Sanity Plea: Schizophrenia in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut

Sanity Plea: Schizophrenia in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut

by Lawrence R. Broer


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817307523
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 08/28/1994
Series: Studies in Speculative Fiction
Edition description: REV
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Lawrence R. Broer is Professor of English at the University of South Florida.

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Sanity Plea

Schizophrenia in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut

By Lawrence R. Broer

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1994 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8357-2


Player Piano: A Looney Tune for the Masses

Some of the greatest prophets were crazy as bedbugs.

The Shah of Bratpuhr

Those who know how close the connection is between ... courage and hope, or lack of them—will understand that the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect ... that a person doesn't continue to live very long physically after hope is lost. Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

In his essay "The Theme of Mechanization in Player Piano," Thomas Hoffman shows us that much of the success of Vonnegut's first negative utopia comes from the pervasiveness with which the machine is shown to have infiltrated society and robbed people of their sense of usefulness, meaning, and dignity. In the post-EPICAC era people have come to feel useless, their very souls having been hollowed of substance. Spiritual and libidinal energies have been so totally regimented and perverted in mechanical activities that a manager, Garth, is described as standing in relation to the corporate image as a lover; Anita, wife of hero Paul Proteus, is shown lying back in "a rainbow colored nest of control wires" (270) satisfied not so much by her husband's sexual attention as by the "social orgasm of, after ... the system's love play, being offered Pittsburgh" (13). Such examples of libidinal displacement occur repeatedly throughout Vonnegut's work as the central expression of emotional incapacitation.

Professor Hoffman suggests that in offering us warnings about the dehumanized future, not as it must necessarily be but as it surely would become if based on the runaway technology of the present, Vonnegut writes "more like a social scientist than a novelist," presenting us with "sociology expressed in fictional form." We are shown that while the book's main theme is "machine-made loneliness" resulting from the protagonist's struggle for awareness and independence from machinelike controls, Paul's story is used more to highlight the problems and actions of an entire society than of one man. To illustrate the predominantly sociological character of the novel, Professor Hoffman reminds us of the tripartite division of Vonnegut's microcosmic American society that has been fragmented into hopelessly alienated parts in the name of simplified planning and production—the managers and engineers on one side of the river, the workers on the other; near the managers, the machines.

In the northwest are the managers and engineers and civil servants and a few professional people; in the northeast are the machines; and in the south across the Iroquois River, is the area known locally as Homestead, where almost all of the people live. (9)

Certainly Paul's particular plight—his isolation from all that had once given his life meaning: his job, his father, his wife, and his best friend—represents the plight of his society as a whole. Paul is intensely guilt-ridden, in fact, over being part creator of the sterile, unproductive lives of those little people for whom he professes a generalized love and whose certain hatred troubles him deeply. Just after we meet him, he is looking on unhappily at the mechanical hands, electric eyes, and punch press jaws of the machinery of the Ilium works—machines that are no longer controlled by men but by other machines. The human loss most ominous to Paul because it mirrors his own condition is that, like the piano keys, like puppets, the citizenry has become so regulated and standardized by the ruling technocracy that they themselves have become mindless pieces of machinery, unable to believe in anything better and hence no longer capable of human change or growth.

This is particularly the plight of the workers—of the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps, or Reeks and Wrecks, and those relegated to mindless enslavement in the army—who have been mechanically determined to be unblessed with sufficiently high IQ and thus spat out by the great computer-God EPICAC XIC to the far side of the river, the area known as Homestead. Since the machines do all the hiring and firing and positions are irrevocable, these people either exist in self-hatred and contempt for their enslavers (reconciling themselves to their lot as if cast by an act of God), or they commit suicide or anesthetize themselves to the pain of uselessness and alienation with clichés of wellbeing provided by governmental propagandists. Kroner, the High Priest of Industrial Efficiency, may extol the wonders of the Second Industrial Revolution with its increase of production, but Ed Finnerty observes that drug abuse, alcoholism, and suicide are all up in direct proportion to the increase in automation (58). Dr. Halyard may explain the splendors of American mechanization to the Shah of Bratpuhr, but the reader sees that the supposed beneficiaries of such mechanization have been swallowed up and regurgitated like Paul's cat early in the novel.

These contrary perceptions of reality—mechanization as splendorous to Halyard but as enslavement to the Shah—function as what Patricia Waugh calls a process of "defamiliarization." Vonnegut inverts the science-fiction convention whereby humans are depicted attempting to comprehend the values of an alien world. Ilium is the "alien" world to the Shah. Oblivious to its established value systems or moral codes, the Shah defamiliarizes the machine-ridden society that the inhabitants of Ilium take for granted, exposing amoral assumptions and consequences of a governmental propaganda machine that calls people without jobs or dignity, people "liberated" (28) from production.

