They Are Not Needed: Vonnegut and the Uselessness of Art | Elmer on God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Jonathan Elmer


In my last installment, on Cat’s Cradle, I suggested that Vonnegut was playing some interesting games with his literary precursors, especially Melville’s epic whaling tale, Moby-Dick. That mythic beast makes a cameo appearance in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater as well. The scene is “The Jolly Whaler,” the shop run by Bunny Weeks, “the great-grandson of the famous Captain Hannibal Weeks of New Bedford, the man who finally killed Moby Dick. No less than seven of the irons resting on the rafters overhead were said to have come from the hide of the Great White Whale” (176). Myth has become décor, an object of mere aesthetic contemplation. The bizarre scene that unfolds beyond the picture window of the Weir, Bunny’s restaurant, hammers this point home: the “Thermopane windows looked out at the fish traps of Harry Pena. There were opera glasses on each table, in order that guests might watch Harry and his boys clean out their traps” (173). The fishermen are aware that they are being spied on, and sometimes “respond to their involuntary involvement with the restaurant by urinating off the boat. They called this . . . ‘making cream of leek soup for Bunny Weeks’” (175).

This entire section of the book is deeply uncomfortable for today’s reader. Vonnegut casts his historical point in the language of sexual panic. Weeks is a “fairy” (176) and his friend Amanita Buntline is a “rich Lesbian” (137). Harry Pena’s very name, in marked contrast, punningly suggests a cartoon virility, and his sons turn directly from “talking about fucking” (172) to hauling in their catch, in a scene channeling Melville: “A goosefish, a prehistoric monstrosity, a ten-pound tadpole studded with chancres and warts, came to the surface, opened its needle-filled mouth, surrendered. And around the goosefish, the brainless, inedible horror of cartilage, the surface of the sea was blooming with dimpled humps. Big animals were in the dark below” (182–3). What follows is a scene as savage and bloody as anything in Moby-Dick, with the Pena clan clubbing the surfaced fish with a “mighty mall” (184). But Bunny has the last word. “Real people don’t make their livings that way anymore,” he observes. “That’s all over, men working with their hands and backs. They are not needed” (185–6). Harry is a “prehistoric monstrosity” as much as any goosefish, and his true “economic value was as animated wallpaper for [Bunny’s] restaurant” (185). Bunny—his sexuality, his aestheticism, and even his self-loathing—epitomizes the decadence and degradation of the very New England Pisquontuit: “Almost all were inheritors. Almost all were beneficiaries of boodles and laws that had nothing to do with wisdom or work” (186).

“They are not needed”: this is the central moral dilemma of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. As the prophetic Kilgore Trout—“a frightened, aging Jesus, whose sentence to crucifixion had been commuted to imprisonment for life” (162)—states it: “The problem is this: How to love people who have no use?” (264). In one sense, this is Vonnegut’s question all the way back to Player Piano—what to do with the “prehistoric monstrosities,” or in the bilious language of Rosewater, the “morons, perverts, starvelings and the unemployed” (50) of Rosewater, Indiana and the grotesque parasites of Pisquontuit. But to understand how Vonnegut addresses this problem in Rosewater, we need to consider the queasy mélange of themes in the scene with Bunny Weeks and Harry Pena.

Let us start with the observation that Vonnegut himself can be neither Harry Pena nor Bunny Weeks: he is not pretending to live still in the age of giants, working with his hands and back, nor will he concede to Bunny Weeks’ degraded ornamentalism. Vonnegut has always been cagy about his relation to literary tradition. He regularly claims ignorance, indifference, or disdain. As I wrote in my post about The Sirens of Titan, he worries that literature might “disappear up its own asshole.” But Rosewater represents a new level of animus toward writing, writers, literature, and “arts and sciences” (12). Eliot has a penchant for science fiction, and dismisses the “talented sparrowfarts who write delicately of one small piece of one mere lifetime, when the issues are galaxies, eons, and trillions of souls yet to be born” (19). But despite the important appearance from sci-fi paragon Kilgore Trout, Rosewater is less engaged in science fiction than several of his previous books; and in fact the novel does present “one small piece of one mere lifetime.” Is Vonnegut therefore a “sparrowfart”? This “one mere lifetime,” however, is motivated by a thoroughgoing disdain of art: we are told that one effect of Eliot Rosewater’s traumatic experience in World War Two is that he “despises art. Can you imagine? Despises it—and yet he does it in such a way that I can’t help loving him for it. What he’s saying, I think, is that art has failed him, which, I must admit, is a very fair thing for a man who has bayoneted a fourteen-year-old boy in the line of duty to say” (85). This passage, by the way—and perhaps the books as a whole—is a quite serviceable paraphrase of Theodor Adorno’s much-quoted and little-understood remark about poetry being “impossible” after Auschwitz.

