gall and gumption

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Undergraduate Bibles

I read Slaughterhouse-5 for the first time when I was 14, and for about the next three years after that if you had asked me who my favorite author was I would have said Kurt Vonnegut.

His books were not the first grownup literature I had read, but his were the first that didn’t make me feel that I was eavesdropping.

When I arrived at college in California three years later I found that there were all these people who had had the same experience with Vonnegut. The feeling that here was an adult who you could trust, who wrote about tragic things in a funny way that made you feel even more how ironic they were. The reason I didn't have this collective experience was that I hadn't lived in the States till I got to college, and my reading of these books was a little out of context. I had, for example, almost no acquaintance with rock music. Most of the cultural things that interested a suburban U.S. teenager were quite remote from a suburban Jamaican teenager. Vonnegut was one point of contact (there really did seem to be a copy of Breakfast of Champions or Slaughterhouse 5 in every backpack) but it wasn't much of a point of contact. All those discussions, for example, of who had "sold out" and who hadn't "sold out" might as well have been in a foreign language. By the 1980s in California everyone had sold out anyway.

Well, the irony in Vonnegut's books was one of the first things that began to lose its charm. By the time I was 19 I was so over Vonnegut. It was right about then, I think, that I fell for Tolstoy, and discovered a whole new level of artistry. And I was totally spellbound. There was no going back from that point.

I was in Creative Studies then, and this was when they still had student-conducted seminars. For that first couple of years in the late 1970s some literature major was always teaching a seminar in “Undergraduate Bibles,” as we called them.

You probably can guess the list.

The Catcher in the Rye
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
On the Road

I know I've left some out. Come on! Sing along! Put your offerings in the comments!

Oh God, people, if you think I am a literary snob now you should have met me then. But I still feel the same way about this as I did then: why “teach” a class in this stuff that everybody was reading anyway? It wasn’t as though anybody who had lived through adolescence needed to have the wretched Catcher in the Rye explained to them. By Larry. I couldn’t understand why people were still looking for profundity there when there was all this other stuff that we hadn’t even read yet.

But of course they weren’t looking for anything there, except possibly their own settled convictions about experience, reaffirmed by the authors they trusted. This is an adolescent thing to do. One’s expectations of a writer like Vonnegut were very high. He had to be right about everything. I made the same demand of Tolstoy as I did of Vonnegut. I had advanced in taste, but not a whole lot in self-awareness. When writers weren’t “right” I was impatiently dismissive of them. It was a dogmatic attitude. There are some writers who will yield nothing to that attitude, and if you lock up your mind in your own (even very enlightened) prejudices, you won’t do them justice. That’s true of the English Renaissance poets, for instance. It took me a little longer to see that the dogmatic attitude doesn’t do justice to what you like, either.

It was years later, catching little bits of interviews or profiles of Vonnegut here and there, and his own articles, that I noticed what a good man he was. Here was a man who had achieved a really iconic status – as a writer, no less, not even as a rock musician – among the searching youth of the 1960s and 1970s. And you do not find in his interviews or in his writings a trace, a hint of the demagogue. I think he himself knew the measure of his own literary gift and did not take himself seriously beyond that. Surely no science fiction writer ever wrote with more warmth of human feeling. And this in spite of being fearfully pessimistic. He preached the homeliest of virtues. It wasn’t a spaceship that was going to save us from ourselves, it was kindness, loyal affection and friendship, an appreciation of pleasure, justice, prevention of suffering, and abstention from cruelty and dishonesty, not taking yourself too seriously. These were such moderate values; they would go over without offense at a Rotary breakfast. The parts of Slaughterhouse-5 that still resonate for me are those passages where he mentions these long-lasting friendships, the duties of the heart, these connections with good people. He was so grateful for good people, for friends, for people who taught him things, so grateful for the pleasure of their affection. He could have been an asshole on a colossal scale, and he would have retained a fan base that would have sagely approved of anything he did on the grounds that he was so profound and if you didn’t like him you weren’t cool. That is, young people were quite ready to crown him the überadolescent, if he had wanted that role. Instead, he was just good. And this is something that I could only appreciate a little later, I think, when I forgave him for not being D.H. Lawrence.

