Benchmarking Antidemocracy: A Review of Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut

Imagine a dysfunctional family consisting of a terrible father, a mother, and a child. The father brutally beats up the mother. Someone films the beating and gives the video to the child. The child is horrified and takes the video to the police. In return, the child is sent to prison for life.

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As I write this, the UK trial of Julian Assange continues about which one pundit asks, “Should journalists and publishers be punished for exposing US war crimes? And, ancillary to that question: should we allow them to be punished by the very people who committed those war crimes?” (1) We might also ask, no, we should ask, isn’t it our responsibility to expose such things in a democratic society?

Outspoken anti-war novelist Kurt Vonnegut obviously wonders about such things too in Hocus Pocus his novel of 1990. In forty chapters (think a Biblical significance of forty: days, years, lashes) through his protagonist Gene, Vonnegut skewers a government that engages in atrocities. “During my 3 years in Vietnam, I certainly heard plenty of last words by dying American footsoldiers. Not 1 of them, however, had illusions that he had somehow accomplished something worthwhile in the process of making the Supreme Sacrifice.” When new recruits arrive fresh off the boat for a tour in Vietnam, Gene welcomes them with, “This is a great opportunity.” In his view Vietnam was about show business with the goal of “trying to get a big audience for the Government on TV by killing real people with live ammunition, something the other advertisers were not free to do.”

Our situation seems both better and worse than during the Vietnam era. On one hand the free internet (at least the internet of eight years ago) seeks to give voice to events governments would prefer to hide. On the other hand government and the colluding mainstream media undertake a virtual blackout on coverage and censorship across the net of anything against their militaristic and capitalist agendas. Case in point yet again: the apparent collusion in North America media to ignore news about or critique Julian Assange’s trial. (Thank god for Consortium News.)

I’m not sure what is or is not being covered by British media but a reasonable person might cynically suspect that the current motto of the UK is “Make the 1500’s and 1600’s Great Again.” Back then, respectively, the UK had the kangaroo trials and sentencing to death of Thomas More and Thomas Whitebread. Today the UK is engaging in what appears to be a British revival of the Nazi People’s Court (Sondergericht), which could send Julian Assange back to America’s own version of the same court to face a sentence of 170 years in prison.

Assange is already noted on the same sad page as John Drakard who in 1808 in the UK was indicted and sentenced to over 18 months in prison for an article titled One Thousand Lashes that exposed military flogging. Then, the jury was instructed that the military establishment had been injured and “it was not to be permitted to any man to make the people dissatisfied with the Government under which he lives.” (2) With such a statement, democracy in which somehow the government is no longer of and by the people seems presupposed.

“The enormous gap between what US leaders do in the world and what Americans think their leaders are doing is one of the great propaganda accomplishments of the dominant political mythology.” — Michael Parenti

As a country, America is often vocal about war crimes committed by countries we deem momentarily fashionable enemies. Yet America is terrible at speaking out about its own war crimes. American mainstream news seemingly has all but given up any interest in reporting anything but government/corporate agendas. As for us, we apparently learn well or we’re good little brainwashed subjects.

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This is why, more than ever, we need journalists who expose war crimes. Regarding Assange, we should never forget that it was Wikileaks that exposed that US helicopter crew laughing as they bombed and killed civilians, just one of many atrocities. Furthermore, as most of the world realizes, contrary to the few bent on prosecuting Assange, we have a duty to protect the rights of journalists and publishers who expose such crimes. Finally, given today’s climate we must call those who expose what they are: Heros.

We also need heroes in the form of novelists who criticize war and the unmitigated jingoist rhetoric surrounding war. This is a club of precious few novelists, it seems. I think of Heller, Catch-22, Grossman, Life and Fate, Littell, The Kindly Ones, Trumbo, Johnny Got his Gun, Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front, and of course works by Vonnegut. There are a few others more or less critical in various ways.

Gene Pool

Hocus Pocus, appearing 21 years after Slaughterhouse-Five, is a novel themed with the denial of plans and desires. Eugene Debs Hartke finds that his schooling, career, love live, health — forward progress in general, are subject to life’s stutters that he calls “booby traps” of fate. He endures these without much worry; he never offers regrets or apologies. He says, quoting the writer Slazinger, “Being an American means never having to say you’re sorry.” And so Gene keeps going, usually somewhat satisfied, or at least finding that the aggregation of actualities is anabolic in consequence.

