As a man leaves an old garment and puts on one that is new, the spirit leaves his mortal body and puts on one that is new.

Bhagavadgita[1]

[This is Fred. Larry was fighting with the Affordable Care Act last week, so I agreed to assume blog duties this time. But then I drew a blank. What in the world should I talk about? We have a new policy here; we’re going to be cheerful and forward-looking whenever possible. That’s a tough assignment. I read the newspapers; good news is scarce; cheerful news even more so.

So yesterday I called Phil, but he wasn’t much help. He’s still reading 1950’s sci-fi, so his take on things to come is kind of odd, almost antique, and definitely not cheerful. “Downbeat” probably is a better description. Nevertheless, he said he’d think about my problem.

Even Phil can pretend to smile once in a while, and this morning he was positively ebullient when we talked. He’d just found a sci-fi story from 1953 by a fellow named Vonnegut that he thought might help. Apparently this Vonnegut was important; he died with a big literary reputation and even has a Wikipedia entry[2]; but his origins were humble. Vonnegut broke into the writing trade by doing sci-fi and actually continued with these themes for most of his life. Sci-fi was low-status, i.e., not well thought of in highbrow circles, so normally this would have been a career-limiting move for someone like him.[3]  But for some reason the mainstream critics ignored his choice of subject matter and reviewed his books anyway.

Certainly writing sci-fi was better than starting a career with porn, except I understand porn paid better for beginners: the prolific author didn’t have to come up with new plots or characters for every book; instead, he (or she) wrote the same thing over and over, and produced lots of copy for which payment was rendered on a regular basis. Anyway, I have it on good authority that that’s the way things worked back in the misty past.

I don’t know much about literary markets today, except that nobody is calling me; so obviously I’m no expert. How do current apprentice writers support themselves? Do they start with sci-fi, westerns or other genre fiction? Or do they start somewhere else, say with political or business reporting, and move on to more obvious fiction when the opportunity permits? Do they flirt with porn to pay the rent?

Questions, questions! Who knows? But let’s move on. I don’t have any other ideas for a blog, so I guess we’re stuck with Phil’s. Phil, would you please explain what Kurt Vonnegut, just starting out 60 years ago, might have said that’s helpful in 2014? And whatever it was, should it make us feel better or worse?]

Big questions, Fred, and certainly I won’t speak for all of Vonnegut’s work. We’re only going to look at one of his early short stories. But make no mistake about it; he’s important and interesting. It shows even in the early work.

Kurt Vonnegut was a World War II veteran, who fought against the Germans in Europe, was captured by them during the Battle of the Bulge, was imprisoned in Dresden when that city was fire bombed (by us) and eventually was repatriated to us through the Russians on the Eastern Front. His first s-fi story that I know of was published in Colliers in 1949. [4]

Vonnegut wrote two impressive sci-fi novels in the 1950’s, Player Piano and The Sirens of Titian,[5] but he hit the big time – i.e., mainstream acceptance – with later work such as Cat’s Cradle (1963), God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965),  Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Breakfast of Champions (1973), Galápagos (1985), and Timequake (1997).[6] He was born in 1932, and died in 2007 after an accident at home.

The story I’m going to talk about, Unready to Wear, was published in Galaxy Science Fiction in 1953.[7] You remember how Galaxy operated, don’t you? Its editor, Horace Gold, liked to speculate about future history. He wasn’t so much interested in technology, but in social trends. His basic question was, “Suppose x or y event happens sometime soon; how will that affect the way we live?”  So a typical Galaxy story would start with a premise, say faster-than-light space travel becomes possible, or new diseases depopulate half the planet, and then project social outcomes.

I don’t see Gold as an optimist or a pessimist. He wanted authors to write stories based on interesting premises, and to reach logical conclusions. There was no school solution, no mandate for a happy ending or the triumph of this or that philosophy. Those things more or less were left to the author.[8]

In Unready to Wear Vonnegut posited a time when people become amphibious. Now, you probably think that means “able to live on the land or in the water,” but Vonnegut had something different in mind. He speculated about what would happen if people could live with, or without their bodies. In his story, it happened this way.

A mathematician, one Ellis Konigswasser was out walking in the rain one day when he and his body accidentally parted company. He was a physical wreck and had every reason to want to do that, and thought nature, over time, might let humans evolve that capability. “The mind is the only thing about human beings that’s worth anything[9],” he said. “Why does it have to be tied to a bag of skin, blood, hair, meat, bones and tubes?”[10]

Anyway, he was thinking that way when he was liberated the first time. He had taken a walk through the park, and stopped at the zoo to watch lions being fed. His body, however, continued on and walked into a lagoon. When he realized what had happened, he went back, reclaimed his body, walked it home, and stored it in a closet.

