Kurt Vonnegut was, as well as one of the most brilliant authors of the 20th century, a card-carrying humanist. Although he sympathetically accepted religion as psychologically therapeutic for some, his own philosophy of life was resolutely atheist, secular, and humanist. A joke he told in both Timequake (1997) and God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian (1999) went as follows:
I am honorary president of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that functionless capacity. We Humanists try to behave well without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. We serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.
We had a memorial service for Isaac a few years back, and at one point I said, “Isaac is up in Heaven now.’’ It was the funniest thing I could have said to a group of Humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. It was several minutes before order could be restored. And if I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, “Kurt is up in Heaven now.’’ That’s my favorite joke.
As the Oxford Dictionary says, Humanism is “an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems.”
Though Vonnegut surely emphasized common human needs and valued rational ways of solving human problems (he was a democratic socialist), his view of human beings was anything but a paean to human dignity and potential.
Vonnegut’s view of human beings was therapeutically humiliating, as I explore elsewhere. This was nowhere better displayed than in his novel Galápagos (1985). Not only was Vonnegut an enemy of the doctrine of human superiority to animals, he rejected the idea of free will and was comically dismissive of grand narratives of human progress and meaning. His views resonate with aspects of Spinoza and the contemporary essayist John Gray, and in important senses he could thus even be called an antihumanist.
The narrative of Galápagos calls into question everything we most value about ourselves as human beings in a way that I think a lot of people would find uncomfortable. I do. I also find it intriguing that the resolution to the human nightmare he fantasizes about in this book resonates with those great premodern antihumanists, classical Indian Yogis, and Buddhists. It’s that resonance, and the questions it poses to us, that I want to explore here.
Like classical Indian Yogis, Vonnegut is not a misanthrope or a nihilist, which is why I call these resonances “antihumanist humanism.” Both Vonnegut and the classical Indian sages I have in mind are impelled by a love of humanity to knock it off its pedestal, dispel its delusions, and suggest that partially deconstructing itself is the road to freedom.
Let me explain.
The Story in Brief
Galápagos tells of a long series of random, interconnected, and often ironic or absurd events that ends human civilization and the human species as we know it (thus exploring a motif also present in Cat’s Cradle). After a global economic collapse, a ragtag group of survivors are shipwrecked and stranded on the fictional island of Santa Rosalia in the Galápagos Islands.
When a disease breaks out that makes people infertile, the isolated Santa Rosalians alone are untouched. Throughout, the events are narrated by the ghost of Leon Trotsky Trout, the son of the cameo-happy sci-fi writer Kilgore Trout, who appears in several of Vonnegut’s books. Leon has refused to go through the blue tunnel to the afterworld and is abandoned by his spirit guide for a million years, during which he gets to watch evolution unfold.
Over the next million years, the descendants of the survivors evolve into a furry species resembling sea lions, with streamlined skulls and flipper-like hands with rudimentary fingers (“nubbins”). The humans most fitted to Santa Rosalia were those who could swim best, which required a streamlined head, which in turn required a smaller brain. Trout makes it clear that this is a happy development and that all the sorrows of ancient humankind were caused by “the only true villain in my story: the oversized human brain.” As he writes in wonder, “Every adult brain back then had a brain weighing about three kilograms! There was no end to the evil schemes that a thought machine that oversized couldn’t imagine and execute.”
“What source back then, save for our elaborate nervous circuitry, for the evils we were seeing or hearing about simply everywhere?” Trout asks. My answer: “There was no other source. This was a very innocent planet, except for those big brains.”
In the view of Galápagos, evolution has saddled humans with excessively big brains—brains they cannot manage or handle; brains that needlessly complicate the basic business of life; brains that fabricate an entire human world, which is not ultimately to the service of humans and which threatens all other creatures in the global ecology as well. As in his other books, Vonnegut is both ruthless and teasingly compassionate in his writing, portraying humans as helplessly at the mercy of their big brains and their “toxic ideas.” His characters struggle with depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, arrogance, sociopathy, PTSD, and obsessions, all toxic ideas inflicted on poor human beings by evolution gone awry.
Not only do our big brains cause suffering and delusion, they also drive us to do mad, even cruel, things simply because they are possible and, when there are no problems around to be solved, make up more or less nonexistent ones to give themselves busywork.
As someone who has practiced in Buddhist traditions for thirty years, a number of thoughts occurred to me reading this book. The historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, left behind a privileged youth to join the samanas, a movement of people who were deliberately dropping out of human civilization. Different samanas argued for different paths, had different diagnoses of human misery, and different medicines. The Buddha’s diagnosis (as well as that of some other samanas) resonates with what Vonnegut has Trout say, when speaking of the coming time of the human sea lions: “No one leads a life of quiet desperation nowadays. The mass of men was quietly desperate a million years ago because the infernal computers inside their skulls were incapable of restraint or idleness….”
