Kurt Vonnegut Has Come Unstuck In Time

by Matthew Gannon

"Materialist historiography… is based on a constructive principle. Thinking involves not only the movement of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly comes to a stop in a constellation saturated with tensions, it gives that constellation a shock, by which thinking is crystallized as a monad. The historical materialist approaches a historical object only where it confronts him as a monad. In this structure he recognizes the sign of… a revolutionary chance in a fight for the oppressed past. He takes cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history."
- Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” 1940

All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. 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.

- Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 1969
. . .
Kurt Vonnegut Is Not A Fish

Kurt Vonnegut, the acclaimed author of literary masterpieces such as Slaughterhouse-Five, trenchant cultural criticism such as A Man Without a Country, and imaginative short stories collected in such volumes as Welcome to the Monkey House, was born on Armistice Day, November 11, 1922 in Indianapolis, Indiana. He published his first novel, Player Piano, in 1952. He was 29 years old. He published his last novel, Timequake, in 1997. He was 74 years old. Kurt Vonnegut died on April 11, 2007 in New York, after falling down a flight of stairs in his home. He was 84 years and 5 months old. Vonnegut was born, wrote some books, and then died. So it goes. Vonnegut, as William Faulkner might have astutely put it, became not-Vonnegut. Kurt Vonnegut is a fish.

Except not quite, because Kurt Vonnegut has come unstuck in time. Truthfully, he was really never stuck in time in the first place. The first piece of evidence for this is that his literary legacy, like so many famous authors, has outlived him. Between his death in 2007 and 2013, six books have been released in as many years under the deceased author’s name. It turns out that the deceased author is more prolific that the living. What a feat.

And Still Some Misfits Insist There Is No Progress…

Vonnegut’s unconventional relationship to time is by no means confined to posthumous publications. He, like Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of Slaughterhouse-Five, has always been unstuck in time. Humans have the nasty habit of perceiving time as a chain of events, linked together progressively and linearly, one after the other. In such a perception of time, history is a very long, inalterable, and unquestionable chain. All that remains to be done for historians is to examine each link in the chain, describe it, and let it be.

Vonnegut refuted this progressivist view of history, eschewing the linear model of time for a flexible, expansive concept of time. Time is not a progression from one moment to another but a collection of constellations, individual moments bound together by unperceived links. In Vonnegut’s estimation, progressivist history is a machine history, a technocratic nightmare. It is an automated history that benefits the few, not the many. It is because of its deeply unjust and unimaginative condition that Vonnegut must do away with it.

Many of Vonnegut’s novels deal with time travel in one way or another, even if such time travel is unconventional, a Proustian inflection in the science fiction canon. Sometimes his characters don’t travel through time, but instead perceive and experience time in a radically different manner than the average human. His second novel, The Sirens of Titan, includes a character that perceives time all at once. To reiterate the Walter Benjamin from the epigraph to this essay, such characters experience time as a crystallized monad. The past and future intermingle in a curious cosmic mélange, operating telegraphically, schizophrenically, like a montage that changes depending on how you look at it. “Everything that ever was will be, and everything that ever will be always was,” writes Vonnegut. The past, present, and future are unbound, freed from the tyrannical constraints placed upon them by human limitations.

Vonnegut’s characters are so often free from the constraints of progressivist history – and he even invented an alien race that always perceives time non-linearly – because progressivist history, that is the normal history we tell ourselves in which one moment inexorably leads to the next into infinitude, is nothing less than oppressive. History is, as Walter Benjamin once said, “the triumphal procession in which current rulers step over those who are lying prostrate.” In fact, Vonnegut’s position of time and progress is often closely aligned with Benjamin, whose 20th-century writings mirror Vonnegut’s distaste for a historicism that valorized the exploiting ruling class and devalued the exploited. The intelligent reader, the sympathetic reader, Benjamin argues, views history and culture “with cautious detachment.” After all, “there is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Writers must “brush history against the grain” to avoid becoming complicit in this transmission of oppressive history. Vonnegut’s is then a project of writing novels against the grain of history.

In his debut novel, Player Piano, Vonnegut describes a character in upstate New York looking out at a battlefield at peace. The locale was not the scene of one battle, but many: “Here in the basin of the river bend, the Mohawks had overpowered the Algonquins, the Dutch the Mohawks, the British the Dutch, the American the British.” These horrid scenes “where men had once howled and hacked at one another, and fought nip-and-tuck with nature as well” were now nothing but “bones and rotten palings and cannon balls and arrowheads.” On top of these depressing strata lays the present, just barely covering the past such that it is easily forgotten, easily repeated. And what is the product of such centuries of suffering? What was it all for? “Baby carriages and bottle caps, motorcycles and refrigerators, television sets and tricycles.” Such are, says Vonnegut, the “the fruits of peace.” All that bloodshed for a few modern amenities. What a deal. Benjamin echoes: “There is no document of culture which is not a document of barbarism.”

