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VONNEGUTS SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE: THE REQUIREMENTS OF CHAOS Robert Merrill and Peter A. Scholl* I like Utopian talk, speculation about what our planet should be, anger about what our planet is. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.1 In a recent issue of SAF, Lynn Buck presents a view of Kurt Vonnegut which has become depressingly popular. Her very title, "Vonnegut's World of Comic Futility," suggests the drift of her discussion . Professor Buck speaks of Vonnegut's "deliberate mechanization of mankind," "the cynicism of the comical world he has created," and his "nihilistic message."2 She concludes at one point that "to enter Vonnegut 's world, one must abide by his rules, unencumbered by mancentered notions about the universe."3 There is some question, however, as to whether Buck is a reliable guide concerning the nature of these "rules." Her Vonnegut is a man who cautions against "mancentered notions about the universe," whereas the real Kurt Vonnegut once told a group of Bennington graduates, "Military science is probably right about the contemptibility of man in the vastness of the universe. Still—I deny that contemptibility, and I beg you to deny it."4 Her Vonnegut is cynical and nihilistic, whereas the real Kurt Vonnegut recently said, "My longer-range schemes have to do with providing all Americans with artificial extended families of a thousand members or more. Only when we have overcome loneliness can we begin to share wealth and work more fairly. I honestly believe that we will have those families by-and-by, and I hope they will become international" (W, p. xxiv). In short, Buck's Vonnegut is a fiction. Vonnegut's readers know that he himself believes in certain kinds of fictions, "harmless untruths" which he calls foma. But Buck's version of Vonnegut is not harmless, for it leads her to distort the meaning of everything Vonnegut has written . This reading of Vonnegut is all too representative. Repeatedly Vonnegut's critics have argued that his novels embody the cynical essence of Black Humor, a form so despairing as to contrast even with the relatively dark novels of a writer like Hemingway.5 The result has 'Professor Merrill teaches at the University of Nevada, Reno, and has published on American fiction in American Literature, Critique, Modern Language Quarterly, Western Humanities Review, and elsewhere. Professor Scholl, an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Evansville, has written for Christianity and Literature, Last Generation Journal, and Indiana English Journal. 66Robert Merrill and Peter A. Scholl been a thorough misunderstanding of Vonnegut's vision in general and the meaning of his novels in particular. The distortion is most serious with Vonnegut's sixth novel, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), for this is his one book that has a real claim to be taken seriously as a first-rate work of art. For this reason, it is crucial that the novel be interpreted properly . To do this, the notion that Vonnegut's world is one of comic futility must be abandoned. It must be seen that Vonnegut's advice to the Bennington graduates is embodied in his novels as well. But I continue to believe that artists— all artists—should be treasured as alarm systems. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (W, p. 238) It is safe to assume that novels of social protest are not written by cynics or nihilists. Surely protest implies the belief that man's faults are remediable. It is relevant, then, that Vonnegut's novels, early and late, were conceived in the spirit of social protest. Vonnegut has said that his motives as a writer are "political": "I agree with Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini that the writer should serve his society. I differ with dictators as to how writers should serve. Mainly, I think they should be—and biologically have to be—agents of change" (W, p. 237). This belief informs Vonnegut's first book, Player Piano (1952), a novel which deserves Leslie Fiedler's elegant complaint that it is excessively committed to "proving (once more?) that machines deball and dehumanize men."8 It is crucial to Mother Night (1961), a novel which has a rather unquietistic "moral" if the author's 1966 introduction is to be believed: "We are what...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 65-76
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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