The accidental practitioner : principles of rational emotive behavior therapy in the works of Kurt Vonnegut

The accidental practitioner : principles of rational emotive behavior therapy in the works of Kurt Vonnegut

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The accidental practitioner : principles of rational emotive behavior therapy in the works of Kurt Vonnegut
Ward, Joseph
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[Tampa, Fla]
University of South Florida
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Dissertations, Academic -- English -- Masters -- USF ( lcsh )
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ABSTRACT: Just as psychology and philosophy have influenced the field of literary studies, literature provides insight about the theories and practices of its sister disciplines. The purpose of this thesis is to demonstrate how literary works of Kurt Vonnegut illuminate principles of the influential branch of psychotherapy known as Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). This thesis traces the similar philosophies and shared beliefs of Vonnegut and REBT's founder, Albert Ellis, and details how Ellis's REBT is illustrated in selected works of Vonnegut, specifically, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions, Galapagos, and Timequake. The thesis concludes by suggesting that Vonnegut's works -- and the principles of REBT that they illuminate - provide a much needed guide for living in an irrational, often absurd world.
Thesis (MA)--University of South Florida, 2010.
Includes bibliographical references.
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by Joseph Ward.

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The accidental practitioner :
b principles of rational emotive behavior therapy in the works of kurt vonnegut
h [electronic resource] /
by Joseph Ward.
[Tampa, Fla] :
University of South Florida,
Title from PDF of title page.
Document formatted into pages; contains X pages.
Thesis (MA)--University of South Florida, 2010.
Includes bibliographical references.
Text (Electronic thesis) in PDF format.
Mode of access: World Wide Web.
System requirements: World Wide Web browser and PDF reader.
3 520
ABSTRACT: Just as psychology and philosophy have influenced the field of literary studies, literature provides insight about the theories and practices of its sister disciplines. The purpose of this thesis is to demonstrate how literary works of Kurt Vonnegut illuminate principles of the influential branch of psychotherapy known as Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). This thesis traces the similar philosophies and shared beliefs of Vonnegut and REBT's founder, Albert Ellis, and details how Ellis's REBT is illustrated in selected works of Vonnegut, specifically, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions, Galapagos, and Timequake. The thesis concludes by suggesting that Vonnegut's works -- and the principles of REBT that they illuminate provide a much needed guide for living in an irrational, often absurd world.
Advisor: Lawrence Broer, Ph.D.
Dissertations, Academic
x English
t USF Electronic Theses and Dissertations.
4 856


The Accidental Practitioner: Pr inciples of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy in the Works of Kurt Vonnegut by Joseph J. Ward A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts Department of English College of Arts and Sciences University of South Florida Major Professor: Lawrence Broer, Ph.D. Phillip Sipiora, Ph.D. Elizabeth Metzger, Ph.D. Date of Approval: July 1, 2010 Keywords: Brain, Absurdity, Human, Condition, Psychotherapy, Philosophy, Literature Copyright 2010, Joseph J. Ward


DEDICATION This thesis is dedicated to Jen, my amazing wife whose support and understanding enabled me to attend countless night classes after lengthy workdays, semester after se mester after semester. Throughout the process, she faced long work days of her own, yet somehow managed to hold down the fort with one, then two, then three little Indians running amok at home. I will always appreciate the sacrifices she made so that this thesis could be possible.


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS It is with great appreciation that I a cknowledge and thank the members of my thesis committee: Drs. Lawrence Broer, Phillip Sipiora, and Elizabeth Metzger. I owe a debt of gratitude in particu lar to my Major Professor, Dr. Broer, whose Modern American Fictio n course stimulated my interest in VonnegutÂ’s work, and whose expertise in all thi ngs Vonnegut increased my own awareness of what this kindly writer had to say. I also wish to thank Bill Bilenky, Esq., and Jack Pepper, Esq., for their support (and my continued full-time employment) while completing my program of study. Last, but certainly not least, my fri end, Dr. Eric Cohen, deserves many thanks for introducing me to the realm of rational emotive behavioral therapy, and for instilling in me an appreciation of the power of the human mind.


i TABLE OF CONTENTS ABSTRACT ........................................................................................................... ii CHAPTER ONE: IN TRODUCTION ...................................................................... 1 CHAPTER TWO: DEALING WITH DE PRESSION: THE SIGNIFICANCE OF VONNEGUT’S PSYCHO LOGICAL PROB LEMS ...................................... 3 CHAPTER THREE: HISTORY AN D PRINCIPLES OF REBT – PSYCHOTHERAPY FOR MITIGATING THE HUMAN CO NDITION .............. 7 CHAPTER FOUR: A NOVEL PSYCHOL OGIST AND A PSYCHOLOGICAL NOVELIST: THE SHARED BELIEFS OF ALBERT ELLIS AND KURT VONNE GUT ....................................................................................... 13 CHAPTER FIVE: PRINCIPLES OF REBT IN VONNEGUT’S NOVELS: THE GOOD,THE BAD, AND THE ABS URD ................................................. 19 Slaughterhouse-Five – Seeking Happiness Th rough Acceptance ........... 24 Breakfast of Champions – The Importance of Awareness ....................... 32 Galapagos – Making a Big Deal A bout Big Brai ns ................................... 43 Timequake – Awareness of Free W ill and Free W on’t ............................. 53 CHAPTER SIX: CO NCLUSION .......................................................................... 63 ENDNOTES…………………………………………………………………………….67 REFERENCES ................................................................................................... 84 ABOUT THE AUTHOR……………………………………………………..END PAGE


ii The Accidental Practitioner: Prin ciples of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy in the Works of Kurt Vonnegut Joseph J. Ward ABSTRACT Just as psychology and philosophy hav e influenced the field of literary studies, literature provides insight about the theories and practices of its sister disciplines. The purpose of this thesis is to demonstrate how literary works of Kurt Vonnegut illuminate pr inciples of the influential branch of psychotherapy known as Rational Emotive B ehavior Therapy (REBT). This thesis traces the similar phil osophies and shared beliefs of Vonnegut and REBT’s founder, Albert Ellis, and details how Ellis’s REBT is illustrated in selected works of V onnegut, specifically, Slaughterhouse-Five Breakfast of Champions Galapagos and Timequake The thesis concludes by suggesting that Vonnegut’s works -and the principles of REBT that they illuminate – provide a much needed guide for living in an irra tional, often absurd world.


1 CHAPTER ONE: INTRODUCTION “The brain is the organ that sets us apart from any other species. It is not the strength of our musc les or of our bones that makes us different, it is our brain” (Gazzaniga 7).1 “Men ought to know that from the brain, and from the brain only, arise our pleasures, joy, laughter and jests, as well as our sorrows, pains, griefs, and tears” (Hippocrates, c. 440 B.C.).2 “Thanks a lot, big brain” (Leon Trout, Galapagos 19). Though deemed to be distinct discipl ines, literature, philosophy, and psychology flow from the same wellspri ng of the mind, surging at times in seemingly disparate directions, but frequently running together to form an interdisciplinary pool of ideas.3 As philosophy and psyc hology interact with and influence literature, literature in turn provides insight into the theories and practices of its sister disci plines. Indeed, some of t he earliest and most profound works of literature sprang fr om the minds of ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, while disti nguished psychologists such as Freud and Jung have made contributions to the fi eld of literary studies of arguably equal importance. Cast within this interactive fr amework, it is the contention of this thesis that Kurt Vonnegut’s literary works el ucidate essential principl es of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), an important branch of psychotherapy aimed at ameliorating the disturbed brain by alle viating self-defeati ng beliefs and selfdestructive behaviors.4


2 Literature and REBT share an ability to “shape attitudes” and provide a “healing experience” (Bokey 393) thr ough the “imagination of alternative possibilities” (Scheurich 310).5 Like literature, which “p ropose[s] alternatives to the currently real” (Scheurich 313), REBT ad vocates an alternate interpretation of reality achievable by conscious contro l of the brain’s thinking processes. Paralleling the underlying point of Vonnegut’s writings the humanistic psychology of REBT seeks to enable individuals to live “happier, more selfactualizing” lives, emphasizing their abili ty to “give meaning to their lives” (Krieger 26) and “create and direct their own destinies” ( Humanistic 3). Engaged by the “vital tension – betw een life as it is and life as it should be or could be” (Shem 62), Vonnegut’s literary works and REBT pursue a shared goal of revealing and healing by showing the “true situat ion of people and society . [and] ways to cure them” (Shem 64).6 In this thesis, I will show how four of Vonnegut’s novels -Slaughterhouse-Five Breakfast of Champions Galapagos and Timequake – reveal and heal in such a fasion, illuminating principles of REBT while prescribing a remedy of self-awareness, balanced by a prudent acceptance of the unalterabl e irrationalities of reality, as the most effective antidote to the absurdity of the human condition.7


3 CHAPTER TWO: DEALING WITH DEPRESSION: TH E SIGNIFICANCE OF VONNEGUT’S PSYCHOLOGICAL STRUGGLES “I am a monopolar depressive descended from monopolar depressives” ( Timequake 89). It is no secret that Vonnegut experienced numerous adverse events and endured considerable personal tragedy during his adult life. Chief among these were: (a) his mother’s suicide in 1944 on Mother’s Day; (b) the mental breakdown of his son, Mark; (c) the ho rrific events he witnessed and participated in as a prisoner of war during the firebom bing of Dresden; (d ) the death of his beloved sister, Alice, due to cancer (and her husband’s tragic death a few days earlier in a freak train accident); and (e ) his own apparent suicide attempt in 1984.8 These events undoubtedly left their mark on his psyche and contributed to forging his philosophy of life.9 Indeed, Vonnegut admitted that because of his experiences he repeatedly faced the tempta tion of committing suicide, explaining that the “child of a suicide will naturally think of death . as a logical solution to any problem” ( Palm Sunday 278). Moreover, in referri ng to himself as a novelist, Vonnegut noted that “[o]ve rwhelmingly, we are depre ssed, and are descended from those who, psych ologically speaking, spent mo re time than anyone in his or her right mind would want to spend in gloom” ( Palm Sunday 116). Given the considerable stress and em otional trauma he endured, it should come as no surprise that Vonnegut’s works often directly reference or allude to


4 the psychological issues he fa ced throughout his life, incl uding his treatment by a mental health practitioner that included “talking to her about depression, [and] trying to understand its nature” ( Wampeters 252).10 Although he described the work of such practitioners as an atte mpt to “make healthy people happier in cultures and societies wh ich have gone insane” ( Fates 32), upon nearing his fiftieth birthday, he revealed: I have imagined during most of that half century that I was responding to life around me as a just and sensitive man, blowing my cork with good reason from time to time. Only recently, with the help of a physician, have I realized t hat I have blown my cork every twenty days, no matter what is really going on. ( Wampeters 213). In acknowledging his condition, Vonnegut conceptualized himself “as a paranoid, as an ov erreactor, and a person who makes a questionable living with hi s mental diseases” ( Wampeters 92). Although he intermittently experienced episo des of being “very down” ( Wampeters 253) while repeatedly “losing and regaining [his] equilibrium” ( Wampeters xxi), Vonnegut learned how to keep his depression at bay by “getting help from intelligent people who aren’t Freudians” ( Wampeters 253).11 Considering all of the psychological curv e balls that life thre w at him, it is reasonable to conclude that Vonnegut’s ow n anxiety and depre ssion manifests in his literary creations.12 Indeed, many of his stress -ridden characters – Kilgore Trout, Eliot Rosewater, Billy Pilgri m, and Dwayne Hoover, to name a few – exhibit anxiety, depression, and ot her mental health disturbances.13 As Lawrence Broer observes: “Probably no ch aracters in contemporary fiction are more traumatized and em otionally damaged than thos e of Kurt Vonnegut” ( Sanity


5 Plea 3).14 Although Vonnegut claims that his st ories never depict an “event or another person driv[ing] a character crazy” ( Fates 33), the same cannot be said with respect to causing a character anxie ty, stress, depression, or other mental ailments. In a telling response to the question of why so many of his literary creations suffer from “abnormal psychol ogy,” Vonnegut simply but insightfully responded: “[b]ecause that in fact is the human experience” (Abadi-Nagy 28).15 Vonnegut’s background and experience m ade him particularly attune to the fact that our “participat ion in Western society tends to foster a variety of personal beliefs which, in turn, generate f ears, or anxieties, that promote [selfdestructive] behavior” (Price 117). However, he also believed that writing has beneficial “physiological and psycholog ical effects on a human being” ( Bagombo 5), and he acknowledged using writing as a form of therapy, observing that “[w]riters get a nice break in one way, at least: They can treat their mental illnesses every day” ( Wampeters 283).16 Accordingly, Vonnegut used his work as an “autobiographical pscychodrama – a career-long process of cleansing and renewal” ( Sanity Plea 152). Indeed, his novels “atte mpt[ ] to come to terms with or even to dispel the more worrisome aspects of his own psyche . [and] personal anxieties” ( Lonesome 120).17 While Vonnegut found medication helpful for treating his psychological problems (describing in Wampeters how Ritalin helped his symptoms of depression (252)), he recognized that there is no magic pill for permanently alleviating mental disturbances. Inst ead, Vonnegut understoo d that the “only way” human beings can “rescue themselves ” is by “enthusiastic intimacy with


6 works of their own imaginations” ( Wampeters xxvii). Such works of imagination draw upon the same power of the mind invo ked by REBT to shape one’s mental or emotional state, allowin g one to “rescue” oneself by recognizing self-defeating thoughts and beliefs and transformi ng them into rational ones.18 It is this powerful cognitive capability that “disti nguish[es] human be ings from other creatures” ( Effect 96), giving rise to Vonnegut’s humanistic belief that the meaning of life is that which we give to it, a belief wholly consistent with essential principles of REBT. Though engaged in a continual battle with depression in a dispiriting world, Vonnegut fundamentally under stood that “as far as improving the human condition goes, our mi nds are certainly up to that. That’s what they were designed to do” ( Wampeters 239).19 Viewing Vonnegut’s writings through the lens of REBT reveals the essence of his ideas, while affi rming his role as a dispenser of principles of REBT ai med at “improving the human condition”.


7 CHAPTER THREE: HISTORY AND PRINCIPLES OF REBT – PSYCHOTHERAPY FOR MITIGATING THE HUMAN CONDITION “To one degree or another we all want essentially the same things out of life: love, respect, happiness, a sense of fairness and justice, a sense of well-being, a sense of purpose and value, and the feeling of being connected to something substantial, lasting, and secure. And as certai n as it is that none of us will get what we perceive to be our rightful share of these things all the time, it is just as certain that we all balk at accepting this fact. It’s called the human condition” (Stringer 222-23). As a formal system of psychotherapy, REBT originated in 1955 with the work of Albert Ellis ( Overcoming 13).20 However, one of the first thinkers to frame the basic principle underlying REBT was the Greek philosopher, Epictetus, who reportedly said some 2,000 years ago: “People are disturbed not by things, but by the views they take of them” ( Overcoming 249).21 Ellis identifies other contributors to what would become REBT as Confucius, Buddha, Cicero, and Marcus Aurelius (Bernard 21), as well as the existentialist philosophers Kierkegaard, Heidigger, and Sartre, who maintained that “humans [have] some choice in making themselves disturbed and undi sturbed” ( Overcoming 249).22 Today, REBT is a widely used form of psychotherapy that decreases or eliminates psychological disturbances su ch as generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, post traumatic stress disorder, and depression by helping individuals come to terms with the reality that the world we live in is a place of randomness, uncertainty, and frequent absurdity.23


8 REBT begins with the simple premise that human beings “subjectively and idiosyncratically view or experience event s in light of [our] beliefs, expectations, and evaluations” (Bernard 23).24 In other words, REBT is “based on the assumption that cogniti on, emotion, and behavior are not disparate human functions but are, instead, intrin sically integrated and holistic” ( Therapist 3).25 Ellis explains the dynamic relationship of thoughts, emotions, and actions as follows: Probably, no such thing as ‘pure’ or ‘absolute’ thought, feeling or action exists. Thoughts or evaluations (‘I see this as a good chess move and I like it’) are almost inva riably accompanied by and interact with feelings (happiness or elation at considering or having made this ‘good’ move) and are also accompanied by and interact with actions (making a particular chess move). Similarly, feelings . lead to thoughts . and to actions. And actions . lead to thoughts . and to feelings. (Bernard 21-22).26 REBT operates within this interconnected relationship through the formula of A x B = C, consisting of an activating event (A), which triggers an irrational belief (B), which in tu rn causes a self-def eating emotional or behavioral consequence (C), such that A x B = C. The consequence (C) consists of emotional disturbances such as “rage, depression, or anxiety . [or] a psychosomatic reaction, like high blood pr essure or ulcers [and] can also stand for a behavioral consequenc e” (Bernard 24). REBT addresses a frustrating and fundam ental paradox of th e brain: while its ingenuity and resource fulness enables us to overcome considerable obstacles, it has a tendency to create cogni tive phantoms in response to external experiences. While this perplexing propensit y of the brain frequently confuses or


9 deludes us, REBT teaches that “rather t han being passive victims of life’s insults, through our cognitive appraisals we c an profoundly influence our mental and physical reactions to these experiences” (Alloy 132).27 As a classic selfimprovement manual puts it: “Everybody in the world is seeking happiness – and there is one sure way to find it. That is by controlling your thoughts. Happiness doesn’t depend on outward conditions. It de pends on inner conditions” (Carnegie 70).28 Far from taking a head-in-the-s and approach to psychological disturbances, REBT recognizes that “[r]ealit y often stinks. People don’t act the way we would like them to act. This isn’t the best of all possible worlds” ( Rational Living 197). Rather than retreating from this reality, REBT emphasizes the “ meanings and interpretations people give to events an d to results rather than the events and results in themselves” ( Overcoming 92). REBT posits that, despite the invariable absurdity of the human condition, the pr ofoundly negative effects such a condition causes to one’s ps ychological state are not irreversible. Since it is ultimately an individua l’s “self-defeating” thoughts and beliefs ( Therapist 19) that produce the “cor e of all emotional difficu lties be they feelings of rage, depression, anxiety, guilt, or extreme jealousy” (Bernard 26),29 REBT seeks to alter an individual’s “basic patterns of dysfunctional thinking” ( Overcoming 93) by disputing irrational beliefs and showing that they are “unrealistic and illogical” ( Overcoming 26).30 Although human beings habitually engage in patterns of irrational thinking, REBT asserts that the unconditional acceptance of self, others, and the exasper ating but unalterable realities of life


10 enables one to reduce the frequency and degree of self-defeating beliefs and behaviors. REBT promotes “sel f-helping” rational thinking ( Therapist 19) by encouraging the “requisite pr agmatism to negotiate the inconsistencies of an imperfect world” (Stringer 222),31 empowering individuals to: disturb themselves less em otionally . enabl[ing] them to lead happier and more fulfilling lives. When people seriously disturb themselves – that is, make themselves severely panicking, depressing, and raging – and when they f unction poorly – that is, unduly inhibit themselves, withdraw, or act compulsively – they live le ss happily. [REBT] tries to reduce clients’ disturbing but also teaches them the skills of leading a more fulfilling, self-actualizing existence. ( Overcoming 17).32 Consistent with its focus on the brain’s in ternal reaction to external events, REBT concentrates on certain irrational be liefs that recurrently overshadow the rational self, leading an individual to bec ome mentally distur bed and distressed. These include the beliefs that (a) “it is awful and catastrophic when things are not the way one would like them to be”; (b ) “human unhappiness is externally caused and . people have little or no ability to control their terrors and disturbances”; and (c) “it is a dire necessity for an adult human to be loved or approved by virtually every significant other person in his life” ( Humanistic 37). Within the context of these irrational beliefs, REBT attempts to weed out three unrealistic expectations that are par ticularly self-defeating: “I must do greatly, gloriously, gr andly, outstandingly . or else it’s awful I can’t stand it, I’m no good and I’ll never do anything well.” This leads to feelings of depression, anxiety, despair, and worthlessness.


