Hocus Pocus
Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

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Hocus Pocus


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Hocus Pocus

Copyright © 1990 by Kurt Vonnegut

Editor’s Note

To virtually all of his idiosyncrasies I, after much thought, have applied what another author once told me was the most sacred word in a great editor’s vocabulary. That word is “stet.”




Perhaps the only precept taught me by Grandfather Wills that I have honored all my adult life is that profanity and obscenity entitle people who don’t want unpleasant information to close their ears and eyes to you.




I am in fact pretty much an Atheist like my mother’s father, although I kept that to myself. Why argue somebody else out of the expectation of some sort of an Afterlife?




The 2 prime movers in the Universe are Time and Luck.

As the tag line of my favorite dirty joke would have it: “Keep your hat on. We could wind up miles from here.”


I used to find it easy and even exhilarating to lie that elaborately. I don’t anymore. And I wonder now if I didn’t develop that unwholesome habit very young, and because my parents were such an embarrassment [...]

And during my final year in Vietnam, when I was in Public Information, I found it as natural as breathing to tell the press and replacements fresh off the boats or planes that we were clearly winning, and that the folks back home should be proud and happy about all the good things we were doing there.

I learned to lie like that in high school.



Most of the company’s employees were content to do what they were told and incurious as to how it was, exactly, that they had worked the miracles that somehow arrived all packaged and labeled and addressed on the loading docks.

I am reminded now of dead American soldiers, teen-agers mostly, all packaged and labeled and addressed on loading docks in Vietnam. How many people knew or cared how these curious artifacts were actually manufactured?

It’s misleading for people to read about great successes, since even for middle-class and upper-class white people, in my experience, failure is the norm. It is unfair to youngsters particularly to leave them wholly unprepared for monster screw-ups and starring roles in Keystone Kop comedies and much, much worse.

Compare to:

A. E. Housman


I am not writing this book for people below the age of 18, but I see no harm in telling young people to prepare for failure rather than success, since failure is the main thing that is going to happen to them.


Me? I was in show business, trying to get a big audience for the Government on TV by killing real people with live ammunition, something the other advertisers were not free to do.

The other advertisers had to fake everything.

Oddly enough, the actors always turned out to be a lot more believable on the little screen than we were. Real people in real trouble don’t come across, somehow.




In the old days 4 of the bells were famously off-key, but beloved, and were known as “Pickle” and “Lemon” and “Big Cracked John” and “Beelzebub.” The Hiscocks had them sent to Belgium, to the same bell foundry where André Lutz had been an apprentice so long ago. There they were machined and weighted to perfect pitch, their condition when I got to play them.

It can’t have been music the carillon made in the old days. Those who used to make whatever it was described it in their letters to The Musketeer with the same sort of batty love and berserk gratitude I hear from convicts when they tell me what it was like to take heroin laced with amphetamine, and angel dust laced with LSD, and crack alone, and so on and so on. I think of all those learning-disabled kids in the old days, hauling away on ropes with the bells clanging sweet and sour and as loud as thunder directly overhead, and I am sure they were finding the same undeserved happiness so many of the convicts found in chemicals.

And haven’t I myself said that the happiest parts of my life were when I played the bells? With absolutely no basis in reality, I felt like many an addict that I’d won, I’d won, I’d won!





He would have seen exploitation of the poor and powerless in the growth of the prison across the lake as well. The prison to him would have been a scheme for depriving the lower social orders of leadership in the Class Struggle and for providing them with a horrible alternative to accepting whatever their greedy paymasters would give them in the way of working conditions and subsistence.

By the time I got to Tarkenton College, though, he would have been wrong about the meaning of the prison across the lake, since poor and powerless people, no matter how docile, were no longer of use to canny investors. What they used to do was now being done by heroic and uncomplaining machinery.

So an appropriate sign to put over the gate to Athena might have been, instead of “Work Makes Free,” for example: “Too bad you were born. Nobody has any use for you,” or maybe: “Come in and stay in, all you burdens on Society.”



