview.

So here is my question: how should Christians respond to his writing? Yes, there is a time to stand up to the abuses of authority.  Yes, we should be more conscientious about the impact of our economic and governmental policies.  But does that automatically make Vonnegut right in his relentless satire?

I say no.  Vonnegut’s morality finds its identity in critique.  He desires a world of unity and compassion and equality, but seems unable to acknowledge the possibility that human problems come from humans, not from problems.  He is a more bitter version of Mark Twain (which is saying something!), highlighting the ways normal people are depressed and hamstrung by the foolish authorities over them.

Christians can appreciate the fiction, but there is danger of victim-hood and cynicism.  Satire carries components of self-righteousness and distrust of authority.  One has to question whether this type of criticism carries more danger for the critic than the criticized.

Here is another quote from Breakfast of Champions, when the main character answers the question of the purpose of life (asked, naturally, on the wall of a gas station bathroom):

To be:

The eyes

And ears

And conscience

Of the Creator of the Universe,

You fool.

Is Vonnegut a prophet and a satirical conscience for Western materialism, or is he a self-righteous socialist, convinced that the rich are eternally oppressing the poor?  His work is powerful and funny, but requires careful thought and discernment from the Christian.

About Ben Bartlett

Ben Bartlett lives in Louisville, Ky., with his wife and two terrific kids. His degree is in Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy from Michigan State University, and he has a bunch of education from a bunch of other places with nothing official to show for it. He has taught high school speech and debate, worked for a congressman in Washington DC, and worked in the health and energy industries. He is interested in how pop culture, history, politics, and theology interact with the inner and community lives of individuals... which is weird because he now works as a business analyst. Few things make him happier than reading, discussing, and recommending books.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    I’ve read maybe ten books by Vonnegut. Timequake was a dog but I at least finished it. I’ve never been able to get further than thirty pages into Breakfast of Champions. Even Galapagos, which was 200 pages of prologue followed immediately by 100 pages of epilogue, was yards better. Or at least easier for me to spend time on reading. I didn’t really appreciate Slaughterhouse Five either, but again. It was worthwhile I suppose.

    I guess I’m just sad that if you had to pick one piece of Vonnegut, you went and chose that. I would consider Breakfast to either be his shark-jumping moment or else strong evidence that the great predator of the seas had at some point previous been well-cleared in an exercise of jumping, hopping, or leaping of some sort.

    In any case, a broader reading of his oeuvre quickly rectifies the idea that his work primarily focuses on a critique of authority and that it is on authority that he pins the world’s ills. More accurately, he spends his wordcount critiquing humanity (whether the institutions that humanity crafts for itself, a la the authorities, or the individuals who make up the sad struggling species itself). I still find some of his critique and ideas from Cat’s Cradle and Mother Night to be valuable to this day. And despite their atheist’s origin, quit compatible with my worldview hailing Christ as king.

    I will agree however that like all media of communication, Vonnegut deserves careful thought and discernment on the part of believers.

    The Danes last blog post..20080829

  • http://www.benbartlett.blogspot.com Ben Bartlett

    That’s fair. The writing is simple enough that it can be read quickly, so I’ll have to do some wider perusal of his material.

    That said, the things I’ve read on Vonnegut and his life seem to point to a consistently humanistic view, combined with a very low view of authority. For instance, I believe he said the only difference between Hitler and Bush was that Hitler was elected.

    My article probably focuses too much on (my perception of) his relationship with authority- my greater problem and my desired main point, I think, is that he finds his identity in critique.

    In other words, his moral system isn’t a structured set of proposals or guidance, but instead a constant reacting to the many things he doesn’t like. This position is easy to defend, but lacks any sort of shepherding or leading quality.

    I think Christians have to reject this constantly cynical, better-than-thou attitude if we desire to be a city on a hill and a light to the nations.

    I will try Cat’s Cradle. Of course, it’s also possible that Breakfast of Champions is fairly accurate picture of his work, after the first 30 pages!

    Ben Bartletts last blog post..Fun notes and pictures.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    That’s true, he does kind of rely on critique as his shtick. Why do you think it is that we value some life identities more than others? Do you think that there’s a hierarchy of identities so that some non-believers* have inherently better identities than others? And where does that come from?

    Like some people find their identity in the kind of work they do (e.g. “Oh, I’m an architect”)—which really doesn’t at all strike me as a valuable identifier. Some find identity in the stuff they like (e.g. Rob from High Fidelity). Others find theirs in the stuff they don’t like (e.g. Jack black in High Fidelity). All the other stuff: God, country, family, being a voice crying in the wilderness (e.g. Vonnegut), bread-winning, etc.

    Personally, I kind of rate these identifiers based on my personal preferences, such that things like sex, nationality, ethnicity, and occupation are worthless as identifiers. I think it’s lame to pick one of those as a way to sum up your being—but I don’t necessarily think that I have any reason to think I’m right on that. Since I don’t know that we have any kind of canonical list of values for identiation.

    This is all to say that I think Vonnegut’s identity is a sad one. But also pretty useful for those who can capitalize on his personal choices.

    *note: I state non-believers because, of course, the identity of the believer is the believer’s identity in Christ.

