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Schizophrenia And Satire In The Writings Of Kurt Vonnegut Essay, Research Paper

The connection between genius and madness is a well-known one in modern culture, almost to the point that it is considered a clich . Such a label does not affect its accuracy in the case of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. His literature is world-famous, and Vonnegut has been awarded numerous awards. However, Vonnegut s narrative style and the characters of his novels reflect the symptoms of serious mental illness, especially schizophrenia. While Vonnegut s works can be read partly as social criticisms, many problems result from such an interpretation, since that is not their primary mode.

A satirist, by definition, takes a set of ethical absolutes and compares them to something that is considered wrong by his ethical absolute, using humor (black or otherwise) to establish his point (Kennard 102). For example, Voltaire, in his Alphabet of Wit, protests the printing of paper money as a sham (47). Then he goes on to provide an alternative: investment in farming and manufacturing (Alphabet of Wit, Voltaire 48). But unlike Voltaire, Vonnegut provides no alternatives in his criticisms; with his wit, he destroys everything (Chricton 106). Furthermore, Vonnegut cannot be a satirist because he has no ethical absolutes (Kennard 103). Vonnegut never sets one character up as a hero, nor as a villain; good and evil, as they exist in his stories, are not represented (Chricton 106). Characters have no moral responsibility, either. According to Vonnegut s novels, there is no relation between human action and the events that take place in human lives, (Kennard 102). Vonnegut, in short, refuses to say who is wrong, (Chricton 107). The example of Voltaire again provides the contrast of a true satirist; his novel Candide is devoted to attacking the philosophical system of optimism, which contends that a Supreme Being created this world as the best of all possible worlds (16), and naturally evince the conclusion that nothing we did could affect this.

Delusional beliefs, such as thinking that all events are random or uncaused, are a primary symptom of one form of schizophrenia, called paranoid schizophrenia (Lilly). The paranoid schizophrenic may also perceive that he is the subject of a massive conspiracy. Such a conspiracy may be so complex as to involve a large number of people, or even the entire world. Dwayne Hoover, in Vonnegut s Breakfast of Champions, has such a delusion. In his fantasy, everyone on Earth is a fully automatic machine, with the exception of himself. The Universe as a whole, is a test by God to see how a being with free will would react to various stimuli. Each person acts as a certain way because he or she is programmed to act that way (Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut 14-15). Since each person is an unfeeling machine, Hoover feels no remorse for brutally assaulting eleven people, all of whom are hospitalized. Vonnegut also repeatedly states the cause of such a dramatic breakdown to be the existence of bad chemicals that are produced by Dwayne Hoover s brain (Breakfast of Champions 133) while schizophrenia has also been linked to various biochemical imbalances (Lilly). The final trigger for Hoover s violent spree is his reading of a short story by Kilgore Trout (a character often described as Vonnegut s literary alter-ego [Schatt 115]), which convinces him that he is the only feeling person in the universe. This leads Trout to realize that his books are actually harming people, in this instance by causing a schizophrenic breakdown in Hoover. Vonnegut must have had a similar revelation about his own work after his son wrote an autobiographical story of his own fight with acute schizophrenia. In Mark Vonnegut s (Kurt Vonnegut s son) book, he suggests some kind of link between his father s work and his own illness (Broer 103).

Besides imbalances in neural biochemistry, the origins of schizophrenia can also be traced to traumatically stressful events (Lilly). Such is the cause of Billy Pilgrim s (the main character of Slaughterhouse-Five) schizophrenia (though Vonnegut never specifically diagnoses him as such, as with all his characters.) Pilgrim suffers a series of traumas, both during the war and after he returns home. These events create a different form of schizophrenia (known as undifferentiated schizophrenia) than that of Dwayne Hoover, in which Billy Pilgrim experiences hallucinations of his senses (Lilly), causing him to believe that he is traveling through time, while the captive of an alien race the, Tralfamadorians. The extensive similarity between his imprisonment on Tralfamadore and his life on Earth is no chance occurrence. His prison on Tralfamadore is a large glass dome, just as his Dresden prison has sliding glass doors. When Pilgrim enters Dresden, the natives ridicule him and his American co-captives, and on Tralfamadore, the aliens mock him and his companion. It is not surprising that he should manifest elements from traumatic elements of his life in his dream world; many psychologists, such as Sigmund Freud, have said that images in fantasies are distortions of repressed thoughts (Hall 101). Pilgrim, like many of Vonnegut s characters, becomes less than a person; he acts only to hide himself from the world and it s requirements (Broer 4). Such is another symptom of schizophrenia: a decreased ability to feel emotion (Lilly). It is apparent from Pilgrim s pattern of dozing off at random times that he is not particularly attached from the world, and his reaction to the death of others is equally lethargic. The Tralfamadorians (who, as creations of Pilgrim s mind, speak as part of him) have a saying for whenever someone dies: so it goes,” (Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut 23). This provides the perfect defensive system for him (Broer 8). Since no one is ever truly dead to him, he never has to suffer the agony of mourning; a dead person is [only] in bad condition at that particular moment, (Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut 23).

