Vonnegut on Truth and Aesthetics in a Nonmoral Sense

by Matthew Gannon
(with drawings by Kurt Vonnegut) 

“What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions – they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.”

- Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense,” 1873

“Trout sat back and thought about the conversation. He shaped it into a story, which he never got around to writing until he was an old, old man. It was about a planet where the language kept turning into pure music, because the creatures there were so enchanted by sounds. Words became musical notes. Sentences became melodies. They were useless as conveyors of information, because nobody knew or cared what the meanings of words were anymore.”

- Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions, 1973

The Voice of God

At the start of Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut’s seventh novel, coming on the heels of the peerless Slaughterhouse-five – the author makes a careful and prudent announcement to clear himself of any legal charges that might be leveled at him from taking the slogan of a cereal brand as the title of his book:

“The expression ‘Breakfast of Champions’ is a registered trademark of General Mills, Inc., for use on a breakfast cereal product. The use of the identical expression as the title for this book is not intended to indicate an association with or sponsorship by General Mills, nor is it intended to disparage their fine products.”

That expression “intended to disparage their fine products,” could not possibly be laced with any more irony and intentional mockery. Vonnegut has every intention of disparaging products. Somewhat paradoxically, Vonnegut couldn’t care less about General Mills, or any other particular brands or corporations. Vonnegut does not set out to demean any particular product but rather his goal is to deconstruct the very notion of “products” and lampoon the role of commercials and commodities in society. General Mills is not the only brand name that finds its ways between the covers of Vonnegut’s novel. Dozens of brand names – many of which are fictional – appear as the butt-end of Vonnegut’s bleak satire that illustrates the inanity of warping language for the sole purpose of selling products.

At the outset, the plot of Breakfast of Champions is remarkably simple. Vonnegut himself states the plot in the first sentence of the first chapter: “This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.” The first man is Dwayne Hoover, resident of Midland City – an all-American suburban wasteland – and successful local businessman whose main trade is selling Pontiacs. The second man is Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s alter ego who has appeared in a number of previous Vonnegut novels. Trout’s main business is writing hundreds of pulp science fiction stories and novels, installing storm windows, and predicting the impending apocalypse to his parakeet Bill. Dwayne Hoover represents all that is respectable and business-like in modern America, but he secretly harbors “bad chemicals” that are about to drive him to insanity – particularly after reading Trout’s writings. Trout represents everything that is unrespectable and despised in America: creative drive, poverty, ugliness, and a healthy skepticism of the powerful elite that boast of progress. Kilgore Trout is heading to Midland City where is to be the keynote speaker at the Midland City Festival of the Arts Festival. By the time he gets there, Dwayne Hoover, whose Pontiac dealership is in Midland City, will be ripe for his complete meltdown, which comes when he reads the outrageous things in Kiglore Trout’s pulp fiction.

Dwayne Hoover is a respectable businessman, but secretly insane. Kilgore Trout is a raving doomsayer whose only friend is a parakeet, but he is actually completely sane. This reversal of sanity and respectability can be found in a number of Vonnegut’s works – particularly God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater – but it is in this novel that Vonnegut explicates the curious linguistic basis of contemporary world-historical insanity. At the heart of Vonnegut’s linguistic analysis of culture and madness is his criticism of advertising, hence the sloganistic title of the novel.

At its most basic level, the novel constitutes an ironic appropriation of corporate ideology in order to explode the fetid waters of capitalist stultification. It constitutes an emptying-out of the containers of ideology – including an emptying-out of Vonnegut’s own literary imagination – in order to cast aside that which has been profaned so as to cling to that which is sacred. Vonnegut laments in the preface to the book that Armistice Day, one of his favorite holidays has been abolished to make room for Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was a day of remembrance for when the end of World War I, when “millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another.” Vonnegut says that he talked to veterans who lived through that moment in World War I. They told him, “in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God.” Because of this, Vonnegut insists, “Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.”

