Who cares?: The insignificance of the individual in Vonnegut’s Galápagos, by Liam Zivkovic © 2015
One of the defining, and perhaps most crucial aspects, of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Galápagos” is the unimportance of the individual. Our deceased narrator, whose ghost now inhabits the Bahia de Darwin, is of the opinion that the characters, at least as individuals, are rather insignificant. Is he wrong? Not entirely. Vonnegut creates a sense of detachment from the characters via the unfolding story, as told by Leon Trout, as well as through the prominent use of the asterisk which indicates a character’s end is near.
The actions of certain characters, such as Mary Hepburn’s plan to inseminate the Kanka Bono girls with the Captain’s sperm, are paramount to the outcome of human evolution. However, these characters personalities, hobbies, and past lives are entirely insignificant to the outcome of human evolution (at least according to Leon Trout). Trout contemplates what human life would have been like after a million years if the original passenger list had boarded the Bahia de Darwin and decides that it wouldn’t have been much different. He claims, “in the long run, I don’t think it would have made much difference which males did the impregnating, Mick Jagger or Dr. Henry Kissinger or the Captain or the cabin boy. Humanity would still be pretty much what it is today” (199).
It seems that where humanity ended up is far more important than the individual characters themselves. Leon seems quite content with the evolutionary path humanity has taken. His outlook is quite utopian and Trout seems positive that “thanks to certain modifications in the design of human beings” (such as fingers becoming nubbins, and the reduction in size of our previously problematic and oversized brains) he sees “no reason why the earthling part of the clockwork can’t go on ticking forever the way it is ticking now” (319). It’s interesting how Trout considers these as being improvements in the human evolutionary scheme. Wouldn’t smaller brains make life more difficult? Not according to the narrator, at least. He repeatedly points out that human intelligence was the root cause for the extinction of the majority of the human race.
Vonnegut’s use of the asterisk as a device to eliminate the suspense of when the characters will die (we know their up next) is simultaneously successful in creating suspense with regards to how they will die. The asterisk is effective in creating a sense of detachment towards the characters, as is Trout’s often anti-climactic and matter of fact descriptions of various character deaths. For example, Mary Hepburn, arguably the story’s most important character, goes into the ocean to retrieve the Mandarax which the delusional Captain had thrown into the water and has her death described by Vonnegut as such; “So that game old lady went right in after it. She got one hand on it, too, but then a great white shark ate both her and Mandarax” (316). It’s important to note how such a climactic and gruesome event is described so briefly and with such a great sense of detachment from the character as an individual. This attitude is reflective of how most people absorb information, particularly with regards to global disasters i.e. terrorist attacks, natural disasters, plane crashes, etc… It’s not uncommon for the majority of people to follow these stories with a great sense of detachment. Don’t we see the world in the same way Leon Trout sees these people’s lives, as nothing more than a mildly interesting sequence of events? Vonnegut’s success in making the reader care very little about the characters is synonymous with how most of us feel towards the majority of real, living people (with perhaps the exception of a select few).
The One Big Brain, by Connor Riczu © 2015
The ghost of Leon Trout, son of one of Vonnegut’s most used characters, Kilgore Trout, tells the story of humanity’s Noah’s Ark from one million years in the future. Trout, throughout the novel, claims the cause of the apocalypse is humans big brains, yet Trout himself no longer has a big brain and can still make all the claims that someone with a brain would make. The book seems to twist the science fiction genre to include aspects of the supernatural, at first glance I didn’t pay much mind to it, until I began to think about the narration in Breakfast of Champions.
Vonnegut is both the narrator and author of Breakfast of Champions, he has complete control over his characters and ensures that they are all where they need to be for his story to take place. Trout does not claim to have control over his characters, but all of his other traits match those of an omniscient narrator. Both narrators share similar powers, other than Trout’s inability to have complete control over his “characters”; thus making Trout a much less reliable narrator than Vonnegut himself. However in Galapagos, Leon Trout isn’t just the supposed author of the book, he also claims to be a ghost. With so much emphasis on big brains being the downfall of humanity I question why Vonnegut would make his narrator a ghost. Trout does not share humanity’s fault, with no physical body he cannot, scientifically speaking, have a brain and over a million years he watched as humans no longer needed big brains to survive. Thus his claim that humanity’s downfall was their big brains is based solely on his experience; watching human intellect dwindle down to survival alone.
