Vonnegut’s Sermon on the Mount

"Mr. Hapgood... why would a man from such a distinguished family and with such a fine education choose to live as you do?" 

"Because of the Sermon on the Mount, sir."

Call Me Starbuck
Vonnegut’s ninth novel, Jailbird, resumes the author’s profound fascination with Christian theology, an intellectual phenomenon that is bound to confuse readers, given how often Vonnegut himself affirms his atheistic humanism. In his quasi-memoirs, A Man Without a Country, Vonnegut’s criticism of religious belief is pointed: “Being a Humanist means trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishment after you are dead.” Nevertheless, Jailbird derives its moral authority from scripture itself, albeit in unconventional and decidedly progressive ways. It is perhaps telling that this novel revolves around a protagonist by the name of Walter F. Starbuck, an obvious, if elusive, allusion to Starbuck, the young chief mate of the Pequod in Herman Melville’s classical American novel Moby-Dick. Melville writes of Starbuck in his novel:
Uncommonly conscientious for a seaman, and endued with a deep natural reverence, the wild watery loneliness of his life did therefore strongly incline him to superstition; but to that sort of superstition, which in some organization seems rather to spring, somehow, from intelligence than from ignorance.
Vonnegut too harbors a sort of secularized superstition, a humanist theology that springs from intelligence rather than from ignorance. Vonnegut seeks to outstrip institutionalized Christianity itself in adhering to scripture, as he frequently makes use of the revolutionary fervor contained in such passages as the Sermon on the Mount. Vonnegut’s desire is to liberate the teachings of Jesus from their institutionalized shackles and thus free the words – rather, the Word – from those who misuse them. Vonnegut eschews what Cornel West has called the sanitized, deodorized, and sterilized treatment of the Gospel that minimizes its subversive power. He does so by making a direct link between the concerns of Jesus’s words and the political concerns of the contemporary. Rather than pulling scripture for abstract uses and diminishing the prophetic fire and inveterate justice of the Bible, as so many institutions do today, Vonnegut elucidates the revolutionary message of the bible itself. It is well known that Jesus was both a political and theological radical, but his political message has been obfuscated over time, his prophetic voice sanitized as scripture was used for the purposes of enslavement and exploitation, rather than joyous emancipation and human transcendence.

Walter F. Starbuck is the unlikely hero of this story, a secular evangelist retelling of the Bible in secular terms and taking the subversive message of the Messiah tot he mount once again to instruct the masses. Starbuck is, in typically Vonnegut tradition, a victim of a series of accidents. We meet this protagonist when he is sitting patiently in the confines of his prison cell, a post-modern and absurdist Saint Peter, awaiting liberation and destined for evangelism. Jailbird is yet another contribution to the prison-literature genre. Incarceration is a major theme in Vonnegut’s work, whether the circumstances are wrongful imprisonment, political imprisonment, incarceration in mental health facilities, prisoners of war, or, as is the case in Jailbird, imprisonment due to some combination of circumstance, apathy, and moral failings. Prison is a useful metaphor for the human condition under late capitalism, in which the self is a prisoner of (post-)modern subjectivity. There is, so to speak, no exit from this bleak scenario, at least not without some drastic radical political and theological action, which is precisely what Vonnegut calls for, although does not illustrate. The purposes of this carceral theme is not far from Shakespeare’s when, in Hamlet, he writes that the world “A goodly” prison, “in which there are many confines, wards and dungeons.” All writing, Vonnegut and Shakespeare seem to say, is of the prison genre, for as Hamlet says, he could count himself a “king of infinite space”and still be a prisoner and “be bounded in a nutshell” and be free were it not for something rotten in the state of his subjectivity.

Walter F. Starbuck’s tale is a tragic one, beginning with the optimism of his freedom from prison and concluding with his inevitable recidivism and renewed incarceration. Starbuck is something of a much less controversial Howard W. Campbell, Jr. from Vonnegut’s third novel, Mother Night. Like Campbell, Starbuck is imprisoned for his political apathy and willingness to allow himself to be used as a tool in some greater sinister plot. Starbuck, Vonnegut explains, was imprisoned for his “preposterous contributions to the American political scandals known collectively as ‘Watergate.’” His role consisted in allowing his office to be used for storage of an illegal stash of money, a small and unglamorous role, making him “the oldest and least celebrated of all the Watergate coconspirators.” In fact, throughout the novel he often expects other characters to remember him from the scandal, but almost no one does. Despite his small role in the scandal, Starbuck absurdly spends two years of his life as an old man behind bars. His exploits upon release, his interaction with the ghostly RAMJAC Corporation and its elusive majority stockholder Mrs. Jack Graham, Jr., his relationships with women, his rise to financial and professional success, and his anticlimactic and seemingly inevitable re-incarceration flesh our the rest of the story.

