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.

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