Leon chose “to be a ghost because the job carried with it, as a fringe benefit, license to read minds, to learn the truth of people’s pasts, to see through walls, to be many places all at once, to learn in depth how this or that situation had come to be structured as it was, and to have access to all human knowledge.” (276) He still wanted to learn about humans and the only way to do that was to go beyond the physical, his brain could not harm him if he had no brain to perceive pain. His physical body could not be harmed by defect or bacteria, which was the real cause of humanity’s collapse outside of the island. Women became infected with a bacteria that made them infertile and the human species slowly died out, but Leon simply glances over this section of history because humanity continued on only on the island of Santa Rosalia. He claims this to be research, but he doesn’t say exactly what he is researching, nor what he is going to use the information for. As it turns out, after a million years of watching humanities progress he claims that “the only real villain in my story: the oversize human brain” (296) simply because it reduces survival of humanity as he now knows it to be. Instead humans needed to have smaller, more streamlined skulls, suitable for faster swimming. I had come to understand that Vonnegut was not blaming a brain’s capacity to create and destroy, he was blaming the physical burden that a brain placed on humanity’s new evolutionary step. The inhabitants of the island needed to swim faster to catch food and out swim predators. Vonnegut plays with the readers idea of what he means by “big brains”; alongside the supernatural powers of Trout, Vonnegut deceives his reader into thinking he does not mean big brains literally, but metaphorically.
Vonnegut’s ability to twist and deceive the reader stems from Leon’s constant trouble with the power of the human brain. Humans from 1986 had much larger problems produced from their brains, such as the captain’s Huntington’s Chorea, whereas the humans that evolved on the island did not live long enough to die of disease, nor did they lead very exciting lives stuck on Santa Rosalia. Leon slowly watches as humanity loses its capacity for the arts and sciences, and starts to rely solely on survival, resulting in a very boring human existence. Trout’s position as narrator is flawed once more, he is writing the book one million years after the fall of human life as we know it. He has no one to confide in or to check his facts, he is the sole recorder and creator of humanity’s final acts, in other words his brain was free to create the story he wanted to tell.
Maladaptation in Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos, by Brianna Benn © 2015
The most obvious concept in Galápagos is that the root of all humanity’s problems, the sole reason for exactly why we’ve screwed everything up so frequently and so catastrophically, is the size of our brains, and how they are much too big to be of any longterm benefit to the human race. I’ve found it increasingly difficult to pinpoint one single moment in the novel where this idea is most significant, since it really acts as a basis for just about everything that happens in the story. We realize it throughout the narrator’s frequent telling of the characters’ backstories, in which he often says something about their brains causing them to do or say one stupid thing or another, or else simply betraying them completely and without warning (in the unfortunate case of Roy Hepburn). I’ve also found that the issue doesn’t become increasingly apparent as the story progresses, but rather it’s a sort of chain reaction scenario where our brains are immediately and very evidently at fault. Even the events that seem relatively trivial in comparison to everything else that happens are still a blatant example of brain evolution gone wrong, and tend to be the catalyst for much bigger events – like when Andrew MacIntosh tells Jesús Oritz to put the filet mignon on the floor for the dog, which Oritz takes extreme offense to (rightly so), which leads to him storming downstairs and disconnecting all the telephone lines in a fit of rage and indignation. It could be argued that the act of ripping out the telephone cords set in motion a series of events that lead to the death of both Andrew MacIntosh and Zenji Hiroguchi. Had the telephones been working, MacIntosh maybe would not have gone to seek out Hiroguchi to let him know that they were down, would not have followed him down the elevator and chased him outside and right into the vicinity of a soldier whose big brain had quickly convinced him these two men were a threat, prompting him to shoot both men in the back of the head.
But it goes beyond that. It isn’t just that our brains are too big, but it also seems that our bodies have so far proved to be unable to withstand our mental capabilities. Somehow our brains appear to be more evolved than the rest of us, and our ability to produce technology that allows us to force ourselves into this advanced (and, from a purely evolutionary perspective, unneeded) state of mental evolution comes at the expense of our physical wellbeing, as well as that of the rest of the planet. What this story seems to present, then, is essentially a case of maladaptation. We’re unable to evolve in ways that would allow us to have the natural ability to survive the products of our own intelligence, as they are not products of the natural world and therefore essentially invisible to the laws of nature. Trout says it himself: “The Law of Natural Selection was powerless to respond to such new technologies. No female of any species, unless, maybe, she was a rhinoceros, could expect to give birth to a baby who was fireproof, bombproof, or bulletproof” (157). Weapons of mass destruction aside, even the most useful technology is still only a band-aid, a compensation for that which we cannot biologically do. And if we keep using artificial means to progress (artificial as in, not an innate characteristic) our growth/progress as a species might just continue to be stunted and reliant on new inventions to keep us going and allow us to survive the mess we’ve made.