Vonnegut had his highest reputation at a time when a fiction writer was supposed to be like a prophet. For years the poor guy kept having to write “The Next Great Vonnegut Novel.” A genius at fiction, someone like Kleist, Pushkin, Lawrence, or Tolstoy, might have been able to combine the prophetic and the intimate. But Vonnegut wasn’t that kind of writer. In Slaughterhouse-5, which I think is his most serious book, he keeps beating and beating against the waste, pointlessness, and cruelty of war, as a human problem, and he can’t get anywhere, except for finding a multitude of small ironies among the events that still haunted him. But the small ironies don’t add up to a big irony. They do have the effect of pervading the whole book with a tone of unspecific irony, as in that repeated catchphrase, “So it goes.” Vonnegut utters these catchphrases because he doesn’t know what to say. (Lawrence would have charged in there and said something, even if it was wrong-headed.) It was a breakdown of thinking around this very specific, dreadful experience, and he kept working on it, as if he had to rebuild his moral insides. But that weak irony was, for teenage radicals (and all teenagers are radicals, as Eric Hoffer said) a grand statement of repudiation, of irony without a target.

One of the effects of war on a society – and it’s one that never seems to occur to its planners and promoters – is the questioning of values that occurs as people seek to understand what has happened. There’s a sense in which war, if it goes on long enough, radicalizes everybody. I’m sure you’ve all heard that Greek tragedy is all about hubris (does that idea bore you as much as it bores me?). Look at some of the Greek plays as an inquiry into violence and violent passions: Agammemnon, The Bacchantes, Medea, Hecuba, for example. They get really interesting. Or Andrew Marvell’s meditations on war in “Upon Appleton House” and in his “Horatian Ode” on Cromwell.

You still find these odd folk who say that the modernist writers, painters, and composers after the First World War repudiated earlier artistic values, broke with tradition, dispensed with it. And the non-artists, the young, followed them because it was cool and fashionable. But it was the war that had dispensed with tradition. The war was where European society immolated its own ideals in a long orgy of slaughter; that was not the work of a few artists and poets that nobody had ever heard of.

Vonnegut’s wartime experience of the bombing of Dresden is a very weird reversal: by becoming part of a target in that type of warfare he became indistinguishable from the enemy. I mean, you’d think that you’d make a target out of the enemy and not the other way around.

Slaughterhouse-5 is asking the question, “How the hell did we get there?” The book came out 20 years after World War II, just in time for the Vietnam War. No sane person, least of all Vonnegut, would have doubted the necessity of fighting the Nazis, but the strange and terrible thing is that even when war is in a good cause it uncorks chaos. “How the hell did we get here? How the hell do we get out of here?” He’s hardly the first writer to explore this question. Odysseus took 10 years to get home from Troy. It was, as we might say nowadays, an “adjustment period.”

Tolstoy, Stendhal, and Thackeray all wrote about the Napoleonic wars. Writing about these things required agility, quickness and subtleness of movment through different points of view and narrative distance. Sometimes Tolstoy is peering over the armrest of God’s throne, then he’s inside the mind of General Kutuzov or one of his fictional characters. Tolstoy’s ability to stay in the consciousness of characters very different from himself is one of the reasons to read Tolstoy, for that rich sense of life lived by others. Stendhal manages to get inside of the head of one character who doesn’t know what is going on and is wandering around a battlefield trying to find out. He only finds out afterwards – it’s the battle of Waterloo. Somehow Fabrice del Dongo's tedious wanderings are more effective than anything that I can imagine at giving some idea of the scale of the battle. In other words, to present something of the reality of these experiences, imagination and observation have to be working together at a pretty high level. (If you haven’t yet, you should read the opening chapters of The Charterhouse of Parma.) It doesn’t seem right to leave Goya out just because he was a painter, either. What is that voice that writes those commentaries to “Los Desastres?” Like a graffiti artist’s scribble at the scene.