11 “Others must treat me nobly and kindly and considerately and put me in the center of their attention. And isn’t it horrible if they don’t – those lousy bastards!” This idea creates feelings of anger, rage, resentment, fury, and warlikeness. “Conditions must be easy and nice and give me everything I want on a silver platter without my doing a goddamed thing to get it!” . This leads to low frustration tolerance, goofi ng and avoidance, and to addiction. (Bernard 47).33 Such self-defeating “musturbation” results from an individual’s elevation of healthy desires and expecta tions to absolute generalizations of “musts, shoulds, demands, and necessities” ( Overcoming 20).34 As Ellis pointedly proclaims, “[t]he road to hell . is paved wit h unrealistic expectations!” ( Rational Living 4). Throughout the course of REBT’s development, it has had a significant impact on the practice of psychotherapy. Representative of REBT’s impact, a recent text on the treatment of anxiety explains that “[w]e strongly influence treatment outcome when we hel p people utilize the higher function of the brain . to notice how their anxiety is flaring without reason” ( Anxious Brain 7).35 Moreover, contemporary psychiatrists widel y subscribe to the REBT notion that the brain “creates our mental state” ( Anxious Brain 37) and that “we can intentionally use our brains to change our brains” ( Anxious Brain 9).36 Indeed, a modern brain scientist specializing in ob sessive-compulsive disorder contends that the “act of the brain observing itself – the force of attention to one’s own thoughts and feelings – [can] alter brai n circuitry at the molecular level” (Sweeney 217). As Ellis puts it, human beings have the unique “power to think,


12 and to think about their thinking, and to th ink about thinking about their thinking,” powers which provide individuals a pr ofound “ability to change themselves” (Reason 76). REBT encourages a more se lf-aware consciousness by holding up a mirror to our thoughts and acts so that we may reflect on the rationality of our emotions and behaviors. Cognizant of t he absurdity of the hum an condition, but insistent on the shaping power of the mind, REBT counsels that although “[y]ou cannot prevent the birds of sorrow from flying over your head . you can prevent them from building nests in your hair” (Grieger).


13 CHAPTER FOUR: A NOVEL PSYCHOLOGIST AND A PSY CHOLOGICAL NOVELIST: THE SHARED BELIEFS OF ALBERT ELLIS AND KURT VONNEGUT “Man is made by his belief. As he believes, so he is.” ( Bhagavad Gita 500 B.C.)37 Similarities in the personal philosophies and beliefs of Albert Ellis and Kurt Vonnegut are striking.38 As a self-proclaimed canary in a coalmine, Vonnegut seeks to alert us to unhealthy conditions both within and without, urging us to take positive steps to better ourselves and our world before it is too late. Ellis similarly cautions against continuing down self-destruc tive paths, counseling us to mend our misdirected minds, and advocating for us to “try to change [our] environment, to try to make it a little le ss crummy than it now is” (Bernard 78). Vonnegut sums up the dehumani zing state of the modern era as one in which “so many Americans find the human cond ition meaningless that they are surrendering their will and their comm on sense to quacks and racketeers and charismatic lunatics” ( Fates 158). In Ellis’s description of the state of modern society we hear echoes of Vonnegut ’s own bemused viewpoint: [Y]ou could hardly conceive of a more irrational world than our present society. In spite of the enormous advances in technical know ledge made during the last century, and the theoretical possibility that all of us could live in peace and prosperity, we actually hang on to the brink of local st rife, world war, economic insecurity, political sku llduggery, organized crime, pollution, ecological bankruptcy . and other manifestations of idio cy and inhumanity.


14 . Modern life, instead of seeming just a bowl of cherries, often more clos ely resembles a barrel of prune pits. ( New Guide 196).39 Along with their shared view of cont emporary conditions in an irrational world, Ellis and Vonnegut were both members of the American Humanist Association (AHA), and humanistic philosophy guided both men’s work.40 Just as Vonnegut incorporated hum anistic beliefs in his wr iting, Ellis “followed a secular humanist model” in founding REBT ( Overcoming 91), which he referred to as “one of the most humanistic therapies” ( Rational Living 122).41 Both Ellis and Vonnegut are signatories to the “Hum anist Manifesto III,” which elucidates essential beliefs of the AH A (many of which parallel t hose of REBT), including that humans should be “guided by reas on,” should “accept our life . distinguishing things as they are from th ings as we might wish or imagine them to be,” and that we should be guided by the awareness that the “responsibility for our lives and the kind of wo rld in which we live is ours and ours alone” ( Manifesto ).42 Much like Vonnegut, Ellis a nd other humanistic psychologists assume that “modern man has become too . technologized, and unemotional, hence alienated and dehumanized” ( Humanistic 3).43 Again sounding like Vonnegut, Ellis contends that human beings have a biological tendency to “misperceive reality, reason illogically, become dogmatic and devout, and stick ragingly to misleadi ng perceptions, overgeneralizations, and conclusions” that are “self-def eating and socially sabotaging” ( Overcoming


15 101-02).44 While Ellis believes that “humans are innately problem solvers,” he also feels that they are “innately predisposed . to fail to make . distinctions between functional and dysf unctional behaving” ( Overcoming 18).45 Like Vonnegut, Ellis recognizes that “most of us adopt a belief syst em about the world which strongly influences our reactions, and . we rarely question these beliefs even though they may be impractica l, unrealistic, and illogical” ( Therapist 59). In describing our self-defeating cognitive tendencies, Ellis’s words might well be mistaken for those of Vonnegut: I think that practically the whole human race is out of its goddamed mind and could use therapy . . All humans are somewhat nutty because they refuse pigheadedly to accept rea lity and, therefore, make themselves depressed, anxious, and enraged. Because they won’t accept the reality that things should be exactly the way they are right now because that’s the way they are. . . But if you’re pretty crazy then you’re in very good company, because the human race as a whole is really out of its goddam head. Now all of you, of course, know this about others – about your mother and father and sister and brothers and friends and wives and husbands. You know how nutty they are. Now the problem is to get you to admit this about yourself and then to do something about it. (Bernard 7, 14-15) (quoting Ellis). Ellis c ontends that we are all “fallable, f***edup humans” ( Living ) predisposed to fall on our face, but like Vonnegut, he retains an inner optimism and holds to the belief that we can be better. Though cognizant of the absurdity of the human condition, both men understand the psychological importance of humor.46 Indeed, the use of humor


16 in “handling reality” is a “g iven” in Vonnegut’s writing ( Effect 67), which “speaks of life itself as a dirty joke” ( Fates 194). Vonnegut’s wit, like Ellis’s “therapeutic brand of humor” (Bernard 68-69), “points to ward mental health, toward life, and away from insanity and morbidity” (Lundquist 22).47 Vonnegut’s works employ humor to convey irrationality, just as REBT uses the “hum orous techniques of taking clients’ nutty ideas to ridicul ous extremes, [and] reducing them to absurdity” (Krieger 26) in order to demonstr ate the self-defeatin g nature of such irrational beliefs.48 Like Vonnegut, Ellis believes that “humor is a key to helping people since emotional pr oblems frequently come from people taking themselves, others, and the world too se riously” (Bernard 9). Vonnegut and Ellis recognize the empowering affect of humor because they understand that: If you make yourself . terribly upset and depressed about your frustrations, you will almost invariably block yourself from effectively removing them. The more time and energy you expend in lamenting your sorry fate, ranting against your frustrators, and gnashing your teeth in despa ir, the less effective action you will tend to take to counteract your handicaps and deal with those who may frustrate you. ( New Guide 125).49 As Ellis advises (and Vonnegut im plicitly instructs): “Lighten up! Take the major stressors of your life seriously but not too seriously” ( Overcoming 35). Addressing the human tendency to fall in to patterns of irrational thinking, Vonnegut posits a question and then promptly provides an Ellis-like answer: “So what can you do? You can change your mind ” ( Wampeters 251). Paralleling Vonnegut’s pronouncement, Ellis contends t hat “man can think more rationally, even though he rarely does” because “he can teach himself and fairly


17 consistently stick with the logico-empiric al method of confronting not only the external world but also hims elf and his own functioning” ( Humanistic 25). Vonnegut’s belief in the ability to change one’s mental state by cultivating rational thinking is evident in his response to his parents’ apparently perpetual unhappiness: I’ll be damned if I’ll pass their useless sadness on to my children . I think my wind is still good enough for me to go chasing after happiness, something I’ve never really tried . . A fter I’m gone, I don’t want my children to have to say about me what I have to say about my father: ‘He made wo nderful jokes, but he was such an unhappy man. ( Wampeters 284-85). Vonnegut’s beliefs in this regard trace back to those of his great-grandfather, Clemens Vonnegut, wh o he deeply admired, and whose selfwritten funeral address includes the advic e: “Be aware of this truth that the people on this earth could be joy ous, if only they would live rationally ” ( Palm Sunday 176) (emphasis supplied).50 Resembling Vonnegut’s repeated call that we be kind to one another by emulating the Sermon on the Mount, Ellis’s REBT exhorts us to “unconditionally accept people with their mistakes and idiocies” (Bernard 68) and to improve those things that we can im prove for ourselves and others.51 Reconciling self and social interest, REBT echoes Vonnegu t’s thinking in reasoning that “when you possess rational self-interest . y ou normally find pleasure in helping and caring for some other humans” ( New Guide 200).52 Addressing the reality that human beings “frequently act unfairly, unki ndly, inconsiderately and irrationally towards each other” (Bernard 3), REBT promotes kindness toward others in


18 order to “create the kind of a world in which the rights of others, as we ll as [our] own, are not needlessly curtailed” (Grieger 14). Similar to Vonnegut’s literary works, Ellis’s REBT is “against absolute musts and shoulds, and therefore opposed to the notion of absolute truth” ( Therapist 14).53 Emphasizing that how an individual chooses to interpret and react to external events constructs the i ndividual’s subjective reality (including his or her beliefs and behaviors), REBT foll ows the postmodern notion of selfdetermination of meaning.54 In much the same way, Vonnegut’s novels “defamiliarize traditional ways of seeing a nd knowing,” reflecting that “we largely invent our being . by what (and how) we know,” mirroring REBT by locating the “generation of meaning and reality pr imarily in human consciousness” ( Quantum 51).55 Like the guiding principles of REBT, Vonnegut’s universe “makes every individual responsible for his own fa te and puts him under an obligation to construct his existence in a meaningful way” (Freese 162), reflecting Vonnegut’s belief that “with a little imagination a nd heart” we can override our “selfimprisoning machinery and become whatever we choose to become” ( Pilgrim 146). In this way, the ideas of Vonnegut and Ellis anticipat e a new paradigm of brain science holding that human beings can transcend seemingly predetermined thought processes of the brain by “choosi ng from . [quantum ] possibilities the one facet [of reality] that becomes the actuality of . experience” ( Dispenza xvi).


19 CHAPTER FIVE: PRINCIPLES OF REBT IN VONNEGUT’S NOVELS: THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE ABSURD “[T]here’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” ( Hamlet Act II, Scene 2). Critics of Vonnegut’s writings have devoted considerable attention to an issue occupying a central position in his works: how we, as thinking entities cognizant of ourselves and our surr oundings, deal with existing in an often nonsensical world set within a universe of apparent purposelessness. This is also the underlying issue of REBT, which seeks to empower us to think and act in a self-actualizing manner despite the absurdity of a human condition that places rational beings in an irrational world.56 Vonnegut understands literature’s ability to engage in w hat he calls “practical joking: . making people res pond emotionally to things which aren’t really happening” ( Essential ). Practitioners of REBT should recognize literature’s capacity in this respect as resembling how “practical jokers” of the mind (a/k/a irrational thoughts) fool otherwise reas onable individuals into pursuing selfdefeating behaviors in response to in consequential happenings or fleetingly inconvenient events, which the irrational mind misperceives as all-encompassing, utterly debilitative, and catastrophic.57 Viewed through such a lens, one can see that Vonnegut’s literary works attempt to change the beliefs and behaviors of his readers in much the same way that practi tioners of REBT seek to transform their


20 patients’ irrational beliefs and behaviors into rational ones.58 Rather than “suggest[ing] the hopelessness of the hum an condition” (Harris 139), Vonnegut’s writings evidence a belief in the ability to change our often reflexive response to this absurd, frequently antagonistic situatio n into which “[w]e never asked to be born in the first place” ( Timequake 218).59 In grappling with t he reality that we live in an irrational world that is often indifferent to our plight, Vonnegut’s writings illuminate how principles of REBT can help us to “get through this thing, whatever it is” ( Retrospect 30).60 Beginning with Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut began to “talk about things that actually concern me” ( Conversations 46). The issues of acceptance, selfawareness, irrational thinking, and free will that Vonnegut “talks about” in Slaughterhouse-Five Breakfast of Champions Galapagos and Timequake occupy positions of similar concern to REBT. Indeed, Vonnegut’s literary works illuminate some of the most essential principles of REBT, including that: (1) as thinking things endowed with self-awar eness, human beings can “largely control their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors” ( Rational Guide 249); (2) individuals should not be dependent on the approval of others for happiness or self-value; and (3) to attain optimal mental heal th, individuals should acknowledge that human beings are inherently flawed, unconditionally a ccept themselves and others, and likewise accept unalterable reality, regardless of its inherent absurdity or irrationality.61 In line with such principl es, Vonnegut’s novels reflect his belief that since “[d]efeat is t he ordinary human experience,” we should “expect it, be prepared for it,” and lear n to “accept it somehow” (Abadi-Nagy


21 30).62 By the same token, his works demons trate that, although we might not be able to alter external events or prevent mi sfortunes, we do have the ability to control our inner state, how we perceive exterior events, and how we respond to those events.63 In other words, Vonnegut’s writings evidence a deep-seeded concern about the “illusions man finds to live by . . which make human existence unnecessarily mi serable” (Lundquist 29).64 The irrational beliefs that REBT seeks to dispute -such as the belie f that life must always be “fair” -fall squarely within the realm of such illusions.65 Vonnegut’s novels often depict hum an beings being knocked about by external forces, randomly victimized by chance occurrences and circumstances beyond their control. Despite this r epeating theme, he does not dismiss the notion of self-determinati on or abandon the idea of free will as a means for lessening the disturbances arising from an often calamitous human condition.66 Although Vonnegut sometimes probes the lim its of free will in works such as Slaughterhouse Five Breakfast of Champions Galapagos and Timequake he does not dismiss it or fatalistically c ondemn his characters to a predetermined existence.67 While their paths are not lined with rose petals, and they often find it “hard to think and act rationally in an irrational world” ( Living 94), a number of Vonnegut’s characters successfully exert fr ee will and exercise rational thinking in ways similar to that espoused by REBT. As will be seen in the analysis of the individual novels that follo ws, Vonnegut’s novels under score the conclusion that, without self-awareness, the ability to cont rol irrational thinking, and the rational


22 exercise of free will, hum an beings are condemned to constant psychological manipulation by external events.68 In Forever Pursing Genesis Leonard Mustazza argues that Vonnegut’s protagonists attempt to act against upse tting events inherent to the human condition by retreating to “states of mind that are associ ated with the Edenic place and its attendant state of mind, the state of i nnocence” (22). I agree with the general proposition of Must azza’s interpretation and its focus on the state of mind of Vonnegut’s characters, but rather than reclaiming a naive innocence of Eden, I see an attempt to achieve a de gree of serenity through awareness, acceptance, and reliance on rational thin king. My agreement with Mustazza continues in his contenti on that Vonnegut’s protagoni sts are “often engaged in reinventing reality to suit themselves” ( Genesis 28), and his approval of Robert Uphaus’s assertion that “what we see in Vonnegut’s fiction is a continuum of imagined, alternatives – a spectr um of people self-actualizing” ( Genesis 29).69 Mustazza categorizes these efforts at re invention and self-actualizing as “coping mechanisms” (Genesis 29). I see such “coping mechanisms” as another name for self-actualizing techniques for negotia ting the maze of an irrational world, techniques that form the crux of what REBT aims to accomplish. Moreover, Mustazza’s argument that Bo konon (from Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle ) evidences that the “ possibility of happiness exists in [t]his world if only we give life the ‘right’ meanings” ( Genesis 86), supports an interpretation of Vonnegut’s works consistent with a reading that reveals their relation to principles of REBT. Indeed, REBT aims to empower us to di spute our irrational beliefs and behaviors


