Monday, July 3, 2017

Mr Rosewater

After deciding that the world is one meaningless thing after another, what then?  (Wait, the Hypothetical Reader asks, when did We decide that?)  (Well, Your Humble Narrator replies, the Hypothetical Reader May Not have Decided that.  What makes you, Hypothetical Reader, think that You are the One Doing the Thinking and Deciding Around these here parts?)  (But, I digress.)  (Then again, isn’t the whole point of using parentheses to demonstrate that this is a digression?  I think one uses parentheses for parenteral asides, right?  So, I guess saying “I digress” in parentheses is redundant)  (By this point, there are no Hypothetical Readers left, so We may now progress with the Main Event).  To remind ourselves of where We were: After deciding that the world is one meaningless act after another, what then?  Kurt Vonnegut (see, it wasn't about you, Hypothetical Reader) demonstrated the absolute absurdity of everything in Cat’s Cradle.  So, his next novel presented a challenge—does he simply double down on the meaninglessness of everything or is there some way out of this trap?

As I have noted in this space before, thanks to the Library of America, I am finally understanding Vonnegut.   Again, as noted before, I had read lots of Vonnegut in the past, I had enjoyed the novels when I read them, but a week after reading a novel, I had no memory of the content of the book.  But, reading them in order, it is all making so much more sense.  The Library of America is a National Treasure.

So, in Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut argues that the world is pointless and meaningless.  His next novel was God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.  I had read this novel before, and I only remembered one thing from it—a particular scene from the novel.  You can imagine my surprise when I realized that the one thing I remembered about this novel wasn't actually in this novel.  It must be from another Vonnegut novel—presumably I’ll get to that remembered scene at some point.  So, to correct the record—I had read this novel before, and I didn’t remember a single thing from it.

Coming after Cat’s Cradle, though, the novel makes a lot more sense.  Vonnegut’s universe is still meaningless.  But, a meaningless universe creates a new problem.  There are still people living in that meaningless universe.  What do you do about all the people living meaningless lives in a meaningless universe but who do not know the universe is meaningless and so don’t know they are just supposed to laugh at how meaningless everything is?  The temptation is just to ignore them.  After all, if you are faced with a meaningless universe, why not just enjoy yourself?  And if you have wealth and live in a meaningless universe, then why not just hang out with all the Beautiful people, and you and the other wealthy beautiful people can enjoy a beautiful life in a meaningless universe?  Should you worry about all those other people?  Why bother?  They are all sort of…repulsive and low-class, anyway…right?

Eliot Rosewater, the Mr. Rosewater of the title of the book, has more inherited wealth than he can spend.  And he makes a discovery.

“I look at these people, these Americans,” Eliot went on, “and I realize that they can’t even care about themselves any more—because they have no use.  The factory, the farms, the mines across the river—they’re almost completely automatic now.  And America doesn’t even need these people for war—not any more, Sylvia—I’m going to be an artist.”
“An artist?”
“I’m going to love these discarded Americans, even though they’re useless and unattractive.  That is going to be my work of art.”

That was published in…1965.  Imagine a large swath of Americans who have become largely irrelevant.  As the Vonnegut surrogate in the novel explains:

“In time almost all men and women will become worthless as producers of goods, food, services, and more machines, as sources of practical ideas in the areas of economics, engineering, and probably medicine too….Americans have long been taught to hate all people who will not or cannot work, to hate even themselves for that.  We can thank the vanished frontier for that piece of common-sense cruelty.  The time is coming, if it isn’t here now, when it will no longer be common sense.  It will simply be cruel.”

So, imagine a society divided with the Good, Beautiful People on the one side and Pointless, Pedestrian, Boring, Low-class people on the other side.  Imagine a person from the Good, Beautiful side of the tracks decided to love the latter set of people—and love them not from afar, but actually move into the neighborhood and help them out whenever they had a need, a real immediate need, like needing someone to talk with at 3 AM or someone to help out on the volunteer fire department.  If you knew someone who did that, who walked away from an Ivy League Education to move to a small town in the middle of nowhere, just to live there and be with those people, what would you call someone like that?  Insane, perhaps?  And therein is the plot of this Vonnegut novel.  Is Eliot Rosewater insane?

It is an eerie book to read in 2017, by the way.  This idea of a whole set of Americans who are angry because they feel useless and ignored and don’t like feeling useless and ignored, well…what would happen if they actually existed and then 50 years later they still actually existed and they were still angry that they felt useless and ignored?  Not a rhetorical question, obviously.

So, Vonnegut is providing an interesting answer to his problem from Cat’s Cradle.  It is all well and good to say that we live in a pointless world, where there are no higher goals or causes which can give our lives meaning; in fact if you are one of the wealthy, beautiful people, the type of people who have nice college educations and buy books by Kurt Vonnegut, then it is even fun to think about a world like that and imagine we live in a world like that, and even live as if we live a world like that.  But, if you are one of those people out there living in a small town like Rosewater, Indiana, well, you might not be enjoying your life as much as those people reading Cat’s Cradle and laughing at the pointlessness of it all.  And, maybe, just maybe, those people reading Cat’s Cradle should think about what it must be like for those other people and do something crazy like, love them.  Not love them from afar in some abstract, “I love humanity” way.  But, love them enough to set aside all their privileges and become like one of them.  A radical idea that.  Imagine the Social Justice Warrior who instead of joining a non-profit in Downtown Manhattan or a nice College Town and Working to solve the world’s problems from a nice one-bedroom apartment near cute vegetarian restaurants, imagine that person just deciding to move to Rosewater, Indiana or the equivalent town in Nowhere America and get a job at Wal-Mart and just live with people and love them.  That would be a radical act. 

Of course this is all just silly talk.  What kind of person would voluntarily set aside all the trappings of a very nice life and endure such humbling as to actually live with, among, and like the lowly, unworthy beings?  Empty yourself and become a servant?  Yeah, that would be insane.

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