Kurt Vonnegut was an avowed secular humanist and had no patience for the dull ideologies of religion. Nevertheless, he believe in a sacred kind of humanism, and still respects the Voice of God, even if it is just the sound of peace settling in the corners of the earth. Breakfast of Champions is Vonnegut’s effort to throw away all that is not sacred and to keep all that he. “So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.” This assertion comes at the end of the preface. The rest of the novel consists in Vonnegut attempting to throw away all that is not sacred. “This book,” writes Vonnegut, “is a sidewalk strewn with junk, trash which I throw over my shoulders.” Conversely, this book is also quite obviously an attempt to redeem that which is in need of it, that which has been written out of history or obscured by those who desire the unsacred. In Vonnegut’s paradoxical, humanist, and re-sacralizing eschatology two things stand out as particularly in need of redemption: language and humanity.

Value’s Last Tango

Vonnegut’s novel traffics in the jargon of corporatism – the title of the novel is itself a corporate slogan and the brand names and logos come in spades. Vonnegut deals in slogans, logos, clichés, and other pithy trappings of profiteers. The goal of this co-opting is, through ironic humor, to illustrate the utter sacrilege such use of phrases and logos commits on the sacredness of language and the innocence of the human imagination. As communicative beings, language becomes a sacred bond between humans, and slogans and other corporatized media-speech threatens the trustworthiness of language. At on point in Breakfast of Champions Vonnegut expounds a just-so story about the origins of ideas. Ideas, he explains, were never very important to humans because they were so hard to make a reality. As such, it used to be easy to agree with someone just because you were friends with them. Camaraderie came cheaply, and ideas became “badges of friendship or enmity.” But then something changed: “Earthlings discovered tools.” With the capabilities of an industrialized society, “agreeing with friends could be a form of suicide or worse.” But did that stop the cheap – and even crazy – ideas from flowing or from people quickly adopting their friends ideas for friendship’s sake? Not at all. “Earthlings when on being friendly, when they should have been thinking instead.” Thus ideas because lethal forces, resulting in the madness of genocides, wars, holocausts, slavery, and exploitation. Trafficking in lunatic ideas, humanity paid its price in blood. And to make matters worse, there was nothing humanity could do: “There was no immunity to cuckoo ideas on Earth.”

The cuckoo ideas Vonnegut speaks of aren’t always apocalyptic though. Sometimes they are plainly ridiculously and highly amenable to his satiric appropriation. The most notable silly misuse of language comes from advertising, which will warp language so out of shape just to sell a product. Advertising bookends the novel, which Vonnegut dedicating the book to a woman he knew during the Great Depression who wrote ads for a department story. Vonnegut wrote copy for her as a teenager, and, according to Vonnegut, she taught him a thing or two about how to write and think critically. Those familiar with Vonnegut’s biography will know that this wasn’t his last foray into the marketing world. After he returned from World War II he worked in public relations for General Electric in Schenectady, New York – which explains his abiding interest in science and robotics, as well as setting stories in upstate New York. General Electric forms the concluding bookend of the novel’s sloganeering. Vonnegut rips a line from GE itself – “Progress is our most important product” – and ironically puts it on a sign in a run-down and corrupt section of Breakfast of Champions’ urban setting. Vonnegut didn’t write that particular piece of copy, but he could have, had he been assigned to, and his ironic appropriation of it makes clear his desire to discard his public relations past for being insufficiently sacred.