23 so that we may animate the “right meanings” and thereby achieve happiness along with optimal mental, emot ional, and physical health. As his long-time friend and critic Lor ee Rackstraw explains, Vonnegut was “quite serious about creating fiction that reveals strategies capable of transforming life’s tragedy into some thing . actually useful” ( Kurt 64).70 I suggest that such “strategies” can be though t of in terms of principles of REBT, with Vonnegut’s writ ings prodding us to see the trut h of our situation, elucidating the actuality of our reality, beckoning us to attempt to improve that which is improvable in the human condition.71 Like REBT, Vonnegut’s works suggest that in the face of a sensele ss reality, humanity’s appropria tely measured response to the unalterable aspects of that reality consists of “simply accept[ing] the absurdity of [our] condition, neither affirming nor denying it an d never asking the most meaningless of questions. Why?” (Harris 135).72 Taken as a whole, Vonnegut ’s works support a read ing that, despite his sarcastic shell, Vonnegut retains a belief that the “sane and rational thing to do in the face of the horrors of the 20th and 21s t century is to have hope . to try to be better” (Lain).73 As Peter Freese contends, V onnegut argues that in the midst of the absurdity surrounding him, man must “attempt to discover meaning in himself . [and] must accept the condit ions of his life and attempt to fulfill his obligations to himself and hi s fellow beings” (Freese 162).74 The challenge of finding meaning within oneself and accept ing the absurdity of the human situation as an unalterable c ondition of life, wh ile still attempting to change what


24 we can for the better, is a major concern of REBT and one which Vonnegut explores in perhaps his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five Slaughterhouse-Five – Seeking Happiness Through Acceptance “Happiness can exist only in acceptance” (George Orwell). In Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut illuminates issues embedded in the principles of REBT calling for ack nowledgement of t he human condition and acceptance of unalterable reality.75 The centerpiece of the novel in this respect is the framed prayer that hangs on prot agonist Billy Pilgrim’s office wall “express[ing] his method for keeping going” (58). Highly reminiscent of REBT’s call for a flexible frame of mind, the so-called Serenity Prayer states: “GOD GRANT ME THE SERENITY TO ACCE PT THE THINGS I CANNOT CHANGE, COURAGE TO CHANGE THE THINGS I CAN, AND WISDOM ALWAYS TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE” (58).76 Attempting to emulate the teaching of the prayer allows Billy to overcome the self-defeating belief that “life [is] meaningless” (96), and empowers hi m to “re-invent” himself (96).77 Expressing a core concept of REBT, the prayer resurrect s Billy from a state of being “[d]ead to the world” (100), providing a vehicle for transcending the absurdity of his existence in an irrational reality.78 Billy has been beset by i rrational anxiety as early as his childhood, evident when he “wet his pants” out of fear that he would fall into the Grand Canyon and when he prayed to get out of Carlsbad Caverns “before the ceiling fell in” (85). In addition to the psychological red flags of his adolescence, Billy’s adult life has more than its share of absurdities and psychol ogical pitfalls: his father is shot and killed in a hunting accident; he suffers a “m ild nervous collapse” (23); he marries


25 obese, “ugly Valencia” because he is “going crazy” (102); he is severely injured (perhaps brain damaged) and all of his optometrist colleagues die in a plane crash on top of a mountain (24); and hi s wife dies “accidentally of carbonmonoxide poisoning” (24) after racing to vi sit him at the hospital. Of course, Billy’s ridiculous experiences as a POW in Germany reinforce the invalidity of his existence. Amidst the irrationality of act uality, Billy has “problems relating to life and finding meaning in it” ( Effect 93). Stumbling through the ruins of an irrational world, Billy finds it difficult to construct and maintain a healthy state of mind. Suffering from some form of mental malaise,79 he finds relief in a principle of the Serenity Prayer that is strikingly similar to REBT’s philosophy of “forg[ing] the c ourage and effort to change what I can change, the serenity to accept what I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the differenc e” (Living 146). Billy adopts the REBT creed that “I have little choice over . many of t he things that happen to me during my lifetime. I can influence but rarely control others. But I can . largel y control my own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors” ( Living 249).80 The peace of mind that Billy finds in this shared philosophy of t he Serenity Prayer so alters his beliefs and reactions to external events t hat he no longer fears even death.81 In this respect, he achieves a “major treatment goal” of REBT: “[b]ecoming calm and accepting of the things over which we have no control” ( Anxious Brain 133). Although his life has been dom inated by a “series of accidents” (Lundquist 54), Billy fulfills the REBT princi ple calling for individuals to “unconditionally accept .


26 themselves, other people, and world frustrat ions, no matter what occurs in life” ( Overcoming 31).82 Despite the cerebral and emotional benefits of Bi lly’s new mindset, some critics read his attempted adherence to t he Serenity Prayer and his adoption of Tralfamadorian deterministic philosophy as a renouncement of “whatever vestige of free will he has left” ( Pilgrim 145).83 Due to the self-defeating nature of Billy’s ultimate psychological state, I reach a similar interpreta tion in the context of his application of REBT. Th ough Billy acts in acco rdance with REBT and the Serenity Prayer by unconditionally ac cepting events that happen to him and others, he does not stop there. Instead of accepting rea lity as it is and learning to lead a healthy life within that realit y, Billy goes too far. Inventing (and retreating into) his own “reality,” he flees from the unpleasantness of life into a self-imposed state of pacific ation: the cognitive illusion of a Trafalmagorian zoo habitat complete with an erotic ma te and legions of admirers. Several critics interpret the Tralfa madorians’ philosophy as representing Vonnegut’s “own sense of the futility of the human condition,” arguing that Vonnegut and Billy must adopt such determini stic thinking in order to “adjust to their traumatic memories of Dresden” ( Sanity Plea 7). However, Broer persuasively contends that t he all-encompassing acceptance that Billy ultimately adopts is the “very antithesis of Vonnegut’s position that artists should be treasured as alarm systems . and as biological agents of change” ( Sanity Plea 8).84 Similarly, and far from promoting the “philosophy of submission or resignation” that Billy comes to embrace, REBT “counsels that you accept the


27 inevitable only when it rea lly is inevitable – and not when you can change things” ( Living 145-46). Billy fails to grasp this fundamental concept. Rather than accepting the reality of hi s condition while remaining conscious of its alterable aspects, Billy allows irrational thinking to overcome his awareness, erasing the boundary between reality a nd self-deluding fant asy. Billy falls into the trap of irrational belief by blindly and unquestionab ly accepting that “[e]verything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does” (189). Rather than acting effectively agains t disturbing events, Billy becomes psychologically inert. As Broer notes, “[c] ontrasts between the world as rational and humane and the world as a slaughterhouse of ongoi ng violence and cruelty become too unbalancing for Billy Pilgrim to endure” ( Heroes 194). Fleeing from a “constant state of stage fri ght” (22) induced by a harsh and indifferent world, Billy seeks solace in an illusory existence that indicts the state of his mental health. Instead of constructing a “self-actualizin g existence” in accordance with the teachings of REBT, he “withdraws” (O vercoming 17) into a false world manufactured by his irrational brain. Though he “holds the key to the locked doors of bedlam inside his own mind” ( Sanity Plea 7), he chooses not to use it. Billy gains a pseudo-serenity, but fails to achieve wisdom and courage, and thus fails to maintain the rational “awarene ss” promoted by REBT, which Vonnegut explores further in Breakfast of Champions .85 Happily, the same cannot be said of Vonnegut himself, who, by undertaking his “dance with death” (19), finds the courage to work through his “anxiety” (2), fear,86 and depression to write his “war


28 book” (20), gaining the wisdom to enjoy the present and welcome the future, rather than “look[ing] back” (20) to find unhappiness in the past.87 Despite Billy’s psychological failure, the promise of fulfilling REBT’s goal is not diminished.88 As Tony Tanner observes, by adopting the Serenity Prayer, which Vonnegut considers to be the “best advice . for just about anybody anytime” ( Fates 110), Billy “abandons the worried . point of view of Western man” (Tanner 128), achieving a healthie r, more relaxed state of being.89 He is able to relieve himself of the intellect ual and emotional bur den of continually asking the pointless and unanswerabl e question: “Why me?” (73).90 Although Billy falls short of fully attaining the REBT principle espoused by the Serenity Prayer, Vonnegut nonetheless depicts his e ffort with an optimistic undertone that upholds the prudence of accepting reality to the extent we are unable to alter it.91 Vonnegut’s own words support this contention when he acknowledges attempting to follow the Serenity Pray er as his “own ph ilosophy of life,” applauding that it “recogniz[es] limitations . [and] recommends . accepting restraint with good humor” (Abadi-Nagy 16) Vonnegut show s his “good humor” on the matter when he steps inside his lit erary creation. Per haps symbolic of his efforts to purge himself of the irrational thinking contributing to his depression, Vonnegut appears in the novel at the German POW camp’s latrine: “An American near Billy wailed that he h ad excreted everythi ng but his brains. Moments later he said, ‘There they go, there they go.’ He meant his brains. That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book” (119-20).


29 Looking beyond Billy, other characters in the novel shed light on principles of REBT as well. The bullying, blubb ering Roland Weary illustrates the REBT notion that one should not deal in abs olutes or have an unequivocal need for acceptance or approval from others. Wear y’s absolutist views center on the selfdefeating belief that “[o]thers must treat [him] nobly and kindly and considerately and put [him] in the center of their attent ion” (Bernard 47). Weary’s psychological flaws compel him to cling to the absolutist belief that he and the two infantry scouts must pal around and look out fo r each other like “The Three Musketeers” (40). He fails to unconditionally accept himself or others, demanding of himself (and Billy) that the two scouts must appr ove of and like him. Weary’s selfdefeating beliefs irrationally make Billy the bane of his exis tence, creating “feelings of anger, rage, [and] resentment” (Bernard 47), ultimately casting Weary in a cowardly light and prope lling him to a fate of dyin g in fear and misery from gangrene infection. The passive-aggressive Paul Lazzaro is similarly deranged, psychologically decayed by a virulent nee d for absolute revenge. Billy’s wife, Valencia, is also engulfed by irrationa lity, allowing self -defeating panic to overtake her as she races to see Billy at the hospital, accidentally killing herself in the process.92 The pointless execution of the brave and noble Edgar Derby, summarily shot for pocketing a tea pot in the mids t of a dehumanizing war perpetrating far greater crimes on a much larger scale, highlights the senselessness of modern existence. Meanwhile, the seemingly benev olent British prisoners of war reflect the maddening irrationality of reality, having transform ed their space of the POW


30 camp into a “fairyland that denies the war’s reality” ( Effect 96), stockpiling a smorgasbord of supplies accide ntally provided to them due to a clerical error, “blithely unaware” ( Effect 97) that neighboring Russian POWs are silently starving nearby in the cold. The unnamed hobo on the trai n carrying Billy and the other POWs is a bit of an enigma. Despite the crowded, unsanitary, and otherwise miserable conditions that the train’s passengers fi nd themselves in, the hobo repeatedly asserts that things could be worse. No twithstanding his posit ive frame of mind, the hobo dies nine days into the trip just before the train reaches its destination, his last words reiterating his conviction: “You think this is bad? This ain’t bad” (76). The hobo could be interpreted as delusi onal or blind to the cruel reality that ultimately kills him, in which case it might be said that Vonnegut includes him merely as a tool for ironic effect. Or, he could be seen as illustrating the REBT principle of accepting unalterable realit y and choosing to maintain an optimistic attitude, regardless of the circum stances. The reasonableness of this interpretation finds merit in the fact that, even if the hobo had taken the mindset that everything was horrible and absolut ely should not be that way (and as a result had fallen into anger or despair or panic or a host of other unhealthy emotions), he would have died just the same. By acc epting the reality of his situation, the hobo thinks and acts ra tionally in making the best of dire circumstances, determining what meaning to ascribe to events through a cognitive process of self-construction. He is, in a sense, a master practitioner of REBT, able to rationally direct his thoughts on a leve l that few are able to


31 achieve.93 Maintaining his dignity in an undigni fied situation, he gains a degree of serenity during his final days of life until he passes away peacefully in his sleep. Given the choice between spend ing one’s last days engulfed by an irremediable despair, or experiencing so me form of peace through the calm acceptance of circumstances utterly beyond one’s control, most rational beings are likely to choose the latter. Viewed fr om this perspective, perhaps Vonnegut intended for this seemingly insignificant character to communicate a greater message than a cursory consideration typically conveys. Slaughterhouse-Five ’s illumination of princi ples of REBT through the fictional lives of its characters provi des insight into the application of such principles in our own lives. While the story of Billy Pilgrim illustrates “our limitations in comprehending an absurd universe,” it al so suggests the benefits of consciously accepting the ambiguity and unce rtainty of unalterable reality, all the while reminding us to “keep trying to expand our awareness” of the human condition ( Quantum 61), an issue that Vonnegut deve lops further in his next novel, Breakfast of Champions .94


32 Breakfast of Champions – The Importance of Awareness “The first step toward change is awareness” (Branden). By choosing as the epigraph to Breakfast of Champions a quote from the Book of Job (“When he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold”), Vonnegut suggests that this novel will involve t he passing of a test he deems comparable in difficulty to that of Job’s: a test a ssessing Vonnegut’s “suspi cion . that human beings are robots” (3). As stated in an interview given while he was writing Breakfast of Champions Vonnegut “think[s] every body’s programmed, and can’t help what they do” ( Conversations 22). Vonnegut has written this novel, he tells us, to clear out the things in his head that “are often useless and ugly . [and] out of proportion with lif e as it really is ou tside [his] head” (5).95 He seeks a way to restore a “humane harmony in [his] brai ns” (5) amidst the “complex, tragic, and laughable” (231) realit y he inhabits. Attempting to “c lear [his] head of all the junk in there” (5), Vonnegut examin es the “temptation . to say that [man] is what he is because of faulty wiring, or becaus e of microscopic amounts of chemicals which he ate or failed to eat on that particular day” (4). In doing so, Vonnegut explores whether human beings have the free will necessary to control their cognitive states by choosing how to respond to events acting upon them. Vonnegut sets the scene for his story early on in the novel, acquainting the reader with the utter irrationality of r eality in modern America by providing several examples, including a quotation of the national anthem, which he dismisses as “pure balderdash” (7), and a discussion of the ar cane symbols that appear on the national currency, symbols so perplexingly meaningless that not even the President “knew what that was all about” (9). Representative of the


33 absurdity of the times, a fourteen-yea r-old boy shoots his parents “because he didn’t want to show them the bad r eport card he had brought home” (50), and then he enters a plea of “temporary insanity” (50) at tr ial to avoid responsibility for his actions. To sum up the senselessness of the reality of lif e in modern America – a “society dominated by super stitions, by pure baloney” ( Fates 163) -Vonnegut observes that “[i]t was as th ough the country were saying to its citizens, ‘In nonsense is st rength’” (9). Merging fact and fiction, Vonnegut in jects himself into the novel by appearing “incognito” in a cocktail lounge at the Midland City Holiday Inn, wearing mirrored sunglasses in the sunl ess lounge in a “world of [his] own invention” (198) in order to “watch a confrontat ion between two human beings [he] had created: Dwayne Hoover and Kil gore Trout” (197). Troubled by the irrationality of reality (revealing that upon nearing his most recent birthday, he had become “more and more enraged and myst ified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen” (215)), and disturbed by the degraded state of the human condition (as reflected in individuals feeling “so ignored and cheated and insulted that they thought . that some terri ble mistake had been made” (9)), Vonnegut confesses to himself that he fears suici de by an overdose of medication: “You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did” (198).96 Later, from his vantage point as narrator after-the-fact, Vonnegut acknowledges that he “was really sick for a while” (199) and admits that he had made himself “h ideously uncomfortable” (198) by adhering to the belief that “there was nothi ng sacred about myself or


34 about any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide” (225). After hearing Rabo Karabekian’s insp irational explanation about the essence of what seems to be a simple painting that any five-year-old could create, Vonnegut is “reborn” (225), enlightened by an und erlying principle of REBT, one that he reveals “made me the serene Earthling which I am this day” (225). In that moment of revelation, Ka rabekian conveys that the only thing in life that “truly matters” is our “awareness, ” which endures “unw avering and pure, no matter what preposterous adventure may befall us” (226). Karabekian’s revelation of human awareness sparks Vonn egut’s realization that human beings are not hollow machines si nce awareness allows us to recognize our condition, giving rise to the motiva tion and ability to change it.97 It is this awareness that REBT shapes to enable individuals to “look at the meanings and interpretations they give to events and results and, es pecially, to their own possibilities of creating new meanings and interpretations” ( Overcoming 92). Karabekian’s revelation conveys Vonnegut’s rejection of t he “claim of materialist determination that humans are essentially nothing more than fleshy computers spitting out the behavioral results of some inescapable ne urogenetic program” (Schwartz 374). Modern neuroscience describes human awareness as a “conditional readiness to act” (Ramachandran 249), and REBT draws upon th is readiness to bring about a change in an individual’s fundamental wa ys of thinking. Signifying a state of consciousness corresponding to the goal of the Serenity Prayer and the principles advocated by REBT, aware ness consists of the ability to be


35 cognizant of ourselves and our place in reality (our abil ity to think rationally and self-reflect in a process of cognitive intros pection), an ability t hat distinguishes us as human beings and provides us the capacity to use free will to guide our beliefs and behaviors. In other words, human awar eness equates to the ability “to think, and to think about [our] thinking, and to think about thinking about [our] thinking” ( Reason 76), yet with that awareness and self-consciousness comes an anxiety attendant to the human condition, an anxiety that manifests in Vonnegut both in his suspicion that human bei ngs are essentially robots and in his fear of a selfinflicted death by suicide. After his life is “renewed” (229) by Karabekian’s unexpected revelation, Vonnegut realizes that no matter how “complex, tragic, and laughable” one’s situation becomes, the “sacred part of him, his awareness, remain[s] an unwavering band of light” (231). In under standing awareness to be that which is “alive and maybe sacred in any of us” (2 26), Vonnegut realizes that, far from following predetermined paths as unthi nking automatons, our awareness constitutes a “unique ability of Homo sapiens ” interchangeably referred to as consciousness, mind, or soul, an ability th at enables us to “be aware of being aware” (Sweeney 2-3), or in the language of REBT, the unique ability “to think and think about our thinking”. This awar eness of awareness brings with it an understanding of the abil ity to make choices; to c onsciously choose what we will do next. Consistent with REBT, Vonnegut recognizes t hat awareness allows us to change ourselves simply by changing our thoughts, providing the ability to overcome a mechanical subservience to irra tional thinking, an ability that Broer