Overall, Vonnegut presents the belief that intelligence does not equal ability to survive, and that it is more likely our intelligence will land us in the opposite situation, especially since our bodies cannot and will never be able to keep up. It seems as though we are not wise or physically durable enough yet to be able to handle our own intelligence in ways that won’t eventually propel our entire species straight down the blue tunnel to the Afterlife.
Galápagos and the Value of Story Telling, by Tyler Moore © 2015
In Galápagos, Kurt Vonnegut challenges the merit of human brain with Darwin’s law of Natural Selection through a million years of humanity’s evolutionary progress. Telling this story, Leon Trout, is an immortal spirit who can see through walls, read minds, and be in several places at once (276). Aside from having supernatural powers, Leon as a narrator is intriguing because his existence begs further investigation. If Leon is telling the story a million years from now, who is he telling it to? Writing “with air on air”, Leon says that his story is probably falling upon deaf ears because nobody on earth can read (318). Since nubbins are impractical when holding a book, the human brain is too small to comprehend language, thus leading Leon to believe “there can’t be one” left who can read (280). With that in mind, one must wonder why Leon continues writing. Leon, I think, is committed to writing because he wants to make his father Kilgore Trout proud of him. Considering Kilgore is the only character who still talks to him whenever the blue tunnel calls, Leon emulates his dad not only through an identical choice of career, but also through the their depressing realities.
Like many sons, Leon wanted to feel appreciated by his father. This personal matter is showcased when Leon’s big brain decided to join the United States Marines to fight in Vietnam (29). As such, Leon became a soldier because it was something that his father once did and could always be proud of since “it was a family tradition” (280). By following in his footsteps, Leon maintained that becoming like his father was something he aspired to do. In addition, Kilgore wrote science-fiction because he had “published more than a hundred books and a thousand short stories” (280). Although, once a teenager, Leon realised that his dad was not as great as he had imagined. This was because Kilgore’s work appeared in disreputable publications that paid next to nothing (280). As a result, his wife walked out on him and his children tried to put him into a nut house. Nonetheless, just like his father, Leon admirably continued writing “without the slightest hint that there might actually be a reader somewhere (280). For this reason, Leon revealed the respect he had for his father by emulating him, despite the shortcomings of being “a repellent failure” (280).
Ironically, while chatting through the blue tunnel, Leon gets mocked by his dad for writing about humanity because it is nothing but useless information. As Kilgore puts it, Leon should have been “a collector of baseball cards or bottle caps” (277). In that regard, both Leon and Kilgore are aware of how pointless writing can be if there is no one but themselves to appreciate it. However, Leon is comfortable with this lonely life because he accepts that his work will always be confined to narrow enthusiasts. Considering Kilgore lived on the fringes of society, Leon became a ghost to criticise humanity because “the job carried with it” (276). As such, both Leon and Kilgore understood that their work would go unnoticed, thus being as meaningless as anyone else’s. Writing for nobody but himself, Leon’s acknowledged that his words did not contribute to restoring humanity into harmony. With scouts honor, Leon swore that the “Law of Natural Selection did the repair job without outside assistance of any kind”, thus asserting that art is meaningless when compared to the force of evolution (319). Therefore, Leon emulated his father by becoming a veteran and writing useless art because it was what Kilgore had done before, thus doing what came naturally, whether there was anybody to notice – or, far more likely, not” (281).
Never In A Million Years! by Nancy Brennan © 2015
A barren menopausal woman artificially inseminates virgin female survivors with sperm from a potential inheritor of Huntington’s chorea. Say what?
Mary Hepburn acts like a god as she hand-delivers Adolf von Kleist’s viable sperm to the Kanka-bono girls. Unlike a murdered Prince’s “millions of royal tadpoles on a satin sheet, with no place meaningful to go” (181), Mary finds inviting mucous membranes for the Captain’s tadpoles to survive. It is she who makes him “the ancestor of every human being on the face of the earth” (50-51).
I confess I was halfway through Galápagos before realizing it was a satire. With Kurt Vonnegut as the author, I admit, I should have known better. I initially viewed Mary as a tragic figure. I felt sorry for her and her sad circumstances that led her to attempt suicide. When I caught on to Vonnegut’s satire, his nonsense started making sense to me.
Mary Hepburn, who desperately tries all her life to become pregnant, orchestrates the necessary pregnancies to ensure the continuation of the human race. Her dying husband says, “We Hepburns are extinct as the dodoes now” (44). As a teacher she remarks, “I consider every student a child of mine” (99) but as ‘Mother Nature Personified,’ “Nothing could keep her from doing all she could to keep life going on and on and on” (100).