Vonnegut's drawing of the PYRAMID truck
Littering Breakfast of Champions’ landscape are similar appropriations of brand names and ironic slogans - many of which he actually drew himself, albeit childishly, with a felt-tipped pen. Kilgore Trout, when hitchhiking across the country to attend the Midland City Festival of the Arts, finds himself in a tractor-trailer with the company name “PYRAMID” emblazoned in enormous letters across the vehicle. He asks the driver why a technological marvel of a truck, barreling across the country, would be named after something that has sat motionless for thousands of years. “I never saw anything that was less like a pyramid than this truck," he explains to the driver. In response, the driver is irked that Trout would have the audacity to ask why someone chose a particular word for their company’s name: “The driver's answer was prompt. It was peevish, too, as though he thought Trout was stupid to have to ask a question like that. ‘He liked the sound of it,’ he said. ‘Don't you like the sound of it?’” It is at this point that Trout concocts the story in the epigraph to this essay, about a planet where all the words keep falling apart into various pleasant-sounding music.

A sacred miracle is a tourist trap
This instability of language and truth is exacerbated by the commodification of language. Words themselves no longer function to communicate something so quaint as truths. Truth, Vonnegut writes via Rabo Karebekian, is “some crazy thing my neighbor believes.” Language nowadays almost exclusive serves to deceive, particularly in the service of selling some product. Language has become an advertising media-speech and a marketing ploy. This is how a pyramid can be a truck, or, to draw on other examples from Breakfast of Champions, a sacred miracle is a cheap tourist attraction, a galaxy is a car, Excelsior is a fire extinguisher, and so on. The potential of truth has been positively stripped away from any of these words, never mind the myriad products that offer “happiness” or “comfort” or “ease” or “satisfaction” or “fulfillment.” None of these words mean anything anymore, at least not what they used to mean. They now only mean what they could be meant to be selling. They are bound to their commodity and cannot mean anything outside of that. Progress is a product, according to GE, and nothing more. In some strange admixture of Marxism and post-structuralism, it is not unreasonable to say that there is no longer anything outside the text of the commodity.

Though Nietzsche wrote a century before Vonnegut, his concerns for language, truth, and human understanding were remarkably similar, as his quote in the epigraph to this essay demonstrates. In his essay “On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense,” Nietzsche thought that language evolved simply as a way of convenience in communicating, as a tool, and that words are more like metaphors attempting to communicate rather than proclamations of absolute truth. Nietzsche’s main concern was not in advertising or capitalism ideology, but rather people mistaking metaphors for dogmatic truths, such as those expounded by science, religion, or social convention. His concern can be adapted to the actions of sloganeers though, whose goal is to essentially take advantage of this metaphoric condition of language to their advantage. General Electric faces no repercussions for claim that progress is a product that must be acquired through their corporation because the concept of “progress” has no genuine meaning beyond itself. This, not coincidentally, is why Nietzsche has such appeal to post-structuralist thinking. Vonnegut, however, does not accept this state of language, and resist the idea that nothing is truly sacred. As a fundamentally existentialist and humanist thinker, Vonnegut continually insists that meaning can be constructed from the void, and that this itself is the meaning outside the text. Vonnegut rejects the dogmatic values of social convention and religious tradition, but he does not forsake values altogether, and through his ironic appropriation of slogans, mottos, and logos, he laments the de-sacralizing of language and the puncturing of value wreaked by marketers and publicists.

Advertising seeks to take advantage of this slipperiness and convention-driven notion of truth. Their goal is to misuse language as much as possible in the effort to promote their product while minimizing the risk of what Nietzsche calls the “unpleasant, hated consequences” that could result in their lying. In a bureaucratized world, this means making as many outrageous claims and drawing upon the most improbable imagery to sell a product while attempting to ward off the potential lawsuits from violating peoples’ expectations. According to Nietzsche, humanity exchanges “truths for illusions,” and words are simply “the boldest metaphors.” When applied to marketing strategies, the results are a totally deceptive language with little connection to that which is genuinely human. A truck is a pyramid, a sacred miracle is a tourist attraction, and so on and so forth.