36 describes as an “imaginative faculty capable of resisting subversion by dehumanizing machinery within and without” ( Sanity Plea 161).98 It is Vonnegut’s affirmation of awareness that enables him to overcome his selfdefeating suspicion that human beings are robots, allowing him to assert that he is “better now” (199). With his new understanding of the uniqueness of human awareness, Vonnegut attains an appreciation of our ability to “adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos” (215), insisting that while “[i]t is hard to adapt to chaos. . it can be done. I am livi ng proof of that: it can be done” (215).99 Breakfast of Champions reflects Vonnegut’s “recognition that he possesses an imaginative facu lty capable of resisting” (Goodbye 75) the negative influences of an irrational world, and conf irms the “existential possibilities of authoring one’s own identity in life” by ex ercising awareness to think rationally and realistically ( Goodbye 75).100 Broer sees the impor tance Vonnegut ascribes to awareness as well, emphasizing in his reading of Vonnegut the “efforts of a healthier, yearning, creative self to br ave the life struggle, to develop the awareness and courage to act against self-imprisoning cat’s cradles and to determine its own identity” ( Sanity Plea 10). This is the same self-awareness of thinking, feeling, and behaving advocat ed by REBT as the foundation for a balanced life, the key to self-actualization, and the means to achieve what Sartre referred to as a “magical transformation of the world.”101 Describing Vonnegut’s “faith in the inviolability of awareness” ( Pilgrim 155) and his “optimistic faith that human beings can be anything we want to be” ( Pilgrim 156),102 Broer deems the Karabekian awareness scene of Breakfast of Champions to be the “essential


37 drama of this book and perhaps of all Vonnegut’s work, his spir itual rebirth, in which he determines to repudi ate his former pessimism” ( Sanity Plea 105).103 While Vonnegut’s experiences with hi s own psychological problems (as well as those of his son, Mark) ma y have caused him to “question human free will” ( Genesis 126), the awareness that Vonnegut discovers along the way brings with it the “potential for creativity and free choice” ( Quantum 59) that REBT calls upon to eliminate irrational thinking and behavior. Vonnegut’s perception of human beings’ awarene ss of their awareness provides the ability to identify his “own irrational ideas and appreciat[e] the role they play” in spawning selfdefeating beliefs or behaviors, leading in tu rn to the recognition that we are not “helpless victims of outside forces . [ but] actually have control over them” in the sense that they need not dictate our emotional stat e (Krieger 85). As Ellis writes: [H]uman beings are “born with (and can escalate) a trait that other creatures rarely possess: the ability to think about our thinking . we can philosophize about our philosophy, [and] reason about our reasoning . which gives us some degree of self determination or free will. . . The more we choose to use our self-awareness and to think about our goals and desires, the more we create – yes, creat e – free will or self -determination. ( Refuse 7). As Mustazza puts it, this awareness provides a “freedom” and “control that . make s us gods of sorts” ( Genesis 129).104 In addition to Vonnegut’s personal epiphany regardi ng the REBT-like power of awareness, his literary creations in Breakfast of Champions further


38 illuminate notions of REBT Kilgore Trout manages a partial attainment of principles of REBT, while at first falling s hort of its goals. Like Billy Pilgrim, he lacks the wisdom to recognize when things can be changed, or the courage to make such changes, automatically acceptin g things as they are: “his head no longer sheltered ideas of how things could be and should be on the planet, as opposed to how they really we re” (105-06). He decides to accept an invitation to the Midland City Arts Festival, not to seize the opportunity of his newfound celebrity to improve his condi tion or seek to better that of his fellow man, but to pessimistically present himself as a “repres entative of all the t housands of artists who devoted their entire lives to a sear ch for truth and beauty --and didn’t find doodley-squat” (37).105 However, when his absurd story, Now It Can Be Told pushes Dwayne Hoover over th e edge of insanity, Trout is jolted into a greater awareness by witnessing how “ bad ideas” can “bring evil into the world” (15). Despite having been a “nobody” full of “p essimism” (31) who “supposed” and “hoped” that he was dead (14), Trout gains a measure of redemption by finding the will to get “out of [his] cage” (36) achieving an awareness of the “importance of ideas as causes and cures for dis eases” (15), and not succumbing to some “fantasized nirvana” ( Images of the Shaman 208) as Billy does. In REBT-like fashion, Trout comes to understand that the ideas or beliefs we hold have a significant impact on our degree of well-being.106 Recognizing (along with his alter ego) that irrational thoughts are a major cause of malfunction in the human “machine,” Vonnegut confirms that “[b]ad chemicals and bad ideas [are] the Yin and Yang of madness” (14) (emphasis supplied).


39 Further illuminating conc epts underlying REBT, Trout describes several beliefs that Vonnegut refers to as “madness”: irrational beliefs once held regarding the exposure of “ wide-open beavers” (24) and the absurdly high value of gold, which far from bei ng the strongest or most durable element, is nothing more than a “soft, weak metal” (24). Discussing these beliefs of “madness” from a perspective akin to that of REBT’s view of irrational beliefs, Trout identifies them as “monsters . [that] inhabited our heads,” and states: “I thank those [beliefs] for being so ridiculous, for they taught us that it was possible for a human being to believe anything, and to be have passionately in keeping with that belief – any belief” (25). In another parallel to Slaughterhouse-Five Harry LeSabre fails to unconditionally accept himself, irrationally allowing his self-worth to be dependent on the approval of others in much the same vein as Roland Weary. When Dwayne Hoover ignores Harry’s Hawaiian Week costume -which Harry presents to him with “every molecule in his body await[ing] Dwayne’s reaction” (115) -Harry is “destroyed” (115) and “close[s] his eyes . never want[ing] to open them again” (116).107 Most of the women in Midland City are locked in a similar cycle of irrational thinking, hav ing “trained themselves to be agreeing machines instead of thinking machines” (140). However, Dwayne’s secretary, Francine, appears as one of the sanest and most grounded characters in the novel, communicating concepts of REBT by putting a humorous sign on the wall of Dwayne’s dealership to “remind [people] of what they so easily forgot: that people didn’t have to be seri ous all the time” (117), and by wearing a smiley face


40 button on her dress since it “showed a creature in a healthier, more enviable frame of mind” (118).108 More than any other character in the story, Vonnegut’s depiction of Dwayne Hoover shows us just how fragile and fleeting rational thought can be. As the owner of a lucrat ive car dealership, Dwayne s eems to be what Western culture would deem a success, but with “bats in his bell tower” (227) Dwayne serves as the novel’s most pr ominent example of the failure to follow principles of REBT.109 Dwayne is financially successful, but depressed due to what Jerome Klinkowitz calls the “essential cr umminess of his surroundings” and the “depressingly shabby quality of contemporary life” ( Effect 108). He lives in a “dream house” in the “most desirable reside ntial area in the city” (17), but he lives alone because his wife committed suicide by swallowing Drano (40), and his only son is a notorious homosexual called “Bunny” (66). Dwayne’s mother died in childbirth as a “defective child-bearing machine” ( 45), and he suffers lingering psychological effects from having “spent t he first three years of his life in an orphanage” (65). Dwayne’s overall psychologi cal state emits “obvious cries for help” (39) since he is “mentally diseas ed” (98), besieged by “fear” and “worry” (80), and suffers from feelings of guilt even though he knows he has “done nothing he should feel guilty about” (80). Since it is “exhausting having to r eason all the time in a universe which wasn’t meant to be reasonable,” Dwayn e is “pooped and demoralized” (259). Having “lost [his] way,” he desperately w ants to know “what life is all about” (169), confiding to Francine: “I need so mebody to take me by the hand and lead


41 me out of the woods” (170). In a bizarre twist on the familiar st ory of the spiritual seeker searching for the wise man on t he mountain, Dwayne seeks out Kilgore Trout hoping to “discover . truths about life which he had never heard before” that would “enable him to laugh at his troubles, to go on living, and to keep out of the North Wing of the Midl and County General Hospital which was for lunatics” (200). Dwayne needs the sort of “brand new viewpoint on life” (171) that REBT provides, but instead he finds -in Trout’s Now It Can Be Told which is “mind poison” to Dwayne (15) -“bad ideas . that [give] his craziness . shape and direction” (14). Confronted by the idea that everyone else on the planet is a robot meant to “get a reaction from” him (263), Dwayne not only fails to control his reaction, but fails to care whether he s hould try to control his reaction. Rather than using rational thoughts to guide his actions, Dwayne lashes out in an irrational rampage. Dwayne’s descent into a pit of irrational thoughts and beliefs resembles Billy’s to a degree, but t he self-defeating behavior that Dwayne undertakes is decidedly dissimilar. Rat her than peacefully re treating into an illusory existence, Dwayne becomes belligerent, behaving more like a homicidal maniac than the utterly pacified being that Billy becomes. Dwayne illustrates the A x B = C formula of REBT by encountering the activating event (A) of reading Trout’s book, which triggers the irrational belief (B) that he is the only person on the planet wi th “free will” (15) and that everyone else is a robot put here for the sole pur pose of provoking reactions from him. This irrational belief, in turn, causes the self-defeating behavioral consequence (C) of his violent psychotic rampage aga inst everyone he encounters, ultimately


42 resulting in his imprisonment and financia l destitution due to lawsuits filed by those he injured.110 At the time they meet, Dwayne is “f abulously well-to-do” (13), while Trout is a “nobody” (7) who has “doodley-squat” (13). Subsequent to their meeting, their worlds turn upside down. Dwayne is stripped of everything he owns and “carted off to a lunatic asylum” (15), while Trout becomes “one of the most beloved and respected human beings in histor y” (7) as a “pioneer in the field of mental health” (15). In the end, Dwayn e’s story illustrates the detrimental and sometimes dangerous consequences of fail ing to employ REBT’s technique of deliberately disputing irrational beliefs. As Davis writes, Breakfast of Champions “refutes any notion . [of] the mechani stic and fatalistic reverie that drives Dwayne to see all humans, ex cept himself, as robots” ( Crusade 89), reflecting Vonnegut’s own realization t hat we are not machines, and are instead capable of exerting influence on our st ate of being by choosing our responses to external events. In Breakfast of Champions Vonnegut correctly refers to the biochemical process that affects our m oods and feelings, but he also comes to the realization that the mind – through its di rection of the brain’s th oughts – exerts a powerful influence on our state of being. Like REBT, Vonnegut’s ultimate message in Breakfast of Champions is that if we wish to be happy we must exercise our awareness to think and act rationally, wh ile exorcising irra tional thoughts and beliefs.111 Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons published one year after Breakfast


43 of Champions evidences that Vonnegut took that message to heart. In his personal account of a visit to his parents’ grave, V onnegut reveals: I looked at those two stones side by side and I just wished . that they had been happier than they were. It would have been so goddamned easy for them to be happier than they were . . They wrecked their lives thinking the wrong things. And, damn it, it wouldn’t have taken much effo rt to get them to think about the right things. ( Wampeters 255). Getting individuals to “think about the right things” notwithstanding “what preposterous adventur e may befall us” (226) is precisely the goal of REBT. Galapagos – Making a Big Deal about Big Brains “In proportion to our body mass, our brain is three times as large as that of our nearest relatives. This huge organ is dangerous and painful to give birth to, expensive to build, and, in a resting human, uses about 20 per cent of the body’s energy even though it is just 2 per cent of the body’s weight. There must be some reason for all this evolutionary expense” (Blakemore). In Galapagos Vonnegut’s rejuvenating belief in the power of human awareness so grandly articulated in Breakfast of Champions appears in danger of eradication, as he takes us to the near extinction of the human species and a corresponding evolutionary shif t away from our dispropor tionately large brains. Galapagos manifests Vonnegut’s di sappointment that, despi te all of the great technological inventions and scientific advancements ov er the course of human history, we “still experience little more emotional maturity or happiness than we did in past centuries. Indeed, in some ways we act more childishly, outrageously, and emotionally distur bed than we ever did before” ( Guide 21). At first glance, through its apparent them e of “blame the big brains,” Galapagos


44 seems to undercut or reject the underlying philosophy of REBT that we can use our brains to control our thinking. However, a closer reading reve als differently. Narrating his tale from a distant futu re, the ghost of Kilgore Trout’s son, Leon Trotsky Trout, describes how human br ains became “nearly fatal defects in the evolution of the human ra ce” (6), causing a “series of murderous twentieth century catastrophes” (17). Trout cont rasts our “very innocent planet” with the “only real villain[s] in [the] story” (167): “those gr eat big brains” (6), which were “irresponsible, unreliable, hideously dangerous, wholly unrealistic – [and] simply no damn good” (17). According to Trout, “there wasn’t a person alive . who didn’t know what [it] was like” to have th eir “big brain simply . [not] working right” on occasion (101), particularly since “[w]hether we had an ything for them to do or not, [those] preposterously huge a nd active brains” never ceased “going ‘Blah-blah-blah’ all day l ong” (104). Reflecting sarcastically on his own experience, Trout reveals: “[w]hen I was a live, I often received advice from my own big brain which . can be charitabl y described as questionable . . Thanks a lot, big brain” (19).112 Notwithstanding its conspicu ously critical stance, Galapagos is not an “anti-brain” book. While its characters are depicted as suffering the adverse affects of their oversized brains in vari ous ways, the novel should not be read as advocating less reliance on the rational capa city of the human intellect. As Broer points out, it would be a mistake to interpret the novel as “Vonnegut’s condemnation of our oversized brains” ( Sanity Plea 155). Indeed, Trout eventually assures us that t he “big problem . wasn’t insanity, but that people’s


45 brains were much too big and untruthful to be practical” (115) (emphasis supplied). Hence, it is not the human brain’s innate power of reason that Vonnegut cautions against in Galapagos Rather, it is the “ misuse of human reason” ( Imagining 135) (emphasis supp lied) -the fact that we have allowed our brains to become “disruptiv e” (104) -that he decries.113 To put it in words Vonnegut might have used: “Listen: it’s not the bigness of people’s brains that’s the problem. It’s how people keep al lowing their malfunctioning minds to irrationally control them that leads so frequently to the excrement hitting the air conditioner.” The need for overcoming such irrational thinking is seen in Trout’s description of Jesus Ortiz, the fo rmerly good-natured hotel employee who degenerates into irrationality and rips apart the hotel’s telephone communications equipment. Describing Jesus’s actions as an example of how big brains could “deceive their owners,” Trout notes that “[ i]n a matter of seconds, a typical brain . turned the best citizen of Guayaqui l into a ravening terrorist” (54).114 Vonnegut’s depiction of the von Kleist brothers, Adolf and Siegfried, underscores the importance of the healthy manner of thin king touted by REBT. Despite the fact that he suffers from Huntington’s chorea – an “incurable disease of the brain” (52) -Siegfried von Kleist is able to think (and therefore behave) in a much more rational manner than his brother. Although Adolf unintentionally sires the new generation of the human ra ce, it is Siegfried who ensures the continuation of the species. Siegfried’s rational thinking is solely responsible for ensuring the survival of Mary Hepburn, Hisako Hiroguchi, Selena MacIntosh, and the six Kanka-bono girls, whose subs equent pregnancies permit the perpetuation


46 of humankind. With chaos and destruct ion all around him, Siegfried “maintain[s] a placid exterior” because he does not “wish his . guests to panic,” and, in a “perfectly calm tone of voice” (106), he directs them into a bus so that he can shepherd them to safety. Importantly, it is Siegfried’s awareness that enables him to suppress irrational thinking and panic, and command rational thoughts and behavior: “[I]t was still possible for his soul to recognize that his brain had become dangerous, and to help him maintain a semblance of mental health through sheer willpower” (53). In contrast, Adolf -who harbors a “f eeling that life [is] a meaningless nightmare” (77) – continually falls victim to irrational thinking, allowing his big brain to fool him over and over again, such as when he steers the ship carrying the last of humanity off course while his brain “assured his soul that its mistake was minor and very recent” (145). Adolf exemplifies the self -defeating thinking tendencies of the human mind, as rev ealed by Trout’s narrative about his experience inhabiting Adolf’ s head: “That was often my experience back then: I would get into the head of so mebody in what to me was a particularly interesting situation, and discover that the person’s big brain wa s thinking about things which had nothing to do with the problem right at hand” (76).115 Adolf’s brain, which “had a life of its own” (145), prompted such irrational thoughts and behaviors that a “time would come when he w ould actually try to fire it for having misled him” (145). Of course, by the time he musters the awar eness to “fire his brain” (151), the ship is so off course that not even “navigating on the advice of his soul alone” (151) can correct the problem.116 Juxtaposed with Siegfried, who


47 dies heroically having ensured the future of the human race, Adolf ends his days in “exasperating” circumstanc es: “quietly desperate” (167) with his “body . still perfectly capable of taking ca re of itself . [but] “h is deteriorating big brain” confining him to bed rest and “allowing him to soil himself and refuse to eat and so on” (178). Vonnegut’s description of Adolf’s thoughts while star gazing suggests a critique characteristic of REBT: [Adolf] looked up at the star s, and his big brain told him that his planet was an insignificant speck of dust in the cosmos, and that he wa s a germ on that speck, and that nothing could matter less than what became of him. That was what t hose big brains used to do with their excess capacity: blather on like that. To what purpose? You won’t catch anybody thinking thoughts like that today (120). In this description, like his discussion of the purposelessness of asking “why me” in Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut highlights the point less, self-defeating nature of thoughts that pessimistica lly ruminate about the human condition. Rather than indulging in such a counterproductive response, Vonnegut would have us exercise our ability to conduct an introspective analysis for the purpose of correcting our irrational thinking before we allow it to lead us further astray.117 He wishes us to employ our awareness to control our thinking processes and thereby direct our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors in a h appier, more humane way. Trout’s description of the last human marriage humorously reinforces the need for the rehabilitative skills offered by REBT: That cumbersome computer [the brain] could hold so many contradictory opinions on so many different subjects all at once, and switch from one opinion or


48 subject to another one so quickly, that a discussion between a husband and wife under stress could end up like a fight between bl indfolded people wearing roller skates (41). The convergence of Vonnegut’s thought and principles of REBT continues in his discussion of Kilgore Trout’s nov el about a man who created robots that were perfect at sports, such as a “baske tball robot who could hit the basket every time” (43). Satirizing the human need to be perfect (and pr omoting the REBT principle of unconditional self-acceptance de spite intrinsic faults), Trout writes: “At first people couldn’t see any use for robots like that . But then he let advertisers know that his robots would also endorse automobiles or beer or razors or wristwatches or perfume or whatever. He made a fortune . because so many sports enthusiasts wanted to be exactly like those robots” (43). The absurdity of idolizing a robot because it always sinks a three-poi nt basket or hits a hole-in-one every time illustrates the fa llacy of engaging in envious thoughts or following similarly self-defeating beliefs. The Kanka-bono women -who Mary Hepburn dismisses as being “very primitive in their thinking” – follow in t he footsteps of Billy P ilgrim’s philosophy of acceptance, and thereby incor porate REBT principles in their lives: “They try to make the best of whatever happens. They figure they can’t do much of anything about anything anyway, so they take life as it comes” (171). Surprisingly, these seeming simpletons may be some of t he most enlightened of the bunch by demonstrating an awareness of their unalter able lot in life consistent with the teachings of the REBT-like Se renity Prayer.


