Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
In the preface to Breakfast of Champions (1973), Kurt Vonnegut describes the book as a fiftieth-birthday present to himself. It is a gift more therapeutic than celebratory. He likens the novel to “a sidewalk strewn with junk, trash which I throw over my shoulders as I travel in time back to November eleventh, nineteen hundred and twenty-two.” The junk consists of childish drawings (of assholes, flags, underpants, and so on), characters recycled from previous stories, and absurd science-fiction plots he never intended to develop into books. At the end of the confessional prelude, Vonnegut assures the reader that while this garbage must be emptied, he does not want to throw away any “sacred things.” The sacraments he cites are Armistice Day, Romeo and Juliet, and all music.
The categories these things represent are fairly conventional. Most religious systems include holidays, stories and music deemed sacred. But Vonnegut’s choices are more personal. He was a humanist without creedal ties. Armistice Day, which happened to be his birthday, was an important part of his childhood (he had no similar regard for the Veteran’s Day that would replace it). He considered Shakespeare the wisest of human beings (though, he admitted, that wasn’t saying much). He was less selective when it came to music. In fact, he was not selective at all.
Is there any wisdom in Vonnegut’s view that all music is sacred? Strictly speaking, sacred music is an established taxonomic classification. It is music performed or composed for religious use and/or created under religious influence. It goes by many names: worship music, religious music, liturgical music, devotional music, ecclesiastical music, etc. But Vonnegut was not referring to any specialized musical purpose or context. To him, music—generically and without judgment—is a sacred thing.
To understand this viewpoint, we should look at the word “sanctity,” which derives from the Latin term sanctum, or “set apart.” (This is also the meaning of the Hebrew term kadesh.) Specifically, it denotes something that is set apart from the profane or ordinary.
Music fits this description in at least seven ways: (1) It is perceived as distinct from other noises; (2) Words set to music rise above everyday speech; (3) Our capacity for music-making distinguishes us from other animals; (4) Musical sounds penetrate otherwise untapped areas of consciousness; (5) Music has “extra-physical” power over our emotions; (6) Music is suggestive of a force greater than ourselves; (7) Any music can be set apart as special by an individual.
As inherently judgmental creatures, we might not agree with Vonnegut’s uncritical appraisal of music. We might also be cautious not to take his statement too seriously, given his track record of sarcasm and his usual penchant for sharp criticism. However, it is reasonable to accept his words at face value. All music likely was sacred to him, even as most other things were not (and many things were merely trash).
Breakfast of Champions was not the only place Vonnegut expressed this opinion. Elsewhere, he contrasted the brokenness he saw in the world with the purity he heard in music. This is most clearly written in his collection of essays, A Man Without a Country (2005): “No matter how corrupt, greedy, and heartless our government, our corporations, our media, and our religious and charitable institutions may become, the music will still be wonderful.”
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