Later, he wrote a book about the experience and sold two million copies. He said the secret of disembodying oneself was to (i) realize what a parasite the body really is, (ii) separate what the body wanted from what you yourself really want, and (iii) ignore the body’s wants to the maximum extent possible, and make your psyche “demand its rights and become self-sufficient.”[11]

The book was a hit and, over time, people learned how to follow Konigswasser’s technique and set themselves free. The result, of course, was disastrous for the economy. If the body’s wants are ignored, that grossly undercuts consumer demand. Why buy SUVs, fancy clothes, big houses, jewelry and items of that ilk if you really don’t need them? For that matter, why do anything special for the body, other than maintain it? After all, if you’re going to store it in a closet and take it out only for special occasions, it doesn’t need a lot of care.

And if you don’t like your own body, why not borrow a different one from time to time? In Vonnegut’s story, people eventually set up lending libraries to hold bodies in common so the bodiless will have a good selection to choose from.

For the new amphibian, then, money and all the usual signs of status and wealth became irrelevant. Also there were great advantages to being bodiless. The incorporeal were invisible, insubstantial and indestructible,[12]and were free from the unseemly demands of the body. Librarians took care of those to the extent it was necessary.

So that’s the essence of Unready to Wear. What do you think?

[It’s quite an idea, isn’t it? If it were possible – to disembody oneself and re-embody from time to time at will – that definitely would mess up the demand models used by our economists. And the poor stock traders! As demand plummets companies will suffer. You remember 2008; everything went down for a time. There didn’t seem to be any safe havens. Traders had to stay short to make any money. And what about unemployment? It would go up, for sure; but wait, that might not matter!  If the unemployed disembody themselves for the duration, they shouldn’t feel any pain.]

I don’t think you’ve fully accepted the implications. If people become amphibians, and leave their bodies, most of the stuff you’re talking about is irrelevant. There’s no need for any of it. No need for companies, jobs, stock markets, status symbols and the rest.

[Perhaps. But don’t underestimate the power of status in human affairs, corporeal or spiritual. Fast cars, art, and trophy wives have utility only insofar as they demonstrate high status. And then there are diamonds, my favorite example of something people hold dear even though it’s basically useless. Diamonds are prized for scarcity alone. If they were plentiful, nobody would want them. So I can see some things being kept here simply to mark status in the spiritual realm.]

OK, let’s move on to the religious overtones of Vonnegut’s piece. It seems to me he’s talking about reincarnation, but without death and rebirth. People will be able to move about, in and out of bodies, almost as a matter of course. They could change bodies or elect to stay ‘spiritual’ for a long time, depending upon their moods. All that would be required is for people to understand how worthless their bodies are, and reject them.

[Yes, and there’s no implication that people need to purge themselves simply to join God in the next life. You’ll find that in Imitation of Christ[13], but not in Vonnegut’s story. In Unready to Wear people leave their bodies simply to get away.]

I agree. In fact the whole notion of switching bodies is really self-centered; it has to appeal to people today. Oh, my; I hadn’t thought of that until just now! Hopefully folks won’t go searching for copies of Unready to Wear to find tips on how to become amphibians. What would happen if they succeed?

[What indeed? Don’t try this at home, folks. Leave it to the professionals, whoever they might be.]

 

 

 

 

[1] See Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (6th Edition, 2004) (henceforth, ODQ at __) at Bhagavadgita, p. 74, n. 10. This is from a very old Hindu poem, composed between the 2nd Century B.C and the 2nd Century A.D. The original isn’t in English, of course.

[2] Want to see it? Just go to the Wikipedia website and search Kurt Vonnegut, or just click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurt_Vonnegut

[3] This reminds me of something Ted Sturgeon once said. When someone asked why he wrote science fiction; 90% of it was crap; he replied, “90% of everything is crap.” In short, what’s the difference?

[4] See Clute & Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (St. Martins, 1993) (hereafter cited as SF Encyclopedia at __) at Vonnegut, Kurt Jr., p. 1289

[5] These came out in 1952 and 1959 respectively.

[6] The publications list comes from Wikipedia. See note 2.

[7]That is, in the April, 1953 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction at p. 98-111. We have that issue on file here at the Zoo, so it’s our source for the story. (We’ll cite it as 04/1953 Galaxy at __). It’s briefly discussed in the article on Vonnegut in the SF Encyclopedia, cited in n. 3.

[8] That’s my opinion, based on what I’ve seen of the fiction Gold published. I have no direct knowledge of what went on in the editorial offices of Galaxy.

[9] See 04/1953 Galaxy at p. 101.

[10] Id.

[11] See 04/1953 Galaxy at p. 104.

[12] See 04/1953 Galaxy at p. 105: “There got to be millions and finally over a billion of us – invisible, insubstantial and indestructible, and, by golly, true to ourselves, no trouble to anybody, and not afraid of anything.”

[13] That book’s by Thomas a Kempis, and we have a copy of it around someplace. Unfortunately I can’t find it right now, so take a look at the online version at http://copticplace.com/files/imitation_of_Christ.pdf . Anyway, he was a cheery sort and said, among other things, “Happy is the man who keeps the hour of death always in mind, and daily prepares himself to die.” See ODQ at Thomas a Kempis, p. 788, n. 11.

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