Kurt Vonnegut, an American: Granfalloonery and National Identity

Robert T. Tally, Jr.

“If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

The final book Kurt Vonnegut wrote and published during his lifetime was titled A Man Without a Country, an ironic though apt label for this collection of ruminations on his own life, his works, and his native land. That book is in many ways a bittersweet homage to an “America” that Vonnegut asserts has been lost, or that exists only – as he puts it – “at the front desks of our public libraries.” This is an elegiac, angry work, which is not about the exile or émigré, but about the native son who laments the passing of “his” America, whatever that was. To be “a man without a country,” in this case, was not the liberating cosmopolitanism celebrated by Marx, or even the mixed blessings of “exilic consciousness” as analyzed by Erich Auerbach or Edward Said. For Vonnegut, “being without a country” was the sad state of being an American in an era when that might not be such a good thing to be. Call it granfalloon anxiety, maybe.

For in many respects, Vonnegut was a quintessentially “American” writer; he was not just a U.S.-born citizen who wrote novels, stories, plays, and nonfiction, but a writer whose entire career was devoted to exploring the vexed question of just what kind of nation “America” is, or of what kind of people “Americans” are. If he never wrote that mythical thing, “the Great American Novel,” he did explore in depth and breadth the question of what makes America so damned “great” over the course of 14 novels and dozens of short stories, a few plays, and several volumes of purported nonfiction. In so doing, Vonnegut necessarily became a prominent critic of the United States of America, criticizing the nation’s failure to live up to its ideals mainly, and lamenting what he saw as an increasingly bad situation in his lifetime.

For his role as a social critic, he gained many fans and many enemies; among the latter, for example, were political conservatives, and he was famously excoriated in a particularly tasteless obituary on Fox News in 2007. Given the sarcastic venom with which he sometimes criticized the United States, some might well have considered Vonnegut to be, if not actually anti-American, at least, in his own phrase “a man without a country.” However, Vonnegut’s thoroughly American critique of America, grounded as it was in so much nostalgia and disillusionment, was hardly the work of a man without a country. The bittersweetness of that phrase derives from the fact that Vonnegut was very much and still isan American, one who felt estranged from his native land even while inhabiting and embracing it.

Earlier in his career, in his fourth novel Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut invented a terrific concept to help us understand the bizarre idea of something like a nation, along with national identity and nationalism. I am, of course, speaking of the granfalloon, the concept at the core of this wonderful event organized by the Arts and Humanities Council of Indiana University. As readers of Cat’s Cradle will recall, a granfalloon is defined as a false karass, and these are both among the many terms used in the Bokononist religion, which Vonnegut invented and made central to that novel. The narrator, like most Vonnegut fans, understandably values the karass over its counterfeit, but I have gone on record as stating that the granfalloon is the more significant concept.

Please forgive me for quoting my own words, but here’s what I said about it in my book Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel:

In my view, the single greatest concept that Kurt Vonnegut introduced to the world is that of the granfalloon. A granfalloon, as explained in Cat’s Cradle, is a Bokononist concept, meaning an artificial karass. Whereas a karassis a team of humans, established by God for a particular purpose which remains unknown (as does the make-up of one’s team) in this life, a granfalloon is formed by humans themselves in an attempt to create bonds among one another, bonds which are not random, mysterious, or ordained by God, but may seem so to its members. Vonnegut mentions “Hoosiers” (i.e., people from Indiana) as one example: “Other examples of granfalloons are the Communist Party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the General Electric Company, the International Order of Odd Fellows — and any nation, anytime, anywhere.” Many fans of Vonnegut, picking up on the mildly derisive tone here, embrace the concept of the karass (as real) and dismiss the granfalloon (as false), and hence manage to make one of the most well known secular humanists in America into an apologist for ‘real’ religion – even though the religion in question is based on foma or lies, such that Bokonon himself encourages us to give only ironic credence to the notion of karasses.