This deadening of emotion and apathy towards the outside world occurs in more than one Vonnegut novel. In his book Deadeye Dick, Vonnegut tells the story of a boy, Rudy Waltz, who accidentally kills a pregnant woman at the age of twelve. Vonnegut says, the crime he (Waltz) committed in childhood is all the bad things I have done, (Broer 135). For this mishap, the people in his city persecute Waltz relentlessly. During his time in jail (in which the police try to convince him to commit suicide, and beat him repeatedly) Waltz decides that the most favorable course of action at this point in his life was to disconnect completely from the outside world, as he perceived that everything he might affect could conceivably be connected to some kind of booby trap (Broer 137). This is a clear display of the same type of paranoid-delusional construct that Dwayne Hoover suffers from in Breakfast of Champions, motivated by the lethargic apathy that affects Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five.

Yet another symptom of schizophrenia is the loosening of mental associations, which results in the victim rambling or unexpectedly jumping from one topic to another (Lilly). No specific character in a Vonnegut novel displays this trait; rather, it is an inherent narrative feature in most of his books. This, coupled with his use of multiple narrative voices creates a powerful schizoid effect. Slaughterhouse Five, in particular, contains not only the schizophrenic character of Billy Pilgrim, but also several narrative voices. There is a third-person-omniscient narrator who tells Pilgrim s actual life story and an objective narrator who records his schizophrenic fantasy as Pilgrim told it to the narrator. However, there is also the first-person narrator of the first ten chapters. Several times, this voice interjects the words I was there, effectively making the author part of the story and recording his actions through the third-person-omniscient narrator. For example, another soldier talks to Pilgrim, followed by the first-person narrator s claim to credit for that comment (Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut 109). A fourth narrative voice is discovered through its difference in tone to the other voices; it takes on the role of the sardonic commentator: Billy cried very little in that respect, at least, he resembled the Christ (Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut, 170). This is a sharp contrast to the non-judgmental observations of the third-person-omniscient narrator s voice. For example:

Every so often, for no apparent reason, Billy Pilgrim would find himself weeping. Nobody had ever caught Billy doing it. Only the doctor knew. (Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut, 53)

All of these voices are Vonnegut s, contributing to the widespread critical recognition of his work as being schizophrenic (Chricton 104-105). In fact, schizophrenia itself means splitting of the mind (Lilly). One of the splits created by Vonnegut the novelist, the third-person-omniscient narrator, chronicles biographically the life of Billy Pilgrim. This biography excludes his fantasy imprisonment of Tralfamadore, which is covered by the reporter-narrator, who handles the schizoid delusions, and writes whatever Pilgrim seems to experience. This narrator, instead of saying what Pilgrim did, it conveys what he says he did (Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut 118). This creates a clear division between Pilgrim s actual life and his schizophrenic fantasy. The effect of the first-person interjections is to establish the complex symbiotic relationship between Pilgrim and Vonnegut. Although it associates itself with Pilgrim, (by placing itself in the same situation, and undergoing the same conditions as he did) it also dissociates itself from him by establishing a distinct biographical line outside of the war for Pilgrim. It could be safely assumed that entirety of Pilgrim s existence is as a persona for Vonnegut to psychologically safely deal with his war experience. In fact, this would fit Jung s definition and role of a persona, it enables one to play a role that is not necessarily one s own (Hall, Nordby 44). Such an assumption would be incorrect, however, for there is a deeper connection between to the than Pilgrim s simple role as a mask for Vonnegut. The repeated connections between the two bring out a far more substantial relationship. At one point in Slaughterhouse-Five, Pilgrim has a powerfully schizophrenic thought concerning the death of a friend: Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt (Vonnegut 106) which Vonnegut concludes would make a good epitaph for Billy Pilgrim, and for me, too (Vonnegut 105). When Vonnegut visits a friend in the beginning of Slaughterhouse-Five, he carried a bottle of Irish whiskey like a dinner bell (Vonnegut 11); on the night of his daughter s weeding, Pilgrim carried a champagne bottle, swinging the bottle like a dinner bell (Vonnegut 63). Besides this, Vonnegut often describes himself drunk as having breath like mustard gas and roses, and indicates his habit of calling people late at night (Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut 4). Later in Slaughterhouse-Five, Pilgrim receives a telephone call late at night from a drunk whose breath he could almost smell – mustard gas and roses (Vonnegut 63). While not directly stated, it is clear that this is Vonnegut, trying to reach out to his alter ego. Such contact with a main character is not unusual in a Vonnegut book; Breakfast of Champions concludes with an extended conversation between Kilgore Trout (a noted science-fiction writer and fictional aspect of Vonnegut) and Vonnegut the author, who places himself directly in the novel as an omniscient force, controlling all other characters (Vonnegut 290-3). Such an extensively created delusion of grandeur is another indicator of schizophrenia (Lilly). Clearly, Vonnegut participates in the fantasies created by Billy to serve his need for a hiding place from reality. However, it is his oft-times sardonic tone, the third-person-omniscient narrative voice, and other dissociations from the actual identity of Billy Pilgrim that permit Vonnegut to avoid Pilgrim s Tralfamadorian solution; Vonnegut successfully realizes the irrationality in his thought processes. This is an ability that a schizophrenic would by definition lack, because of his or her inability to differentiate reality from delusional fantasy (Lilly). Vonnegut s avoidance of the pitfall of delusion is clear from his statement in Slaughterhouse-Five:

