God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

In Howard’s End, E.M. Forster wrote that “Death destroys a man, but it’s the idea of death that saves him.” Death is usually an ending, but death has been so instrumental in the intellectual and emotional development of so many writers in the twentieth century that it has become a beginning. This story begins like this:


Kurt Vonnegut was an absurd man.

It ends like this:

“I know, I know. I know.”


Kurt Vonnegut was an absurd man.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus described the absurd person as someone who has seen through the ridiculous repetitions of daily life and “At certain moments of lucidity, the mechanical aspects of their gestures, their meaningless pantomime makes silly everything that surrounds them.” The imagery of a mechanical pantomime (or dance) is very close to Vonnegut’s use of the metaphor “duty dance with death” to describe life in Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut used the author Louis Celine and his writings to bring this metaphor to life. Celine, who wrote Death on the Installment Plan (another metaphor for life), once wrote that “No art is possible without a dance with death.” Celine described it this way: “The truth is death. I’ve fought nicely against it as long as I could, danced with it, festooned it, waltzed it around.”

Camus began The Myth of Sisyphus by writing that “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” In other words, “The truth is death.”

For Camus, man is a stranger in exile in the universe devoid of meaning. Life must be, and can only be, infused with meaning by mankind. “What the hell are people for?” Vonnegut asked. His answer seems to be: To give meaning to this duty dance with death. How is that done? Since we cannot evade death, we must entertain death and keep it busy. We must waltz with it.

This is done, like in a dance, through repetition and remembering. In Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, Henri Bergson likened the comic to watching a room full of dancers but with one’s own ears stopped so that one cannot hear the music. He also saw comedy in man being turned into a machine and in the idea of repetition, both themes of Camus and Vonnegut.

For Camus the comic must be turned into the absurd and man must engage in rebellious repetition. He must fight death with Pyrrhic integrity; he must “thumb his nose,” like Bokonon at the end of Cat’s Cradle. The comic is turned into the absurd, and daily routine turned into Sisyphean rebellion, at just the point at which man becomes aware that life is a comic farce, a Slapstick which cannot be evaded.

Vonnegut knew this. Writing for Vonnegut was an act of Sisyphean repetition that infused his life with meaning by forcing him to remember what the hell people are for. In Slaughterhouse-Five he wrote, ironically, though many miss the irony: “People aren’t supposed to look back. I?m certainly not going to anymore.” Just prior to that he told the reader that it is precisely the act of “looking back” which makes us humans. To be human is to remember.

For Camus, Sisypheanism was refusing to forget where one is from; that is, looking back to Eden, remembering that one toils in exile and remembering where one is headed; that is, towards death. One cannot hide behind illusions because that would be, for Camus, “Forgetting just what I do not want to forget.”
The Yaqui Indians believe one should walk beside death like a companion to remind them that he could take them at any moment.

Camus and Vonnegut both understand that. Hemingway, another writer obsessed with death, did too.

Nick Adams, and I think Hemingway by proxy, was terrified of death. In the very first Nick Adams story, “Three Shots,” Nick is trying to sleep alone at camp when “suddenly he was afraid of dying.” A few weeks prior to that, in church, Nick realized he would die someday. “It made him feel quite sick.” Hemingway faced the fear of death and the seeming absurdity of life by shows of manly courage. Face the thing you fear head on and act simply and decisively. But the key was action. He even developed a writing style that was compact, tight and focused on life in the face of death. A style that fit a life of action.

Hemingway chose a life of action, and he wrote in order to try and hold off the increasingly overwhelming forces of meaninglessness that stormed the beaches of his soul. He was trying to keep death at bay. Writing for him was an end in itself. A mode of existence that gave meaning to his life, and when he felt he had lost that barrier between himself and death he gave in to it. Thanatos beat Eros and he killed himself.

For Vonnegut writing wasn’t an end in itself; it was a means to an end. It was an act of remembering and repetition, like dancing.
In an essay titled “A Room Called Remember,” Frederick Buechner wrote that “in the room called Remember it is possible to find peace- the peace that comes from looking back and remembering to remember that though most of the time we failed to see it, we were never really alone.”
John Donne wrote, “No man is an island entire to himself; therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Hemingway titled his greatest work on this passage of Donne’s, but he never understood that we find purpose and meaning in repetition and remembering and relation: our relationship to ourselves, to others, to our world and even to death.

