Rich Erlich, Utopias/Dystopias, SF, Mod. Fiction
StGd Player Piano Draft 2.3: 2003 / Uploaded Views May 2022
Study Guide for Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s Player Piano
1. I'll try to give citations to chapters whenever possible and convenient. Citations by page will be to Player Piano (1952; rpt. NY: Dell, 1974). For bibliographic work on secondary material for Vonnegut, see recent issues of the PMLA annual bibliography, the volume on Vonnegut in the 21st Century Authors series, and me. You can try the Web, but I suggest going through King Library, reachable through Miami's Home Page.
2. Allusions in the text (except for names, which are handled below):
p. 9; "Ilium, New York, is divided into three parts" (ch. 1): Julius Caesar's commentaries on the wars in Gaul ("All Gaul is divided into three parts").
p. 63: "Why did it have to happen?" "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away" (ch. 5): Job, passim and 1.20-21: "Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head [in mourning for his children, who were killed by the Adversary], and fell down upon the ground and worshipped; and he said:
Naked came I out of my mother's womb,
And naked shall I return thither;
The LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away;
Blessed be the name of the LORD."
(Remember the «death» of Checker Charley for the comic motif of mechanocide [genocide against machines] at the end of the novel.)
p. 114: "To live in a house by the side of a road . . ." (ch. 10): 2nd stanza "House by the Side of the Road"—
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
Where the race of men go by—
The men who are good and the men who are bad,
As good and as bad as I.
I would not sit in the scorner's seat
Nor hurl the cynic's ban—
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man. [* * * Etc.]
Samual Walter Foss (public domain 1899)
The allusion contrasts with Paul's vision of being a revolutionary Messiah, if not with the real development of Messiahs and other heroes, who frequently withdraw from the world for a while before beginning their careers.
p. 148: "After us the deluge" (ch. 15): This is a line by Mme De Pompadour (1721-64), mistress to King Louis XV of France. The deluge came on schedule under Louis XVI (in 1789).
p. 157: "—that a man was a man for all that" (ch. 17): slight modification of the key line in Robert Burns, "For A' that and A' That"—a poem setting forth the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity (and which may be based in part on Tom Paine's Rights of Man).
p. 179: "Gott mit uns" (ch. 19): German for "(If) God is with us" or "God be with us"—a standard line when going off to war. To translate and paraphrase: The Blue Team is going to win — God be with us.
pp. 197-98: "This above all, be true to yourself, and you can't be false to anybody else" (ch. 20): Shakespeare's Polonius: last lines in his farewell to his son, Laertes, go
This above all; to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man. . . .
In Hamlet and in Piano these lines are quite ironic, including that in both contexts this moldie-oldie cliché is good advice.
p. 206: "Star of wonder, star of might; star of wondrous beauty bright" (ch. 21): Direct quote from a Christmas carol; the star in the carol is the wondrous star of Bethlehem, leading the wise men to the Christ child.
p. 215: "the packing up of troubles in old kit bags" (ch. 22): Paraphrase of line in a World War I song (another moldie oldie by 1952)—
Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag
And smile, smile, smile.
While you've a lucifer [= match] to light your fag [= cigarette],
Smile boys all the while. . . . (Quoted from memory)
p. 216: De mortuis nil nisi bonum (ch. 22): Latin, "Say nothing about the dead, unless it's something good." This is a traditional response when asked for a comment on a dead person you think ill of.
p. 243: "Horatio on the bridge" and "Roland and Oliver" (ch. 26): "Horatius Cocles, a Roman hero traditionally of the late 6th century BC but undoubtedly legendary, who first with two companions and finally alone defended the Sublician bridge (in Rome) against . . . the entire Etruscan army, thereby giving the Romans time to cut down the bridge. He then threw himself into the Tiber to swim to the other shore. Versions differ as to whether he reached safety or was drowned" (Ency. Brit., III, Micropaedia, vol. V). Roland is the star of the medieval French epic poem, The Song of Roland; Oliver is his second in command. The poem tells us that "Roland is brave and Oliver is wise," so Roland + Oliver would give us a hero (bravery + wisdom, fortitudo et sapientia), and the two are types for courage and military prowess.
p, 251: Jim Thorpe: James Francis Thorpe (1886-1953), "one of the most accomplished all-around athletes in history" (Ency. Brit., III, Micropaedia, vol. IX).
p. 253: "Should of stuck with your dog and your mother": Referring to the clichés, "A boy's best friend is his mother" and "A dog is a man's best friend" (ch. 27). Also: "A boy's best friend is his dog."
p. 289: "Blessed are fetishists. Inherited earth" (ch. 31): In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (Matthew 5.5).
p. 298: "Oedipus complex" (ch. 32): Direct reference to Freud's idea that little boys want to kill their fathers and coit with their mothers. (The best known source of the Oedipus story is Sophocles's tragedy, Oedipus Tyrannos.) Freudian psychology was big in the 1950's.
3. Ilium, New York: "Ilium" is both the ancient name of Troy and a bone in the pelvic girdle (Ency. Brit., III, Micropaedia, vol. V). Upstate New York is famous for pretentious place-names (Ithaca, Rome etc.). To the best of my knowledge, there is no Ilium, New York.