If what Billy learned from the Tralfamadorians is true, that we will all live forever, no matter how dead we seem to, I am not overjoyed (182-3).

Although Vonnegut s use of multiple narrative voices is schizophrenic in and of itself, this nonsensical approach is appropriate for two reasons. First, any other approach would endanger the mental health of the author. The direct revisiting of a traumatic experience is unnecessary, since Vonnegut can safely observe while subjecting only a portion of his self to the rigors of his memories. Secondly, such an irrational approach is warranted, given the irrational nature of the event Vonnegut wishes to chronicle. The firebombing of Dresden was a massacre, and, as Vonnegut says, there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre (Chricton 106). The insanity of the destruction of Dresden is mind-boggling; as a British officer in Slaughterhouse-Five says, It [Dresden] is undefended, and contains no war industries or troop concentrations of any importance (Vonnegut 127). So if there was no strategic interest in the attack, why did it take place? One of the greatest military minds in history, Sun Tzu, says that the worst military policy is to attack cities (111). There is no logical motivation for the attack on Dresden; when Vonnegut requested information concerning it from the Air Force, no response could be given (Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut 10). So it suits that Vonnegut uses an illogical, rambling approach to deal with it.

Schizophrenia plays a role in almost every one of Vonnegut s novels, from the formation of characters to the narrative style he uses to tell his stories. His characters represent all those improper ways to deal with the harsh reality of life, from the murderous rampages of Dwayne Hoover to the emotional isolationism of Rudy Waltz and the delusional fantasy world of Billy Pilgrim. These books allow, in many respects, an outlet for Vonnegut s tortured psyche, a view that can be evinced from the theme he has proclaimed for his writings, something his brother said after the birth of his first child: Here I am cleaning shit off of practically everything (Chricton 105). The characters used by Vonnegut can become powerful symbols of what is wrong with modern society, but they are not meant so. Instead, they are meant as garbage. They are the garbage that is thrown out of Kurt Vonnegut s personality.

Works Cited

Broer, Lawrence. Sanity Plea: Schizophrenia in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut. Ann Arbor: UMI

Chrichton, Michael. Slaughterhouse-Five. The Critic as Artist. Ed. Gilbert Harrison. New York: Liveright, 1972. 104-107.

De Voltaire, Fran ois Marie Arouet. Candide. Trans. Donald M. Frame. Candide, Zadig, and Selected Stories. New York: Signet, 1961. 16.

—. Voltaire s Alphabet of Wit. Ed. Paul McPharlin. Mount Vernon: Peter Pauper, 1955.

Eli Lilly and Company. What is schizophrenia? Worldwide Health Care Solutions. Online. Internet. 3 January 1999. Available HTTP: www.lilly.com/diseases/neuro/schizophrenia/schiz.html.

Hall, Calvin S. A Primer of Freudian Psychology. New York: Mentor, 1954.

Hall, Calvin S., and Vernon J. Nordby. A Primer of Jungian Psychology. New York: Mentor, 1973.

Kennard, Jean. Number and Nightmare. Hamden: Archon, 1975.

Schatt, Stanley. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1976.

Sun Tzu. The Art of Warfare. Trans. Robert Ames. New York: Random House, 1993.

Vonnegut, Kurt Jr. Breakfast of Champions; or, Goodbye Blue Monday! United States: Seymour Lawrence/Delacorte, 1973.

—. Slaughterhouse-Five; or, The Children s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., a Fourth-Generation German-American Now Living in Easy Circumstances on Cape Cod (and Smoking Too Much) Who, as an American Infantry Scout Hors de Combat, as a Prisoner of War, Witnessed the Fire-Bombing of Dresden, Germany, the Florence of the Elbe, a Long Time Ago, and Survived to Tell the Tale: This Is a Novel of the Planet Tralfamadore, Where the Flying Saucers Come From. United States: Seymour Lawrence/Delacorte, 1969.


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