“When he hath tried me I shall come forth as gold.”–Job, Kurt Vonnegut, and “Breakfast of Champions”

To start with the boring stuff and get it out of the way first, here’s what I had for breakfast today.  I have it for breakfast six days a week, and on the seventh, I have some version of scrambled eggs (or fried eggs) and toast:

1 cup fat-free plain yoghurt, 5 strawberries sliced, 1/2 banana sliced, 1 Tablespoon peanut butter, cinnamon, 2 packets Splenda, 1 cup sugar free Langer’s pomegranate juice.

Here’s what I usually have for lunch, unless it’s a day when we haven’t cooked beans, in which case I have some sort of sandwich (an egg sandwich if I didn’t have eggs for breakfast):

2 scoops of beans, cooked with fragments of red and green bell peppers or carrots, and onions.  4-6 wheat crackers.  Water.  (Alternate days are sometimes big chef salad and croissant days, rarely).

For dinner, I have various things, no red meat usually:

1 green vegetable, steamed without sauce but with some salt added after cooking, 1 yellow or white vegetable with margarine or 1 cup pasta with red sauce, 1 3-4 oz. serving of fish, chicken, or turkey.  (On alternate weekends, I have one pizza with veggies meal.)

After dinner:  1 apple or orange, average size.

My constant struggle:  to avoid salty snacks and to try to limit desserts with meals.

That was the boring part, and now it’s over.  But is it?  Kurt Vonnegut and his spokesman Kilgore Trout from Breakfast of Champions say “No.”  I picked up the book today to look for the section which has stuck in my mind all these years (and I won’t say exactly how many) since I first read the book at 21.  The section of the book I’m referring to is the section in which Kilgore Trout is sitting in a pornographic film theater and he imagines the subject of a new book while he is sitting.

The story he imagines takes place on “a planet where all the animal and plant life had been killed by pollution, except for humanoids.  The humanoids ate food made from petroleum and coal.”  When a human astronaut comes to this planet, they give him a big feast, but of course the food is execrable.  Their dinner table conversation is about censorship, of all things.  Their whole city is innundated with “dirty movie” houses.  The residents of the planet want to put the theaters out of business without limiting free speech.  So far, it sounds like a real-life script we’re familiar with.

But when the astronaut goes with his hosts to see a movie presentation “As dirty as movies could get” on his own home planet, Earth, what he sees is something he would never have predicted.  I quote at length:

“So the theatre went dark and the curtains opened.  At first there wasn’t any picture.  There were slurps and moans from loudspeakers.  Then the film itself appeared.  It was a high quality film of a male humanoid eating what looked like a pear.  The camera zoomed in on his lips and tongue and teeth, which glistened with saliva.  He took his time about eating the pear.  When the last of it had disappeared into his slurpy mouth, the camera focused on his Adam’s apple.  His Adam’s apple bobbed obscenely.  He belched contentedly, and then these words appeared on the screen, but in the language of the planet:  The End.”

“It was all faked, of course.  There weren’t any pears anymore.  And the eating of a pear wasn’t the main event of the evening anyway.  It was a short subject, which gave the members of the audience time to settle down.”

“Then the main feature began.  It was about a male and a female and their two children, and their dog and their cat.  They ate steadily for an hour and a half–soup, meat, biscuits, butter, vegetables, mashed potatoes and gravy, fruit, candy, cake, pie.  The camera rarely strayed more that a foot from their glistening lips and their bobbing Adam’s apples.  And then the father put the cat and dog on the table, so they could take part in the orgy, too.”

“After a while, the actors couldn’t eat anymore.  They were so stuffed that they were goggle-eyed.  They could hardly move.  They said they didn’t think they could eat again for a week, and so on.  They clearred the table slowly.  They went waddling out into the kitchen, and they dumped about thirty pounds of leftovers into a garbage can.”

“The audience went wild.”

The astronaut, Don, goes outside only to find food whores on the sidewalk, who offer real food goods that aren’t actually obtainable on that planet.  The “humanoids” say that a whore could take him home and cook expensive petroleum and coal products for his consumption, “[a]nd then while he ate them, she would talk dirty about how fresh and full of natural juices the food was, even though the food was fake.”

Though every blurb on the book and every reviewer I’ve run across mentions Vonnegut’s great satirical and comic status, what really stuck in my mind about this particular part of Breakfast of Champions was how painfully close it is to a future we are really threatened by, and it’s close on several levels.  Firstly, the point about pollution is even more well-taken now than it was when Vonnegut published this book, back in the early 70s.  Secondly, we are exploiting all of our natural resources at such an alarming rate that it has finally become a real issue in a presidential election coming up this fall, and though it has been mentioned in previous years, now it is serious as it has never been before.  We have invented so many of the necessities of our lives from petroleum and coal that we can almost imagine an earth fated to subsist on them entirely.  We no longer have the illusion that our earthly goods are unlimited.  Thirdly, we are in a season of despair and frenetic groping after the subject of love itself–not only do we look to movies, television shows, and various kinds of shrieking publicity to obtain our love from others, both “brotherly” love and sexual/passionate love, but we are involved in intricate dances of love and hate with figures in the public eye through various media outlets.  Finally, and perhaps most tellingly for Vonnegut’s satire, much of the world is starving right now, in their own countries from famine and drought, in other countries in refugee camps, and in all sorts of bad weather conditions which have, in turn, caused the food shortages we are suffering from.  So, through global warming the satire circles back upon itself here.

