Irony and Authenticity in the American Imagination

“In some remote corner of the universe, flickering in the light of the countless solar systems into which it had been poured, there was once a planet on which clever animals invented cognition. It was the most arrogant and most mendacious minute in the ‘history of the world,’ but a minute was all it was. After nature had drawn a few more breaths, the planet froze and the clever animals had to die.”
 - Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense,” 1873

“What memories for mud to have!”
 - Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, 1963

Recurring throughout Vonnegut’s imagination and fiction is an impulse of ironic distancing and deflection. Vonnegut’s fiction is motivated by an awareness of the tragic and existential absurdity that underlies the human experience, and this awareness functions as an elliptical center of his narratives. Irony functions in Vonnegut’s novels as a defensive posture, establishing a critical distance allowing Vonnegut to apprehend the absurdity of the human condition. For instance, the firebombing of Dresden, the ostensible subject of his masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five, is a void through which he is unable to communicate directly. Dresden functions as a synecdoche of cyclical suffering, of violence and death and war, and of the ultimate absurdity of existence, which he attempts to communicate via the recurring and critical deployment of what has become his most identifiable ironic reflex, “So it goes.” He identifies this novel as a failure, as it was written by a “pillar of salt” — one, as Lot’s wife, who was cursed for attempting to look into the past and is therefore denied narrative comprehension and disclosure. Vonnegut suggests that the existential absurdity of the human condition deflects narrative and defies comprehension and communication. “There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre,” so Vonnegut must employ an idiomatic language of irony. And that is true not only for the massacre of Dresden, but also the distinctly human terror of history. Irony is the only approach available to Vonnegut. “So it goes” repeats so many times throughout the novel because Vonnegut can only approach such absurdity through a distancing and defensive irony, allowing Vonnegut to critique the absurdity of human existence without yielding to despair. Furthermore, irony functions in Vonnegut’s imagination in order to create critical distance between the reader and the narrative. Vonnegut’s shattering of linear narrative and the recurrent phrasing of his irony both function to decenter and discomfort the reader. Ultimately, this irony serves a reflexive function for the reader, forcing the reader to reconsider the human condition and approach it more critically. 

Irony offers two aesthetic and ethical options, both grounded in a radical deconstruction of the human experience. One option concedes that life has no transcendent meaning and is thus arbitrary and purposeless, that life signifies nothing. This direction portends a capitulation to nihilism that some mistakenly identify in Vonnegut’s writing. Ostensibly, Vonnegut’s comparison of humans to mud clods or to unfortunate and tragic animals seems deeply misanthropic and cynical. The second option, and the ethic pursued by Vonnegut, is to accept this radical meaningless of life, the ultimate absurdity of the human condition, and use it to motivate a paradoxical humanist ethic. Indeed, Vonnegut’s first assumption is the lack of transcendent meaning to life, but in that dearth of purpose Vonnegut finds love and liberation. Vonnegut accepts that life ultimately signifies nothing, and uses that as an impetus for a profound ethical engagement with the world. After conventional narratives of meaning are stripped, all that remains is humankind, lonely and lost and searching for purpose. This stripping away of narratives of meaning — exemplified in Slaughterhouse-Five when the weighty teleology of World War II is deconstructed, and the grand march of history and freedom is reduced to sad animals, or baffled children, playing war-games in the snow — the suffering to which culture has inscribed so much meaning fails to remain transformative. Billy Pilgrim, the narrator of the novel, must destroy his meticulous and color-coded timeline while Vonnegut himself must shatter a coherent literary narrative. Without such a structuring narrative, the human individual is unmoored from conventional processes of meaning construction. Progress is untenable for Vonnegut’s postmodern pilgrims. All that remains is an obligation to cultivate happiness, which Vonnegut identifies as his ethical imperative — “God dammit, you’ve got to be kind.” Repeatedly, Vonnegut champions this humanistic ethic, this deep and profound love for human life and humankind. His reflexive irony, far from acting as a negative or cynical impulse, actually serves as the foundation for a transcendent ethic of human love. Because human life has been unmoored from conventional meaning, suffering and evil are reduced to meaningless postures. All that remains is the imperative of love. His irony cultivates his humanism.