4. CAST (in order of appearance) with comments and important page numbers for their development (Dell edn.)—including page of first appearance:
Paul Proteus: The most famous Paul is St. Paul, the "apostle to the Gentiles." Paul started out as a nice Jewish boy named Saul, who picked up an excellent education in both Judaism and Greek philosophy and literature. He was also a Roman citizen, a major status symbol among more sophisticated (if less zealous) Jews. He was a persecutor of Christians until he was converted to Christianity on the road to Damascus. He was eventually martyred for spreading what the Roman authorities saw as Christian subversion, dying well: "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith" (second Letter to Timothy 4.7). Proteus is a character in Greek mythology: "a prophetic sea divinity, son of either Poseidon or Oceanus, who would foretell the future to those who could seize him. When caught, he would assume all possible varying forms so as to avoid prophesying, but when held fast despite it all, he assumed his usual form of an old man and told the truth" (Putnam's Concise Mythological Dict.). Introduced on p. 9 (1st p. of text); Paul is the protagonist (and hero?) of Piano.
George Proteus: Father to Paul, former National Industrial, Commercial, Communications, Foodstuffs, and Resources Director of the USA; he's dead by the time the novel starts, but his spirit marches on (9-10).
Katherine Finch: Paul's secretary, lover of Bud Calhoun (10); she eventually joins the Ghost Shirt Society (276).
Anita Proteus: Paul's wife until she throws him over for L. Shepherd and Paul gives her solid grounds for divorce. (Introduced on p. 10.) "Anita" was an in name in the early 1950's.
Bud Calhoun: An engineer at the Ilium Works; a mechanical genius who eventually invents himself out of a job. He joins the Ghost Shirt Society. (See pp. 12, 75, 276.)
Lawson Shepherd: Second in command to Paul at the Ilium Works; becomes lover to Anita; a stereotypical competitor (16 & passim).
Rudy Hertz: A master machinist whose movements Paul, Shepherd, and Ed Finnerty immortalized on tape, putting Hertz and his comrades out of jobs. (Introduced on p. 18.)
Kroner and Baer: "manager and chief engineer, respectively, of the entire Eastern Division, of which the Ilium Works was one small part" (23). Baer represents the engineering competence and tinkering genius that keeps the system going; Kroner represents the faith that holds together the intellectual elite. Kroner knew Paul's father and acts as a father figure for Paul. Baer quits his job after he reads the letter from the Ghost Shirt Society. (See pp. 48 f., 292.)
Ed Finnerty: Friend of Paul's, former member of the National Industrial Planning Board (24). He becomes a friend of Lasher and goes on to serve as one of the Thought Chiefs in the revolution.
Shah of Bratpuhr: A foreign potentate visiting in the USA (26). The name of his country may be a pun: brat-poor, "lacking in brats." If this is the case, it'd be an implicit contrast with the USA: a country rich in "brats" (i.e., childish adults). The Shah is the standard satiric figure of the naive visitor who is still smarter than his sophisticated hosts. Note well the questions he asks and his comments.
Ewing J. Halyard: State Dept. Protocol man showing around the Shah (26). "Halyard": "a rope or tackle for hoisting and lowering"; "Ewing J.": WASPish sounding names, appropriate to Halyard's status in life at the beginning of the novel. Note Halyard's fall and his integrity.
Khashdrahr Miasma: Nephew of and interpreter for the Shah (26). "Khashdrahr": "cash-drawer," I assume. "Miasma": "a vaporous exhalation formerly believed to cause disease, broadly: a heavy vaporous emanation."
Mom: Kroner's wife (50).
Fred Berringer: Arrogant numbskull working for Paul; Kroner respects the Berringer bloodlines (50).
PFC. Elmo C. Hacketts, Jr.: Everyman as soldier (67, 244).
Luke Lubbock: A perennial joiner of organizations that allow him to wear uniforms —ending in his joining the Ghost Shirt Society (89, 95-96, 276). Consider how much there is to Lubbock, naked.
Rev. James J. Lasher: "Chaplain, Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps" (91); minister of God, maker of messiahs and revolutions; becomes one of the four Thought Chiefs of the Ghost Shirt Society (89, 271 f., 314f.).
Alfy Tucci: TV shark, "master of silent television," stereotypical individualist (99, 281-82). His kid brother is Joe Tucci (255-56).
EPICAC XIV: The ultimate computer, or, just another false god (115f.). From: Ipecac, an emetic.
Jonathan Lynn: Former TV personality, now President of the US (117).
Fred Garth: Paul's competition for the post in Pittsburgh; the guy who ringbarked the sacred Oak at the Meadows (127, 183 f., 252 f., 289 f.).
Dr. Pond: Realtor handling Gottwald place (144 f.). Note him on titles; note well his brand of integrity.
Mr. Haycox: Farmer on Gottwald place; member of Ghost Shirt Society (148 f., 276). Haycox seems to be the last holdover from the Good Old Days when men were men and worked the soil and got their hands dirty.
Edgar R. B. Hagstrohm: Statistically average man (except for his two initials and possibly his fondness for Tarzan), host to the Shah (155 f.); husband to Wanda; lover to Marion Frascati. He eventually runs amok (250).
Dr. Francis Eldgrin Gelhorne: Successor to George Proteus, hence, the second National Industrial, Commercial, Communications, Foodstuffs, and Resources Director (183). For all practical purposes, the human ruler of the US economy, hence, of the US.
Homer Bigley: Barber who trims Shah and delivers monolog on Progress (194 f.). "Homer" = Ancient Greek poet.
Edward L. Harrison: Young engineer at the Ithaca Works who befriends Paul and tells Buck Young to go into the football business (225 f. & 264 f.).