History and memory thus function as twin poles of a particularly nefarious form of cultural remembrance. Characters remember the past but seem helpless to repeat it, just as historians inform us of the bloodshed but cannot forestall its inevitable recurrence. In his 1987 novel Bluebeard Vonnegut directly responds to George Santayana’s claim that those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it: “I've got news for Mr. Santayana: we're doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That's what it is to be alive.” History, in Vonnegut’s estimation, is a battlefield temporarily at peace, littered with bones, waiting for the next and all-too inevitable battle to take place with the same arbitrary bloody reshuffling of culture and class. Only one thing remains constant: one group of people is trod underfoot to make way for the next, who, in their own time, will face the same fate.

Walter Benjamin once said, “The concept of mankind’s historical progress cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogeneous, empty time. A critique of the concept of such a progression must underlie any criticism of the concept of progress itself.” Vonnegut too criticizes progress, or so-called progress, heavily. While society marvels in the technological splendor of the present, Vonnegut understands that even technology itself can mask the age-old and deeply corrosive social inequalities that have persisted for centuries. There is a persistent notion that humanity is better off now than it used to be. This present-bias has elements of truth (in terms of standards of living, life-span, etc.) and an element of untruth. The point is not to debate about how much better off humanity is now than in the past, but to refuse to allow the gains that have been made to serve as an excuse for political complacency. The fetid waters of the status quo cannot be allowed to carry us helplessly along the endless river of time. As futuristic works like Player Piano argue, as technological innovation increases the exploitation and pain inflicted on the working classes will become that much easier, and enacted at a distance so as to optimize moral sanitation. Vonnegut, filled with gallows humor and depressive Panglossian aphorisms, appears hopelessly pessimistic. We are doomed to repeat our sordid history of holocaust, slavery, war, bloodshed, exploitation, and more.

However, just before readers prepare for the final descent into a dystopian abyss of pessimism and rejection of the future Vonnegut reminds us that humanity is perhaps worth saving after all, even in its attempt to collectively eat itself, starve itself, drug itself, drink itself, pollute itself, or fight itself to death in a tragic case of collective suicide. His 1985 novel Galapagos begins with an epigraph from Anne Frank: “In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.” It’s possible to read this epigraph as deeply ironic. Vonnegut’s writing is steeped in irony (his very first novel begins with an epigraph from the New Testament when Vonnegut was an avowed atheist). Vonnegut’s secular faith in humanity remained strong. His more popular quotations include such gems as “God damn it, you've got to be kind” and “A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

By recounting the atrocities of the past and their seemingly inevitably recurrences in the future he brings readers to the brink. It is at this moment of existential, moral, and historical crisis that Vonnegut’s perception of time becomes most profound. Vonnegut believed in the inherent goodness in humanity and society, even if he did not believe in the goodness of history and was skeptical of so-called progress. Vonnegut thus brilliantly takes the human subject out of history, out of linear time itself. He didn’t believe that history would get better, or that things would just automatically improve with time as if social progress necessarily, mechanically even, increased as time did. Vonnegut knew history would repeat itself (and indeed it did on many fronts even within his lifetime) but he believed that through the seer effort of imagination humanity could collectively opt out of history and jump into an uncharted history, something Walter Benjamin described as the “leap in the open air of history.” Such a leap would place humanity in a new history and timeline in which violence and exploitation weren’t the bedrock of society and future actions weren’t all but predetermined by past sins.

Being and Time

Karl Marx once wrote: “the world has long been dreaming of something that it can acquire if only it becomes conscious of it… It is not a matter of drawing a great dividing line between past and future, but of carrying out the thoughts of the past.” Vonnegut, by rupturing time itself, is out to reform consciousness. He performs a ruthless critique of everything existing. The liberated future has already arrived, we only need awaken and realize it to make it our own.

This relationship between time and consciousness can be reformulated, in the spirit of Martin Heidegger, as that between being and time. It is deeply ironic to draw upon Heidegger to analyze Vonnegut, considering Heidegger’s unabashed fascism and Vonnegut’s unremitting opposition to everything fascism stood for. Nevertheless, both writers were humanists in their own way, and both employed an existential analytic predicated upon time that cannot be dismissed. Heidegger, in his monumental 1927 inquiry into ontology Being and Time, argues that being itself is time: “The central problematic of all ontology is rooted in the phenomenon of time.” To be human is to occupy not only a particular body in a particular space but also to occupy a certain amount of time in a certain way. Humanity’s experience of time is inexorably bound to its experience of being.

