On Family and the Inevitable Inadequacy of the Human Heart

For casual readers of Kurt Vonnegut, his broad use of dark satire likely cloaks the enduring streak of idealism running through his fiction, public talks, and essays—notably his unwavering faith in “artificial extended families,” which is central to what his genre-bending Prologue to Slapstick or Lonesome No More! notes is “the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography.”

In that opening, Vonnegut implores in typical inverted Vonnegut logic:

Love is where you find it. I think it is foolish to go looking for it, and I think it can often be poisonous.

I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, “Please—a little less love, and a little more common decency.” (p. 3)

Like “common decency,” kindness weaves its way through Vonnegut, as the eponymous main character of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater demands:

“Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkles some water on the babies, say, ‘Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—:

“‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’”

The family, decency, and kindness—these are the ideals that have always drawn me to Vonnegut’s work, Vonnegut’s message. But ideals often reveal themselves quite differently in the lived world.

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During my doctoral work, I became a biographer, writing an educational biography of English educator Lou LaBrant. And over the past twenty years or so, I have read a high number of biographies, often of writers I admire.

Biography is a damning thing, however, because people bigger than life laid bare are mostly exposed as just like us—and when bigger than life is juxtaposed with just like us, those people seem very, very small.

It is parallel to that moment as a child when you recognize your parents are flawed humans, just real people.

Biographies of e.e. cummings have left me hollow and numb, especially in terms of his relationships with wives and his daughter. Like Vonnegut, cummings is filled with idealism about children, love, and carpe diem, but his ability to fulfill that idealism was mostly absent.

Reading the first major biography of Vonnegut, then, also peeled back the curtain from the man who created out of tragedy (the death of his sister, Alice, and her husband) an “artificial extended family” and who wrote in “Biafra: A People Betrayed”:

General Ojukwu gave us a clue, I think, as to why the Biafrans were able to endure so much so long without bitterness. They all had the emotional and spiritual strength that an enormous family can give. We asked the general to tell us about his family, and he answered that is was three thousand members strong. He knew every member of it by face, by name, and by reputation.

A more typical Biafran family might consist of a few hundred souls. And there were no orphanages, no old people’s homes, no public charities—and, early in the war, there weren’t even schemes for taking care of refugees. The families took care of their own—perfectly naturally. (p. 150)

There is a beauty and impossible idealism in this description that I do believe Vonnegut aspired to personally and then for all of humanity. He continued, wistfully:

The families were rooted in the land. There was no Biafran so poor that he did not own a garden.

Lovely. (p. 150)

Yet, just like us, Vonnegut’s bigger than life personae was not sustainable on this mortal coil.

So it goes.

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While teaching Advanced Placement Literature, I often helped high school students anticipate the complex world of literature. While patterns and truism certainly can be disrupted by individual works of literature, a few are very helpful for young readers faced with a timed high-stakes test demanding both rapid and complex responses to dense literature.

And so, I often stressed that literature is ripe with examinations of the family as a source of great tension—King Lear, Hamlet, Death of a Salesman, The Glass Menagerie, As I Lay Dying, and I could list for quite some time.

For me, I think, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof resonates powerfully as just such a work that demands we consider how difficult, if not impossible our roles as parents, sons/daughters, siblings, spouses, and lovers are—Tennessee Williams pens a song that echoes with the inevitable inadequacy of the human heart.

Ah, the universal truths of great literature: the family is the source of our greatest passions and our greatest calamities.

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While Vonnegut has profoundly shaped the young adult and aging adult me, as I have noted often, George Carlin—along with Richard Pryor—is my guiding initial voice for my world view, my own emerging and developing voice, and my relentless demand that we understand and shape the world with words.

