Old 08-26-2016, 01:17 AM
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Default On Vonnegut

I started this as a response in The Thread That Shall Not Be Named, but ultimately decided that it’s too good a response to be wasted in such a clusterfuck of a thread, especially since it’s off the topic anyway.

Originally Posted by thedoc View Post
Originally Posted by The Lone Ranger View Post
“The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be.”
-- Socrates
I see that you are attributing your signature to Socrates. Today I found a quote on another forum about being what we pretend to be, attributed to Kurt Vonnegut Jr. It would appear that Kurt Vonnegut Jr. paraphrased the line from Socrates and used it as his own.
The exact Vonnegut quote is, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be,” and comes from Mother Night, one of his lesser-known works, and one which I would highly recommend. Of course, there hasn’t been a single Vonnegut work I’ve read which I wouldn’t highly recommend (offhand, Cat’s Cradle, The Sirens of Titan, Slaughterhouse-Five, Mother Night, Breakfast of Champions, A Man Without a Country, and there are probably a couple I’m leaving out). Vonnegut was hugely influential on the way I thought about the world growing up, and I’d still be hard pressed to think of a novelist whose work more closely corresponds with my world view (Ursula K. Le Guin and Thomas Pynchon probably align as closely, though.)

It’s probably worth noting that many people misread Slaughterhouse-Five as a parable in favour of fatalism, instead of the anti-fatalist message Vonnegut almost certainly intended. The fact that Vonnegut said that writing an antiwar book was like writing an anti-glacier book, but still wrote one, is crucially important, as is the point that Billy Pilgrim does almost everything possible to ensure death occurs because of his belief that it is predestined, as is the fact that the Tralfamadorians literally blow up the universe. There’s also the highly real possibility that Billy is an unreliable expositor and that all the aliens and time travel are a coping mechanism for PTSD. In all, a much, much deeper book than it appears on the surface.

I should also mention the case of “Harrison Bergeron”, another story that gets frequently misinterpreted. If read at face value it comes across as a parable against collectivism. However, it’s equally easy to read it as a parody of strawman collectivist dystopias (in particular, Anthem and other works by Ayn Rand). It’s more of a satire of common strawman presentations of socialism than of beliefs actually espoused by any self-identifying socialist either in Vonnegut’s time or ours; in particular, no one seriously advocates that humans handicap themselves for all their talents. The characters of Harrison himself and the Handicapper General are also comically over the top, reinforcing the idea that Vonnegut had his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. Interestingly, Vonnegut himself noted that he felt the story had been misinterpreted during his lifetime. (One must also note that even if the story is taken at face value, the society transparently is not equal, given how much greater the Handicapper General’s abilities are than those of anyone else in the story. A natural corollary of this observation is that establishing equality through government force is impossible, which dovetails nicely with Vonnegut’s expressed anarchist socialist positions.)

Anyhow, the Vonnegut quote is certainly similar to Socrates’, but the meaning is substantially different. Socrates says that being what we pretend to be is the most honourable thing we can do. Vonnegut says we become what we pretend to be. I wouldn’t be surprised if Vonnegut’s quote had been inspired by Socrates’, but I don’t think it’s a paraphrase. (He revisited this theme later in his life: “Pretend to be good always, and even God will be fooled,” from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.)

Vonnegut also says something else in Mother Night that I would consider highly relevant to The Thread That Shall Not Be Named: “Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.” Vonnegut could be equally critical of the potential abuses of faith and of science; while he certainly supported the use of scientific inquiry and rationalism, he saw how easily science could be abused on the one hand by making possible damaging technological advances and on the other by being perverted to justify nonsense along the lines of Social Darwinism or that found in The Thread That Shall Not Be Named. Similarly, while he highly criticised religious dogmatism, he was unfailingly reverent of the Sermon on the Mount and similar aspects of scripture.

One final thing worth noting is that while Vonnegut’s works tend to be overall on the cynical side, there are few if any outright villains in his novels, a fact he himself noted. Without fail, antagonistic characters tend to be either mentally ill or simply misguided.

“All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.” -Adam Smith

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