Pandemic in the Pacific: Kurt Vonnegut’s COVID novel

Just about every adult human being back then had a brain weighing about three kilograms! There was no end to the evil schemes that a thought machine that oversized couldn’t imagine and execute. … This was a very innocent planet, except for those great big brains.

There is a volcanic archipelago in the Pacific that Polynesian settlers on their canoes never reached. In 1854, Herman Melville saw “The Encantadas” through a dark lens, darkly:

Take five-and-twenty heaps of cinders dumped here and there in an outside city lot, imagine some of them magnified into mountains, and the vacant lot the sea, and you will have a fit idea of the general aspect of the Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles. A group rather of extinct volcanoes than of isles, looking much as the world at large might after a penal conflagration. It is to be doubted whether any spot on earth can, in desolateness, furnish a parallel to this group.

Darwin, though,  saw the Galapagos islands quite differently when he arrived in September of 1835 He may not have wasted much time praising the landscape in the ways he praised the mind-bending sublimity of Patagonian steppes. But in The Voyage of the Beagle includes this teaser about those soon-to-be-famous Galapagos finches:

Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.

Galapagos finches in Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle
finches in same order as Darwin’s illustrations: clockwise from upper left, large ground finch, medium ground finch, small tree-finch, green warbler-finch.

Much as I love Melville, I gotta give this  one to Darwin. Even if the  world is inclined to  forget everything else about these minuscule upwellings in the Pacific, we will remember the finches. And the flightless cormorants. And the  giant land tortoises. And the  marine iguanas.

into something rich and strange….Iguanas learned to swim on the Galapagos; what might humans become there, in time?

Little  wonder that quite  a few of the 30,000 inhabitants of the Galapagos are named Charles or Darwin. (I did not meet a single Herman or Melville during my  unforgettable week among those enchanted islands.)

COVID-19 has come to the Galapagos Islands. On the one hand they  lie rocks hundreds of miles out from South America, adrift in the Pacific. On the other hand for people fuel and food is the tropical port of Guyaquil, swampy, overcrowded and now a massive COVID hotspot. So it’s not shocking that there are now 107 reported cases and at least one death..

The news struck me hard, because  one of the best pandemic novels I know is about these amazing islands. Sort of.   Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos (1985) tells the story of a million years of hominid evolution on a remote Pacific island. It is narrated from a million years in the future, after homo sap. has managed to obliterate itself everywhere else by way of—you guessed it—a runaway pandemic (one that makes humanity sterile). Humanity’s only survivors turn out the be a bumbling set of castaways, trapped on a cruise ship they are to too ignorant to steer  properly,  crash  on a remote outer Galapagos island.

Vonnegut has a dim view of American ingenuity that brought us the atom bomb, napalm, and the Vietnam War (see epigraph above).He wants us to own our casual decisions and their unintended but foreseeable consequences: drill for oil, mine coal, split atoms—what could go wrong?

Still, he’s wiling to cut humanity a deal, if we manage to downsize our most deadly organ–the one between our ears. Just as Darwin saw finches and iguanas and mockingbirds radiating out and adapting in various isolated ecological niches, so too does Vonnegut trace how a tiny bumbling group of castaways gradually breed descendants with a thick layer of blubber and fur: human seals, not that different from the blubber-coated walrus-men of Neptune in Olaf Stapledon’s super-trippy Last and First Men (1930).

By Vonnegut’s telling it is an evolutionary jackpot when the castaways’ fingers turn into little nubs whose nails glow brightly during mating season. Good news, he means, considering what those fingers had been up to during the 20th century. As Vonnegut tells it, humanity’s troubles will only end when  “the only true villain in my story: the oversized human brain” stops building “useful” tools such as bazookas, flamethrowers and atom bombs.

Is it sad that Vonnegut’s take on the glories and pitfalls of opposable thumbs is giving me a lot of post-human comfort these days? Sad maybe, but also funny. Vonnegut—like his sf compadres Stanislaw Lem and Douglas Adams—owes a considerable debt to the saturnine cynicism of Mark Twain’s 1885 Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court­.

I love Vonnegut’s pandemic novel, with its ultimately jaunty vision of fat-swaddled humans-turned-seals, teeth their only remaining tools and fingernails their single remaining adornment. Ultimately, he may remind me most of that brilliant Czech modernist Karel Capek.  

Karel Capek’s 1920 “Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti

Even in Capek’s robots-kill-all-humans fantasy, RUR, he imagines robots falling in love. In The Absolute at Large  all  the world’s armies exterminate one another except nine soldiers who fall asleep  under a fruit tree, and awaken to begin the world again. And if you are looking for another (heartwarming) Pacific Ocean end-of-mankind story, try War with the Newts.

Vonnegut too offers a bargain with poetic justice. If like the flightless cormorant and the marine iguana, humans in Galapagos are willing to shed our former habits and adapt ourselves to an island niche, we may be good (good because harmless) for another million years. A tough pandemic lesson but a fair one. So I am rooting for Galapagosians to beat COVID. Even if the rest of us are doomed.