Obviously, I think that they have missed the point. The granfalloon is a marvelous concept because it is not real, precisely because it is an artificial, manmade grouping, with all the failings that things of such construction inevitably have. God may have established once and forever, before time began, who we are and who is in our karass (or whatever non-Bokononists call it), but we humans create these artificial communities, for better or, quite often, for worse. As Vonnegut’s own critique, as well as his affirmation, of the concept suggests, the granfalloon is no less meaningful to its members for being manmade. (Just attend a Indiana Hoosiers’ basketball game, for instance.)

As long as I’m quoting myself here, let me also point out that this was the first paragraph of my Acknowledgements section which I asserted  “seems a perfect spot for some harmless granfalloonery, for everyone—named or unnamed here—who has helped make this book possible is part of a special granfalloon of our own making.” It is telling that the organizers of this event have chosen that word as the title, since just by being here together we’re in fact forming one of those wondrous, Vonnegutian granfalloons.

Indeed, leaving nations and nationalism to the side for the moment, one could argue that much of Vonnegut’s lifelong project involved helping his readers come to terms with the absurdity of everyday life in twentieth-century America, and his solutions usually involved some form of granfalloonery. His oft-quoted dictum, “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind!”, which was given as advice from Eliot Rosewater to every child born in the United States, is perhaps Vonnegut’s ultimate moral “first principle,” but in practice Vonnegut demonstrates that imaginary communities, which might serve as another definition of granfalloons, are needed in order for people to have a sense of purpose and belonging, which in turn allows them to be kind to others and to themselves. Over and over again in his novels, Vonnegut identified alienation, isolation, and a sense of purposelessness as the chief diseases affecting both individuals and the society in which he lived. Making meaningful connections with one’s fellow humans was, if not the cure exactly (since the frequently pessimistic Vonnegut despaired of finding a cure), then at least a treatment for it.

Parenthetically: Here I also think of Eliot Rosewater’s most common prescription to those who were “down in the dumps for every reason and for no reason in particular,” which was “take an aspirin tablet, and wash it down with a glass of wine.” Similar medical advice was dispensed by Dr. Julian Castle at the House of Hope and Mercy, in Cat’s Cradle: he noted that “I couldn’t possibly run that hospital of mine without aspirin and book-maru,” referring to the Bokononist practice of “mingling awarenesses” by pressing one’s feet to those of someone else, and thus making a tiny, temporary, provisional, but effective “community,” a little Reich der Zwei (or “Nation of Two”), as Howard W. Campbell Jr. imagined his perfect romantic relationship in Mother Night. The simplicity of this, like taking a simple aspirin tablet, is part of the greatness of even the smallest granfalloon.

Now a nation is not a very small granfalloon, and comparing it to the other examples Vonnegut names in Cat’s Cradle, the nation is much more problematic. Like any artificial collectivity, any category really, granfalloons can and perhaps must be exclusionary, establishing those who are with us and those who are not. However, in many cases, the affinity groups also establish intersectional lines, such that a Venn diagram of a given person’s granfalloonery will reveal lots of overlapping territories with respect to various imagined communities.

But the particular type of granfalloon known as a nation raises different difficulties. I used the term imagined communities, which, as I’m sure many of you recognize, derives especially from Benedict Anderson’s influential study of the rise and spread of nationalism, as nations come into being and reinforce themselves as ‘imagined communities,’ often with no other, more tangible links connecting the various ‘national’ peoples to one another. The fact that nations are largely imaginary is what underlies Vonnegut’s view that “any nation, anytime, anywhere” is merely a granfalloon. But I also want to register the sense, elaborated brilliantly by Phillip Wegner in his remarkable study titled Imaginary Communities, that the political force of utopian discourse partakes of the same substance as nationalism. Arguably, Vonnegut’s most ostensibly political novels, as well as his ramblingly insightful nonfiction, also function as reflections on, and critiques of, utopia. The “national fantasy” that is America, is supplemented by a utopian model that Vonnegut simultaneously employs and deconstructs, offering possible solutions to real problems only to show that these imaginary solutions are no better than the contradictions they had been intended to resolve.

