Kurt Vonnegut: Charming Nihilist

It’s a little difficult to understand the continuing popularity of Kurt Vonnegut. It’s not that Vonnegut is not an entertaining writer. He is. Time magazine has aptly called him “the most distinctive voice in recent American fiction.”

What makes his popularity puzzling is his nihilistic world view, which runs counter to the present popularity of the search for final truth. Vonnegut doesn’t even believe in final truth.

There is, of course, his charm. He admits he can be very charming when he wants to be. Apparently when he’s writing he wants to be. His candor must be given credit for part of that charm. In the face of dozens of conflicting world views, each claiming to have the right answer, Vonnegut has the modesty and candor to say: “I don’t know.”

In his novels he continually raises the question of what people are for. His own answer is, “I don’t know.”

However, Vonnegut is holding out on us. Like most good teachers he knows more than he’s admitting. He knows it’s good (but probably impossible) for people to be happy. Just how he knows this is not clear. The Vonnegutian epistemology is as whimsical as the rest of his philosophy. He believes something (such as the miracles of Madame Blavatsky) if it pleases him.

Now the thing that will make us happiest, Vonnegut thinks, is to believe that man is the center of the universe. As his gift to mankind he offers us the opportunity to believe in “the most ridiculous superstition of all: That humanity is at the center of the universe, the fulfiller or the frustrator of the grandest dreams of God Almighty” (Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons, 1974).

“If you can believe that,” he continues, “and make others believe it there might be hope for us. Human beings ...

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