Vonnegut: Nothing to see here, moving right along...

Folly in the Mist, Hann. Münden, Germany. Photo by Michael de Percy.

I was on my way to Germany to visit Berlin, Dresden, and Hann. Münden. Kurt Vonnegut, a second generation American of German descent seemed a good choice for the flight. I usually find it easy to knock over a Penguin paperback on a long-haul flight, but not this time. I've been struggling to read deeply since a major life event early last year shifted the focus of my spare time. 

So I didn't manage to finish the book until some months later. I found Vonnegut's work to be interesting but a little far-fetched - it smacked of a Woody Allen style of science fiction (see the trailer for "The Sleeper" below) that was somehow banal yet allegorical in a mildly interesting way.


Much of the social commentary was lost on me. I suppose for a conservative reader of the early 1960s the foot-touching free love may have been a bit out there, but for me it was all old hat. I had the feeling of the 'thirteen days' and the Bay of Pigs fiasco. 

Usually I am a fan of history but Vonnegut is rather economical with his contextual elements - an Animal Farm kind of focus on the sociological order rather than the 'iceberg' cerebral development approach. It was interesting today that I listened to a podcast on Jack London's literary style.

This sent me on a quest to look back at some of my previous readings of several of London's works. One thing I found was that I have been critical of London's racism (poignant in the wake of the Black Lives Matters protests beginning in the US and now happening in solidarity but focused on Indigenous deaths in custody here in Australia)

But I was also pleased to note that I had picked up on a key theme of the overall problem (from Jack London's To Build a Fire):
The trouble with him was that he was without imagination.
That's how I felt about Vonnegut's work. Until the meaning of the title came to my attention. The cat's cradle:

It's a child's illusion. It requires one's imagination. One flick of the hands and the cradle is gone. It doesn't exist.

I am usually way off but occasionally, like with Jack London, I am on the mark. 

I found in Cat's Cradle the Stoic technique of the "bird's eye view". Once we view the world from above, we realise two things. 

First, the insignificance of our petty existence. The arguments of today, the angry idiot tailgating me on the Hume highway last night, flashing his lights and sounding his horn. All nothing. I remember noting too, with flying, that once you are above the clouds it is always a perfect day. It is all a matter of perspective.

Second, we are all in this together.  I am currently reading Ryan Holiday's Stillness is the Key. He mentions Edgar Mitchell's famous words upon viewing the world from space:
You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, 'Look at that, you son of a bitch.’
It is interesting that just this week, Mitchell's words have resurfaced in what has been called the world's first political protest in near space, but targeted at Donald Trump.

In the above musings, and almost two months after I finished reading Cat's Cradle, I realised Vonnegut's genius. It is all an illusion. There are hands, there is string, there is imagination. The cat's cradle is made up of reality and intangibles. Neither works without the other.

Fake news, The Guardian versus The Australian and all of the left versus right is more of the same nonsense. It is not imagination, it is not creative. It is dogmatic, divisive, and dodgy. Yet the people believe.

This is what I get from Vonnegut. It is not the illusion, but that we make sense out of the world through our "bounded rationality" combined with our sense of  imagination. Not fake or make-believe, but creative and expressive and from the depths of our intellect.

Regrettably, Kurt Vonnegut reminds us that without imagination (the creative as opposed to the conspiratorial kind), we are doomed to an inevitable end. Like London's "everyman" in To Build a Fire, we are not reflecting on our mortality in the face of nature, but rather imagining ourselves to be something more significant while smacking of hubris. For London:
The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances.
But London, too, was a fan of eugenics. He was human and he, too, was wrong.

Vonnegut was subtler, less egotistical, more realistic. If I had to sum up Cat's Cradle, I would say that London had too much imagination, whereas Vonnegut is the Goldilocks' little bear version of "just right".

P.S. It's a shame that The Three Bears was originally written by Robert Southey and not the Grimm Brothers to fit my German theme. And the original Goldilocks was an old woman and the three bears were bachelors. But you can use your imagination! I visited the Grimm Brothers Museum in Kassel, Germany, on 3rd December 2019.

Outside the Grimm Brothers' Museum, Kassel, Germany.
Photo by Michael de Percy.