Elizabeth Blair’s The Dark Side Of Funny: Growing Up In George Carlin’s Shadow, in fact, explains:

Stoned or not, George Carlin was also a perfectionist. According to Jerry Hamza, George’s manager and best friend for more than 30 years, the comic worked at his craft incessantly. He says, “I would tell people, ‘Well, where’s George? He’s up in the trees,’ because what he wanted to do was write. He wanted to go away, be by himself and write.” When George wasn’t writing, he and Hamza were on the road driving to gigs, TV tapings and meetings with entertainment industry types. “I spent more time with him than his wife or his daughter,” Hamza says.

And it is there, in this piece on Carlin’s daughter’s memoir of her father that, like Vonnegut, Carlin’s lived life just like us crashes against the bigger than life comedian Carlin, whose routines about child rearing were performed in front of his daughter:

In fact, in a 1999 HBO special George ranted about overprotective parenting:

“You know what it is? These baby boomers, these soft, fruity baby boomers, are raising an entire generation of soft, fruity kids who aren’t even allowed to have hazardous toys for Christ’s sakes. Hazardous toys, s***. Whatever happened to natural selection, survival of the fittest? The kid who swallows too many marbles doesn’t get to grow up and have kids of his own.”

The audience howled and Kelly says she laughed, too, though she wasn’t all that surprised. “I sat in the audience listening to this going, ‘Well, of course this disgusts him, because, you know, he was the ultimate laissez faire parent.'”

I find myself both compelled and repelled by Kelly Carlin’s A Carlin Home Companion. I also both know and do not know what is between the covers of that book.

What is there is on the family and the inevitable inadequacy of the human heart.

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I am one not prone to giving advice, and even when I do, it is laced with so many caveats that the actual advice gets lost in the trimming.

Advice almost always seems trivial, trite, and the person giving advice is faced with the monumental task of not being either a hypocrite or a pompous ass.

So let me offer what I know, and take it as advice if you want.

There will be moments in life if you live long enough that you will regret above almost everything else having not appreciated the kindness and love bestowed upon you by others.

You will regret taking for granted those people, and their gifts of love and kindness.

Regret is a lousy way to walk across this planet.

Knowing this, of course, has little chance to keep us from making that mistake—even repeatedly.

But I wonder if we have the capacity to recognize when we have given in to the inevitable inadequacy of the human heart, I wonder if we have the capacity then to do something not to erase the failure but to make things right now.

And I wonder about my dear muses Vonnegut and Carlin, nonbelievers both, possibly somewhere in the Great Beyond still committed to the better humans we could be but now relieved of this corporeal Self that is a glorious jumble of soaring human passion and stumbling human frailty.

In the last paragraphs of his Prologue to Slapstick, Vonnegut recalls his idea for the novel and how Alice is central:

Who is Melody? I thought for a while that she was all that remained of my memory of my sister. I now believe that she is what I feel to be, when I experiment with old age, all that is left of my optimistic imagination, of my creativeness.

Hi ho.

Hi ho, indeed.

And so, I am sorry, and you know who you are. Regret is a lousy way to walk across this planet. I am begging you to take that seriously because that is one family I do not wish upon anyone.

5 comments

  1. Nigtingale

    Many of us have high ideals that are hard to meet and that we may never share with anyone because we know that our lofty ideas will not necessarily compel us act on them. I think we often believe that writers that we so admire for the lofty ideals expressed in their work are disappointed when we find, like ourselves, that they could not live up to the ideals they espoused. unlike the expectations of our selves, we expect them to be lofty in their own lives. I rarely read much about author’s lives, unless I need to when writing an article, because I don’t need to know their failures. I read their text and am amazed at what they understand about life and how beautifully they are able to convey that knowledge. Fiction is made of stories constituted from both reality and pure imagination. When I read it, I don’t need to know which is which, I only have to experience a new and perhaps wonderful revelations on the many mysteries of what it is to be human, good or bad.

  2. Nigtingale

    I am sorry my writing here is a mess. I wish I could delete it. From now on, I’m going to write comments in notepad or word and then cut and past. Or better yet, I should learn how to make corrections here. I enjoyed your essay very much as always!

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