Lou MacCleary: Executive Manager of National Industrial Security; chief security officer for American industry. Attends meeting at Meadows where Paul is "fired" and quits (215 f.).
Harold Roseberry: Head football coach at Cornell U; the man who gives Halyard his PE test (257 f.).
Buck Young: IM football player for Delta Upsilon, hotly desired by Coach Roseberry for the Cornell football team (260 f.). "Buck Young" = simple inversion of "young buck."
Ludwig von Neumann: Former PoliSci instructor, the 4th Thought Chief of the Ghost Shirt Society (277f.). He's an intellectual who gets into revolution as much to perform an experiment as to save the world. (Possible Allusion: John von Neumann, mathematician important for, among other things, the theory of games [important for mathematical economics] and the development of computers.)
Harold ?: Black dude sharing cell with Paul; eventually becomes a specialist at blasting traffic safety education boxes (288 & 311).
Try to figure out what and who is being satirized.
The Foreword mentions "managers and engineers" of the future, not, of course, ours; look for managers and engineers as two butts (= targets) of attack.
As a Mode of narrative, Satire is conservative, after its fashion, tending to reject all formal ideologies. Some forms of Rightist satire, however, attack various aliens: Jews and others from the East in ancient Rome, Blacks "In White America" (to use a play title), the various "wogs" of the Earth—"not our kind (and inferior)." And sometimes satire is just racist. Since most satire is written by males, it's sometimes misogynist or at least bigoted against women; and sometimes it's just sexist (an ideology of radical difference between men and women, with men as the norm and women consistently and systematically inferior).
Is Player Piano sexist?
It's from 1952, and was written before that: just after the "boys" were coming back from World War II and wanted (back) the good jobs that women had taken during the war. How do you make Rosie the Riveter give up her job to some guy? Part of the way was redefining "femininity" yet again, to make the ideal a middleclass woman who worked only in the home, raising the kids and being, not a housekeeper but a home maker. Even an author radical in many other ways, may not be capable of seeing what's happening to women right in front of his eyes. Indeed, even into the 1960s, Leftists weren't all that much better on women's issues than the Right, which helped inspire the revival of the Women's Movement.
Alternatively or additionally, does Piano (also) open up for investigation—for you, anyway, possibly by angering you — the question of what "women's work" might be in an age of machines labor? If you find the lives of the women of Piano empty and meaningless, might that be a point in the novel about the ideal and actualities of women's lives in America in the late 1940s, early 1950s? If there are no kids, and machines can do the housework, and homemaking is all there is for women to do . . . ? (See Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique [published 1963 f.].)
Women don't come through very well in Piano, but, then, how do men come through? Satire is rarely fair, but it ought to be evenhanded in choosing victims.
Is it an insult to group _____ if they're left out of a satire?
Is it a bigger insult to be included, but only in small numbers, so that all in the group look evil and/or silly?
(Consider Chaucer's Pilgrims or The Simpsons or South Park: fine satires featuring a broad range of people to laugh at [and sometimes with].)
Is Anita as dumb as Paul sometimes thinks she is? When is she right and he wrong? Do Anita and the other women make rational choices given their options?
This is an important point: many people who preach that other people should take responsibility for their actions try to slough off their own choices and actions, including inaction, that contribute to a world where crime and other evils are rational choices for many people.
We learn what Mom Kroner looks like, and it's not good. Do we learn what men look like (e.g., Dr. Francis Eldgrin Gelhorne [217; ch. 22])? Is it any better? Are their looks more or less important for their status in life than that of Mom Kroner or Anita?
A very ugly stand-up comedian (male) joked that women say looks aren't important to them, "that what they're interested in is personality," e.g., having a sense of humor, "which explains why [handsome] Tom Cruise is always getting trampled by women running after Buddy Hackett," a short, dumpy, ugly comedian, who used his usual voice for the sea gull in DisneyCorp's The Little Mermaid. Women may be more typed and trapped by their looks than men are, but that leaves plenty of room for men to be typed and trapped. The serious political question isn't, I think, whether or not men and women differ in their evaluations of appearance but whether or not members of different groups have to care what others think of their appearance.
Do the women in Piano come to happy endings? Anita gets a soul-mate for marriage in Shepherd. What happens to the other women?
Do the women in Piano get to hold positions of power in the Revolution? If not, why not? If not, note that for the 1960s.
6BRUTE FORCE CRITICISM:
Political System Background: The Washington Post Weekly Edition for August 19-25, 2002 (?) letter by Anna Kasten Nelson of Washington, DC, titled "Securing the Homeland"
Fred Hiatt reminded us in his July 22-25 op-ed column, "Truman's Rose-Colored Reforms," that attempts to unify the armed services were time consuming and fr[a]ught with jealousy. Nor were the National Security Council and CIA spared the "turf wars" of 1947 when Congress finally agreed to pass the National Security Act.
He omitted, however, the fourth agency created by the act—the National Security Resources Board (NSRB). It is this failed agency that serves as both a model and warning to the creators of the Department of Homeland Security."
The NSRB was the centerpiece of the plan to protect national security. Both of the major 20th-century wars had found the United States unprepared for mobilization. NSRB was designed to solve this problem. […]
Because it had to coordinate the evaluation of natural and industrial resources, including manpower, seven of the eight Cabinet departments in place in 1947 were involved in its work. Success would have required the cooperation of all involved. [* * *]
— Which didn't happen. The NSRB "was abolished in 1953," according to Ms. Nelson, giving it a "brief lifetime," but one which included much of the time of composition, and copyright date, of Player Piano. NSRB is cited in US government documents on the Web (example given below). So in projecting a future "National Industrial, Commercial, Communications, Foodstuffs, and Resources" directorate (Player Piano 10; ch. 1), Vonnegut was doing very modest science-fiction extrapolation from and satiric exaggeration of an existing agency and current trends.