Does Kurt Vonnegut use the name Mary to remind us of the Virgin Mary in the Christian faith? I think so! The earthly leader of Christianity is Jesus who is planted in Mary’s virgin womb by God, his heavenly Father. Mary Hepburn takes on a god-like role in the re-birth of humanity as she hand-delivers sperm to virgin wombs.
The Christian God’s helping hand leads to the fervent widespread growth of its religion that continues today. The supreme irony of Mary Hepburn’s helping hand is that it leads to humankind’s million-year (de)evolution to seal-like beings!
Here’s Vonnegut’s joke: What do you get when you add a million years of evolution and the Law of Natural Selection to an isolated unlikely troop of six fertile girls, a furry human baby, an inventive Biology teacher and a viable sperm-producing human male? You get human-like seal creatures, of course! Ha, ha!
Lessons from the Wild, by Michelle Rosinski © 2015
Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos explores the idea that human life is not a superior form of being, as many people have often assumed it to be. Mary expresses a hint of this early on when she doubts her own perception of human existence: “She had to wonder, too, about all the supposedly great teachers of the past who, although their brains were healthy, had turned out to be as wrong as Roy about what was really going on.”(43) Galápagos puts humans in their place by reminding them they too are merely animals at heart.
The novel attempts to be moralizing without being patronizing. The humans in the story have proven that their “big brains” (32) work to their disadvantage by creating “a series of murderous twentieth-century catastrophes,” (29) among other things. Vonnegut suggests these disasters never needed to happen, especially if humans are as smart and evolved as they think they are. Yet they ignore their ability to reason and deal with their problems using the body rather than the mind, like animals. Instead of outright denouncing these negative behaviours, the book pokes fun at humanity and allows the reader to reach the conclusion that the human brilliance that sets them apart from animals has fatal flaws.
Human intelligence was wasted on petty fights when it could have been used to help them flourish. Why? Because “ensuring survival of the human race was a total bore. It was a lot more fun, so to speak, to hit and hit a tennis ball.” (73) Many were not willing to have a sense of accountability, so they choose to be narrow-minded, focusing on the now. He does not propose a solution, simply that it is within human capacity to live in peace because “in spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.”(epigraph). This can be hard to recognize because “badness” in humankind has been accepted as normal.
We have been taught to think survival of the fittest means the fastest, strongest, and most capable of adapting. By choosing these unheard of, uneducated, and seemingly disadvantaged Kanka-bono girls as the bearers of the future human race, Vonnegut proposes that people’s conception of the “fittest” human is incorrect. Humans are at the top of the food chain, but if they choose destruction over meeting the basic needs of their species as they did in the book, then they are not in fact the top species; they can learn a lesson from their non-genocidal animal brethren.
The creatures humans evolve into a million years from now will never fly to the moon, but they also will never carry out systematic death and destruction because “except for their teeth, people have no tools at all.”(76) This does not mean people should become mindless. In an abstract way, reversing humans to simpler animals helped to point out that we all have good at our core. It is a way of saying that human the lifestyles needs to and is capable of change.
The Pursuit of Humanity in Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos, by Angelou Dalys Fine © 2015
When you ask the Oxford American College Dictionary for a definition of “human” it provides “a human being, especially a person as distinguished from an animal or (in science fiction) an alien.” This description definitely fails to match up with Vonnegut’s depiction of the modern day human of 1 000 086 A.D. In Galápagos, our biology seems more similar to seals than to our own species’ anatomy. Although the hero of this story might be evolution, which allows for humankind’s long-term survival in the face of a destructive apocalypse, the average human reader finds this hero hard to swallow, since it sacrifices so much of our defining qualities that we become nearly unrecognizable.
After reading this novel I feel it crucial to reconfirm our well-earned biological distinction from other animals. Getting more specific, the same dictionary gives the origin of ‘Homo sapiens’ as: “Latin, literally wise man”, so our consciousness or awareness, possible because of significant brain development during the Homo sapiens stage of our evolution, makes us human. Vonnegut answers to this impressive upgrade: “Can it be doubted that three-kilogram brains were once nearly fatal in the evolution of the human race? […] This was a very innocent planet, except for those great big brains” (9-10). Vonnegut goes even further to claim our brains as the sole villain in his story, which puts them in direct conflict with evolution, making it a brains vs. evolution literary narrative conflict. In the end evolution wins, much to the confusing chagrin of the reader. When really our brains, in this novel at least, are detrimental to our survival and evolution saves us from distinction by minimizing them, why are we so sad to see them go?
