Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut

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Copyright © 1987 by Kurt Vonnegut


The German Empire, allied with the Turks, sent impassive military observers to evaluate this century’s first genocide, a word which did not exist in any language then. The word is now understood everywhere to mean a carefully planned effort to kill every memeber, be it man, woman, or child, of a perceived subfamily of the human race.

The problems presented by such ambitious projects are purely industrial: how to kill that many big, resourceful animals cheaply and quickly, make sure that nobody gets away, and dispose of mountains of meat and bones afterwards. The Turks, in their pioneering effort, had neither the aptitude for really big business nor the specialized machinery required. The Germans would exhibit both par excellence only one quarter of a century later.




Paul Slazinger says, incidentally, that the human condition can be summed up in just one word, and this is the word: Embarrassment.



“What does ‘Hello’ mean?” she said.

And I said, “I had always understood it to mean ‘Hello’ ”

“Well it doesn’t,” she said. “It means, ‘Don’t talk about anything important.’ It means, ‘I’m smiling but not listening, so just go away.’ ”

She went on to avow that she was tired of just pretending to meet people.

I had better explain to my young readers, if any, that the Second World War had many of the promised characteristics of Armageddon, a final war between good and evil, so that nothing would do but that it be followed by miracles. Instant coffee was one. DDT was another. It was going to kill all the bugs, and almost did. Nuclear energy was going to make electricity so cheap that it might not even be metered. It would also make another war unthinkable. Talk about loaves and fishes! Antibiotics would defeat all diseases. Lazarus would never die: How was that for a scheme to make the Son of God obsolete?

Yes, and there were miraculous breakfast foods and would soon be helicopters for every family. There were miraculous new fibers which could be washed in cold water and need no ironing afterwards! Talk about a war well worth fighting!




“Never trust a survivor,” my father used to warn me, [...] “until you find out what he did to stay alive.”


That was an ordinary way for a patriotic American to talk back then. It’s hard to believe how sick of war we used to be. We used to boast of how small our Army and Navy were, and how little influence generals and admirals had in Washington. We used to call armaments manufacturers “Merchants of Death.”

Can you imagine that?




How I adored that train! God Almighty Himself must have been hilarious when human beings so mingled iron and water and fire as to make a railroad train!

Nowadays, of course, everything must be done with plutonium and laser beams.




A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily competition with nothing but world’s champions.

The entire planet can get along nicely now with maybe a dozen champion performers in each area of human giftedness. A moderately gifted person has to keep his or her gifts all bottled up until, in a manner of speaking, he or she gets drunk at a wedding and tap-dances on the coffee table like Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers. We have a name for him or her. We call him or her an “exhibitionist.”

They were truthful about material things, but they lied about time. He celebrated moments, anything from a child’s first meeting with a department store Santa Claus to the victory of a gladiator at the Circus Maximus, from the driving of the golden spike which completed a transcontinental railroad to a man’s going on his knees to ask a woman to marry him. But he lacked the guts or the wisdom, or maybe just the talent, to indicate somehow that time was liquid, that one moment was no more important than any other, and that all moments quickly run away.

Let me put it another way: Dan Gregory was a taxidermist. He stuffed and mounted and varnished and mothproofed supposedly great moments, all of which turn out to be depressing dust-catchers, like a moosehead bought at a country auction or a sailfish on the wall of a dentist’s waiting room.

10 The newspapers were full of stories of worker layoffs and farm foreclosures and bank failures, just as they are today. All that has changed, in my opinion, is that, thanks to television, we can hide a Great Depression. We may even be hiding a Third World War.



Slazinger, who still believes her to be only semiliterate, patronized her most daintily with these words: “As the philosopher George Santayana said, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ ”

“Is that a fact?” she said. “Well—I’ve got news for Mr. Santayana: we’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive. It’s pretty dense kids who haven’t figured that out by the time they’re ten.”

“Santayana was a famous philosopher at Harvard,” said Slazinger, a Harvard man.

And Mrs. Berman said, “Most kids can’t afford to go to Harvard to be misinformed.”




Circe Berman argues that the inclusion of once-taboo words into ordinary conversations is a good thing, since women and children are now free to discuss their bodies without shame, and so to take care of themselves more intelligently.

I said to her, “Maybe so. But don’t you think all this frankness has also caused a collapse of eloquence?” I reminded her of the cook’s daughter’s habit of referring to anybody she didn’t like for whatever reason as “an asshole.” I said: “Never did I hear Celeste give a thoughtful explanation of what it was that such a person might have done to earn that proctological sobriquet.”



“The trouble with God isn’t that He so seldom makes Himself known to us,” he went on. “The trouble with God is exactly the opposite. He’s holding you and me and everybody else by the scruff of the neck practically constantly.”

He said he had just come from an afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where so many of the paintings were about God’s giving instructions, to Adam and Eve and the Virgin Mary, and various saints in agony and so on. “These moments are very rare, if you can believe the painters—but who was ever nitwit enough to believe a painter?” he said [...] “Such moments are often called ‘epiphanies’ and I’m here to tell you they are as common as houseflies,” he said.



22 Who is more to be pitied, a writer bound and gagged by policemen or one living in perfect freedom who has nothing more to say?

The darkest secret of this country, I am afraid, is that too many of its citizens imagine that they belong to a much higher civilizaton somewhere else. That higher civilization doesn’t have to be another country. It can be the past instead—the United States as it was before it was spoiled by immigrants and the enfranchisement of the blacks.

This state of mind allows too many of us to lie and cheat and steal from the rest of us, to sell us junk and addictive poisons and corrupting entertainments. What are the rest of us, after all, but sub-human aborigines?


“To anybody who can draw,” I said, “the idea of putting the appearance of anything into words is like trying to make a Thanksgiving dinner out of ball bearings and broken glass.”




Shoreham is a nuclear generating plant not far away. If it didn’t work the way it was supposed to, it might kill hundreds of thousands of people and render Long Island uninhabitable for centuries. A lot of people were opposed to it. A lot of people were for it. I myself think about it as little as possible.

I will say this about it, although I have only seen it in photographs. Never have I contemplated architecture which said more pointedly to one and all: “I am from another planet. I have no way of caring what you are or what you want or what you do. Buster, you have been colonized.”



“And what is literature, Rabo,” he said, “but an insider’s newsletter about affairs relating to molecules, of no importance to anything in the Universe but a few molecules who have the disease called ‘thought.’ ”


One would soon go mad if one took such coincidences too seriously. One might be led to suspect that there were all sorts of things going on in the Universe which he or she did not thoroughly understand.


She said to him that the whole world suddenly seemed to be going crazy.

He commented that there was nothing sudden about it, that it had belonged in a prison or a lunatic asylum for quite some time.




But she listened thoughtfully when I told her about our little gang in New York City, whose paintings were nothing alike except for one thing: they were about nothing but themselves.

When I was all talked out, she sighed, and she shook her head. “It was the last conceivable thing a painter could do to a canvas, so you did it,” she said. “Leave it to Americans to write, ‘The End.’ ”

“I hope that’s not what we’re doing,” I said.

“I hope very much that it is what you’re doing,” she said. “After all that men have done to the women and children and every other defenseless thing on this planet, it is time that not just every painting, but every piece of music, every statue, every play, every poem and book a man creates, should say only this: ‘We are much too horrible for this nice place. We give up. We quit. The end!’ ”



text checked (see note) Jul 2012

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