I will come back to this here in a minute, but for now I’ll just say that the utopian aspect of the nation – the sense its members have of its own meaningfulness – is also the source of so much of its dystopian effects, such that what Sacvan Bercovitch memorably referred to as an American Jeremiad features so prominently in the discourse of American culture in general. That is, “what American is” for so many patriotic Americans is precisely what is it not, what it no longer is, and frankly – although this is a dirty little secret we hate to reveal to ourselves sometimes – what it never was.

In a memorable scene from Mother Night, Vonnegut’s third novel which is also the story of a man without a country, Howard W. Campbell draws “three patriotic devices” with his finger on the dust of the window: a swastika, a hammer-and-sickle, and the Stars and Stripes. Looking at each in turn, he says “Hooray, hooray, hooray!”, thus demonstrating  “the meaning of patriotism to a Nazi, a Communist, or an American” respectively. His point is that patriotism is a simple matter of symbols, but it is also an odd choice, since he himself was an American and a Nazi. (Maybe … Vonnegut is somewhat ambiguous about what Campbell “really” was, and he warned in that the moral of this story is “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”) All nationalisms may be ideological, but not all ideologies are nationalistic.

Vonnegut’s parody of patriotism in that novel and elsewhere owes something to his sense of being a German-American, undoubtedly. In the 1966 “Introduction” to the reissue of Mother Night, for example, Vonnegut states unequivocally that,  “if I’d been born in Germany, I suppose I would have been a Nazi, bopping Jews and gypsies and Poles around, leaving boots sticking out of snowbanks, warming myself with my secretly virtuous insides. So it goes.” Vonnegut own experience during World War II left him unable to feel particularly patriotic with respect to war, particularly as his own views were punctuated by the unnecessary – but then, what was truly necessary? – bombing of Dresden by his own team! It is not very surprising that Vonnegut had trouble becoming a zealous, Cold War and post-Cold War cheerleader for the USA and all that it purportedly stands for. And yet, neither could Vonnegut bring himself to abandon this Americanism.

In fact, occasionally, Vonnegut falls into the trap of nationalism itself, despite his better judgement. There’s some rather ugly Orientalism in his treatment of certain characters, from the Shah of Bratphur in Player Pianothrough the loathsome Lebanese-American (and he certainly didn’t have to be Lebanese) lawyer Norman Mushari in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, to the nameless Saudi Arabians who were buying up so-called American companies in Jailbird. This last objection seems almost hypocritical coming from a man who’s foreign-born grandparents made their fortunes in the United States by “buying” businesses, as Vonnegut relates in A Man without a Country. Indeed, the Chinese, Japanese, and African caricatures that appear in his work can also cause some readers to cringe. As I say, Vonnegut knew better, but I think sometimes a sense of nostalgia gets the better of him, and what might be find memories of a better time must often conceal rather hard truths about the actual conditions for those idyllic scenes. For instance, in recalling with some pride the labor movement of the early twentieth century, Walter Starbuck of Jailbird is forced to concede that the  “blacks and Hispanics” that made up the union membership today wouldn’t “have been allowed to join in the good old days.”

If the nation is a troubling form of granfalloon, and national identity is fraught with problems of racial, xenophobic, or cultural exclusion (not to mention military and economic force), then it also carries with it a sense of belonging or even fellowship that, in some sense, could be considered utopian. Nationalism is perhaps the most effective form of collective identity in the modern world, again for worse as much as for better, and it can provide something like an artificial community in which to find a sense of purpose. This aspect of the national granfalloonery is something that Vonnegut recognized, even as he cringed in horror at the worst manifestations of such patriotism – war, in particular, being an almost inevitable consequence of this special form of granfalloonery. Still, for all his skepticism in other areas, Vonnegut seemed to hold out hope for something like an “artificial family” to which we could belong. I’d like to turn now, briefly, to this idea of an “artificial family,” which I think is crucial to Vonnegut’s sense of the granfalloonery of national identity as well.

Lonesome No More!, the alternate title for Vonnegut’s Slapstick, is also the marketing slogan for the novel’s utopian scheme to provide everyone in the U.S.A. with an extended family, a partial remedy for the intense alienation and loneliness experienced by most Americans.