The concern for misused language, and the reason that Vonnegut insists that we no longer live in a “sacred” world where people can “hear the Voice of God,” comes from his genuine apprehension that language has become entirely dehumanizing and put to the uses of exploitation rather than expanding the understandings of human experience. In his seminal text Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard explores many of the same themes as Nietzsche with regard to language and truth. Due to what Baudrillard – as well as most post-structuralists – saw as the preeminence of text, he developed his theory of simulations, which he likens to the process of drawing a map. The map not only informs the user about the territory, but in a strange sense, creates the territory – or at least the viable ways in which the user can make sense of the territory. In the current era, says Baudrillard, “it is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory.” The map not only guides the user, but stakes out all possible interpretations of the territory such that what is real is limited to what the map claims is real and comprehensible. “It is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map.” When this logic is extended further, the result is a compounding of what Nietzsche recognized over a century ago: namely, that language no longer refers to anything in actuality, but rather is a metaphor, or to use Baudrillard’s term, a simulation, of reality.” It is no longer anything but operational,” Baudrillard argues, and no longer relates to reality as such. “It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real.”

The contemporary era is thus the “era of simulation,” which entails not an abnegation of the real, but rather a “hyperreal,” which masks “any distinction between the real and the imaginary.” It is hard to imagine a linguistic state less amenable to the twisted lies of advertising and capitalist ideology. “Simulation,” says Baudrillard, “threatens the difference between the ‘true’ and the ‘false,’ the ‘real’ and the ‘imaginary.’” As such, it is impossible to “unmask” the simulation, because it merely masks the fact that underneath it there is nothing to begin with. There is no truth behind the simulation, because “it is truth that hides the fact that there is none.” With the void of reality, there can only be power and exploitation. “Behind the baroqueness of images hides the éminence grise of politics,” and this is the point at which political ideology masks the genuine suffering with its onslaught of information and denigration of meaning.

By desiring a sacred – or re-sacralized – language, Vonnegut does not imagine a pristine language that is buffered against actual human usage. It is quite the opposite, as Vonnegut praises impoliteness and consistently pokes fun at manners and the stuffy formality of corporate culture. Sacredness for Vonnegut constitutes a re-humanizing of language and a decommodification of linguistic culture. By culling together corporate cultural mores into this novel, he locates the absurdity of capitalized language and profit-driven semiotics. Vonnegut’s semiotic parody is simultaneously a search for what lies behind the text and behind the fetishization of commodity.

Mauvaise Foi

Vonnegut’s previous novel, Slaughterhouse-five, represents his greatest turn away from narrative as a paradigm for fiction writing. Nevertheless, in Breakfast of Champions Vonnegut makes his aversion to narrative explicit in an unprecedented way. He opens the book with a meditation on his own role as an author, claiming that he feels “programmed to write,” in an attempt to minimize the authority of the writer and the notion of artistic genius – two mainstays of modernist though. In Slaughterhouse-five Vonnegut demeans his own work as “this lousy little book” and described his authorial role as “an old fart with his memories and his Pall Malls.” In Breakfast of Champions his furthers this skepticism by suggestively asking, “What do I myself think of this particular book? I feel lousy about it, but I always feel lousy about my books.” Vonnegut endeavors to set himself up as the anti-prophet, explicitly remarking that the guidance of the muses or any other modernist versions thereof do not run through him. He is programmed to write, so his writes, nothing more and nothing less.

Fiction, Vonnegut speculates, is an inherently solipsistic activity, and it is a wonder that readers can get something out of a writers work at all. Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut thinks, is an attempt “to clear my head of all the junk in there.” This explains the numerous childish drawings dispersed throughout the text. All the flags, the assholes, the slogans, logos, animals, and so on are nothing more than clutter, weighing Vonnegut down, waiting to be cathartically expelled. He describes the book as a project of “cleansing and renewing.” This extends not only to symbols, but characters too. Characters such as Eliot Rosewater and Kilgore Trout have been cropping up in Vonnegut’s previous novels and it is now time for him to set them free. At the end of Breakfast of Champions Vonnegut really does set Kilgore Trout free. Engaging in high-level meta-fiction, Vonnegut writes about himself, the author, approaching Trout on a back road in Midland City and telling him, much to Trout’s chagrin, and telling him, “you are free, you are free.”