Upcoming: Next week, Paul Saint-Amour, Modernist to the stars (and the lucky students of U Penn) rhapsodizes about science fiction’s time travel metaphysics.

A Book in Dark Times: Albert Camus, “The Plague”

I recognize that hearkening back to Albert Camus in our own post-existentialist moment is controversial. Heck, calling him controversial may even itself be controversial. He’s long struck many as a soft-left deviant in the Sartre circle, nether rigorous nor theoretical enough to pass muster in the long run.

I do love a motorcycle-riding Gauloise puffer, but I’m no dyed-in-the-wool acolyte. Still, I always admired Camus’ evident belief (reminiscent of Kierkegaard) that the best thing writing can do is hint at the complex, ambivalent, ultimately irreproducible ways the actuality of events shapes how individuals experience the world.

His fiction gets at what it means for people to adjust themselves, slowly to adjust themselves, to a new reality. Like, say, a plague that forces everyone slowly to acknowledge they are not going anywhere. Under those circumstances, Camus, hypothesizes, the imprisoned population becomes a collection of invalids: unable to act, unable to escape and barely able to do the only thing they can, which is to bear their present misery until it subsides.

Continue reading “A Book in Dark Times: Albert Camus, “The Plague””

Books in Dark Times: what are You reading?

What books gives you comfort and joy in these times, and why? If what we do at the darkest moments is a glimpse of our inner nature, what we read then tells us just as much.

My own thoughts nowadays turn–surprise, surprise–to Hannah Arendt. She has this to say in her unforgettable 1968 book, Men in Dark Times:

“That even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth–this conviction is the inarticulate background against which these profiles were drawn. Eyes so used to darkness as ours will hardly be able to tell whether their light was the light of a candle or that of a blazing sun. But such objective evaluation seems to me a matter of secondary importance which can be safely left to posterity.”

Continue reading “Books in Dark Times: what are You reading?”

Spring Schedule and our new partnership with Literature Lab

When Recall This Book started back in January, we modestly thought we might manage  one episode per month.Instead, we bolted from the gate fast: eight episodes in our first two-and-a-half months.

That is a sprinter’s pace, when what we have in mind is a marathon. So: a slowdown of sorts…but with the prospect of some great upcoming items. Continue reading “Spring Schedule and our new partnership with Literature Lab”

Minimalism’s Untidy Travels

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In Episode 1 of Recall this Book, sculptor and Brandeis professor Tory Fair, John and I discussed minimalism. We were just starting out, and I felt a little out of my depth, not only with podcasting but also with the topic. Both Tory and John know a lot about work in their fields that describes itself as (or more often, is described as) minimalist, and they work in fields where the idea of minimalism has a clear definable life, even if artists, critics and others can’t necessarily easily define what it actually is.

I broke ranks and kind of broke the rules by describing the migration of the term minimalism into the realm of “lifestyle.” Broke the rules, I mean, because at first glance it seems that Donald Judd and Samuel Beckett have little more than a name in common with Real Simple or Simplify magazine or the blog  Minimalist Baker. It feels a bit like comparing the discipline of anthropology and that store with the clothes made from cool fabrics that don’t seem to fit anyone quite right. I could feel John’s non-nominalist hackles (and mine too, if I’m being honest) ready to rise. Continue reading “Minimalism’s Untidy Travels”

Our Drugs, Our Stories, Ourselves

Public Books recently ran an article called “Our Drugs, Ourselves” by Susan Zieger, that touches on several of the issues that John, Elizabeth, and Gina discussed in our second episode about addiction. Zieger analyzes “the slimy lie at the bottom of ‘drugs’…the false belief that my natural experience is more authentic and valuable than your artificial one.” Zieger looks at this premise in High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence by Michael Pollan, and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. Zieger argues that community, and the practice of sharing experiences, are what need to undergird the use of drugs in order to prevent them from being demonized or fetishized. While the Pollan’s and Hart’s take up real-world concerns about addiction and experience of the sort that John, Elizabeth and Gina discussed, I am particularly interested in a phenomenon that Zieger traces in Moshfegh’s novel: the use, in recent(ish) fiction, of fictional drug brands alongside real ones. Continue reading “Our Drugs, Our Stories, Ourselves”

Upcoming Episodes…and More

Eagle-eyed fans of Recall This Book will have noticed  an implicit pattern: episodes dropped each Wednesday (err, now Thursday), with upcoming episodes announced with the closing credits.

However, that is a pattern that will hold true only during the academic semester, when the whole team is around to get to work. This upcoming week, for example, Brandeis shares in the Boston February break week. So we will defer episode 6, with Martin Puchner, until our return. It will come out on Thursday February 28th. Continue reading “Upcoming Episodes…and More”