Heidegger writes of “modes of temporality.” These modes of temporality correlate to modes of being. “Time,” he argues, “must be brought to light – and genuinely conceived of – as the horizon for all understanding of Being and for any way of interpreting it.” He is preoccupied with he calls the “Temporality of Being,” by which he means “the way in which Being and its modes and characteristics have their meaning determined primordially in terms of time.”

In Vonnegut’s work, different modes of time also correlate to different mode of being. Being placed out of time, even just infinitesimally, decenters the subject, the reader. The decentered, discomfited subject is a being amenable to change, amenable to being anew, being made anew. The whole world is susceptible to this process, making it possible to, as Thomas Paine once advocated, “begin the world over again.”

Heidegger, like Vonnegut, was dissatisfied with traditional narratives of time, which he said had been wrongly promoted since Aristotle and all philosophers thereafter. He argued that the temporality that matters is not the strict progression of one moment after another, but instead it is the present that matters, and a human’s choice to live in its present time and reckon with its inevitable death as it affirms its existence in the present." Heidegger rejected chronos, the passage of empty, mechanical time, in favor of kairos, the Greek word meaning the right or opportune moment. Walter Benjamin called this kairos “now-time,” the moment in which the past is inconsequential, the future is in no way inevitable, and it is possible to “make the continuum of history explode.”

In Vonnegut’s work this concept is made illustrated literarily through the use of time travel. Beings that perceive and experience time differently are simply different types of beings entirely. In The Sirens of Titan a character that experiences time all at once, as a monad rather than linearly, even becomes estranged from his wife and friends because he is simply a different being – albeit one they happen to find intolerable. Vonnegut must take his readers out of their comfortable confines of space and time because he knows his readers want to remain bound to their comfortable assumptions, ideologies, and behaviors. The problem is, these comfort zones are ones of death and destruction and thus not worth staying in in the first place. So Vonnegut makes his characters – and his readers along with them – travel through time and space to escape their rigid ideologies and achieve a transcendent form of being, a transcendent humanity. They perceive time differently and thus quite literally become different.

We Are What We Pretend to Be

By pushing the limits of human consciousness and being by rupturing the flow of homogenous time, Vonnegut challenges the moral complacency of society and promotes an urgent humanistic ethic based on deeply existentialist principles. During his lifetime Vonnegut spoke openly about his humanist ideals, which ran in his family for generations. Later in his life he even succeed Isaac Asimov as the honorary president of the American Humanist Association. This humanism and existentialism can be located in the realm of free will, which is the ultimate purpose of Vonnegut’s nonlinear, imaginative writing.

At times, it is tempting to view Vonnegut’s perception of time as rigid and entirely deterministic. After all, if all of time is fixed in place, like the Rocky Mountains, aren’t all human decisions and actions as firmly fixed as mountains? There appears to be little room for human ingenuity and will in the statement, “Everything that ever was will be, and everything that ever will be always was.” This would seem to contradict the notion that Vonnegut was a literary liberator in dislodging readers from the flow of empty time. However, it is only the illusion of cause to effect that would incite a reader to assume that one moment must inevitably lead to another in the first place. Since time is not beads on a string, there is no reason that anything must result from something that preceded it. Time may be fixed, but not fixed in an unalterable procession. All moments in time exist in and for themselves and are thus susceptible to human will. Humans may not have the capacity to choose the conditions of their choices, but the choices and actions they make are solely their own. It is only in retrospect, which the fictive narrative of linear time is mapped onto human will, that the illusion of determinism is feasible. As such Vonnegut’s writing against the grain can be seen as an emancipation from determinism. Whereas on the one hand he acknowledges the determinism of circumstance hemming in society, he seeks to unravel that determinism and allow will to flourish in a transcendent humanity.

Only an ideology in which time moves fixedly from past, to present, to future is such a thing as determinism even possible. Even while he witnessed firebombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war, Kurt Vonnegut – as his Slaughterhouse-Five alter ego Billy Pilgrim – could slip away through the cracks in time, freed from his momentary limitations, and reintegrate and reidentify with his humanity. Such is not the reality of human experience, but an ideal, a hope. Vonnegut is nothing if not filled with fervent hope – hope for new times, new histories, new modes of being and understanding, new realities. Sartre, perhaps the most notable of humanist and existentialists, eloquently walks that fine line between determinism and free will. In a 1946 lecture he stated, “there is a plurality of possibilities, and in choosing one of these, [we] realize that it has value only because it is chosen.” We make choices first and then rationalize them later by placing them into cause/effect relationships. It is only afterwards that we naively yoke human experience as yet another link in the chain of determinist history.

Sartre insists, "there is no determinism – man is free, man is freedom.” He does not mean this naively, as if to say that environment and historical circumstance does not play a role in shaping human lives. Sartre, like Vonnegut, was a WWII prisoner of war and knew firsthand that humans can be shackled and compelled and degraded. This, though, is not the natural condition of humanity. It is the aspiration for freedom that defines humanity, the “species-being” to which the likes of Marx aspired. Such liberty is what Sartre and Vonnegut seek, not despite their experience with bondage, but in many ways precisely because of it.