Blessed is the Slave Morality

The misuse of scripture by institutionalized religion is perhaps best exemplified by slave owners in the antebellum south who used to cherry pick quotes from the Old Testament instructing slaves to be obedient to their masters. Vonnegut inverts this abuse of the emancipatory capabilities of the Gospel and demolishes what he sees is clear a slave morality. Unlike Nietzsche, however, Vonnegut does not dispense with the Gospel, but rather liberates it in order to allow its revolutionary teachings shine through. Instead of using scripture to entrench slavery, Vonnegut uses it to free humanity itself. Nietzsche, of course, coined the term “slave morality” and spread his critique of Christianity liberally to all aspects of its usage. In texts such as Thus Spoke Zarathustra Nietzsche openly satirizes such moments of the New Testament as the Sermon on Mount, lampooning those who would wait for their reward in an afterlife by calling them “the preachers of death,” and joking that if they we like to be dead, “we should welcome their wish!” In Zarathustra Nietzsche also takes on such tenets as loving your neighbor and mortifying the flesh, accusing such thinkers of hating humanity and themselves and thus unworthy of the task of creating a transcendent humanity.

Nietzsche’s critiques of so-called virtues and moral teachings of Judeo-Christianity are well taken, though even his critique consists of a cherry-picking that obfuscates, rather than illuminates the prophetic fire and joyous aspiration of the Gospel. Though Vonnegut is an atheist, he is not ready to dispense with Gospel before he has deconstructed and then rebuilt his own version of Christian thought and liberation theology, an unconventional philosophy that takes Nietzsche’s criticism to heart while drawing upon a secular Biblical outlook that foils institutionalized sanitation. Thus, contrary to all his other Nietzschean leanings, Vonnegut picks up the Sermon on the Mount as the foundation of his redemptive eschatology.

The subject of Vonnegut’s revolutionary theology is primarily labor, as Vonnegut sees that as the key to furthering human emancipation in general. The tyranny of the free market effectively enslaves those who it even claims to support. It is, as Marx said, “that single, unconscionable freedom.” Vonnegut inverts the twisted logic of contemporary conservative rhetoric – which he would find even more appalling today – which audaciously claims that laborers, particularly menial workers, are moochers and a drain on an otherwise productive political-economic system. Adhering, rather, to a straightforward Marxian framework, Vonnegut recognizes that the true productive class is the proletariat, the workers themselves. The moocher class is instead the capitalist class, those managers, executives, and investors who do nothing but push money – bits of  “worthless paper” as Vonnegut called it in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater – around in get-rich-quick schemes that frequently collapse and, with bubbles burst, eviscerate any hope of job-security or class-consciousness attainable by the working class. At one point Vonnegut has a character, a labor organizer named Kenneth Whistler, recount a story about how he went to a factory where the conditions were harsh and job-security was non-existent. Whistler asks the hardworking laborers who are irreplaceable in their skills if they could run a factory as well as the managers and executives. "God, yes," they reply, "anyone here."

It is the laborers who have the real skill, know-how, and enthusiasm for productivity in Vonnegut’s politically charged worldview. Jailbird begins with the usual Vonnegut preface: a long autobiographical section that mixes fact and fiction. The core of this preface revolves around an influential lunch meeting Vonnegut had with Powers Hapgood, a labor activist upon whom a minor character in the novel, Kenneth Whistler, is based. Powers Hapgood, an important historical figure in his own right, was a labor organizer in the first half of the 20th century. When he was 22 and just recently finished with his service in WWII, Vonnegut had the good luck of meeting Hapgood, who was, as Vonnegut writes of many characters in this novel (and with a fair amount of sarcastic disdain), a “Harvard man.” Hapgood, being a labor organizer, believed that “a true friend of the working people should be a worker himself,” and so went off to work in mines and fields and factories. As such, rather than being a high-society Harvard alumnus, Hapgood was “an ordinary-looking Middle Western Anglo-Saxon in a cheap business suit.” But from within this supremely ordinary-looking man emanated a wellspring of compassion, wisdom, and wit. Hapgood “was a talker,” Vonnegut reminisces, full of “far more wonderful stories” than anyone the young Vonnegut had ever met. He was such a good storyteller that he was delayed in meeting the young Vonnegut for lunch, as he had spent the morning in court testifying on behalf of a number of striking workers. The judge had apparently been so fascinated with his stories – along with the rest of the court – that he had actually encouraged him to go on with his tales of derring-do and fighting on behalf of the workers. The judge, however, was flummoxed by Hapgood’s desire to continue with difficult physical work and being an active member of labor unions. “Why,” the judge inquired, “would a man from such a distinguished family and with such a fine education choose to live as you do?” Hapgood, seemingly taken aback by such a forthright question, responded as plainly as he could: “Because of the Sermon on the Mount, sir.”

The Sermon on the Mount is thus a foundational text for Vonnegut’s humanistic morality and political radicalism, and that famous Biblical passage comes back a number of times in the text. References to the Beatitudes in particular – that segment of the Sermon on the Mount consisting of Jesus blessing the poor in spirit, the meek, and the persecuted – are explicitly and implicitly littered throughout Jailbird. Vonnegut constructs a political philosophy out of the New Testament in the vein of liberation theology and his Bible is a socialist text with the power to transform, rather than paralyze, society. Besides the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus insists that the meek will inherit the earth through righteous sociopolitical revolution, Vonnegut is obviously influenced by passages such as when Jesus instructs a wealthy man to eschew wealth, for it is destroyed by moth and rust, or when Jesus admonishes a young main for his riches and tells him: "if you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor." "And to this last assertion Jesus adds, "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." Such revolutionary prophecy is not merely a plea for a simple redistribution of wealth, but rather very much a socialistic overhaul of existing social relations. Not only shall the poor be rewarded, but, like the proletariat, they shall "inherit the earth," and soon "the last will be first, and the first last." "You cannot serve both God and Money," Jesus warns, and Vonnegut takes this as his impetus for an unabashedly anti-capitalist reading of the New Testament.

Vonnegut, however, does not hesitate to outline his critique of organized religion, which has been sterilized so it can have no impact in the world of earthly human affairs. He explicitly connects organized religion to capitalism and its inevitable abuses of the common people. At the end of his long preface he recounts the story of the Cuyahoga Massacre, a fictional massacre about a labor protest gone horribly and fatally wrong. Vonnegut admits that the massacre is “an invention,” but he maintains that it is a “mosaic composed of bits taken from tales of many such riots in not such olden times.” Vonnegut, of course, could have been drawing upon a number of real-life riots such as the one he describes, in which mostly-peaceful striking workers are fired-upon by sharpshooters hired by the sinister Cuyahoga Bridge and Iron Company, and on Christmas morning of all days. “Fourteen people were killed outright by bullets,” Vonnegut laments about his fictional massacre, “twenty-three were seriously wounded,” and the rest of the hundreds fled immediately, as though ”freakish wind had blown across the plaza below,” the people “blowing away” like leaves. Alexander Hamilton McCone, the helpless and stuttering son of the owner of the Cuyahoga Bridge and Iron Company, recalls saying a prayer about the occasion, wishing that God would protect the workers from the infectious influence of labor organizers that he believed led to the fatal massacre. He is hopelessly ignorant of the fact that his family’s sharpshooters brought death that Christmas morning, not the protesters who demanded nothing more than livable wages.

Such is Vonnegut’s critique of the master-slave morality, and he does not hold back in his skeptical accusation. Remember that in in Slaughterhouse-five Vonnegut praises Lot’s wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt – punished by God for daring to look upon the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah: “But she did look back, and I love her for that because it was so human.” Vonnegut criticizes the bible again in Breakfast of Champions, in which he inverts the traditional narrative of the fall of man via the sinful consuming of the forbidden fruit by instead offering up the fruit himself (the Creator, and thus God, of his fiction), so that he may liberate his characters and thus humanity. Vonnegut despises a God that tempts humanity and then is so quick to punish indiscriminately. “Sometimes I wonder about the Creator of the Universe,” Vonnegut muses in that novel, reflecting on the unnecessary destruction wrought by the Judeo-Christian God. 