Though Vonnegut often maintains that his reasons for liberating his characters, jettisoning oft-used symbols, and eschewing narrative is a personal endeavor for the sole benefit of lifting psychological burdens from the author himself, he also, somewhat contradictorily, infuses his efforts with world historical importance. For example, when, at the end of the novel, he inserts himself into the narrative in order to approach Kilgore Trout and inform him of his freedom, he likens himself to Tolstoy, who freed his serfs, and Jefferson, who freed his slaves. He quite ironically compares himself to these Great Men Of History (my term) to demonstrate the importance of his project to “set at liberty all the literary characters who have served me so loyally during my career.”

Of course, it is inherently ironic to juxtapose literary characters with actually living slaves and serfs – something the highly historically and socially conscious Vonnegut is well aware of. Nevertheless, Vonnegut’s depiction of fiction elevates it beyond lousy little books or authors that are old farts with their memories and Pall Malls. Vonnegut genuinely believes fiction – particularly narrative fiction – to be a world-historical force, capable of shaping ideology and historical events alike. Narrative, Vonnegut suggests, accounts for the way people lead their lives: “they were doing their best to live like people invented in story books.” Narrative surely tells people mundane and harmless ways to lead their life, but it also has disastrous effects. Vonnegut supposes that so many Americans find it acceptable to shoot each other because “it was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books.” So many people find it acceptable that the government treats them “as though their lives were as disposable as paper facial tissues,” because that is how authors treat “bit-part players in their made-up tales.” It is a miserable idea that people can imagine themselves as bit-part players in their own made-up world.

Vonnegut solution to this depressing scenario is the rejecting narrative altogether, something he makes explicit in Breakfast of Champions but tacitly demonstrates in many of his novels. “Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling.” Vonnegut departs from those who wish to draw simplistically on conventional narratives depicting humans as sane and society as reasonable. The world has gone mad – mad with nuclear ambition, imperialistic urges, violent tendencies, glorifications of inequality and material excess – and Vonnegut endeavors to depict it as such. “Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order.”

Part of this enterprise is Vonnegut’s curious way of treating human beings, which he insists cannot be reduced to mere characters. Humans are complex beings, part crude machines lumbering around and interacting with each other and part transcendent beings striving to make sense of their world. Vonnegut treats derisively those who embody the role of a character for the sake of ease or simplicity. In a deeply Sartrean move, Vonnegut describes his own character Bonnie MacMahon, a waitress in Midland City. Bonnie, Vonnegut writes, adapts to the chaos of the world by dressing in a thoroughly predictable way, saying predictable things, and generally adopting a predictable attitude that people will find endlessly inoffensive. She dresses with a glittery uniform with just enough sex-appeal and delivers drinks to patrons with the exact same unfunny quip: “Breakfast of Champions.” Vonnegut is not unsympathetic, explaining that Bonnie acts this was as to please customers and thereby accrue as much in tips as possible. She’s had a hard life and needs as much financial security as possible. Nevertheless, Vonnegut awards more humanity to Rabo Karabekian, a minimalist painter attending the bar where Bonnie works. “Doesn’t that get tiresome?” Karabekian asks Bonnie after witnessing her elaborate act.