Foreword: Piano was written during the Korean conflict and was published at the height of McCarthyism (Joseph McCarthy was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1946, re-elected in 1952, and not censured until 2 December 1954). For all of Vonnegut's references to God, note that he is an atheist.
Chapter 1: Anita is described as barren (10) — which is interesting, since all the Narrator might tell us was that the marriage was barren (i.e., Paul might be sterile; both might be fertile — but not with each other).
Contrast Bud's car with Paul's.
Contrast the old inhabitants of Building 58 with the new ones: especially the two kinds of sweepers (15-16, 20-21) and the cat.
Note the "essence" of Rudy Hertz, as "far as his machine was concerned" (18).
The death of the cat catches rather nicely a major theme (or, the theme) of Piano: the organic and the mechanical are opposed, and in a conflict between the two the organic is going to lose; still, it's important to fight the good fight.
Note the order in which Paul and Anita declare their loves. On p. 25, it's "I love you, Paul" and "I love you, Anita"; on p. 165 it's "I love you, Anita" and "I love you, Paul."
Chapter 2: The Shah thinks that American society is based on slavery or (and?) communism; Halyard, of course, corrects him (27-29). Whose idea of America is closer to the truth? In America are there also "only the Elite and the Takaru [slaves]" (29)?
Chapter 3: Note Narrator on Paul's thoughts on Reeks and Wrecks vs. the Army (31). There's an important point here on inner hollowness and the usefulness of clothes to cover that hollowness.
We get in this chapter the first of at least three bar scenes in Homestead: note well the feelings of all involved (34 f.).
We also get introduced to the player piano (37) and to the Rev. Mr.—or should I say Doctor — Lasher (the unnamed man, on pp. 36 f., who claims to have a job-seeking son). Try to figure out what that piano represents.
Chapter 4: Piano uses 3rd person "limited omniscient" "over-the-shoulder" narration (the second quoted phrase is mine; the first is a useful oxymoron). I.e., the Narrator may see all and know all, but he tells us mostly what his protagonist sees, hears, and thinks. The Narrator seems to like Paul, but he is also well aware of Paul's weaknesses and gives us some hints about them. Case in point: "Paul began to suspect that Finnerty's way of life wasn't as irrational as it seemed; that it was, in fact, a studied and elaborate insult to the managers and engineers of Ilium, and to their immaculate wives. Why Finnerty has seen fit to offend these gentle people was never clear to Paul, who supposed the aggressiveness, like most aggressiveness, dated back to some childhood muddle" (40). In ch. 3 we've seen Homestead and have learned of the evil these "gentle people" are doing; we've also seen some of the "psychopathology" of the everyday life of Paul Proteus (the pistol, the jacket) and may begin to wonder if there's some "childhood muddle" behind some of Paul's behavior (see p. 298).
Still, the Narrator likes Paul and so does Vonnegut: and we see Paul's beginning to ask the right questions and starting to feel properly alienated (41-43). Finnerty introduces the Meadows, the system, and the possibility of just quitting (44); he implies strongly what we've started to suspect: the system is something to be opposed, not adjusted to (45).
Note Finnerty on Anita-as-machine. On p. 237 she'll quote this, as an accusation against Paul.
Do not identify Vonnegut with Finnerty or Paul Proteus, and do remember that Anita is a whole lot smarter and more sophisticated than she seems to Paul (for one thing, she gets what she wants). Still, Piano may definitely not transcends its times on gender matters, and Vonnegut, in contemporary terms, may have been, and may have remained for a long while, pretty sexist.
Chapter 5: Note Kroner as father figure: "It was as though Paul stood in the enervating, emasculating presence of his father again" (48). In the theory of the Oedipus complex the little boy worries that Daddy will find out what the kid wants and will castrate him to prevent it. The Oedipus complex business, however, is less important for the novel than the motif of adults/children. We see very few real children in the story; on the other hand, we see a lot of people over the age of majority acting like kids, being treated like kids, etc. There may be a theme of paternalism in the novel — also a theme of the arrested emotional/moral development that allows such paternalism.
Note Baer and Kroner as 1/2men (49); it may be quite important at the end of the novel that Baer quits his job.
Fred Berringer is important as an example of the ways in which the god of efficiency is sometimes flouted; note other instances when the rules are gotten around for the satisfaction of the elite of the elite, especially male egos (50).
A number of hardheaded businessmen follow(ed) highly inefficient customs: "perfect copy" demanded in single-spaced letters produced on typewriters, wearing clothes to work that one would never really work in (suits are not practical for physical labor), offices, travel arrangements, and other amenities much, much beyond what they need to just do their jobs.
Note the first round in the Paul/Shepherd/Anita contest: pp. 52 f.
Party and Checker Game: Note Finnerty's comment that "Somebody always wins, and somebody always loses" (61). Does Finnerty learn a different philosophy when he becomes Lasher's disciple?
The "death" of Checker Charley prefigures the war against the machines later in the novel. Note Finnerty's sympathies and his Sic semper tyrannis ("Thus always with tyrants"); note that Paul is the only one to laugh (64).
Chapter 6: Another theory popular back in the 1950s was that many of us want to return to the peace and comfort of the womb; this theory is used here and later with a speech by Ed Harrison (64 and 266).
