"A Launching Pad of Belief:
Kurt Vonnegut and Postmodern Humor
Humor critics have argued that satire is not possible any longer, largely due to the horrors ofthe twentieth century and the postmodern belief in the lack of objective truth, especially in relation to morality. Because of these developments, they argue that no moral stance can be taken through satire; instead, satirists now write merely for pleasure, not to instigate any change in morality. Several postmodern authors, including Kurt Vonnegut, however, still attempt to provide moral messages through their writing. John Gardner, for example, attacked existentialism in Grendel. Several critics, though, misread the novel and viewed the narrator and the author as having the same worldview. Because he did not establish a moral norm from which to work, he was misunderstood. Vonnegut, however, did not assume that there is a common set of values held by their readers. Instead, he laid out a moral base from which to work from within the work itself.
Postmodern humor is often characterized as rebelling against the norms of literature and trying to subvert them with no motivation other than pleasure. In Circus ofthe Mind in Motion, Lance Olsen shows the purpose of postmodern humor to be revolutionary in its motivation. Using Duchamp as an illustration ofthe motivation behind postmodern art (writing included), Olsen writes that "Duchamp had no intention of improving or even changing the critics' minds. Rather, his impulse was to subvert a power structure for no other reason than the pleasure of subverting a power structure" (18). Olsen takes this idea farther to do away with any authority and any final interpretation the reader may hope to gather; instead, "the impetus of postmodern humor is to disarm pomposity and power. The postmodern creator becomes aesthetic and metaphysical terrorist, a freeplayer in a universe of intertextuality where no one text has any more or less authority than any other" (18). This lack of authority causes the idea of a final authorial position to be radically thrown into question: "The audience often senses a complexity and subtlety of tone, but because the postmodern creator manipulates a system of private instead of public norms, his or herfinalposition remains uncertain... Because of this, his or her text exists to be interpreted in radically different, even contradictory, ways" (18).
While Olsen's theory destroys all sense of a final meaning, Harry Levin proposes a different view of how one interprets humor. In Playboys and Killjoys, Levin proposes that there is a basis that the author draws upon 47
in humor, especially in satire: "Every satirist, negative though he may sound, must project his guided missiles from a launching-pad of belief (196). What Levin attempts to do here is to illustrate how the satirist creates a set of public norms, as Olsen describes them, by taking his or her private norms and declaring them openly. This approach would be akin to Swift's beginning "A Modest Proposal" with some sort of introduction letting the reader know that eating children is, for one reason or another, morally wrong. He would not even have to do this didactically, but he would have to convey it clearly in order to create a public norm the reader would react to.
Olsen, however, argues that there is no "launching-pad of belief anymore; he argues that college freshmen misread "A Modest Proposal" because we live in a world where "in fact a portion of the global population did believe it right to kill children and turn them into lampshades and gloves" (86-87). However, this approach presupposes that the students in these classes believe that eating children is a moral norm somewhere in the world. Instead, all of my students argue that Swift needs some sort of counseling or punishment, showing that they still do rely on moral norms in their reading. In fact, they believe in these norms so strongly that they cannot imagine...
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