Vonnegut roundly criticizes people who act as if they are characters as well as authors who portray humanity as a collection of characters. This is precisely the notion of mauvaise foi [bad faith] that Sartre outlines in his text Being and Nothingness. Sartre too uses a waiter to illustrate his point that someone occupying or playing a role is avoiding their genuine humanity. Those who play the role of a character established by social convention or mores is thus rejecting their own humanity. As Sartre explains in Being and Nothingness, the waiter in café’s movement is “a little too precise” for the role of a waiter. “All his behavior seems to us a game… He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a café.” Vonnegut thus criticizes Bonnie MacMahon in similar terms, describing her behavior has too waitress-line. She has imagined a stock character “waitress” from the annals of social convention and seeks to be that when, in good faith she can be nothing of the sort since she can only ever be a human.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony

Rabo Karabekian, The Temptation of Saint Anthony
If Vonnegut does not think that humans are reducible to characters, social roles, or any other archetypes, his description of humanity is also not in purely negative terms. He posits a vision of humanity through the artwork of Rabo Karabekian, the aforementioned minimalist artist. Karabekian, who will take a leading role in Bluebeard, an upcoming Vonnegut novel, arrives at Midland City Festival of the Arts having recently sold the Festival on of his paintings, entitled The Temptation of Saint Anthony. Rather than the intricate, baroque Renaissance piece it sounds like, the painting is, in actuality, a minimalist artwork consisting of a twenty by sixteen foot canvas painted solidly commercial-brand green with a simple wall paint. Affixed to the canvass near the its left edge is a single vertical stripe of dayglo orange reflecting tape. “It was a scandal what the painting cost,” remarks Vonnegut. In order to rehabilitate the arts in the otherwise culturally barrenness American Middle West, the founders of the festive had paid fifty thousand dollars for the painting.

Vonnegut has little sympathy for so much money being spent on something which took such little effort to make. Karabekian, he writes, “knew he was surrounded by people who hated him for getting so much money for so little work.” He remarks bluntly: “Midland City was outraged. So was I.” After Karabekian patronizingly criticizes Bonnie MacMahon for being a too-perfect waitressing machine (though Vonnegut thinks she deserves it), Bonnie finally snaps. She “blew up,” making the stinging accusation that she’s “seen better pictures done by a five-year old.” At this point Vonnegut’s aesthetic allegiances become clear – he doesn’t support art being sold for such outrageous sums of money, but besides its hideous commodification, art serves as a truly redemptive and positive social force. Vonnegut, engaging in meta-fiction, muses about his innate nihilistic tendencies and generally hopeless outlook on life. “I did not expect Rabo Karabekian to rescue me,” but when Karabekian stood to respond to Bonnie, “he was majestic up there.”

When forced to explain the importance of his minimalist painting, consisting of a solid green field and a single strip of orange tape, Vonnegut – via Karabekian – delivers an astounding defense of modern and contemporary art. He claims the painting “shows everything about life which truly matters, with nothing left out.” The single band of fluorescent tape represents “the immaterial core of every animal – the ‘I am’ to which all messages are sent.” It is integral to every human, every animal, anything that lives with an awareness. This “vertical, unwavering band of light” signifies the fact that “our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery.” In Vonnegut’s conception of humanity, everyone is just as equal as anyone else, because if you strip away all the layers of sociality, history, circumstances, and so on, you are left with a perfect and transcendent band of luminous awareness standing out from the chaos of the world. Thus Vonnegut reverses his earlier claim of bringing chaos to the world. He brings chaos to his literature, because the world is chaotic, but his destructive technique serves the transcendent end of illuminating the incontrovertible (secular) sanctity of being. All humans live in a world that Vonnegut describes as “complex, tragic, and laughable.” But through it all the “sacred part” of our humanity, our “awareness,” remains “an unwavering band of light.”

Pastiche, or, The Narrative of the End of Narratives

It is easy to label Vonnegut’s rejection of narrative-form as deeply postmodern. After all, Jean-François Lyotard’s proclamation of postmodernism as the rejection towards meta-narratives (or grand narratives) is practically the standard definition of postmodern. Even when not explicitly discussing the evils of narrative, Vonnegut’s anti-narrative style itself speaks to his undeniably postmodern themes. Slaughterhouse-five’s reformulation of the experience of time (Billy Pilgrim’s being “unstuck in time”) very closely matches concepts of montage – particular the theoretical application of montage by the likes of Vertov, Eisenstein, or even Godard. There are times, however, when Vonnegut’s technique seems almost closer to pastiche than montage, such as his ironic appropriation of slogans and logos and other trappings of corporate media-speech found in Breakfast of Champions.

