Speechless in Simulation: A Missive for Midland City


“Man is a subject caught in and tortured by language.”
 - Jacques Lacan

“Words, words, words.”
 - Shakespeare, Hamlet, II.2.192

“Blah blah blah.”
 - Kurt Vonnegut, Deadeye Dick, 1982

Consider the Subtleness of the Sea

“Deadeye Dick,” writes Vonnegut in the Preface to his tenth novel, “is a sort of lungfish of a nickname. It was born in the ocean, but it adapted to life ashore.” He elaborates — Deadeye Dick “is a nickname for a sailor. A deadeye is a rounded wooden block, usually bound with rope or iron, and pierced with holes. The holes receive a multiplicity of lines... But in the American Middle West of my youth, ‘Deadeye Dick’ was an honorific often accorded to a person who was a virtuoso with firearms.” The deadeye, then, functions as a subtle metaphor in the novel, which revolves around the peculiar experience of the man — Rudy Waltz, neither sailor nor virtuoso — absurdly bestowed with this “lungfish of a nickname” and irrevocably marked by fate. The nautical origins of the deadeye suggest that the nickname function as a sort of lens into the American subject and psyche, with Deadeye Dick, to paraphrase Whitman, offering a filter of multiplicities through the self. 


Using Waltz as such a lens, Vonnegut continues to interrogate the absurdity of the human and American subject in Deadeye Dick. In some ways, Waltz resembles other typical Vonnegut protagonists. He is “the victim of a series of accidents,” as Winston Niles Rumfoord from The Sirens of Titan might suggest, and these absurd crescendoes of coincidences plague Vonnegut’s unmoored protagonists. Rudy Waltz is a failed playwright and pharmacist, the son of a feckless painter, Otto, a one-time “bosom buddy” of Adolf Hitler. (The dictator and the dilettante met as struggling artists in 1920s Vienna.) In his adolescence, Rudy Waltz accidentally kills a pregnant woman with his father’s gun, firing a rifle nonchalantly from the window of his home. This event is a rupture in Waltz’ life. The accidents of his fate transform him into a murderer and bestow upon him the unshakeable epithet of “Deadeye Dick.” Another absurd event in the novel is the detonation of a neutron bomb over Midland City. Vonnegut implies that the “friendly bomb” was purposefully detonated by the United States Government, hoping to de-populate the decaying Rust Belt city. “That is my principal objection to life, I think,” suggests Waltz. “It is too easy, when alive, to make perfectly horrible mistakes.”

But the senselessness of a deterministic fate is not the principal inquiry of Vonnegut’s Deadeye Dick. Beyond this tragic absurdity of contemporary life, Vonnegut is particularly interested in the problem of language. The threat of linguistic determinacy pervades the novel — Vonnegut is concerned that the omnipotence and omnipresence of language poisons and imprisons the self.  Nietzsche refers to language as a “prison-house,” reaffirming the bondage of Deadeye Dick’s indeterminate self to the omnipotence of language. Language, Nietzsche argues, forms the structures and boundaries of thought and being. Heidegger further identifies language as the “house of being,” but, for Vonnegut, the relationship between language and being is much more troubled and troubling. As Slavoj Zizek writes in The Ticklish Subject, “Heidegger misses the properly traumatic impact if the very ‘passivity’ of being caught in language, the tension between the human animal and language: there is a ‘subject’ because the human animal does not ‘fit’ language; the Lacanian ‘subject’ is the tortured, mutilated subject.” Vonnegut’s subjects are much the same. 

Whereas Rudy Waltz is plagued by guilt over his murder, he is also haunted by the resonance of the murder in the simulated world of language and society. This tragedy dissolves any space between identity and reputation, between subject and object; the ontological self of Rudy Waltz is collapsed into the neat alliteration of his inevitable epithet. He only exists as Deadeye Dick. Waltz wrestles with this profound ontological doubt, and, in this grappling, he is contending explicitly with his own linguistic determinacy. He is unable the exist as an unfettered subject due to the objectification he suffers in language. It is an existential problem which has metastasized under postmodernism. If the terror of Slaughterhouse-Five is that of the indeterminacy of the human in the incommensurate seas of time and fate, then Deadeye Dick is equally haunted by human indeterminacy in the vast oceans of language. 

One may recall Pip, the enigmatic black sailor aboard the Pequod of Melville’s Moby Dick. (Vonnegut’s Deadeye Dick is, in many ways, a subtle homage to Moby Dick.) In Chapter 93, “The Castaway,” Pip is abandoned in the vastness of the sea by Stubb and the Pequod. After bobbing in the lonesome mystery of the ocean for an indeterminate length of time, he is at last retrieved, although he is reduced to an “idiot,” unable to speak. “The sea had leeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul.” Pip’s speechlessness is indicative of his ontological indeterminacy amidst the determining construct of language (and, in the dark mysticism of the novel, a glimpse at the deus absconditus, the hidden God.) In Deadeye Dick, Rudy Waltz is analogous to Pip, his self drowned in the incommensurate oceans of language, unable to speak for himself. As language assumes more creative and signifying power, the self grows increasingly indeterminate. 

Emerson hoped to realize himself anew as “a transparent eyeball,” but Vonnegut is skeptical of such a divine and pure mode of being. Deadeye Dick offers, instead, a broken lens into a broken world. And, in Deadeye Dick, this world is increasingly unredeemable. Vonnegut foregoes the transcendent humanism of earlier novels in the face of the irrelevance of the human qua human in the society of the spectacle and the omnipotence of the simulacrum. Vonnegut concludes Deadeye Dick with a powerful and fatalistic meditation on the never-ending Dark Ages of the contemporary world. The world of Deadeye Dick is a world drowned in referents, unsure that any substance lies beneath these calcified layers of signifiers. As Rudy Waltz dissolves into Deadeye Dick, he ceases to exist except as a linguistic construction; Vonnegut plays language-games with Wittgenstein. 

Welcome to the The Desert of the Real

God, according to Genesis, speaks the world into existence ex nihilo, or "out of nothing." Rudy Waltz undergoes the inverted and unsettling process of his birth from nothing into an existence wholly created and mediated by language. “To the as-yet-unborn, to all innocent wisps of undifferentiated nothingness: Watch out for life,” he warns. “I was a wisp of undifferentiated nothingness, and then a little peephole opened quite suddenly. Light and sound poured in. Voices began to describe me and my surroundings. Nothing they said could be appealed.” Rudy Waltz’s birth, therefore, is also a fall. (Furthermore, the mysterious violence of this experience — as well as Vonnegut’s conception of the “peephole,” by which he refers to a limited, human perspective on life — parallels what Heidegger refers to as “fallen-ness,” the anxious immersion of the indeterminate self into the world.) To be free, suggests Waltz, is to be undifferentiated, to be undefined. And his descent into this linguistic realm — into Lacan’s Symbolic Order — is a birth into a world totally shaped by language. Later in the novel, Waltz compares this omnipresence and omnipotence of signifiers to “invisible insects buzzing around [his] head.” In Deadeye Dick, language assumes this threatening immanence and omnipotence.

In Simulacra and Simulations, Jean Baudrillard develops a Nietzschean reading of the interplay between signifiers and the signified. In his book, published one year before Deadeye Dick, Baudrillard discusses the concept of the “simulacrum,” by which he refers to the omnipotent system of representation and simulation that writes itself onto the “real” world, ultimately supplanting the “real” itself. He suggests that the world, what is considered to be real, is a media projection. “The real is produced from miniaturized units, from matrices, memory banks and command modules.” In Baudrillard’s postmodern schema, supposed reality only exists inasmuch as it is sublimated into a series of signifiers. “The age of simulation thus begins with a liquidation of all referentials — worse: by their artificial resurrection in systems of signs... With it goes all of metaphysics.” He refers to this new era, where simulation renders reality obsolete, as the “hyperreal.” The hyperreal, the simulation, supplants reality. Reality no longer exists. All that remains is its image. 

Does Midland City really exist? The question, as the “Farmers of Southwestern Ohio for Nuclear Sanity” discover, is complicated. “They were fighting a losing battle in trying to make anybody...care what happened to someplace called ‘Midland City.’” Vonnegut’s heartbroken meditation on the omnipotence of the simulacrum anticipates Baudrillard’s famous 1991 assertion that “the Gulf War did not take place.” According to Baudrillard, the only experience (in the West) of the war was mediated through the simulacrum — through the advanced systems of signifiers of the media. It becomes impossible, he suggests, to filter the “real” war from the image of war, and the simulation therefore supplants the real. Does a place called “Midland City” exist, if no one cares that it has been destroyed? Does it matter? “Has the world lost anything it loved?” 

Crime and Punishment

The rupture in the novel and in the life of Rudy Waltz — the event through which he is forever transformed into Deadeye Dick — is his accidental murder of a pregnant woman, when Waltz was only twelve years old. This tragedy allows Vonnegut to reflect on life, death, and the absurdity of human life. Moreover, Waltz kills this woman on Mother’s Day, the holiday in which Vonnegut’s own mother killed herself, as Vonnegut’s biography continues to inform his fictions. In a tragedy that echoes through the phenomenological, ontological, and epistemological, Waltz’s imagines the innocent firing of his father’s rifle as an act in affirmation of his manhood. “The bullet was a symbol, and nobody was ever hurt by a symbol. It was a farewell to my childhood and a confirmation of my manhood.” He also suggests that, through his ejaculatory jouissance of the phallic rifle, he “may have been trying to evolve into a superman,” a fraught meditation on the insufficiencies of the Nietzschean √úbermensch.

If the accidental murder of the pregnant woman is, as Rudy Waltz suggests, to function symbolically, than it is necessary to peer beneath the event as mere phenomenon. As stated, this murder is a rupture — the event creates a fissure on Waltz’ biography and being. He is immediately incarcerated and abused by a vicious police apparatus. Officers smear his hands and face with ink and display him as a spectacle, and it is one of these officers who slaps the ignominious and eponymous nickname upon Waltz. Waltz further explains that, in his violence, he also killed himself. “I died,” a statement which refers to both the death of the ego (as the ego dissolves into language) and the sort of existential death that Waltz experiences (he later will identify himself as an asexual “neuter” and as “egregious,” which locates him “outside the herd”). This parallels the similarly existential death of Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, who claims that, in his murder of the old woman, that he too “died,” in an abstract or existential way. Raskonlikov is able to find absolution through renunciation and faith. No such recourse is available for Vonnegut's tortured subjects.  

In his attempt to assert himself through the violent symbol of the phallic rifle, Waltz attempts to claim a new mantle of masculinity, a putting an end to childish things. (Vonnegut is always skeptical of such performances of so-called masculinity.) In his self-assertion, Waltz kills a certain Oedipal constellation of mother and child, both, in some sense, existing within himself. However, despite this attempted explosion of the Oedipal or Symbolic apparatus, Waltz cannot find freedom. Instead, he becomes unmoored, awash in referents and lacking a self. He is forever incarcerated in Nietzsche’s “prison house” of language. His guilt and indeterminacy overwhelm any potential re-birth into freedom. Waltz cannot be reborn, but he is re-christened, baptized into new damnation as Deadeye Dick. 

“Who is Celia? What is She? That All Her Swains Commend Her?” 

The omnipotent creative force of language suffuses Deadeye Dick. In his tenth novel, Vonnegut re-considers the suicide of Celia Hoover, who first appeared in Breakfast of Champions. She commits suicide through consuming Drano. Celia is addicted to narcotics, a sign and symptom of both the late twentieth century’s “pharmaceutical bufoonery” and the inescapable loneliness of American life. She is a sympathetic character in Deadeye Dick, appearing, alternately, as Cinderella, Aphrodite, or Helen of Troy. Yet her ennui is typical of contemporary America. Suffering from, ironically, Betty Friedan’s “problem that has no name,” Hoover is totally adrift in linguistic signifiers. She cannot speak; she is only spoken for, a mirror of Waltz’ own linguistic determinacy and existential uncertainty. Celia’s existential despair is primarily, if not entirely, linguistic. She laments to Rudy (who has composed a play, Katmandu, in which she starred), “All those wonderful words that came out of me — those were your words. I could never have thought up words that beautiful to say in a million years. I almost lived and died without ever saying anything worth listening to.” 

Celia’s despair is that of a voiceless and indeterminate subject. Inasmuch as the process of being is tied to language (as “language is the house of being”), the voiceless subject is the subject without a self. Can a subject who cannot say anything "worth listening to" even exist in a meaningful way? Can such a subject dwell, in Heideggerian formulation, where the self asserts the self into the world? Celia, like Waltz, functions as a lens into the existential doubt of the contemporary American condition. In a world awash in referents, Celia’s depthlessness and inability to sustain a self is indicative of a deeper linguistic determinism and postmodern alienation. 

Celia’s fatal consumption of Drano, then, must too be considered as a linguistic act. Celia, in consuming Drano, is hoping to clear the clogged pipes of being and thought, to free the stream of consciousness, as it were. Celia suffers from inability to speak for herself, and this corresponds to an insolvency of being. She seeks freedom through this symbolic act, but her attempt to clear these ontological pipes is fatal. She dies into silence; she dies into nothingness. If every birth is also a fall, then every death is also a damnation. Such is the cruel irony of Vonnegut’s increasingly fatalistic perspective on the human.

Celia’s funeral offers Vonnegut an opportunity to meditate on the nature of contemporary American life and on the individual. In On the Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche reduces the “individual” to a linguistic signifier, suggesting that the self is little more than a convenient fiction and grammatical construction. Vonnegut reaches similar conclusions, and finds some redemption in the dissolving of atomized individual into a social body. Daydreaming a theory “of what life was all about,” Waltz suggests that “there was no reason to take us seriously as individuals. Celia in her casket there, all shot through with Drano and amphetamine, might have been a dead cell sloughed off by a pancreas the size of the Milky Way. How comical that I, a single cell, should take my life so seriously!” Vonnegut finds wisdom, but uncertain absolution, in the dissolving of these constructions of individualism. 

The Work of Art in the Society of the Spectacle

In the Preface, Vonnegut describes an “unappreciated, empty arts center in the shape of a sphere,” which symbolizes, he tells the reader, “my head as my sixtieth birthday beckons to me.” Deadeye Dick lacks Vonnegut’s typically optimistic view on human transcendence. This loss of faith is most clearly reflected in Vonnegut’s increasingly ambivalent approach to art and aesthetic redemption. Vonnegut’s diminishment of hope parallels his growing suspicion that language has supplanted reality, and that the human, like Pip, is reduced to incoherence and uncertainty amidst the omnipotence of signifiers. If the human doesn’t exist outside of language, how can the human be redeemed? The decay of the arts center, mirroring Vonnegut’s own literary and artistic anxieties, underscores the author’s own aesthetic uncertainties.

The most prominent artists in Deadeye Dick are Rudy’s delusional father, an unrealized and unskilled artist who fashions himself a bohemian, and Adolf Hitler. The relationship between the elder Waltz and Hitler begins in Vienna, when Waltz purchases a painting, “The Minorite Church of Vienna,” from a literally starving Hitler. Vonnegut highlights a possible relationship between art and death, as well as art and fascism. Encountering a painting of Hitler forces the viewer into the awkward position of literally seeing the world as he did, forcing the viewer into some sort of sympathetic relationship with the tyrant via the aesthetic gaze. The imaginative hegemony inflicted on the viewer through the realist painting (as Hitler and Waltz both were) implicates the art-object in a sort of imaginative fascism. As if to underscore this violent tyranny of creation, Vonnegut repeatedly refers to the artist’s easel and canvas as a “guillotine.” 

Vonnegut’s skepticism surrounding the artistic process is not limited to the realist painting. Flowing from his own concerns of linguistic determinacy, Vonnegut extends this aesthetic anxiety to literature as well. Vonnegut even compares the writing of literature to Rudy’s incarceration, reinforcing the conception of language as a “prison house.” When Waltz is in prison and smeared with ink, he refers to himself as a an “ink-stained wretch,” which he also identifies as a “wonderful epithet for writers.” 

Waltz, the “ink-stained wretch,” himself harbors something of a literary imagination. He won a contest for a play, Katmandu, which opened for one night in New York. The play was a failure, although it did open on two separate occasions in Midland City. The play itself deals with issues of redemption, and the protagonist, John Fortune, hopes to achieve transcendence or tranquillity in Katmandu. He is unable to do so — the imprisoned human of the postmodern has no recourse to the sublime, suggests Vonnegut. Before his grim death, Fortune suggests that “This is as much a Shangri-La as anywhere,” which is another way to say that there is no Paradise anywhere, that Eden remains obscured, that there is no exit from the ontological prison of the simulacrum. 

In attempting to postulate a purpose of the arts, Kurt Vonnegut has suggested what he refers to as the “canary in the coal mine theory of the arts,” where artists are “useful to society because they are so sensitive.” However, in Deadeye Dick, Vonnegut is skeptical about any possible redemption for society or a transformative role of the arts. America, he suggests, is still in the grip of the Dark Ages. “You want to know something? We are still in the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages  they haven't ended yet.” Before reaching this tragic resignation, Waltz meditates on the dissolution of the American Dream. His ardor is especially poignant — Deadeye Dick was published in 1982, at the heights of the Cold War and the depths of the Reagan Administration. “The 1980s were not simply a decade of glitz and greed,” writes Cornel West. “More important, they ushered in a new era of American history — the triumphant conservatism of Reagan, Rambo and retrenchment.” Deadeye Dick is a meditation on this insidious triumvirate of contemporary America. 

Near the conclusion of the novel, a United States neutron bomb destroys the population — but not the property — of Midland City. Vonnegut laments, “Does it matter to anyone or anything that all those peepholes were closed so suddenly? Since all the property is undamaged, has the world lost anything it loved?” The nation “was now ruled, evidently, by a small clique of power brokers who believed that most Americans were so boring and ungifted and small time that they could be slain by the tens of thousands without inspiring any long-term regrets on the part of anyone.” Vonnegut’s fictions have always been grounded by a strong current of humanistic sympathy, but Deadeye Dick offers arguably his bleakest vision for the human and the United States. “You can’t fight back against something that don’t have a name,” remarks a prescient local farmer. The power to name, as enshrined in Genesis, is the power to control. 

“Guernica” and the Aesthetics of Resistance

Despite the bleak, anti-metaphysical mood of Deadeye Dick, Vonnegut does open a few spaces in his narrative to consider new modes of being. Echoing Breakfast of Champions, Rudy Waltz’ mother leads a successful boycott against abstract art, favoring a more nostalgic Realism to fill the empty walls of Midland City’s resplendent arts center, which Vonnegut imagines as a symbol for his own empty imagination. The simulacrum, however, poses a problem for strictly representational art (such as Hitler’s “The Minorite Church of Vienna” is an example prized by Otto Waltz). In a world subsumed into simulation and representation, a piece of art that participates in simulation becomes just another image, another piece of trash littering the desert of the real. The world has already been subsumed into representation and simulation — the task of the artist, then, is to create new modes of being. 

Hope, Vonnegut insists, can be cultivated through non-representational and fragmented art. Vonnegut, through Rudy Waltz, elevates Picasso’s “Guernica” as an exemplar of such transformative art — “Some picture!” Vonnegut’s elevation of Picasso and celebration of abstraction recalls his eloquent defense of Rabo Karabekian’s “The Temptation of Saint Anthony(which also appears in Deadeye Dick) in Breakfast of Champions. As Fredric Jameson suggests in his foreword to Peter Weiss' The Aesthetics of Resistance, Picasso’s “Guernica” “allows us to re-identify the utopian moment” of his work. Abstract art opens a new space outside of the strict boundaries of representation, thereby cultivating an imaginative space outside of the purview of the simulacrum. If language obscures and controls the lived world, abstract art can nurture a liberating counter-memory. Abstract art, in short, cultivates an aesthetics of resistance, to borrow a term from Peter Weiss. Creating these imaginative spaces is essential to the creation of new worlds. Abstract art, Vonnegut implies, has the power to shatter the simulacrum. 

In addition to non-representational art, Rudy Waltz pursues other salves against the absurdity of simulation. Because the anxiety of Waltz is primarily linguistic, he seeks to cultivate extra-linguistic modes of expression. A particular pursuit of Waltz is scat singing, which he sings to “shoo the blues away.” Scat singing is essential to Waltz’ hopeful redemption. If language is a “prison house,” than he can tear down these ontological walls through dissolving language, through what Waltz refers to as “the brainless inward fusillades of ‘skeedee wahs’ and ‘bodey oh dohs.’” It is an abolition of language itself. Scat singing disrupts linguistic determinacy — Waltz can only assert himself through nonsense. He rejoices at this breakdown of language, for he is dismantling the walls of his ontological prison. Outside the boundaries of strict representation, he is free.

Another example of Vonnegut's repurposing of language can be read in his explanation of the Creole language of Haiti (from where Rudy Waltz narrates). The language has only a present tense. "Imagine a language with only a present tense." The emancipatory potential of this linguistic re-formulation lies in the freedom from guilt that haunts Waltz. In On the Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche discusses the connection between the linguistic construction of the individual with mechanisms of guilt. Therefore, changing language can seek to open counter-narratives for humanity, and allow the human to seek new modes of being. Vonnegut's Creole is another example of his toying with conceptions of time and being. His collapsing of the past, present, and future through a new linguistic understanding of being seeks the open new narratives of becoming. 

Kierkegaard, celebrating Abraham as a Knight of Faith in Fear and Trembling, repeatedly emphasizes the incommunicability of Abraham's self. God speaks to him directly, but not in a universal language. Because language is a universal human space, the true relationship between God and the human pulls the human out of the Other of language and into a realm of individual incomprehensibility. Only in this realm, according to Kierkegaard, can the human seek transcendence. The eternal exists at odds with the universal. Vonnegut does not appeal to God or divinity in such a direct way, but he does celebrate the existential individual in similar ways as Kierkegaard. The human must ascend out of the simulacrum of representation in order to realize new modes of being. 

This celebration of fragmentation, then, is realized in Vonnegut’s exploration of his “telegraphic schizophrenic” literary mode, through which Vonnegut cracks open narrative and language, attempting to elucidate and cultivate some eternal sense of transcendence hidden within. The human is sacred. The simulacrum is absurd.