In Jailbird he continues this skepticism of religious myth– a skepticism that is buoyed by an illuminating hope and an unmitigated desire for redemption. He thus pits institutionalized religion against liberated religion – the latter is that which can free itself from dogma as well as foolish notions such as an afterlife, an all-powerful God, and most forms of sin. Vonnegut, an atheist, calls for a renewal of Christianity. Paradoxically, it is through an unbeliever that we are lead to a return to scripture itself. Vonnegut, however, prioritizes particular aspects of biblical thought rather than glossing the text in its entirety with platitudinous abstraction and institutionalized dogma. In an important moment in Jailbird Vonnegut tensely describes his attitude toward Biblical dogma. Just before his release from prison, the generally non-religion Walter F. Starbuck encounters Emil Larkin, and old acquaintance who has made the startling transition from corrupt Nixon shill to a spirituals-singing, born-again proselytizer – otherwise known as a Presbyterian. Not only did Larkin dominate “the burglaries and the illegal wiretaps and the harassment of enemies,” but he also dominated “the prayer breakfasts” as well. Most Americans are familiar with the type. Larkin implores Starbuck to pray with him, assuring him that he is “trying to save [him] from hell.” When Starbuck, impatient with such superstition, does not comply, Larkin, Vonnegut writes, “then quoted the harrowing thing” that Jesus promised to say to nonbelievers on Judgment day: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” At this point Vonnegut’s writing is flamed with indignation, and seems to break the fourth wall: “these words appalled me then, and they appall me now. They are surely the inspiration for the notorious cruelty of Christians.” Vonnegut’s theological outlook is one that draws upon Jesus, but has no patience for such nonsenses as gnashing teeth and weeping sinner. Such talk, Starbuck says, “is so unlike most of what else He said that I have to conclude that He was slightly crazy that day.” Vonnegut’s is a joyous theology of redemption, not punishment, and he has enough space in his heart to accept all who seek it without insecurely cursing the rest. Vonnegut, as was Whitman, is large – he contains multitudes.

At this point, it is worthwhile to inquire into the etymological origins of the term Beatitude.  The word ultimately derives from the Latin adjective beātitūdō, meaning happy, fortunate, or blissful. Someone such as Nietzsche could learn from Vonnegut, who, despite being an avowed atheistic and blistering critic against the madness of religion, can still see the beauty in the Bible’s underlying philosophy. Vonnegut’s is thus an unexpected defense of Christianity, even if it is also an attack on its worldly manifestations. Vonnegut recognizes the Beatitudes as an attempt at existential bliss and human transcendence. It was Nietzsche who quipped, “I would believe only in a god who could dance,” and derided somberness as he upheld laughter and revelry as the greatest good. Nietzsche, upon examining Vonnegut’s version of the New Testament, may have recanted his dismissal of it.

Woman is a Harp in Ruins

Starbuck admits that he believes, as many used to believe, that women are “more spiritual, more sacred than man.” Though this idea has fallen out of favor, replaced by a masquerade of egalitarian sympathies, Starbuck, as well as Vonnegut, retains this naïve believe in some bastion of innocence. “Is that, too, comical?” Starbuck wonders. But while Vonnegut praises women and elevates the feminine, he does not fetishize it nor fall for a one-dimensional and dehumanizing characterization or women. The women in his stories – and this story in particular – are often crude, ugly, broken, dirty, vulgar, or even suicidal (as Vonnegut’s own mother was). He describes Mary Kathleen O’Looney, his former lover and majority stockholder in the RAMJAC Corporation, as looking like a homeless woman and the proud owner of an overwhelming “smell of bad teeth” and a “bald spot about the size of a silver dollar.” And he speaks of his late wife Ruth as looking like an angel when he met her, but through the process of their marriage become morbidly obese – but he insists he never loved her less for that. Early in the novel Walter F. Starbuck recounts a poem he and his young friends would chant when they were college boys, “mocked by their own virginity,” and were positively “petrified of all the things that women of that time would expect of them,” both sexually and professionally. The punchline of this vulgar incantation is:
Sally in the garden,
Sifting cinders,
Lifted up her leg
And farted like a man.
The bursting of her bloomers
Broke sixteen winders.
The cheeks of her ass went –
Women, Vonnegut insists, are “more spiritual, more sacred than man,” not because of superficial qualities such as physical beauty or some pretension at demureness and etiquette, but rather because, of the women he has known all of them “seemed more virtuous, braver about life, and closer to the secrets of the universe than I could ever be.” Vonnegut, in the autobiographical preface, writes of his father that, after his mother’s suicide, became a man without a self and without direction or purpose in life. He was a man, even when Vonnegut was young, “in full retreat from life” and had “an air of defeat” about him. Vonnegut contrasts him with Powers Hapgood, the labor organizer, democratic activist, and master storyteller of derring-do. Vonnegut was “enchanted” with Hapgood, a man who was “still eager for information of what was really going on,” and “still full of ideas of how victory might yet be snatched from the jaws of defeat.” Vonnegut, in the preface, resolves to live like Hapgood, rather than his father, for his father had committed a form of suicide, like Vonnegut’s mother, even though he still went on living his lifeless existence.

