The Authorial Power/lessness in
Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-V
and Breakfast of Champion
  • Introduction: 2 ''Death of the Author?''    Of Theme and Form
  • Chapter 1Chapter 2
    Sarah Chen-Chi Hu


    ''Death of the Author?''

    Besides responding to the writing modes of black humorist and metafictional elements, Vonnegut's novels are also related to contemporary critical discourse. In critical theories, two influential essays, John Barth's ''The Literature of Exhaustion''  (1967) and ''The Death of the Author'' (1968) by Roland Barthes, comment on and respond to the ideas of the author in creative literary works. Though John Barth does not directly focus on the discussion of the author, he seems to claim the dead end of the author's creativity and originality since the traditional forms have been exhausted. Barth cites Borges's words that ''all writers are more or less faithful amanuenses of the spirit, translators and annotators of pre-existing archetypes¡Kfor one to attempt to add overtly to the sum of  'original' literature ¡K would be too presumptuous, too naive; literature has been done long since''  (qtd. in Bradbury 80). Barth explains ''exhaustion''  that ''the used-upness of certain forms or exhaustion of certain possibilities''  and ''by no means necessarily a cause for despair''  should be stressed (qtd. in Bradbury 70). The ''exhaustion''  of literature does not mean that novelists will cease to have creative power. Instead, novelists '' confront an intellectual dead end and employ it against itself to accomplish new human work'' . It is, in other words, a rebirth rather than a dead end that postwar novelists are engaged in. Barth concludes in ''The Literature of Replenishment''  that ''the effective  'exhaustion'''  is ''not of language or of literature, but of the aesthetic of high modernism . . . ''  (qtd. in Bradbury 76). Waugh also echoes this point in her Metafiction: ''There has been paranoia, on the part of both novelists and critics for whom the exhaustion and rejection of realism is synonymous with the exhaustion and rejection of the novel itself'' (7). Barth's idea of turning exhaustion into replenishment is exactly what I see in Vonnegut's novels and the major argument of this thesis.

    Roland Barthes in his essay ''The Death of the Author,'' (1968) also directs his attention particularly to the concept of the author. The concept of ''death''  can be ''paradoxical''  as Waugh suggests in the practice of metafiction writing that the author is sometimes presented explicitly as the creator of the narrative and thus the authorial power is exaggerated rather than disappears (133). But the essay seems to make an announcement that we do not need the author anymore. By regarding the act of writing as intertexuality, which is'' a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash,''  and ''the text is henceforth made and read in such a way that at all its levels the author is absent.''  I think ''the abscence''  refers to the refusal to regard the author of the text as the source and origin of the meaning, since the essay is based on the linguistics concepts of deconstruction that meaning ''has no other origin than language itself, language which ceaselessly calls into question all origins''  (146). However, the absence of the author as an actual person and the inscription of the author as a sign, I think, actually corresponds to the formation of some metafictional strategies, which allows more possibilities to the act of writing in the social and political context of American culture.

    Unlike Barthes' view of textuality, moreover, Vonnegut's fictional construction is never a system of endless language game which aims to expose the fictionality of the work only. Though technically, Vonnegut does share the writing modes of metafiction with his contemporaries, such as John Barth and Robert Coover, Vonnegut also locates his novels closely within the contexts of American social and cultural realities. Vonnegut's experimental spirits are not merely directed to forms and styles, or to play with '' various possibilities of self-reflection''  as Barth does in Lost in the Funhouse (Hilfer 130). Nor is Vonnegut like what Hilfer suggests of Robert Coover: '' . . . a writer sometimes exemplifies . . . occupational hazard of writing that is more interesting in its narrative concepts than in its stylistic execution of them . . . where the criticism of the book is somewhat more interesting than the book itself''  (145). In SF, Vonnegut deals with the historical experience of the Dresden bombing and its relationship with writing. As in BC, Vonnegut confronts the social and cultural decadence of American society with the predicament of the author surrogate. Vonnegut's flaunting of his work as an artifact often has a strong parallel and connection to the presentation of his thematic concerns on the predicament and disasters of human beings.

    Of Theme and Form

    Consequently, in my thesis, I will argue that Vonnegut collaborates his narrative forms or writing strategies with his thematic concerns, and that none of these two aspects can be discussed separately. I do not follow the prevailing literary trend that ''[l]iterature was being considered less in thematic, more in formal terms,''  (Hilfer 127) which is usually found in some of the writings of Vonnegut's contemporaries, I think, is the last thing we can find in Vonnegut's works of fiction. I agree with William Rodney Allen that:

    [Slaughterhouse-Five] captured the imaginations of enough readers¡Xespecially young ones¡Xto make Vonnegut for a time the most popular writer in the country. Perhaps not since Uncle Tom's Cabin had a work of fiction so deeply affected the public's perception of an ongoing American war. If, as Lincoln famously remarked, Harriet Beecher Stowes's novel helped start the Civil War, then Slaughterhouse-Five¡Xalong with non-fictional events like the Tet Offensive and Kent State¡Xhelped get the United States out of Vietnam. (ix) Though my thesis is not focused on the social influence of Vonnegut's novels, I should stress that while Vonnegut's novels correspond theoretically to the metafictional writing techniques, they also show Vonnegut's deep attachment and concerns with the social and historical environment of the time.