Significantly, Billy Pilgrim learns his ironic stance from the Tralfamadorians. These aliens propose “so it goes” as the appropriate response to death, and their “telegraphic schizophrenic” narrative style informs the sly and sublime tone of Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut typically relies on this cosmic perspective, this insight from the Other, to relativize the human experience. This cosmic perspective allows Vonnegut to use irony as a scalpel, deconstructing postwar narratives of progress, satisfaction, consumerism and capitalism, American innocence, et cetera. Viewing these constructions through the critical eyes of the Other brings Vonnegut’s satiric urge to the forefront. He defamiliarizes the reader with the everyday in order to impel a critical stance. If human life is absurd, what possible meaning can arise from the slaughter of 135,000 people and the destruction of Dresden, the lovely “Florence of the Elbe?” If humans are made of “mud,” what possible purpose could violence or suffering adopt? Imagining our dehumanized and arbitrary worlds through the perspective of the Other allows Vonnegut to emphasize its absurdity. “So it goes” allows Vonnegut simultaneously to laugh and to weep at the absurdity of the world. 

An aim of Vonnegut’s fiction is to cultivate this radical love of the human. To return again to Billy Pilgrim — who functions as a stand-in for the author in so many ways — the narrator of Slaughterhouse-Five is an optometrist: his hope is to help people to see the world more clearly. And, after his odyssey with the Tralfamadorians, he continually attempts to inspire people to see in four dimensions, to see the true nature of the cosmos. To see clearly, as Pilgrim hopes, is to look beyond our dehumanized present and cultivate a radical humanism. Vonnegut’s role as an author is much the same. He attempts to inaugurate new modes of seeing in his readership. To do so, Vonnegut invents a new American idiom at the intersection between irony and love and in a tone that is at once alienating and intimate. This irony allows Vonnegut to defamiliarize readers with the everyday while asserting the paradoxical beauty in meaninglessness. Life is absurd; life is beautiful. Like Kierkegaard's existential knights, Vonnegut must insist on making meaning in the world by virtue of the absurd. Vonnegut jostles readers into radical new consciousnesses. 

Vonnegut’s vocation is to help people to see the world, including imagined worlds, more truly and more generously. Adopting the Tralfamadorian perspective, Pilgrim suggests that humans, due to improper vision, derive unsatisfying purpose through a misinterpretation of history. "It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever." Vonnegut's narrative strategy is to break this string and scatter these beads. Only then can the individual forge new connections and derive more authentic meanings — the individual must bead one's own ontological string. Imagination, not history or happenstance, is the fertile soil of the self. "We are what we pretend to be," Vonnegut would famously assert. Vonnegut uses irony to deconstruct the world in order to rebuild it on a human scale. Vonnegut's fictions dare to imagine new histories, new times, and new modes of being. Through irony, Vonnegut polishes our imaginative lenses so that we may see the human more clearly. 

Ultimately, the relativizing direction of his imagination allows Vonnegut to deconstruct the present and to reassert the centrality of the human. If human life is absurd and humans molded only from mud, it is our collective imperative to love the human. Despite his recursive irony, an Edenic impulse beats distinctly in Vonnegut’s imagination. His latent cynicism allows Vonnegut to distill something innately beautiful and authentic amidst the tragedy of the human condition. In a memorable scene in Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim recognizes Adam and Eve reflected in a leather boot. Vonnegut implores us, like Billy Pilgrim, to imagine transcendent modes of being that flow alongside or underneath or inside our dehumanized worlds and consciousnesses. It is precisely the dehumanization of (post-)modernity to which Vonnegut so slyly objects, and he seeks to re-invigorate our ethical imagination. In an utterly sublime passage of Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut describes watching a World War II film in reverse — American planes "suck bullets and shell fragments" from soldiers while bombers gather bombs back into themselves. These bombs are returned to the United States to be deconstructed and their materials buried so as to prevent future war. Narrating history in reverse situates Vonnegut to re-tell history as a narrative of redemption instead of catastrophe and tragedy. History, suggests Vonnegut, is flowing in the wrong direction. 

Vonnegut views the purpose of art through an optimistic and humanistic lens. While military science treats humankind as “garbage,” (and, he concedes that “military science is probably right about the contemptibility of [humankind] in the vastness of the universe”), the revolutionary virtue of art is that it places the human experience at the “center of the universe.” In the rocky soils of hopelessness, Vonnegut sows tremendous love. This is the quintessential movement of Vonnegut’s worldview — Vonnegut works through a bitterly ironic deconstruction of the world in order to erect something far more lovely and sublime. He must pass through a postmodern skepticism in order to assert something beautiful. Vonnegut demystifies the world so as to mystify anew. 