Even Hapgood, though, has his flaws, and Vonnegut’s critique of masculinity applies to him as well. While very much an icon of justice, Hapgood displays some of those foolish traits of men that Vonnegut seeks to avoid. While it may be heroic that Hapgood, a “Harvard man,” resolves to work alongside the common man, the workers, in their hard labor, it is also foolish and naïve. To illustrate this point Vonnegut creates the fictional character Kenneth Whistler, who is explicitly modeled on Hapgood. Whistler, unlike the actual Hapgood, possess a number of flaws, such as being an alcoholic and abusive towards women. He is also nearly killed in a “routine mining accident,” which also deviates from Hapgood’s biography but illustrates the inherent folly in such typically masculine activities such as hard labor. The likes of Hapgood glorify the strength of men through labor, and while Vonnegut sympathizes enormously with labor, he weakness of the effeminate is far more valuable. After all, it is the meek who shall inherit this earth. It is for this reason that women are more spiritual and more sacred than men. It is also for this reason that Vonnegut demonstrates a greater sympathy for the effeminate men in his stories, such as the stammering Alexander Hamilton McCone, who was one of the two sons of Daniel McCone, the founder and owner of the Cuyahoga Bridge and Iron Company, and perpetrator of the fictitious Cuyahoga Massacre. Young Alexander, just recently finished with his college education, was often mocked for his unmanly and stammering demeanor. The workers “found him girl-like and stupid and too cowardly ever to come near the furnaces and forges.” Filled with an unalloyed level of cruelty, they would sometimes ”wave their handkerchiefs at him, as a salute to his futility as a man.” This, however, is what makes him a sympathetic character in Vonnegut’s writing, perhaps even more so than the workers, though they are to be exploited and demeaned and thus earn the reader’s sympathy as well. But his inherent “futility as a man,” is a blessing for young Alexander, for unlike his cruel and steely father and brother, he will not have the manly desire to conquer other men, and make his will be felt by those he can subjugate. In the master-slave dialectic, Vonnegut sides with the slave, for the slave shall inherit the earth. And no group of people, Vonnegut implicitly argues, is more enslaved than women and effeminate men. This is why Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-five is often described as weak and unmanly and it is also why in Breakfast of Champions the three most sympathetic characters are an abused woman, a homosexual man named “Bunny,” and a cross-dressing man.

Women, Vonnegut seems to suggest, have at their core something more deeply human and good than most men. Their connection to that inalterably perfect sense of humanness is not as tarnished as the male gender, who pollute their being with lusts for power and abuse of their fellow man. It through women that we find the purest synthesis of the sublime and the tragic in what is human. It is impossible not to think back to Vonnegut’s character Rabo Karebekian from Breakfast of Champions and his painting The Temptation of Saint Anthony. That painting, which is a solid green field and a single strip of orange tape, Vonnegut explains, is a representation of “the immaterial core of every animal – the ‘I am’ to which all messages are sent.” The “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.” Though humans are “complex, tragic, and laughable,” there is an irrevocably “sacred part” of our humanity, that “awareness” represented in the painting by “an unwavering band of light” which symbolizes our potential for transcendent redemption not from the dead machinery of our bodies, but within them.