Finnerty and Finnerty's quitting juxtaposed to the picture of Paul's father — a picture Anita uses to goad Paul on (66).
The Narrator tells us that "Paul missed what made his father aggressive and great: the capacity to really give a damn" (67). How are we to feel about Paul's inability to give a damn about the Ilium Works, the Meadows, and all? Should we rejoice later, when Paul learns to give a damn about the revolution?
Chapter 7: Note the patriotic citizens/slaves "confusion."
Chapter 8: In the unnamed Reek and Wreck and in the fired Bud we can see how the System fails to reward creativity and tinkering genius (73-75). Note the satire against (mechanical) aptitude tests. Note Bud's utter passion to mechanize the world (79 f.); remember this for the morning after the revolution Bud helped to make. (Also: note Paul's suggestion that they could just "tack a memo about policy on the guardhouse wall" [p. 80]. Bud's getting kidded a little here.)
Chapter 9: Paul's comments here about not knowing his father may be every bit as truthful as his comments later, at his trial. I.e., Paul may be ticked at his father because Old Man Proteus never had time for Paul; this seems just as likely as any Oedipus complex — esp. since we learn nothing about Paul's mother (85).
psychiatrist: More center/edge business, with infinity thrown in (86-87). In the 1950's and even later, many psychiatrists felt that it was their job to get people to adjust to society. (Indeed, the precursors of school psychologists in Chicago were called "adjustment teachers.") Overreacting to that bit of stupidity, many intellectuals began to talk favorably of neuroses. This, of course, also fits in with the old literary theme of "reason in madness," fools speaking Truth, blind seers, etc. etc.
Sugar/Infinity: Note question in Piano of what people might be for, our purpose, and the probability that Vonnegut answers that our purpose is to be the best human beings we can. OK, what does it mean to be human, in Piano, mostly humans as opposed to machines? Perhaps, among other things,
(1) We should be like a cat, rather than like a machine: emotional, striving to get the hell out of a mechanized environment (opening of novel).
(2) We should be reasoning creatures, perhaps like future computers, but using fuzzy human reason, rather than rigid, machine reason.
(3) We should be able to conceive of infinity and (emotionally) care about the infinite; in that sense, anyway, we should be spiritual beings. (Vonnegut was an atheist, but a-theism [being without God or gods] doesn't require denial of spirituality in all its senses.)
"rebirth": First used by Paul on p. 87: "I guess I looked forward to some sort of rebirth too." Note that this word comes right after the discussion of shrinks and after the Narrator has mentioned infinity and love. Is Paul moving toward a rebirth?
bar scene at Homestead: ("Homestead": cite of the famous Homestead Strike of July 1892: Andrew Carnegie; union busting; and a Presidential election — a real classic bit of downhome American violence.)
Luke: Note his need for costumes and the possibility that he's hollow inside. That's particularly important, given that Luke is actually one of the more positive characters in Piano.
Lasher: Note that he has no son (or any other kids). Consider carefully the Socratic (91) dialog we get in this scene: From Plato to B. F. Skinner right up to Ursula K. Le Guin much of the action of dystopian and utopian literature has served to put people into positions where they could have long conversations. Note that Lasher is both a Protestant Minister and "an anthropologist with a masters degree" (91). Most of the time we'll see him as a scientific, detached revolutionary; never forget, though, that this basic motivation is service to God. (Vonnegut, the atheist, might respect that service — when it provides the energy to get something done; cf. Paul Proteus's comments at his trial on sordid motivations.)
Revolution: Lasher here gets the refrain "My glass is empty" and seems to speak pretty theoretically about the needed Messiah. Try to determine just how far along his subversion is at this stage of the game. Note Lasher's insightful "Yesterday's snow job becomes today's sermon" (93). And, perhaps, today's messiahs, disciples, and martyrs will be the bringers of tomorrow's world. (Lasher in this scene may be like Jesus at about 30 years old, just beginning his ministry.)
Science: Lasher says that science is OK; his only problems are with technology (93). This may be a good strategy on Vonnegut's part: take on one enemy at a time. Still, though, science (and scholarly research) can't be as neutral as Lasher describes it. (See ch. 32, p. 297).
IQ Hierarchy: Cf. Michael Young, The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2033: The New Elite of Our Social Revolution (London: Thames and Hudson, 1958; NY: Random, 1959). In the early 1970's (or late 1960s) this idea was recycled yet again and got some play in the media: the worst sort of class structure would be the more or less rational one based on merit, especially if "merit" were quantified with something like IQ (see Piano 94-95).
Identity: Paul gets the idea that he's getting one (102-3); note how Paul's first movements toward dissent are undercut by his farcical actions as a drunk. "'Friends, my friends!' he cried. 'We must meet in the middle of the bridge!' The frail table suddenly lurched beneath him. He heard the splitting of wood, cheers, and again — darkness" (105). Note that at the end of the scene Paul has lost Finnerty (who is lashing away at the player piano) to Lasher (106).
Anita/Shepherd: See Shepherd's line on doing things right (107) and compare it with Anita's line on p. 113. Paul is really slow in not catching on to what Anita and Shepherd have in common.
Note Anita in her kitchen: the truth of the scene and what Paul would like to make of it (110-11).
Note that Anita wants Paul to tell her that he copulated with one of the Homestead women; but she's appalled at the idea that Shepherd might have seen them (112-13).
