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Neither a God Nor a Beast

American writer, Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) wrote masterfully on the meaning of time and memory, as well as the culture. He had an ease about him, yet very specific and clear judgments about the society he has lived in. Famous for his novel about World War II and the bombing of Dresden, Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut reflected on our connection to the embodied world and most of all, to the relation we have with each other. 

He was not a writer who hid from the world. On the contrary, he was very much part of it, and his attitude toward life is seen in a series of dialogues with another writer, Lee Stringer. These conversations took place in Manhattan on October 1, 1998 and January of 1999, and the two writers spoke about many things but mainly about the meaning of writing. Of course, for someone like Vonnegut, the meaning of writing is synonymous with the meaning of life itself.

Reflecting on the so-called “death of the novel” and the meaning of art, Vonnegut said that the “practice of art” is “a way to make your soul grow. So you should do it anyway. And what Bill Gates is saying now . . . ” Well, this is where the conversation gets interesting and where it has great relevance for us today. 

Vonnegut says, “Gates is saying, ‘Hey, don’t worry about making your soul grow. I’ll sell you a new program and, instead, let your computer grow year after year after year . . .’—cheating people out of the experience of becoming.”

Obviously, Bill Gates has gained more power in the intervening years, and in areas that should not be within the purview of a private citizen. Now, he wants to expand “digital identity” with all kinds of vaccines and force us to eat synthetic beef because cows fart too much, or something. Computers seem to be secondary in his mind but his desire for control is essentially the same. 

It’s not only Gates who wishes to start from zero. Many others, especially those who are part of the World Economic Forum, argue vigorously for sub-human ways of being. It’s hardly the call of the future or progress. If anything, Gates and company are going into regress and remaking man in the image of a beast that feasts on bugs. Eat a cockroach, become a cockroach.  

As a writer, I can’t help but continue to write about the importance of the soul. Vonnegut is right: people like Gates (and his kind) seek to stop people from “becoming.” The desire is not to let the soul grow but instead to kill it. Such people are no different from totalitarians of the past, such as Communists and National Socialists. The impetus and the message are the same: the power brokers are gods and people are beasts. 

To be in the process of becoming is to be free, and not tethered either to a computer or an ideology. Unfortunately, many people are content with the continuous absurdity of simulated existence. How many more TikTok videos or meaningless confrontations can we really consume? How much “breaking” news can one bear to hear? How many times will Joe Biden have COVID? How many times will media personalities yell at each other for no reason other than to maintain the power of their personae? Judging from the usage of social media, which keeps people in perpetual slumber, the end of these charades doesn’t exist.

The consequence is that the soul begins to wither. It becomes something outside of ourselves, until it’s just a mirage. We might even wake up and remember that once, a long time ago, we had souls, and that their existence affirmed our “becoming,” as Vonnegut says. But will it be too late at that point? Will the amount of people who chose to exchange their souls for temporary power become too large to change the course of this disorganized and destructive society? 

Life is exhausting and anyone who says otherwise is lying, either to themselves or others, or both. In the same series of conversations, Vonnegut and Stringer were asked what kind of challenges are facing human beings, and whether they are different from those of the past. For Vonnegut, “nothing has changed . . . the human situation is like the weather.” He adds, “I look at Yugoslavia, and the world is always going to be that way.” I suppose this makes me superbly and continuously prepared for the chaos, given all that I experienced during the war in Bosnia, or perhaps it leads me to a frustration that I’ve escaped one chaos only to find myself in another. Probably both.

Lee Stringer agreed with Vonnegut. “It’s a struggle to be human . . . we wake up every morning to an alien environment,” he said. “Certainly not the environment man was created in. It’s a busy, throbbing, hustling, buzzing, spinning, crazy, alien environment. And the struggle for me, within that, is to try and be human, to try and do human things, to try to remember what we were born with.”

There is no power and certainly no other human being that can possess us unless we allow it. The soul must remain intact even if the mind and body are tired. Man is neither a god nor a beast, and we must try to be human every day.

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