49 Leonard Mustazza observes that in many of Vonnegut’s novels, the “cause of human suffering turns out to be, paradoxically, that which most of us would consider the caus e of human greatness as well, namely, our own inventiveness” ( Genesis 169). In some ways, Galapagos seems to fit into such a category since it addresses the “idea of human inventions and the ways in which they affect . the human condition” ( Genesis 25). Yet, Roy Hepburn’s deathbed scene, in which Roy whispers to his wife that the “human soul” is the “part of you that knows when your brain isn’t worki ng right” (27, 28), suggests a different reading of Vonnegut’s mess age. Roy’s dying words keep alive Vo nnegut’s faith in awareness as the means of monito ring our big brains to prevent their malfunctioning. From a neurobiologica l perspective, brain scientists now recognize that an individual suffering fr om a psychological disorder such as anxiety can “automatically gain a certain measure of control over [it] when you say to yourself, ‘This is my brain doing this. It is not me, and I can control it’” (Wehrenberg 1). Likewise, proponents of REBT unders tand that developing the self-awareness necessary to realize when one’s brain is lead ing one astray with irrational thoughts constitutes perhaps the single-most important skill for overcoming such self-defeating thoughts. Roy Hepburn’s dying words reinforce the importance of this self-awareness, as does the depiction of Siegfried von Kleist overcoming his genetic brain diso rder to act heroically. By novel’s end, despite having pr eviously felt that “life was a meaningless nightmare” (77), there is an indication that Leon Trout has come to the belief that human beings have the i nnate ability to improve themselves and


50 their reality. As Charles Berryman points out, Trout declines to follow his father into the “blue tunnel leading into the Afterlife” ( Galapagos 136) because he “resists [his] father’s deep-rooted cynicism” about the human mind and its capacity to direct human action (Berryman 198).118 It is only after watching humanity’s big brains devolve in size, and seeing their c apacity for creativity and rational thinking similarly di minish for “one thousand m illennia,” that Trout is ready to take his leave. He realiz es that, rather than having been some malicious organism inevitabl y stifling human progress, the human brain actually contained humanity’s gr eatest potential: I can expect to see the blue tunnel again at any time. I will of course skip into its mouth most gladly. Nothing ever happens around here anymore that I haven’t already seen or heard so many times before. Nobody, surely, is going to write Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – or tell a lie, or start a Third World War. Mother was right: Even in the darkest times, there really was still hope for humankind. (159). With this commentary -what Berryman deems the “most important scene for understanding the significance of the na rrator” in the novel (198) -Vonnegut reveals his continuing belief in the c apacity of the human mind, “[t]hat most awesome of human empowerments” ( Genesis 169). Lawrence Broer rightfully reads Galapagos as communicating Vonnegut’s message that “there is time to steer the floundering Bahia de Darwin (the ship of human destiny) in a more humane and intelligent direction” ( Sanity Plea 13). He convincingly interprets the novel’s co nclusion as conveying the message that, while the characters of the novel cannot ch ange their condition, it is not too late


51 “[f]or us . with that sometimes frus trating big-brained capacity for choice” ( Sanity Plea 160) to choose to live rationally in an otherwise irrational world. In a similar vein, Mustazza reads Galapagos as illustrating that Vonnegut “wishes that [people] would change their pr iorities, bringing them more into line with reason” ( Genesis 178).119 Thus, rather than being a novel of pessimism, Galapagos sounds an alarm against irrationality, caut ioning that “[w]e must choose what we are . or else forces beyond our control may end up doing the choosing” ( Genesis 179). This parallels an essential poi nt of REBT: that we must actively choose our beliefs and consciously direct our reactions to events in a rational manner if we wish to have some c ontrol over our degr ee of happiness and mental well-being. Though at first counterintuitive, Vonne gut’s criticism of how individuals misuse their “big brains” is entirely consis tent with REBT since its goal is to help individuals use their minds in the most self-empowering way possible, limiting irrational thoughts and beliefs and promot ing healthy, rational ones. Indeed, what Vonnegut calls the “copious and irre sponsible . suggestions” made by our big brains (47) are the same irrational thoughts and beliefs that REBT aims to remedy. In the final a nalysis, Vonnegut’s “beef” in Galapagos is not that humans’ big brains inevitably lead to their downfall. His concern, like REBT’s, is that our brains are self-defeating wh en we allow them to freely perpetuate irrational beliefs and promote selfdefeating behaviors. Vonnegut’s purpose is not simply to hurl criticisms about human thinking or throw stones at what we allow ourselves to believe. Rather, he seeks to fulfill his function as a canary-in-a-


52 coalmine, sounding an alarm intended to c apture our attention so that we may take a timeout from the turmoil of our ev eryday lives to evaluate how we think, how we feel, and how we act. He wishes to share the awareness that we are governed by a brain that has an innate ab ility to engage in rational thinking, but which has an equal capacity to indulge in irrational thoughts and behaviors. By questioning the perceived perfec tness of our big brains, Vonnegut does not wish to attack the innate shortcom ings of his fellow man, who he “still believe[s] . are really good at heart” (Nuw er). Instead, he wishes to give us the means to think more rationally so that we may have a chance to better our condition, not by looking back at the irra tionality of our prio r circumstances like Lot’s wife, but by becoming aware our present manner of thinking.120 Galapagos suggests that, despite its many failures, Vonnegut feels that “[m]ankind is trying to become something else . to improve itself” ( Conversations 76), and his writing evidences that he hel d onto a “little dream . of a happier mankind” ( Conversations 80). Trout’s concluding narrative about the manner of his liberation from the irrationality of war, and his escape from Bangkok to Sweden following an apparent nervous breakdown, captures Vonnegut’s (and REBT’s) view of the power and positive capacity of the human brain: [The Swedish physician] sa id he had friends who could arrange to get me from Bangkok to Sweden, if I wanted to seek political asylum there. “But I can’t speak Swedish,” I said. “You’ll learn,” he said. “You’ll learn, you’ll learn.”


53 (184). Vonnegut includes the thrice-repeat ed phrase, “you’ll lear n,” to reiterate and affirm his belief in the hum an brain’s innate ability to discern how to improve its situation. Reinforci ng the REBT notion that we can learn to control our thoughts and limit or eliminat e irrational beliefs and behaviors, these final words of Galapagos convey a final, positive evaluation of the cerebral fitness of our big brains and Vonnegut’s optimisti c outlook on our ability to learn to apply principles of REBT in our own lives. Timequake – Awareness of Free Will and Free Won’t121 “Every human has four endowments – self awareness, conscience, independent [free] will and creative imagination. These give us the ultimate hum an freedom . [t]he power to choose, to respond, to change” (Stephen Covey). In his final novel, Timequake Vonnegut revisits the debate of determinism versus free will previously addressed in Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions illuminating principles of REBT by probing humanity’s “power to choose, to respond, to change” (Covey) an d calling for the use of free will to direct more rational thoughts and behaviors.122 On the opening page of the novel, Vonnegut approaches the issue of self-determination by commenting on the depressive effect of the human condit ion: “It appears to me that the most highly evolved Earthling creatures find being alive embarrassing or much worse . . Two important women in my life, my mother and my onl y sister, Alice, or Allie . hated life and said so. Allie would cry out, ‘I give up! I give up!’” (1).123 On the very next page, he observes that “[f]o r practically everybody, the end of the world can’t come soon enough” (2), and thereafter he refers to the human condition as having caused the “smartest animals [to] hate being alive” (5).


54 Testing an apparent antidote to “giving up ” in despair, Vonnegut explores in subsequent pages how we respond, how we should respond, and to what degree we can control how we respond to a human condit ion that is often alienating and inherently absurd. Deftly painting a portrait of the absurd ity of the human condition, Vonnegut tells of Andrei Sakharov, who won a Nobe l Peace Prize in 1975 despite the fact that, during the years immediately fo llowing World War II, he created a hydrogen bomb for the Soviet Union capable of c ausing widespread death and destruction. The absurdity of the situat ion is driven home by Vonne gut’s imagined discussion between Sakharov and his wife, a pediatri cian dedicated to healing children: “Anything interesting happen at work today, Honeybunch?” “Yes. My bomb is going to work just great. And how are you doing with that kid with chicken pox?” (5). Vonnegut freely admits that our absurd existence -an existence that is “[s]tranger than fiction” (85) and inhabited by “[p]eople so smart you can’t believe it, and people so dumb you can’t believe it. People so nice you can’t believe it, and people so mean you can’t believe it” (12) -can easily lead to the mindset that “being alive is a crock of shit” (3 ). Vonnegut’s alter ego, Kilgore Trout, recognizes the absurdity of our c ondition as well, likening the harsh happenstance of reality to a continuing timequak e: “Listen, if it isn’t a timequake dragging us through knothole after knothole, it’s something else just as mean and powerful” (46). Like his creator, Trout acknowledges t hat the “truth about the


55 human situation is . awful” (105), not ing that life in a “world gone mad” ( Fates 216) can at times seem so pointless as to resemble “c leaning birdshit out of cuckoo clocks” (52). Consistent with the absurd conditions that Vonnegut describes, after the event named in the novel’s title occurs people become “robots of their pasts” (xii). Cast back ten years in time from 2001 to 1991 due to a “sudden glitch in the space-time continuum” (xii), they are condemned to following the same patterns of thinking and repeating the sa me behaviors over and over again no matter how counterproductive or self-d efeating, “betting on the wrong horse again, marrying the wrong person again, ge tting the clap again. You name it!” (xiii). When the 10-year timequake “rerun” ends, Trout emerges as a “rational hero” (92) “through his humanitarian us e of free will” (Paradox 64) and awareness. Trout is one of the first people to realize that “free will had kicked in” (99) because most everyone else suffered from “ Post-Timequake Apathy ,” meaning that “after the relentless repris e of their mistakes and bad luck and hollow victories during the past ten years, [they] had, in Trout’s words, ‘stopped giving a shit what was goi ng on, or what was liable to happen next’” (99). The remedy for such extreme apathy can be f ound in REBT, principles of which Trout employs to free individuals whose brains “don’t work well enough” (183) from their self-imposed cognitive and emotional shells. Vie wing the situation from a perspective akin to REBT, Trout recognize s that the restoratio n of free will and awareness allows individuals to choose to reject irrational thoughts and


56 behaviors.124 The sudden ending of the 10-year rerun administers a shock to their systems that provides them the oppor tunity to consciously direct their thinking again: “‘Only when free will kicked in again could they stop running obstacle courses of their own construction” (xiii).125 Echoing Vonnegut’s statement in Breakfast of Champions that he “was really sick for a while” but is “better now,” Trout overcomes the robotic adherence to an existence on autopilot by telli ng everyone he enc ounters after the timequake: “You’ve been very sick! No w you’re well again” (155). Far from being another “cockamamie exhortation” (6), Trout’s call is a rational voice in an irrational world. Through Trout, Vonnegut exhorts us to take ownership of our lives, to be creators of our own happiness, rather than living mechanically as mere “technicians” of life (Krishnamurti) Framing his enlightening message as “You were sick, but now you’re well again and there’s work to do” (169), rather than bluntly informing everyone that they have “free will agai n” (155), enables Trout to short circuit the irrational belief t hat they must continue to plod through life as unthinking automatons, and prods them into taking their first steps toward self-determination and rational thinking. As if driven by the maxim that “[w]hen a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man” (Schwartz 291),126 Trout effectively restores their humanity, “convert[ing] more living statues to lives of usefulness” (170). Trout’s mantra, like REBT, “promise [s] better times” (155), providing what Vonnegut calls a “credible promise” (155) of a better life. Jerome Klinkowitz interprets Trout’s refo rmulation of his initial call to free will as “allow[ing] people to take action without accepting the full responsibility of


57 free will . They are not being called on to account for the nature of the world. All they are being asked is to do something to make an immediate situation better” ( Effect 167). This is strikingly similar to what REBT asks of its subjects: accepting reality as it is without feeling respons ibility for the irrational state of things, and exercising the cognitive power of rational thinking to make their immediate situations better. Going further, one sees in Trout’s reveille to his fellow man an underlying message that, if everyone followed Vonnegut’s lead in incorporating principles of REBT into th eir daily lives and taking responsibility for their thoughts, feelings, and acts, the colle ctive effect will produce a more rational world. Klinkowitz continues hi s REBT-like interpretation of Timequake by noting that throughout the novel “there have been examples of human futility and reasons for despair. All is refuted, however, when it is shown how human comprehension . lets them make some thing worthwhile out of what would otherwise lack redeeming worth” ( Effect 173). Vonnegut delves further into an explor ation of the power of the human brain through his ironic comments about the unbelievable intelligence of Sir Isaac Newton, the “slow” development of hum an civilization that he sarcastically attributes to its “stupi d[ity]” (88), and t he outrageous skepticism of Dr. Fleon Sunoco, Trout’s mad scientist creation, who dissects the brains of the super smart and the ridiculously dumb in order to study th em. Dr. Sunoco examines the brains of the super intelligent because he believe s that smart people must have “little radio receivers in their heads” (91), since it is obvious to him that “[t]here was no way an unassisted human br ain, which is nothing more than a


58 dog’s breakfast, three and half pounds of blood-soak ed sponge, could have written ‘Stardust,’ let alone B eethoven’s Ninth Symphony” (93).127 In an act of ultimate irony, when he discovers a substance in the brains of the “smarties” (94) that confirms his suspicion, Sunoco has no choice but to kill himself in disgust since he obviously could not have achiev ed such an insight with nothing more than his own unassisted brain. Continuing the novel’s illumination of significant principles of REBT, Vonnegut’s inclusion of K ilgore Trout’s story, “Dr. Schadenfreude,” humorously depicts the REBT notion that an individual must accept, and learn to be at peace with, the fact that he or she is not the center of the unive rse. As told by Trout, a famous psychiatrist named Dr. Schadenfreude would calmly listen to his patients talk about the latest gossip or “things t hat had happened to to tal strangers” (61), but: if a patient accidentally sa id “I” or “me” or “my” or “myself” or “mine,” Dr. Schadenfreude went ape. He leapt out of his overstuffed leather chair. He stamped his feet. He flapped his arms. He put his face directly ov er the patient. He snarled and barked things like this : “When will you ever learn that nobody cares anything abo ut you, you, you, you boring, insignificant piec e of poop? Your whole problem is you think you matter Get over that, or sashay your stuck-up butt the hell out of here!” (61). The good doctor’s hostility toward self-centeredness reinforces REBT’s position against the selfdefeating, unrealistic expec tations that “[o]thers must . put me in the center of their at tention” and that “[c]onditions must be easy and nice and give me everything I want on a silver platter” (Bernard 47). Vonnegut


59 elucidates another principle of REBT by including an acco unt of his attendance at a performance of Swan Lake by the Royal Ballet in London: I was in the audience with my daughter Nancy . . A ballerina, dancing on her toes, went deedly deedly deedly into the wings as she was supposed to do. But then there was a sound backstage as though she had put her foot in a bu cket and then gone down an iron stairway with her foot still in the bucket. I instantly laughed like hell. I was the only person to do so. (103). By finding humor in the midst of a supposedly serious affair, Vonnegut illustrates the important REBT notion of not taking oneself (or others) too seriously, no matter how serious things seem.128 In Kilgore Trout’s final appearance in a Vonnegut novel, the author expands on the recurring concept of awareness introduced in Breakfast of Champions as Trout announces with his conclu ding words: “I have thought of a better word than awareness . Let us call it soul ” (214). Trout’s renaming of “awareness” as “soul” suggests that Vonnegut deems them to be interchangeable references to the uniqu e human trait allowing a conscious change of thought, belief, and behavior.129 Whether called aw areness, mind, or soul, what Vonnegut discovers in Breakfast of Champions and chooses for the conclusion of Timequake is the key to REBT; it is t he sentient source existing in harmony with our “three-and-a-half poun d blood-soaked sponge” (183) that makes it possible for us to employ the pr inciples of rational thinking espoused by REBT.130 Vonnegut’s recitation of Trout’s ma ntra of awareness during his final


60 exchange with his alter ego sugges ts that Vonnegut learned to apply principles of REBT to his own life: “Ting-a-ling! If this isn’t nice, what is?” [Trout] exclaimed to us all. I called back to him from the rear of the crowd: “You’ve been sick, Mr. Trou t, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do.” (212). With this exchange, Vonnegut ackn owledges the irrational thinking and mental disturbances of his past, while recognizing his improved condition and verifying that there is still “work to do” to maintain his psychological health. At the same time, he affirms his faith in REBT’s notion that we can a ll learn to think and behave better. Despite the observance t hat “life [is] undeni ably preposterous,” Vonnegut distances himself fr om the superficial “blame the big brains” theme of Galapagos confidently asserting that “our brains are big enough to let us adapt to the inevitable pratfalls and buffoonery” of life (19).131 In Timequake the anxiety of the preceding nov els (perhaps most palpable in Breakfast of Champions ) has been subdued, largely replaced by a comfortableness and a sense of being at ease with the human situation, as evidenced by the feelings of peace and contentedness that Vonnegut and Trout experience at the clam bake concluding the novel. No long er overwhelmingly disturbed by the absurdity around them or apprehensive about what it is to be a human being, they have made their peace with the hum an condition. In the language of REBT, these are individua ls who have learned how to disturb themselves less by unconditionally acc epting themselves and the unalterable aspects of reality irrespective of its inevitable absurdities.


