Printer Friendly

Davis, Todd F. Kurt Vonnegut's Crusade; Or, How a Postmodern Harlequin Preached a New Kind of Humanism.

DAVIS, TODD F. Kurt Vonnegut's Crusade; Or, How a Postmodern Harlequin Preached a New Kind of Humanism (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2006). 166 pp. $55.00.

To explain the disparity between Kurt Vonnegut's popularity and his dismissal by many critics, Todd Davis's first chapter of Kurt Vonnegut's Crusade situates Vonnegut as a postmodern writer with a difference--one who seeks to fill the vacuum at the heart of postmodern fragmentation. Davis wonders, "If there is no universal value, no center from which we can establish a set of criteria for the human condition, then how can we take political action against communities whose practices we wish to deem reprehensible" (21). In short, how can postmodernism produce an ethics? The answer, which defines Vonnegut's storytelling, is "postmodern humanism." The "postmodernism" celebrated by critics is undermined by the "humanism" that attracts a popular audience.

Davis recognizes "the paradox of postmodern humanism, a position that affirms humanistic values while maintaining a postmodern perspective" (29). But, says Davis, Vonnegut offers a resolution of the paradox. If the fragments of postmodernist experience are conceived as a field of virtual probable truths, then what Davis calls "pragmatism," the practice of lived experience, collapses probability into actuality. Vonnegut is, he says, "our leading literary pragmatist" (9), whose fictions do not merely mirror the meaninglessness of the postmodern condition but also articulate an ethical stance in response to that condition. The ethical perspective thus produced is not final, absolute, or total. The "postmodernism" in such humanism makes any totalizing gesture impossible: Vonnegut "doesn't have to have ... rational or dogmatic proof" of the positions he maintains (33). On the other hand, the collapse of probable into actual produces substantial structures, namely the lived experience of particular humans.

From such lived experiences come the "small localized narratives for living" (13) that Vonnegut offers in his stories as experiments in ethics. In effect, Vonnegut's fictions are particular quantum states in which Vonnegut and his audience experience reality. Such virtual experiences are provisional; they are fictions that do not carry the burden of any master narrative. But at the same time, they enable Vonnegut to ground his "ethical universe" (36) as existential truth, a response to practice that is akin to Hamlet's advice to Gertrude to "Assume [put on] a virtue if you have it not" on the assumption that the disguise or "fiction" of virtue will become the reality of a "change [in] the stamp of nature" (3.4.160, 168). In his fictions, then, Vonnegut gives his readers the disguise, what Vonnegut calls the "lies," that enable a humanism of practice.

The rest of Davis's book reads the ethics of Vonnegut's novels seriatim. From Player Piano (1952) onwards, says Davis, Vonnegut takes a postmodern stance to the ethics of humanism. In The Sirens of Titan (1959), for instance "postmodernism" enables Vonnegut's deconstruction of grand human recta-narratives by presenting the flower of human achievements as merely the Tralfamadorians' effort" to convey simple messages concerning a repair part for a ... broken-down spacecraft"; at the same time, the mode by which Vonnegut effects the deconstruction presents the humanist end of the scale: Vonnegut's "insistence that to love and serve humanity is our highest calling" (51). The readings of each novel are brief, none longer than eight or nine pages. For Davis, each novel reiterates the conflict between Vonnegut's humanism and the vacuity of postmodern life. Although from novel to novel there are changes in Vonnegut's take on the balance between postmodernism and humanism, nonetheless the readings themselves tend towards repetitiveness.

More significant for Davis's argument is the gap between his assertion that Vonnegut expresses a postmodern sensibility and the convincing evidence that he gives about Vonnegut's humanism. It is true that Vonnegut is tentative in presenting his humanism, unwilling to assert a master narrative that mystifies his perspective. Nonetheless Vonnegut's focus on "humane harmony" (86), on the transcendent value of love and human fellow feeling, becomes a fixed point in the postmodern chaos. Ultimately, the gap in Davis's argument between postmodernism and humanism is dangerous to the thesis of the book. Indeed, despite Davis's assertion that it is not merely so, one is left wondering whether postmodernism in Vonnegut's fiction expresses Vonnegut's sensibility or is rather a reflection of the postmodern world in which Vonnegut and his readers live--and which for Vonnegut is the problem to which humanism is a response.

For instance, Davis argues that the ethical center of Slapstick (1976) comes "out of an emotional response to what he [Vonnegut] sees as life's inane workings" (94). That inanity is formally ever-present in Vonnegut's novels--in the deconstructed metanarrative of The Sirens of Titan, in the broken chronology of Slaughterhouse Five (1969), in the multiple points of view of Breakfast of Champions (1973): it reflects the vacuity of the postmodern condition. Those formal elements of Vonnegut's novels hold a mirror up to nature and, as Hamlet says, show "the very age and body of the time his form and pressure" (3.2.23-24). For Vonnegut it is a horrifying form, a shapeless void like Milton's Death. The "emotional response"--tentative, local, and non-assertive though it is--fills the void with a transcendent value that, as Davis shows, remains absolute regardless of fictive context.

The reader inevitably wonders whether such a totalizing point of view can be postmodern. The doubts are answered on the final page of the book. If Vonnegut's fiction is indeed a "response to the conundrum of the postmodern condition," as Davis says, and if that response takes us from the postmodern towards a future where there is "the possibility for each of us to touch the lives of others with kindness and common decency" (138), then the future that Vonnegut envisions is post-postmodern, centered once again on a transcendent subject--not God or a master narrative but the individual human.

ALBERTO CACICEDO, Albright College
COPYRIGHT 2007 Johns Hopkins University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Cacicedo, Alberto
Publication:Studies in the Novel
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2007
Previous Article:Tales of Passion.
Next Article:Fantina, Richard. Ernest Hemingway: Machismo and Masochism.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |