Kurt Vonnegut as Ragpicker and Poet


“These fragments I have shored against my ruin.”

- T.S. Eliot

The Complicated Futility of Ignorance

Hocus Pocus, like so many Vonnegut novels, is a first-person, non-linear narrative told episodically as an autobiography written by a prisoner awaiting trial. The protagonist in this case is disgraced professor Eugene Debs Hartke, who, like many Vonnegut characters, is not guilty of the charges leveled against him but is certainly guilty of other crimes – crimes against his conscience being chief among them. This epistolary novel is something of a confession to the readers. Eugene admits that though he is an atheist, there might just be somebody up there watching, and by writing he is trying to confess his crimes – though he can never clear his conscience. He awaits trial in the former library of Tarkington College, a school for the dyslexic or otherwise learning-impaired for the super-rich in Upstate New York in a town called Scipio “at the pinched waist of Lake Mohiga, the deepest and coldest and westernmost of the long and narrow Finger Lakes.” Eugene was a professor of physics there where is favorite pastime was encouraging his students to consider the inevitability of failure. He finds a set of failed experiments to produce a perpetual-motion machine and puts them on display with a large plaque reading, “THE COMPLICATED FUTILITY OF IGNORANCE.” His reasoning is that “even for middle-class and upper-class white people, in my experience, failure is the norm. It is unfair to youngsters particularly to leave them wholly unprepared for monster screw-ups.” Eugene is particularly keen on expressing the many faults he sees in the rich, or what he calls the “Ruling Class.” This casual Marxist critique and class-consciousness is taken from his namesake, Eugene Victor Debs, a real historical figure. Vonnegut’s character Eugene explains that his grandfather was “a Socialist and an Atheist,” and deeply admired the historical Debs, who was the Socialist third-party candidate for president many times during the first quarter of the 20th century.

 The protagonist Eugene isn’t nearly as political as the actual Eugene Debs, but his skepticism of the wealthy and powerful – as evidenced by his resignation towards collective failure – eventually gets him fired from his post as a professor. He should have stuck to physics, not social commentary, the board of trustees tells him. The ultra-rich donors and parents responsible for financing Tarkington College could not stand his un-American patriotism, even if Eugene was a prominent Lieutenant Colonel in the Vietnam War. Not only did Eugene serve in Vietnam, he was the last American in Saigon, throwing Vietnamese out of helicopters and shooting at them to prevent their escaping with the Americans as they fled the embassy. After his experiences in Vietnam, Eugene is not partial to war, calling army training the ability to be “turned into a suicidal, homicidal imbecile in 13 weeks.” A charismatic conservative television personality and father of one Tarkington student has Eugene secretly recorded making comments such as “Down with the Ruling Class!” and “Hitler was a Christian.”

The penalty for telling unpleasant truths is being labeled an “unteacher” by the trustees and fired from his post. After a chance drunken and despondent encounter at a local bar Eugene discovers that the New York State Maximum Security Adult Correctional Institution in Athena, New York – across Lake Mohiga from Scipio and Tarkington College – is hiring teachers to improve literacy and occupy the prisoners time. Before long he finds himself teaching prisoners, and is lucky to be doing so because not long afterwards an explosion at the prison gate gives prisoners the chance to escape. Crossing the moonlit and frozen Lake Mohiga by night, the prisoners invade Scipio, take over Tarkington College – made easier by the students being on winter break – rape and pillage the town, and hold the board of trustees hostage. Eugene would have never survived such an onslaught, so being on the prison side of the lake saved his life. But after the insurrection is put down, the prisoners sent back to their cells, and the trustees delivered safely to waiting rescue squads and television crews, Eugene is arrested and charged with being the mastermind of the escape plot for no reason other than the fact that he is white and most prisoners were black. “It was a racist conclusion, based on the belief that Black people couldn’t mastermind anything. I will say so in court.” So Eugene is quarantined in the Tarkington College library, a makeshift prison while the prison is rebuilt. He may be innocent of the crime he is charged with, but he is haunted by his role in Vietnam, his estranged family, and general lack of humanity. In the confines of the library Eugene writes his autobiography and in it Vonnegut puts his trademark musings on life, death, conscience, sex, politics, justice, and humanity.

Notes from the Wasteland

As in many of Vonnegut’s epistolary novels, Hocus Pocus begins with an editor’s note – a piece of fiction written as non-fiction by Vonnegut pretending that the book before us, Hocus Pocus, is a genuine autobiographical work. Vonnegut explains that the purported autobiography was written in unorthodox fashion. The author “did not have access to writing paper of uniform size and quality.” He was, however, imprisoned in a college library littered with scraps of paper of every imaginable size and shape. And instead of tearing out pages from disused books, Eugene wrote the book “in pencil on everything from brown wrapping paper to the backs of business cards.” These curious writing materials were coupled with an equally strange method. The author wrote, “scribbling words on a scrap,” whatever might happen to be at hand at the moment, and filled it to its entirety “as though each were a bottle for him to fill.” Once completed with that scrap he paused that particular thought, as if the scrap itself had indicated that he had written all there is to be written about it. This is something of a practical experiment in aesthetic materialism. Each scrap was meticulously numbered so as to keep strict chronological order (though the story itself is told out of order). Each passage in Hocus Pocus represents a scrap and is demarcated by an unbroken horizontal line across the page separating one passage from another.

This fragmentary, meta-fictional, and idiosyncratic way of writing is not the only unconventional stylistic choice in the novel. Eugene almost never writes out a number with letters, feeling that “numbers lost much of their potency when diluted by an alphabet.” Vonnegut also capitalizes certain words, sometimes seemingly at random, as if to hint at their level of import. The most obvious case is his references to the Ruling Class, as if capitalization can serve as a warning to readers. In the editor’s note Vonnegut suggests that this may because the author, waiting to be tried in court, may be feigning insanity and hoping his strange scrapbook autobiography may serve as evidence to that. Another interpretation, one easily made by the reader, is that Hocus Pocus is so fragmentary in order to evoke the fractured cultural landscape of the postmodern wasteland in which Vonnegut (through Eugene) is writing. He writes at the cusp of ecological, economic, and political collapse – conditions which have been exacerbated today, not resolved. In the face of crisis, culture – politics, industry, the arts, journalism, education – has retreated, buried its head in the ground, and resigned itself to anesthetizing banality. Eugene Debs Hartke writes his autobiography, a confession of sorts, on the fragments of a once great institution, a library, which has been converted into a perverse place of inscrutability and injustice. Eugene is writing in the ruined wasteland of so-called civilization, and he is writing in the ruins, on the ruins, of the ruins.

This writing from the ruins is not far from T.S. Eliot’s poetic proclamation in the epigraph to this essay. In his writing Vonnegut will show us fear in a handful of dust. Vonnegut’s disjointed and fragmentary counter-narrative reflects the cracked and fissured landscape, thirsty for succor. There is not even the sound of water here. It the dead land, a wasteland, with nothing more than a heap of broken images at the disposal of the author. Vonnegut even uses this to his advantage, often inserting quotes from eminent historical authors, such as Shakespeare and Sartre. But he does not claim to have mastery of these. They are more broken images, more fragments, the he explicitly cites from Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. “If more people would acknowledge that they got their pearls of wisdom from that book instead of the original, it might clear the air.” But the reader knows that Vonnegut does this not just for honesty, but to show how fragmented and meaningless literature has become, liquidated into its most familiar quotations for a chance to show off an unearned knowledge.

