Monday, June 13, 2011

Kurt Vonnegut, Absurdity, and All Those Young Men in Chuck Taylors

The other day I found myself down in a particularly dark and foreboding part of my unfinished basement, groping around in my auxiliary bookshelves (yes, it has come to this, backup bookshelves in the basement), looking for a collection of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ letters that I thought might be of use for the book I’m writing. I never got to the Hopkins, though, because I was waylaid by a pile of crumbling old paperbacks I hadn’t looked at in at least fifteen years: the novels of Kurt Vonnegut, with which I then spent the afternoon. Like a lot of people, I read Vonnegut obsessively in my late teens: he was my transition from Heinlein and Asimov to Dostoevsky and Camus — and appropriately so, since Vonnegut is one part science fiction and one part existentialism, along with one part Mysterious Stranger-era Mark Twain, stirred and served chilled in a Mason jar found under the back porch of an Indiana farm house.

It’s a fairly common observation that a large portion of Vonnegut’s readership has always been young: you find his affinity with the young noted everywhere from the socialist website Solidarity to the pop culture shit-funnel Entertainment Weekly. The observation certainly rings true with my own experience, not only as a reader, but as a clerk in a used bookstore on Chicago’s Clark Street back in the 1990s.

Those of us who worked at the old Aspidistra Bookshop amused ourselves in all manner of ways, but one of them was in predicting what kind of book a customer would end up buying. Whole demographic categories were easy: the street people would go for self-help books or anything conspiracy oriented; the people from the nearby fetish store called House of Whacks would buy books on leatherworking, the sleek professional Lincoln Park ladies would buy Jane Austen, Jane Austen fan-fiction (there’s a ton of this stuff), and exotic cookbooks; the leftover Black Panther types always wanted Machiavelli and Soul on Ice; old white guys wanted biographies of dead presidents and books with pictures of World War II airplanes, etc. But the easiest of all were the teenage guys from the suburbs, the indie-rock looking ones in Chuck Taylor sneakers: they wanted Vonnegut. Once in a while they wanted the poems of Charles Bukowski, and after 1996 they sometimes sought out used copies of Fight Club. But it seemed like half of all the fiction we sold to these guys had been written by Vonnegut. We knew the type: we were the type, although now we’d moved on to more arcane snobberies, and looked down on the Vonnegut readers as only ex-Vonnegut readers could. “Vonnegut’s not a writer,” we’d say to one another, as another kid from New Trier High School trooped out with copies of Mother Night and Slapstick tucked into his courier bag, “he’s a phase.” We would then clink our bottles of Guinness — the Aspidistra beverage of choice — together, and get back to reading the free weekly papers and sneering at the movie reviews.

But here’s the funny thing: I can think of only one time I or any of my peers at Aspidistra ever sold a copy of a Vonnegut novel to a woman: a much tattooed, nose-pierced student from DePaul. My pal Colin tried chatting her up (he did this with any girl who looked like she was crazy enough to take him seriously), and found out that she was reading it for class. This means we never sold a Vonnegut book to a woman who wanted to read it of her own volition. I don’t mean to say no women read Vonnegut, only that he seems to be one of those writers — like Austen, like Hemingway, like Helen Fielding, like Pahlaniuk — whose readership seems fairly heavily skewed on the basis of gender.

If we can admit these admittedly unscientific notions about Vonnegut’s readership — that it skews young, and skews male — then the question arises: why? I don’t have anything like an answer supported by evidence, but I have a hypothesis, which is this: I think the youngness and maleness of Vonnegut’s readership may have something to do with the existential absurdity of his work.

My favorite explanation of existential absurdity comes from Sartre’s 1943 essay on Camus’ L’√Čtranger. In that essay Sartre goes back to a passage from Camus’ Le Mythe de Sisyphe to give us Camus’ image of a man seen talking animatedly in an old-style, glass box telephone booth as an image of absurdity: of life as a series of meaningless, possibly ridiculous, gestures. “A man is talking on the telephone,” goes the Camus passage, “We cannot hear him beyond the glass partition, but we can see his senseless mimicry. We wonder why he is alive.”

Here’s Sartre’s commentary on the passage:

"The gesturing of a man who is telephoning and whom we cannot hear is only relatively absurd, because it is part of an incomplete circuit. Listen in on an extension, however, and the circuit is completed; human activity recovers its meaning. Therefore, one would have, in all honesty, to admit that there are only relative absurdities…"

So there’s a bit of a difference between Camus (in this instance, if not in others) and Sartre on the question of absurdity. For the Camus of this particular passage, life is a series of pointless gestures, an absurdity without meaning; for Sartre life may seem absurd, but there is a possibility that it is not, that the apparently empty gestures do actually connect to some larger significance beyond absurdity.

Kurt Vonnegut was a humane man, who seems to have meant it when, in God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, he wrote “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter…. There's only one rule that I know of, babies—‘God damn it, you've got to be kind.’” But his overall vision—and he was certainly a writer with an overall vision—was of a universe without transcendent meaning, without overarching significance. He was, in his way, as much of an absurdist as was Beckett, or Kafka — as much of an absurdist as the Camus who wrote the passage quoted by Sartre.

