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The Vonnegut Effect and the Affects of Vonnegut

By Robert Roizen

We are but products, naturally manufactured to serve purposes incomprehensible to but petty existences such as ourselves. However, within each production line of products, there exists model numbers ranging from old to new, and we, we are the infinite model number, the model that keeps advancing and recreating itself. Such a product model such as ourselves exists only through consciousness of existence; consequently, everything that we do reshapes ourselves, changes our model number, and helps shape the final product, which is our true nature. Kurt Vonnegut himself understood this truth of nature, and through a random character, who actually acts from the center of Vonnegut’s own experiences, states that:

We can make the center of a man’s memory virtually as sterile as a scalpel fresh from the autoclave. But grains of new experience begin to accumulate on it at once. These grains in turn form themselves into patterns not necessarily favorable to military thinking. Unfortunately, this problem of recontamination seems insoluble. (Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan 105)

We are therefore but the product of our circumstances, our surroundings, and our experiences, which engage in the endless cycle of shaping and reshaping our product, our philosophy, and ultimately our true selves. However, we do not exist as the sole existing product in this world, and in fact, we are products of many other products which in turn are the products of the products which have come before them, the first of which was perhaps the product of eternal Truth. However, whether or not there is truth or ultimate purpose in the seemingly meaningless and chaotic world, which Kurt Vonnegut has taken it upon himself to recreate, remains to be but a mystery. Because we are self-recreating and reproducing products, we have the ability and are sometimes forced to recreate our own experiences, circumstances, and surroundings in order to cope with the world we live in. Therefore, such products as literature are what they are exclusively due to the influences and circumstances of their authors. Therefore:

I've long believed that one of the best, most valuable aspects of reading multiple works by the same author is getting to know the author as a person. People don't identify with Gregor Samsa; they identify with Kafka. Witness the love exhibited by the many fans of Hemingway, a love for both the texts and the drama of the man. It's like that for me with Kurt Vonnegut, but it strikes me that he pulls it off in an entirely different way. (Rider, 1)

Kurt Vonnegut is in his writing, obviously not in the physical sense, but rather, everything that defines Vonnegut, his characteristics, his circumstances, his experience, and his philosophy, are not only evident in his writing, but in reality these aspects of Vonnegut are his writing. Vonnegut recreates in his novels: the “bone-deep sadness” (Allen, 3), that he learned from his parents, the randomness inherit in human nature from his sister, and much of his personal philosophy obtained from his war experiences and other circumstances. In essence, because Vonnegut is just the embodiment and product of his ideas, thoughts, and circumstances, his writing reflects upon all of these aspects of his life in turn; consequently, it is first necessary to understand key experiences that Kurt Vonnegut has lived thought, his personal philosophy, his upbringing, his family life, and the affects of war, in order to fully understand the true depth and plane of perception from which Vonnegut is writing his literature, and in particular The Sirens of Titan.

Vonnegut experienced the extreme vicissitudes of life, and because of the strange and tragic occurrences in his life, he fully understands that luck is random, and therefore life is random. Vonnegut’s randomness however was so extreme that all of his “fiction struggles to cope with a world of tragi-comic disparities” (Reed, 2), The Sirens of Titan being no exception. Vonnegut has suffered gravely at the hands of luck, beginning with the suicide of his mother in 1944 on Mother’s day while he was on home-leave from the army. Within a year, his sister died from cancer and within a 24-hour time period, her husband, Vonnegut’s brother in-law, died in a train crash (Reed 2). This tragic series of events was not caused by any human action or inaction, and Vonnegut therefore attributed his losses to luck, or lack of it. And Luck, Vonnegut knew, “is not the hand of God” (Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan 183). This philosophy of an indifferent God, lends itself to Vonnegut’s personal philosophy of a non-existent God entity, or an existing one who takes as much trouble to hand out death as he does to hand out salvation, a god who is completely blind to the recipients of his power. This philosophy must be kept in mind when considering that “[we are all victims] of a series of accidents” (Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan 233). Because of Vonnegut’s inability to cope with the loss of loved ones so dear to his heart, he became an atheist, one who does not believe in god. This natural reaction to such heavy losses was how Vonnegut “[coped] with a world of tragic-comic disparities” (Peter Reed, 1), Vonnegut’s reaction to his losses was similar to some of the Jews who questioned the existence of God in the Holocausts. Therefore this philosophy that we are all just victims to a series of accidents, denies the existence of God in addition to acknowledging the role luck plays in our lives. Bearing in mind the series of accidents that Vonnegut had to endure, it is of no surprise that “sometimes, [Vonnegut speaking through Malachai Constant] [thinks] it is a great mistake to have matter that can think and feel. It complains so” (Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan 41). On a superficial level, it seems as if a state of blissful ignorance is the perfect way to live life. But with Vonnegut’s history of tragic loss in mind, could such a person as he truly be indifferent to the death of his beloved sister as he would be in a state of blissful ignorance? Instead Vonnegut struggles with a balance of heart-felt love and indifference, the balance of which he pleads the reader to maintain. Without first understanding the tragic losses Vonnegut has had to endure, it is impossible to fully understand an implied atheist stance on life, or a healthful balance of indifference and emotion, which Vonnegut has had to struggle with first hand; consequently, he has been forced to struggle with it in The Sirens of Titan.

