Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut

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Copyright © 1979 by Kurt Vonnegut


He says in his letter that he has read almost everything of mine and is now prepared to state the single idea that lies at the core of my life’s work so far. The words are his: “Love may fail, but courtesy will prevail.”

This seems true to me—and complete. So I am now in the abashed condition, five days after my fifty-seventh birthday, of realizing that I needn’t have bothered to write several books. A seven-word telegram would have done the job.




Sensations meant more to him than ideas—especially the feel of natural materials at his fingertips. When he was dying about twenty years later, he would say that he wished he had been a potter, making mud pies all day long.

To me that was sad—because he was so well-educated. It seemed to me that he was throwing his knowledge and intelligence away, just as a retreating soldier might throw away his rifle and pack.

Other people found it beautiful. He was a much-beloved man in the city, with wonderfully talented hands. He was invariably courteous and innocent. To him all craftsmen were saints, no matter how mean or stupid they might really be.


It was a song to be kept secret from women. It may be that no woman has ever heard it, even at this late date. The intent of the lyricist, obviously, was to so coarsen the feelings of males who sang the song that the singers could never believe again what most of us believed with all our hearts back then: that women were more spiritual, more sacred than men.

I still believe that about women. Is that, too, comical?


Men and Women


It was once so acceptable in this country to be a communist that my being one did not prevent my winning a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford after Harvard, and then landing a job in Roosevelt’s Department of Agriculture after that. What could be so repulsive after all, during the Great Depression, especially, and with yet another war for natural wealth and markets coming, in a young man’s belief that each person could work as well as he or she was able, and should be rewarded, sick or well, young or old, brave or frightened, talented or imbecilic, according to his or her simple needs? How could anyone treat me as a person with a diseased mind if I thought that war need never come again—if only common people everywhere would take control of the planet’s wealth, disband their national armies, and forget their national boundaries; if only they would think of themselves ever after as brothers and sisters, yes, and as mothers and fathers, too, and children of all other common people—everywhere. The only person who would be excluded from such friendly and merciful society would be one who took more wealth than he or she needed at any time.

And even now, at the rueful age of sixty-six, I find my knees still turn to water when I encounter anyone who still considers it a possibility that there will one day be one big happy peaceful family on Earth—the Family of Man.

I still believe that peace and plenty and happiness can be worked out some way. I am a fool.

But the conclusions implied by my materials changed so little over the years that I might as well have simply sent the same telegram each week to limbo. It would have said this:



Her plan was to roam alone and out-of-doors forever, from nowhere to nowhere in a demented sort of religious ecstasy. “No one ever touches me,” she said, “and I never touch anyone. I am like a bird in flight. It is so beautiful. There is only God—and me.”

I thought this of her: that she resembled gentle Ophelia in Hamlet, who became fey and lyrical when life was too cruel to bear.

She believed, and was entitled to believe, I must say, that all human beings were evil by nature, whether tormentors or victims, or idle standers-by. They could only create meaningless tragedies, she said, since they weren’t nearly intelligent enough to accomplish all the good they meant to do. We were a disease, she said, which had evolved on one tiny cinder in the universe, but could spread and spread.



3 “That was the strength of the Nazis,” she said. “They understood God better than anyone. They knew how to make Him stay away.”
8 “Everybody gets his back broken when he goes to prison for the first time. It mends after a while, but never quite the way it was before.”



It was a toy steering wheel, it turned out. Lawes had a seven-year-old son he sometimes took with him on trips. The little boy could pretend to be steering the limousine with the plastic wheel. [...]

I said it was a clever toy.

Lawes said it could be an exciting one, too, especially if the person with the real steering wheel was drunk and having close shaves with oncoming trucks and sideswiping parked cars and so on. He said that the President of the United States ought to be given a wheel like that at his inauguration, to remind him and everybody else that all he could do was pretend to steer.

10 No American is so old and poor and friendless that he cannot make a collection of some of the most exquisite little ironies in town.

I had a whimsical idea: I thought of calling the secretary of the treasury, Kermit Winkler, a man who had graduated from Harvard two years after me, and saying this to him: “I just tried out two of your dimes on Times Square, and they worked like a dream. It looks like another great day for the coinage!”

A waitress said to me, “Honeybunch, you sit right down, and I’ll bring you your coffee right away.” I hadn’t said anything to her.

So I did sit down, and everywhere I looked I saw customers of every description being received with love. To the waitresses everybody was “honeybunch” and “darling” and “dear.” It was like an emergency ward after a great catastrophe. It did not matter what race or class the victims belonged to. They were all given the same miracle drug, which was coffee. The catastrophe in this case, of course, was that the sun had come up again.



14 For what it may be worth to modern impresarios: I can testify from personal experience that great crowds can still be gathered by melodrama, provided that the female in the piece speaks loudly and clearly.



15 Noses are merciful that way. They will report that something smells awful. If the owner of a nose stays around anyway, the nose concludes that the smell isn’t so bad after all. It shuts itself off, deferring to superior wisdom. Thus is it possible to eat Limburger cheese [...]

No wonder she dared not trust anybody. On this particular planet, where money mattered more than anything, the nicest person imaginable might suddenly get the idea of wringing her neck so that their loved ones might live in comfort. It would be the work of the moment—and easily forgotten as the years went by. Time flies.

It was thinkers, after all, who had set up the death camps. Setting up a death camp, with its railroad sidings and its around-the-clock crematoria, was not something a moron could do. Neither could a moron explain why a death camp was ultimately humane.

Harps are self-destructive, incidentally. [...] The tensions in a harp are so tremendous and unrelenting that it becomes unplayable after fifty years and belongs on a dump or in a museum.


Anarchists are people who believe with all their hearts that governments are enemies of their own people.




He told the jury, “This man, although he may not have actually committed the crime attributed to him, is nevertheless morally culpable, because he is the enemy of our existing institutions.”

Word of honor: This was said by a judge in an American court of law.




What, in my opinion, was wrong with Mary Kathleen’s scheme for a peaceful economic revolution? For one thing, the federal government was wholly unprepared to operate all the business of RAMJAC on behalf of the people. For another thing: Most of those businesses, rigged only to make profits, were as indifferent to the needs of the people as, say, thunderstorms. Mary Kathleen might as well have left one-fifth of the weather to the people. The businesses of RAMJAC, by their very nature, were as unaffected by the joys and tragedies of human beings as the rain that fell on the night that Madeiros and Sacco and Vanzetti died in an electric chair. It would have rained anyway.

The economy is a thoughtless weather system—and nothing more.

Some joke on the people, to give them such a thing.



We are here for no purpose, unless we can invent one. Of that I am sure.



Congressman Nixon had asked me why, as the son of immigrants who had been treated so well by Americans, as a man who had been treated like a son and been sent to Harvard by an American capitalist, I had been so ungrateful to the American economic system.

The answer I gave him was not original. Nothing about me has ever been original. I repeated what my one-time hero, Kenneth Whistler, had said in reply to the same general sort of question long, long ago. Whistler had been a witness at a trial of strikers accused of violence. The judge had become curious about him, had asked him why such a well-educated man from such a good family would so immerse himself in the working class.

My stolen answer to Nixon was this: “Why? The Sermon on the Mount, sir.”

text checked (see note) Jul 2012

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