Hocus Pocus is set in the near future from Vonnegut’s writing, though that is now our past. The year is 2001, and the political situation is similar to the present in the United States. The country is deep in debt, it has sold off most of its assets for foreign interests, the poor can no longer find even menial labor, and the rich have retreated from industry to immaterial finance. This is the age of computer-logic, digitized consciousness, instant gratification (with little satisfaction), and ethereal immateriality that supplants both the flesh-and-blood as well as the conscience of humanity. Artists are despondent and impotent, mocked by society and filled with self-doubt. A colleague of Eugene’s at Tarkington puts on an art display that is accidentally destroyed by a rogue gust of wind. These fragile artworks are mocked by society who finds them pointless and mocking towards those who cannot understand them. The rich revel in their ignorance, though must feign wisdom to retain their moral superiority. The solution to crime is long-term incarceration with no attempt at education or rehabilitation. Prisons, like most institutions, are run for-profit by foreign interests and, due to exorbitant debts, the yen is more widely accepted than the dollar. Mindless entertainment is the panacea for all ills, from prisoners to educators.

Speaking to the already pessimistic Eugene, the Japanese prison Warden expresses his astonishment over the fall from grace American has experienced:
First the atomic bomb. Now this. They looted your public and corporate treasuries, and turned your industries over to nincompoops. Then they had your Government borrow so heavily from us that we had no choice but to send over an Army of Occupation in business suits. Never before has the Ruling Class of a country found a way to stick other countries with all the responsibilities their wealth might imply, and still remain rich beyond the dreams of avarice! No wonder they thought the comatose Ronald Reagan was a great President!
Most of the wealthy characters in this dystopia of the present end up losing their family fortunes through ill-advised investments in a shadowy enterprise called Microsecond Arbitrage. The title and its function as an investment firm illustrate Vonnegut’s longstanding belief that mechanical, linear time is itself in the employ of capitalism. Time reflects being, and mechanized times produce mechanized beings enslaved by capital and indifferent to humanity itself. The heightened interest in finance rather than industry characteristic of the late 20th century indicates that the rich and powerful are quickly retreating from the material. The flattened cyberscape of the internet awaits, only exacerbating the problem and feeding humanity’s urge to retreat from itself. ''Poor and powerless people, no matter how docile, were no longer of use to canny investors,” writes Vonnegut. Finance, the digital, and the atomic bomb complement each other as a critical intersection of sterile inhumanity. Or perhaps rather than the atom bomb it should be the neutron bomb, a topic of Vonnegut’s previous novel Deadeye Dick, because it kills humans and preserves property. But by the age of digitized capitalism even material and physical property is an unnecessary reminder of the inherent messiness of humans, their laboring and biological bodies an affront to the seamless corporatized world of finance and class ideology. Liquefied wealth and liquefied humans are far more convenient. Eugene comes across a short story in a pornographic magazine called The Protocols of the Elders of Tralfamadore in which the author (who is not named but is obviously the same Kilgore Trout from many other Vonnegut novels) explains that everyone on Tralfamadore knows "that germs, not people, were the darlings of the Universe." Humans are, at best, incubators for microbes who might themselves have some hopes of achieving what humans cannot, such as space travel, or planetary peace

Though these crises are very real and material, Vonnegut also fears for the cultural crisis, in which art is no longer taken seriously and cheap entertainment reigns. The prison Warden is in a particularly privileged place to comment on the tragedy and farce that is America because he lived through the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. He was a 5-year-old boy playing soccer. When he went down into a ditch to pick up the ball he looked up and the city no longer existed, nor did any of his friends or family. “There was a flash and wind. When he straightened up, his city was gone. He was alone on a desert, with little spirals of dust dancing here and there.” Vonnegut is distraught not only about the actual atomic bomb, but also the metaphorical blasted wasteland that the atomic and capitalist era has instilled in humanity. The atom bomb and the wasteland it created in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are symbolic of the equivalent cultural wasteland of postmodern America. This is why Vonnegut has is protagonist imprisoned in a library, huddled in the space of his own mind, critiquing society and imagining a better future. In the wasteland, where there are few traces of humanity, Eugene Debs Hartke wanders in search of redemption. Amid a desert of banal pointlessness, Vonnegut’s writing fills all the landscape with inviolable voice.

