06 July 2010

The foma that make you brave and kind and happy and healthy

Via reader JS, Patrick Deneen discusses Vonnegut.

It's a good essay, and explores an aspect of Vonnegut that I haven't really thought all that much about--the notion that the alienation of modern life is an alienation from (in Vonnegutian terms) our karass. This is a little bit of a bowdlerized Vonnegut, though: Vonnegut's ardent atheism and misanthropism were not incidental to his worldview, as Deneen suggests, but essential to them. It is telling that Deneen selects mainly from Vonnegut's earlier works, from the Nineteen Fifties, in which Vonnegut was still convinced of the possibility of individual freedom and of its being snuffed out by social action. From the Nineteen Sixties forward, I think it is clear that Vonnegut had decided that freedom was illusory. How else are we to understand the Trafalmadorians or the chronosynclastic infundibulum?

Two additional quick notes that arise from this discussion of Vonnegut. The first is that I have found a Patrick Deneen essay with which I entirely, wholeheartedly, and enthusiastically agree in all respects: this one, lamenting technology in classrooms. It is always and everywhere done poorly and for administrative convenience, and Georgetown seems to be worse about this than elsewhere. The logical outcome of this trend was precisely and presciently predicted in Forster's The Machine Stops, one of only two Forsters I have read, and the only one I understand.

The second is that I have an excuse to reprint one of my favorite passages from Vonnegut, from the opening chapter of Sirens of Titan, describing the closest thing the novel has to a female lead:
Her face, like the face of Malachi Constant, was a one-of-a-kind, a surprising variation on a familiar theme—a variation that made observers think, Yes—that would be another very nice way for people to look. What Beatrice had done with her face, actually, was what any plain girl could do. She had overlaid it with dignity, suffering, intelligence, and a piquant dash of bitchiness.
May we all someday be able to draft a phrase like "piquant dash of bitchiness."

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