The potential use of pastiche is problematic, because it ultimately undermines Vonnegut’s political project, which is to represent the interest of those who have been deemed unworthy or unrespectable in society. Pastiche, as formulated by the Marxist philosopher Fredric Jameson, represents an ironic appropriate lacking in the satiric force needed to provoke real sociopolitical change. Pastiche, Jameson argues, is “free-floating and impersonal.” It is similar to parody, in that it ironically wears the linguistic mask of power, but it a “neutral practice” rather than a political practice. It is ultimately ”devoid of laughter and of any conviction.” These characteristics seem thoroughly unlike Vonnegut’s writing, which is steeped in conviction and filled with laughter. Nevertheless, Vonnegut’s appropriation of the linguistic dialects of late capitalism threaten to undermine conviction itself, particularly as Vonnegut’s project involves the herculean creative effort of re-sacralizing the world and redeeming humanity in the face of senseless commodification.

As Vonnegut’s most postmodern novel, Breakfast of Champions runs up against the limits of postmodernism, in which the deconstructive and pastiche tendencies of this paradigm inevitably fall into resigned disrepair once their ironic goal has been accomplished. Vonnegut himself was well aware of this novel’s pitfalls. In his 1981 books Palm Sunday, Vonnegut assesed his own novels by giving them a grade. Breakfast of Champions earns a meager C in this assessment, in stark contrast to his previous novel, Slaughterhouse-five, which earns him an A+ and is generally regarded as one of the greatest American novels ever written. Vonnegut’s pressing up against the limits of postmodernism is a lesson in the inexorable failure of postmodernism as an analytical framework, demonstrating its irrevocably collapsing in on itself. Ultimately postmodernism reveals itself to be nothing new, but just an expression of the existing contradictions inherent in society itself. As such, postmodernism is, at best, nothing but the self-aware manifestation of contradictory mainstream liberal though. At worst, postmodernism reveals itself to be a cloak for thoroughly conservative thinking, owing to the fact that the concept of genuine sociopolitical and cultural change is anathema to the postmodern movement. The resignation of postmodern and deconstructivist techniques too often lapses into a genuine support of the status quo over imaginative transformation of society. This resignation is surely what Vonnegut himself finds so flawed in Breakfast of Champions.

Despite the pressing the limits of postmodernism, Vonnegut is frankly aloof towards many of the main tenets of that theoretical paradigm. As I detailed above, Vonnegut rejects the resigned assumption that we are irrevocably bound to a text-based and inherently meaningless world. Vonnegut searches for meaning behind the text itself, which, to be sure, does not mean that he uncritically accepts traditional grand narratives. Furthermore, despite his pastiche tendencies and desire to discard all the unsacred ephemera trapped in his literary imagination, Breakfast of Champion is still a narrative, even if Vonnegut resists narrative. In fact, since Vonnegut is so explicit about his mistrust of narrative in this novel (whereas in previous novels he demonstrates, rather than explains his mistrust in narrative), it is possible to deem Breakfast of Champions, in the words of Fredric Jameson, a “narrative of the end of narratives.” Jameson describes many of quasi-postmodernist tendencies as deeply hypocritical, in that they employ narrative when attacking narrative. In Vonnegut’s case, however, this isn’t so much hypocritical as much as it is a brilliantly subtle defense of the concerns of modernism itself. That Vonnegut employs narrative, but still remains skeptical of it, is precisely why Vonnegut’s allegiances are ultimately not to postmodernism but to the extra-textual concerns of modernism and existential humanism. He certainly traffics in certain postmodern devices, but his desire is not the end of grand narratives, as Lyotard suggested, but rather the desire for a redemptive narrative.