Vonnegut came by his absurdism honestly. The experiences upon which he based his greatest work, Slaugherhouse Five, were dire enough to drive anyone to the conclusion that the quest for meaning or significance was bound to falter and fail. Like the protagonist of Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut was a prisoner of war during the Allied firebombing of Dresden, and like that protagonist he was one of the very few survivors of that cataclysm, having been locked in an underground slaughterhouse when the city burned. The firebombing of Dresden—a beautiful city of absolutely no military significance—was a gratuitous act, coming at a time when the Allies had all-but-won the war, and gaining them nothing of strategic worth. It was, for the most part, a slaughter of innocents and a desecration of cultural heritage. It was, in short, an absurd action par excellence. When Vonnegut emerged from his bunker, his German captors set him to work on the hopeless task of cleaning things up, which involved, among other things, moving the charred remnants of untold numbers of people from the destroyed streets. The young Vonnegut was forced to see, and touch, the aftermath of an action of such excessive destruction and stupidity that it could not be explained as the result of a rational civilization, even of a rational civilization at war. Dresden put the lie to the idea of a simple right and wrong in war. It put the lie to the idea of technology as progress, as it put the lie to the idea of a benevolent democratic nation. One could not look on Dresden and believe in the old nineteenth century ideal of progress, nor could one believe in the even older Enlightenment faith in reason. It would take a Job-like level of faith to believe that a benevolent deity would have allowed something like this to happen, and Vonnegut was no Job. His world went dark that day and never really lightened: all the laughter in his novels comes from a dark place, and even when he writes of love, it comes not from joy, but from a sense of the pathos of humanity in a universe without meaning, a universe that renders our noblest hopes and gestures absurd.

Young people tend to connect with absurdism. But their absurdism is often more like the relative absurdism described by Sartre. That is, much of the absurdism of teenagers is predicated less on a deeply-felt sense of the metaphysical emptiness of the universe than it is based on lack of empathy and lack of experience (I’m sure there are exceptions, probably among the traumatized—but I’m thinking of all those boys from Winnetka who traipsed through Aspidistra on their way to buy Pavement CDs at Wax Trax back in the mid-1990s: a segment of the population statistically high in skinny-legged jeans, privilege, and Ivy League ambitions, and statistically low in deep trauma).

The notion that teenagers lack empathy is more than just a folk belief among frazzled parents: it’s got some pretty persuasive neuroscience behind it, based on studies of how the brain functions differently for people of different ages. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore of the University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience is, in my layman’s opinion, the best explainer of these matters. “We think that a teenager's judgment of what they would do in a given situation is driven by the simple question: ‘What would I do?’” says Blakemore. In contrast, she tells us, adults ask “What would I do, given how I would feel and given how the people around me would feel as a result of my actions?””

Other neurological studies,notably those of Donald Pfaff, indicate that women are likely to feel empathy in a broader range of circumstances than are men. Long story short, it seems that women are more likely than men to extend empathy to those they consider opponents and rule-breakers than men are. The guys take their cue from Conan the Barbarian, wanting to see their enemies driven before them, their villages in flames. The women, not so much.

What does any of this have to do with absurdity? Well, consider Sartre’s comments on Camus’ image of the man in the phone booth. If we watch him without empathy, he does indeed appear absurd: his gestures are ridiculous, pointless things. We might, if we’re teenagers, and even more so if we’re teenage guys, nudge the kid next to us, point at the guy with the cigarette we’re unduly proud of smoking, and say something like “check out that douchebag,” which is a demotic way of saying “that guy and his actions are absurd.” But if we have empathy—if we can imagine ourselves, perhaps, in his situation, we might think “that guy’s really agitated: maybe he’s pleading with a hospital administrator not to kick his daughter out of the treatment ward even though his insurance has run out and he can’t make the payments unless he somehow manages to move some real estate down at the office.” If we can imagine listening in on an extension, in the way Sartre describes, then perhaps “human activity recovers its meaning.”

In addition to cognitive difficulties with empathy, young people generally lack experience, which means that many of the actions they observe in the world seem pointless or meaningless, even when that may not be the case. If you don’t know anything about how a bureaucracy works, all bureaucracies look like they come straight off the pages of Kafka’s The Castle. I’m not saying there are no absurd bureaucracies—I’ve been in academe too long for that—only that youth correlates with inexperience, and the more inexperienced one is, the less one is likely to see actions as meaningful. It’s no accident, I think, that the gentle absurdism of Monty Python's Flying Circus was the creation of young men, and that it’s still young men one overhears doing those ridiculous pepperpot women voices and reciting skits like “Hello Mrs. Gorilla” or “Spam Spam Spam Spam.” This is relative absurdism, the view from outside the phone booth, where the gestures are visible but the words that give them meaning are inaudible. Absurdists of this type will feel an affinity for the novels of Kurt Vonnegut, but unless they are traumatized or otherwise driven into a different, more profound type of absurdity—a Dresden absurdity—their Vonnegut novels are likely to end up in the basements of their suburban houses.