61 Although he wrote in Fates Worse Than Death that “those who choose to laugh rather than weep ab out demoralizing informati on, become intolerably unfunny pessimists if they live past a certain age” (183), the optimism of Vonnegut’s final fictional nove l – written six years after Fates on the 75th anniversary of his birth – belies this view. Indeed, Jerome Klinkowitz sees Timequake as a “joyful, even festive book” (Vonnegut Effect 157), “provid[ing] hope” and reaffirming Vonnegut’s belief in “simple human awareness” (Fact 134) (emphasis supplied), and Loree Rackstraw calls Timequake a “celebration” of “humanity’s capacity for awareness” ( Paradox 65) (emphasis supplied), while Broer contends that the “central story” of Timequake is Kilgore Trout’s overcoming of “apathy to assume the ro le of Vonnegut’s shaman: the canary bird in the coal mine who values awareness and responsibility” ( Goodbye 77) (emphasis supplied). I agree with thes e readings and second the notion that Vonnegut sounds a “hopeful voice,” while demonstrating a “faith in the inviolability of human awareness” ( Goodbye 80).132 Vonnegut’s gift of a happy ending for a reborn Kilgore Trout who “regain[s] [his] emotional equilibrium” ( Guide 21) effectively endorses REBT’s fundamental premise that, regardless of the irrationality surrounding us, we can use our free will and choose to change how we think a nd what we believe. Indeed, free will and the notion of having the ability to choose one’s thoughts or actions is wholly consistent with the premise of REBT, which promotes t he positive existentialist notion that we have some control over our lives and are not simply passive things subject to immutable casual relations.133 Trout’s ultimate attainment of


62 happiness through the applic ation of his awareness affirms the core concepts of REBT, confirming Vonnegut’s belief in the “efficacy of free will” ( Goodbye 78), and reinforcing that Trout’s creed -“[y]ou were sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do” (169) -has “continuing applicability to the human condition” (169).


63 CHAPTER SIX: CONCLUSION – ARE YOU HAPPY NOW? “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be” (Abraham Lincoln).134 Like the best works of literature, Vonnegut’s writing “reflects human experience while at the same time it affects human experience” ( Crusade 35). Indeed, the world of Vonnegut ’s fiction in many ways mirrors our own: it is peopled with characters for whom life no longer seems to make sense; individuals caught in a tempest of ev er-present uncertainty, indiscriminate suffering, and absolute absurdity; individu als facing the constant challenge of maintaining rationality in a senseless, i rrational world. Moreover, as seen in Slaughterhouse-Five Breakfast of Champions Galapagos and Timequake Vonnegut’s works reflect liter ature’s ability to touch diffe rent realms of research, serving as an extension of psychology and philosophy, and providing insight into principles of psychotherapy aimed at improving our experience of the human condition.135 Even though he battled the psychological disorder of depression for much of his life, Vonnegut did not succumb to his mental demons. Likewise, though disillusioned by the failed promise of the technological products of our collective brainpower, Vonnegut never quit on his fellow man.136 Despite recognizing that the “human brain” is at ti mes “ridiculous” (163), he retained an “optimistic faith that human beings can be anyth ing we want to be” ( Sanity Plea 107).137 Infused


64 with a renewed appreciation for the hum an capacity to exercise free will, Vonnegut’s writings seek to “ma ke mankind awar e of itself” ( Wampeters 228) by sharing perspective on a “process of becoming,” rather than imposing a “personal hopelessness” ( Identity 15). In his humanistic approach to life and his writings, Vonnegut employs essential principles of the psychotherapeutic methods of REBT, pursuing ways to repl ace irrational thoughts and conduct with rational beliefs and behaviors. As Broer insightfully observes, Vonne gut’s works advocate resistance to any irrational belief: that undermines the individual’s sense of control over and responsibility for his own destiny and that of the planet, including all theories of philosophic or religious determinism, historical determinism, and psychological, genetic, or chemical determinism. . . Vonnegut admonishes us that our only hope for salvation is intelligently and humanely directing our course into the future . using our brains to determine . more sane and rational behavior ( Sanity Plea 101) (emphasis supplied). Pu t another way, Vonnegut’s novels communicate “a plea . for the exercise of reas on” in an unreasonable world ( Genesis 115). In this thesis, I have offered a new perspective on an issue fundamental to Vonnegut’s work: how human beings, hav ing the power of self-awareness and the capacity for rational thought, respond to the unescapable absurdity of the human condition. After establishing the similar philosophies and shared beliefs of Vonnegut and Albe rt Ellis, I have suggested t hat Vonnegut’s works support


65 that the most prudent response to that inexorable condition can be found in principles of REBT promoting rational self-direction. In Sanity Plea Broer recites part of a letter from Vonnegut in which t he author states: “I have been profoundly depressed, but have always been able to keep working somehow ” (13) (emphasis supplied). It is my cont ention that the “s omehow” which enabled Vonnegut to keep the demon of his depressi on at bay so he could “keep working” consists of the essential ideas of REBT that are illuminated in his novels. Like Billy Pilgrim, who adapted the R EBT-like Serenity Prayer as his “method for keeping going” ( Slaughterhouse-Five 58), Vonnegut’s unknowing practice of REBT enabled him to control the tend ency to see “life as meaningless” ( Slaughterhouse-Five 96) and permitted him to keep his pessimistic side at bay. As mentioned in the Introduction to this thesis, Vonnegut’s works reveal and heal. They reveal the absurdity of t he human condition, as well as our place within such an irrational reality. They heal by suggesting that application of principles of REBT enables one to alleviate unhappine ss and find fulfillment by disputing irrational thoughts and overcomi ng self-defeating behaviors. Rather than being held hostage by irrational beliefs and behaviors that direct us into selfdefeating “obstacle courses of [our] own construction” ( Timequake xiii), Vonnegut beckons his reader to an improved way of engaging the world by using his or her brain’s unbelievable ability to consciously steer itself toward a better way of thinking. “Calling Dr. Fleon Sunoco! Shar pen your microtome. Do we ever have a brain for you!” ( Timequake 104).


66 Through his accidental engagement wit h principles of REBT, Vonnegut provides a much-needed compass for na vigating through the often turbulent human condition. Illuminating core concepts of REBT, while illustrating literatureÂ’s continuing interaction with philosophy and psychology, VonnegutÂ’s writings affirm the acceptance of unalterabl e reality, coupled with the cultivation of a rational awareness, as the most effective means for fortifying ourselves against the otherwise debilitati ng absurdity of an unremittingly irrational world.


67 END NOTES 1 Quoting Rakic, Pasko T. “Great I ssues for Medicine in the Twenty-First Century”. Annals of t he New York Academy of Sci ences 882 (1999), p. 66. 2 As quoted in Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique (Gazzaniga 325). 3 A prominent neurologist contends that “poetry and literature . have more in common with science than many peopl e realize” (Ramachandran 259), and Neil Scheurich recently noted the simila rities of literature and psychotherapy by observing that the two “share a gr oup of core values” (305). While acknowledging that they are not “interchangeable endeavors,” Scheurich emphasizes how literat ure “nourishes the autonomous self, providing selfunderstanding as well as awakening [us] to novel possibilities,” while psychotherapy is “likewise fundamentally empowering” (312). Samuel Shem also sees a “nexus of shared purpose between literature and psychiatry” (43) centered around the “same focus on self” (61). 4 Although principles of REBT appear in Vonnegut’s works, it seems that Vonnegut is an “accidental” practitioner of REBT. Rather than having a deliberate intent to practi ce REBT or promote its pr inciples in his literary works, Vonnegut seems to have stumbled on essential ideas of REBT through his own life experiences. Si nce he battled depression and watched his son suffer and recover from a m ental breakdown, Vonnegut may have been familiar with REBT, but there does not appear to be any conclusive evidence of this. Likewise, alt hough he saw a psychiatrist and reports enjoying and benefiti ng from such sessions, I foun d nothing to establish that Vonnegut’s psychiatrist practiced REBT. Vonnegut’s story about a ta xi driver in Germany suggests that he would have been amused to learn of his acci dental engagement wit h REBT. When Vonnegut returned to Dres den in 1967 with his war buddy, Bernard O’Hare, they met a taxi driver whose mot her had been incinerat ed by the allied firebombing. The German taxi driver s ubsequently sent O’Ha re a postcard at Christmas, stating “I wish you and your family and also as to your friend Merry Christmas and happy New Year and I hope t hat we’ll meet again in a world of peace and freedom in t he taxi cab if th e accident will” ( Slaughterhouse-Fiv e 2). After recounting the story, Vonnegut added: “I like that very much: ‘If the accident will.’” (2). 5 Bokey points out that “[t]he affinity between literature and medicine is not new,” noting that “[i]n An cient Greece, Apollo was the God of Literature and Medicine” (393). He also observe s that “[a]s a specific mode of psychotherapy, the reading, writing and te lling of literature has long been promoted . go[ing] as far back as Aristotle’s observation on literature’s powers of catharsis” (397). Bokey al so cites a 2000 poll of the Congress of Adelaide, which found that 94% of those polled agreed that “the humanities are as important as the sci ences in the proper practice of psychiatry” (398).


68 6 Vonnegut’s notion that a “plausible miss ion of [writers] is to make people appreciate being alive” ( Timequake 1) parallels REBT’s mission of improving our psychological health and mental state. 7 To Vonnegut, the human condition include s “not knowing whether to shit or go blind in the midst of economic and technological and ecological and political chaos” (174), and (comparing it to a steeplechase horse race) attempting to hold “one’s self-respect t ogether, instead of a horse, as one’s self-respect is expected to hurdl e fences and hedges and water” ( Timequake 182). 8 Vonnegut’s experience as a prisoner of war during the 1945 firebombing of Dresden left a deep psychological scar at a time when he was “nothing but [a] bab[y]” ( Man Without 19), yet he wrote that t he death of his mother and the adoption of his sister’s ch ildren upon her death affect ed him even more than his experiences durin g the firebombing ( Palm Sunday 273). 9 Broer sees Vonnegut ’s writings in Palm Sunday as containing his questioning of the “notion that schizophrenia is pur ely chemically induced rather than a result of wa rping life experiences” ( Pilgrim 160 n. 79). 10 In Breakfast of Champions Vonnegut writes of his weekly meetings with his psychiatrist, who teaches him and other patients “how to comfort one another intelligently” (276). Elsewhere, he refe rences having spent time in a “laughing academy” by committing himself to a “bughouse for a short stay” ( Fates 41). 11 REBT is not a Freudian method of psychoanalytic treatment. 12 Vonnegut’s personality “permeates ev erything he writes” such that “we never lose touch with the characte r behind the characters” (Boon x). Klinkowitz agrees that “[r]eading anythi ng Kurt Vonnegut has written is to engage in a remarkably personal di alogue with the man himself” ( Essayist 1). Leonard Mustazza and Kathryn Hume al so see Vonnegut’s characters as projections of the author ( Genesis 125). 13 Vonnegut’s characters often exhibi t the “feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, worthlessness, guilt, and loneliness” typical of persons suffering from depression or relat ed mental disturban ces (Moore 8). Klinkowitz sees Kilgore Trout as an “image of Vonn egut himself” ( Fact 118), and in Timequake Vonnegut acknowledges that Tr out “has been my alter ego in several of my other novels” (xiii). The contention that t hese psychologically disturbed characters reflect the state of their creator is bolstered by Vonnegut’s insistence that nearly all authors “reveal a lot about themselves to readers” in their writings whether such “revelati ons [are] accidental or intentional” ( Style 40). 14 Lawrence Broer describes Vonnegut’s “prototypical fragmented hero” as being “ominously familiar with p sychiatrists and mental wards” ( Sanity Plea 3). He notes the “psychic malaise” ( Heroes 197 n.4) and “emotional malaise” ( Heroes 181) of Vonnegut’s protagonists, and describes how Vonnegut’s “fictional self-creations have thei r author’s history behind them” ( Goodbye 71). 15 As Broer points out, Vonnegut “has been telling us for years that his ‘career has been about craziness’” ( Pilgrim 139). Writing of Vonn egut’s “interest in


69 craziness,” Broer describes the “dominant impulse of all Vonnegut’s art” as his effort to “show us ‘what makes people go crazy’ and t he ‘different ways they go crazy’” ( Sanity Plea 4). Additionally, in Wampeters Foma & Granfalloons Vonnegut describes how writing “allow[s] lunatics to seem saner than sane” (xxii). 16 Vonnegut endorsed Edmund Bergler’s book, The Writer and Psychoanalysis which states that “writers were fortunate in that they were able to treat their neuroses every day by writing” ( Shaking Hands 31-32). This view of “[w]riting as therapy” ( Goodbye 70) underscores the relationship between Vonnegut’s writ ings and REBT. 17 That Vonnegut’s works also hav e the potential for providing psychotherapeutic benefits to his readers finds additi onal support in Mark Vonnegut’s observance that the “difference between my fans and Kurt’s is that my fans know they’re mentally ill” ( Retrospect 8). 18 Our capacity to produce this “spark of rationality” has been called the “key to the universe” (Ramachandran 256). 19 In Timequake Vonnegut expresses his am azement at the seemingly limitless power of the human brain in his discussion of Sir Isaac Newton, describing the: tremendously truthful ideas this ordinary mortal, seemingly, uttered, with no more to go by, as far as we know, than signals from his dog’s breakfast, from his three and a half pounds of blood-soaked sponge. This one naked ape invented differential calculus! He invented the reflecting te lescope! He discovered and explained how a prism breaks a beam of sunlight into its constituent colors! He detected and wrote down previously unknown laws governing motion and gravity and optics! Give us a break! (104). 20 According to a 1982 survey of clinical psychologists, Albert Ellis is the second most influential psyc hotherapist in history, with Carl Rogers number 1 and Freud number 3 (Ram irez 1). 21 Ellis writes that REBT is “unusua lly philosophic and stresses cognitive processes in human disturbance” ( Overcoming 61), and notes that “much of the theory of REBT was derived from philosophy rather than psychology” ( Therapist 16). 22 Additionally, Freud was “one of the fi rst people to emphasize that human nature could be subjected to systematic scientific scrutiny, that one could actually look for laws of mental life in much the same way that a cardiologist might study the heart or an astr onomer study planetary motion” (Ramachandran 152). 23 Clinical application of REBT is typically found for depression, anxiety disorders, antisocial behavio r, personality disorders, relationship and family problems, and general st ress management (Froggatt 8). REBT “explain[s]


70 individual differences in responses to stre ssful life events in terms of a set of maladaptive thinking patterns” (Alloy 128). 24 REBT grew in part out of the work of Alfred Adler, w ho hypothesized that an individual “‘does not relate himself to the outside world in a predetermined manner . He relates himself always ac cording to his own interpretation of himself and of his present problem . It is his attitude toward life which determines his relationship to the outside world’” ( Humanistic 113) (quoting Adler). 25 In The Gift of Fear Gavin de Becker describes a similar process of interrelated thought, feeling, and action: “The truth is that every thought is preceded by a perception, every impulse is preceded by a thought, every action is preceded by an impul se” (16). Drawing on t he notion that how our brain chooses to view reality is determinat ive of what we interpret reality to be and how we react to it, de Becker points out that “it is the brain which sees, not the eye. Reality is in the brain before it is exper ienced” (32) (citing Burke, James. The Day the Universe Changed ). 26 Much of Bernard’s quotes of Albert E llis come from 80 audiotapes of Ellis’s clinical interviews and public lectur es, which Ellis gave to Bernard in connection with writing his book on REBT (Bernard 5). 27 Thus, the “emotionally disturbed can examine their irrational thoughts and restructure the way they view the situat ion . . Over time, a person using REBT techniques can come to do so wit hout working at it. The steps become instinctual, and in time he or she no longer needs to consciously work at viewing life in a positive, less stressful manner” (Moore 3). LeDoux recognizes that “thoughts can easily tri gger emotions,” but contends that the human brain finds it difficult to “willfully turn[ ] off emotions” (303). However, he speculates that individuals’ ability to control their emotions will be significantly enhanced in the future because, from an evolutionary standpoint, neuroscience suggests t hat the human brain may be moving toward a more pronounced “cognitive-emotional connectivity” (303). 28 Broer’s reference to “descents into self for the knowledge and wisdom to combat the chaos within and the chaos without” fittingly describes REBT’s method of disputing irrational thinking ( Sanity Plea 13). 29 REBT distinguishes between “ healthy negative feelings – such as sorrow, regret, frustration, and annoyance – and unhealthy negative feelings – such as panic, depression, rage, and self-pity” ( Therapist 21). 30 As Ellis notes, “rational” in the context of REBT means “sensible, efficient, un self-defeating” and includes “human emotion, sensitiv ity, creativity, and art as quite rational pursuits” ( New Guide 73). Rational thinking consists of thinking that “assists you (1) to survive and (2) to achieve the goals or values you select to make your survival pleasurable, enj oyable, or worthwhile” ( New Guide 23). “Rational” for REBT means “c ognition that is effective or selfhelping, not merely cognition that is empirically and logically valid” ( Overcoming 59). Irrational beliefs include thin king that undermines, erodes, or otherwise negatively affects an indi vidual’s happiness and mental and


71 physical health. Irrational beliefs also stem from a distortion or misinterpretation of reality. 31 Despite its emphasis on rational, reasoned thinking, REBT does not demand that its practitioners lead an emoti onally sterile, Spo ck-like existence, nor does it lead to a “mechanical exist ence – a life too cold, unfeeling, and machinelike [that] would undermine the creation and expre ssion of . art, literature, and music” ( New Guide 70). 32 As discussed further in Chapter Five of this thesis, many of the characters in Vonnegut’s novels, including a lar ge number of his protagonists, “unduly inhibit themselves” or “withdr aw” in this fashion. 33 The related notion of unhea lthy “awfulizing” cons ists of an individual’s tendency to “view frustrating conditions as totally bad,” to think that “[t]his frustrating condition . is completely bad, is the end of the world, is totally devastating” ( Overcoming 21). 34 REBT teaches that “what exists, exists If it includes misfortunes and frustrations, you can see that as bad. But you’d better not define it as catastrophic and awful ( Rational Living 140). 35 The cognitive conditioning of REBT “engages the prefrontal cortex executive functions . [which] incl ude . making meaning of experience” ( Anxious Brain 89). 36 Neuroscience supports these principles of REBT through the discovery that the human limbic system – responsible fo r supporting emotions and behavior – is “neither directly sensory nor motor but constitutes a central core processing system of t he brain that deals with information derived from events memories of events and emotional associations to these events This processing is essentia l if experience is to guide future behavior” (Ramachandran 178) (emphasis supplied). 37 As quoted in Phantoms in the Brain (Ramachandran 127). 38 Ellis and Vonnegut died about th ree months apart in 2007. 39 Further elaborating, Ellis states: “None of us – no, not a single, solitary one of us – fails to have intimate encounter s, almost every day of our lives, with several individuals . who behave stupidly, ignorantly, ineffectually, provocatively, frustratingly, viciously, or disturbedly” ( New Guide 196). Reflecting on the human cond ition, Vonnegut wrote t hat, when contemplating “how many people on the whole planet had . lives worth living,” his best guess was a paltry “seventeen percent” ( Timequake 141). 40 Ellis and Vonnegut approache d life with a similarly “humanistic” philosophy (Bernard 257), and both men were recognize d by the AHA as its “Humanist of the Year”: Ellis in 197 1 and Vonnegut in 1992 ( American Humanist ). 41 Todd Davis sees Vonnegut’s wor ks as demonstrating a “postmodern humanism” ( Grumbling 150). According to Ellis, the “essence” of humanism is that “man is fully acknowledged to be human – that is, li mited and fallible – and that in no way whatever is he superhuman or subhuman” ( Humanistic 2).


