What Is the Soul of a Man? | Harriss on Player Piano

Vonnegut’s Ghost in the Machine

M. Cooper Harriss


Reading Player Piano conjured an old song that I’ve enjoyed returning to for the past couple of weeks. Not unlike the way a player piano engineers sound from collected data, the record of an earlier performance replicated with some precision, I know this song as a mechanical reproduction of Blind Willie Johnson’s voice—recorded in 1930, captured through analogical technologies and, more recently, translated into binary digital code. These numbers compute, turn into electronic impulses passing across wires through earphones or speakers, and then become sound waves. Auditory mechanisms in the inner ear convert these waves into neurological signals carried to my brain, which somehow unscrambles everything and, like a ghost, resurrects some essence of Blind Willie Johnson, dead since 1945: “What is the soul of a man?” he sings. “Won’t somebody tell me? / Answer me if you can. . . . / What is the soul of a man?” A considerable genealogy of machinery brings his breath to my brain, uniting us across space and time over some fundamental anxiety concerning what it means to be human. What indeed, the voice of the machine inquires, is the soul of a man?

Player Piano asks a related question: “What is the soul of a machine?” On the surface we might respond that there is no such thing. Cold, regular, efficient, inhuman, machines dehumanize humanities, art, and culture, strip them of authority, and leave humankind bereft—a prominent critical strain from the Frankfurt School on down. Blindly pursuing this tack in a reading of Player Piano, however, seems too obvious, a canard that Vonnegut wishes to reinforce while setting up something far more compelling. Consider Rudy Hertz, “the master machinist turning out a shaft for a fractional horsepower motor,” whose movements (captured on a loop of videotape) become the model for the machine. He is the machine’s “essence,” “immortalized” and in the very mechanics of its kinetic energy. Even as he goes unrecognized, Hertz’s presence—as a ghost, a soul (we often conflate them)—haunts both his machines and the economy and social order they determine: as the soul of a machine, he represents the trace of something unnameable, déjà vu of a human memory or instinct, a metaphysic encoded within the mechanism (10–11).

Player Piano considers the machinery of a not-too-distant US society that has made itself technologically “more perfect.” Yet, predictably for this postwar dystopian genre, something has gone awry. Seeking to superhumanize the social order through mechanical efficiency and disinterestedness, maximizing productivity while minimizing the complicated baggage of being human, has resulted in dehumanizing the population, automating the processes of daily life at the expense of dignity, pride, and craftsmanship. Most remarkable to my mind isn’t that this nightmare technocracy is bad (it is). Instead, I’m fascinated by the way Vonnegut plays with a circularity of religion and secularity in Player Piano, rendering it a reflection on metaphysical hauntedness in the mechanisms of a material age. A machine is never just a machine.

My point hinges on a specific understanding of secularism. In our ordinary vernacular the word “secular” usually means the opposite of, or absence of, religion. Initially the term was a legal distinction proscribing boundaries of church authority, but modernity has more rigidly enforced a separation of sacred and secular realms. Over the past decade or so the secular has been taken up by scholars who have suggested that instead of marking the absence of religion, secularism is permeated by religious forms, postures, and meanings, ranging from a formal “surrogate” for religious faith that modernity disenchanted, to an “unmarked [religious] category,” to the vivid metaphor of an “immanent frame,” suggesting that secularism mirrors religion’s function in premodern contexts.

I want to focus on one rich example from this subgenre that speaks to the soul of a machine. John Lardas Modern argues that secularism in nineteenth-century America orchestrates a feedback loop (recall Rudy Hertz) between understandings of moral and political good that normalize the relationship between Protestantism and democracy. In this way it becomes mechanical, efficient, shorn of political or religious excesses, and rigidly managed to justify its own justification, compounding a kind of solipsism between arenas of “church and state” (broadly construed) as at once nominally separate yet profoundly complicit in one another. Such recursion becomes common sense, quotidian. It cannot escape the patterns that define it, such as modern claims that the outstanding condition of secularism is its hauntedness, that secular modernity is a “ghost story” (46). Rudy Hertz represents one such ghost, immortalized in the machine, its automation replicating muscle memory, flesh and blood.

