Monday, April 15, 2002

Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut

In his novel Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut portrays an intrinsically flawed humanity in clumsy rebellion against an inhuman social order. Similar to Camus and other existentialists, Vonnegut observes imperfectible humans eternally doomed to live out the follies of their misguided drives and collective short-sightedness. This worldview does not damn us to lives without beauty, inspiration, and joy, but it does call for a sober assessment of our condition and a preference towards naming things what they are rather than idealizing human action and motivation.

Vonnegut views the wide scale replacement of human beings with machines as not only an extreme expression of humanity’s technology fetish, but also a much more dangerous crusade involving the pursuit of a perfect human society. If human beings are not perfect, or even perfectible, then certainly human society is not; yet our cultural mythology of objective knowledge and our ability to attain such knowledge via scientific method has imparted upon us a collective arrogance. The dominant mythology states that if we can eradicate the inherent subjectivity of human experience from our decision-making processes and societal institutions, we can arrive at Truth. This mythology is the fuel that powers the creation of Vonnegut’s dystopian America, while humanity’s technology fetish is the vehicle that allows for its expression.

Analogous to the society that Camus documents in The Plague, Vonnegut’s Americans have based their nation blindly upon an unsound foundation and suffer through the consequences mostly without even knowing why. Throughout Player Piano, we observe symbolic violations of a deeper natural order, such as when Proteus’ newfound pet is assaulted by the thoughtless machinery that runs his factory; or the numerous dulled, purposeless Takaru we encounter who waste away their hours drinking, watching television, and waiting for a Messiah to rescue them. These and many other examples demonstrate to us that a society in which the human factor has been removed is not in fact a utopia, but a sterile, lifeless place fit for occupation only by machines and machine-men. Vonnegut underscores this point by allowing even for the fulfillment of all humanity’s material needs and desires, full employment, and a disarmed military—all accomplished via the increased efficiency that mechanization allows. While these are worthwhile goals that have long been advocated by utopians, Vonnegut demonstrates that the ends come a distant second to the inhuman means through which they are arrived at.

Our protagonists in Player Piano are people who, for whatever reasons, work to oppose and overturn the system of mechanized humanity. These conspirators are a diverse range of individuals—some rejected by the system, some embraced—whose commonality is a growing dissatisfaction with the sense of alienation and purposelessness that their society engenders. Here again, a comparison to Camus is appropriate. Both Vonnegut and Camus, despite their allegiance to a worldview divorced from spirituality and intrinsic human purpose, seem to side with the societal critic, the rebel, and the oppressed. The protagonists in both their novels are people who strive to make the world a better place, despite their realizations that humans are ultimately irredeemable and the struggle for liberation eternally unanswered. The authors do not idealize their protagonists, however; all of them have false notions, impure motives, and impractical solutions to the particular problems they face. Yet the central notion seems to be that they tried; that, as Lasher states, “It doesn’t matter if we win or lose, Doctor. The important thing is that we tried. For the record, we tried!”

In the last pages of the novel, the point at which humanistic optimists might have hoped for a genuine coup de grace to the oppressive system, Vonnegut instead undermines the motivation and idealism of the revolution’s leader, shows the ugliness and poor discipline of the revolution’s foot soldiers, and foreshadows the failure of the revolution itself. Yet despite this seeming pessimism, Vonnegut portrays admirably the only real solution he can envision to the intractability of the human condition. People rise up to oppose injustice and inhumanity, and inspire the rest of us with their example despite always falling short of their goals. Somehow, we are okay with Proteus’ flawed motivations. As he puts it, “…even if there weren’t this unpleasant business between me and the memory of my father, I think I would believe in the arguments against the lawlessness of the machines.” Even though humans are imperfect, even though our motivations are “sordid,” it does not mean that we are “no good;” it does not necessarily follow that just because we are not capable of perfection, we are not capable of something better.

And so it goes. Camus and Vonnegut impart upon their readers the assurance that there will always be another plague waiting to overcome us, another bad idea waiting to enslave us. Just as assuredly, there will also always be that dissenting, liberatory drive within us; that which stands (however awkwardly) in opposition to the oppression of our basic human instincts. There is little hope that we will ever arrive at the perfect human society, and little guarantee even that humanity will not succumb to the state of extinction that has enveloped the vast majority of species ever to inhabit this planet. Yet we struggle on, in spite of this condition, and grasp with full appreciation what beauty, inspiration, and joy we find here.

Monday, April 01, 2002

The Plague, by Albert Camus

In "The Plague," the citizenry of Oran make the transition from isolated individualism to “the recognition of a community.” The town of Oran, which Camus describes in some detail, appears to be an advanced capitalist society—socially as well as materially. At the opening of the narrative, the majority of Oran’s citizens have empty, pointless lives, mostly without even realizing it. They are consumed by their individualistic pursuits, and entertained through routine (i.e., mindless) social interaction, few of them aspiring to anything greater than this sort of lifestyle. The plague disrupts their routine however, just as the resulting quarantine serves to link inextricably the individual and communal well-being.

