Donald Trump and Kurt Vonnegut’s Man in the Hole Narrative

If you’re at all like me, you spent a good hour or so yesterday trying to follow Donald Trump’s rambling press conference. While we can certainly debate the merits or lack thereof of his arguments against the media and his own assessment of his first month in office, one thing that struck me as I was listening to him was that for all of the tangents he took, President Trump essentially stuck to one of the classic narratives or story-shapes that Kurt Vonnegut describes in his essay collection A Man Without a Country. That story-shape is the “Man in the Hole” narrative, and Vonnegut charted it on a graph like this:

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Kurt Vonnegut’s “Man in The Hole” narrative from A Man Without a Country.

This diagram illustrates what Vonnegut saw as one of the essential shapes a story can take. In this instance, the X-axis is time, and the Y-axis represents fortune. The way the story works is that things are going along okay for someone, but then bad fortune strikes (e.g., falling into a hole), but through trials and tribulations, the man gets out of the hole, and everything not only returns to normal but is actually better than it was before.

We see this story-shape all the time — especially in movie trailers. For example, how many movie trailers have you seen that begin with something like “It was just another day for Steve Jenkins…” and then go on to describe the rug being pulled out from under the hero only for the hero to fight his way to victory? The reason so many stories share this shape is that it’s one we understand. We’ve heard it so many times that we don’t have to think about it. And because we’re so used to it, it’s a story that’s very easy for us to digest.

The genius of Trump’s press conference is that whenever he returned to his notes, he came back to this very story-shape. Everything was going fine for him–great, in fact! He’d just had an amazing inauguration in which, according to him, the clouds parted and the rain stopped while he was being sworn in. But then he fell into a hole–in this case, the mess he claims to have inherited upon taking over as President of the United States. As if that weren’t bad enough, he then embarked on a series of trials and tribulations: according to Trump, the press was creating fake news, leakers were leaking classified information, and the confluence of the two forced him to let his National Security Advisor go…

But then there was the payoff. Starting next week, he promised, things are going to be great (again). He’s going to roll out some new plans that will change everyone’s lives. Sure, the press will still continue to hound him and give him a hard time, but the American people will see through their lies and very quickly begin to reap the benefits of Trump’s new plan.

It’s a good story, one whose basic mechanics have been tested time and again in books and movies and deftly illustrated in Vonnegut’s chart. What’s more, whether one believes the story is almost beside the point. What matters for Trump is that he’s fitting into a narrative that we understand–the narrative of the everyday man who falls upon bad fortune but emerges a hero.

What could be more American than that?

So… Handmines! (Doctor Who, Daleks, & Slaughterhouse Five)

I just watched the season premiere of Doctor Who and was struck by the thing that probably struck all fans of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaugherhouse Five: The Handmines are suspiciously similar to the Tralfamadorians.

In case you haven’t seen the episode, Handmines are like landmines, but instead of blowing people up, they reach up from underground and drag people to their deaths. And, creepily, they look like hands. And, more creepily, each hand has an eye in its palm.

A Handmine in action... like a Dalek, scary but oddly impractical as a weapon.

A Handmine in action… like a Dalek, scary but oddly impractical as a weapon.

By way of comparison, here’s how Kurt Vonnegut describes the natives of planet Tralfamadore in Slaughterhouse Five:

The letter said that they were two feet high, and green, and shaped like plumber’s friends. Their suction cups were on the ground, and their shafts, which were extremely flexible, usually pointed to the sky. At the top of each shaft was a little hand with a green eye in its palm.

Plumber’s friends! Which, of course, is to say plungers! Which is also to call to mind the ridiculous, iconic, and seemingly useless appendage mounted to the left of almost every Dalek’s gun!

Assuming Steven Moffat, who wrote the episode, is paying tribute to Vonnegut in some way (and even if he denies it… really?), then when we’re looking at Handmines, we’re looking at the flipside of a Dalek’s trademark plunger.

But what does it mean?

It’s tempting to wonder why Daleks have mostly useless plungers for arms, particularly given that Davros (who invented the Daleks) was a genius who hailed from a planet with the kind of technology that could produce Handmines and could therefore produce artificial hands, But that’s not really the question the Handmines answer. (The answer is that a humanoid hand would look ridiculous sticking out of a Dalek.)

The real question the Handmines answer is why the Daleks look like Daleks. That is, why do they roll around when walking seems to be the superior alternative? After all, we know that they have the technology to take on any form and usually do so in an upright, bipedal fashion (as the shopworn plot device of having pretty much every side character turn out to be a Dalek in disguise demonstrates). In other words, they can walk. They just choose not to.

Why?

If you’re Davros and you come from a planet where hands can reach up from the ground and grab you around the ankle and drag you to your death at any moment, you’re going to be particularly wary of the drawbacks of having ankles. As a result, any design you come up with for the ultimate survival machine isn’t going to have ankles. Instead, it’s going to have a massive base that rolls around on the ground so that a Handmine can’t reach up and conveniently grab it.

In the context of a world littered with Handmines, the pepper-pot design of Daleks makes a lot of sense. The Daleks were created as a means of survival and of winning war at any cost, which serves as a commentary on our own lot here on earth. It’s surely no coincidence that the Doctor is seen riding on a tank early in the episode. And when he makes a pun about the tank being the wrong size for his fish (or something along those lines), it’s tough not to think about Pink Floyd and the “two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl year after year” of “Wish You Were Here.”

More to the point, however, it’s hard not to think of other sea creatures that might be living in tanks. Octopi and squid, for example. And their doppelgangers, the Kaled mutants who operate the Daleks.

