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Kurt Vonnegut, The Lapsed Secularist1

By Josh Privett

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., in a commencement address at Bennington College in 1970, recounts


how as a young man he was very optimistic about the promise of science to improve human
life, thanks in part to his older brother, Bernard, who was an accomplished atmospheric
scientist. Scientific truth was going to make us so happy and comfortable, he says,
summarizing the enthusiasm for science that pervaded the interwar culture and
characterized the golden age of science fiction.

His enthusiasm turned into horror when he learned the United States had dropped an atomic
bomb on Japan: we dropped scientific truth on Hiroshima, he tells his audience. We
killed everyone there (Wampeters 161). Disillusioned by the moral failures of science,
Vonnegut concludes:

We would be a lot safer if the Government would take its money out of science and
put it into astrology and the reading of palms. I used to think that science would save
us, and science certainly tried. But we cant stand any more tremendous explosions,
either for or against democracy. Only in superstition is there hope. (163)

This is a shocking indictment coming from the erstwhile honorary president of the
American Humanist Association. Although some may question the dichotomy Vonnegut
erects between science and religion, he characterizes his familys irreligion along these
lines, informing one interviewer that his ancestors were influenced by science, not what
was in the Old Testament (McCartan 167). In other words, Vonnegut regards science as
advancing a secular explanation of reality that opposes spiritual or religious ones. This
premise is not without merit: after all, one persuasive analysis of the Enlightenment, and
the scientific revolution it precipitated, is that it contributed to the rise of secularization in
the West.

For many writers of Vonneguts generation, the dropping of the atomic bomb was the
catalyst for interrogating the modern projects confidence in rationalism and science. These
writers expose not only the moral failures of modernity but also the ecological and
psychological consequences of its secular assumptions. Scholar John McClure examines
how contemporary American authors reject secularisms disenchanted construction of
reality and the self for religious and spiritual explanations of the world and human
subjectivity (Culture). Their literature often traces the spiritual awakenings of secular-
minded characters, but as McClure explains, these conversions do not lead back to already
existing faith systems, but . . . try instead to work out some kind of synthesis between
secular and sacred ways of seeing (Culture). The redemption these characters seek is
worldly, not transcendent, and their spiritual quests usually remain incomplete, partial, or
open-ended. McClure calls these narratives postsecular because they challenge the

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https://thedailyvonnegut.com/essays/kurt-vonnegut-the-lapsed-secularist/
hegemony of secularism but stop short of affirming orthodox religious faith, opting instead
for provisional and unconventional spiritual expressions and experiences.

In much the same way, Kurt Vonneguts 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions narrates a
partial return to religion in light of the repercussions of secular disenchantment. The
novels genre supports interpreting the narrative as the spiritual awakening of its secular-
minded author. But this conversion is characteristically postsecular because the novel not
only articulates an idiosyncratic spirituality but also weakens orthodox doctrine.

Admittedly, the genre of Breakfast of Champions is difficult to define. The book is part
road novel, part metafiction, part anti-novel (accompanied by Vonneguts cartoonish
drawings), part Menippean satire, part absurdist fiction, and part Bildungsroman
specifically the subgenre Kunstlerroman, the novel of an artists maturation, the classic
example being A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. Vonneguts novel
can, and should, be read from each of these perspectives. But the narrative model of the
Kunstlerroman, which traces an authors moral, spiritual, and artistic development,
harmonizes with reading the novel as a conversion narrative. The epigraph, from the Book
of Job, When he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold, lays the foundation for
interpreting it as a novel of formation. Vonnegut emphasizes this theme in the preface as
well. I think I am trying to clear my head of all the junk in there, he writes. I think I am
trying to make my head as empty as it was when I was born onto this damaged planet fifty
years ago. . . . The things other people have put into my head . . . do not fit together nicely,
are often useless and ugly, are out of proportion with one another, are out of proportion
with life as it really is outside my head (5).