In many ways, the peoples’ initial skepticism towards the seriousness of the matter reflects their unwillingness to depart from the shallowness of their daily lives. As the narrator points out, “…people say: ‘It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.’ But…Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves (37).” We note that even those entrusted with protecting the general wellbeing (i.e., the government) does not at first act adequately to prevent the spread of the plague, largely out of fear of “alarming the public.” But illusions can only hold for so long, and eventually the citizens cannot carry on with their lives as usual. As Father Paneloux asserts, “…you have been beholding mankind and all creation with new eyes, since the gates of this city closed on you and on the pestilence. Now, at last, you know the hour has struck to bend your thoughts to first and last things (97).”

The disruption the plague brings is the cold, unconcerned reality of brutal nature, and it destroys innocents, separates lovers, and spares the wicked without explanation or assurance of order’s eventual victory. The citizens are as equally unprepared for such an attack as they would have been for the Second Coming; yet whereas the Messiah’s arrival would have at least meant the establishment of Truth in the world, the plague brings with it the opposite. The people are left naked, without the lifestyles that allowed them to avoid issues of substance, but also without any sort of spiritual bedrock that they can rely upon in such difficult times. Further, the nature of their exile becomes such that they are denied even the refuge that camaraderie or romance might normally provide. These dismal realizations bring about significant social chaos, and peoples’ reactions to the crisis often pose as great a threat to society as the plague itself. In such situations, the actions of an individual become both irrelevant and all-important. Just as a steadfastly wise and moral individual may be swept underfoot of a crazed mob, that individual’s actions may also provide an example that moves others to act similarly. Ultimately, all that the citizens of Oran find they can rely upon is common cause with one another, and this reality is one quite foreign to them.

It is rare that a crisis arises in a given society that is so threatening to such a broad spectrum of citizens that it captures the collective concern so wholly. The story would be quite different had the plague only attacked the poor who live in inadequate sanitary conditions, or the old whose immune systems are weak. Given such a plague, it would have been much easier for a sizable portion of Oran’s citizenry to continue on with their everyday existence. But instead, the plague of Oran brings about a real, overarching crisis, one that no one can afford to ignore. Each individual is thereby forced to become their brother/sister’s keeper. Through their collective efforts to defeat the plague we see Oran at its best. We observe selflessness exercised in the name of the common good, and Camus brings us to identify strongly with this trait, as it proves to be the turning point in the community’s efforts to defeat the plague. As Rieux declares, “What’s true of all evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves (125).”

What is interesting throughout the crisis is that it is the men who live exceptional (or at least thoughtful) lives in non-plague times who are most able to rise to the challenges presented by the plague. All of these men, rather than acquiescing to the banality of existence, struggle for something better, something higher. Rieux refers to this kind of a life as “fighting against creation as he found it (127).” The men are Camus’ archetypes for existential existence because their motivations are not based in a belief in the divine, but rather in a love for humanity as well as a recognition of its’ limitations. These men struggle against suffering and death as the great enemies of humanity, and by so doing achieve real (if not eternal) gains for human society. Camus makes the point, by contrasting these individuals with the general populace of Oran, that a disbeliever in God who acts upon a general concern for human well-being is actually a greater servant to humanity than the professed believer who secretly or unconsciously disbelieves and thereby allows them self to be distracted by the lesser objects of this world. Those who take on the responsibility for how their world looks, rather than surrendering that power to God or the Devil, are the true benefactors of humanity according to Camus’ example.

Through this narrative, I was able to appreciate Camus’ vision for how one should live given the realities of the modern age. I certainly appreciated Oran much more when its people were united in struggle against the plague than when they were divided by their individualism. My concern is that (as with Christianity and other value systems) people have not taken in the fullness of the message that Camus and other existentialists were trying to relate. A disbelief in God and any intrinsic human purpose can easily lead to a sense of apathy and disconnection remedied only (if at all) by plague-like circumstances. Since it is so infrequent in our own society that such circumstances exist, people are too rarely (if at all) made to realize that their own lot is bound up with that of others. Most people can find little true motivation beyond their own pleasures and well-being. They disown the sense of responsibility that Camus seems interested in imparting on his audience. While this unfortunate consequence does not undermine whatever truth might be contained in existential philosophy, in a world devoid of truth we are left with efficacy. Hence the existentialist philosophy can be discarded if it is found that “new age” spirituality, or even a return to traditional religious fundamentalism, can achieve the results that Camus seeks without the use of his philosophy. We are left ultimately with the vocation of truth-discernment, and living one’s life as tribulation--a vocation that Camus and even philosophers of radically different traditions can hardly refute, and one engaged in by the heroes of Christianity, existentialism, and any other movement that has captured the human imagination throughout time.