Fictional Humans and Humanist Fictions

“I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit.” 

- Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake, 1997

“Being alive is a crock of shit.”

- Kilgore Trout in Timequake

Vonnegut’s Old Man and the Sea

In an extended analogy to Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Kurt Vonnegut identifies Timequake, his fourteenth and final novel, as a “stew.” Vonnegut “fillets the fish” of a failed novel (which he compares to Santiago’s destroyed marlin in Hemingway’s novella) with ostensible “thoughts and experiences” from his life. The novel as a “stew” resonates with Vonnegut’s “telegraphic schizophrenic” literary mode, which, in its fragmentation, sharpens a critical edge and cultivates redemptive narratives. The resulting gallimaufry is Vonnegut’s final attempt to deconstruct the novel as aesthetic and literary form, and simultaneously reconstruct the human and inaugurate new histories. 

Timequake oscillates between Vonnegut’s literary meditations and a messianic narrative of Kilgore Trout. This narrative, the central plot line of the discarded Timequake One, considers a “sudden glitch in the space-time continuum,” or what Trout refers to as a “cosmic charley horse in the sinews of Destiny.” The Universe, Vonnegut explains, “suffered a crisis in self confidence” and “suddenly shrunk ten years.” This event, what Vonnegut refers to as a timequake, “zaps everybody and everything in an instant” from 2001 to 1991. “Then we all to go back to 2001 the hard way, minute by minute, hour by hour, year by year, betting on the wrong horse again, marrying the wrong person again, getting the clap again.” 

This tedious accumulation of previously recorded time impels for Vonnegut a deep existential crisis. This realization of the eternal return distills the absurd tragedy of history in which the human is reduced to a “robot of the past.” While many of Vonnegut’s novels experiment with ontologies of time, Timequake offers his bleakest vision of human bondage to the inscrutable mechanics of temporality. To dramatize the crippling malaise of this timequake, Vonnegut refers to Thoreau’s Walden — “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” — and Shakespeare’s As You Like It — “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” 

In response to these desperate theatrics of an inhuman history, Vonnegut attempts to sow redemption. Vonnegut rejects the nihilism of Macbeth, who claims, in another meta-theatrical mediation, that life is “a tale / told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / signifying nothing.” Vonnegut refuses these resignations to tedious and meaninglessness performance. Vonnegut instead re-ignites the flame of being, illuminating an undiscovered history and redeemed humanity. If the eternal return posits the death of narrative, and postmodernism its irrevocable fragmentation, Vonnegut invests his humanism in the redemptive power of narrative and literature in re-imagining the self and the world. Imagination and art, he claims in Timequake, are essential for the cultivation of meaning.  

Timequake and the American Automaton

Vonnegut’s timequake, a premise conceived by Kilgore Trout (whom Vonnegut identifies as his “alter-ego”), is a dramatization of Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence. “What is time?” asks Vonnegut in Breakfast of Champions as he sketches an Ouroboros, a serpent eating its own tail. The characters of Timequake are thus condemned to a decade of recurrence, bearing what Nietzsche identifies as “the greatest weight.” Nietzsche, speculating on eternal recurrence as a philosophic and existential question in The Gay Science, imagines a demon condemning the human to living life “once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence.” He responds — “Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?” 

Vonnegut’s timequake reduces his characters to the dull repetition of a decade’s minutia. Eternal recurrence renders life absurd, and this strict determinism reduces the human, as Nietzsche describes, to a “speck of dust.” Vonnegut’s automatons sleepwalk through their lives as “tedious theater,” to quote Tony Webster’s Duchess of Malfi. Their lives are emptied through repetition of unimaginative rituals, pursued by Emerson’s “hobgoblins” of meaningless repetition. These selves flounder in what Walter Benjamin refers to as “homogeneous and empty time” of a history stripped of narrative meaning. Vonnegut considers the absurdity of this fate in the terrible abyss between thought and action, where actions are bonded to the intricacies of recurrence but devoid of imaginative or ontological investment. They have been violently submerged into the inescapable Other of historical time — these alienated selves embody Heidegger’s notion of “fallen-ness.” The divided self cannot cultivate inwardness, nor live with deliberation or meaning. This self-alienation, where the existential scream of the tortured self is silenced by its bondage to inhuman time, represents the apex of absurdity. “Being alive,” laments Kilgore Trout, “is a crock of shit.”

