Welcome to The Monkey House
By Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Delacorte Press, 1968
In this little collection of short stories Vonnegut tries to show that it is possible for a people to develop an elaborate technology while remaining basically stupid, corrupt, or both. Technology, in fact, often seems to strike us dumb—and I take that to be one of the central theses of Vonnegut’s book, as well as of McLuhanism. When Vonnegut anthropomorphizes a computer, as in “Epicac” (1950), he suggests that technology sometimes develops according to its own whims, its own laws, its own somewhat obscure logic, and in the end we who consume technology may find ourselves wishing to follow the heroes of “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” to jail, preferably to be placed in solitary confinement.
The smog-breathing inhabitants of Los Angeles—if you asked them—would say that they ultimately will prevail in their struggle against dirty air by finding scientific means of controlling auto-exhaust emissions, an approach that seems destined to fail simply by virtue of the fact that automobiles proliferate at a rate that vastly exceeds our ability to control their output of poison. If technology were able to halve smog-producing emissions—itself an extraordinary achievement—while the auto population continues doubling every seven years or so, little progress would be made. Technology, however, has already been moving us toward alternative solutions: air-conditioned cars, gas masks, and, perhaps most important of all, the controlled environment concept in architecture—no windows. I predict that by 1984 at the latest, most Angelenos from the lower-middle class upward simply will never be exposed to the outside atmosphere; they will continually occupy small, controlled, smog-free space valves, enjoying a lifestyle to which a few high-status individuals already have access.
Operating on such premises, Vonnegut is about as sanguine toward the future as Aldous Huxley was in Brave New World. The chief difference between the two authors is that Huxley thinks a new breed of men will have to be created (mainly in test tubes) to populate his brave new world, whereas Vonnegut thinks the present human population is eminently suited to such a fate—we already live in a puritanical monkey house founded by the likes of “J. Edgar Nation.” Runaway technology and the character defects that make us incapable of coping with it are the themes of two more “sci-fi” stories, “Report on the Bamhouse Effect” and “The Euphio Question.”
It seems to me that Vonnegut worries unduly about over-population. Playboy, which originally published the story from which the title of Vonnegut’s book is taken, has provided the ultimate solution to this problem, at least for societies such as ours. Hugh Hefner, the Vic Tanny of the body-gilders, has shown that boy-girl relationships can, indeed should, be based on the ideas of planned obsolescence and interchangeable parts, and in such a situation buying a boat may become a more attractive alternative than buying a child. In the last three issues of Playboy, for instance, I counted exactly 247½ perfectly healthy nipples, not one of which looked as if it had ever been pursued, or was about to be pursued, by a hungry suckling. Clearly, there is no place for babies in Playboy, and academic studies of fertility suggest that the recent sharp declines in American fertility may be due as much to a desire to maintain extraordinarily high consumption standards (just look at the prices of items advertised in Playboy) as to much improved birth-control technology of recent years.
The population explosion, of course, is influenced not only by fertility but by mortality, and Vonnegut also worries—realistically I believe—about the implications of a vastly extended life span. Some of his 21st century characters are upward of 150 years old and must eventually be siphoned off by such agencies as the Ethical Suicide Service or by being deprived of their “anti-gerasone.” Historically, human ingenuity has never produced any major breakthrough in extending longevity; we have merely made it highly probable that a given child will live for the standard threescore and 10 years. But having virtually eliminated contagious and infectious diseases as a cause of death, we are now able for the first time ¡n human history to devote our attention almost exclusively to the various degenerative causes of death. If, as a result, we learn to extend human life indefinitely, this society may end up resembling an anthill rather than a monkey house for the simple reason that a monkey house cannot be sufficiently regimented, even by a J. Edgar Nation. If, however, the birth rate also drops to zero, then we have an entirely new ball game.
Many of Vonnegut’s characters live in a world of unreality. “Who Am I This Time?” is about an amateur actor who truly lives only when performing. In “The Foster Portfolio” Firehouse Harris, a man addicted, in violation of his puritanical beliefs, to highly sensual if not downright erotic forms of music, refuses to acknowledge what he is. “Miss Temptation” portrays a man who cannot accept his infatuation with a haughty little hip-swinging sexpot; at one point, he is ready to go off to divinity school. In “All the King’s Horses” the hero, a military man, cannot see that war is just a game of chess—perhaps because his own son is one of the pawns. “More Stately Mansions” and “D.P.” follow much the same theme.
Vonnegut likes his self–deluded characters a whole lot more than I do. It seems to me that if the world is evolving in the directions indicated by his “sci-fi” stories, we had better pass up the soma drugs and heed the advice of those Marxist-oriented New-Left philosophers who, eschewing the hippie/drug Weltanschauung, tell us that we understand and subdue the real world by grappling with it, not by trying to escape it. My hero is not the guy who can delude himself past his puritanical hang-ups and obsessions, like the man in “The Foster Portfolio”; he is, rather, the guy who can get us past puritanism itself.