Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s “Breakfast of Champions”

Breakfast of Champions; or, Goodbye Blue Monday! by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (New York: Delacorte Press, 1973)

Breakfast of Champions - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: “Breakfast of Champions” (1)


I think I am trying to make my head as empty as it was when I was born onto this damaged planet fifty years ago.

I suspect that this is something most white Americans, and nonwhite Americans who imitate white Americans, should do. The things other people have put into my head, at any rate, do not fit together nicely, are often useless and ugly, are out of proportion with one another, are out of proportion with life as it really is outside my head.

I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains. I can’t live without a culture anymore.

[from Preface]

Here was the core of the bad ideas which Trout gave to Dwayne: Everybody on Earth was a robot, with one exception—Dwayne Hoover.

Of all the creatures in the Universe, only Dwayne was thinking and feeling and worrying and planning and so on. Nobody else knew what pain was. Nobody else had any choices to make. Everybody else was a fully automatic machine, whose purpose was to stimulate Dwayne. Dwayne was a new type of creature being tested by the Creator of the Universe.

Only Dwayne Hoover had free will.

Trout did not expect to be believed. He put the bad ideas into a science-fiction novel, and that was where Dwayne found them. The book wasn’t addressed to Dwayne alone. Trout had never heard of Dwayne when he wrote it. It was addressed to anybody who happened to open it up. It said to simply anybody, in effect, “Hey—guess what: You’re the only creature with free will. How does that make you feel?” And so on.

It was a tour de force. It was a jeu d’esprit.

But it was mind poison to Dwayne.

And here, according to Trout, was the reason human beings could not reject ideas because they were bad: “Ideas on Earth were badges of friendship or enmity. Their content did not matter. Friends agreed with friends, in order to express friendliness. Enemies disagreed with enemies, in order to express enmity.

“The ideas Earthlings held didn't matter for hundreds of thousands of years, since they couldn't do much about them anyway. Ideas might as well be badges as anything.

“They even had a saying about the futility of ideas: ‘If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.’

“And then Earthlings discovered tools. Suddenly agreeing with friends could be a form of suicide or worse. But agreements went on, not for the sake of common sense or decency or self-preservation, but for friendliness.

“Earthlings went on being friendly, when they should have been thinking instead. And even when they built computers to do some thinking for them, they designed them not so much for wisdom as for friendliness. So they were doomed. Homicidal beggars could ride.”

Note from Ralph Dumain

I decided some time ago that I wanted to re-read Breakfast of Champions. I remembered little of it: the childlike illustrations, recapitulating one’s past, unvarnished bitterness, and something about the biochemistry of emotion . . . and a piece of narrative on solipsism of vital interest to me today.

Re-reading the novel, I am amazed to find that I had forgotten its most conspicuous themes. There is sharp criticism of the emptiness of American life, of ecological problems, of consumerism, of war. But the most persistent indictment of American society is of its racism and class inequality! I am struck by how heavy is the emphasis on race.

I note also the outrageousness of Vonnegut’s science-fictional imagination. His anti-hero Kilgore Trout’s garish si fi scenarios are all contained within the covers of pornographic books, per the publisher to which he sent his manuscripts. I love the combination of outlandish pulp science fiction ideas and philosophical-social content. Vonnegut did not need to write out Trout’s novels, he had only to describe the scenarios and ideas within them.

[from blog post of 22 November 2012]

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I have written elsewhere how Vonnegut’s critique of American society became more explicit with the decades and the changes in American society. His first novel Player Piano (1952) is dystopic – as was Ray Bradbury’s work – sussing out the malignant totalitarian effects of a technocratic, socially stratified consumer society, which was a conspicuous, novel development in the years following World War II. But as the social explosion of the 1960s ripped away the facade of liberal stability, Vonnegut’s critique, which can already be found in fantastic mode in his masterpiece Cat’s Cradle (1963), would become more explicit, though still imbued with his Hoosier background and war experience. But in Breakfast of Champions published in 1973 Vonnegut’s condemnation of American society is unfettered, though still infused with outrageous fantasy, as Vonnegut mercilessly trashes the smallness of the white American mind and projects the lethal consequences of its solipsism. I lost track of Vonnegut for three decades. When I reconnected with his work, I could see that he was not shy about his disgust with American society in the years preceding his death in 2007.

[4 November 2020]

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The fact that Trout's work is published as porn is a more extreme version of the real life relegation of science fiction to the pulp genre, a marginal corner of the publishing industry, in which many ideas of real interest can be found, cast in an exaggerated and tawdry style. Trout's ideas are not poison: he is an eccentric but bold creator in a rather seedy way, but his ideas, expressed extravagantly if not tongue-in-cheek, taken literally by simple-minded readers have dangerous effects precisely because such readers do not understand the implications of what is said, but simply follow them slavishly, in a society whose entire cultural mode of presentation is tacky and infantile.

[from a response to Sheremet & Parrish, 15 July 2021]

Love and Intellect II: For Blake, Against Nietzsche: Outline of Program

Love and Intellect II: For Blake, Against Nietzsche: Sources for Program (Vonnegut)

Revisiting Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle

Reading Kurt Vonnegut
[review of Breakfast of Champions]
by Maurice Mendelson

William Blake on love & intellect
(with photo of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.)

Irony, Humor, & Cynicism Study Guide

Cybernetics & Artificial Intelligence: Ideology Critique

Science Fiction & Utopia Research Resources: A Selective Work in Progress


Kurt Vonnegut Jr. @ Reason & Society

ArtiFact #14: Kurt Vonnegut's "Breakfast of Champions" | Alex Sheremet, Joel Parrish

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Uploaded 10 November 2020
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