Kurt Vonnegut, witty 20th-century science fiction writer and native-born Hoosier, once wrote of a place of learning that existed beyond the boundaries of classrooms, lectures, professors and buildings.
“A kind of university — only nobody goes to it,” Vonnegut wrote in "The Sirens of Titan." “There aren't any buildings, isn't any faculty. Everybody's in it and nobody's in it. It's like a cloud that everybody has given a little puff of mist to, and then the cloud does all the heavy thinking for everybody.”
Since the spring of 2017, Ed Comentale, director of IUB Arts and Humanities Council, has been working on a project similar to Vonnegut’s fictional university. Professors from nine different disciplines have contributed their thoughts on Vonnegut’s work to the Salo University blog, a website exploring the importance of his writing. Comentale said that the website is a part of a larger project to celebrate Kurt Vonnegut.
“Vonnegut is a very educated man, mostly a self-educated man,” Comentale said. “He had interests in anthropology, interests in science, interests in the history of literature and philosophy, and it was really important for me to get all of those perspectives, get all of those disciplines commenting on the way that he thinks and writes and the stuff he has to say about contemporary society.”
Professors who are a part of the project have read through Vonnegut’s novels month by month, starting with "Player Piano" last May and ending with "Slaughterhouse Five" this October.
Comentale said that he hopes to continue the readings and blog posts next year, ending with "Timequake." The website also includes objects from the Kurt Vonnegut archive at the Lilly Library.
The library’s collection includes many of Vonnegut’s manuscripts, rejection letters and fan mail, as well as his high school report card, doodles and blueprints for a board game he designed. Vonnegut named the game General Headquarters.
Comentale said Vonnegut claimed in a letter to the board game company Milton Bradley that General Headquarters would be the third-best game after checkers and chess.
He said that while much of Vonnegut’s work was written in the '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s, his books provide a fabulous commentary on the state of American society and culture.
“He probably is the greatest author of the Trump era, even though he died before it happened,” Comentale said. “He certainly had a lot to say about today's America in terms of class, in terms of race, of the ways in which different political factions arise and the way they define themselves.”
To achieve a better understanding of how Vonnegut’s work is still relevant today, three professors shared how reading Vonnegut’s work provided insight to themselves and to their field of study.
Eric Sandweiss, Carmony professor and chair of the Department of History and adjunct professor of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, said that he didn’t know much about Vonnegut’s work before the project.
“I'm always interested in Indiana and Hoosiers and how they conceive of themselves,” Sandweiss said. “Vonnegut was very self-consciously a Hoosier-writer. He thought a lot about Indiana, so I wanted to see more about the development about that strain of work."
Sandweiss said that while Vonnegut is not one of his favorite authors and he disagrees with some of what Vonnegut has to say, the project gave him an appreciation of Vonnegut’s craft.
“I think that Vonnegut was trying to break down what he saw as kind of the rigidity or linearity of modern science and social science included,” Sandweiss said. "So, I think that he felt that a more imaginative mind could make connections between places and times and eras and individuals that historians were too stodgy for, stuck in their ways, too afraid to do themselves.”
Sandweiss placed Vonnegut’s work in the context of WWII, in which Vonnegut was a soldier. He says that his experience at the Allied bombing of Dresden helped to shape the tragic view of mankind Vonnegut has in many of his novels.
“I think there's a very deep cynicism, and the only way he escapes it is not through imagining a utopia or imagining social betterment or getting politically involved or any of that kind of engagement," Sandweiss said. "The only way he imagines escaping from it is turning inward to personal relationships and human decency and you might call it tending one's own garden."
In relation to the crises of today’s world, Sandweiss said he thought that Vonnegut would not be surprised by where we are today. Vonnegut was writing at a time when artificial technology was starting up and atomic weaponry had already been developed.
“He probably would be yet more cynical and yet darker, and still I think he would find his refuge or his solution in sort of an escape from all of those big institutional evils and a return to the sort of one on one person-hood that he tries to affirm in his books,” Sandweiss said.
