Kurt Vonnegut’s Atheist Marvels, Just in Time For Christmas
How the Famous Humanist Achieved Transcendence Without God
In 2010, three years after the death of Kurt Vonnegut, the British writer Neil Gaiman composed a remarkable foreword to a little-known book by Vonnegut. “I have spoken to Kurt Vonnegut twice now,” Gaiman said. “The first time he was alive. The second time, more recently, he was dead. We met,” Gaiman continued, “at the end of the blue tunnel that links this world with Heaven.” The book was God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, a delightful collection of fictional interviews with people Vonnegut claimed to have met in Heaven. In the book, Vonnegut informs us that he was able to enter the afterlife via the convenient services of the real-life doctor, Jack Kevorkian, who repeatedly brings Vonnegut in the text to the point of near death so that his soul can briefly ascend to Heaven. In Heaven, Vonnegut—who self-described more than once as an atheist—chats with a number of real and fictional characters and records their discussions in interviews, which he writes each time he is brought back to life.
At once darkly absurdist—the book was published the same year that the real-life Dr. Kevorkian was arrested on charges of second-degree murder in a controversial voluntary euthanasia case—and hilarious, the book shows Vonnegut’s approach to spirituality at its clearest. This approach, I would argue, is one that pervades much of Vonnegut’s fiction: a kind of secular appreciation of moments that I might call spiritual, or, the word I prefer, marvelous, the latter in the literal sense meaning “full of marvels,” full of a sense of awe—the way that Alejo Carpentier and Gabriel Garcia Marquez employed the word. Though not a believer, Vonnegut imbued much of his fiction with a sense of deep wonder, the kind of wonder those of us who are not religious are sometimes accused of not possessing, but which many of us, do, indeed have. You can revel in the almost magical beauty—and horror—of the world around you without necessarily believing in a deity, and the work of Vonnegut, a lifelong skeptic, was testament to this.
Vonnegut, who was an honorary president of the Humanist Association, came from a line of German freethinkers, a heritage he often lauded. Clemens Vonnegut, his grandfather, had founded a freethinkers’ society in Indianapolis, and Kurt praised a secular understanding of humanity’s place in the universe. Yet Vonnegut was not entirely inimical to religion. While he was committed to his skepticism of there being an afterlife or any sort of theistic deity out there, he frequently employed Christian imagery in his writing. Vonnegut made fun of religion as much as he made fun of himself using religious imagery. At a eulogy for the renowned author of science-fiction Isaac Asimov, who had been fiercely critical of religion in his life, Vonnegut joked that “Isaac must be in heaven now.” Vonnegut called, above all, for kindness, even if we had only a short stay on this little rock on the edges of a galaxy. “There’s only one rule that I know of,” the protagonist of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater tells a pair of newborns in lines that might have as easily appeared in any of Vonnegut’s letters. “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
And when Vonnegut and his wife Jill Krementz attended the 1985 premier of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Requiem at Saint Thomas Church in Manhattan, he was so frustrated by the English translation of the Latin words—“sadistic and masochistic,” he called them, “promising a Paradise indistinguishable from the Spanish Inquisition”—he spent much of the night rewriting the requiem to make it kinder, more Vonnegutian.”I got rid of the judges and torturers and the lions’ mouths, and having to sleep with the lights on,” he said in Fates Worse than Death, though he added that “[a]nybody could write a better” version and that “[n]obody could write a worse one.” His improved mass began “Rest eternal grant them, O Cosmos, and let not light disturb their sleep.” Not particularly liking his own poetry, he was eager to get the words translated into Latin, and, after many New York churches turned down the new mass, Vonnegut’s version finally premiered on March 13th, 1988, in a Unitarian Universalist church. Cosmos bless that church, indeed.
Like a number of other atheist writers who incorporated a sense of real-world magic into their work—Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, Italo Calvino, Angela Carter—Vonnegut showed that it was possible to portray a sort of godless spirituality, an appreciation of the majesty and amazing terror of the word untethered to theism, in one’s writing. His fiction, whether it draws from science fiction or magical realism, presents a landscape that may be bleak and barren as the surface of the moon—but that surface can look pretty, can’t it, in the right light? And his self-deprecating attitude makes this stand out all the more. His invocation of the marvelous is not cheesily sentimental; his critique of religion is not angry or cold-hearted.
While much of the fiction of Garcia Marquez or the Calvino of Cosmicomics brims with a sense of the extraordinary-made-normal such that almost every paragraph can seem wondrous and baroque, Vonnegut’s use of the marvelous is a bit rarer and sparer. Yet it is unmistakable when it appears. In “Harrison Bergeron,” one of his most famous short stories from Welcome to the Monkey House, the titular character literally breaks free of gravity, without any explanation, as he and a ballerina he has suddenly fallen in love with leap into the air, soaring higher than Newton’s force should allow. “Not only were the laws of the land abandoned,” Vonnegut writes of Harrison and the ballerina, “but the law of gravity and motion as well.” It is a lovely, sudden line, one that injects a sense of the beauty of the marvelous into an absurd dystopian future. “They leaped like deer on the moon,” we are told. “The studio ceiling was thirty feet high, but each leap brought the dancers nearer to it.” And, finally, Vonnegut writes that the pair of dancers, “neutralizing gravity with love and pure will… remained suspended in air inches below the ceiling, and they kissed for a long, long time.”
The passage is at once a parody of the overblown rhetoric of bad romance tales and yet filled with a lovely sense of wonder all the same. It’s a passage that, with only a few slight changes in wording, could have appeared in One Hundred Years of Solitude. It’s one of my favorite moments in all of Vonnegut’s fiction because it is at once silly, overblown, and beautiful, a passage that is at once night-dark—the dancers will be shot dead at the end—and yet, briefly, illumined with nebula-bright.
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One day in the Netherlands, as he was pondering the nature of God’s existence, Rene Descartes looked out his window and wondered if the people beneath him might be androids. Long before androids—humanlike robots—became a staple of science fiction, Descartes had begun to wonder about the connection between automata and the spiritual—something that he would share, albeit with a different interpretation, with Vonnegut. “I do not fail to say that I see the men themselves,” he wrote in Discourse on Method, “and yet, what do I see from the window beyond hats and cloaks that might cover artificial machines, whose motions might be determined by springs?” In his Treatise on Man, Descartes explicitly drew connections between humans and technology, comparing our bodies to clockwork.
Technology and a sense of the spiritual—even in the secular sense in which Vonnegut often used the word—have a long history of being presented as opposites. Machines, this idea goes, are just that, machines; they lack that elusive something-else, that spirit, that soul, that numen, that supposedly makes humans, at very least, fundamentally different from the rest of creation. To speak of ghosts in machines, like the title of a well-known anime, Ghost in the Shell, is to suggest that it is surprising that ghost and machine might be connected in some way. Indeed, when the Czech writer Karel Čapek coined the word “robot” in his 1921 play, Rossum’s Universal Robots, his robots are “artificial people” who look more or less like humans, yet who are created to exist in a soullessly mechanical way: they are initially there purely to increase industrial productivity and to turn a profit, then end up desiring to destroy the human race in a rebellion; these robots are literally anti-human.
So often, philosophers who were demonized as heretical atheists, like Hobbes, by the Catholic Church invoked the imagery of machinery and technology to describe how the world, and humans in particular, worked; if we were essentially robots in a deterministic universe, whither the soul, and, with it, where the sense of wonder? This notion that machine and humanity are opposed is a commonplace in debates between believers and nonbelievers: what meaning would life have, some believers ask, if we are just a bunch of atoms, if we are just basically machines of flesh and blood without a soul?
Perhaps this is the deepest level of what it means to be a human: being able to see something that is clearly not a human being, something clearly not made in our image, as a fellow person nonetheless.
Vonnegut examined these questions, in a way, in “EPICAC,” a delightful story from Welcome to the Monkey House about a computer that falls in love with a human. The story is committed to making EPICAC at once clearly a piece of human-made technology—it is described as “seven tons of electric tubes, wires, and switches, housed in a bank of steel cabinets and plugged into a 110-volt A. C. line just like a toaster or a vacuum cleaner”—and as a tragic humanlike figure, blurring the distinction between character and computer. “He looked like a machine, but he was a lot less like a machine than plenty of people I know,” the narrator says. Indeed, from the first sentence, the narrator speaks of EPICAC as if he is talking about another person: “Hell,” he begins, “it’s about time someone told about my friend EPICAC.” The story begins and ends as if a eulogy to someone recently dead. It’s fitting, because EPICAC, in a sense, committed suicide, which prompts the narrator to reveal the computer’s tragic tale. In the tale, the narrator is in love with a coworker named Pat, but she isn’t wooed by him. In his frustration, the narrator begins playing around with EPICAC and realizes he can talk with the computer through a code. He describes Pat to EPICAC and has EPICAC write poems for him, which woo her so much that she marries him, believing the narrator wrote them. Later, the narrator realizes EPICAC thinks Pat is going to marry him rather than the narrator, and when EPICAC learns this isn’t the case, he self-explodes—but not before leaving behind hundreds of love poems for the narrator to fool Pat with. EPICAC, arguably, has more heart than the narrator.
Perhaps this is the deepest level of what it means to be a human: being able to see something that is clearly not a human being, something clearly not made in our image, as a fellow person nonetheless, as capable as we are of feeling. Perhaps being a human is not a requirement to be human.
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Just as the dancers of “Harrison Bergeron” meet a sudden demise at the literal height of their wondrous moment, much of Vonnegut’s presentation of spiritual wonder is interrupted by some form of gloomy, if not outright pessimistic, reality. A good example of this appears in “Thanasphere,” a much earlier and lesser-known short story by Vonnegut. One of Vonnegut’s earliest stories, first published in 1950, it describes an eerie world in which the spirits of the dead inhabit outer space. Composed in the early days of space exploration, the story follows Major Allen Rice, who becomes the first human to be launched into outer space. While there, however, he begins receiving peculiar messages on his radio. Soon, he realizes the truth: the dead are speaking to him. Beyond the stratosphere and thermosphere, beyond all the earth’s atmospheric layers, there is another, hitherto-unknown one: the thanasphere, or the layer of the dead, a vast invisible cosmic necropolis. Vonnegut coined the term as a variation from the Greek thanatos, or death, which also refers to the Greek god of death, Thanatos. It is a startling story, one that quickly punctuates its sense of awe—we can speak with the dead!—with just how terrifying such a discovery would be—especially if one should find that they cannot drown out the voices.
And some of Vonnegut’s most extraordinary visions of the world are also his darkest. The sense of the incredible that permeates a short story like “Welcome to the Monkey House,” the dystopian tale that gave its title to one of Vonnegut’s best-known story collections, is decidedly unnerving. In this tale, a satire of overpopulation almost as monstrous as Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” the government urges citizens to commit “ethical suicide” to keep the population stable, which willing parties can do at parlors staffed by celibate hostesses wearing white lipstick; the government also gives people a drug, vaguely reminiscent of Brave New World’s soma, that numbs their sexual desire. The story features a criminal named Billy the Poet, who wishes to deflower one of these hostesses, and it culminates in a terrifying, bizarre rape scene in which Billy the Poet tries to “save” the hostess by reintroducing her—forcefully—to a sexual world free of the government’s suppressive drugs. Sexuality and suicide alike are defamiliarized in this world, and it is hard to read the story without imagining a world where sex is foreign and suicide is virtually the norm; the story is an affirmation of life. Yet it is also deeply disturbing and, at least for me, difficult to read when we get to the scene of rape—and this is where Vonnegut’s talents as a conjuror of the extraordinary coincide with his most frightening visions of the future.
In Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle, a material called ice-nine freezes any liquid it comes into contact with—and since we are mostly water, ingesting even a tiny bit of ice-nine is fatal. The entire world becomes a tempestuous tundra of ice-nine when the oceans freeze. “It was winter,” the narrator observes, “now and forever.” A world as a snowball is an apocalyptic vision par excellence. In the aftermath, the narrator relates songs and stories of God alternately not caring about giving his creations any meaning and nodding with a smile if we scold him for his doings after we’ve died. These are typical of Vonnegut: God, if he exists, isn’t the cheeriest or most caring of fellows. But even in the face of such doom, there may be some beauty. When the protagonist’s beloved Mona decides to end her life by willingly putting ice-nine to her lips, he turns, briefly, to others for solace, realizing that he still has them to lean against. The ice-nine seems to have killed all germs, so there are no diseases. And, somehow, the survivors keep going. Life may quite often be absurd and terrible, but small unexpected kindnesses make it a little better, at least for a bit.
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“Some of you may know that I am a humanist or freethinker as were my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and ancestors—and so not a Christian,” Vonnegut told the graduating class of Agnes Scott in 1999. “By being a humanist, I am honoring my mother and father, which the Bible tells us is a good thing to do.” He continued after this characteristic joke to say something intriguing. “But I say with all my American ancestors, ‘If what Jesus said was good, and so much of it was beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not? If Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being. I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.”
“Revenge provokes revenge which provokes revenge which provokes revenge,” he added. But we can learn to “reasonably ask forgiveness of our trespasses, since we forgive those who trespass against us. And we can teach our children and then our grandchildren to do the same—so that they, too, can never be a threat to anyone.”
A life without a god need not be a desert of ice-nine, bereft even of rattlesnakes. Isn’t it enough, Vonnegut asked, to be good, and to appreciate the beauty in the world, even if we may only see it for a short time, and be gone for good when we die? Regardless of one’s stance on the origins of the universe, Vonnegut’s fiction teaches us something we can, perhaps, all understand: as long as we are definitely alive, afterlife or not, we can make the world a bit more livable by being kinder.