Source of book: I own this.
This book is the last one Vonnegut wrote before his death. It is a series of essays written over a five-year period, and is a bit of a ramble through his thoughts on art, writing, politics, morality, and life.
The essays are untitled - in the table of contents, there is just the first few words of the essay. As I noted, the essays ramble a lot. I feel like they could very well be Vonnegut giving a speech at a graduation, the way he does. This is not a bad thing, and it is totally on brand for him. But don’t expect a formally organized essay.
At the beginning of each essay is an “illustration” by Vonnegut - which is really just an artistically written quote, either by him or someone else. And, there are liberal uses of the asterisk, which fans will know is his trademark…and also means “asshole.” Here is one of those illustrations:
Also on display is Vonnegut’s other trademark: deceptively simple language. I mean, it sometimes feels like third grade level, but he is so good at simplicity. And his meaning is anything but simple.
Rather than attempt to summarize the essays, I think I will just highlight some passages.
The first one is in a discussion of Marx’s famous statement that “religion is the opiate of the masses.” As Vonnegut points out, this is often misunderstood. It is not an anti-religion statement at all, and wasn’t intended as a prescription for anything. It was a simple observation that those in economic or social distress can find religion comforting.
When Marx wrote those words, by the way, we hadn’t even freed our slaves yet. Who do you imagine was more pleasing in the eyes of a merciful God back then, Karl Marx or the United States of America?
Just saying. It is puzzling to me that so many supposed “Christians” here in the US seem to think that “socialism” - by which they do not mean the government ownership of the means of production, but any attempts to create social and economic equality - is the epitome of evil. Much of the Torah, the Prophets, the Epistles, and especially Christ’s teachings sure sound “socialist” if taken seriously.
Here is another great observation:
I think that novels that leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex.
I have noticed that there are a striking number of people who complain about the technology in modern literature - which is given as a reason for either reading the old stuff, or sticking to nostalgia genres set in the past. I think Vonnegut is right that technology is indeed part of life, and refusing to include it is a puzzling misrepresentation.
One theme that can be found in a few of the essays is that of climate change and fossil fuels. Vonnegut is pessimistic about the whole issue, but I think his biggest insight is that fossil fuels are indeed our most addictive and damaging drug. As he says, we have sacrificed the future of our species to make “thermodynamic whoopie” for a couple hundred years.
Vonnegut’s dark humor is on display throughout as well. Here is a passage that made me laugh:
Why are so many people getting divorced today?
It’s because most of us don’t have extended families anymore. It used to be that when a man and a woman got married, the bride got a lot more people to talk to about everything. The groom got a lot more pals to tell dumb jokes to.
While divorce rates have been on a downward trend for decades, I think that Vonnegut is on to something in terms of our increasing loneliness and isolation. Humans need friends. They need social networks. Extended family is part of that (although I think perhaps a contributing factor to the lack of extended family is the older generations’ determination to control and disrespect the younger - I have too much experience with that already.)
On a related note, there is a great essay about what Vonnegut calls “guessers.” These are the leaders who purport to explain something - which is what humanity has had to do for much of its history. In some ways, this was a survival technique. In an unpredictable world, being able to assign some sort of causation allowed humans to move forward rather than become paralyzed by the uncertainty.
The problem is, however, that we now have better techniques for explaining many things. The scientific method and all that flows from us allow us to understand the “why.” Unfortunately, this is not how one succeeds in politics, particularly American politics. Vonnegut goes on to list a whole bunch of (mostly right wing) beliefs that are in the teeth of the evidence. For example, “Loaded pistols are good for everyone except inmates in prisons or lunatic asylums.”
Vonnegut gets to the heart of the problem.
But the guessers, in fact, knew no more than the common people and sometimes less, even when, or especially when, they gave us the illusion that we were in control of our destinies.
In thinking back on the gradual disintegration of my parents’ ability to recognize truth versus the lies of charlatans (medical, theological, scientific, political), I believe this was at the core of it. The illusion of control. Alternative “medicine” promises an explanation for why bad things happen, and the illusion of being able to avoid them. “Eat this and you will never get cancer.” “Cure anything with this superfood.” And the theological charlatans promised that authoritarian fundamentalism would allow parents to control how their kids turned out. (It didn’t work.)
This illusion of control is so strong that a shockingly high percentage of our population wants a return to charisma-based authority, rather than empirical evidence.
It isn’t the gold standard that they want to put us back on. They want something even more basic. They want to put us back on the snake-oil standard.
Vonnegut ends with the tragic story of Semmelweis. You know, the guy who proved that hand washing when delivering babies saved lives. He was forced out by those in power, and died by suicide some time later. Here is what Vonnegut concludes - and he is spot-on:
The guessers revealed something else about themselves, too, which we should duly note today. They aren’t really interested in saving lives. What matters to them is being listened to - as, however ignorantly, their guessing goes on and on and on. If there is anything they hate, it is a wise human.
If you want to understand the fury of the right wing, this is it. They want to be listened to, no matter how foolish or ignorant they are. And they cannot handle a wise human contradicting them. About anything.
In a later essay, Vonnegut talks about a similar and related sort of person - the psychopathic personality.
Some people are born deaf, some are born blind or whatever, and this book is about congenitally defective human beings of a sort that is making this whole country and many other parts of the planet go completely haywire nowadays. These were people born without consciences, and suddenly they are taking charge of everything.
PPs are presentable, they know full well the suffering their actions may cause others, but they do not care. They cannot care because they are nuts. They have a screw loose!
Now, I would dispute the “suddenly” part. Psychopathic personalities have alway tended to come to power. It is a weakness of human nature that we tend to be attracted to narcissists and sociopaths - I don’t really understand it, particularly since I tend to be repelled by those sorts, but the phenomenon is well known.
However, he definitely gets some things right. They are presentable - you have to get to know them to really understand who they are. And they do know they hurt others…but they do not care. I grew up with a malignant narcissist, and it took me decades to understand that it wasn’t a lack of empathy, but a lack of conscience that was the issue. I thought if I could just understand better, make them understand me better, we could have an actual mutual relationship. I thought there was some ability to understand the give and take that normal people take for granted in a relationship. I eventually realized that what I was doing was just giving them more ammunition to hurt me. And I eventually terminated the relationship altogether.
Narcissistic and psychopathic traits are tremendously destructive, to families, to societies, and to our planet. One of the greatest challenges we face in solving the other challenges we face, is how to reduce the outsized influence that people without consciences have on policy, whether at the family or national level.
I’ll end with a highly unexpected discovery in this book. Vonnegut says something I have been saying for years:
If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:
THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD WAS MUSIC
I have long said that I believe in God for the same reason that I believe in music. Neither can really be understood on an intellectual level, but they can be experienced in spacetime in a way that defies description. Sure, I can explain how mathematical relationships determine pitch, but why that should have a transcendent effect on humans is not purely rational.
Vonnegut was an atheist, so I found this line rather surprising. But I should not be surprised that he was complicated - or that he responded to music.
I came to Vonnegut in my 40s, which is rather late. (For some reason, Slaughterhouse-Five isn’t a standard part of high school literature like it was for my parents’ generation.) I find that I have a lot in common with him these days.