Scribbling on fragments in the disused library evokes the style of poetry by the classic modernist writer Charles Baudelaire. In a letter Baudelaire posited ragpickers, who he saw often throughout the dirty streets of Paris, as key figures in stimulating his poetic imagination:
Here we have a man whose job it is to gather the day’s refuse in the capital. Everything that the big city has thrown away, everything it has lost, everything it has scorned, everything it has crushed underfoot he catalogues and collects. He collates the annals of intemperance, the capharnaum of waste. He sorts things out and selects judiciously; he collects, like a miser guarding a treasure, refuse which will assume the shape of useful or gratifying objects between the jaws of the goddess of Industry.
Upon reading this passage decades later, the philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin wrote. “This description is one extended metaphor for the poetic method, as Baudelaire practiced it. Ragpicker and poet: both are concerned with refuse.” Vonnegut too is concerned with refuse. Though more than a century has passed since Baudelaire penned those words, his concerns are still our concerns. Through his writing, Vonnegut searches for something more tangible than abstraction to hold on to As Eliot wrote, “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish?” Even from such desolate nothingness can come brilliant being. Vonnegut’s fiction toils amidst “the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.”

The Culture Industry Will Be Televised

Hocus Pocus is anxiously concerned with the role of television in society. There are dozens of mentions of “television” and “TV” and numerous references to movies, movie stars, tapes, and broadcasting in general. It is tape that also spells the downfall of Eugene, as he is recorded by a seemingly innocent student working undercover for her father, who happens to be a vitriolic conservative TV presenter whose anti-communist and pseudo-patriotic allegiance evokes Joseph McCarthy, or Glenn Beck today.

The argument Vonnegut is making is not that there is not enough culture or that culture has become diluted. The argument is that there is no culture, but only a culture industry. Culture itself is a false category, a lie perpetrated by capital to reap more profit and further thwart class-consciousness. This even more specifically applies to art and artists. What now passes as art and culture is reality television, news/entertainment hybrids about vapid people and pointless events. Once the hostages are released from Tarkington College after the prison-break, they are whisked away to be immediately interviewed by pseudo-journalists.  They are no longer just hostage survivors, but television celebrities who can provide sound bites and clips for viewers so that they too can vicariously experience the excitement of imprisonment, abuse, and then liberation. This process of vicarious experience, technologically mediated alienation is allegorical of the process of media indoctrination itself, where media becomes realer than reality itself. The vacarious experience of liberation of the hostages is analogous to the vicarious and alienated experience of political and existential liberation. The culture industry presents liberation at a cheap price via the media while consumers greedily devour it and thereby further alienate themselves and bind themselves with the shackles of false-consciousness.

“We have so much to learn about TV!” exclaims Eugene while pondering such mysteries.

Media is not only a source of indoctrination for ideologies of power, but also a pacifying force. In the New York State Maximum Security Adult Correctional Institution across the lake from Tarkington College they endlessly play tape recordings of previous broadcasts, mostly inane chat shows or historical documentaries. Nothing relevant or thought provoking appears, for fear that it might upset or influence the prisoners in some way. “They could feast their eyes on whatever they liked, just so long as it wasn’t relevant.” Moreover, the Japanese owned and operated prison is filled with Japanese TV sets playing decades-old tapes. Vonnegut likens the myriad television, which appear almost anywhere one looks, to “portholes on an ocean liner” in which “the passengers were in a state of suspended animation.” The prison itself is stagnant, with only a dull patch of blue-gray sky available for viewing (even a hint of landscape might insight the prisoners), but they can mindlessly stare into the maw of a droning television at anytime they look. Life itself, Vonnegut writes, “was like an ocean liner to a lot of people who weren’t in prison.” All you have to do is look into your television set and “ see all the world was doing with no help from them.” Television is an excuse for inaction, an anesthetic and inoculation against taking charge of life itself. It is not only an anesthetic, it is an an-aesthetic – an anti-aesthetic, violating the very precepts of truth and beauty.

