Monday, October 04, 2010

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

I’m reading The Brothers Karamazov at the moment and I’ve reached the point where there is discussion of Ivan’s dictum that nothing is unlawful. This is the natural conclusion one reaches when God has been despatched, because without God there is no virtue, and without virtue anything is permissible.

The lazy assumption that morality can only, ever, be approached from a theological perspective is trotted out time and again in order to keep man in his place. There is an illogicality to it, a contradiction. It rests on an underlying, hidden sense of superiority which reveals itself in the non-sequiteur that virtue can only be found in or through God. What it is actually saying is this: Because there is no God (although, of course there is, but these atheists don’t believe in him so let’s pretend to go along with their notion in order to destroy it) because there is no God man must be inherently incapable of doing good, because God (who we are pretending doesn’t exist but of course he does) is the only arbiter of goodness and if the atheists have destroyed God the only possible conclusion is that goodness isn’t achievable by man. So the argument that virtue is impossible because there is no God can only work if you approach it from the point of view that there is a God. If, however, you genuinely approach morality from the point of view of Godlessness, the putative link between God and goodness becomes meaningless and Dostoevsky’s argument becomes sophistry.

And so the question arises: is man capable of goodness? Can he exercise free will in the duty of the greater good? Clearly, we know that we are capable of spectacular failure – slavery, fascism, wars of greed (and God) et al – but failure, even repeated failure, does not mean that success is beyond us. We can be virtuous. We can be decent.

All of which leads us to Kurt Vonnegut. Kurt Vonnegut is what Cormac McCarthy could be if only he would shake off that Dostoevskian gloom-mongering which infests his writing. KV would have no time for the parade of prophets who people McCarthy’s fiction, warning us that ‘we’re all fucked’. Instead, he would find some ingenious way of despatching them to the oblivion that genuine Godlessness confers and concentrate, instead, on the people who really matter. People like Kilgore Trout.

That isn’t to say Vonnegut ignores issues of evil. How could you accuse the writer of Slaughterhouse 5 of that, after all? Nor is he some feeble-minded liberal who believes that if we all just tried a little harder to get along the world would be a lovely place. Again, Slaughterhouse 5 attests to the fatuity of that. It’s simply that he’s prepared to accept the possibility – let’s put it no higher than that – the possibility that we might turn out to be okay sorts of people. Like Kilgore Trout.

Kilgore Trout, KV’s alter-ego, is an ageing writer of science-fiction who is destined to become one of the most revered human beings in history. Synopses of various of his novels are interspersed through the narrative, most notably a work in which the Creator of the Universe reveals to the reader that he – the reader – is the sole possessor of free-will in the universe and that everyone and everything else is merely a robot coded to act in particular ways in order to provoke him and test his responses. Dwayne Hoover, a wealthy and successful midwestern Pontiac dealer in the middle of a spectacular mental breakdown, reads this novel and takes it as truth. His descent into insanity is thus greatly accelerated, to the detriment of all around him.

On this slender plot Vonnegut hangs his usual satirical analysis of the world, particularly contemporary America. He deals with racism, sexism, sex (not many respectable novels contain pictures of assholes and split beavers), greed and consumerism, the technological rush to advancement that is destroying our environment, God, man, stupidity, violence – the gamut basically. With drawings. I’m never entirely sure whether Vonnegut is an optimistic pessimist or a pessimistic optimist but, whichever, it is a stance that allows no certainties except, perhaps, this: the ingenuity of man means that, however aracadian the situation we find ourselves in, sooner or later we’re bound to find a way of screwing it up. But then, being ingenious, we’ll find a way of remedying it. But then, being ingenious, we’ll find a way... And so it goes.

And this dumb, unvirtuous circle is important, because it rests on that which Dostoevsky and his brooding crew cannot acknowledge: there is no need for a supernatural mediator of goodness and badness. We are perfectly capable of doing it all by ourselves.


James said...

How about ditching morality all together. Looking at man one sees neither good nor evil, just: man.

Tom Conoboy said...

Well, interesting point, but I'm not sure that you can ditch morality altogether. Morality is not a religious issue, but a humanist one - it defines how we live with one another, and I think there has to be some sense of morality underpinning that. I think it's hardwired inside us, and it's probably this hardwiring that has, over millennia, become bastardised into religion. Our whole history and prehistory is presaged on the notion of community - right back to the hunter-gatherers - and the idea of community requires an understanding and acceptance of the common good. This is where morality begins.

Ewan said...

Agreed. Good and evil are determined by man's actions toward others, aren't they? The reader needs access to the man, his actions, and the public at large to determine good or evil acts and their motivations c.f. Oryx and Crake, Crime & Punishment.

The Sunshine Limited (?), McCarthy's latest, was unusual in that the form of the two man play allowed the world around the two characters to be stripped away.

I suppose it's similar to the criticism you hear of Graham Greene's work: God's missing but you can see the hole.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hi Ewan, thanks for that.

Sunset Limited is a fascinating one. To a large extent, both characters are essentially the same person (perhaps even different facets of McCarthy's own character), and the play is a dialogue between these opposing views that beset us all. McCarthy says that his views on religion depend what day of the week it is - and I think that ambivalence, doubt, whatever, comes across strongly in Sunset Limited.

selfish said...

I thought Vonnegut's argument was that books are powerful things: they can rip your world apart, especially if you believe they've been written just for you by The Creator of The Entire Universe. Vonnegut saw himself as in charge of all the machines in BoC, and showed what would happen to them, when they came face to face with a book that made you think you were special in any way (read: the bible/now it can be told). And, in reality, the book was written by a crappy science fiction author* (either Vonnegut or Trout), and the actual creator was miles away, or in the same room as you, and you would have no way of knowing.

So: don't place too much value in books of any kind, because they're probably full of shit, and belong in between pictures of beavers. But the line about he who cannot see how a religion based on lies will not understand this book applies equally.

Does that make sense or am I talking stupid crap on a stranger's blog?

*his words, not mine, I quite like both of them. Excuse my typing, iPad ahoy!