Throughout his career, Vonnegut celebrated the idea of the family, although his relationship with his own biological family was rather complicated. For example, when interviewed for the first time by biographer Charles Shields, Vonnegut began not by recalling his writing career or his military service, but by attacking members of his family.  “Kurt surprised me by talking angrily, and at length, about his childhood,” writes Shields in And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life; Shields continues:

He mowed down his father, his mother, and particularly his elder brother, a scientist. He still blamed them for wounds inflicted on his heart after more than three-quarters of a century. He had been powerless against them and the chain of unfavorable events they set in motion. […] [S]ome of the accidents in his life, Vonnegut wanted me to know, could be traced to his childhood, and might have been avoided if he had been better cared for.

By the time we said goodbye on the doorstep, my impression was that Kurt Vonnegut, humanist and champion of families in his novels, was a lonely, disenchanted man.

Shields confesses to being shocked by this, and perhaps many readers would be as well. In his novels and in his nonfiction, forms which he sometimes blended, Vonnegut did seem to champion families, although upon closer inspection it appears that he was more amenable to “artificial families” than to the familial groups into which we are born. As Wilbur and Eliza Swain’s plan in Slapstick suggests, Vonnegut seems much more interested in the very large, extended family than in the nuclear family unit, which in almost all of his works is revealed to be invariably dysfunctional. The longing for a sense of community that Vonnegut identifies time and again is manifested more often as “granfalloonery” than as being at home with one’s kin.

As noted above, a granfalloon in Cat’s Cradleis a false karass, which is to say a collection of individuals that seems particularly meaningful to its members but has no ultimate, cosmic meaning whatsoever. So some might well believe that an “artificial” grouping is less worthy than a “natural” one; that is, a Bokononist might think that these artificial families are inferior to actual families. However, Vonnegut makes clear that both the karass and the granfalloon are distinct from the family unit. Vonnegut’s embrace of community is therefore not a naïve belief in some metaphysics of kinship. Indeed, the granfalloon, which is created by humans for humans, is arguably preferable to both a family, into which one is born without any say, and a karass that is established once and for all by an unknowable deity for an unknown purpose.

One thinks of the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent in The Sirens of Titan, for instance, a novel in which we learn the whole of human history was orchestrated by Tralfamadoreans in order to delivery a minor piece of equipment to a messenger so that he could continue his errand; the message he was to deliver? Simply, “Greetings.” How that for the meaning of life, the universe, and everything? No worse than 42, the ultimate answer given in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, I’d imagine.

Vonnegut’s personal relationship with his own family was somewhat vexed. In terms of his childhood (e.g., his bitterness toward his brother and parents or his sweeter attitude toward his sister) or of his later difficulties as a husband and father, some of which have been chronicled by Mark Vonnegut, Vonnegut’s own writings tell as much as Shields’s biography reveals, if not always in a straightforward way. An armchair psychoanalyst might suggest that Vonnegut’s general longing for something like a large, extended kinship community or artificial family is a result of the alienation he felt as the youngest child of emotionally distant and even disturbed parents. In any case, Vonnegut’s novels do not depict much in the way of the wholesome, loving nuclear family of popular television, that’s for sure. In their quest for a sense of familial community, his characters most often need to look outside the home and the basic family structure.

Over and over again, most of Vonnegut’s novels feature clear cases of bad marriages, flawed parenting, troubled children, and neurotic individuals. These domestic problems could represent more broadly the difficulties associated with trying to make real, humane connections with our fellow humans. For example, in Mother Night, the irony of Howard W. Campbell’s Reich der Zwei, the “nation of two” in which the monogamous Casanova becomes a bigamist adulterer, undermines the romantic vision of couplehood intended by the phrase, to name just one of many awkward pairings and unhappy marriages in Vonnegut’s oeuvre. Arguably, the healthiest relationship among a man and a woman in all of Vonnegut’s novels is the Platonic friendship between Rabo Karabekian and Circe Berman in Bluebeard. In none of his novels are children, grandchildren, or extended family relations depicted as being happy, unless you count the seal-like descendants of the protagonists in Galápagos. Yet, for all this, Vonnegut praises the idea of families throughout his career, often positing a family-like group as ideal form of community.