Paul/Alfy: Paul starts to identify with Alfy here (a bit), and Alfy comes to represent Individualism. It's possible that this fits in with Paul's switch from messianic meeting in the middle of the bridge to a desire for withdrawal (114).
President: Reigns but doesn't rule (118-19); sort of a symbol to all them other "plain folks" out there in TV land. Note that "plain folks" is a technical term for the standard technique of propaganda that Pres. Lynn's script writers are using.
EPICAC XIV: The real ruler of the USA. but not the Messiah—it can't answer the Shah's riddle (121). Anyone know the answer to the riddle?
Kroner: He's in the (literary) tradition of the Victorian industrialist, esp. as dealt with by such satirists as Charles Dickens (with maybe a touch of G. B. Shaw's arms merchant in Major Barbara). Note Kroner's home, portrait (122), and family life (123).
Note the juxtaposition of progress and guns. Note Kroner as both father figure and tempter in this scene.
Paul: He quotes Anita pretty exactly in responding to the Pittsburgh offer (127 and 114; see also p. 81).
Note that only Paul really appreciates how grotesquely the scene ends (132), but he sings along. You need to picture this; it's funny.
Chapter 13: Note integrity as the key moral norm of Piano. (It is not, however, the political norm: people on both sides have integrity; others on both sides lack integrity.)
The informer business is, indeed, "about as basic as an attack on integrity could be" and would be justified in the novel on esthetic grounds alone (132). Still, Vonnegut didn't get his reputation as a satirist by being a stickler for New Critical canons of the artsy-craftsy, and the informer business has direct relevance to Joe McCarthy and the US House of Representative's Committee on un-American Activities (HUAC). The basic temptation offered by these un-American committees (the pun is Harry Truman's) was to name names: i.e., you could get off the hook by informing on others, by turning in your friends (thereby showing your loyalty to the State).
Recently, alumni (so to speak) of the Red Scare have stressed the ritual aspect to "naming names": the FBI knew the names already and had plenty of names, as did the relevant committees of the Congress (etc.); lots of people were Communists or fellow-travelers during the 1930s and the War years. Cf. American forgiveness nowadays for repentant sinners from the 1960s: "Yes, I was a radical, but I outgrew it" — OK. "Inhale? Hell, I chugged the bhong water!" — OK (the guy who said it is now a conservative, and I think he got re-elected to Congress). But I'd get into trouble if I said, "Well, I was a McGovern Democrat in the 1960s, and socially quite conservative when it came to sex and drugs; and I sincerely regret I wasn't more radical across the board."—Buzzzz! Wrong answer! A good way to press the point that one must repent and repudiate the past is to make someone betray his former friends.
Note how Anita has started to talk like Shepherd (or, always has, but Paul didn't notice). Note Anita and his status as about all there is to Paul—followed by "Anita, I love you" and "I love you Paul" (133-34). This may be the first time Paul declares his love first.
Outdoor heroes (135 & 143): See pp. 232-33 for how the publishing business works in modern America. Note "wife" as just another item in the catalog of things Paul has learned how to grip. (Catalogs are standard satiric devices; note where Vonnegut's Narrator uses them.)
Finnerty: May be something of a "true believer" (in Eric Hoffer's phrase): a person who lacks integrity, real being, and must therefore look around for causes to justify his/her existence. Such people make good disciples, since they must stick with the cause — at least until they're converted to another cause. Contrast Paul's skepticism: "Paul reflected that the big trouble, really, was finding something to believe in" (140). Consider the possibility that Paul and Lasher represent Vonnegut's norm better than Finnerty does.
Chapter 15: Pond, in his comically perverse way, may have more integrity (at this stage of the novel) than either Paul or Ed Finnerty (147-48). Note, though, that this world needs the cleansing deluge (a standard image in revolutionary rhetoric) that would be brought by the collapse of the "vast and faulty dike" of civilization (148).
How correct is Paul about the way Anita will respond to a real colonial house? Is he any more correct about the magical "out" of returning to nature? (This could be the 2nd temptation for Paul: dropping out.)
Note Mr. Haycox on "Dr."; he may be a walking cliché, but Haycox says things the audience has wanted said for several chapters. We like Haycox, even as we recognize that he was an old-fashioned character long before Jefferson wrote about the American Agrarian Ethic. (Haycox goes back to, at least, Piers Plowman characters in medieval English satire and to the "good man" [vir bonus] of Latin satire.) Note also, Haycox on legal fictions as opposed to men (151): "machinery" can include the law and bureaucracies as well as physical machines.
Chapter 17: Note that the slaves have something in common with the elite — Hagstrohm reads Tarzan; Paul reads even less respectable adventure tales.
Note very well the lot of women in lower-class America; they are no more liberated than their upper-class sisters. Is this a failure of imagination on Vonnegut's part? Is Vonnegut saying that the world he describes would have different kinds of slavery for men and women?
Note Hagstrohm's $30 as the "tiny atom of the economy under his control"—and that he's going to spend it on a socially disreputable purpose (and that he sympathizes with the guy who bought the electric organ). Is this Vonnegut's individualist-capitalist streak showing through? (Satirists tend to be conservatives, and even left-wing satirists often have some conservative or reactionary traits. E.g., the National Lampoon's article on Richard M. Nixon's "Linguistic Engineers" took a position on language slightly to the right of Jonathan Swift in the 18th century.)
Consider the paradox of being enslaved to leisure.
Chapter 18: So much for dropping out, down on the farm. Still, there should have been some sort of turning point here, and we are left with a situation that can't continue (in art): Paul kind of regresses to boyhood.
