Saturday, December 01, 2007

Vonnegut on science

From the intro to Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut, edited by William Rodney Allen:

As a whole generation would soon learn, the best way to challenge authority was first to undermine it with ridicule. In Cat's Cradle Vonnegut satirized both the religious fundamentalists rendered obsolete in the age of science and the scientists who could offer man everything except the promise not to blow up the planet and a ground for his values. The book ends with the narrator's thumbing his nose at God.

This idea of science. It's intriguing for me, as a writer and as a person who appears to have no innate understanding of sciences. I wasn't allowed to do physics or chemistry when I was at school. No, I was told. Just no. Not that I wanted to, anyway. Latin was much more my thing.

But anyway, I remember Laurie Anderson saying, years ago, when O Superman was in the charts, that we are such scientific and technical imbeciles. We couldn't even understand, she said, what actually happens when we turn on a light switch. Well, she's right, and I still don't, to be honest.

So back to Vonnegut. As ever, things aren't as clear-cut as they seem with Vonnegut. Yes, Cat's Cradle was as anti-scientist as it was anti-religious, but that doesn't mean he was anti-science. A couple of quotes from him:

All writers are going to have to learn more about science, simply because the scientific method is such an important part of their environment.


I want scientists to be more moral. It's simpler to save the planet than it is to save a marriage. Show enthusiasm for birth control. Stop polluting the atmosphere and the water. Don't go to work for people who pollute. Don't make weapons.

In so many ways, science is becoming the new battleground. Yes, you've got your clash of civilizations (see post a couple down from this) but that's just morons fighting with morons. Science is where it gets serious. Genetics is making us ask fundamental questions about our understanding of morality. So too, our ability to keep people alive longer than is conscionable. And then, of course, there is the climate change question. Much of this debate is tendentious, tedious, simplistic, solipsistic but, again, there are serious questions to consider. The times, as someone once said, they are a-changing.

Philip Roth famously wrote in the 60s, era of madness and war and assassination:

the American writer in the middle of the 20th Century has his hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents.

But they kept trying. Pynchon, Barthelme, Heller, Vonnegut, et al, they tried to understand the insanity of their age. This generation of writers has to do the same, but the territory is different. Any writing of genuine worth must turn its gaze outward. To finish, as I started, with Vonnegut:

I have the canary-bird-in-the-coal-mine theory of the arts. You know, coal miners used to take birds down in to the mines with them to detect gas before men got sick. The artists certainly did that in the case of Vietnam. They chirped and keeled over. But it made no difference whatsoever. Nobody important cared. But I continue to think that artists – all artists – should be treasured as an alarm system.

So, raise the alarm.

No comments: