Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Vonnegut on Truth and Aesthetics in a Nonmoral Sense

by Matthew Gannon
(with drawings by Kurt Vonnegut) 

“What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions – they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense,” 1873

“Trout sat back and thought about the conversation. He shaped it into a story, which he never got around to writing until he was an old, old man. It was about a planet where the language kept turning into pure music, because the creatures there were so enchanted by sounds. Words became musical notes. Sentences became melodies. They were useless as conveyors of information, because nobody knew or cared what the meanings of words were anymore.”
- Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions, 1973
The Voice of God
At the start of Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut’s seventh novel, coming on the heels of the peerless Slaughterhouse-five – the author makes a careful and prudent announcement to clear himself of any legal charges that might be leveled at him from taking the slogan of a cereal brand as the title of his book:
“The expression ‘Breakfast of Champions’ is a registered trademark of General Mills, Inc., for use on a breakfast cereal product. The use of the identical expression as the title for this book is not intended to indicate an association with or sponsorship by General Mills, nor is it intended to disparage their fine products.”

Visit The Vonnegut Review to read the full essay.

The Tragedy of Eliot Rosewater, Prince of Indiana

by Matthew Gannon

"What a noble mind is here o’erthrown!”

- William Shakespeare, Hamlet, quoted by Senator Lister Ames Rosewater

Act I: Shithouses, Shacks, Alcoholism, Ignorance, Idiocy and Perversion

After his long time away from earth touring the solar system throughout his first four novels, Kurt Vonnegut has come back to earth for his fifth novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. His postmodern odysseys have taken him to a dystopian future, the far reaches of the solar system, a Jerusalem prison cell, and an absurdist Caribbean island to witness the end of the world. In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater Vonnegut comes back to practically his own childhood doorstep, seeing as he grew up in Indiana, the setting of the bulk of this novel about social nihilism, soul rot, and economic inequality. While Vonnegut’s wild and whirling travels through space and time are illustrative of his thoughts on the nature of society, politics, the worth of humans, and all other modern anxieties of advanced industrial society, he has yet to confront the gritty reality of post-WWII America. His escape from orbit is in many ways a desire to leave this world behind, an attempt to find a better world where the atom bomb isn’t the ultimate problem-solver and a machine can’t outrank a human in worth. He has grappled with the apocalyptic and the fear of Cold War-era American, but he hadn’t yet confronted the soul crushing meaningless of everyday life people experience while waiting for the bomb to go off. If his previous novels have largely seen Vonnegut searching out a new, more human and humane world, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is a return to earth to confront that earthly sickness from which he is so desperately trying to escape. His previous works are largely symbolic, using a fictive Martian army to express the conformity in post-WWII American or a player piano to investigate anxieties over human superfluity. God Bless Your, Mr. Rosewater is a return to the literal – it is a realist respite for a very surrealist author.

Monday, June 24, 2013

“No matter through what accidents of exterior or interior circumstances you were pushed onto the road of becoming a criminal, there is an abyss between the actuality of what you did and the potentiality of what others might have done. We are concerned here only with what you did, and not with the possible noncriminal nature of your inner life and of your motives or with the criminal potentialities of those around you.”

- Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, 1963

“This book is rededicated to Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a man who served evil too openly and good too secretly, the crime of his times.”

- Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night, 1961

In her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt presented her collected reports on Adolf Eichmann’s Jerusalem trial for crimes against humanity and the Jewish people. Eichmann, a former member of the Nazi SS largely responsible instituting the logistics of the mass incarceration and extermination of millions of Jews, was captured in Argentina by Israeli foreign intelligence agents and brought to Israel to answer for his crimes. Just two years before Arendt’s book, Vonnegut published, Mother Night, which dealt with remarkably similar themes as Arendt’s. Mother Nightfollows the exploits of Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a high profile Nazi propagandist who is brought back to Jerusalem years after World War II in order to be tried for his crimes against the Jewish people, against humanity, and, as Campbell puts it, against his own conscience.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Player Piano, the One-Dimensional Society, and the Emergency Brake of History

by Matthew Gannon

“What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened”

-       T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” 1936

“A step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction.”

-       Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano, 1952

One-Dimensional Society

In his seminal book on advanced industrial society, One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse makes the case that even many ostensibly democratic nations are, at heart, totalitarian. Totalitarianism, he argues, need not manifest as dystopian wastelands with labor camps, dictatorship, secret police, and all those other Orwellian characteristics: “For ‘totalitarian’ is not only a terroristic political coordination of society, but also a non-terroristic economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests.”

Player Piano, which purports to be “not a book about what is, but a book about what could be,” is such a totalitarian society – not one organized by terrorism but by economic-technical coordination of vested interests. Its society is one that appears, as its main character Paul Proteus notes, as a “clean, straight rafter,” that, once the surface is scraped away, is rotten to the core.

Summer Hiatus: The Vonnegut Review

You may have noticed that The Angelus Novus Blog has been on hiatus of late. Fear not. I haven't been away without good reason. I've been pouring my efforts into The Vonnegut Review, a summer project to review all fourteen of Kurt Vonnegut's novels over the (roughly) fourteen weeks of the summer. I co-created The Vonnegut Review with my good friend Wilson Taylor, who runs The Wilsonian, an excellent blog of cultural criticism. Because of the time-intensive nature of The Vonnegut Review I won't have much time to post new essays at The Angelus Novus Blog. So much for a hiatus! I will be posting samples of my Vonnegut reviews here at this blog, but I'll link you over to The Vonnegut Review for the full review.

I do hope to have the chance to continue commenting on current events, politics, and other cultural affairs at this blog, it just may be even more intermittently than usual. In the meantime though, please visit The Vonnegut Review and see what's happening over there.

Look forward to new reviews of Vonnegut novels every Friday this summer. This week's review will be on Vonnegut's second novel, The Sirens of Titan.

Follow us on Twitter (with the hashtag #VonnegutSummer) and Tumblr to stay up to date on all things happening at The Vonnegut Review.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The King is Dead, Long Live the King! - Grappling with the Legacy of MLK

Dr. King, tu es vengé!


The late Martin Luther King, Jr. has received a somewhat unusual amount of attention in recent months. Typically a staple of middle school assignments on the civil rights movement, the mainstream media seems to have caught wind that his legacy is worth discussing, even superficially. Early in this April was the 45th anniversary of Dr. King’s tragic assassination in Memphis, prompting the usual annual, if cursory, recap of the man and his legacy. Much more focus, however, was placed upon him during President Obama’s recent inauguration, as that event occurred on January 21, 2013, which happened to be Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. This inexorably led to many comparisons between Obama and Dr. King, both charismatic leaders in their own right.

While it was mostly the media casually tossing around superficial comparisons of the two figures, Obama did little to discourage such comparisons by using a personal bible of Dr. King’s for his swearing-in ceremony. This was not the first direct link Obama has made to Dr. King and the civil rights movement. He also famously replaced a bust of Winston Churchill kept by George W. Bush in the Oval Office for one of Dr. King and keeps various paraphernalia from the civil rights movement in the White House

Since Obama is the first president of African descent, many can’t but help make connections between him and Dr. King. Many consider it a testament of how much progress America has made and how much King’s legacy – and dream – lives on in the present day. During Obama second inauguration an observer commented, “this is the dream that Dr. King talked about in his speech. We see history in the making.” Dr. King’s dream is thus fulfilled for many. We have a black president – civil rights have arrived.

Friday, April 19, 2013

To Kabul, from Boston, with Love - Reflections on the Boston Marathon Bombing

Carlos Arredondo assists a bombing victim at the Boston Marathon.
 So if you want to know who we are, what America is, how we respond to evil — that’s it.  Selflessly.  Compassionately.  Unafraid.
- President Obama in a speech given the day after the Boston Marathon Bombing

Earlier this month the United States witnessed an act of terror that was not only a violent attack in its own right, but also a blatant assault on its values as a peaceable and free democratic nation. Besides being a wholly unexpected explosion in the midst of an ostensible peaceful celebration of life and vitality, this wrenching violence tore at the very fabric of our society. It struck a blow that not only deprived many of arms, legs, and lives, but also deprived them of freedom.
Distraught villagers after the massacre of 16 innocent people including 
nine children by a US soldier in Zangabad village in Kandahar province.
This story sounds familiar, and if you’ve tuned into the news lately you’ve likely heard it dozens of times already. From Fox News to MSNBC, the story sounds all too familiar. But this story isn’t the one you think it is. It isn’t about Boston, not directly at least. This is a story about Afghanistan, a story about the entire Arab world, and about the face of terrorism that we hardly see in America, but the kind of terrorism that most world citizens see when they look at America.