Rereading Kurt Vonnegut

Once upon a time on Tralfamadore there were creatures who weren’t anything like machines. They weren’t dependable. They weren’t efficient. They weren’t predictable. They weren’t durable. And these poor creatures were obsessed by the idea that everything that existed had to have a purpose, and that some purposes were higher than others. These creatures spent most of their time trying to find out what their purpose was. And every time they found out what seemed to be a purpose of themselves, the purpose seemed so low that the creatures were filled with disgust and shame. And, rather than serve such a low purpose, the creatures would make a machine to serve it. This left the creatures free to serve higher purposes. But whenever they found a higher purpose, the purpose still wasn’t high enough. So machines were made to serve higher purposes, too. And the machines did everything so expertly that they were finally given the job of finding out what the highest purpose of the creatures could be. The machines reported in all honesty that the creatures couldn’t really be said to have any purpose at all. The creatures thereupon began slaying each other, because they hated purposeless things above all else. And they discovered that they weren’t even very good at slaying. So they turned that job over to the machines, too. And the machines finished up the job in less time than it takes to say, “Tralfamadore.”

That’s from the Sirens of Titans, which I just reread, along with Cat’s Cradle. Recently, I’ve been on science fiction kick, which has also included some Asimov, Clarke, Banks, and C.S. Lewis.

Here is what I most enjoy about Vonnegut:

1. He makes me feel like we’re in on the same joke: humans don’t really understand how the universe works, and much of what we’ve learned hints at the fact that our primary way of interacting with the world (conscious reflection immersed in free will and time) is probably pretty wrong. Much of his writing is just highlighting the absurdities of our condition (see excerpt above).

2. While telling tales within this joke, he accurately chronicles the worst of human behavior (descriptions of war in Slaughter House Five), as well as what might be the worst of future human behavior (descriptions of human induced existential threats in Cat’s Cradle).

3. While telling tales within this joke, he often narrates touching relationships that are based upon acknowledgement of human insecurities. At times, he points to the idea that love is the only real hope of meaning we have (while generally acknowledging the paradox that meaning as we understand probably does not make sense in world without free will or time).

___

If you caught me after a few drinks, and you asked me: what is the purpose of public education?

I might answer: to create as many Kurt Vonnegut’s as possible.

2 thoughts on “Rereading Kurt Vonnegut

  1. Ed Jones

    Yeah, not so much here, Neerav.

    I used to say we need more engineering training. I’m a little less hep on that now. Partly because much engineering has become so much more efficient than it was a decade or two ago. Partly because so much of the engineering talent now is going to non-useful ends.

    But the last thing we need is more people writing Vonnegut-esqe content. Everyone is already a writer. 1000 TV channels. Millions of blog/newsfeed/whatever writers. Youtube producers. Professional Tweeters.

    We’re drowning in writing.

    Here’s what we don’t have: people who will clean up and maintain the streets, yards, parking lots, and buildings of outer-Cleveland. People who will milk and tend the cows of central Illinois, who can also speak English and maintain a legal status. People who will repair bridges at a cost the working-class taxpayers can afford. People who will come in to all our schools and teach in a manner recognizing it’s 2015. People who will work in America’s growing and complex manufacturing centers.

    People who can, and will, simply Lead.

    So I’m terrified that many edu-leaders agree with you.

    Still, it was a great end-line you wrote.

    Like

    Reply

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