Kurt Vonnegut is often remembered these days as a humorist, a cynic in the Mark Twain mold, a novelist whose imagination ranged far and wide but lacked gravitas, even though he dealt with tragic themes like the Dresden firebombing and the fictional apocalypse of ice-nine. These recollections are, I believe, at best half accurate. Vonnegut was certainly a humorist without peer. But his pessimism, ever tempered by compassion, never descended to the bleak cynicism of a Twain. And though his dealings with the tragic often had the light touch of “so it goes” and “hi ho”, a surplus of gravitas, of existential seriousness, can be detected beneath all the levity.
In this Vonnegut shared a certain sensibility with Samuel Beckett, albeit an inverted one. “Waiting for Godot”, while certainly not “the laugh sensation of two continents” it was originally billed to be, was not meant to be heavy-going. In the words of Patrick Stewart, commenting on the mood he and Ian McKellen tried to conjure up in the recent Broadway production, it actually plays “light as a feather”. Godot’s absurdist vision of the human predicament may be disconcerting, but its comedy is genuine. It is based on Beckett’s insistence that his two tramps, indeed all of us, need to “go on” and to “fail better” despite the pointless boredom and anxiety, so one may as well at least try to fail better with smiles as we all wait ad infinitum. Vonnegut, on the other hand, was nothing if not overtly funny. Yet his comedy is infused with genuine sadness: neither bitterness nor despair, but the lamentations of someone who loves his characters and their humanity, even though they fail rather spectacularly.
Beckett’s sensibility is tragicomic; Vonnegut’s is comic-tragic, yang to the former’s yin. Both variants of this sensibility – light in dark and dark in light – reflect their standing as moralists, however ill at ease they might have felt in being assigned that role. In fact Vonnegut the moralist, I believe, has put his writerly finger on something every bit as illuminating as Kant’s categorical imperative, Aristotle’s “virtue” or “human excellence”, and Mill’s principle of utility. It is all the more noteworthy that this insight occurs in what is critically regarded as one of his minor works, the novel Slapstick.
As in many of his books, Vonnegut begins Slapstick with a preamble written in his own voice. Here, he opines about love, and why contra John Lennon it is not all you need:
I have had some experiences with love, or think I have, anyway, although the ones I have liked best could easily be described as “common decency”. I treated somebody well for a little while, or even for a tremendously long time, and that person treated me well in return. Love need not have anything to do with it…Love is where you find it. I think it is foolish to go looking for it, and I think it can often be poisonous. I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, “Please – a little less love, and a little more common decency.” (p. 2)
It pays to unpack what Vonnegut is trying to get across in this selection. It should not be taken as a devaluation of “love” – whether that is understood as eros, philia, or agape. It places it in context, however: love is neither a desirable passion nor a human virtue unless it is tempered by “Common Decency.” “Common Decency” seems to fill the same conceptual space as Aristotle’s phronesis or practical wisdom and good judgment, or Kant’s moral bottom-line, the categorical imperative. But it is hard to pin down as a discrete virtue or faculty, or the master-principle undergirding the algorithms of ethics.
This is to its advantage. In On Certainty Wittgenstein argued that if a theory about something is less certain than the thing itself, the theory is fairly beside the point. Magisterial as the books are, one does not need Plato’s Republic or Rawls’s A Theory of Justice to demonstrate that being unjust is a bad thing. (If you do need them, it is a sign that you do not “get” justice in the first place.) We know what Vonnegut means by “Common Decency” by getting a glimpse at the characters of his that possess it, and those that do not. By entering into their world, we are shown what Common Decency amounts to, and challenged to integrate it, in our own idiosyncratic ways, into our own worlds.
John/Jonah, the narrator of Cat’s Cradle, is a man of Common Decency. His interactions with the many characters of the book, most of whom are fairly repugnant, are consistently respectful, gracious, and humane. He accepts the presidency of San Lorenzo from Franklin Hoenikker with reservation, but out of a sense of duty rather than vainglory. Likewise Ambassador Minton and his wife have Common Decency. Formerly blacklisted as a Communist sympathizer during the McCarthy era, Ambassador Minton is chastened but not bitter. When he and his wife meet their fates in the disastrous inauguration ceremony, they exhibit the dignity and saintly composure of martyrs to the cause of Common Decency, at the hands of arrogant stupidity – the appalling self-importance of Papa Manzano, touching his lips with ice-nine and proclaiming “now I will destroy the entire world”, which turned out to be, literally and horribly, true.
Dr. Felix Hoenikker, on the other hand, utterly lacks Common Decency. He is not a Shakespearean villain on the monstrous order of Iago or Richard III – he has a kind of eccentric charm that belies his banal evil. Utterly indifferent to the possibly horrendous consequences of his work, he sees life as a serious of technical puzzles to be solved. He is Gradgrind to the 10th power: all is merely a matter of efficient means to given ends. He does not think, he does not reflect. Vonnegut claimed the character of Felix Hoenikker was based on a chemist with whom his brother worked at G.E., a man entranced by the beauty of scientific discovery and absolutely oblivious to everything else, including political and military ugliness. He might as well have been Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann – not a devil but a cipher, banal to a fault but the author of many a horror.
Let’s not forget Kilgore Trout. Trout: a hack, a stumblebum to a tee. But in Breakfast of Champions he is like the Buddha wandering around Midland City, while that paragon of suburban normalcy, Dwayne Hoover, is narcissistically and solipsistically insane, thinking everyone is a robot without free will except him. Hoover is a metaphor for, well, us – modern and/or postmodern humanity, bereft of the empathy that is essential to Common Decency. Trout, in person and through his stories, is deeply empathetic. In Breakfast of Champions, his story “The Dancing Fool” tells of Zog, an alien come to earth to cure disease and abolish war, accidentally killed by a homeowner because of a failure of communication. (Zog noticed the house was on fire and rushed in to inform the owner of this pending calamity. But because Zog’s species communicated by way of synchronized farting and tap dancing, the homeowner becomes frightened and brains him with his golf club.) The murderous suburbanite is an object of Trout’s pity just as much as Zog is. It is all part of the lacrimae rerum. Forgive them, father Kurt, for they know not what they do…
For all of Vonnegut’s misanthropy, he never loses sight of the pockets of Common Decency that exist to guide us out of the morass that is contemporary life. Vonnegut never lost his own Common Decency, as so many misanthropes did. As Vonnegut’s alter-ego Trout’s epitaph put it, “Life’s no way to treat a human being.” That said, we need to cling to each other in the dark, and not curse the fools who are killing us, but shed a tear for them because, after all, we are of their ilk. It’s the Decent thing to do…..