Vonnegut imagines viewers looking at what world accomplishes without their help or participation. “Look at it go!” he comments wryly. Thanks to these wonderful television sets, the centerpiece of many a home and prison, half the population can’t even “find their own country on a map of the world. Three-quarters of them couldn’t put the cap back on a bottle of whiskey without crossing the threads.” Media traffics in sheer anestheticizing entertainment, and if the program doesn’t fit that standard it is dispensed with. Furthermore, everything must be filtered through this crude lens. Over a decade later Vonnegut wrote in the magazine In These Times: “One of the few good things about modern times: If you die horribly on television, you will not have died in vain. You will have entertained us.” In his quasi-memoir A Man Without a Country he takes this a step further when writing that “war is now a form of TV entertainment.” And insists that we can no longer trust our television sets (and our newspapers for that matter). Television is “so craven, so unvigilant on behalf of the American people, so uninformative, that only in books do we learn what's really going on.” After Eugene takes it upon himself to teach reading to the prisoners he finds, to his disappointment, that they use their newfound skills to enhance their masturbation or else being entranced by the anti-Semitic tract The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. 'The lesson I myself learned over and over again,” Eugene complains, “was the uselessness of information to most people, except as entertainment.''

The misinformation spread by media such as television is secondary to a greater threat: human experience itself is being filtered, categorized, and dictated by this media consumption. Eugene, haunted by his time in Vietnam, compares it to a movie. This is the only way he can understand himself and his experiences. He finds the most troubling aspect of his Vietnam experience is that he doesn’t find it troubling at all, merely “interesting.” And while Eugene writes often of his time in the war, “It is like an old movie,” he claims. “Does that mean that something is wrong with me?” He admits to being heavily influenced by Vietnam War movies, claiming that the fiction is often superior to the real. “The actors always turned out to be a lot more believable on the little screen than we were. Real people in real trouble don’t come across, somehow.” And when the prison break occurs and the prisoners raid Scipio and take over Tarkington College, he imagines that the invading prisoners were shooting civilians, astounding by how lifelike their deaths are: “Bang. Somebody else would jerk backward and downward, like a professional actor on a TV show.”

What are we to make of a world in which fiction is realer than reality and actors play parts better than genuine human experience? This is the concern of Baudrillard’s classic study of postmodern society Simulacra in Simulation. In that text he cites media indoctrination as not just replacing reality, but creating a false reality behind which lies nothing but a void, “the desert of the real,” as he calls it. This is a world of simulacra, which Baudrilard argues is “never wat hides the truth – it is truth that hides the fact that there is none.” In the simulated world, all referentials are “liquidated,” even those that refer to humans and human experience. They then experience an “artificial resurrection” and give rise to a system of signs that is “more malleable than meaning.” It is for this reason that the prisoners are so absorbed by the television and Eugene can only experience Vietnam in retrospect like a movie. Memory and experience are liquidated, made more malleable, and re-experienced as alienation. Simulation “threatens the difference between the ‘true’ and the ‘false,’” writes Baudrillard, creating what he terms a “hyperreality.” And hidden behind this reality is not truth concealed, but a void that is filled with, according to Baudrillard, “the √©minence grise of politics,” which are the dominant ideologies of exploitation and power. Through capital, ideology liquidates referentials, repackages experience and consciousness, indoctrinates through media through anaesthetizing misinformation, and lulls viewers into complacency. When the prisoners do escape – which only occurs because of an explosion that breaks down the gates to the prison – they are thrust in a world they comprehend through the hyperreal. Vonnegut likens their last stand at Tarkington College to the Alamo, mostly because he has seen the Walt Disney movie-version of that historical event. Humanity no longer experiences its own pleasure, but must seek out mediated and verified modes of experiencing and behaving.

The Soul Merchants

What, then, is to be done, when culture and politics have imploded and all that is left is an inhuman wasteland of germ-incubating humanoids? Vonnegut’s answer is, unsurprisingly, art. “Would I would really like to have been, given a perfect world, is a jazz pianist,” admits Eugene at the beginning of the novel. Instead of being a career soldier dedicated to “the ammunition business,” as he calls war, he would have preferred a life of jazz, and “I mean jazz,” insists Vonnegut, could have laid before him. Before West Point and then Vietnam, Eugene was in a band called The Soul Merchants who occasionally played “the never-the-same-way-twice music the American black people gave the world.” They were mostly commissioned to play standard white-American rock tunes. The racism at the time forbade them from admitting their surreptitious desire to break into jazz. But in the middle of a set they would sometimes “cut loose with jazz anyway.” Nobody even noticed; they all enjoyed the music so much. And when they played that jazz, oh “we were in ecstasy.”