Vonnegut’s omniscient narrator is embarrassed to be in the novel at all, and the deus ex machina of Slaughterhouse-5 is a bunch of space aliens who look like toilet plungers with hands.

Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim has no help from any broader perspective. He’s locked into his subjective experience; meaning is constructed later – if you happen to survive – and Pilgrim isn’t even interested in meaning, then or later. The belief that cluelessness equals innocence and innocence equals virtue (and, conversely, that consciousness is guilt) has a long tradition in American literature.

Subjectivism is not bad if you’re innocent. But nobody is innocent; people will fight like street dogs to claim the high ground, or to insist that someone else doesn’t have the right to it. I remember once someone said to me at Columbia that Rosa Parks was not all that much of a hero because she was already a member of the NAACP when she refused to sit at the back of the bus.

This history is not hidden. But the Times' obituary describes Parks' arrest nonetheless as an event which "turned a very private woman into a reluctant symbol and torchbearer..." Parks was certainly reluctant to see too personal valoration of her as heroine distract from the broader movement. But she was not private about her politics. And her refusal to give up her bus seat was nothing new for her. As she would later tell an interviewer, "My resistance to being mistreated on the buses and anywhere else was just a regular thing with me and not just that day."

The myth of Parks as a pre-political seamstress who was too physically worn out to move has such staying power not because there's any factual basis but because it appeals to an all-too popular narrative about how social change happens in America: When things get bad enough, an individual steps up alone, unsupported and unmediated, and spontaneously resists. And then an equally spontaneous movement follows. Such a myth makes good TV, but it's poor history.

He’s right, but I’d be much meaner about it myself. It’s not only that this myth makes good TV, it flatters a certain segment of the audience (may I say, the stupid segment? Thank you.) that they are giving charity to Parks as a sort of holy fool -- as opposed to having justice aqand respect pried loose from the death grip of their wretched, mean-spirited sense of entitlement, by a woman who had taken their measure and knew exactly what she was doing.

You pity Billy Pilgrim, and enjoy a certain glow of pride at your fine feelings. “I must be one of the good innocent people too!” you conclude, because nobody understands you, either. (I had a friend in high school who was convinced that Barry Manilow would understand her feelings, if she could just talk to him.) And isn’t it awful how nobody understands you. And pretty soon you are hogging up all the pity for yourself. Then, you know, you begin to suspect that other people are appropriating pity that you should have. And how easy it is to have contempt, while you are congratulating yourself on being such a moral person who cares. Irony is strange stuff. What a horribly Vonnegut-style irony it is that so many of the children of his first generation of readers should, in their time of intellectual exploration, favor the works of the appalling Ayn Rand. People go into that stuff and they never seem to come back out. It’s like they become upstanding members of the Be a Shit For Life Club. Oh dear, am I harrumphing? Pardon me!

But I can’t blame Vonnegut for this. It’s one of the creepier features of American life, in my opinion, and I, for one, will be dancing in the streets when that particular bargain with the devil is paid off. Vonnegut as a fiction writer got stuck there too; he couldn’t write his way past the corrupt guilty and the pure innocent, even though every observation he made about real life indicated that he was aware of how much more complicated and interesting people, and life, were. He didn't quite manage to save us from ourselves, but I don't know who could, really.


At 10:00 PM, Blogger Chuckling said...

Very nice work. and you may be right, but I’ll argue an alternate point of view, that Vonnegut was a great writer and that his reputation will grow over time.

After an incredibly well-written paragraph about Stendhal and others who wrote about the Napoleonic wars, you say:

Vonnegut’s omniscient narrator is embarrassed to be in the novel at all, and the deus ex machina of Slaughterhouse-5 is a bunch of space aliens who look like toilet plungers with hands.

As if that were a negative thing!

That, on the heels of your very well-made observations on the transition from representational to modern art.

You still find these odd folk who say that the modernist writers, painters, and composers after the First World War repudiated earlier artistic values, broke with tradition, dispensed with it. And the non-artists, the young, followed them because it was cool and fashionable. But it was the war that had dispensed with tradition.