Chapter 19: The chapter opens with an explicit statement about Paul's inertia and the impending crisis (178-79).
Meadows: Rumor has it that Vonnegut's picture of old boys at summer camp is fairly close to what actually went on at corporate retreats in the 1940's and 1950's. It's intriguing that Vonnegut picked this way to show us the Enemy. We're going to laugh at them, but we're not going to hate these guys. (It undermines revolutionary ardor if you're thinking that an enemy should be taken out and shot — and then start giggling because you realize it'd be more appropriate to give him a "time out.")
Garth: Keep your eye on him as (1) a lover of the system, (2) a competitor that the Anita-Shepherd theory would condemn to destruction, (3) a father of kids who aren't going to do that well on their tests.
Gelhorne: Note that he's called the Old Man (e.g., p. 185). He's the ultimate father figure in a sense: the major incarnation in Piano of the Old Man archetype.
Comedy: (1) That damn loudspeaker; (2) the roughhousing; speech, eulogywise, for Ernie; (5) the photographer; (6) "the boy who yelled at memorial service" and his failed life.
Chapter 20: Barber's monolog. There's some exposition here, but it seems to be mostly a summing up of what we've seen. (In satire, subtlety isn't a major virtue.) Note well the barber's lines on the army and on integrity. As in Hamlet, the old cliché about being true to yourself is laughable in context but nonetheless true (197-98).
Chapter 21: We can be sure that Paul is "half tight." How sure can we be that "as of the afternoon, he was his own man"? (210).
Keynote play: Note various people's reactions to it. Note the idea that John Averageman would be perfectly happy if it weren't for those damn radicals. (Trivia: I think Vonnegut meant "ultraviolet" when he wrote "infrared." Vonnegut was never big on looking up such stuff.)
Meeting: Paul is at a low point just before it starts: "An awakening conscience, unaccompanied by new wisdom, made his life so damned lonely, he decided he wouldn't mind being dead" (212).
Background for meeting: Oath of the new "braves" — real camp stuff — with Luke being the most moved by the "pomp and circumstance"; the saloon being opened; the different responses of Harrison and Berringer to the arrowhead.
Meeting: Note "no need to hurry" as a repeated refrain (e.g., p. 216).
First reference to Ghost Shirt Society: p. 217.
Note well Gelhorne and his rise—and how that rise would be impossible in the modern world that Gelhorne runs (218-20). Note carefully what Gelhorne looks like. Is his appearance important? Is it appropriate for where he is? For who he is? (For judging Vonnegut's description of women?)
Note Paul's "I quit" (221). They don't believe him, of course, but the gesture was nice (222).
Plot: My old calculator tells me that we're 69.375% of the way through Piano before we really get into what plot there is. What's Vonnegut's Narrator been doing all this time? Have you been bored? (If the novel's been working for you, you haven't been bored; Vonnegut's Narrator spent a lot of those 220+pp. telling us about the rotten world of the future. All worlds in art are imaginary and need to be sketched in a bit; still, writers of fantasy or SF makes fewer assumptions of continuity between their imaginary worlds and the readers' world[s]—and the writers of utopias and dystopias are primarily concerned with the worlds they present. Dystopian fiction, like Piano, will spend a lot of time on the world before and while getting into the plot.)
Chapter 23: Note Paul as animal/machine in swinging at the bartender (224) — this is a fascinating idea for Vonnegut's Narrator — and Vonnegut; he returns to it often.
Note Harrison's charity (225-26), and friendship-as-integrity (226).
Note the weird image of roots rooted in home — and the juxtaposition of this image with the sabotaging of the Oak (a life symbol of the engineering elite). Real Question: Who says "Beware the Ghost Shirt!" (228)?
Chapter 24: Note Public Relations as greater prostitution than whoring. Note the discussion of "art" and literature and the "Big demand for that bare-chested stuff" that Paul's been reading (233).
The PR bit is a joke, a serious one, repeated later in Vonnegut's work: Vonnegut was a PR flack for General Electric for a bit, after he returned from World War II.
Chapter 25: The would-be whore and her husband are juxtaposed to Anita and Paul. Note that the woman does not, finally, put out for the Shah — and may be saved from prostitution (entirely? for a while?) by the Shah's gift. Anita has been involved with Shepherd, unfaithful to her marriage to Paul whether she and Shepherd copulated or not.
Note very well: Anita's accusation that Paul's treated her like a machine, a sex machine (237).
Note also: "I love you" shifts to "I like you" (238). Paul is totally stripped here: he becomes the "Doctor Paul Proteus, an unclassified human being," that we see at the beginning of the next chapter. (Reaching such a low point is a common motif in conversion stories; in eutopian/dystopian works from the 1950s, cf. and contrast Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth's The Space Merchants.)
Chapter 26: The old conductor is insufficiently radical for both Paul and the Narrator: both would make technology serve people (241).
Note modern warfare and how there's no heroism there, not even in suffering and dying (242-43).
Chapter 27: Paul is now his own man, the Narrator tells us, but he's alone, "in his own house," not at home (246).
Note the little joke in "incitement to conspire to advocate sabotage" (cf. Jonathan Swift's passage in "A Modest Proposal," climaxing with "a little bordering on cruelty"; note real-world complaints about "Conspiracy: The darling of prosecutors" and recent complaints about loss of American rights in the name of State — oops, sorry, Homeland — security.).
Note how long Paul's farming experiment lasts.
Note day-time TV.