But for a novel that despises art and literature, it’s pretty chock-full of it. One begins to think Vonnegut protests too much. Passing reference is made to El Greco, the Domesday Book, Tennyson’s Lay of the Last Minstrel, Dylan Thomas, Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer, a couple of Blake poems, letters between Eliot and Sylvia signed “Hamlet” and “Ophelia,” Heidi, and Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative. At one point, Eliot looks at himself in the mirror and sees “F. Scott Fitzgerald, with one day to live” (263), thinking perhaps of Fitzgerald’s great account of living on the edge in “The Crack-Up.” And it’s not just literature—Rosewater riots in textuality more broadly construed: we read psychiatric reports (51–57), senatorial orations about the Golden Age of Rome (27–31), genealogical histories, letters from orphan girls, headlines and personals ripped from the pages of the Investigator. And who can forget Roland Barry’s doggerel masterwork, in which “slaughter” finds a snug place amidst the “Geysers, trumpets, Chimes, lagoons” (245), or the pithy “poems” scrawled on bathroom walls? The tabloid Investigator is key here, linking as it does the commercial, the sensational, and the vulgar. Fred Rosewater furtively glances at the girlie pics in it, but in some way experience with “the Investigator opens new horizons for thirteen-year-old Lila Buntline, leading to Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch” (156).

We are reminded again of how sci-fi and porn rub shoulders in Vonnegut’s world: “What Trout had in common with pornography wasn’t sex but fantasies of an impossibly hospitable world” (21). Vonnegut seems to want to void the literary center, to send it into outer space or into the gutter, be either truly cosmic or purely creaturely: to make it sci-fi or porn. At one point, he reads a MS dedicated to him, titled “Get With Child a Mandrake Root,” a line nicked from “Go and Catch a Falling Star.” Donne’s poem is, one could argue, misogynistic enough on its own, arguing that “No where / Lives a woman true, and fair,” but “Arthur Garvey Ulm” takes this to a different level: “CHAPTER ONE: I twisted her arm until she opened her legs, and she gave a little scream, half joy, half pain (how do you figure a woman?), as I rammed the old avenger home” (93). As with the Melvillean grotesquerie with Pena and Weeks, Vonnegut here secretes a reference to classic American literature, as if to mark how far the decay of literature has progressed: for Arthur Garvey Ulm surely recalls Arthur Gordon Pym, the eponymous hero of the only novel by Edgar Allan Poe, who walls his own name up in his hero’s. One last American echo: the first words of Rosewater, before the story begins, are:

All persons, living and dead,
are purely coincidental,
and should not be construed.

Vonnegut alludes here to one of his masters in the art of dark satire, Mark Twain, whose The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is prefaced with a similar notice: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot will be shot.” Like Twain, Vonnegut wants both to land a vicious blow with his novel, while at the same time suggesting that everything will be swallowed in the oblivion of meaninglessness. Vonnegut takes the boilerplate language meant to underscore a work’s fictionality—“any resemblance to persons living and dead is purely coincidental . . . ” and so on—and by dropping out key words, he formulates a metaphysical statement, namely that our existence is random. Being purely “coincidental,” persons do not really bear construal—they are not significant in that way, they will not reward interpretation.

And in some basic way, Vonnegut truly believes this: the problem is not interpretation, the problem is love. How do you love people “who have no use”? How do you love Diana Moon Glampers, a “sixty-eight-year-old virgin who, by almost anybody’s standards, was too dumb to live. [. . .] No one had loved her. There was no reason anyone should. She was ugly, stupid, and boring” (72–3). Vonnegut—if perhaps not Eliot—is remarkably cruel about the people his hero wishes to love. In this regard, he is much like Nathanael West and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, savage satirists both, focusing a laser glare on the ugliness, stupidity, and cruelty of the world they live in. But interested just as much in the possibility of love in such worlds. Like Miss Lonelyhearts or Prince Myshkin, Eliot Rosewater is a holy fool. Like Myshkin he is a refugee from his class, like Lonelyhearts his only language for extending love is fatally compromised by mass culture and consumerism: “This is the Rosewater Foundation. How can we help you?” Myshkin and Lonelyhearts are both also-rans in the sexual sweepstakes: Their lives are swamped by longing, but it is not erotic love they seek, it is holy love. So, too, Eliot Rosewater, finding his erections “irrelevant” (93). God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, as its title tells us, is a religious novel, in the way Dostoyevsky and West wrote religious novels. Whether such a thing is possible is the question. Eliot Rosewater: “I’m going to love these discarded Americans, even though they are useless and unattractive. That is going to be my work of art” (44). The final dispersal of the Rosewater fortune notwithstanding, we have cause to doubt the success of this work of art. But Vonnegut’s work of art is not Rosewater’s. If Vonnegut’s succeeds, it does so as a record of failure, his hero’s and his own. Keeping its own unattractiveness and uselessness as an ever-present question throughout, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater asks whether works of art—of Eliot’s sort, or Vonnegut’s—are even possible today.