Such an idealized vision of emancipation is an imaginative position to take, one very much informed by literary imagination and talent, something Vonnegut was not lacking in. Vonnegut bound together his potent literary, political, social, and philosophical imagination for the betterment of mankind. In this way he was very similar to Sartre. In speaking of will Sartre argues, “You are free, therefore choose, that is to say, invent.” “We ourselves,” he adds, “decide our being.” Vonnegut expressed a similar sentiment on the inventiveness of will and being: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." Humanity, on the individual and collective level, is being perpetually made and remade. Because of this there is a certain level of artificiality to humanity, as it is constructed actively rather than accepted complacently. But this artificiality doesn't make it wrong. As Vonnegut declares in Player Piano, "what distinguishes man from the rest of the animals is his ability to do artificial things." Existentialism holds that it is action and choice that define people. Man, says Sartre, is “nothing else but the sum of his actions.” The humanist Vonnegut insists that for the benefit of one and all, those choices ought to be based on compassion and liberty above all else. “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

In order to spur readers in the direction of compassion and liberty, Vonnegut leads readers away from their habitually complacent subjectivity and consciousness. This decentering is a form of transcendence, something Sartre insisted is integral to humanity as such: “Man is all the time outside of himself: it is in projecting and losing himself beyond himself that he makes man to exist; and, on the other hand, it is by pursuing transcendent aims that he himself is able to exist.” This transcendence does not aim for the supernal, but for the material and the human. This is a process of self-surpassing in which man “is himself the heart and center of his transcendence.” By traveling through space and time and critically displacing readers, Vonnegut aims at such Sartrean transcendence, not for eternal salvation in the next life but for secular redemption on earth.

Doomed To Repeat The Past

Vonnegut dislodged his characters, and his readers, from the machinery of time in order to allow them to flourish in a present that is freed from the baggage of the past and the enslaving certainty of the future. Such a project was deeply existential, phenomenological, and humanistic. In this effort Vonnegut drew upon all of his resources politically, historically, morally, politically, and, above all, literarily. As such, Vonnegut himself was man out of time: a socialist during the Cold War, an atheist in a zealously religion nation, and a humanist in a profoundly dehumanizing time.

It is Vonnegut’s perseverance – his literary, moral, and political perseverance – that is so desperately needed today. Hypocrisy lay at the heart of Vonnegut’s time on earth just as it does ours. The paradoxes of Cold War that he lived through carry over into today, making Vonnegut’s concerns our concerns. America, then and now, promoted freedom of religion while discriminating against non-Christians. America, then and now, spied on its citizens, infiltrated protest organizations, jailed dissenters, and wielded excessive executive authority, particularly in matters of war and surveillance. During Vonnegut’s life there was the House Un-American Activities Committee, now there is the Patriot Act and the National Defense Authorization Act. Vonnegut witnessed firebombs, atomic bombs, and napalm while today there are drones and biological weapons. The U.S. used to practice containment policy, now it polices the Arab world. The U.S. invaded countries dominated by communists, now it invades countries dominated by Muslims. This repetition of the past occurs despite a president that promised hope and change and is well known for his intellect. Why hasn’t Barack Obama remembered history and learned from its mistakes? I've got news for Mr. Obama: we're doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That's what it is to be alive. Walter Benjamin once said, “To grasp the eternity of historical events is really to appreciate the eternity of their transience.” Everything always changes but there’s never any progress.

Vonnegut did not have practical means for liberating humanity from the procession through a blood-soaked history. He did, however, have a potent literary means of educating readers, pushing them, and challenging them to envision new worlds, new times, new histories. This could only be accomplished through Vonnegut’s deeply violent writing, which serves to blast his readers out of the continuum of empty, homogeneous time. Time travel, so often seen as a sci-fi ploy for cheap plot, is, at least in Vonnegut’s case, a deeply existential device that serves to elucidate his deeply humanist roots and ontological interrogations. Time travel serves as social criticism, novel historicism, and political resistance.

Vonnegut himself, or at least his writing and his legacy are thus blasted out of history, unstuck in time. He is pulsating, fluctuating, and flying around space-time with wild abandon. He is in Indianapolis, Dresden, Cape Cod, New York. He is in 1922, 1945, 1969, 2007, 2013, and beyond. He is, he was, he always will have been. Time is not a series of beads on a string. One moment does not follow another.
. . .

"A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."
- Walter Benjamin, "On the Concept of History," 1940

"Every passing hour brings the Solar System forty three thousand miles closer to Globular Cluster M13 in Hercules — and still there are some misfits who insist that there is no such thing as progress."
Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan, 1959