The novel is not, of course, a conventional Kunstlerroman. For one thing, the majority of
the novel focuses not on Kurt Vonnegut but on Kilgore Trout, an obscure science fiction
writer, and Dwayne Hoover, an automobile salesman in Midland City. (Those familiar with
Vonneguts life and work may recognize correspondences between these characters and
Vonnegut, who was considered by many during his life to be a hack science fiction writer, a
label he tried to shake, and who operated a Saab dealership on Cape Cod for a brief time in
the 1950s.) The plot follows their eventual rendezvous at an arts festival in Midland City,
jumping between the two mens chaotic experiences, until in the final third of the novel
Kurt Vonnegut inserts himself as a character into the story. Unlike the typical protagonist
of a Kunstlerroman, Vonnegut is also not a novice writer, but instead is the middle-aged,
critically acclaimed author of Slaughterhouse-Five. Breakfast of Champions is his attempt
to travel back in time to his birth, November 11, 1922, when there was still a sacred day
called Armistice Day (6). In other words, it is a novel of re-formation.

The idea that Vonnegut is trying to purge from his mind is a secular interpretation of
reality, which he inherited from his great-grandfather Clemens Vonnegut, a freethinker and
atheist whom Vonnegut greatly admired. In his autobiographical collage, Palm Sunday,
Vonnegut characterizes his ancestral religion, freethought, as a rejection of supernatural
revelation and religious teaching for rational thought and scientific knowledge. Pride for his
familys irreligion is the most evident thing in my writing, I think (Palm Sunday 195).
This admission clarifies his intellectual orientation at the beginning of Breakfast of
Champions, where he explains, The suspicion I express in this book [is] that human beings
are robots, are machines. He formed this conviction in his childhood, when he observed a
man suffering from syphilis stagger across the street as though he had a small motor which
was idling inside. His mothers suicide by a drug overdose when he was a young adult
convinces him that human beings are huge, rubbery test tubes . . . with chemical reactions
seething inside (3).

These hyperbolic descriptions are, of course, characteristic of Vonneguts black comedy


and also somewhat accurate, since the bodys processes are largely automatic. I contend,
however, that Vonnegut is purposefully reducing human beings to the physical body,
advancing a secular explanation of the self that precludes any spiritual or religious one
namely, the idea of an soul or spirit. His portrayal of the self resembles that of philosopher
John Searle, whose theory of biological naturalism conceives of the brain as a biological
machine and reduces mental consciousness to the brains physical and chemical processes
(Biological Naturalism). Later in the novel, Vonnegut confirms the secular assumptions
underpinning his worldview: I had come to the conclusion that there was nothing sacred
about myself or about any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and
collide and collide, he writes. I no more harbored sacredness than did a Pontiac, a
mousetrap, or a South Bend Lathe (225).

It is no surprise that Vonneguts secular outlook would influence how he represents human
beings in his fiction. He admits in the preface, It is a big temptation to me, when I create a
character for a novel, to say that he is what he is because of faulty wiring, or because of
microscopic amounts of chemicals which he ate or failed to eat on that particular day (4).
As the story unfolds, Vonnegut does just that, frequently attributing Dwayne Hoovers
psychopathic behavior to a chemical imbalance in his brain, such as when an unfortunate
chemical reaction causes Dwayne to insult one of his employees (46) or when his bad
chemicals made him take a loaded thirty-eight caliber revolver . . . and stick it in his
mouth (49). Throughout the novel, Vonnegut likewise represents his characters as
machines, like when he describes Dwaynes mother as a defective child-bearing machine
that destroyed herself automatically while giving birth to Dwayne (45-46) and when he
depicts Dwaynes secretary, Francine Pefko, as a machine made of meata typing
machine, a filing machine (193). And to maintain the perception that his characters are
machines, Vonnegut measures their body parts in meticulous detail, listing their bust sizes
and penis lengths rather than portraying their individual consciousness.

Obviously, this characterization is intentionally hyperbolic, but it also points to an implicit


critique of a secularism. For one thing, as an anti-novel, Breakfast of Champions
deconstructs the conventional notion of a fictional character. Because Vonnegut describes
his characters as if they were machines, they neither develop as characters nor possess a
realized individual interiority. The emphasis on their exteriority impedes any attempt by the
reader to empathize with these characters. The implication is that if a human being is
reduced only to the processes of the physical body, as a secular construction of the self
would suggest, there are no grounds for authentic human relationship or empathy.