Most of us naively see our evolution as pure progress as we’ve gotten bigger and stronger and smarter over history. However, the novel shows a possible although exaggerated situation where losing our brains is not actually regressive and detrimental to our survival, but a positive enhancement which allows our species to adapt to the new environment. In reality the distant future seems not too shabby for us humans, whose quality of life and enjoyment of it is equatable or debatably better than our current situation. This positions the main aspects that we regard as imperative to our humanity as flaws that we are actually much better off without. All the progress our big brains have achieved up until this point: societies and empires, science and technology, in the grand scheme of one million years none of this really matters. Was it even truly progress if, hypothetically, our advancements are what leads to our eventual collapse, as is the case in Galápagos?
Although it might be uncomfortable to contemplate our contemporary fallibility as biological entities and our insignificance outside of our own history, by debunking our greatness, Galápagos shows how in terms of evolution humans might still have far to fall and long ways to go, and maybe we can take comfort that there’s plausible hope we can adapt, even though doing so might require a more fluid definition of the word ‘human’.
“Human.” OxfordDictionaries.com. Oxford University Press, 2015. Web. 24 March 2015
“Homo Sapiens.” OxfordDictionaries.com. Oxford University Press, 2015. Web. 7 April 2015
“The Era of Hopeful Monsters”: Ambiguity and Mood in Galápagos, by Allysha Vineberg © 2015
Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos makes use of the metanarrative in order to create a dichotomy between his attitude towards humankind, and Leon Trout’s. Oliver Ferguson argues that “both have a common distrust of the benefits of human intelligence: the human brain” (235). But, a lack of univocality throughout the novel contradicts this argument. In effect, the novel proposes a disagreement in the attitudes of Vonnegut and Trout towards these “benefits”. Trout’s persona -“an instrument to [Vonnegut’s] satire” (Ferguson 235)- portrays the tension between the multiple meanings in the narrative in relation to human experience. Human experience, and consequently evolution, is dependent on this multiplicity of thinking and attitudes.
As the narrative explains how “the big problem…wasn’t insanity, but that people’s brains were much too big and untruthful to be practical” (Vonnegut 207), the narrative mood exposes ambiguity. The ambiguity derives from Vonnegut and Trout’s dichotic “distrusts of human intelligence” (Ferguson 235). Vonnegut’s satirical stance proposes distrust towards the human rationality. In contrast, Trout’s narrative possesses an optimistic mood that expresses confidence in evolution –diverging from Vonnegut’s cynicism.
Their different perceptions propose the motif of stability and instability as the narrative mood sways between optimism and cynicism. Trout –a figure whose stability is questionable- denies Vonnegut’s suggestion of instability. Regardless, this instability constantly interacts with the novel through a chain of randomness and contingency that leads to what Vonnegut calls “the Thing That Became” (Vonnegut 237) in Book Two. The ambiguity of the statement –evident in the difference in Trout and Vonnegut’s narrative moods- prevents the reader from identifying if the narrative mood of “what became” is optimistic or cynical. In effect, it prompts a sense of multiplicity: cynicism towards this statement on the part of Vonnegut and hope from Leon Trout.
Secondary characters such as Roy Hepburn, Siegfried von Kleist, and Private Geraldo Delgado portray the uncontrollable –and slightly more innocent- aspect of the fault of the “big brains”. However, characters such as Mary Hepburn and Andrew MacIntosh represent the problems that occur in a stable faculty of mind. The belief “that there was no harm…in people’s playing with all sorts of ideas in their heads, no matter how supposedly impossible…or downright crazy they seemed to be” (Vonnegut 290) exemplifies the ambiguity between stability and instability. Characters such as von Kleist and Roy Hepburn are less responsible for the repercussions of their actions because of their unstable mind. Mary Hepburn, who understands the implications of her actions, exemplifies how a stable mind does not necessarily imply a sensible mind.
Through Trout’s one million years of observation it is evident that he believes evolution is an improvement on humankind. What the novel refers to as “the era of hopeful monsters” (86 Vonnegut) illustrates the paradoxical relationship of Trout and Vonnegut’s narrative. In effect, ambiguity surfaces as Vonnegut responds to this by suggesting how one million years of evolution does not need to take place for human beings to become what Trout views as “hopeful”. The removal of awareness, from Vonnegut’s point of view, does not solve the problem but only contributes to the retrogression of human experience. The incapability “of restraint or idleness” (Vonnegut 296) implies two different attitudes: one that is harmful to mankind and one that insists on the necessity of it. While Trout puts his confidence in evolution, Vonnegut suggests that human beings are capable of achieving stability when using their “big brains” responsibly.
Ferguson, Oliver W. “History and Story: Leon Trout’s Double Narrative in Galápagos.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction (1999): 230-238.