HP is a fractured fairy tale. In Vonnegut’s typical style, the writing skitters, past to present, re: Poe, “Keeping time, time, time/In a sort of Runic rhyme.” Gene revisits his tour in Vietnam, he undertakes a long exposition of his teen years in which he accomplished nothing of noteworthiness, at least according to his father. He recounts the time his father was caught having a love affair and was beaten up by the other woman’s husband. Gene remarks, “This was a sensitive subject with my parents, naturally, so I never discussed it with them.” Gene’s lack of exceptional results prompts dear old dad, a fired chemical engineer, to devise a brilliant science fair project that is so obviously not level appropriate that Dad is taken aside by a judge and told to withdraw it. No loss, Gene doesn’t want any of it and he rushes to leave the building, but in usual form, one booby trap leads to another. “But I stopped before the 1 exit blocked by Sam Wakefield. There went the ball game.” The moment is a Sternean derailing of all that might have been.

We find in HP not the the writing the entirety of one’s life racing against the ticking of the clock as we do in Tristram Shandy, rather we find “bells, bells, bells” a hearkening to the tintinnabulation of Poe in which the bells toll life’s events. Gene attends West Point and serves in the war. He is hired as the carillonneur at Tarkington College where he also teaches physics. He is eventually fired for statements taken out of context and for “moral turpitude” involving the wife of the college’s President, about 30 times in fact. He is dismissed with an Omar Khayyám quote “Unfortunately for all of us,” he said, “the moving finger writes; and, having writ, moves on.” To which Gene replies,“You said a mouthful.” On the funny-scale the line is a tie with the scene of Mickey, the prison escapee who picks up a hitchhiking Pee Wee Herman. They talk and Mickey says he was in jail for cutting off the label of a mattress. Pee Wee says “I always thought that was a dumb law,” and Mickey replies “You said a mouthful.”

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Most of HP centers around a pool of water called Lake Mohiga. Tarkington College is located on a hill on one side and looks across said lake to Athena, the New York State Maximum Security Adult Correctional Institution. After being fired, Gene luckily transitions into working at the prison and he lives at the nearby lakeside ghost town with his demented wife and mother. When Jamaicans finally storm the prison and allow everyone to escape, Gene is, according to others, a mastermind for the break. The ruined prison is no longer inhabitable so Tarkington College is take over as the replacement prison. Gene, now a prisoner, suffers from TB and sits in the prison’s particularly well-stocked library, where he writes his biography on scraps of paper. Currently he is making two lists, one of all the women he slept with, the other all the people in Nam he killed, which he discovers to be the same number (82 for anyone who doesn’t want to do the math based on his clues at the end of the novel.) Do we believe him? Well, Gene doesn’t lie, so he says. Right. And pigs fly. And this book is about an Eden.

Along his journey, Gene interacts with many people. Noted are: Patton, but not that Patton, Gloria the movie star, but not that Gloria, Arthur Clarke, but middle initial not C but K, Updike, but not that Updike, Darwin, but not that Darwin, and a former writer in residence writer named Slazinger, “no prize himself, of course” in what seems an obvious jab.

If you want my opinion, I believe Vonnegut’s HP probably was the catalyst for Mark Leyner’s The Tetherballs of Bougainville (1998) in which the father of a young Mark Leyner is forever under the threat of the New Jersey State Discretionary Execution program. And, as an added bonus opinion, the musical equivalent to this book would be David Lang’s Cheating, Lying, Stealing.

A Better Dystopia

Vonnegut presents us with a rage against the imperialist machine. In doing so he gives us a dystopia worse than that of Brave New World. Whereas BNW accepted a normalcy of hierarchy, power, and capitalism, Vonnegut holds a mirror up to our rotten selves and the antidemocracy we’ve both designed and accepted. (3)

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Everything that rakes in capital, insurance companies, the prison system, professional sports teams, is owned by foreign entities, for example by the Japanese “Army of Occupation in Business Suits” — they have smartly avoided touching public education. The country is stuck in a moral confusion and false consciousness that privileges identity politics, so for example there is a law that there must be an balance of races of prisoners in any one prison, leading to the declaring of some races as white. Gasoline is pretty much unavailable. Gene, with tuberculosis, can’t evidently find or afford to see a doctor. Free speech is gone, Gene says, “Years ago, I might have found out through the Freedom of Information Act. But the Supreme Court closed that peephole.” Wealth is liquid and abstract. A whole class has risen, one of “preening, narcissistic quacks like yourself who say in the service of the rich and shameless polluters that the state and atmosphere and the water and the topsoil on which all life depends is as debatable as how many angels can dance on the fuzz of a tennis ball.” The government’s job is to protect the rich from the lower classes.

