Kurt Vonnegut had eight base rules for writing fiction. His number eight comes close to being my favorite, but seven steals out instead: “write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”
I don’t/haven’t read Vonnegut often, and was initially drawn to his fiction simply by virtue of the author’s (rejected) pursuit of an MA in anthropology after completing a BS in biochemistry, and thus felt some form of affinity. Vonnugut magnetized towards anthropology, which he called “a science that was mostly poetry, that involved almost no math at all.” And it must have been some contribution of anthropological thinking that allowed Vonnegut to state his modus operandi on the workings of being a writer:
“Many people need desperately to receive this message: I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.”
The line comes from Vonnegut’s last novel, Timequake, which happens to also be the only work of his I’ve yet read. We write to communicate, even if only to a single person (and as pertains to Vonnegut’s seventh rule of writing, better yet to be aimed toward one), thus echoing that dictum of Stephen King that writing is akin to telepathy. I also can’t help but think that Vonnegut must have had some passing interest in ethnography, the practice of familiarizing the exotic, and to write that above maxim, might have had at least some familiarity with Marcel Mauss.
Of French nationality (and nephew to Émile Durkheim), Mauss was a sociologist, back in a period when the distinction between anthropology and sociology was less fine and more open to interpretation. His major contribution to both fields was The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, and, as a piece of comparative armchair research, that it is still taught and valued as a fine contribution to understanding everyday life is telling. In The Gift, Mauss challenged the ahistorical and seemingly universal Western assumption that giving a gift is a voluntary act—instead, Mauss wanted to demonstrate that gift giving enters individuals into a continual process of exchange and reciprocity and that this mechanical-like system produces social bonds and affects the making of community.
The main support of Mauss’s thesis came from ethnographic research in Polynesia—more specifically, the potlatch ceremony, the systemic and ceremonial redistributing of possessions tied together by the strings of the obligation to reciprocate a gift. Under the Polynesian potlatch, to not return a gift–object, what Mauss called the taonga, to the original giver of greater or at least equal value was “tantamount to declaring war; it is to reject the bond of alliance and commonality.” The essence of the system was what Mauss referred to as the hau, the spirit of things, that which retains the essence of the giver within the taonga and thus forms the bond between giver–recipient. In short, to give a taonga is to give a part of oneself, a part that follows the recipient and produces what we understand to be a relationship with another. It was in this spirit that Mauss found the gift relationship to be an intermingling: “Souls are mixed with things; things with souls. Lives are mixed together, and this is how persons are things, intermingled, each emerges from their own sphere and mixes together.” Other theorists took this idea, extrapolated it to the tradition of political theorists—the likes of Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacques Rousseau—and bound Mauss’s gift relationship to the social contract, allowing Marshall Sahlins to assert how the system of gift giving “is an alliance, solidarity, communion-in brief, peace, the great virtue that earlier philosophers, Hobbes notably, had discovered in the State.” To paraphrase Sahlins further, in entering into cycles of exchange, as individuals and collectives we give ourselves, and in doing so, each, spiritually, becomes a member of everybody else.
When Vonnegut talks of transmitting a message of solidarity, I imagine his words containing a hau of a similar kind. Spreading one’s word to a singular other begets a self-regulating system of exchange. Those words, like taonga, contain the soul of the giver that circulates, are akin to cells of our body flaking into the world and replacing one another, echoing Walt Whitman’s 1885 atomic “From Song of Myself.”
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
Those atoms of expression, song, and word might as well be those microscopic entities of bacteria and protozoa and metazoa that constitute 90 percent of each human body’s cell mass. Those sentences, paragraphs, stories, novels are each plasmids, containing the genetic information of something deeply personal. We become virus particles, infecting each other, binding to each other, incorporating our genetic material into that of another through prose, becoming so much like the phages that give Vibrio cholerae its pathogenicity—changing the nature of what the individual organism is, altering the how of its interactions in a wider ecology of selves.