Jailbird has its own aesthetic defense of the human, though in this novel Vonnegut feminizes it and makes his case for the gendering of the human. This aesthetic argument comes after Starbuck has a chance encounter with Mary Kathleen O’Looney, his former lover who appears dirty and thoroughly homeless but is actually the majority stockholder in the RAMJAC Corporation, a corporation that owns 19 percent of the USA and is twice as large as the second largest American corporation. Mary takes Starbuck on a caper from the streets of Manhattan, to the depths of the Grand Central Station basement (where she lives in secrecy), to the very top of the Chrysler Building (which she anonymously owns through the RAMJAC Corporation), which is where Vonnegut places the showroom of the fictional American Harp Company. In this journey they traverse from the depths of the subterranean, yonic, and secure to the pinnacle of the phallocentric icon of capitalist exploitation, imperial might, and masculine folly. Yet at the climax of this phallic journey, there lies a serene Edenic paradise, a showroom for harps filled with sublime architectural splendor, a menagerie of “myriads of bright yellow little birds,” flowing fountains, sumptuous carpets mimicking lawns, benches and statues, and, of course, the magnificent harps themselves.

Harps, Vonnegut writes, are “very strange –looking instruments.” Rather than technological terrors like the sleek machines of industrialism, they are “impossible marriages between Greek columns and Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machines.” They are poetic contraptions of the human imagination that communicate the desire for transcendence through aesthetic sublimity. They are, as Vonnegut says, “machinery for making clumsy counterfeits of airborne souls.” Harps are thus an uncanny mannequin, a serene counterpart made to mimic the impossible splendor of humanity itself. “Harps,” Vonnegut explains, “are self-destructive incidentally.” The reader has this on good authority, as Walter F. Starbuck eventually finds himself, through the influence of his friend Mary Kathleen O’Looney, running the American Harp Company. Harps suffer from intense amounts of tension that is “so tremendous and unrelenting” that they quickly exhaust themselves and become unplayable. But even the unplayable harp contains within it that “unwavering band of light” of its capacity for awareness and thus transcendence. Vonnegut describes Mary herself in similar terms as the harp: “It was most touching. Only her body was decrepit. Her voice and the soul it implied might well have belonged still to what she used to be, and angrily optimistic eighteen-year-old.” In Emerson’s great essay Nature he poetically wrote, "A man is a god in ruins." Vonnegut unknowingly replies: A woman is a harp in ruins. To compare women to an object such as a harp may, at first blush, sound patronizing and rather anti-feminist, but Vonnegut upholds aesthetic bliss as higher than almost anything, and he has no real use for gods anyway. Being a harp in ruins is the most human aspiration we could strive for. Both Emerson and Vonnegut, appreciate the aesthetic in unconventional and pointedly political ways, and thus both fit into a grand tradition of American radicalism and imaginative compassion. Humans are thus the paradoxical manifestation of the sublime and the ruined, with both elements firmly bound together, Janus-like, aching for redemption and, ultimately, transcendence through an absurd dialectic of politico-aesthetic existence.

“For the love of God, Father, won’t you please grow up!

Much of Vonnegut’s writing is the attempt to overcome the bitter loss of women in his life. His was a troubled childhood at times, and possessed something of a Poe-like quality. His mother committed suicide when he was serving in WWII and he found out, of all days, on Mother’s Day. His sister Alice, with whom he was inordinately close and who was something of a creative muse for him, died of cancer before Vonnegut’s career took off – an event that he documents extensively, if imaginatively, in his previous novel, Slapstick. Furthermore, Vonnegut publicly divorced, remarried, and his philandering with young women, sometimes his students, is now well known. In this biographical light, it is more obvious why Vonnegut should seek to rectify society’s relationship with women, as he was continually working on this in his personal and private life.