It’s amazing that Vonnegut captured a world that in 1990 wasn’t as obvious as it is now. Frightening is the fact that we’ve nearly turned into exactly his vision. Doubly frightening is that most people, including many academics who really should know better, recognizes the problems, and do nothing about it, focusing instead on safe little pot banging fauxtests and hat wearing hacktivism combined with NIMBY viewpoints. Meanwhile the crap continues unabated. Here’s an appropriate example from Vonnegut:

Gene is speaking to a group of academics at his firing meeting:

“She went onto say that there had always been people who had tried to become famous by saying that the World was going to end, but the World hadn’t ended.

“There were nods of agreement all around the table. I don’t think there was a soul there who knew anything about science.

‘When I was here you were predicting the end of the World,’ she said, ‘only it was atomic waste and acid rain that were going to kill us. But here we are. I feel fine. Doesn’t everybody else feel fine? So pooh.’”

Yep, that’s the sickness.

For me, reading HP was a bit like watching Chevy Chase in Caddyshack. Gene is sly, cool, sardonic, full of quips and there is an underlying almost tired, dated anger. So when Gene remarks,“But then her husband died because he had inhaled so much paint remover. The germs inside him couldn’t have felt too great, either,” it’s like Chase appearing on Carson circa 1980. Vonnegut redeems himself two paragraphs later when he revisits the scene, “Muriel [the barmaid] and I would eventually become lovers, but not until I had been working at Athena Prison for 2 weeks. I finally got nerve enough to ask her, since she and Jerry had both majored in Literature at Swarthmore College, if either of them had ever taken the time to read the label on a can of paint remover. ‘Not until it was much too late,’ she said.”

Ba-dum-tssss.

HP presents Americans as heartless, stupid, malicious, and obedient sociopaths. In a essay later in my copy of the book, Vonnegut speaks of accepting a prize in Italy for his novel Galápagos. “Everybody was suddenly talking about a story that had just appeared in the papers and on TV. It said that American troops with bulldozers ahd buried alive thousands of Iraqi soldiers in tunnels where they were hiding from our shells and bombs and rockets. I answered without hesitation that American soldiers could not be found who would do a thing that heartless. Wrong again.”

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Vonnegut in this novel is positioned in a space triangulated by George Orwell, Julian Assange, and John Pilger. Vonnegut sums up, “The Vietnam War couldn’t have gone on as long as it did, certainly, if it hadn’t been human nature to regard persons I didn’t know and didn’t care to know, even if they were in agony, as insignificant. A few human beings have struggled against this most natural of tendencies, and have expressed pity for unhappy strangers. But, as history shows, as History yells: ‘They have never been numerous.” Any critic who simply suggested Vonnegut was an angry old man in first reviews of HP unwittingly complied with kleptocratic militaristic interests.

As you see, I argue that not only do we need more journalists and publishers willing to confront our current forever wars and injustices, we need more novelists with moral outrage and the unmitigated courage to critique with fiction. If I read one more novel blurb that says, “who suddenly goes missing” or “a secret that will ruin” I’m going to barf, literally and stinkingly barf. I also suggest it would behoove us to teach young adults, ironically those who in a Vonnegutian manner are addicted to the Chinese owned TikTok and who love the censorship plagued Facebook and Twitter, the mindset of criticality that would allow them to castigate war crimes rather than to teach books like To Kill a Mockingbird that are too easily reduced to virtue signaling. It would be an educational move relevant to where we are at and what we’ve become. Hocus Pocus fits the need.

References

(1) Johnstone, C. (February 25, 2020). ASSANGE EXTRADITION: Should Journalists Be Punished For Exposing War Crimes? Consortium News.

(2) Madison, P.A. (October 18, 2008). Original Meaning: Freedom of Speech or of the Press. The Federalist Blog.

(3) I don’t find an etymology of antidemocracy, so I’ll attribute it to Sheldon Wolin from Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, Princeton University Press, 2008. It’s worth quoting Wolin at length: “Antidemocracy does not take the form of overt attacks upon the idea of government by the people. Instead, politically it means encouraging what I have earlier dubbed “civic demobilization,” conditioning an electorate to being aroused for a brief spell, controlling its attention span, and then encouraging distraction or apathy. The intense pace of work and the extended working day, combined with job insecurity, is a formula for political demobilization, for privatizing the citizenry. It works indirectly. Citizens are encouraged to distrust their government and politicians; to concentrate upon their own interests; to begrudge their taxes; and to exchange active involvement for symbolic gratifications of patriotism, collective self-righteousness, and military prowess. Above all, depoliticization is promoted through society’s being enveloped in an atmosphere of collective fear and of individual powerlessness: fear of terrorists, loss of jobs, the uncertainties of pension plans, soaring health costs, and rising educational expenses.”

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”

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