Galapagos ~ Kurt Vonnegut

The world is in a financial crisis and things seems to be falling apart. There are food riots, and the few passengers who have shown up for the “Nature Cruise of the Century” barely make it out on their stripped cruise ship. This is Noah’s Ark. Sound familiar? But this book was written in 1985 with a perspective from a million years on. It’s not often you get that kind of distancing in a novel! The phrases “Nature Cruise of the Century” and “the blue tunnel into the afterlife”, along with ”Oh, well – he wasn’t going to write Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony anyway”,  recur often. This latter one is the kiss off for everyone who dies: dies meaning they have just went through the blue tunnel. As they near their ends – before they expire – an asterisk starts appearing before their name. This is shorthand for they’re not long for this world.

 The Darwinian cruise ends up on one of the more remote islands of the Galapagos: Santa Rosalia. There, the narrator spends a million years observing the backwards evolution of the human mammal – form the large brained land mammal that man had become, opposable thumbs and all, to an aquatic mammal, with fins and vestigial hands. The world had gone sterile, except for those inhabitants of Santa Rosalia. The survival of the human race becomes dependent on them, as natural selection shapes their destiny.

And in a great evolutionary irony, survival depends on the ability to swim and catch fish. Leon (Trotsky) Trout – a frequent Vonnegut contributor – tells the story, spiced with biting social commentary along the way.

KV addresses Darwin and the Galapagos this way:

Darwin did not change the islands, but only people’s opinion of them. That was how important mere opinions used to be back in the era of great big brains.

Mere opinions, in fact, were as likely to govern people’s actions as hard evidence, and were subject to sudden reversals as hard evidence could never be. So the Galapagos Islands could be hell in one moment and heaven in the next, and Julius Caesar could be a statesman in one moment and a butcher in the next, and Ecuadorian paper money could be traded, for food, shelter and clothing in one moment and line the bottom of a birdcage in the next, and the universe could be created by God Almighty in one moment and by a big explosion in the next — and on and on.

Today, a whole industry probes, measures, interpolates and regurgitates back to us what we’re thinking – what our opinions are. One minute the polls are up, and the next they’re down. We’ve got to exercise our big brain power someway, somehow.

KV can be darkly humorous (would you expect anything else from him?) about how our big brains push us about. Here, Leon Trout offers up this:

When I was alive, I often received advice from my own big brain which, in terms of my own survival, or the survival of the human race, for that matter, can be charitably described as questionable. Example: It had me join the United States Marines and go fight in Vietnam.

Thanks a lot, big brain.

Or humorous about our bodies in general. I had a dental appointment this morning, and one of my dentists major drum beats is ‘take care of your teeth. They need to last a lifetime.’ Big brains and “mouthfuls of rotting crockery” for which Natural Selection has had (in KV’s tale) a “draconian solution”:

It hasn’t made teeth more durable. It has simply cut the average human life span down to about thirty years.

KV is clear, and this is the dominant theme of the book, our big brains, and all the so-called intellect they entail, is the reason for our dance toward oblivion. We are destroying our world and ourselves for the simple reason that we can.

I am reminded of the stark Bread and Puppet poster, a figure of Mr. Death:

I think upon the can: “I stink therefore I am”.

KV (Leon) asks this question:

About that mystifying enthusiasm a million years ago [in the mid eighties] for turning over as many human activities as possible to machinery:  What could that have been but yet another acknowledgement by people that their brains were no damn good?”

As a reader, I know I extrapolate to my own experiences, my own “opinions” (guilty!). This is not necessarily a good thing, but I do it anyway. I think of the Bushes when I read stuff like this. These are literary signposts for how the world is as it is. And remember, “a million years ago” is today!:

Like so many other pathological personalities in positions of power a million years ago, he might do almost anything on impulse, feeling nothing much. The logical explanations for his actions, invented at leisure, always come afterwards.

And let that sort of behavior back in the era of the big brains be taken as a capsule history of the war I had the honor to fight in, which was the Vietnam War.

KV is also big on sharks and killer whales. These species tend to keep the population down (the population have become like seals, after all, and fish for their food). Population management means that no one will starve to death. But this all ebbs and flows. It’s in the natural order of things, an elegant species balancing act:

There is another human defect which the Law of Natural Selection has yet to remedy: When people of today have full bellies, they are exactly like their ancestors of a million years ago: very slow to acknowledge any awful troubles they may be in. Then is when they forget to keep a sharp lookout for sharks and whales.

How about coming to my place of business and observe. Actually, we just had interns observing for a few weeks. You know. See how business really works? Well, here’s how it really works:

If “the Nature Cruise of the Century” had come off as planned, the division of duties between the Captain and his first mate would have been typical of the management of so many organizations a million years ago [today], with the nominal leader specializing in sociable balderdash, and with the supposed second-in-command burdened with the responsibility of understanding how things really worked, and what was really going on. The best-run nations commonly had such symbiotic pairings at the top.

I’ll close with these three quotes from KV. I’ve left a lot out, so get the book and be amazed. It’s black comedy at its finest.

  • As long as they killed people with conventional rather than nuclear weapons, they were praised as humanitarian statesmen. As long as they did not use nuclear weapons, it appeared, nobody was going to give the right name to all the killing that had been going on since the end of the Second World War, which was surely “World War Three.”
  • “The more you learn about people, the more disgusted you’ll become. I would have thought that your being sent by the wisest men in your country, supposedly, to fight a nearly endless, thankless, horrifying, and, finally, pointless war, would have given you sufficient insight into the nature of humanity to last you throughout all eternity!
  • That, in my opinion, was the most diabolical aspect of those old-time big brains: They would tell their owners, in effect, “Here is a crazy thing we could actually do, probably, but we would never do it, of course. It’s just fun to think about.” And then, as though in trances, the people would really do it—have slaves fight each other to the death in the Colosseum, or burn people alive in the public square for holding opinions which were locally unpopular, or build factories whose only purpose was to kill people in industrial quantities, or to blow up whole cities, and on and on.



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