This desire for the aesthetic life rather than one of capital or militarism is the redemptive thread that impels Vonnegut’s counter-narrative. Eugene has the opportunity to renew his love of music when first offered the physics position at Tarkington College. When being wooed by the president of the college, Eugene’s commanding officer in Vietnam, he finds out, by a strike of luck that they were in need of someone to play the Lutz Carillon, “the great family of bells at the top of the tower of the college library.” The bells were played just like a piano, with a keyboard, and when accepting the teaching position Eugene extended his hand and said, “Shake hands with your new carillonneur.” This opportunity was “like manna from heaven,” writes Eugene. “The happiest moments in my life, without question, were when I played the Lutz Carillon.”

The arts have the capacity to rival the capitalistic and the militaristic. Unlike the militaristic they serve the cause of peace and beauty, rather than violence and ugliness. And as opposed to capitalism, they are not concerned with profit. Eugene recounts the story of the original bells for the Lutz Carillon, crafted in the 19th century by a blacksmith dying from emphysema due to inhaling fumes from molten metals. This blacksmith, literally dying for his craft, made the expensive bells through difficult toil at a great financial and physical cost to himself. The bells were his greatest project, “the most wonderful consequence of his having been alive for a little while.” Though he, like those failed perpetual-motion machines, was doomed to run down and die, those bells were his “dreams of immortality.” Part of the wonder of them is that anybody took it upon themselves to make something as “impractical and beautiful” as those bells.

Though we lead flawed and mortal lives, it is through art, through the aesthetic that a sort of transcendence is possible. Art reflects the greater part of humanity, that which is not dedicated to profit, violence, advantage, power, exploitation, or any of those other ugly human traits. Living through our art is our one opportunity to allow the beauty of humanity’s being to shine through. The aesthetic and the sublime are the secular routes to transcendence. Art alone is insufficient though, which is why Eugene’s artistic impulses are bound to his political outlook and social criticism. Vonnegut dedicates Hocus Pocus to Eugene V. Debs, the historical figure, because he believes not only in the beauty of art, but the need for justice and the power of political critique. The novel begins with a quote from Debs: ““While there is a lower class I am in it. While there is a criminal element I am of it. While there is a soul in prison I am not free.” The novel ends similarly, with a quote of Vonnegut’s making: “Just because some of us can read and write and do a little math, that doesn’t mean we deserve to conquer the Universe.” Vonnegut’s politics are expressed through his art though. Rather than the tools of destruction, Vonnegut employs the tools of transcendence. In his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” Walter Benjamin cautioned against the pure aesthetic, disconnected from the political. An apolitical art, he argues, results in fascism. What is needed is a politicized art that speaks to the needs of its historical era. By grappling with the wasteland of postmodern, corporatized capitalism this is precisely what Vonnegut does. Such art is truly redemptive for a humanity that, through its ugliness and despicable acts, desperately needs it. Aesthetic beauty and creativity coupled to compassionate politics aimed at justice is the art form par excellence. As T.S. Eliot wrote upon accepting his Nobel Prize, “We must remember, that while language constitutes a barrier, poetry itself gives us a reason for trying to overcome the barrier.” Vonnegut’s fictions challenge his readers while giving them the tools to overcoming the barriers between humans, and perhaps even for humans to overcome themselves. It is his job to gather the day’s refuse, collect everything humanity has thrown away and scorned. He catalogues and collects the waste like a miser guarding a treasure from the goddess of Industry. He is ragpicker and poet. He is the soul merchant, collecting refuse in the wasteland, trafficking in politicized art, and proffering humanist transcendence.