To me, reading literature is like eating a bag of Jelly Belly jelly beans. One eats all the good flavours, and throws the rest away. In other words, in reading a novel, a number of people may come away with a number of different themes and messages, often emphasizing and de-emphasizing certain events and characters to highlight their theme. Is it literary critcism? Maybe. Maybe not. Do I care? Not really. I’m most certainly going to do it either way. Why? I’m not writing to craft an academically thorough examination of what Kurt Vonnegut may or may not have meant. I’m writing to myself, to a generally neo-Anabaptist/post-Evangelical audience, and to whomever else occasionally reads this blog (hi, mom!). And, frankly, I just really like Kurt Vonnegut. I want to bring his works into the post-Evangelical conversation. Partly because there doesn’t seem to be much conversation about literature among us; partly because I believe Kurt Vonnegut has a lot to say to the amorphous culture of post-evangelicalism.
A tale of good luck and self-deluded religion and science.
This is Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan.
Unfortunately, this tale is lesser known than Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle. Don’t get me wrong, Cat’s Cradle is very good (notice I left out Slaughterhouse Five?). I just think this is one of Vonnegut’s best. It’s a bit before Vonnegut achieves his signature short chapter segment division scheme, so it also stands out a bit from the rest of his repertoire.
Although it is Vonnegut’s second major work, he actually started, and left unfinished, Cat’s Cradle about 4 years prior to even thinking about Titans. In fact, Titans was written during a financial, personal, and literary funk for Vonnegut. While it took Vonnegut a number of years to complete Cradle, it took him only a few months to finish the entire manuscript of Titans on a whim of necessity.
The book went on to be nominated for a Hugo Award the same year of its release. Although not considered his best work by most, it has acquired a cult following, and a major motion picture has been attempted a variety of times, most notably by Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead who bought the rights to the film (what didn’t he purchase?). Titans has also influenced major Scifi writers, such as Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, who cites Titans as one of his chief novels of inspiration.
If you have not read the book, I recommend reading a brief plot summary either here or here. I would type one up myself, but much ink (pixels) has been spilled to write the same plot summary over and so on and so on.
Vonnegut offers a plethora of important themes and messages to us, whether intentional or no.
What is, in my opinion, one of the most, if not the most, apparent theme in the novel: don’t take ourselves too seriously. The novel deals with the overall purpose of human history…and that individual and corporate humanity really has little to no sway over how our grand narrative ends. That does not mean, however, humans cannot influence the minute details of the greater story. I mean, we’re kind of a big part of it. So, on one hand, we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously, because to be honest, we can’t save the world. We can do our best to love and care for it, but we can’t save it. On the other, we should have some solemness in our lives, because while we cannot necessarily “save” the world (whatever that even means), we most certainly can destroy it in a matter of seconds, if a select few people were so inclined. The end of the human epoch of history may not change because of our activity, but individual human lives may. Our influence on a grander scale is generally small, but our influence on a small scale is generally grand.
Although it may appear by all intents and purposes we cannot impact the world for the better (who’s ‘better’ do we mean?) in the long term, there are glimpses of what we may do without even knowing it. For example, it is arguable the very idea of “individual human rights” wouldn’t exist without some of the world’s major religions (most emphatically the Judeo-Christian tradition). Religion has done a lot of harm throughout history, but so have irreligious (or to become totally binary: scientific) people groups. People have done a lot of harm throughout history. But people have also done a lot of good. People will continue to do both, often without knowing the outcome of their ideas and actions. Which brings us to our next theme.