Vonnegut applies this point to American history. As he recounts his formative education,
he points out that the slave trade in the United States, along with the resulting legacy of
racism, was contingent on the theory that black people are machines made out of meat.
By using their slaves as agricultural machinery (73), Southern slave owners were in fact
endorsing a secular construction of the self. In other words, the secular idea that human
beings are merely intricate machines, inherited from the Enlightenment, which undermined
the religious belief in the human soul, is in part culpable for the human rights violations of
institutional slavery.

Vonnegut further illustrates the moral repercussions of secularism through Dwayne


Hoovers treatment of his friends and family. When Dwayne finally meets Kilgore Trout in
Midland City, he reads one of Trouts novels, Now It Can Be Told, a book . . . in the form
of a long letter from the Creator of the Universe to [an] experimental creature who alone
has free will, while all the other creatures [are] fully-programmed robots (178). Dwayne
believes that the novel is addressed to him and accepts its message as gospel, concluding
that everybody on Earth was a robot, with one exceptionDwayne Hoover (15).

Armed with this new knowledge, Dwayne goes on a rampage, attacking his secretary, his
son, Kilgore Trout, along with seven other victims. He smashes his sons head into a piano
keyboard, calling him a cock-sucking machine because he is gay (265). He also punches
two womenone on the jaw, the other in the stomachbecause he honestly believed they
were all unfeeling machines (266). Through Dwayne, Vonnegut warns that a secular
understanding of human beings, if applied consistently, will result in apathy, abuse, and
oppression:

I used to think the electric chair was a shame. I used to think war was a shameand
automobile accidents and cancer, he [Dwayne] said, and so on.

He didnt think they were shames anymore. Why should I care what happens to
machines? he said. (270)

This scenario is, of course, melodramatic, but as a parable it illustrates the moral
implications of a secular construction of the self: if a human being is merely a complex
biological machine, why shouldnt we dispose of his or her body if it malfunctions or is
deemed unnecessary?

In the final third of the novel, what Vonnegut calls the spiritual climax of this book, the
author and narrator incarnates himself into the story as a character and experiences a
spiritual awakening. He joins his characters in Midland City, which is hosting an arts
festival, although it is cancelled after Dwayne Hoover attacks several visiting artists and
members of the community. Vonnegut writes, It is at this point that I, the author, am
suddenly transformed by what I have done so far. This is why I had gone to Midland City:
to be born again (Breakfast 224). As the evangelical parlance suggests, this scene is
central to understanding his conversion.

While in Midland City, Vonnegut meets an abstract expressionist painter named Rabo
Karabekian. Like many of Vonneguts characters, Karabekian makes several appearances
throughout Vonneguts novels. For the arts festival, Rabo is displaying his painting The
Temptation of Saint Anthony, which is twenty feet wide and sixteen feet high and consists
of a field of green paint intersected, on the left side, by a piece of orange fluorescent
reflective tape.

According to Rabo, his painting is:

a picture of the awareness of every animal. It is the immaterial core of every animal
the I am to which all messages are sent. It is all that is alive in any of usin a mouse,
in a deer, in a cocktail waitress. It is unwavering and pure, no matter what
preposterous adventure may befall us. A sacred picture of Saint Anthony is one
vertical, unwavering band of light. If a cockroach were near him, or a cocktail
waitress, the picture would show two such bands of light. Our awareness is all that is
alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery. (226)

These words effect in Vonnegut a conversion to a religiously inflected construction of the


self. Vonnegut immediately evinces a transformed mindset. He revises how he depicts his
characters by identifying the sacred part in themtheir awarenessfor the rest of the
novel. He addresses his readers, assuring them that at the core of each person who reads
this book is a band of unwavering light. He even recognizes that hea writing meat
machinepossesses something sacred at his core (231). In a gesture that confirms a
shift in his intellectual orientation, Vonnegut turns his attention to Einsteins formulation
E=Mc2 and concludes that it is a flawed equation because it does not account for human
awareness, without which the E and the M and the c . . . could not exist (247). And
in the novels final scene, a conversation between Vonnegut and one of his characters,
Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut releases Trout from the narrative itself: Under similar spiritual
conditions, Vonnegut tells Trout, Count Tolstoi freed his serfs. Thomas Jefferson freed
his slaves. I am going to set at liberty all the literary characters who have served me so
loyally during my writing career. . . . Arise, Mr. Trout, your are free, you are free (301).
This act is a fitting conclusion to this postmodern Kunstlerroman because it confirms that
Vonnegut recognizes that his characters are not machines to be programmed by their
author, but human beings who possess something sacred within them: an individual
consciousness.

