This is a book that has been on my list for a while, and I finally got around to reading it. Considering the state of things in the world right now, one might think that an apocalyptic tale might be a little too depressing, but that was not the case. The abundance of wit and satire which Vonnegut brings to this tale forces the reader to chuckle at the abundant idiocy that permeates our modern culture.
There is a lot in this text that I could discuss, but since brevity is the soul of wit, I’ll keep this post short and focus on just two passages. The first, which is a little long, is a discussion about what would happen if the writers of the world decided to stop writing, and how that might affect humanity.
“I’m thinking of calling a general strike of all writers until mankind finally comes to its senses. Would you support it?”
“Do writers have a right to strike? That would be like the police or the firemen walking out.”
“Or the college professors.”
“Or the college professors,” I agreed. I shook my head. “No, I don’t think my conscience would let me support a strike like that. When a man becomes a writer, I think he takes on a sacred obligation to produce beauty and enlightenment and comfort at top speed.”
“I just can’t help thinking what a real shaking up it would give people if, all of a sudden, there were no new books, new plays, new histories, new poems . . .”
“And how proud would you be when people started dying like flies?” I demanded.
“They’d die more like mad dogs, I think—snarling and snapping at each other and biting their own tails.”
I turned to Castle the elder. “Sir, how does a man die when he’s deprived of the consolations of literature?”
“In one of two ways,” he said, “petrescence of the heart or atrophy of the nervous system.”
“Neither one very pleasant, I expect,” I suggested.
“No,” said Castle the elder. “For the love of God, both of you, please keep writing!”
(pp. 231 – 232)
I am a firm believer that artistic expression is what defines our collective humanity. Books are important. Music is important. Visual arts are important. Without these our society becomes sterile and diseased. A healthy and vibrant artistic community has a direct correlation to the well-being of a community. As Vonnegut states, when an individual is deprived of literature, or any of the other arts, that person’s heart will petrify and turn to stone. The ability to empathize and connect with other human beings will fade, and that would be a symbolic death of all that is human within someone.
The other passage that stood out for me, because it is something I often think about, deals with what hope there is for humanity at this stage.
“What hope can there be for mankind,” I thought, “when there are such men as Felix Hoenikker to give such playthings as ice-nine to such short-sighted children as almost all men and women are?”
And I remembered The Fourteenth Book of Bokonon, which I had read in its entirety the night before. The Fourteenth Book is entitled, “What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?”
It doesn’t take long to read The Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period.
This is it:
While this may appear to be just a cynical and pessimistic view, I don’t see it that way. But there is definite irony. If one considers ice-nine to be a symbol of a technology which humanity is not yet ready for, then what Vonnegut is implying is that as long as humanity remains on its present trajectory, striving after technological advancement while neglecting to advance the arts and that part of us which defines our humanity, then there is no hope for us. But, if we can shift our collective focus and turn away from the latest and greatest gadgets designed to ensnare our attention, then new horizons become possible.
Thanks for taking the time to share in my thoughts. I hope you have an inspired day.