9 The lesson I myself learned over and over again when teaching at the college and then the prison was the uselessness of information to most people, except as entertainment. If facts weren’t funny or scary, or couldn’t make you rich, the heck with them.



10 What in fact will happen to me in 9 more years? That is like worrying about a cheese spoiling if you don’t put it in the refrigerator. What can happen to a pricelessly stinky cheese that hasn’t already happened to it?

I simply described the truth of the inquirer’s situation in the context of the world outside as best I could. What he did next was up to him.

I call that being a teacher. I don’t call that being a mastermind of a treasonous enterprise. All I ever wanted to overthrow was ignorance and self-serving fantasies.




Bergeron’s epitaph for the planet, I remember, which he said should be carved in big letters in a wall of the Grand Canyon for the flying-saucer people to find, was this:


Only he didn’t say “doggone.”


If there really had been a Mercutio, and if there really was a Paradise, Mercutio might be hanging out with teenage Vietnam draftee casualties now, talking about what it felt like to die for other people’s vanity and foolishness.


The Afterlife



I repeated an old story Grandfather Wills had taught me, which was about a town where a cannon was fired at noon every day. One day the cannoneer was sick at the last minute and was too incapacitated to fire the cannon.

So at high noon there was silence.

All the people in the town jumped out of their skins when the sun reached its zenith. They asked each other in astonishment, “Good gravy! What was that?”




The sermon was based on what he claimed was a well-known fact, that there were no Atheists in foxholes.

I asked Jack what he thought of the sermon afterward, and he said, “There’s a Chaplain who never visited the front.”



The late unicyclist Professor Damon Stern asked me one time if I thought there would be a market for religious figures of Christ riding a unicycle instead of spiked to a cross. It was just a joke. [...]

But I would tell him now, if he hadn’t been killed while trying to save the horses, that the most important message of a crucifix, to me anyway, was how unspeakably cruel supposedly sane human beings can be when under orders from a superior authority.




So it wasn’t long before we had made the deadliest poisons in the Universe, and were stinking up the air and water and topsoil. In the words of the author, and I wish I knew his name, “Germs died by the trillions or failed to reproduce because they could no longer cut the mustard.”

But a few survived and even flourished, even though almost all other life forms on Earth perished. And when all other life forms vanished, and this planet became as sterile as the Moon, they hibernated as virtually indestructible spores, capable of waiting as long as necessary for the next lucky hit by a meteor. Thus, at last, did space travel become truly feasible.


And here I am capitalizing “Black” and “White” sometimes, and then not capitalizing them, and not feeling right about how the words look either way. That could be because sometimes race seems to matter a tremendous lot, and other times race seems to matter a little less than that. And I keep wanting to say “so-called Black” or “so-called black.” My guess is that well over half the inmates at Athena, and now in this prison here, had white or White ancestors. Many appear to be mostly white, but they get no credit for that.

Imagine what that must feel like.



“What a clever trap your Ruling Class set for us,” he went on. “First the atomic bomb. Now this.”

“Trap?” I echoed wonderingly.

“They looted your public and corporate treasuries, and turned your industries over to nincompoops,” he said. “Then they had your Government borrow so heavily from us that we had no choice but to send over an Army of Occupation in business suits. Never before has the Ruling Class of a country found a way to stick other countries with all the responsibilities their wealth might imply, and still remain rich beyond the dreams of avarice! No wonder they thought the comatose Ronald Reagan was a great President!”


Ronald Reagan

Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.



If the Trustees were bad, the convicts were worse. I would be the last person to say otherwise. They were devastators of their own communities with gunfights and robberies and rapes, and the merchandising of brain-busting chemicals and on and on.

But at least they saw what they were doing, whereas people like the Trustees had a lot in common with B-52 bombardiers way up in the stratosphere. They seldom saw the devastation they caused as they moved the huge portion of this country’s wealth they controlled from here to there.

Unlike my Socialist grandfather Ben Wills, who was a nobody, I have no reforms to propose. I think any form of government, not just Capitalism, is whatever the people who have all our money, drunk or sober, sane or insane, decide to do today.




text checked (see note) Feb 2009

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