Vonnegut postmodern tendencies can be seen as almost Brechtian then, and thus not truly postmodern in the way that many other authors so clearly are. Brecth, argues literary theorist Walter Benjamin, is a proponent of a “didactic” drama, in which the author rejects simplistic narratives and traditional emotional catharses in order to displace the reader/viewer and maker her complicit in her own self-education – specifically political education for Brecht and Vonnegut, as well as linguistic. In such a literary device, the task is, according to Benjamin “not so much the development of actions as the representation of conditions.” The idea is to uncover the underlying conditions of human existence. This can occur through “the interruption of happenings,” which serves to draw attention to the conditions, rather than the characters or the plot. The didactic play, Benjamin argues, creates a space in which the audience is not instructed or coerced into drawing conclusions or feelings dictated emotions, but instead one in which “every spectator is enabled to become a participant.” And what the participation entails is playing the role of a “teacher.” The author of the text does not authoritatively demand the audience learn, but rather create the conditions for the audience to teach themselves. In this sense didactic fiction is inherently autodidactic as well. By refraining from such things as traditional narrative device, coercive emotions, blunt characterization, and so on, Vonnegut (and Brecht) create the opportunity for readers to formulate their own particular compassionate understandings of the world itself. Such techniques share much in common with postmodernism, but have a fundamental distinction which must not get lost in the effort to classify a writer as so unclassifiable as Vonnegut.

In the beginning…

Perhaps the most striking moment of distinction between postmodernism’s skepticism of narrative and post-structuralism’s distrust of extra-textual meaning comes near the very end of Breakfast of Champions. Vonnegut, after lampooning corporate slogans and logos and drawing maps of evil countries, decides it is time to redeem semiotics and employ them for humanistic and emancipatory purposes. In the last scene of the book Vonnegut writes himself into the plot, so that he can approach Kilgore Trout and notify him that he has been liberated from fiction, and is free to live his life as he pleases. In this act of profound compassion and anti-authoritarianism, Vonnegut speaks of the need for a symbol that can communicate all these joyous concepts to Trout all at once. Vonnegut wants to make Trout feel “a wholeness and inner harmony” because as a benevolent creator, Vonnegut loves his characters – as well as his readers. Vonnegut seeks to distinguish him from that other creator – The Creator – who saw fit to rain destruction on Sodom and Gomorrah, and populate his moral teachings with the constant threat of destruction. Trout is the modern Job, and Vonnegut could not help but break him down and take from him all potential happiness and success. But the time for redemption of humanity is nigh, so Vonnegut writes himself reaching out to Trout with a symbol in his hand, because the time for redemption of language and symbols is night as well. He creates a symbol that has “not been poisoned by great sins our nation has committed, such as slavery and genocide and criminal neglect, or by tinhorn commercial greed and cunning.” And what does Vonnegut hold out in his hand to demonstrate his inauguration of a redemptive era in human history? Trout looks up, and “he saw that I held an apple in my hand.” An apple, the modern incarnation of that infamous forbidden fruit which set humanity careening on a course of non-redemptive history. Vonnegut questions what type of a creator would so badly tempt Adam and Eve, so he now reaches out with compassion, and bestows the fruit willingly. “Sometimes I wonder about the Creator of the Universe,” Vonnegut muses earlier in the text after considering how much suffering and meaningless he seems to let enter into the world he has created. Vonnegut this constructs an alternative eschatology based on a redemptive history, rather than a history of the fall of humanity. He works through the fall therapeutically, and this time he prevents a fall from grace and allows humanity to retain its prelapsarian innocence for all time. Vonnegut has started history over again, and redeemed those symbols that previously represented sin. He is aware of humanity’s great sins, but he does not condemn humanity but instead he it. Go, Vonnegut seems to be saying, and from henceforth sin no more.
The once forbidden fruit has now become redemptive