The path that the Buddha laid down could, in fact, with a little linguistic flexibility, be summarized as one of restraint, idleness, and renunciation.
The restraint aspect is embodied in the commitments for monks or laypeople not to engage in activities that harm themselves or others and that entangle the mind in remorse and pain. It is also present in the commitment to practice mindfulness of one’s own experience, restraining runaway thoughts, impulses, and reactions. Although these qualities of restraint are depicted in heroic terms as refined human capacities, it strikes me that they could also be understood in Vonnegutian terms as the reining in of our oversized brains and the return to a simpler, more present-centered, more “animal” level of existence.
The next step, “idleness,” resonates with the giving up of ambitious, egoic, and restless activities to instead focus on the cultivation of mental states and behaviors conducive to peace, well-being, and the pursuit of meditation. Arguably, meditation itself could be understood as a form of “idleness.”
In classical Buddhist meditation, one cultivates something called jhana, states of mental absorption where thought and mental activity are gradually stilled. Although these states are frequently misimagined by the inexperienced as dull, lifeless, or vacuous, in fact the experience of jhana is one of rapture, bliss, well-being, and quiet vitality.
It turns out that when the mind is absorbed in a simple, pleasant object of focus (for example, the breath, or internal experiences of light or space), the body fills with relief and pleasure, and the mind feels clear, calm, and strong. What is this except learning to consciously and deliberately turn down the dial on the big brains evolution has gifted us with? And what, but proof of the troublesome nature of these big brains, is the fact that when they are made quiet, it feels so damn good?
In classical Buddhist practice, the calm and strong clarity of the mind attained in jhana is directed at experience in order to see that everything we experience—including our bodies and minds—is impermanent, stressful when clung to, and not under our control. In other words, the big plans and ambitions that our big, big brains have for our minds and bodies, as well as the minds and bodies of others, and the world in general, are all misplaced fever dreams.
When the mind, nourished and empowered by the food of jhana, sees this to be true by observing direct experience, then it lets go. The result of this letting go is nirvana. Our big brains finally stop.
The Most Disillusioned Novel Ever?
Classical Buddhism (not today’s Western, politically correct, Happy McBuddhism) is often accused of being fatalistic, pessimistic, and disillusioned with all of humanity’s most cherished dreams and accomplishments. It is definitely not fatalistic, as it stresses our power to train ourselves to be happier, kinder, less violent, and more free, and likewise it is not pessimistic for the same reasons. It is disillusioned, though, and it does chart a path to freedom that is diametrically opposed to what most people want or believe to be true.
The same could be said of Vonnegut’s novel, and it is that confluence that I find fascinating. The future humans of Galápagos live radically simplified lives close to nature. They have renounced all technological civilization, ambition, and organized economy, and live happily because they have learned the pleasure and happiness of reduced brain activity. Arguably, all of the above also applies to the lifestyle of a (traditional) Buddhist monk or nun.
All of this is provocative for those, like us, who live in a time where the necessity of “degrowth” is becoming clearer, as well as the dangers and costs of the technological-industrial revolution, as articulated in detail by theorists like Jacques Ellul, and whose ecological effects can be seen directly now by most of us. Do we need to shrink human civilization? Do we need to restrain the human brain? Is the direction we are hurling in—taking a break from checking six social media apps to train in boxing on a virtual reality headset—exactly the wrong one?
Galápagos would contend it is, and that it is even evolutionarily nonadaptive and likely in for a course correction soon. The warming ocean surfaces and smoke-blackened skies would seem to agree.
Arguably, the Buddha and other Yogic sages grasped this dynamic in a fundamental way, ignorant of ecological sciences and what humans would one day accomplish with our machines as they were. Traditional Buddhist monastics, called bhikkhus or bhikkhunis, not only embrace the radically simplified lifestyle and restraint, idleness, and renunciation I described above. They not only seek what is effectively liberation from the human brain itself. They also adopt a lifestyle that has much in common with hunter-gatherers. They are forbidden to farm, store food, or handle money, and every day go “gathering,” i.e., begging for food.
Basically, traditional Buddhist monastics have apparently been existing as a coterie of civilization-renouncing, aneconomic, brain-restraining, nonviolent, luddite hunter-gatherers within their host civilizations.
Is there something we can learn from this as we try to navigate the crisis we’re in? Should we presumably nonmonastic Buddhists be embracing technology, the internet, and the economic norms of modern civilization, or should we be imagining new ways to drop out?
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