The absurdity and alienation engendered through the timequake satirizes the cultural logic of late capitalism. Vonnegut repeatedly critiques the pervasive loneliness and banality of American culture and society. The victims of the timequake, aimlessly wandering through the wastelands of the profane present, represent the alienated victims of late capitalism itself. Much of Timequake contains Vonnegut’s irreverent critiques of a commodified and corporatized American culture, rendered homogeneous and rootless through the inhuman machinations of late capitalism — the true subject of Trout’s timequake is Vonnegut’s American present. Neither context preserves imagination; neither phenomenon cultivates the self. Trout’s timequake forces an eternal return. Vonnegut’s concern is that fractured communities and culture industry of contemporary America will enforce an eternal present, with the human resigned to alienation, apathy, and absurdity. The human, Trout suggests, “feels like something the cat drug in.” Vonnegut employs the absurd science-fiction of a timequake to distill his satire of contemporary America. Selves, suggest Vonnegut, sacrifice agency and imagination for the anesthetizing pleasures of political complacency and the culture industry. The nihilism of the timequake parallels the nihilism Vonnegut reads in contemporary culture. Through the fantastic mechanics of a timequake, Vonnegut presents a tragic reduction of the human to an absurd automaton and a tedious Sisyphus.

As Vonnegut laments in Breakfast of Champions, “I cannot live without a culture anymore.” His heartbroken paeans repeat throughout Timequake, but Vonnegut is less hopeful for transformation. Instead, Vonnegut imagines himself beating against a cultural current of fragmentation and complacency, a lone voice in the darkness of despair. “If I hadn’t learned how to live without a culture and a society,” he suggests in Timequake, “acculturation would have broken my heart a thousand times.” Timequake, and the redeemed humanity it dares to imagine, presents both the broken-heartedness of wasteland of the contemporary, but also an earnest attempt to weave a new culture and new society out of the ruins. 

“You Were Sick, but Now You’re Well, and There’s Work to Do”

Vonnegut’s timequake lasts for ten years, after which the wills of its victims are suddenly restored. Vonnegut’s paradoxical humanism rests upon this two-fold movement — a deconstruction before a reconstruction. But when the timequake ends in 2001, at the dawn of a new millennium, Vonnegut’s automata are crippled by malaise and a deep ennui. Termed “Post-Timequake Apathy,” the subjects of Timequake struggle to regain deliberate control over themselves. After a decade of tragic resignation to fate, Vonnegut’s fictional humans lack selves and lack will. This sudden restoration of will results in disasters spreading throughout New York City — planes fall to earth, vehicles collide, fires consume flesh and scorch stone. Only Kilgore Trout — who appears in Timequake as an absurd messiah adorned in a babushka with a teddy bear print — is able to awaken from the timequake and restore himself. And he begins to rebuild the world.

Trout, awake in a burning city, heals through incanting “Kilgore’s Creed” — “You were sick, but now you’re well, and there’s work to do.” Trout’s transformative vision spreads to a growing community of disciples who resurrect the apathetic automata of American complacency. Vonnegut explicitly frames Trout as a Christ figure attempting to build the Kingdom of God on Earth. Trout’s jostling complacent humans into a new consciousness mirrors Vonnegut’s own literary ambitions, as he hopes to impel the reader into a new relationship with the self and the world. Kilgore’s Creed, Vonnegut suggests, could inaugurate a new human history of justice and prosperity (which Vonnegut mourns as forgotten political ideals). Vonnegut’s invitation to heal the self, the community, and the planet underscores the moral obligation to do so. Reformulating the nightmare of history as a disease, from which humanity can recover, presents a messianic arc of history through the awakening of a sublime humanism. Humanity must realize itself as a healer and redeemer in order to inaugurate a sacred counter-history, a new history that has yet to be realized or written. And a writer of fiction shall lead them. 

Though the timequake had silenced the interior self, Trout (and Vonnegut) attempts to cultivate the transformative and creative potential of imagination. In another passage that echoes Breakfast of Champions (Timequake often recalls Vonnegut’s 1973 gem), Trout expounds on the radical presence of “awareness,” which he unequivocally renames “soul.” The timequake, in both the crude determinism it represents and the cultural complacency it suggests, is a factor of “only energy and matter and time.” Trout presents the “soul,” then, as “something very new and beautiful,” a presence which escapes the reductivism of the contemporary and which can re-create the world. The inauguration of new histories depends on this capacity to imagine. Against the profanity of a diseased and fallen world, ruptured through poverty, oppression, and war, Vonnegut posits the transcendent soul as a sacred redeemer. Vonnegut “fillets the fish” of a fallen humanity in order to resurrect it as something “very new and beautiful.” And this soul, Vonnegut suggests, must be nourished through imaginative literature.

Counter-Histories and Counter-Hegemonies in the Telegraphic Schizophrenic Novel

A central component of the inauguration of counter-histories is the weaving of new narratives to sustain them. Literature, Vonnegut suggests, must realize itself as a counter-hegemonic current of redemption in order to redeem the human. Anesthetizing pleasures, such as television, recapitulates the banality of capitalism into the consciousness of its viewers. Aesthetic pleasures, such as literature, instead cultivate the interiority of the human as a counter-hegemonic and redeeming force. If imagination and awareness is the most intrinsic component of the human, aesthetics can endeavor to re-imagine the human and the world. The counter-hegemonic potential of literature exists in its cultivation of new narratives and new consciousnesses. Through his fictional narratives, Vonnegut weaves eschatologies and ontologies of freedom.