Second: Much religious activity is completely fruitless, pointless, and meaningless. Even that which is well intentioned and pursued passionately can fall completely flat. Rumfoord’s creatively crafted new religion for Earth, while seemingly beautiful, shows itself to be meaningless by the end of the book. Okay, so using this analogous to all religion (maybe) isn’t fair. Let’s make it simultaneously more broad and narrow: most, if not all, human activity is fruitless, pointless and meaningless. Or at the very least, in regard to what people try to accomplish. Our abstract ideals, when put into action, could produce effects that render our ideals infertile. As said above, humans will never know the full impact of their words, ideas, interactions, etc.. on other people and the ever-moving historical drama unfolding before us. We will be long gone before that happens. But of course, this is basic historicity: there are no independent variables. What I do with my life tomorrow could very well influence someone on the other side of the world a few days later. Maybe even earlier. Possibly later. This gets into the fun idea of the butterfly effect. Or the notion that all of creation is one giant organism that which has a seemingly infinite supply of endless parts that all interact with each other…and are quite possibly predetermined. Or not. Depending on one’s views of reality. ;D
Third time’s the charm: In many ways, none of the characters in this novel appear not to be psychologically or physically ‘grounded’ (hehe). They’re a little bit insane, although they may not appear to be in their own contexts. But in a tale about time travel, inter-planetary travel, and galaxy-hopping, there is bound to be a variety of cultural contexts. For this reason, Titan speaks to us about the human condition of “othering” people for cultural reasons. Individuals whose psychologies are raised or which grow and change in cultures different to ours may appear to be strange, different, possibly even psychologically unstable. We quickly write them off as being “other.” What Vonnegut does is show us that all of us are cultural beings and we’re all in the same “psychologically-unstable” boat as everyone else, in our own unique way. The rich, the poor, the lucky, the distraught. The religious, the atheist, the everything-in-between. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that someone who is in a committed marriage and has two kids with a stable household is less psychologically stable than someone with severe social anxiety who can never leave the house. I am using “psychologically stable” as a metaphor to show how we “other” (verb) people. We’re all cultural beings who function differently depending on our culture, and because culture is simply a death avoidance mechanism, the fact we cling so tightly to our culturally conditioned psychologies is a form of psychological instability. Here I refer to the writings of Ernest Becker and other existentially empirical psychologists.
This is a truth to keep in mind while going about our average day, seeking to be hospitable. If someone appears gross, disgusting, unflattering, annoying, uncompromisingly angry, let us take a step back and evaluate why. Why do we think they’re gross? Or why are they so angry? Simply put, let us learn to empathize with the “other,” so that we may more fully call them “sister” or “brother.”
Four! Despite this vast meaninglessness and pointlessness of being cultural beings in a world where culture is a relative death avoidance mechanism that never guarantees any of our actions will ever produce primarily loving fruit, there remains hope. Malachi Constant, toward the very end of the novel, can only come up with one purpose for living: love those around you who are there to be loved. But this proves a problem – if we can’t determine the outcome of our actions, how are we supposed to live up to our ideal of loving anyone who is around to be loved? This is where Vonnegut’s die-hard humanism fails me, and we diverge on our thought. Although Kurt also had an explicit appreciation for the Sermon on the Mount (I mean, his book Jailbird is arguably about his secularist appreciation for Jesus’ famous sermon), he never seemed able to combine humanism in a coherent way with the Anabaptist call to discipleship in the here and now, understandably so.
Vonnegut frequently struggled with depression and meaninglessness. It makes sense, in a very ironic sort of way. His life was wrought with suffering. Caught on the hook of the American Dream, he was drawn out of water, flopped on financial failure, then let back in the kiddie swimming pool only to have the same thing repeated a few more times throughout his life. His mother committed suicide on Mother’s Day, and his sister died of cancer only two days after her husband died in a train wreck. This left Vonnegut to care for seven children in total – three of them his biological children, four of them orphaned by the sudden death of their parents. Among all of this, he was continually haunted by his time as a war prisoner during WWII. While fighting ‘for’ America, he was captured, and in a dramatic turn of events, American aviators dropped bombs all over his prison in Dresden, almost being killed by the government he swore to protect. God bless America (and Kurt Vonnegut). He tried to kill himself at least once, and openly writes about it in some of his works. All in all, Vonnegut was a riot. A bit psychologically unstable, though. Or maybe completely sane. I guess it depends who you ask. So it goes.
Given Vonnegut’s biography and struggles with depression, it makes sense that some of his works can come across as nihilistic operas that make you feel hopeful in a queasy way. Acquainted with suffering and some of the deeper questions of humanity, Vonnegut was prepared to offer a simultaneously harsh critique and manifesto in defense of being human.
In a non-vonnegutian fashion, I finish with these final thoughts, seeking a coherent wrap-up: meaning is not solely found in the abstract, but, in conjunction with point two, it is found in the empirical. It is found in those whom we can love. In other words, meaning is incarnate – the abstract god made flesh. The abstract meaning turned tangible. While we can never truly know the full effect of what we seek to accomplish, we can hope and pray for the best. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example, said just this while imprisoned by the Nazi regime for being a pacifist. Paraphrased, he said, “all you can really do is say your prayers and be ready to die.” All we can hope for is that our frail attempts to love ourselves and those around us, in some way, have a positive effect, and that others may see the beauty of Life and Truth in our ideals and actions, and continue to strive toward the beauty of the coming Eschaton. We walk as ambassadors, as messengers, as those who speak and live truth, to the best of our ability. Part of it all is knowing that what we’re doing is deeply wrapped up in culture, and uncontrollable historical factors that may make all we do for nought. Then we go die. But death is not the end.
Grace and peace