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A Kaled mutant rolls down the windows of his Dalek to get a bit of fresh air.

If there’s a parallel to be drawn here, it’s one I’ve made elsewhere, so forgive me for beating this dead horse: We have met the Daleks and the Daleks are us. But the image of the tank also underscores a theme shared by Slaughterhouse Five and pretty much every episode of Doctor Who featuring the Daleks. That is, war isn’t just bad; it’s dehumanizing. It causes people to arm themselves, to shield themselves inside protective layers of armor that prevent their feet from touching the ground.

And these layers of armor aren’t always literal. They can consist of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and how the world works (“We’re good, and they’re bad!” “We’re survivors!” “You need to kill or be killed!”). Moreover, these stories we tell ourselves can take away our compassion — which turns out to be the main theme of the episode.

It’s easy to show compassion for our friends since, by definition, they’re part of our understanding of who the “good guys” are. It’s harder to show compassion for our enemies or those we consider “other” or “alien.” Hence the Doctor’s on-again, off-again uneasy alliances with Missy/the Master, but his general tendency to always be aligned against the patently alien Daleks. But as the season premiere of Doctor Who and Slaughterhouse Five both suggest, without compassion, none of these alliances mean much of anything at all.

Or, as Kurt Vonnegut said in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,

Welcome to Earth.  It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter.  It’s wet and round and crowded.  At the outside… you’ve got about a hundred years here.  There’s only one rule that I know of… “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

Writing About Literature (Pt. 3: Support)

Throughout the body of your paper, you will support or explore your main point or thesis. To do this, you will alternate between providing summary and analysis. In other words, you will spend some of your time pointing out relevant passages from the texts you are discussing, and you will spend more of your time explaining why those passages matter and how they relate to the main point of your paper.

Summarizing Texts

If you suspect that your reader may not be familiar with the work of literature you are discussing, you may wish to summarize the entire text before moving forward with your discussion. Summarizing a text usually involves describing key elements of the work (e.g., plot, characters, setting, themes, tone, and style) and focusing on details that are relevant to your thesis. Keep such summaries brief, as the majority of your paper should be devoted to analysis of the text in question.

If your reader is familiar with the text you are discussing, there’s still a good chance that you’ll need to provide some degree of summary. The difference, however, is that instead of sketching out the entire work, you might want to draw your reader’s attention to a specific passage in the work in order to analyze its significance in relation to your thesis. If the passage you’re examining includes a particularly moving or well-written line, your summary might also include a direct quotation. When you summarize a text or include a direct quotation, be sure to provide a citation so your reader knows where to find the passage you are discussing.

In addition to summarizing passages from the main text you are discussing (a.k.a. the “primary text”), you will also need to summarize material from any outside sources you are using to support or explore your argument (the “secondary texts”). To summarize a secondary text, provide your reader with some context by explaining the main point of the secondary text (in other words, its thesis), and then draw your reader’s attention to specific elements of the secondary text that are most relevant to your thesis.

As with your use of primary texts, you may wish to include direct quotations from the secondary text, particularly if the critic or scholar has stated a point in a particularly effective way. Be sure to cite any ideas or direct quotations you take from secondary texts.

Analyzing Texts

Each time you provide the reader with summary, you should follow it immediately with analysis. That is, you should explain how the passage you just described or quoted relates either to the main point of your paper or to a supporting point that you are making in a specific part of your paper. If you get stuck, you can ask yourself some basic questions like, “What attracted me to this particular passage?” or “How is this passage related to the point I’m making?”

Your analysis can take several forms. In the early stages of your academic career, it will likely involve explaining how a detail from an outside source supports your main point. As your writing advances, you will probably start to bring in opposing voices—scholars and critics who argue points contrary to yours. In such cases, your analysis will involve constructing counter-arguments or using such opposing voices to complicate your position and thus to bring greater depth to your argument.

One other form of analysis you can perform with primary and secondary texts is called synthesis. In its most basic form, synthesis means taking two differing ideas or terms and creating something new from them. As far as writing a paper is concerned, it’s usually a matter of placing two ideas or texts next to each other and explaining what happens when we consider them together. For example, if you read Moby Dick alongside Hindu mythology, you’re bound to come up with an interpretation of the novel that’s different from one you’d get if you read Moby Dick alone. Just what that interpretation is would be up to you as a scholar—and explaining that interpretation is a form of analysis.

Remember that for every instance of summary you provide, you also need to provide analysis. In fact, your paper should consist of more analysis than summary. As a rule, every time you provide details about a primary or secondary source, you should then explain why those details matter in relation to your thesis. To put it another way, the body of your paper will consist largely of alternating between saying (in effect): here’s a detail, here’s why it matters, here are some more details, here’s why they matter, here’s some information from an outside sources, here’s how it relates to my primary text, and here’s why it matters to my main argument. (And so on, and so on.)

Throughout your paper, be sure to stay focused on the text in question. In other words, if your paper is on Moby Dick and you start explaining something about Hindu mythology somewhere on page three, you better draw a clear connection between both topics right away, or your reader will be lost.

Recap

The main thing to remember when you’re writing a paper for a literature course is that you’re not just letting your professor know that you did the reading. Rather, you’re making a point about the text. To do this, you will need to alternate between summarizing portions of the text and analyzing them, as well as summarizing ideas from outside sources and explaining how they relate to your main point or thesis. In other words, you’re constantly alternating between saying here’s what happened and here’s why it matters.