Literature must realize itself as a transgressive and subversive force of imagination. Vonnegut has always battled political conservatism and censorship, as his transformative vision for the American self and society offer radical revisions of the status quo. Vonnegut is an author continually banned in schools, and he critiques this unimaginative and reactionary posture in Timequake. “In the slavering search for subversive literature on the shelves of our public schools...the two most subversive tales of all remain untouched, wholly unsuspected,” he writes with passion. “One is the story of Robin Hood... And another as disrespectful of established authority as the story of Robin the life of Jesus Christ as described in the New Testament.” Vonnegut celebrates the historical and counter-hegemonic Christ in Timequake, and the radically transformative dream of the Gospels inspire Vonnegut’s own fictions. Vonnegut’s messianic narratives are potent enough to blast out of Benjamin’s continuum of “homogenous and empty time” and inaugurate a new history and a new humanity. History is first absurd, but also offers, again to quote Benjamin, “gates through which the Messiah might enter.” And Vonnegut’s telegraphic schizophrenic literary mode, replete with fissures and cracks, offers innumerable messianic gates.  

Timequake’s narrative fragmentation reflects Vonnegut’s hermeneutics of suspicion — his weary skepticism toward the accepted and anesthetizing narratives of contemporary quietism, toward tired myths of progress or false myths of prosperity, toward the voracity of consumerism, toward the banality of American culture and consciousness. Vonnegut marries his postmodern critique with a transcendent humanism, and his suspicion gives way to sacrality. Vonnegut deconstructs the world in order to construct the human anew. Timequake is both anti-novel and self-conscious memoir — Vonnegut stitches meditative scraps and aborted stories into a bizarre collage redolent of the contemporary American consciousness and culture. Only through these fragments is it possible to present a truly critical vision of unrealized future, which, as Marx suggests through Hegel, can only be imagined as a “negation of a negation.” Vonnegut’s shattered fictions represent a shattered world, and, more importantly, suggests that the world can again be made whole through imaginative and ontological engagement. In this way, Vonnegut’s “telegraphic schizophrenic” literary mode is actually a mysticism of sorts, yearning for unity after fracture, for redemption after the fall.

Through Trout, Vonnegut articulates a defense of his "telegraphic schizophrenic" literary mode as a grounds for transformation. Trout rejects the assumption that an artist must act as a mirror, and that literary realism is the most sophisticated form of literature. The only "character" Trout has created, he argues, is his living son. "If I'd wasted my time creating characters, I would have never gotten around to calling attention to things that really matter: irresistible forces in nature, and cruel inventions, and cockamamie ideals and governments and economies that make heroes and heroines alike feel like something the cat drug in." Literature, Vonnegut argues, must realize itself as a subversive force, deconstructing systems of oppression. The highest ideal of literature is for the reader to "realize life" and achieve a higher consciousness. Literature not only makes people appreciate being alive, as Vonnegut writes, but also helps explain what that means. "Do human beings ever realize life while they live it? — every, every minute?" The deliberation and true realization of humanity is both the process and ideal of literature. And Vonnegut's fragmented narratives serve to defamiliarize the world, in a Brechtian sense, in order to jostle readers into a higher consciousness. 

Part of the cultivation of counter-hegemonic narratives lies in the forging of communal bonds and is itself transformative. Vonnegut understood loneliness to be the most crippling disease of contemporary America, and the construction of a true community, of what Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to as a “beloved community,” is subversive. Again, imaginative literature can help cultivate these counter-hegemonic bonds. Literature, Vonnegut suggests, is the most intimate and engaging aesthetic form, one that can transform the world from the inside out. In his celebration of literature, Vonnegut writes, “Many people desperately need to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people don’t care about them. You are not alone.’” This elevation of fiction as a bulwark against loneliness and absurdity, and as a fertile ground for the cultivation of new selves and new histories, echoes a celebration of fiction by David Foster Wallace. The two authors, despite writing in a postmodern style, sustain and center their narratives on a transcendent love for the human being. Wallace writes that “Fiction is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved...where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.” 

Aesthetics can heal the wounds of the alienated soul and help the world be pieced together again. Timequake, however, attests to Vonnegut’s recurring anxiety that even literature, to quote Eliot Rosewater in Slaughterhouse-Five, “isn’t enough anymore,” that imaginative literature is too abstract for the very real wounds of the world, that literature is too transgressive, difficult, or strange to garner sufficient attention, that literature has lost its place in an increasingly banal culture and consciousness. Yet despite this narrative frustration, the transcendent humanism that sustains Vonnegut’s literary voice beckons — “You were sick, but now you’re well, and there’s work to do.” Literature may be the most potent weapon in the struggle against absurdity. Vonnegut imagines redemption yet in the undiscovered futures of the fallen human.