Slapstick offers the clearest version of Vonnegut’s idea, as Wilbur and Eliza Swain come up with  a “Utopian scheme for reorganizing America into thousands of artificial extended families.” As Wilbur explains it,

[t]here was nothing new about artificial extended families in America. Physicians felt themselves related to other physicians, lawyers to lawyers, writers to writers, athletes to athletes, politicians to politicians, and so on.

Eliza and I said these were bad sorts of extended families, however. They excluded children and old people and housewives, and losers of every description. Also: Their interests were usually so specialized as to seem nearly insane to outsiders.

“An ideal extended family,” Eliza and I had written so long ago, “should give proportional representation to all sorts of Americans, according to their numbers. The creation of ten thousand such families, say, would provide America with ten thousand parliaments, which would discuss sincerely and expertly what only a few hypocrites now discuss with passion, which is the welfare of all mankind.”

If we combine this utopian scheme with the insights of Cat’s Cradle, we might say that Vonnegut puts forward granfalloonery, in the form of artificial extended families, as the solution to society’s ills. A key difference is that the granfalloon in question will be assigned to us, without either the accident of birth or residence (as with Hoosiers) or the cultivation of difference (as with professional development). In effect, this involves its own type of nationalism – we always recall that the examples of a granfalloon include “any nation, anytime, anywhere” – but here it is reinforced with a sort of arbitrarily formed kinship or ethnicity.

But, as with nationalism, I would say that the Lonesome No More! plan to create artificial families amounts to neither a utopian solution to the problem of personal alienation nor even “harmless granfalloonery” in practice. Although I have characterized this plan, charitably, as creating granfalloons that people can become a part of and that they can use to help in organizing their lives, Vonnegut’s insistence that these new ways of linking formerly unrelated people be familial in nature is somewhat problematic. In Cat’s Cradle, for instance, the karass had been understood, not as a mystical or supernatural family, but as a team: a karass is defined as group of people connected in God only knows what way for God only knows what purpose, in order to do God’s work. The granfalloon is the same thing, a team not a family, but one which has nothing to do with God’s designs, even if its members believe otherwise.

To use one of Slapstick’s own example, physicians do not really see other physicians as “family” members, although metaphors of kinship or brotherhood may be employed in strictly metaphorical ways. Indeed, what ties these professionals to their fellow professionals, as the comment about “specialization” suggests, is quite the opposite of a natural, familial connection: it requires education, training, the learning of vocabularies and skills, and other such activities that in effect remove one from the sphere into which one had been born (the family, in other words), and that actually launch one into other areas of robust granfalloonery. In other words, by invoking families instead of teams or groups, Slapstick’s utopian program leads to a much less desirable notion of community.

Take Wilbur Swain’s explanation of how the artificial family works in practice. Elaborating his plan on the campaign trail, Wilbur explains to an interested but skeptical voter just how the artificial families will make his life better: As he explains, this plan will benefit the man partly by giving him brothers, sisters, and cousins whom he may importune as he will, but also partly by freeing him from giving a “flying fuck” about anyone in any other artificial family. Thus, for instance, if a beggar asks you for money, you can say:  “Buster – I happen to be a Uranium-3. You have one hundred and ninety thousand cousins and ten thousand brothers and sisters. You’re not exactly alone in this world. I have relatives of my own to look after. So why don’t you take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut? Why don’t you take a flying fuck at the moooooooooooon?” This attitude, this non-beatitude, hardly reflects that Sermon on the Mount philosophy that Vonnegut seems to cherish. By offering people their own families, perversely, the Swains make the case for less, not more, regard for one’s fellow man.

Indeed, in Slapstick, the artificial family becomes an even more dangerous version of the nation, since now the “patriotism” is all the more personal and vicious, as may be seen by the various family wars that break out in the novel. In that novel, the United States breaks apart into various warring regions, but the powerful distrust and even hatred of those who weren’t members of one’s “family” appeared to overcome even the regional, state, or national pride. In Indianapolis, for instance, “It was a Daffodil town. You weren’t anything if you weren’t a Daffodil.” Hoosiers be damned.

