On Reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Nonfiction: Transcendental Meditation & Politics

Years ago, after my husband helped his parents move into a condo, he brought home a boxed set of Vonnegut that had belonged to his siblings.  The girls had, rather touchingly, divided the books and inscribed their names, along with the dates of their graduation, on the flyleaf.   When I came across this set the other day, I intended to read  Breakfast of Champions, but the cover fell off, so so I read Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons instead.  (In case you want to know what the title means, it refers to concepts in his novel Cat’s Cradle.  My post is here.)

Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons, published in 1974,  is a brilliant collection of essays, magazine pieces, and speeches. And I have to say, Vonnegut’s witty, charming, sometimes indignant and angry nonfiction may be his best work. Vonnegut always sees the larger picture, which is difficult for the rest of us to do.  He is also a moralist, but not in a way that interferes with the pleasure of reading. 

In my favorite essay, “Yes, We Have No Nirvana,” he manages to be both sympathetic and sarcastic about Transcendental Meditation.  His wife and eighteen-year-old daughter practiced it enthusiastically, so he investigated it for Esquire in 1968.   At the Maharishi’s  press conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Vonnegut finds the Maharishi likable, even adorable, but does not believe in the technique.  He notes its appeal to celebrities like Mia Farrow and the Beatles, and the astounding publicity and media attention. While Vonnegut was in Cambridge, Mia Farrow was initiated by the Maharishi in his hotel room; Vonnegut notes that his wife and daughter “had to make do with a teacher in the apartment of a Boston painter and jazz musician who meditates.”

Like Vonnegut, I was unwilling to pay money for a mantra, and some of my friends walked out of the lecture in disbelief when they learned they had to pay. According to  Vonnegut, who deems himself “too lazy” to  meditate, one must first attend boring lectures, be interviewed by the meditation teacher, and then bring gifts of fruit, flower, and a fee to the teacher to complete the process and get a mantra.

Vonnegut thinks it is harmless but  a sop for the middle class.  He writes, “This new religion (which-is-not-a-religion-but-a-technique) offers tremendous pleasure, opposes no institutions or attitudes, demands no  sacrifices or outward demonstrations of virtue, and is risk free.  It will sweep the world as the planet dies–as the planet is surely dying–of poisoned air and water.”

So much of the charm of this collection has to do with Vonnegut’s style and quirky criticism.  In “Excelsior!  We’re Going to the Moon.  Excelsior,” he expresses cynicism about the importance of  the moon landing and believes the money could be better spent on cleaning up “the smoke and the sewage and trash”  on Earth  and disposing of military weapons.  In “Why They Read Hesse,” he writes about the romantic appeal to the young of Hermann Hesse’s romantic novels, which became best-sellers  in the ’60s and ’70s. 

 Let me leave you with a quote from one of the best essays,  “In a Manner That Must Shame God Himself”(Harper’s Magazine). Vonnegut imagines the thoughts of visitor from another planet on  the American people in 1972.

“The two real political parties in America are the Winners and the Losers. The people do not acknowledge this.  They claim membership in two imaginary parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, instead.

“Both imaginary parties are bossed by Winners.  When Republicans battle Democrats, this much is certain:  Winners will win.

“The Democrats have been the larger party in the past–because their leaders have not been as openly contemptuous of Losers as the Republicans have.

“Loser can join imaginary parties.  Losers can vote.”

Really glad I read this book.  A great way to rediscover Vonnegut.

Hiroshima and Madness in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle”

  • I was not a science fiction geek in the late 1960s.  None of us long-haired wire-rim-bespectacled compulsive readers were. Then a friend’s older brother introduced us not only to Procul Harum but to Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.  After a recent rereading of Cat’s Cradle, I had to wonder: is it science fiction at all? And was this friend’s brother, whom I barely remember, a member of our karass?   But you only know what a karass is if you’ve read Cat’s Cradle.

In Vonnegut’s comical post-modern novel,  the narrator, John, aka Jonah, is worried, with good reason, about the end of the world. He is comforted by the (fictitious) religion of  Bokanism, which teaches that human beings are divided into teams (the karass) to do God’s will. 

“If you find your life tangled up with somebody else’s life for no very logical reason,” writes Bokonon, “that person may be a member of your karass.”

The karass is a mysterious force.  When John was a younger man–“two wives ago, 250,000 cigarettes ago, 3,000 quarts of booze ago”–he planned to write a book called The End of the World.   He wanted to know what prominent Americans were doing on the day the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The three adult children of the late Nobel Prize-winning Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the inventors of the atom bomb, remember little about that day but paint a frightening portrait of their father as a scientific sociopath.  Hoenikker had no conscience nor concern about how science was used:  the day he died he created another lethal substance called Ice-nine (which killed him).  It freezes liquids and everyone who touches it.  Bizarrely, his children divided the chips of Ice-nine in mason jars and thermoses after they found him frozen dead in his wicker chair.  

Vonnegut effortlessly manipulates the many threads (or should I say strings?)  of this philosophical dystopian comedy. The chapters are short, the writing witty, the sentences have a snappy rhythm, and the narrative is broken up with letters, poems, and Bokononist quotes.   On the first page, John says he has converted to Bokanism but is resigned to not knowing all the members of his karass.

Be that as it may, I intend in this book to include as many members of my karass as possible, and I mean to examine all strong hints as to what on Earth we, collectively, have been up to….

About my karass, then.

It surely includes the three children of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the so-called “Fathers” of the first atom bomb.  Dr. Hoenikker himself was no doubt a member of my karass, though he was dead before my sinookas, the tendrils of my life, began to tangle with those of his children.

The End of the World turns into a different book after a magazine editor sends John to  a little-known island in the Caribbean, St. Fernando, where Bokanism is practiced.  And, coincidentally, all three of the Hoenikker children are there: Frank, a hobby shop employee on the run from the mob, is now a general and the future president of St. Fernando; Newt, a midget who dropped out of Cornell to have an affair with a Russian spy midget, paints very dark paintings; and Cordelia, an exceptionally tall women who married  a former colleague of her father’s, is thrilled to get out of Indiana.  Unfortunately, they have  ice-9 with them.  

If you wonder if human beings are stupid enough to end the world with atom bombs or other lethal substances, you might as well stop worrying and start living.   Vonnegut believes they will.  

But, fortunately, he has a wry sense of humor.  The survivors, including John, are all Hoosiers (natives of Indiana, as was Vonnegut).