My favorite thing about Kurt Vonnegut is that he is simultaneously the greatest cynic and the greatest humanist.
I've read a lot of Kurt Vonnegut this month (Slaughterhouse Five, Cat's Cradle, Player Piano, Breakfast of Champions, Mother Night, The Sirens of Titan, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater) and a lot of his works are centered on the same couple of pessimistic, depressing themes: the lack of free will and choice in the universe, the immense stupidity, selfishness, and violence of man, and the dangers of blind faith in technology, in religion, in anything.
This obviously lends itself to fairly bleak books. In Cat's Cradle, an indifferent scientist, his foolish children, and a selfish dictator cause the death of most of the world's people. In Breakfast of Champions, a rich white man goes on a rampage in a society where the poor and the minorities are oppressed. In Player Piano, people live in a dystopia where most find their meaning and purpose replaced by machines. In The Sirens of Titan, the entire human race is manipulated for centuries to deliver a replacement spaceship piece to a machine of another race on Titan.
Reading Vonnegut can be tough sometimes, but running counter to that in most of his books is a glimmer of hope and beauty and an assertion that life is still worth living and people are still worth loving. I first noticed this in The Sirens of Titan, and in my month of reading, thinking, and writing about Vonnegut, I realized he also says the same thing in his other books. Despite the soul crushing relentlessness of his books, that is what makes reading Vonnegut so rewarding and so rejuvenating, and it is a reflection of what I think is the best part about Vonnegut's books.
I am not saying that this thing is an absolute good. It would be a flagrant and complete misread of Vonnegut's works to think that his message is to find that pure, truthy, good hope, and hang on to it as a buoy in a sea of shit, because some of it, or even all of it, might just be a total fucking lie. Edgar Derby, Boaz, Bokonon, Newt, Rezi, Proteus, Eliot, all the heroes, all the real characters in his books, are just as stupid and just as shitty as everyone, live in the same terrible world as everyone does, and are just as powerless in a universe that doesn't give a fuck. Vonnegut knows this, and he writes about this in his books. The epigraph of Cat's Cradle declares the book and Bokononism a foma (a well intentioned lie). Boaz's discovery of love in The Sirens of Titan is dimmed by the fact that he loves semi-sapient organisms that feed on music and is planning to live in a deep cave in Mercury. The idea that at our core we are bands of light despite being wrapped around a machine of meat is delivered by a fool in Breakfast of Champions, an artist described as a "vain and weak and trashy man."
Vonnegut knows that this is a foolish thing to believe, that just like everything else, this hope of something that isn't bullshit could be, and might even very likely be, complete bullshit- and that's ok. It is the existence of this hope that is important, not the veracity of it, and that glimmer is a uniquely beautiful and human thing. This message is even more impressive because bearing the weight of all this, Vonnegut delivers his message through writing characters that still have a shred of dignity and nobility and decency.
In The Sirens of Titan the main character Malachi Constant is sent to Mars, has his brain wiped multiple times, gets sent to and lives in an underground cave in Mercury with another soldier, forgets his wife and child, gets exiled from Earth to Titan, and literally strangles his best and only friend to death with his bare hands unknowingly. This stuff is just fucking relentless. What's amazing about Vonnegut is that he truly, seriously believes that the world is shit, that man is vile, that we are nothing but powerless machines with no free will, and yet can still write stuff like
Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'
(God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater)
We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.
and still believe that
A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved. (The Sirens of Titan)
That's a man who has faith in people, and it makes me feel like it's ok for me to too.