Halyard complains that "this guy thinks of everything he sees in terms of his own country" (7). But the reader sees that Halyard exploits the Homesteaders' inability to decode governmental language to keep them docile and fatalistic—enforcing the view that "nothing of value changed, that what was true was always true" (122). What the Shah exposes as arbitrary and manipulative systems of language and belief, Halyard portrays as absolute and irresistible. The isolation and paralysis of the Homesteaders is determined as much by the subtle machinations of language as by more obvious social constrictions. An understanding of the arbitrary, pluralistic, and symbiotic nature of reality and language, signs and signifiers, becomes a central expression of the moral and mental development of Vonnegut's hero—the ability to analyze mechanistic structures, psychical, social, and linguistic, and to construct realities of his own. The hero becomes increasingly adept at what Jacques Lacan cites as basic to dynamic psychic life, the playful use of language as puns, jokes, metaphors, irony, paradox, and dream vision.

Vonnegut himself has said that his guiding purpose as an artist has been to serve as "the canary bird in the coal mine"—as an alarm system to warn society of its technological dangers—so his role as social critic or as a writer of "sociological" novels is not to be denied. But there is another dimension in this novel—one personal and intensely psychological in nature—that explains more precisely the profound "loneliness" experienced by its protagonist Paul Proteus and that may come closer than Hoffman's explanation to helping us understand the author's long uphill struggle against the dehumanizing power of machines. For once, the blurb on a Vonnegut book cover has it right: "Paul Proteus had it made. Why did he feel as if he were going insane.... What kind of nut was he, anyway?" Before he can solve the larger social conflicts of the novel represented by the split between the managers and engineers and those who live across the river, Paul must first heal his own agonizingly divided soul. To Ed Harrison, a potential managerial defector like himself, Paul offers a warning: if Ed tries the stratagem of living partly on the job and partly in dreams, he will be split "right up the middle" before he can decide which way to go. When Ed asks if something like this happened to him, Paul answers in the affirmative (9). There is hence a psychological as well as a political and sociological meaning to Paul's cry, "we must meet in the middle of the bridge" (114). Whether Paul will manage to find a bridge between his several selves—to develop the awareness and courage to follow his conscience and to act against the machinery that threatens to engulf him—is the main issue to be decided by the end of this novel. In fact, it is the most fundamental concern of every Vonnegut novel.

If, as I suggest, Galápagos (1985) was the last of Vonnegut's purely therapeutic books, the last schizophrenic invention as well as the last session on the couch for the author, then Player Piano is surely the first—the first in which Vonnegut holds a sanity hearing for himself, for his characters, and for the bizarre world in which he tries to maintain a precarious "equilibrium." Early in Player Piano, Ed Finnerty feels something snap inside him and sits for hours with Paul's cocked gun in his mouth. "You think I'm insane?" he asks Paul. "You're still in touch." "I guess that's the test," Paul replies (85–86). Ironically, Finnerty, who has begun to rebel openly against the system of machines that threatens his sanity, worries that Paul is not more shaken by the unholy mechanistic society he helps administer. Actually Paul is less in touch with his surroundings and with himself than he or Finnerty suspects. Longing for a time when things were less impersonal and more human, he suffers frequently from depression, swigs regularly from a bottle of whiskey in his bottom desk drawer for solace, and speaks of being in need of a psychiatrist and of committing suicide. As he contemplates the emotional void in his marriage, he comes to suspect that his wife's feelings are shallow but considers that his suspicions are part of his sickness (25). As he contemplates his sickness, Paul lives through one of the most revealing symbolic episodes in all Vonnegut's work. On the very first page of the book we read of Paul's befriending of a small black cat. Wandering in the Ilium Works, the cat is caught and eaten by an automated sweeper. The machine spits the cat down a chute and into a freight car outside the factory. Momentarily it seems the cat will survive, but as Paul races desperately to help, the cat scrambles up the side of an electrically charged fence and, with a pop and a green flash, is sent sailing high into the air, "dead and smoking, but outside" (20–21).

The moral is obvious, but nonetheless ominous. The omnipresent machinery of Paul's society is deadly to living things, and the possibility of escaping its influence is slight. But what Vonnegut shows us through the symbolic death of the cat is that Paul's sickness, his immense depression, is the result of fearing that his own fate is to be as terrible and inevitable as that of the cat with which he identifies, that is, that he will be gobbled up by the omnipresent emotional vacuum cleaner, the corporate personality. At one point, for instance, Paul sees himself as if overwhelmed by a tidal wave, deluged, like the toy boat he watches moving toward its doom in the "dark, gurgling unknown" of the sewer (253). The image is particularly foreboding in light of R. D. Laing's description of the schizophrenic as one who typically experiences a loss of self—of identity or freedom—in the form of drowning, of being engulfed or swallowed up. Paul at various times sees himself "deluged," overwhelmed by a "tidal wave," and sucked into the devouring storm sewer (253). However vaguely sensed by Paul at first, his fear of being absorbed forever into the dehumanizing machinery of the corporation has been contingent in his mind upon accepting the Pittsburgh job, the most important position in his field and the sole maniacal obsession of his wife, Anita. As Anita is badgering him once again about showing more enthusiasm for the Pittsburgh promotion, he begins to reflect upon her shallowness and his own loss of interest in everything around him. Hanging up the telephone, he puts his head down and closes his eyes. When he opens them again, they are fixed directly on the dead cat in the basket (25).