In lieu of Modern’s old, weird America, Player Piano thrusts us into a “new,” weird America (though Vonnegut’s future seems dated now), useful for considering secularism’s implications over time: the regime has moved into a second generation. Its institutional patterns have become rote. Characters remember something different, but that memory recedes. The novel’s secular mechanism, looping reinforcements of religious and political authority, secularizes the political authority of machines. Religion, for its part, remains prominent. Yet it lacks specificity. As Reverend Lasher, an erstwhile Episcopal priest who has become a chaplain for Reeks and Wrecks (see Winnifred Fallers Sullivan on chaplaincy and secularism) notes, the most painful aspect to observe among those displaced by the machines is the way institutions—the machinery of the state—have aligned to support this emergent status quo. Vonnegut depicts the erosion of even the illusion of free will, a kind of unconscious behaviorism standardized and obligingly performed to the point of absurdity (90–91). Residents of Homestead recognize that things are akimbo but prove capable of doing little about it. Like Rudy Hertz, unconscious traces of religious forms, idioms, and materials haunt this secular order, but they have been rendered meaningless, spectral justifications for the way things are.

Consider the abundant naming of religious personages throughout: “God,” “Lord,” Jesus,” even “Holy Cow” interject in conversation, peppering the novel’s dialogue with a frequency that borders on distraction. Vonnegut even gets in on the joke. Note that this novelist renowned for his self-proclaimed atheism invokes God on three separate occasions before page 1: the dedication to his wife, Jane, “God bless her”; his epigraph from Matthew’s gospel; and in the foreword, in which, oddly, he names the present as “1952 A.D.”—Anno Domini, in the year of our Lord—and invokes God’s help for managers and engineers (secularism personified) as humanity’s abiding hope. The routine fashion of Vonnegut’s vernacular God-talk reflects religion’s complicity in secularization. The sacred, no longer held apart, becomes common, a matter of course that continues to organize social and political institutions as part of their mechanism.

I want to mention two other instances—the first in passing and the second as evidence of Vonnegut’s recognition of the value of religion in attempting to fracture the secular order of the dystopia he has created. First, consider the memorial service at the Meadows—especially the Oak as a Durkheimian totem (198–201), or attempts to cultivate, through colors and rituals, communitas and collective effervescence among the elites in attendance, making “the whole economy one flesh” (228). The second, the Ghost Shirt Society, I wish to dwell on more closely. This organization, crossing Player Piano’s social factions, draws on the memory of a historical religious object to invoke resistance to the secular logic of the social order. Note, for instance, that our first specifically named encounter with the society comes from Garth’s attack upon the Oak—the totem of the Meadows and the organization it supports. Vonnegut’s Ghost Shirt Society invokes the true account of the Ghost Dance movement in the late nineteenth century when, facing eradication by the federal government, natives staged “one last fight for the old values,” as Lasher puts it, ritualizing a kind of exception-taking to the final consummation of white oppression—a hegemonic closing of the frontier (288). Ghost shirts were garments understood quite literally to possess magic that would stop the army’s bullets. Of course, this wasn’t true and the movement was put down.

Nevertheless, there’s a fascinating way that Vonnegut deploys the ghost shirt in Player Piano that I want to focus on in conclusion (287ff). In a secular realm where religion exists purely as recursive reinforcement to political logic, there’s something powerful about naming a rebel organization after shirts that could not stop bullets. Specifically, it defies the logic that supports the secular machine. The Ghost Shirt Society fails, yet it gains moral victory because it proves too absurd not to disrupt the recursive feedback loop between the religious and the political. In a world that emphasizes economic efficiency at the expense of human flourishing, all that stands a chance of success is some rite of absurdity casting its lot to facture the secular feedback loop. In the lost cause of the Ghost Dance movement, conjured from haunted memories of the secular machine, Vonnegut deploys folly as the last, best hope against the ravenous, devouring efficiency of mechanized society. I look forward to seeing how something like this template carries out over the next five novels, because I suspect that in Vonnegut’s trademark penchant for absurdity and black humor—in this soul of the man, that is—resides the haunted sense that such religious qualities, like Blind Willie Johnson’s voice, emerging somehow as the soul of the machine, outside of political logic, may be all that remains when facing the secularized madness of the twentieth century.