My point about Vonnegut’s book, if anything, is that even just that one part of his satire which I am claiming for my inspiration today–and the whole book is full of such moments of self-recognition with only a slight wry twist for fantasy’s sake–is more than enough to ensure that though Vonnegut died a few years back on April 11, 2007 and before that lived an event- and trauma-filled life, he can justifiably say, with Job, “When he hath tried me I shall come forth as gold.”  The quote from Job appears at the beginning of Breakfast of Champions.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to ““When he hath tried me I shall come forth as gold.”–Job, Kurt Vonnegut, and “Breakfast of Champions”

  1. Beautiful, powerful, insightful post. Vonnegut is one of my very favorite writers and inspirations for my own writing, and one of the most important writers of the 20th Century without question. In fact, I plan to relatively soon do one of my “Mainstream Writer Tributes” (link in the TOO RADICAL?? button on top of my page, I’ve only done one so far, on John Irving, but more to come! I really love the parallels you draw between that sequence in Breakfast of Champions and our modern industrial society. You know the whole point of my blog is to try and help inspire people to realize the total unsustainability of industrial civilization, and its imminent collapse, so I REALLY appreciate and admire this post =)

    –Love and Liberation–

    Jan

    • Thanks for your kind words. I’m glad that you can find something on my site to relate to. What’s a little dismaying to realize is that despite the fact that Kurt Vonnegut came to these conclusions so long ago, and he had degrees or had done work both in mechanical engineering and in anthropology, it took this long for a presidental party (and here I stick by Presidents Clinton and Obama) to take a strong stand about our environment and what we do with it.

  2. Th story does sound interesting. I was enamoured with the movie ‘Blade Runner’ in my younger years, and still am to some degree. A slightly associated point is that people ate ‘offworld lichen’, due to lack of food in their dystopian future. A clean yet dystopian future would be interesting, as the dystopian future is always a dirty one.

    To build on the point you were making, I had had the thought of a story world where there are literally no crops on land. ‘Agricultural platforms’ float the world’s oceans, which check in at port-like locations to feed those on land. I could not follow the idea through far enough to make a decent story of it though =\

    As far as world survival goes, we indeed need to ‘play the game’ better than we are.

    • I’ve never seen “Blade Runner,” but if it incorporates looking at things from an entirely new perspective the way “Breakfast of Champions” does on every page, then it must be a winner. Your agricultural platforms on the world oceans for some reason remind me of J. Swift’s cloud cities in “Gulliver’s Travels.” (That’s not the whole title, I don’t think, I haven’t read it since undergraduate days and haven’t taught it for years either). Also, Italo Calvino has a book called “Invisible Cities” that’s so good it cries out to be read, though I don’t really recall them being dystopian cities, but maybe you can establish a relationship such that you can do what some authors do and put quotes from Swift and/or Calvino at the head of your novel to let readers know those predecessors inspired you in part (if they do–I’m only guessing here).

      • ‘Blade Runner’ was based on a Philip K. Dick story ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’.

        In a very general nutshell, it uses the scenario that the robots that exist are ‘more human than human’. They look just like us, but are superior in almost every aspect, except for their extremely limited lifespans. If they are found on Earth, the ‘Blade Runners’ are tasked with their execution.

        It asks the question of what makes humans human? The story decides on empathy. The robots were very self-centred, and they did not care for the pain of others.

        A cloud city dystopia? There is a game due out next year called ‘Bioshock Infinite’. The gist of the game, according to Wikipedia, is ‘building on the ideas of American Exceptionalism in the early 20th century, the game’s protagonist, a former Pinkerton agent is sent in 1912 to the floating air-city of Columbia to seek out a young woman who has been held captive there for the last twelve years.’

  3. Talk about Julia Kristeva’s “intertextuality!” (I.e., intertextuality is not actually about deliberate imitation as much as it is about the collisions and interrelationships that creative works have among themselves willy-nilly, whether or not it’s deliberate–i.e., the author’s intentions are unimportant). I think if you’re interested in this concept Kristeva’s relevant text is “Desire in Literature,” or “Desire and Literature,” I can’t remember the exact title.

    • Intertextuality would be the literary equivalent of ‘everyone has a different opinion’, wouldn’t it? One author would use an idea in one way, while a different author use it in another. And that is only ever decided by life events or the direction of your reading.

      • No, that’s not really what intertextuality is about, but it’s very hard to explain, for me at least. When I said “collisions and interactions” I perhaps should have said “coincidences and interactions.” It’s about things in art works that seem alike, even though the artists had no such intention, perhaps, and even though some modern and post-modern theory has taught us that what the author intends is not important to what shape the work assumes for readers. This idea that the text is self-sufficient when it comes to meaning and that the author’s intentions are less important than what is actually (successfully) in the text started in the first half of the 20th century, with the New Critics and New Criticism (see in wikipedia, if you like to go there). The idea was further developed in other schools of criticism by post-modernist critics and writers (1945-present time) and post-structuralists in a slightly different way (read in wikipedia on post-modernism and post-structuralism). But all this is heavy slogging, so let me just say that in my first comment to you, I was just noticing all the different kinds of cities-of-other-than-ordinary-qualities you were prepared to comment on, and I saw certain similarities. All this stuff I mention above is just background if you get around to it, though if you’re interested in literary and critical history at all, it’s interesting.

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