Vonneguts conversion is, of course, partial and open-ended. The spirituality Rabo
articulates is a provisional pantheism of his own making rather than a declaration of
religious orthodoxy or an initiation into a formal religious system. It synthesizes secular
and sacred interpretations of reality and the self. Even though the abstract expressionist
painting The Temptation of Saint Anthony is devoid of any actual religious content, and
though Rabo admits that he does not even know who Saint Anthony is, his explanation of
the painting functions for Vonnegut as a postmodern faith that renews Vonneguts life
(229) and rescues him (225) from the moral implications of hegemonic secularism. As he
tells Trout in the conclusion, I am cleansing and renewing myself for the very different
sorts of years to come (301).

This regeneration causes Vonnegut to want to repair the chaos in the world, beginning with
the chaos in his own book. He confesses to Trout that his fiction, emanating from his
secular orientation, has contributed to Trouts oppression: Mr. Trout, I love you. . . I have
broken your mind to pieces. I want to make it whole. I want you to feel a wholeness and
inner harmony such as I have never allowed you to feel before (300). In an act that
orthodox readers may find heretical, but one that conveys a postsecular weakening of
religious doctrine, Vonnegut offers Trout the Edenic apple, which he calls a symbol of
wholeness and harmony and nourishment (300), rather than of mans first disobedience.
With this critical revision to the biblical story in Genesis, Vonnegut suggests that
religionalbeit a postmodern spirituality, what Jacques Derrida calls religion without
religioncan and should remain a useful discourse in our secular age.

Near the end of his Bennington College address, Vonnegut admonishes those who believe
that science has obviated the need for religion:

A great swindle of our time is the assumption that science has made religion obsolete.
All science has damaged is the story of Adam and Eve and the story of Jonah and the
Whale. Everything else holds up pretty well, particularly the lessons about fairness
and gentleness. People who find those lessons irrelevant in the twentieth century are
simply using science as an excuse for greed and harshness. (Wampeters 166)

Vonnegut stresses that, if things are to become better on earth, human beings dont need
more information. We dont need bigger brains. All that is required is that we become less
selfish than we are. He turned to Thomas Aquinass theology and Jesuss teachings (Do
unto others as you would have them do unto you) for that instruction, concluding that
these sources have not been made ridiculous by computers and trips to the moon and
television sets (166). I am not sure how Vonnegut would have responded to the harangues
against religion by contemporary atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. But
that a secular-minded author like Kurt Vonnegut, one of the most ethical writers of the
twentieth century, looked to religionmore often than not, Christianityfor moral
guidance should give us pause.

Works Cited

Biological Naturalism. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 31 May 2015. Web. 13 Feb.


2016.

McCartan, Tom, ed. Kurt Vonnegut: The Last Interview and Other Conversations.
Brooklyn: Melville House, 2011. Print.

McClure, John A. Post-Secular Culture: The Return of Religion in Contemporary Theory


and Literature. Cross Currents 47.3 (1997): n. pag. Humanities International Complete.
Web. 8 July 2015.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday. 1973. New York:
Dial, 1999. Print.

. Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage. New York: Laurel, 1984. Print.

. Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons. New York: Dell, 1974. Print.


Josh Privett is a Ph.D. student at Georgia State University, where he studies
twentieth- and twenty-first century American literature and teaches freshman
composition. He has published an article on Kurt Vonneguts first novel, Player Piano,
in New Academia: An International Journal of English Language, Literature, and
Literary Theory and has spoken on Vonnegut at several academic conferences. This
essay is adapted from a conference presentation he gave in Michigan in February,
2016. He welcomes any feedback at jprivett1@gsu.edu.