Thursday, October 30, 2008

Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons

Wampeters, Foma, and Grandfollons (Opinions)
© 1974 Kurt Vonnegut
Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing, NY

I began this week with a collection of essays by and interviews with the late Kurt Vonnegut entitled Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons. The title confused my friendly community librarian. Vonnegut introduces the book with an explanation:

Dear Reader: The title of this book is composed of three words from my novel Cat's Cradle. A "wampeter" is an object around which the lives of many otherwise unrelated people may revolve. The Holy Grail would be a case in point. "Foma" are harmless untruths, intended to comfort simple souls. An example: "Prosperity is just around the corner." A "granfalloon" is a proud and meaningless association of human beings. Taken together, the words form as good an umbrella as any for this collection of some of the reviews and essays I've written, a few of the speeches I made.

The book is difficult to comment on, particularly the first half. Reading Vonnegut is like making your way through a literary funhouse -- you don't really know where you're going and the rules, if any, are completely unknown to you. So unpredictable is Vonnegut that when he wrote a chapter on his experience living in Biafra, I thought he had made up a country to make some human-interest point. As it turns out, Biafra was a real country. The book is a collection of various pieces of Vonnegut's work -- a few speeches, a book review, a short play, a travel account, and a few essays. Vonnegut comments: "It is, after all, a sort of map of places I've supposedly been and things I've supposedly thought during a period of about twenty years. I have arranged these clues in a supposedly chronological order. If time is the straight and uniform string of beads most people think it is, and if I have matured gracefully, then the second half of this book should be better than the first half."

It is difficult to characterize a compilation of miscellaneous works like this, but I did notice that a common idea seemed to penetrate Vonnegut's writing and interviews in the second half of the book -- the idea that human beings are meant to live in small social groups and that we are uncomfortable in other situations.

Until recent times, you know, human beings usually had a permanent community of relatives. They had dozens of homes to go to So when a married couple had a fight, one or they other could go to a house three doors down and stay with a close relative until he was feeling tender again. Or if a kid got so fed up with his parents that he couldn't standi t, he could march oer to his uncle's for a while. And this is no longer possible Each family is locked into its little box. The neighbors aren't relatives. Thyere aren't other houses where people can go to and be cared for. When Nixon is pondering what's happening to America -- "Where have the old values gone?" -- and all that -- the answer is perfectly simple. We're lonesdome. We don't have enough friends or relstives anymore. And we would if we lived in real communities. [...] Human beings will ber happier -- not when they cure cancer or get to Mars or eliminate racial prejudice or flush Lake Erie but when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities again. Thats' my utopia. That's what I want for me.

The above quotation is from his Playboy interview where he articulates this idea most directly. It reminds me of a lecture I heard recently by James Kunstler on "Life After Peak Oil": he predicts that as the automobile becomes a smaller part of our lives, communities will become smaller and life will become more local again -- back to small, intimate communities. Outside of this idea that pops up several times in the later half of the book, there's not that much cohesion to the book outside of the broad title he gave it. There are a number of pieces of interest:
  • "Science Fiction": Vonnegut recalls that he is categorized as a science fiction author simply because some of his stories feature technology. "I didn't know that. I supposed I was writing a novel about life. [...] I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled "science fiction" ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal."
  • "Yes, We Have No Nirvanas": Vonnegut writes about the rise of transcendental meditation. According to him, he looked into it after his wife and daughter became Transcendentals. He writes about his efforts to find out what it was about, and the essay turns into a critique of the "religion-that-is-not-a-religion-but-a-technique" and the Mariashi that created it. I found it humorous.
  • "Excelsior! We're Going to the Moon! Excelsior!": He writes on the space program's reception with people and science fiction. He quotes Isaac Asimov's perception that there are three stages to science fiction: adventure dominate, technoloy dominant, and sociology dominant.
  • "The Mysterious Madame Blavatsky": an essay on one of the founders of Theosophy that proved to be interesting.
  • "Biafra: A People Betrayed": This is Vonnegut's account of his experiences in Biafra, before it was conquered by the Nigerian army. I actually thought this essay was about a fictional place.
  • "Address to Graduation Class at Bennington College", 1970. Vonnegut describes becoming a cultural pessimist and instructs the graduating class to go back to believing that humanity is at the center of the universe, the greatest concern of the gods: perhaps then they will be motivated to treat people decency. (Speaking as a student of history, I can safely say that this won't work.) He also urges them to not buy into the idea that their generation must change the world: he tells them to relax, to "skylark", to enjoy life. One day they will be in charge, and then they can worry about saving the planet.
  • "Address to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1971": Vonnegut expounds on his idea that we are made of nothing more than chemicals that make us yearn for community.
    How lucky you are to be here today, for I can explain everything. Sigmund Freud admitted that he did not know what women wanted. I know what they want. Cosmopolitan magazine says they want orgasms, which can only be a partial answer at best. Here is what women really want: they want lives in folk societies, wherein everyone is a friendly relative and no act or object is without holiness. Chemicals make them want that. Chemicals make us all want that. Chemicals make us furious when we are treated as things rather than persons. When anything happens to us which would not happen to us in a folk society, our chemicals make us feel like fish out of water. Our chemicals demand that we get back into water again. If we become increasingly wild and preposterous in modern times -- well, so do fish on river banks, for a little while."
  • "In a Manner that Must Shame God Himself: reflections on politics.
  • "Address at Rededication of Wheateon College Library, 1973": Vonnegut writes on the importance of books and the meaning of social narratives.
  • Playboy Interview: one of the longest parts of the book.
As you can see, there's a lot here. I rather enjoyed the experience of reading it, particularly the interviews and speeches. I'll end this with one of my favorite quotations from the book. I don't know why I like it, but I do.

"You have called me a humanist, and I have looked into humanism some, and I have found that a humanist is a person who is tremendously interested in human beings. My dog is a humanist. His name is Sandy. He is a sheep dog. I know that Sandy is a dud name for a sheep dog, but there it is."

1 comment:

  1. Yes, Biafra was a real place and one of the most important pieces in this book to me. They were the unfortunate subjects of the starvation stories of my youth during the 60's and early 70's much like Ethiopia was during the 80's and the whole 'Live Aid' thing - Biafra was big news when I was a kid, the children with stick limbs and protruding bellies and red hair were heavily photographed for all the relief organizations and Life magazine - then it was snuffed out and forgotten and the story was that they had been re-assimilated into Nigeria. I was a pre-teen but I read a lot of stuff that was 'old' for my age and I remember Biafra well.

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