    The Danes last blog post..20080829

  • http://www.benbartlett.blogspot.com Ben Bartlett

    I think you’re right to argue against the value comparison of identities as such. Certainly finding self identity in occupation or hobby is, at heart, morally neutral for the non-believer.

    And, from nihilistic or relativistic worldviews, nearly every thing is morally neutral and therefore cannot be valued against another thing.

    However, Christians can “rank” or value moral systems or ideology in terms of their similarity to the Christian understanding. So, we can say with clarity that the morality of the Mormon is a “better” morality than that professed by Nazis.

    My problem with Vonnegut is not that he sees himself as a critic- After all, it would be pretty hypocritical to be saying that around this website! Instead, my problem is that nowhere do I see him pointing (even using the medium of critique) to a healthy, structured morality. I don’t even know if he could articulate one beyond, “Do what you want as long as it doesn’t harm anyone, anywhere.” That’s why I don’t argue against him finding identity in being a critic… I argue against the emptiness of his morality, whose identity is in critique. It would have no substance if it couldn’t find something to argue against. I think that’s why it makes people like Bush out to be villains- it HAS to be anti-something to have substance.

    A good society works correctly when it has the right balance of rights and responsibilities. Similarly, a good morality must have both its “do’s” and its, “do nots.” I hear Vonnegut’s humorous “do nots,” but his work doesn’t seem to have a clear set of constructive, “dos.”

    It’s almost like an entire society of bloggers, critiquing the government… but nobody willing to think about what the government SHOULD be, rather than saying what it should NOT be. Or, it’s like trying to run the United States on the basis of the Declaration of Independence, but without the Constitution.

    This is where I think the (usually helpful) comparisons between Vonnegut and Twain part ways. Twain clearly found his identity as a critic. However, he also made use of that role to point to clear moral points, such as the humanity of African-Americans in Huck Finn (I’m not counting the Tom Sawyer section at the end, which was much more Vonnegut-like). Vonnegut, on the other hand, has a pretty random way of throwing around satirical criticism at whatever catches his eye. (Insert felt-tip pen picture of eye here).

    So, I view Vonnegut as a critic, but I have a low view of his moral system, which seems to only destroy and not build.

    Ben Bartletts last blog post..Fun notes and pictures.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    I agree that Christians can and should rank moral systems. I do wonder, however, if most of the things people choose to use as identifiers really fit moral categories. Is a critic who only shoots down bad ideas morally inferior to a critic who both shoots down the bad but also offers positive direction for future benefit?

    The latter is certainly more useful than the former, but it strikes me that the difference may be less a moral difference and more just a gap in knowledge. Vonnegut may be his particular brand of critic for one of two reasons: 1) he has solutions but just enjoys being a jerk; or 2) he’d offer solutions if he had any, but he really doesn’t, so he focuses on what he does excel at—which is criticizing things he thinks don’t work.

    Either one is possible, but I vote for #2 because I think we see glimpses of him offering solutions along the way throughout his books. His solutions are imperfect and incomplete (as we should expect), but he does try occasionally. He’s noted for saying things like “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind” (God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater) and “There are plenty of good reasons for fighting, but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too” (Mother Night, my personal favourite of his books).

    Vonnegut, as you note, does not have a clear set of constructive Dos. In fairness though, should we expect that he would? I would think we’d be more concerned if he had the gumption to come up with such a scheme—seeing as how his scheme would doubtlessly conflict deeply with our own. The value in Vonnegut, and indeed the value in all good science fiction, is that by positing world’s oddly similar and different from our own, they enable us to see the flaws in our own much better.

    That they allow us our own set of tools to evaluate and solve these problems is, I think, one of their better features.

    The Danes last blog post..20080902

  • http://www.benbartlett.blogspot.com Ben Bartlett

    That Vonnegut does not have an articulable, consistent moral system isn’t really the problem. However, for an undiscerning Christian reader I think it can be.

    I have seen many supposedly Christian young people (high school/college age) who are convinced that Vonnegut is a better moral authority that most of the Christians they know. When we honor or near-worship a thing, we tend to become more like it over time. My fear is that Vonnegut’s critiques carry so much weight that they can convince people his morality is superior… but as we have discussed, his morality is empty and baseless without something to criticize.

    So, I fear Christians could identify with the moral critiques, make him a hero and the established church a target for similar criticism, and not realize the quicksand in the foundation they stand on.

    I don’t necessarily blame Vonnegut himself for his lack of a real moral system, as if he were intentional about it. I simply think Christians need to be careful, exercise discernment, and not hold him up as a moral hero worth aspiring to. That’s why I would make the distinction between a critic and a prophet.

    Other than that, I agree almost entirely with your most recent comment.

    Ben Bartletts last blog post..Fun notes and pictures.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    Oh absolutely. Discernment, as with any medium for communication, is key. Anyone who mistakes Vonnegut for a purveyor of truth has come down with a serious case of the sillies. I think Vonnegut is absolutely valuable for those who know how to read him. But most high school/college-aged people are not that person.

    I think he appeals to that age group because that is the age when disillusionment first begins to build and the young finally begin to see the cracks in the foundations they were handed. Then they run into this funny author who sees and points out these cracks in a much better put manner than anything they’d ever heard before. So of course he becomes their hero.

    Even though they don’t understand him and aren’t ready for him.

    Kids, huh?

    The Danes last blog post..20080903


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