Traveling With Vonnegut

Reed JolleyCommunity News

I thought scientists were going to find out exactly how everything worked and then make it work better.  I fully expected that by the time I was twenty-one, some scientist, maybe my brother, would have taken a color photograph of God Almighty—and sold it to Popular Mechanics Magazine.  Scientific truth was going to make us so happy and comfortable.  What actually happened when I was twenty-one was that we dropped scientific truth on Hiroshima.  We killed everybody there.

So said the vastly popular novelist and speaker Kurt Vonnegut Jr. to a graduating class at Bennington College in the early 1970s.  The author, often compared to Mark Twain, Gunter Grass, or even Voltaire, died last month at age 84.  Vonnegut inhabited a universe devoid of God, and every page of his novels probed the implications of such a universe.

The dilemma of every atheist is this:  He denies that God exists and that life has ultimate meaning.  Nevertheless the atheist vests his life with borrowed meanings, tiny purposes, which his worldview cannot sustain.  And so there is the dilemma of denying ultimate purpose, but living on micro-purposes that, if thought about for more than ten seconds, would show themselves to be utterly empty.  But Kurt Vonnegut had the guts to jettison that dilemma for a world filled with absurdity.  In Sirens of Titan he wrote, Everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself. . . But mankind wasn’t always so lucky.  In Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut confessed to the reader, Nothing in this book is true.  Live by foma (harmless untruth) that make you brave and kind and happy.  In other words, life has no purpose, no meaning.  Just pretend that it does and then live.

Vonnegut’s wit and un-wisdom gave him near cult-status with college students during the 1970s.  He combined a strong critique of post-WW2 America with a whimsical tone that was irresistible, and I was among his fans.  He made us laugh even as he challenged us to think.  Indeed, his book Breakfast of Champions challenged my faith as few other books have before or since.  Here was a writer who didn’t believe God existed, and he was willing to follow the implications of God’s nonexistence to the bitter end.  What did it mean that God didn’t exist?

(…cont’d from previous page) First, if there is no God, we are alone. There is a tangible loneliness in all of Vonnegut’s characters.  In the preface to Wampeters, Foma and Granfallons, Vonnegut says, In the beginning and in the end was Nothingness.  Nothingness implied the possibility of Somethingness. . . We are wisps of that implication.  That’s it.  Just wisps of an implication.  No God to please, no God to whom we must give account.  And Vonnegut understood his cosmic homelessness.  In a 1973 interview he said this:

Whenever I go to Indianapolis now, a childish question nags at me, and I finally have to say it out loud: Where is my bed?  I grew up there, and nearly 1,000,000 people live there now, but there is no place in that city where a bed is mine.  So I ask, Where is my bed? — and then wind up in a Holiday Inn.  You can’t go home again.

Second, if there is no God, people are insignificant.  In Breakfast of Champions, the author notes that he has concluded that there was nothing sacred about myself or about any human being, that we were machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide. . . . I no more harbored sacredness than did a Pontiac, a mouse-trap, or a South Bend Lathe.

Concluding that people are insignificant in general, Vonnegut had the courage to ponder his own insignificance.  Since his life had no meaning, why not end it?  His potential suicide was a constant theme in his books, and in 1984 he tried to hasten the end with alcohol and pills.  He spent a month in a mental hospital.  The author claimed, repeatedly, to be committing suicide slowly with his Pall Malls.  He even threatened to sue the company for his long life.  On the package they promised to kill me, and they still haven’t done it.

Third, if there is no God, we must pretend that God exists.  Not surprisingly, even Kurt Vonnegut Jr. found it impossible to live comfortably in a world devoid of God.  To the graduating class of Bennington College, after stating that there is absolutely no purpose in the universe, he said, I beg you to believe in the most ridiculous superstition of all: that humanity is at the center of the universe, the fulfiller or the frustrator of the grandest dreams of God Almighty.  Life has no meaning, and God does not exist.  Let’s pretend we’re wrong, Vonnegut recommends.

I haven’t read Vonnegut in years, probably in decades.  But his writing faintly reverberates in my soul to this day.  In my sojourn with this author, I came to the conclusion that either the Bible was true or Vonnegut was right.  It had to be one way or the other.  Either God was there and life was filled with his wonder and his will, or God was not there and life was pointless.  There were times when I wished I had never read Vonnegut.  He frightened me with his ideas.  What if God was not there?  What if we really are on our own?

But Breakfast of Champions had a counterbalance in my life that saved me from his cynicism.  I also had breakfast with my Bible.  By the time I read Vonnegut, I knew the competition; I had saturated myself in the pages of Scripture. In the beginning Nothingness?  Far from it.  In the beginning God.  I knew the prayer of the psalmist who wrote, So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.  I want that wisdom, so I number my days submitting to the truth that God is God and I am not.   If Vonnegut is right, let’s eat, drink, and live in despair.  But if God is there. . .

Well, if God is there then everything matters and everything is significant: people, politics, the environment, art, and a beautiful sunset.  The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’  Surely Kurt Vonnegut Jr. played the role of the fool.  He died on April 11, 2007.  Now he knows.  And so on. . .