Sadly, economic circumstances determine the plane in space through which it is possible to see the world. Therefore, the influence of political and economic factors in Vonnegut’s life give second meanings to supposedly set in stone superficial over-arching themes in The Sirens of Titan. Vonnegut’s childhood was in the very least privileged, for he and his family were well-respected members of their community, and they lived quite comfortably in a house that they owned. Vonnegut’s childhood was therefore the complete opposite of the characters he was to write about in his future novels, however, the Great depression hit, and Vonnegut experienced the type of life changing circumstance he was to inflict upon Malachai Constant, the richest man in the world who is about to go bankrupt (Rider, 2). Vonnegut was now subject to the great middle class. Vonnegut’s history is immediately apparent in the future of Malachi Constant, for Constant fell from the height of his vast wealth to complete bankruptcy. Vonnegut has nothing more to say about such extreme changes than: “It is always pitiful when any human being falls into a condition hardly more respectable than that of an animal. How much more pitiful it is when the person who falls has had all the advantages” (Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan xxx). At first glance, the “condition hardly more respectable than that of an animal”, seems to imply an economic struggle. However the word “pitiful” does not fit into this quote with this condition referring to economic status, for Vonnegut himself felt no pity for the series of economic accidents that befell him. Therefore Vonnegut’s history tells us that the condition “hardly more respectable than that of an animal” is a lack of ethics and morals. So with Vonnegut’s history in mind, the word pitiful applies to people who have had economic advantages in life and remain the most ethically and morally incorrect, the greediest and the least decent, rather than it is pitiful when those who are rich become poor. Vonnegut makes it clear that economic circumstances determine perception, for when injecting his own philosophy into Constant’s father, he says, “nobody thinks or notices anything as long as his luck is good. Why should he” (Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan 89)? Thus, Vonnegut’s own economic experiences with life and his own blindness to ethics and morals in his childhood are intertwined with the very core of the theme that economic status has a tendency to make blind certain key ethics and aspects of life to people.

            At some moments, truths in the universe coincide and can be read from top to bottom from left to right. Such moments include physical phenomenons such as the Chrono-Synclastic Infundibula, a place in the universe where all truths meet, or perspective and philosophy changing events usually involving massacre.  At such moments, we either: 1) go insane, 2) try to set the truth aside and live out the rest of our lives, or 3) deal with the truth and force others to do the same. Such a moment came for Vonnegut in a meat locker in Dresden. Dresden was a highly cultural German city that the Red Army was advancing upon and would have ceased with minimal death. In essence there were no significant threat posed by the highly cultural city of Dresden. However, after a bombing of this city with over 3,300 tons of explosive and incendiary bombs by allied forces, over 130,000 people were mercilessly slaughtered. Vonnegut as one of many prisoners of war was forced to shovel the bodies of the dead, a feat that took over 2 weeks to accomplish due to the vast amount of bodies. Here is where Vonnegut learned that “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre” (Slaughter House 5, 24), this primarily humanist philosophy begins to take shape in The Sirens of Titan as well, for when producing products such as literary novels, it is impossible to be unbiased and impartial, for there exists a lifetime of experiences to write from. Vonnegut is no exception, and thus, he is a prisoner of his past as are we all, and he therefore writes from his own wisdom and philosophy. Vonnegut’s two core philosophies are humanism stemming from his war experiences in Dresden, and existentialism. By understand both, it is possible to uncover hidden meaning in The Sirens of Titan. Humanism is being decent without any expectation of reward in this life or any life to come. Existentialism is a philosophy in which the individual struggles to create meaning through his free will in a seemingly meaningless and chaotic world. Combining both philosophies fuses Vonnegut’s true philosophy, that a “purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved” (Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan 320). The existentialism surfaces through the idea that the ultimate purpose of human life in The Sirens of Titan is to deliver a mechanical part to a stranded robot from another planet so that the robot can continue a pointless journey to deliver the word “greetings” from one brim of the galaxy to the next. The humanism derived from Vonnegut is apparent in an anti-war hidden meaning, for if we truly love one another, we cannot kill one another. By understanding both of these parts in turn, the superficial meaning of life, which is to deliver a scrap of metal to a stranded robot, becomes the chaotic, pointless, and meaningless world of an existentialist, while deep within this seemingly pointless world is an ulterior motive to create our own world with the free will designated to us, a world where we can truly love each other. 

            So much of The Sirens of Titan is Vonnegut, that the two are nearly indistinguishable, the only difference being the fantastical unheard of scientific phenomenon in the novel that do not naturally occur yet in our physical world. But because Vonnegut and his literature are so similar, by understanding the circumstances of Vonnegut, it is possible to look at The Sirens of Titan in a new way. By understanding Vonnegut’s history, we create a new plane in geometric space through which our perception of meaning is significantly altered. Vonnegut’s over-arching themes in Sirens of Titan change from the meaning of life being to send a stranded robot on his way to deliver a pointless message, to a balance of humanism and existentialism where we create our own meaning of life, which is to “love whoever is around to be loved” (Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan 320).



Works Cited:

Allen, William Rodney. Understanding Kurt Vonnegut. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.

“The Artist, Kurt Vonnegut’s Fantastic Ideas” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 10. Rpt. in Goodbye Blue Monday. Ed. Peter Reed. 2005. 2 May 2006 <http://www.vonnegut.com/artist.asp>.

Rider, Shawn. "Kurt Vonnegut Jr. so it Goes." Shawn Rider Writings. 3 May 2006 <http://www.wdog.com/rider/writings/KVJ_soitgoes.htm>.

Vonnegut, Kurt. The Sirens of Titan. New York: Dell, 1971.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse Five. New York: Dell, 1969.

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