Vonnegut’s idea of “family” thus remains ironic. The longing for an artificial family must be seen as an unfulfilled desire for non-familial communities or teams. Perhaps it is a human condition rather than a problem to be solved. In the end, the granfalloon, rather than the family, becomes the only viable solution to the problem of human isolation and loneliness. As the saying goes, thankfully, you can’t pick your family, but you can pick your granfalloons.

This brings me back to Vonnegut, the American. If national identity is the height of granfalloonery in the sense of being utterly meaningless (from a Bokononist perspective) but being all-too-real in the ways that people embrace their national identity and, concomitantly, reject others, then at least it is still merely granfalloonery. One of my favorite phrases from Cat’s Cradle, and you’ve heard me use it several times already, is “harmless granfalloonery,” which the narrator uses to indicate his willingness, even desire to chat with the Hoosier Hazel Barnes and others. At this point, he knows full well that a granfalloon is meaningless, having already quoted Bokonon’s relevant calypso: “If you wish to study a granfalloon/ Just remove the skin of a toy balloon.” The nothingness inside the balloon is all that a nation or any other granfalloon is truly worth. But, this doesn’t stop him from engaging, from wanting to engage in some “harmless granfalloonery.” Why? Mostly because it’s harmless, and because the camaraderie and fellowship that one can find in a granfalloon is very real, even if the group itself is ultimately meaningless.

“Imagine being an American.” Vonnegut posed this to his readers in Fates Worse That Death, his 1991 “autobiographical collage” which, like A Man Without a Country, is written with a bittersweet, melancholy, and often frustrated sense of his life and times. (Sad to think that we must now recall moment that as the “First” Gulf War; a bad joke, it turns out, like that of naming World War I “the war to end all wars.”) The four-word line “Imagine being an American” punctuates another about how Walter Cronkite doesn’t like him much any more – the full line before reads: “Imagine being an American and being treated like something the cat drug in by the most trusted man in America!” – but the repetition of those first four words in its own follow-up sentence strikes me, a literary critic, as really significant.

I had planned to title my talk “Imagine Being an American,” except that’s the title of a very good book on Vonnegut’s novels by Donald Morse, and I didn’t want to create any confusion there. (By the way, I recommend Morse’s book, The Novels of Kurt Vonnegut: Imagine Being An American, one of a handful of excellent, relatively “early” studies of Vonnegut’s career.) Instead I borrowed a convention from one of the United States’s greatest writers, Walt Whitman, in formulating a title to this talk. I want to conclude by tying these things together briefly.

In Leaves of Grass, Whitman includes this bit; it’s too much to quote, so I’ll just offer the beginning of that section: “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, / Disorderly, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking, breeding, / No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women, or apart from them . . .” This comes from a section that would later be called “Song of Myself,” although it is clear that Whitman’s “self” contains multitudes, as does his “America.” In Whitman, one finds all the ideals of that America that Vonnegut wishes to resuscitate, even if he understands them to be imaginary.

I said before that Vonnegut is a quintessentially American writer, and part of that quintessence can be found in his four-word sentence, “Imagine being an American.” To be an American is an act of the imagination, Vonnegut tells us, and the granfalloonery that has historically come from this imaginary community has not often been harmless. In his writings, speeches, and reflections, Vonnegut’s entire oeuvre represents attempts at “imagining being an American,” and to the extent that he can remain hopeful, I believe, that hope lies in imagining and inventing ways of maintaining this granfalloonery without doing harm to one’s fellow Americans or to the world at large.

For fans of Kurt Vonnegut, an American who was at the same time a man without a country, we might discover in this harmless granfalloonery a sort of identity worthy of the imagination. Speaking to us from the Great Beyond he refused to believe in, Vonnegut seems to say: Make America harmless again, for that is the key to making America great, and for making “great” Americans, for that matter.