72 42 Ellis presents REBT as a way for indi viduals to be “more constructive and less hostile to themselves and others . surely one of the most important humanistic goals” ( Overcoming 97). 43 Vonnegut’s frequent call for the re-establishment of extended families to counteract the loneliness and loss of emotional security brought about by the Industrial Revolution further suggests that he would favor the method of emotional support offered by REBT. 44 Vonnegut often described the human brain’s tendency to engage in “ridiculous” (irrational) thinking, includi ng by “hating life while pretending to love it, and behaving accordingly” ( Timequake 163). 45 Echoing Vonnegut, Ellis notes that hum an beings are bestowed with the: most incredibly mixed-up combination of common sense and uncommon senselessness you ever did see. They of course hav e done and will continue to do wonders with their mental processes . . [P]eople grow up as highly reasonable brain-using creatures. But they also have strong tendencies to act in the most ridiculous, prejudiced, amazingly asinine ways . And even when they know they behave in a selfdefeating, perfectly senseless manner, and know they would feel far happier and healthier if they acted otherwise, they have such difficulty achieving and sustaining a level of sound and sane behavior that they rarely do so for any length of time, but keep falling back to puerile ways ( New Guide 60). 46 Spatt deems Vonnegut’s “crucial insight” to be his understanding that “although life is inevitably revealed as a tr agedy by the time the final curtain falls, it is a screamingly funny farce while the performance is on” (129). 47 A respected neuroscientist recently wr ote that he is “convinced that the most effective antidote to the absur dity of the human condition may be humor” (Ramachandran 154). 48 Mustazza cites R.B. Gill for the not ion that “we admire [Vonnegut] because he can make us laugh at the ir rationalities of our world” ( Genesis 196 n.4). Vonnegut “extracts humor out of even the direst of circumstances” ( Chronicles xiii). 49 Morse makes a related point about Vonnegut’s use of humor: “Laughter also has an added advantage over crying in that it takes far less time to recover from laughter so a person is able to begin reasoning and getting on with life” ( Imagining 5). If laughter allows us to quickly recover from the inevitable “pratfalls” ( Imagining 5) of life, we are that much quicker to think rationally and better equipped to dispute our irrational beliefs. By being a source of stress relief, humor enables us to arrive at a point of constructive engagement in which we may strive to better our condition. 50 In Palm Sunday Vonnegut reveals that his great-grandfather Clemons Vonnegut’s beliefs make up the “most ev ident thing in my writing” (177).


73 51 Vonnegut repeatedly made st atements along the lines of: “if Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being. I’d just as soon be a rattlesnake” ( Man Without 81). 52 Vonnegut found inspir ation in individuals he de scribed as “saints,” people who “behaved decently in an indecent society” ( Timequake 141). To act decently in an indecent (irrational) world requires the ability to think about oneself and others from a rational perspe ctive that recognizes and accepts reality as it is, but that seeks to improve the human situation for oneself and others to the extent one is able to do so. 53 Ellis considered himself “largely a postmodernist” ( Overcoming 37). 54 REBT recognizes that, like an author crafting a novel, all human beings construct narratives about their lives in the form of a continuing dialogue about events that happen to them and how they react to those events. 55 Vonnegut’s status as a postmodern wr iter lends further legitimacy to my interpretation of his works as illustrating principles of REBT. Like Vonnegut’s postmodernist works, REBT illuminates things in a new light, focusing on the construction of personal truth that enables one to better deal with the stress and adversity of everyday existence, fa ithful to the prem ise that the “only meaning in the universe is the meaning we create for ourselves” ( Comforting 86). 56 Davis identifies as part of Vonnegut’s “main theme” his concern “with our response to existence” ( Grumbling 151), a concern that also underlies the “theme” of REBT: how we res pond to irrational events. 57 In a novel that Vonnegut strongly endorsed, Lee Stringer’s comments arrive at the heart of REBT. 58 Like REBT, Vonnegut beckons us to br eak out of what de Becker calls the “darkest parts of the hum an soul” by listening to the “better angels” of our brain and following a path of rational thin king that reflects the “brightness of the human spirit” (298). 59 Viewing the world as “overplanted and rigged with both natural and manmade booby traps” (183), Vonnegut despai red of what he saw as an “era when so many Americans find the human condition meaningless that they are surrendering their will and their common sense” ( Fates 158). 60 In his final speech, completed shortly before his death and delivered by his son on April 27, 2007, Vonnegut revealed: “I asked Mark a while back what life was all about, since I didn’t have a clue He said, ‘Dad, we are here to help each other get through this thing, what ever it is.’ . Not bad. That one could be a keeper” ( Retrospect 30-31). His son’s emphasis on helping others without worrying about why things are the way they are struck a chord with Vonnegut, and echoes REBT’s maxim of a ccepting reality (and others), no matter how irrational or absur d it (or they) may be. 61 Ellis elaborates on the psychological ben efit of accepting unalterable reality by stating: “You look at that crummy, irrational world . and you first say to yourself, ‘Well, it’s bad, obnoxious, it’s deplorable, it’s a pain in the ass, but


74 it’s not all bad. Everything is not bad . [T]he way you live with and stop whining about realit y even when it’s crummy, and t he way you live happily . in this execrable world is by acceptance” (Bernard 80-81). 62 Vonnegut makes a similar point else where: “No matter what a young person thinks he or she is rea lly hot stuff at doing, he or she is sooner or later going to run into somebody in the same field who will cut him or her a new asshole, so to speak” ( Timequake 127). 63 As Todd Davis contends, Vonnegut is “more concerned with our response to existence than with the philosophi cal nature of that existence” ( Comforting 13). 64 In the memoir of his struggles with what was originally thought to be schizophrenia, Vonnegut’s son Mark observe s that one’s “mental health is not dependent on the moral, sociopolitic al health of the world” ( Express 208). Rather, it is greatly controlled by how we choose to use our capacity for rational thought and how we choose to re spond to forces acting upon us. In concluding his memoir, Mark Vonnegut s ounds as if he could be promoting REBT: “The things in life that are ups etting you are more than likely things well worth being upset about. It is, ho wever, possible to be upset without being crippled, and even to act effectively against those things” ( Express 214). Since Vonnegut not only read his son’s work, but frequently encouraged his audiences to do so as well it is reasonable to conclude that he agreed with or otherwise approved of Mark’s thoughts on the matter. 65 The brain sciences support REBT’s atte mpt to dispel such illusions by suggesting that “we have no privil eged position in the universe” (Ramachandran 256). Ramachandran de scribes a modern trend of brain science that rejects the idea that each in dividual is “somethi ng special in this world,” offering instead the “liberating” belief that we are “part of something larger” in the “evolving universe” (157) part of the “eternal ebb and flow of events in the cosmos” (256). 66 Referring to Billy Pilgrim, Dway ne Hoover, and Rudy Waltz, Mustazza contends that Vonnegut’s protagonists are typically men “more acted upon than acting” ( Genesis 158). While I agree that his protagonists are acted upon by outside forces, I do not interpre t Vonnegut’s depiction of them as minimizing the significance of t heir reaction to such events. 67 As Broer states, t he “standard reading” of Slaughterhouse-Five results in a “major misunderstanding of Vonnegut’s wo rk – the view that Vonnegut is a writer of ‘pessimistic’ or ‘defeatist’ novels” ( Sanity Plea 7). 68 Like the man and woman in Kilgore Trout ’s story, “The Big Board” (included in Slaughterhouse-Five ), who are kidnapped by aliens put in a zoo, told they have money invested in the stock market, and set to watch a fake investment board and ticker, which are “stimulants to make the[m] . jump up and down and cheer, or gloat, or sulk, or tear thei r hair, to be scared shitless or to feel as contented as babies in their mothers’ arms” ( Slaughterhouse-Five 192). 69 I disagree with Charles Harris’s content ion that Vonnegut takes a “dim view . of the human character” and that “[l] ike most novelists of the absurd .


75 Vonnegut entertains little hope for either social or individual reform” (Harris 133-34). 70 Vonnegut believed that “writers should serve their society” (Conversations 45). By advocating an approach to life that parallels prin ciples of REBT aimed at reducing self -defeating thoughts, belie fs, and behaviors while cultivating self-actualizi ng ones, Vonnegut’s writings serve their society by attempting to bring about positive change in the lives of the members of that society. 71 According to Vonnegut, artists exer cise rational thin king through the realization that they cannot change reality, but t hey can “make this square of canvas, or this eight-and-a-half-by-eleven pi ece of paper, or this lump of clay, or these twelve bars of music, exactly as they ought to be” (140). 72 As Klinkowitz observes, Vonnegut is concerned wit h the fact that humans are the “only creatures in nature whose lives seem[ ] bedeviled by having to find a purpose for things . [which] can distract one from the pleasures of life” ( Fact 8) and which will “almost inevitably lead to frustration when life itself refuses to work out according to [one’ s] plan” (Fact 9). Klinkowitz sees Vonnegut’s overall message as “hopef ul,” contending that a “quest for meaning” in a purposeless world can be “self-defeating” ( Fact 9). 73 I disagree with Lynn Buck’s argument t hat Vonnegut “sees man . in [a] futile struggle against his own human weaknesses and his own brilliance” (181). While Vonnegut re cognized that such a struggle exists, he did not consider it to be futile. 74 De Becker describes modern man as a “hyperanxious animal who constantly invents reasons for anxiety ever when there are none” (278) (citing Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death ). Yet, he asserts that it “need not be this way” (278) since “man’s fears are fash ioned out of the ways in which he perceives the world” (295). Followi ng the rationale of REBT, de Becker agrees that if we change our manner of perceiving realit y, we can control selfdefeating reactions like anxiety and fear. 75 REBT professes that the “way you li ve with and stop whin ing about reality even when it’s crummy, and the way you live happily . in this execrable world is by acceptance” (Bernard 81). 76 The “Serenity Prayer” is generally attr ibuted to the Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr (Goldstein 1). I read t he Serenity Prayer as specifying the state of “awareness” more broadly described in Breakfast of Champions 77 After quoting the Serenity Prayer, Vonnegut writes without further comment that “[a]mong the things Billy Pilgri m could not change were the past, the present, and the future” (58). I interpret this to be a statement of Billy’s erroneous belief, as opposed to Vonnegut’s Reading Vonnegut’s works as a whole supports the conclusi on that he, like Ellis, woul d respond that while this statement is certainly true of the past, and partly (but only partly) true of the present, it is largely no t true of the future. 78 The Serenity Prayer serves as an anti dote to Billy’s deathin-life existence, one in which he “feel[s] nothing” (100).


76 79 At least one critic has suggested t hat, rather than schizophrenia, Billy suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, since hi s symptoms appear to be caused by external event s (Vees-Gulani 176). 80 Revealing that he too has learned the REBT principle of accepting things that he cannot change and controlli ng his own thoughts and feelings, Vonnegut responds to the assassinatio ns of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the daily body counts of the dead in Vietnam, and the death of his father by simply stating: “So it goes” (200). Beginning with Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions Vonnegut seems to have “accepted suffering as a necessary part of life” ( Imagining 22). 81 “Now, when I myself hear that so mebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.’” (26). 82 Billy joins Vonnegut characters such as Bokonon, Kilgor e Trout, and Rudy Waltz in practicing the “serenity to accept things I cannot change,” while Malachi Constant, Eliot Rosewater, and Mary Hepburn practice the courage “to change the things I can” (Adabi-Nagy 16). 83 In the early 1970’s, John Somer argued that Vonnegut’s nov els comprise a continuing search for “a hero who [can] survive with dignity in an insane world” (Somer 224), with Vonnegut adv ocating the resigned acceptance of Billy Pilgrim as the best response to a harsh and uncaring reality. Conversely, Peter Scholl and Robert Merrill contend that “Vonnegut does not recommend ‘resigned acceptance’ of life’ s injustices,” and instead intends to “challenge the Tralfamadorian point of view when it is adopted by human beings in a position to know better and to act upon what they know” (Merrill 13). 84 Vonnegut’s rejection of the thinki ng of the Trafalm adorians, who “don’t believe in free will” (82), can be seen in his depiction of the absurdity of their view of the end of the universe. Althoug h they know that they will accidentally destroy the universe experimenting with a new flying saucer fuel, they never take any action to prevent the accident from occurring, even though it would simply require them to stop a button from being pushed. Vonnegut also distances himself from the Trafalmadorians by revealing that they believe that “every creature and plant in the Universe is a machi ne” (146), a belief that Vonnegut discards as irrational following his rebirth in Breakfast of Champions 85 Cautioning that cognitive science is “really a science of only a part of the mind, the part having to do with thinki ng, reasoning, and intellect,” LeDoux contends that “minds without emotions are not really minds at all. They are souls on ice – cold, lifeless creatures dev oid of any desires, fears, sorrows, pains, or pleasures” (25). By LeDoux’s account, Billy would be such a soul on ice, emotionally hollow in his self-imposed phantom reality. 86 Vonnegut’s anxiety and fear finds fr equent expression in the novel in the form of the distant but ominous barki ng of a dog: Trout (V onnegut’s alter ego) is “scared to death of dogs ” while “[s]omewhere a big dog barked” (160); just before Billy is captured by Germans dur ing the war, a “big dog barked .


77 [with] a voice like a big br onze gong” (46); and as Bill y is led to a POW camp on a cold, dark night, another “dog barked . [with] a voice like a big bronze gong” (79). 87 Beginning with Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut’s novels became “more and more autobiographical” ( Conversations 46). 88 While in a military hospital after the war, Billy hears Eliot Rosewater tell a psychiatrist: “I think you guys are going to have to come up with a lot of wonderful new lies, or people aren’t going to want to go on living” (97). Later, Billy sees Rosewater reading a Kilgore Trout novel, Maniacs in the Fourth Dimension that is about “people w hose mental diseases we re all in the fourth dimension, and three-dim ensional Earthling doctors couldn’t see those causes at all, or even imagine the m” (99). By including these passages, Vonnegut is either commenting on the psychiatric profe ssion’s inability to properly diagnose psychologic al disorders, or he is satirizing Rosewater’s view of psychiatry as offering false comforts. Since Vonnegut elsewhere revealed that he learned how to cope with hi s depression and to get “better” ( Breakfast of Champions 199) with the “help” of a psychiatrist ( Wampeters 213), I interpret these passages as being aimed at the latter. 89 Even if, as the Tralfamador ians contend, the universe inevitably ends when they accidentally destroy it, REBT suggests that it would be irrational to waste one’s life worrying about something that will not happen in o ne’s lifetime and that one has no control over anyway. 90 As the Tralfamadorians explain, “Why you ? Why us for that matter? Why anything ? Because this moment simply is ” (73). 91 As Broer states, the “s tandard reading” of Slaughterho use-Five results in a “major misunderstanding of Vonnegut’s wo rk – the view that Vonnegut is a writer of ‘pessimistic’ or ‘defeatist’ novels” ( Sanity Plea 7). 92 Vonnegut also comments on the irration al thinking often followed by his fellow man in the story about Howard Campbell’s monograph, which explains: “[H]uman beings everywhere be lieve many things that are obviously untrue . . Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy . to make money . . and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves” (123). 93 Further supporting my REBT reading of the hobo, Vonnegut’s comments at a 1974 commencement address reinforce hi s view of humanity ’s ability to choose how to react to the absurdities of life: “We had better make the best of a bad situation, which is a w onderful human skill” (Genesis 19). 94 As seen more directly in Breakfast of Champions Vonnegut rejects the Tralfamadorian belief that “e very creature . in th e Universe is a machine” (146). 95 When asked about the meaning of the title of Breakfast of Champions Vonnegut replied that it “ has to do . with my making peace with certain things that happened to me during the breakfast of my life” ( Conversations 70).


78 96 Vonnegut describes taking “a white pill which a doctor said I could take in moderation, two a day, in order not to feel blue” (254), but he is wary of the fact that his “mother wrecked her brains with chemicals, which were supposed to make her sleep” (4). 97 Vonnegut instructs in Breakfast that human beings are far too often “agreeing” machines -like Dwayne Hoov er’s wife or the prostitutes who gladly “surrendered” (74) their free will to a pimp -and too rarely the rationally thinking beings that REBT encourages us to be. 98 One brain scientist refers to the hum an brain as the “most sophisticated machine imaginable” (LeDoux 104). 99 The REBT-like message of Breakfast of Champions could be said to be that we must “learn to adapt [ourselves ] to the requirements of chaos rather than to the requirements of an orderly universe” (Lundquist 101). Rackstraw perceives a related concept in her di scussion of Vonnegut’s work with respect to how “language . creates rational order and meaning out of chaos,” but can also “distort the cl arity of our awareness” ( Paradox 54). Such analysis is readily applicable to Vonnegut’s work in the context of its illumination of principles of REBT by simply subs tituting “human thought” for “language,” thereby capturing the notion of ration al thinking creating self-affirming “meaning” juxtaposed with irrational thin king, which distorts and undermines awareness. 100 Reflecting on Breakfast of Champions in an interview with Playboy Vonnegut’s comments reveal his belief in the ability to bring about personal change: VONNEGUT: At the end of Breakfast I give characters I’ve used over and over again their freedom. I tell them I won’t be needing them anymore. They can pursue their own destinies. I guess that means I’m free to pursue my own destiny, too. I don’t have to take care of them anymore. PLAYBOY: Does that feel good? VONNEGUT: It feels different . I’ve changed. Somebody told me the other day that that was the alchemists’ secret: They weren’t really trying to transmute metals. They only pretended to do that so they could have rich patrons. What they really hoped to do was to change themselves ( Wampeters 283-84). 101 Sartre illustrates this REBT-like c oncept through Aesop’s fable of the fox and the grapes: although the fox at firs t craves the grapes, when he cannot get them despite his best efforts, he changes his belief and chooses to think that “they’re probabl y sour anyway”.