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus presents the eponymous figure as an absurd hero. His absurdity arises from the tragedy of his fate; the gods have sentenced him, for attempting to elude Death, to exerting himself forever to push a fated stone up the mountain of history. Sisyphus is an absurd hero who — like Pilgrim, like Vonnegut — insists on significance by virtue of the absurd. Sisyphus' heroism arises from his awareness of absurdity and in his paradoxical insistence on meaning. Like Vonnegut, Sisyphus chooses meaning over despair. The moment of Sisyphus' tragic awareness is in his return down the mountain, chasing his stone. This moment is his "hour of consciousness," and in that moment Sisyphus is superior to his fate and superior to the gods because he has claimed his fate and chosen to make it meaningful. In this awareness of absurdity, Camus locates tremendous pathos and sublime heroism. Sisyphus cultivates a new awareness of himself and the world, and, in that superior ontological and epistemological framework, he chooses to imagine happiness and beauty. Camus concludes that "one must imagine Sisyphus happy." So too must one imagine Billy Pilgrim.

David Foster Wallace, in “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” his seminal discussion of the cultural and aesthetic logic of postmodernism, critiques what he sees as a pervasive and crippling ironic reflex of contemporary culture. Wallace interprets irony as an increasingly negative and self-contained force, as an attitude and approach to life that is unremittingly cynical and destructive. Irony serves a vital function, he argues, in deconstructing the particularly noxious mythology that cripples the American consciousness, such as American innocence and exceptionalism, postwar prosperity, the American Dream, et cetera. However, when irony becomes institutionalized as an end-in-itself, and when postmodern cynicism is absorbed into a totalizing aesthetic of cool, irony itself becomes poisonous and imprisoning. Postmodern posturing can mask a hollow and heartless core. In order to move beyond this negative irony, Wallace calls for the inauguration of a new American idiom. The new transgressive aesthetic and the new subversive artist, Wallace suggests, will be one who is unabashedly sincere and unapologetically sentimental. “The next literary rebels,” he argues, “might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels... who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction.” Such an artist may be rejected as naive or foolish, but would be creating on a higher and more urgent ethical plane. Such an artist may cloak their work in apparent cynicism, but use that in order to inform a sublime humanism. Such an artist who, perhaps, as Vonnegut confesses of himself, still believes in junior civics. 

Vonnegut is still such a timely and necessary writer because of his fluidity in bridging this gap between irony and authenticity, between cynicism and sincerity. Vonnegut’s irony is never self-enclosed or hollow, but rather directed towards cultivating human flourishing. Simply put, Vonnegut is a subversive writer, and must be recognized as such. He always approaches humankind with the utmost reverence and with a radical love. "Literature," he piquantly quips, "should not disappear up its own asshole." A note of harmony between Vonnegut and Wallace is their deep respect for the human individual in response to the ravages of an increasingly dehumanized world. Both authors drew inspiration from the Serenity Prayer, referenced repeatedly in both Slaughterhouse-Five and Infinite Jest. "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can change, and wisdom to know the difference." This prayer functions in Vonnegut’s imagination as a mantra that impels his empathizing perspective. Emerson defines the human as a "god in ruins," and Vonnegut recognizes this same sense of tragic sublimity in the characters that populate his dreamworlds. Among Vonnegut's virtues is his earnest and paradoxical insistence on embracing the timeless beauty amidst the absurdity of human existence. In a manner truly befitting an artist so intrigued by the experience of becoming “unstuck in time,” Vonnegut is still today’s most ardent humanist writer. As the world continues its pointless march toward abstraction and dehumanization, Vonnegut, broken-hearted, implores us to reconsider our priorities and reconsider our humanity. Vonnegut’s love, cloaked in irony, remains a potent aesthetic and ethical tool for re-imagining our worlds and re-creating our beings. Hi-ho. 

"God made mud.
God got lonesome.
So God said to some of the mud, “Sit up!”
“See all I’ve made,” said God, “the hills, the sea, the sky, the stars.”
And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around.
Lucky me, lucky mud.
I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done.
Nice going, God.
Nobody but you could have done it, God! I certainly couldn’t have.
I feel very unimportant compared to You.
The only way I can feel the least bit important is to think of all the mud that didn’t even get to sit up and look around.
I got so much, and most mud got so little.
Thank you for the honor!
Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep.
What memories for mud to have!
What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met!
I loved everything I saw!"
Last Rites of Bokononism, Cat's Cradle, 1963