The loss of a mother weighs particularly heavy on Vonnegut’s writing, and suicidal women feature in a number of his works. In Jailbird Starbuck’s wife dies young, causing Starbuck’s son to break ties with his father, disillusioned by his incompetent paternal figure. Starbuck himself looses his will to live, explaining why he hardly resisted the ludicrous Watergate charges leveled against him. While the absence, abuse, and ultimate redemption of women features prominently in Jailbird, the machinations of patriarchy – both political and personal – round out the gendering of Vonnegut’s writing. In the autobiographical preface Vonnegut admits that what is now Jailbird was at first an attempt to reconcile himself with his father, who, as mentioned above, Vonnegut respected very little, owing to his giving up on life so soon. In this story which was never written, the reconciliation would have to happen in heaven, and posed some problems for Vonnegut, so the “story turned out to be perverse.” In heaven, Vonnegut (an atheist) speculates, “people could be any age they liked.” When the semi-biographical Vonnegut arrives in heaven he is dismayed to discover that his father chose to be only nine years old. As such, the adolescent Vonnegut, Sr. was an embarrassment. Bullies hassled him and the senior Vonnegut “would come running” to the junior Vonnegut “purple with rage.” The junior Vonnegut, who chose to be a sophisticated forty-four, “respectable, but still quite sexy too.” As this forty-four year old Vonnegut sought to impress his friends with his urbanity and wit, his nine year old father would run up to him and embarrass him by “bawling bloody murder and with his little pecker waving in the breeze.” Vonnegut’s mother chose to be sixteen, and wouldn’t have anything to do with Vonnegut, Sr., so Vonnegut is stuck with his father, imploring him, “For the love of God, Father, won’t you please grow up!” As you could imagine, the story “insisted on being a very unfriendly” one and Vonnegut gave it up in favor of Jailbird.

Though Vonnegut gave this story up, the shadow of paternal estrangement and Oedipal frustration hangs over the entirety of Jailbird. Vonnegut eternally seeks to overcome the parental difficulties he faced and wishes to come to grips with his parents’ failures so he can move forward and forge his own subjectivity. Since his mother committed suicide before Vonnegut could fully come into his adulthood and his father lived his life out in blissful adolescence, Vonnegut never had the chance to confront his elder generation, repress his Oedipal anxieties, and healthily sublimate his neuroses. The twin figures of the yonic Grand Central Station and the phallic Chrysler Center stand in for his twin anxieties and his desire to overcome the tyranny of the patriarchal. This is no reductionist biographical psychoanalysis, however, but a serious political desire for Vonnegut. Vonnegut has, to a degree, sublimated his anxieties in the literary and the political, and by working through his Oedipal phase in public before readers he seeks to extend the personal to the public by yoking psychological emancipation to the political. Vonnegut’s project is thus very much in line with the philosopher Herbert Marcuse, who in his seminal work Eros and Civilization writes of “non-repressive sublimation,” which he describes in the following way:
The sexual impulses, without losing their erotic energy, transcend their immediate object and eroticize normally non- and anti-erotic relationships between the individuals, and between them and their environment.
By yoking individuals to their environment in such a way, Marcuse argues, the liberation of the individual psyche from his or her neuroses (or, in worse cases, psychoses), becomes “a political matter,” and thus overcomes the bourgeois and individualistic limitations of traditional aesthetic, psychoanalytic, and political traditions. Furthermore, by tying the aesthetic, the psychological, and the political to the Biblical, Vonnegut reaches into the ur-history of all those phenomena, and seeks to restart history again, this time a history without its rottenness and intermittent madness. "I still believe in the revolution, Walter," says Mary Kathleen O’Looney, even as she is obviously not far from death, a beautiful woman trapped in a ruined body. Her name, Mary, is not irrelevant, as Mary is the ur-mother or redemptive eschatology and, in an Oedipal scheme, the most important woman in history (perhaps after Eve, who Vonnegut often mentions in other novels, most notably Slaughterhouse-five). “We will remake this country and then the world,” she boasts. “God must have sent you,” she tells him, affirming his role as the unlikely evangelist. And it is through Mary, that Oedipal ur-mother, Vonnegut argues, that the world can be remade in the vision of a redeemed and secularized Christianity. In an inversion of Hegel’s prediction of the end of history, Vonnegut, siding with a redemptive Marxian tradition, insists that we must instead begin history again if we are to repair the wreckage of history. Such repairs begin, as always, with the mother, the first woman. In Breakfast of Champions Vonnegut subverted the myth of the fall from grace. In Jailbird his Oedipal impulse draws him back even further in mythology, to the moment of creation itself, and he subverts the Bible's own mortal sin, beginning with a first man. Biologically, theologically, and psychologically the first human is a woman. Before the Messiah comes the mother, and Vonnegut subverts the creation myth to set things right again in attempt to reroute history down the path of redemption rather than destruction. He regains the mother and redeems her in order to redeem humanity itself. Only through this can Paradise be regained and, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, what is smashed be made whole again.