79 102 Broer notes that Happy Birthday Wanda June contains Vonnegut’s “clearest statement of belief that humank ind can become anything it wants to become” through the transformation of Ha rold Ryan from a “man of violence into a man of peace” ( Pilgrim 160 n. 80). 103 Contending that Vonnegut used Breakfast of Champions to “purge himself of his more embittered and cynical self, that eternal harbinger of doom Kilgore Trout” ( Sanity Plea 151), Broer describes Breakfast of Champions as comprising Vonnegut’s “moral rebi rth and new artistic faith” ( Goodbye 73). 104 In Breakfast of Champions Vonnegut equates himself to the “Creator of the Universe” (205). 105 He also succumbs to irrational, ca tastrophic thinking, “automatically moon[ing] about his own mo rtality” when he accidentally wanders into a morgue, and “wonder[ing] aut omatically if anything bad was growing inside himself” when he sees an x-ray machine (289). 106 He also comes to the realization that – as advocated by REBT – we must unconditionally accept and treat ourse lves and others kindly and humanely, as encapsulated by his tombstone, wh ich reads: “WE ARE HEALTHY ONLY TO THE EXTENT THAT OUR IDEAS OUR HUMAN E” (16). 107 Paralleling the ideas of the Serenity Prayer and REBT (of accepting things that cannot be changed and attempting to change those things that can be changed), Dwayne tells Harry LeSabre: “I don’t mind that you have the name of a Buick, Harry, when you’re supposed to be selling Pontiacs . You can’t help that . But there are a hell of a lot of things you can change, Harry” (47). 108 The pointless “why me” of Slaughterhouse-Five finds its way into Breakfast of Champions as well in the form of a “common question” by the people of Midland City, who were “always aski ng that as they were loaded into ambulances after accidents of various kinds, or arrested for disorderly conduct, or burglarized, or socked in the nose and so on” (43-44). 109 Dwayne could be said to represent a large segment of the human population, those in need of REBT because they “create[ ] chemicals in their own bodies which [a]re bad for their heads” (71). He “certainly wasn’t alone, as far as having bad chemicals in side of him was concerned” (137). 110 The explanation in Trout’s novel of everyone but Dwayne being robots who “have committed every possible atro city and every possible kindness . to get a reaction from Y-O-U” (263), and ha ving as their “only purpose . to stir you up in every conceivable way, so the Creator of the Universe can watch your reactions” (261) fits into the A x B = C equation of REBT as well. 111 In discussing what he feared woul d result from “technological nincompoopery,” Vonnegut suggested t he following as an appropriate message to leave to visitors to Earth after humanity has ceased to be: “WE PROBABLY COULD HAVE SAVED OURSELVES, BUT WERE TOO DAMNED LAZY TO TRY VERY HARD” ( Fates 116). The same might be said with respect to individuals’ conti nuing to follow self-d efeating irrational beliefs without trying to change them.


80 112 Vonnegut also pokes fun at our bi g brain belief in the “illusion” of “somebody . always watching over [us],” as Trout states that “People have no such illusions today. They learn very early what kind of a world this really is” (74). 113 “[L]ike all reasonable people, Vonnegut sees no problem with human inventiveness itself . . Rather, moti ve and usage are wh at he finds fault with” ( Genesis 170). 114 Similarly, the Peruvian pilot’s fee ling of elation upon launching a rocket -which Vonnegut describes as having “to be entirely products of that big brain of his” (114) -illustrates the REBT notion that what we think about events determines how we feel about them. Private Geraldo Delgado, the “paranoid schizophrenic,” is yet another example of someone whose “big brain was telling him all sorts of things that were not true” (91). 115 Vonnegut equates alcohol use (which Adolf engages in to the point of drunkenness) to an attempt to gain so me degree of control over the out-ofcontrol thinking of our brains: “Why so many of us a million years ago purposely knocked out major chunks of ou r brains with alcohol from time to time remains an interesting mystery. It may be that we were trying to give evolution a shove in the right direction – in the direction of smaller brains” (128). 116 In an exchange between Adolf and Ma ry Hepburn, Vonnegut comments on the absolutist thinking that REBT see ks to eradicate: “‘Maybe it’s time you stopped being so absolutely certain about so much!’ said Mary. ‘That thought has occurred to me,’ he said” (152). 117 This is strikingly similar to Ellis’s cont ention that “it is irrational to obsess about questions of . our place in t he universe because of the unavailability of ultimate answers” (Bernard 249). 118 As Kilgore Trout says to his son: “Y ou believe that human beings . will eventually solve all their problems and make earth into a Garden of Eden again” (158). 119 Jerome Klinkowitz reads Galapagos as ending on a note of “true optimism,” and calls it “one of the most positive works in Vonnegut’s canon” ( Effect 133). Peter Freese also sees Galapagos as ending on a positive note, explaining that while the “climax of despair and pessimism seems to have been reached . there is a ray of hope” since, out of the thousands of quotations stored in the Mandarax computer, Leon chooses an affirmative statement as the story’s epi graph: ‘In spite of everyt hing, I still believe people are really good at heart” (Freese 160). 120 Rather than standing by and letting t hem “lead lives of quiet desperation,” Vonnegut endeavors to show the “mass of men” (167) how to take some control of their lives by self-dir ection of their thought processes. 121 The phrase “Free Will or Free Won’t” is taken from: Obhi, Sukhvinder S. & Patrick Haggard. “Free Will and Free Won’t”. American Scientist (July-Aug. 2004) pp. 358-365. Web.


81 122 Although he published various thoughts and beliefs in 2005’s A Man Without a Country I consider Timequake to be Vonnegut’s last novel because it is the last fictional lit erary work that he created. 123 Vonnegut also comments how his hero, Ma rk Twain, “found life for himself and everybody else so stressful” (1). Learning to deal with the monumental stress of life is a task that Vonnegut and REBT undertake wit h similar vigor. The alternative, allowing oneself to be overcome by life’s ever present stressors, runs the danger of cultivati ng a philosophy that “being alive is a crock of shit” (3). 124 Trout’s realization is supported by modern brain science, including advanced “[c]haos and quant um theories [which] suggest that life is not predetermined,” providing “new life fo r the concept of free will” (Sweeney 217). 125 Rackstraw interpets the timequake to be a “metaphorical device to . shock readers into an awareness of their careless disregard of human potential” ( Paradox 64). 126 Quoting Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange 127 Jeffrey Schwartz refers to the “absurdity of the situation” befuddling Dr. Sunoco in similarly wondering how “three pounds of gelatinous pudding inside the skull” is “able to generate this ineffable thing called mind” (21). 128 In the epilogue to Timequake Vonnegut provides a dditional insight about REBT. Discussing the death of hi s brother, Vonnegut reveals: He was enraptured at the ve ry end by a collection of sayings of Albert Einstein. Example: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” Another: “Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world” (215). Both sayings by Einstein have relevance to REBT. The first reminds us that, while the reason why reality is the way it is may always be a mystery, by enabling us to deal wi th life events despite the inescapable uncertainty of our existence, REBT allows us to appr eciate the beauty that might otherwise be overshadowed by the absurdity of our condition. The second saying reinforces the REBT notion of the power of the human brain to dictate how we perceive and interpret realit y, while implying that how we choose to use that cognitive power shapes our mental well being. 129 Vonnegut refers to the awareness that Trout describes as the “special place of Earthlings in the cosmic schem e of things” (xiv), and explains that awareness exists “only because t here are human beings” (213). 130 According to LeDoux, the ancient Greeks commonly referred to the mind as the “soul” (24). 131 At the end of his introduction for Timequake Vonnegut describes how in the novel he pretends to be alive in 2001, imagines hi mself in 2010, places himself in 1996, and refers to himself in the ten-year period preceding 1996,


82 and concludes: “I must be nuts” for doing so (xiv). Vonnegut’s ironic statement is a comment on our unique ability to rationally think about the past, present, and future, and to imagine alternative beliefs and behaviors. 132 In recent years, scholars have in creasingly taken to reading Vonnegut’s works as projecting a more positive outlo ok. In his 1994 essay, “Images of the Shaman,” Broer interprets Vonnegut’s works as projecting an ultimately optimistic view of the world with the aut hor cast in the role of a “‘Shaman,’ a kind of spiritual medicine m an whose function it is to expose . various forms of societal madness . while encourag ing reflectiveness and the will to positive social change” (203). Broer s ees Vonnegut’s despair in reaction the irrationality of reality as “balanced by an optimistic faith in the possibility of change or renewal” (201), echoing REBT’s call to change irrational thoughts and beliefs. Peter Reed’s 1996 essay, “The Responsive Shaman: Kurt Vonnegut and His World,” similarly contends that “Vonnegut keeps on being bothered that so much in life does make him feel cyn ical, that he keeps on trying to cheer, trying to inform, trying to affirm . . This lar ger persistence underlies the surface dismissiveness” ( Shaman 51). In his 2001 essay, “Vonnegut’s Goodbye: Kurt Senior, Hemingway, and Kilgore Trout,” Broer notes how critics “no longer persist in reading Vonnegut as a writer of ‘pessimistic’ or ‘defeatist’ novels, but at long last appreciate the nature of his work as therapy . [which] warns against the perils of fatalism” (Boon 80) (emphasis supplied). In his 2006 publication, Kurt Vonnegut’s Crusade Todd Davis cites Charles Harris’s 1990 essay, “Illusi on and Absurdity: The Novels of Kurt Vonnegut,” as representat ive of the frequent (mist aken) interpretation of Vonnegut’s works as depicting the “futility of human endeavor, the meaninglessness of human existence” ( 10). As Davis argues, “Vonnegut’s belief that the universe is purposeless is not his main theme; it is his assumption” (11). Davis contends that Vonnegut offers suggestions for better living and “hope for the despo ndent” (11), and “strives to make sense of our existence, to understand better how he should live in a world absurdly committed to its own destruction” (85). All of these scholars have offered insightful perspectives on Vonnegut’s continuing quest to understand how we -“never having been asked to be born in the first place” ( Timequake 139) -should handle living in an irra tional, absurd world. In this thesis, I offer a new perspective by extending t hat fundamental issue of Vonnegut’s wrorks to the essential issue underlying REBT. In doing so, I contend that Vonnegut’s writings support principles of REBT as mapping the way to live in an absurd, irrational world. 133 REBT and Vonnegut follow Sarte by holding that we have free will in that we always have choices with respect to what to believe, how to feel, and how to behave (though the choices are sometimes constrained by our circumstances). 134 As quoted in How to Win Friends and Influence People (Carnegie 70).


83 135 Vonnegut’s belief in the interconnec ted relationship of literature and science can be seen in the fate of Kilgore Trout, who, in Breakfast of Champions becomes “recognized as a great artist and scientist” (15), promoting mental hea lth by teaching his REBT-like insights through literature, “advanc[ing] his theories disguised as science fiction [sto ries]” (15). 136 Even though the “excrement [has] hit the air conditioner” ( Hocus Pocus 4), Vonnegut still sees a potential saint in each of us: “saints . who could be anywhere . people who behave [ ] decently in a strikingly indecent society” ( Man Without 106). Behaving decently in an indecent and absurd world requires one to live and act rationally am idst a maelstrom of irrationality, presupposing an ability to control negative emotions, irrational beliefs, and hostile reactions in an imperfect often hostile reality. 137 According to his son, Vonnegut was an “optimist posing as a pessimist” ( Retrospect 7).


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87 _______________. “Vonnegut the Essayist.” In At Millennium’s End. Ed Kevin Alexander Boon. Albany: State U. of New York Pr ess, 2001. 1-16. Print. [“Essayist”]. Krishnamurti, Jiddu. Think on These Things New York: Harper & Row, 1989. Print. Lain, Doug. “Kurt Vonnegut: A Blogger Tribute”. Web. July 28, 2009. LeDoux, Joseph. The Emotional Brain New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. Lincoln, Abraham (as quoted by thinkexi Web. Feb. 17, 2010. Lundquist, James. Kurt Vonnegut New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1977. Print. Merrill, Robert. Introduction to Critical Essays on Kurt Vonnegut Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1990. Print. Moore, James A. “Changi ng the Way You Think Can Change the Way You Feel: A Program Design Utilizi ng Rational Emotive Behavior Group Therapy.” Dissertation submitted June 22, 2005. Print. Morse, Donald E. The Novels of Kurt Vonnegut: Imagining Being an American Westport: Praeger, 2003. Print. [“Imagining”]. Mustazza, Leonard. Forever Pursuing Genesis Lewisburg: Bucknell U. Press, 1990 Print. [“Genesis”]. Price, Virginia A. “What is Type A? A Cognitive Social Learning Model.” Journal of Occupational Behavior Vol. 3, no. 1 (Jan. 1982). 109-29. Print. Rackstraw, Loree. Love As Always, Kurt Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2009. Print [“Kurt”]. ______________. “Quantum Leaps in the Vonnegut Mindfield.” In At Millennium’s End Ed. Kevin Alexander Boon. Albany: State U. of New York Press, 2001. 49-63. Print. [“Quantum”]. ______________. “The Paradox of ‘Awareness’ and Language in Vonnegut’s Fiction.” In Kurt Vonnegut: Images and Representations Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000. 51-66. Print. [“Paradox”]. Ramachandran, V.S. Phantoms in the Brain New York: Harper Perennial, 1998, 1999. Print.


88 Ramirez, Anthony. “Despite Illness and Lawsuits, a Famed Psychotherapist is Temporarily Back in Session.” New York Times (Dec. 10, 2006) Web. Nov. 5, 2009. Reed, Peter J. “The Responsive Shaman: Kurt Vonnegut and His World.” In The Vonnegut Chronicles Ed. Peter J. Reed & Marc Leeds. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996. 4758. Print. [“Shaman”]. __________. “Lonesome Once More: The Fa mily Theme in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick .” In The Vonnegut Chronicles Ed. Peter J. Reed & Marc Leeds. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996. 113-22. Print. [“Lonesome”]. __________ & Marc Leeds. “Introduction” to The Vonnegut Chronicles Ed. Peter J. Reed & Marc Leeds. Westpor t: Greenwood Press, 1996. xii-xix. Print. [“Chronicles”]. Scheurich, Neil. “Reading, Listening, and Other Beleaguere d Practices in General Psychiatry.” Literature & Medicine 23, no. 2 (Fall 2004). 304-17. Print. Shakespeare, William. Hamlet The Riverside Shakespeare. Vol. II. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997. Print. Shem, Samuel. “Psychiatry and Litera ture: a Relational Perspective.” Literature & Medicine 10 (1991). 42-65. Print. Somer, John. “Geodesic Vonnegut; or If Buckminster Fuller Wrote Novels.” In The Vonnegut Statement Ed. Jerome Klinkowitz and John Somer. New York: Delacorte Press, 1973. 221-54. Print. Spatt, Hartley S. “Kurt Vonnegut: Ludic Luddite.” At Millennium’s End Ed. Kevin Alexander Boon. Albany: State U. of New York Press, 2001. 11934. Print. Stringer, Lee. Grand Central Winter New York: Seven Stories Press, 1998. Print. Sweeney, Michael S. Brain: the Complete Mind Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2009. Print. Tanner, Tony. “The Uncertain Messenger.” Rpt. in Critical Essays on Kurt Vonnegut Ed. Robert Merrill. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1990. 125-30. Print Vees-Gulani, Susanne. “Diagnosing Billy Pilgrim: A Psychiatric Approach to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.” Critique Vol. 44, no. 2 (Winter 2003). 175-84. Print.


89 Vonnegut, Kurt. A Man Without a Country New York: Random House, 2005. Print. [“Man Without”]. ____________. Armageddon in Retrospect New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008. Print [“Retrospect”]. ____________. Breakfast of Champions New York: Dial Press, 1973 (2006 ed.). Print. ____________. Fates Worse Than Death New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1991. Print. [“Fates”]. ____________. Galapagos New York: Delacorte Press, 1985. Print. ____________. “How to Write with Style.” Rpt. in 80 Readings for Composition David Munger ed. New Yo rk: Pearson, 2006 [“Style”]. ____________. Interview with Walter Mille r. Essential Vonnegut. New York: Harper Collins, 2006. Audio. [“Essential”]. ____________. Palm Sunday New York: Dell Publishing, 1981 (1999 ed.). Print. ____________. Slaughterhouse-five New York: Delacorte Press, 1969 (1994 ed.). Print. ____________. Timequake New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1997. Print. ____________. Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons New York: Dell Publishing, 1965 (1989 ed.). Print. Vonnegut, Mark. The Eden Express New York: Praeger Publishers, 1975. Print. Wehrenberg, Margaret. The 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2008. Print. Wehrenberg, Margaret & Steven M. Prinz. The Anxious Brain: the Neurological Basis of Anxiety Disorders and How to Effectively Treat Them New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007. Print [“Anxious Brain”]


ABOUT THE AUTHOR Joseph J. Ward earned a B.A. in English from the University of South Florida and a Juris Doctor degree cum laude from the Florida Stat e University College of Law. In addition to pr acticing law full time, he has been an adjunct faculty member at Pasco-Hernando Community Co llege in Brooksville, Florida since 2007. He is an “AV” peer re view rated attorney, signif ying the highest rating in legal ability and ethical standards. He is the author of several peer-reviewed publications on subjects concerning Flor ida and federal law. He is now a pseudo-psychologist who woul d have liked to have met Kurt Vonnegut before the writer relocated – as he joked to a gat hering of humanists -“up in heaven”.


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