Ironically Paul's instinctive aversion to the pervasive mechanization of life around him—the replacement of people with machines and the mechanical behavior of people who have been turned into machines—has driven him into an emotional vacuum that is just as defeating as the misery he seeks to escape. He recognizes that any attempt at achieving an emotional life for himself is pure pretense, that shows of affection are just shows, mechanical and insincere. He knows, for instance, that his reactions to his wife are mere reflex. Anita, too, has reduced marriage to a set of mechanical conventions, as when she manipulates expressions of warmth from Paul whenever she feels him pulling free from her influence. And when Paul is with Finnerty, he only pretends to share the man's emotional enthusiasms, while observing that Finnerty uses words such as love and affection to describe his feelings, words Paul can never bring himself to use (87). Even when Finnerty makes his commitment to helping the people on the opposite side of the river, Paul finds himself without any sort of appropriate feeling for Finnerty's important announcement (139). When Finnerty accuses him of being afraid to live, Paul acknowledges that he is indeed without belief of any kind (140).

From within his self-spun cocoon, Paul lacks sufficient awareness, conviction, and moral strength either to continue playing convincingly the role of loyal and happy plant manager, fellow high-priest with Kroner and Baer to the Great God EPICAC, or to repudiate this higher calling passed on to him by his father and openly resist the system that threatens to destroy his will to live. Either prospect leaves him feeling like "an unclassified human being" (239), lonely and dispossessed. It is partly in this sense that Paul comes by that agonizingly divided soul, that separation of his several selves that eventually causes Howard Campbell of Mother Night to commit suicide. The problem is that despite his inherent resistance to, as he puts it," carrying out directions from above" (128), Paul's drive toward selfhood is always counterbalanced by a moral paralysis brought on by institutional conditioning and a fatalistic philosophy. We find him continuously relinquishing his will to others, reacting like the keys on the player piano (38), or else allowing a partially awakened conscience to be lulled easily to sleep.

As the son of Ilium's most famous industrial leader, the virtual founder of modern mechanization, Paul has been so long programmed to accept and perpetuate the divine right of machinery that he wonders at his own unnaturalness at being disgruntled with the system. He even longs for an overwhelming fervor like that of his dead father and Kroner in the unquestioning faith that his is indeed a golden age. Occasionally Paul finds himself mindlessly assimilating the clichés of progress and esprit de corps mouthed so easily by Kroner, Baer, and Shepherd, and by Mom and Anita. He tries hard to believe in the sanctity of machines and industrial organization, and even begs to be refuted as he pours out his misgivings to his surrogate father, Kroner. The point is, though, that no refutations are needed. The corporate will, however detestable to Paul, is stronger than his own; when Paul stands before Kroner, he senses that he is actually in the presence of his father and powerless to resist the old man (48). Even Anita, for whom things are relevant or irrelevant, moral or immoral, only as they secure or hinder social advancement, is capable of controlling Paul's behavior. To insure that Paul gives the proper, corporate responses during a social outing with his boss, Anita prepares him an outline. Paul does not read it, but when Kroner mentions the Pittsburgh job to him, Paul responds as he thinks Anita wants him to (127).


Excerpted from Sanity Plea by Lawrence R. Broer. Copyright © 1994 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Madness in a Modern Mode,
Part I: The Struggle,
1. Player Piano: A Looney Tune for the Masses,
2. Sirens of Titan: Though This Be Madness, Yet There Is Method in It,
3. Mother Night: Nations of Lunatics,
4. Cat's Cradle: Jonah and the Whale,
5. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: The Saga of Vonnegut's Sanest Lunatic,
6. Slaughterhouse-Five: Pilgrim's Progress,
7. Breakfast of Champions: Spiritual Crossroads,
Part II: Resolution: The Second Fifty Years,
8. Slapstick: The Meaning of the Dizygotic Twins,
9. Jailbird: The Madness of RAMJAC,
10. Deadeye Dick: The Resolution of Vonnegut's Creative Schizophrenia,
11. Galápagos: Oedipus at Galápagos,
12. Bluebeard: Redemption and the Unwavering Light,
13. Hartke's Hearing: Vonnegut's Heroes on Trial,
Selected Bibliography,

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