In writing death lost its sting for Vonnegut; it died, to borrow from Donne again. Vonnegut screamed out to the universe “What the hell are people for” and back came a single word: “Remember.” So he put his back to the repetitious task of moving a boulder of words up a hill only to have to roll back down again and again. He took up his pen and dutifully danced with death. It all sounds so absurd.

“I know; I know. I know.”

Of Mice and Men: The Death of the American Dream

Steinbeck was a Depression novelist, and he saw it as his duty to “set down his time as nearly as he can understand it.”   He does so in Of Mice and Men  which portrays the corruption of the American dream during the 1930’s.

I have always thought Steinbeck tried to portray the American Dream simply as having something one could call one’s own, especially land.  In talking to Candy, in the book, Crooks says, “Everybody wants a little bit of land, not much.  Jus’ som’thin’ that was his.  Som’thin’ he could live on and there couldn’t nobody throw him off of it.”

One can see this Dream thought out American literature.  Jefferson’s replacement of Locke’s term ‘property’ for the phrase “Pursuit of happiness” is an early example.  Jefferson broadened Locke’s idea, but Jefferson once wrote that land “is the focus in which [people] keep alive that sacred fire which otherwise might expire from the face of the Earth.”  He was an agrarian who saw people who owned and labored on their own land as God’s chosen people.

One can trace this dream forward to Thoreau.  Although he did not own Walden Pond he went there for two years to live off the land.  The Transcendentalists like Emerson and Whitman and Thoreau all believed the Oversoul linked men to nature.  Property has always been seen as a sacred right in American history and it is encoded into the Constitution.

It is this same dream that is held by Lenny and George in Of Mice and Men.  It becomes the dream of everyone they tell.  When George and Lenny were talking about their dream place “Old Candy turned slowly over.  His eyes wide open.”  Candy’s dog had just been shot and he was upset, but when George dreamed out loud Candy wanted a part of it, if only vicariously through their eyes.

They all just wanted to have their “own place where [they] belonged.”  Crooks tells them that “If you…guys would want a hand to work for nothing- just his keep, why I’d come an lend a hand.”

In Of Mice and Men Steinbeck shows how this dream was corrupted and destroyed by the Great Depression.  It was during the Depression that America ran out of land.  Franklin Roosevelt wrote regarding an earlier mild depression that “Traditionally, when a depression came a new section of land was opened up in the West and even our temporary misfortune served our Manifest destiny.  At the very worst there was always the possibility of climbing into a covered wagon and moving West.”

This was no longer possible because all the land was opened up and settled.  Jefferson, as early as 1795 predicted that Americans would eventually run out of land and have to come up with other means of making a living.

America had been spoiled by prosperity.   Walt Whitman wrote that “Long, to long America, Travelling roads all even and peaceful you learn’d from joys and prosperity only.”  He recognized that America would not always prosper.  Edward Bellamy, in Looking Backward, described American economic life at the turn of the century as a carriage.  This carriage was pulled by the mass of humanity, driven by hunger, and the wealthy few rode on top.

Jefferson again sounds prophetic when he wrote that manufacturers (later industrialists) were “panders of vice , and the instrument by which the liberties of a country are overturned.”  All this isn’t to say that capitalism is bad, but people were being made industrial surfs at the same time the land was drying up, and they had to, as Jefferson said, because they had eat.

It was a high time for some, the Charlies, Lorraines and Duncans of Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited” who rode drunk on tricycles in the streets and threw hundred dollar bills to band players, but when the stock market crashed all the personal wealth and corporations crashed and so did the nation’s economy.  Without land, the people forced into industrial work had no jobs, no money and no way to get “a little piece of land.”

Steinbeck portrays all of this in Of Mice and Men.  He portrays it by letting the dream come within the men’s grasp and then it gets destroyed.  Steinbeck writes “They fell into silence.  They looked at one another, amazed.  This thing they had never really believed in was coming true.”

Even Crooks who says “I seen guys nearly crazy with loneliness for land, but ever’ time a whore house or a blackjack game took what it takes” became convinced.  It was right there in their hands.

When Curly’s wife is found dead, the first concern of Candy and George is the dream.  Candy asks George if they can still get their place and George answers “I think I knowed from the very first.  I think I knowed we’d never do her.”

In a way when George shoots Lenny he is killing his dream and realizing that life will always be the way it is for men like him.  For Lenny the dream never died, but it was an illusion he couldn’t see.  Steinbeck seems to be saying that unless one can adapt to the reality that the American dream had become an illusion he will die like Lenny.