American Literature, Culture and Feminism
Rebekah Sheldon, assistant professor of English, said that she remembered reading some of Vonnegut’s work as a child.
“My memory of it is sort of being fascinated by all of these fun images that his work gives us,” Sheldon said. “The sad robot, for example, the human zoo, Kilgore Trout tromping through the creek with his socks being plasticized because of all the pollutants in the water."
Sheldon explored the post-modern voice of Vonnegut’s work. She said post-modernism is typically defined as the period after WWII and before 9/11. She defined the period as a time of sped up, globalized, completely inhuman scale of processes.
"The aesthetic of writing in the post-modern era goes to kind of the zany, but also the super self-reflective," Sheldon said. “What I was really struck by is how bleak [Vonnegut’s] novels are. They're really caustic satires of American life and culture. And, they're also really weird.”
Sheldon also said that while she sees Vonnegut as intelligent on topics such as mechanization, she doesn’t find him particularly smart when it comes to sex and gender.
“I'm happy to look at works by fairly misogynistic writers, in order to be critical of those works," she said. "In order to say, 'How does this teach us about what was so much a part of the presumed culture?', that this writer, who is otherwise kind of brilliant about these other things, couldn't even see.”
Sheldon said that her students, on the other hand, are tired of explaining why people hate.
“What my students tell me is that they don't want to do that work anymore," she said. "And so I actually think there's a generational difference between the work of, for example, '90s queer theory and contemporary queer theorists and activists, that, for me, teaching Vonnegut has really made much more apparent than it had been before.”
Rick Van Kooten, professor of physics and the Vice Provost for Research, said that he was a fan of Vonnegut's from a young age.
“I'm a scientist, so I was a nerdy kid and still, still a nerd,” Van Kooten said. “I read his science fiction books just because they were in the genre of science fiction when I was 14 or 15.”
Van Kooten looked at many of the ethical questions Vonnegut raises regarding science, relating the full automation of society that takes place in "Player Piano," to the plight of modern coal workers as well as the large-scale implications of scientific discoveries such as nuclear reactions.
In "Cat’s Cradle," a scientist discovers ice-nine, the properties of which leads to freezing the world’s oceans and worldwide calamity.
“You can make a fantastic discovery, and you can pick it up and do great things for the world or it can have real perverse applications," Van Kooten said. “Ice-nine resulted in the end of the world, but to the character, it's just a scientific curiosity.”
Van Kooten said that "Cat’s Cradle" was his favorite book, in part because of the character who discovers ice-nine.
“A lot of scientists can see themselves in that,” Van Kooten said. “We’re scientists, because you can just get obsessed with little details and forget about everything else, and become somewhat absent-minded.”
Van Kooten also said that he appreciated that Vonnegut never preaches in his writing.
“He's rarely providing answers," Van Kooten said. "He's just providing questions for people to at least think about and answer themselves."
Future of the project
Comentale said that when the professors finish reading and blogging about "Slaughterhouse-Five" in October, they will open submissions to students and faculty. At some point, Comentale said he hopes to work with IU Press to compile the blog posts into a physical or digital book.
Comentale also said that he was planning on organizing a Kurt Vonnegut festival in Bloomington in the spring of 2018.
“We are partnering with the record label Secretly Canadian and Upland Brewery and the city of Bloomington,” Comentale said. “Sometime in May or June of next year, we're going to hold a big festival that includes academic work and artistic performances and music performances and food inspired by Kurt Vonnegut and his works.”
Beyond the relevance of Kurt Vonnegut at IU and in the state of Indiana, Comentale said that an Los Angeles production company is planning on picking up some of Vonnegut’s work for cable. Vice reported in 2015 that Noah Hawley was working with FX to turn "Cat’s Cradle" into a TV show. There have been few updates since, but Hawley said in an interview with the Telegraph that the project was still in the works.
“I think he's about to blow up in a big way," Comentale said.