Well, couldn’t the same be said about World War II and Vonnegut’s place in history as a modern writer. Could it not be, perhaps, that Tolstoy et. al’s. fantastically represented descriptions of humanity in the environs of the Napoleonic wars were to Vonnegut what Matisse and Gauguin were to the old masters?

They do have the effect of pervading the whole book with a tone of unspecific irony, as in that repeated catchphrase, “So it goes.” Vonnegut utters these catchphrases because he doesn’t know what to say.

To carry the analogy further, isn’t it possible that his little space aliens were saying to those great works of literature much the same thing that a Rothko or a Pollock was saying to to the modern art world? Both art as embodied by the abstract expressionists and Vonnegut were making the same criticism of the post World War II era. Could “So it goes” be the literary equivalent of the blank canvas? No political cause could rally round it.

I can’t really speak much to Slaughterhouse five because it’s been many years since I’ve read it. Maybe it’s just the contrarian in me, or the shallow critic, but I never thought it was one of his best works. I do think, however, that Vonnegut’s body of work will be treated kindly by time, probably more so than the abstract expressionists who, although they shared the recognition of the ultimate meaninglessness of it all, did lack the warmth and humanity that Vonnegut evinced so effortlessly. For those reasons plus the fact that he was so prescient.

Vonnegut had few, if any, peers when it came to understanding the direction the world of his lifetime was taking. I’d also guess that among the individual works, Breakfast of Champions will stand out both for all the new ground it broke in narrative construction and the ultimate depth of its story. I’ll also guess that at least one of his later works will acquire recognition that was denied in his lifetime.

Or not, as you argue. Anyway, again, nice essay. Thanks.

At 12:30 AM, Anonymous Don said...

My CCS undergraduate bibles:

Stuck Rubber Baby
It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken
The Playboy

At 1:30 AM, Anonymous curleen said...

I think Kia got the ones that were the undergraduate bibles of the early eighties. I might add Confederacy of Dunces and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Those seemed Biblish in their ability to inspire undergraduate devotees of our time.
I remember CCS Bibles as Troilus and Criseyde, The Rainbow, A Farewell to Arms, Boswell's Life of Johnson, Anna Karenina, Persuasion--- there must be others, but I can't remember. I should say that those are still my Bibles and I'm still at CCS, but you already know that.

At 11:31 AM, Anonymous curleen said...

I'm teaching a class in which students get to read 6 books of their own choosing, 3 books that they feel they "should" read, and 3 that they "want" to read. I thought they'd add more to their "should read" list, the way I think I would've. And some of them did, actually, or, like the kind of students you and Bob were, their should read and want to read lists were the same. Anyway, what this is all leading up to is my surprise at the book that appeared on more than half of the class's list-- Lolita. It's one of those books I was told I should read about 30 years ago, gave a try, and have had an aversion to ever since. After reading Lolita in Tehran a few years ago (yes, Kia, just after everybody but you was reading it) I thought I should give Lolita another try, but that "should read" impulse didn't get much further than that. Well, one of my students convinced me I better read it, if only to know what over half the class was reading, and she handed me her annotated copy. I'm about fifty pages into it and I'm as irritated as a person can be by reading. His jokes are so nasty and mean-spirited and unfunny, and it's not just Humbert Humbert, it's Nabokov. All the fancy writing and the erudite injokes in the world can't save it from being an embarassing revelation of the author's nastiness, and I'm not mainly referring to the pedophilia, which is creepy enough, but the unrelenting sophomorically expressed misogyny (just look at the treatment of the ex-wife). Oh, I know all the excuses a fan can make for it, clearly Humbert Humbert is a character in fiction, an unreliable narrator, etc... but the dude comes out of Nabokov's mind, and it's an ugly, ignoble, slithering toad of a mind, no matter the supposed wit and erudition of it. Reading bad jokes on defenseless people from the point of view of a sad little self-satisfied pedophile is not, for me, one of the great pleasures of literature.

At 12:03 AM, Blogger Kia said...


Coming late to a book like that, when you're sort of past the point where you will be affected by what people say you are supposed to think about it, would come as a shock. Lolita is a mean book. Revulsion runs through it.


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