Things start moving toward climaxes in this chapter: Hagstrohm cuts up his M-17 home (250); Garth goes to jail for ringbarking the Oak; and Paul gets his Mickey and proceeds to his real new life.
Chapter 28: Games and education are important to any culture, so a satirist ought to get them in. As far as the plot goes, this is the climax of Halyard's story and the end of Ed Harrison's story. (Why Cornell? Well, it is in upstate New York; it's Vonnegut's undergrad alma mater; and it was a real rah-rah school in the 1940s and 1950s.) Note Harrison's "Anybody that compete with slaves becomes a slave" (266).
Chapter 29: Paul's interview (under Sodium Pentothal™). Note Lasher (?) trying to get Paul to say "evil" and Paul's settling on "pointless" (271). Note very well the simile 19th century Indians/Whites = just about Everybody nowadays/machines (272-74).
Note well the change of values brought about by the machines.
Chapter 30: Note Paul as animal (276) and who is in the revolution. Why did Vonnegut's Narrator wait until now to introduce L. von Nuemann (277), the 3rd Thought Chief? Note well the motivations for revolution.
The lines on Alfy Tucci are important: they define the limitations of classic rugged individualism and some significant American forms of liberalism (281-82).
Note that Lasher talks about "people . . . bored to death or sick of things the way they are"; his disciple Finnerty talks of the morning after the revolution and return to basic values (282). Note "Paul's" letter. Note Lasher's use of "bandwagon" (286) — a technical term in propaganda.
Chapter 32: Paul belongs now and has something to believe in — and the lie detector tells us when he's lying (293-94); so now is a really good time to get Paul's views and those of the Ghost Shirt Society — and maybe the norms for this novel.
Trial: Trials are very effective in theater and literature: they give us debates, ceremony, and one of the most classic forms of the formal struggle (agon). Here you have a dedicated prosecutor vs. our hero, Paul, and they can argue out the justice of the revolution and Paul's participation in it. (Cf. and contrast trial in playlet at the Meadows. Perhaps these trials form two poles in the plot of Piano.)
Revolution: Paul recognizes that it's treason (295). Note that the revolutionary theory is good; we'll soon see how the revolution works out in practice.
Lie/Truth: Paul goes beyond Lasher's position early in the novel; Paul denies that all scientific knowledge is good.
"The Main business of humanity is to do a good job of being human beings" (297) — at least one critic has taken this line as central to Vonnegut's philosophy from Piano (1952) to (at least) Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).
Motivation: Vonnegut is on to a very important point here. Even after the 1950s people tried to discredit ideas by pointing out the sordid motivations of the holders of those ideas. That's a logical no-no (a personal attack, technically, the rhetorical foul of "poisoning the well"), but it also seems to be a nearly irresistible impulse. Paul gives the correct answer to this sort of attack: "Sordid things, for the most part, are what make human beings . . . move. That's what it is to be human . . ." (299).
Chapter 33: Revolution and tying the story up. Note that Halyard and the Shah get to Ilium about the time Paul is rescued . The major plot and the subplot don't really meet, but at least they pass each other closely.
Halyard: Note his integrity in defeat (302).
Shah: Asks a major question: What are people for? (302).
Revolution: It's funny. Note the mock heroic aspects (including the epic catalog) of human beings committing mechanocide. Note the costumes (always important in battles).
Real Questions: (1) Does Vonnegut believe that adulthood is possible for Americans? The prosecutor calls Paul a boy; Finnerty calls the Moose and Elks babies (307); and we don't seem to see a whole lot of grownups in the whole country. (2) "Where are the women?" Shriners and Moose and Elks, patriarchal organizations that/though they be, have women's auxiliaries. Why not make full use of your supporters? Since 1789 at least — probably throughout human history — women have been important in revolutions.
Chapter 34: The morning after the revolution. Note the injuries to the four Thought Chiefs.
Change: Are Finnerty and Paul really against change? Is Vonnegut coming out in favor of the status quo here? Just what are we to make of Finnerty's line, "Things don't stay the way they are . . . . It's too entertaining to try to change them" (313)?
People: Note how they screw up revolutions and engineers' paradises (313). Are we to approve of people even with such problems? Are we to approve of human mediocrity? (Such approval runs counter to the elitist theory of, say, Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers  and other works. It also runs counter to the PR flacks who present every third-rate university student body as "the best and the brightest," and the accompanying third-rate faculty as "prestigious." And it runs counter to the insult most Americans hear in "third-rate," even when "third-rate" isn't doing badly at all. [If Universities of/in Oxford and Cambridge and Stanford and Berkeley and the Ivy League (generally) are first-rate, and the big-time Big-Ten schools and U of Chicago second rate, then Miami U in Ohio, where I worked for some 35 years, is about third-rate and doing quite well, thank you.])
Revolution: Note the reactions to what happened to the Indians and to Lasher's commenting that he figured they'd lose. Recall that Lasher is an anthropologist, but foremost a minister: "First and last, I'm an enemy of the Devil, a man of God!" (314-15). How does Vonnegut, the gentle atheist, want us to take his godly revolutionary? And if "seriously" is part of the answer, as it is, what should we see as "the Devil" as manifested in the world of the novel? (Put differently, what are the primary satiric targets?)
Chapter 35: Note the catalog of "carnage" (315-16). Note the hopelessness of Utopians: people will re-establish dystopia as soon as it is destroyed. Still, is it enough to be somebody (320)? Is it enough to be recorded as good on the "record" — even if there is no God to read the record? Do we have a happy ending?
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