Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut

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I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, “The Beatles did.”

It appears to me that the most highly evolved Earthling creatures find being alive embarrassing or much worse.



The African-American jazz pianist Fats Waller had a sentence he used to shout when his playing was absolutely brilliant and hilarious. This was it: “Somebody shoot me while I’m happy!”

That there are such devices as firearms, as easy to operate as cigarette lighters and as cheap as toasters, capable at anybody’s whim of killing Father or Fats or Abraham Lincoln or John Lennon or Martin Luther King, Jr., or a woman pushing a baby carriage, should be proof enough for anybody that, to quote the old science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, “being alive is a crock of shit.”




Trout’s story reminds me of the time my late great-aunt Emma Vonnegut said she hated the Chinese. Her late son-in-law Kerfuit Stewart, who used to own Stewart’s Book Store in Louisville, Kentucky, admonished her that it was wicked to hate that many people all at once.




I still think up short stories from time to time, as though there were money in it. The habit dies hard. There used to be fleeting fame in it, too. Highly literate people once talked enthusiastically to one another about a story by Ray Bradbury or J. D. Salinger or John Cheever or John Collier or John O’Hara or Shirley Jackson or Flannery O’Connor or whomever, which had appeared in a magazine in the past few days.

No more.

All I do with short story ideas now is rough them out, credit them to Kilgore Trout, and put them in a novel.

6 His long-term relationships with women had been disasters. In the only love story he ever attempted, “Kiss Me Again,” he had written, “There is no way a beautiful woman can live up to what she looks like for any appreciable length of time.”




In the slavering search for subversive literature on the shelves of our public schools, which will never stop, the two most subversive tales of all remain untouched, wholly unsuspected. One is the story of Robin Hood. As ill educated as John Dillinger was, that was surely his inspiration: a reputable blueprint for what a real man might do with life.

The minds of children in intellectually humble American homes back then weren’t swamped with countless stories from TV sets. They heard or read only a few stories, and so could remember them, and maybe learn something from them. Everywhere in the English-speaking world, one of those was “Cinderella.” Another was “The Ugly Duckling.” Another was the story of Robin Hood.

And another, as disrespectful of established authority as the story of Robin Hood, which “Cinderella” and “The Ugly Duckling” are not, is the life of Jesus Christ as described in the New Testament.




They needed the jobs, no matter how pointless the work might be, and so were reminiscent of people during the Great Depression of the 1930s, who celebrated when they got any kind of work at all.

Trout characterized the sort of work he was able to get back then as “cleaning birdshit out of cuckoo clocks.”




Humanists try to behave decently and honorably without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. The creator of the Universe has been to us unknowable so far. We serve as well as we can the highest abstraction of which we have some understanding, which is our community.

I spoke at a Humanist Association memorial service for Dr. Asimov a few years back. I said, “Isaac is up in Heaven now.” That was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of Humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. [...]

When I myself am dead, God forbid, I hope some wag will say about me, “He’s up in Heaven now.”

Note (Hal’s):
Not long before reading this, I myself said something very close to that, online.

I wasn’t trying to be funny. Nevertheless, I will now deliberately compound the joke by hoping Kurt Vonnegut, wherever he may be, is in a position to enjoy it.

— end note




I say in lectures in 1996 that fifty percent or more of American marriages go bust because most of us no longer have extended families. When you marry someone now, all you get is one person.

I say that when couples fight, it isn’t about money or sex or power. What they’re really saying is, “You’re not enough people!”



I thank Trout for the concept of the man-woman hour as a unit of measurement of marital intimacy. This is an hour during which a husband and wife are close enough to be aware of each other, and for one to say something to the other without yelling, if he or she feels like it.


[...] Newton was advised by those who were his nominal supervisors to take time out from the hard truths of science to brush up on theology.

I like to think they did this not because they were foolish, but to remind him of how comforting and encouraging the make-believe of religion can be for common folk.




When she got pregnant with Mark, she resigned the scholarship. We found the head of the Russian Department in the library, I remember, and my wife told this melancholy refugee from Stalinism that she had to quit because she had become infected with progeny.

Even without a computer, I can never forget what he said to Jane: “My dear Mrs. Vonnegut, pregnancy is the beginning, not the end, of life.”



He did not panic. His experiences as a forward observer for the artillery had taught him that panic only made things worse. He would say at Xanadu: “In real life, as in Grand Opera, arias only make hopeless situations worse.”

34 All male writers, incidentally, no matter how broke or otherwise objectionable, have pretty wives. Somebody should look into this.

Tellers of stories with ink on paper, not that they matter anymore, have been either swoopers or bashers. Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn’t work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one. When they’re done they’re done.




I still quote Eugene Debs (1855–1926), late of Terre Haute, Indiana, five times the Socialist Party’s candidate for President, in every speech:

“While there is a lower class I am in it, while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

In recent years, I’ve found it prudent to say before quoting Debs that he is to be taken seriously. Otherwise many in the audience will start to laugh. They are being nice, not mean, knowing I like to be funny. But it is also a sign of these times that such a moving echo of the Sermon on the Mount can be perceived as outdated, wholly discredited horsecrap.

Which it is not.


Eugene Debs


I asked him why half his patients at Bellevue didn’t commit suicide. He said the same question had occurred to him. He sometimes asked them, as though it were an unremarkable part of a diagnostic routine, if they had thoughts of self-destruction. He said that they were almost without exception surprised and insulted by the question. An idea that sick had never entered their heads!




Question: What is the white stuff in bird poop?

Answer: That is bird poop, too.

So much for science, and how helpful it can be in these times of environmental calamities.



Bird poop

“If you really want to know whether your pictures are, as you say, ‘art or not,’ you must display them in a public space somewhere, and see if strangers like to look at them. That is the way the game is played. Let me know what happens.”

I went on: “People capable of liking some paintings or prints or whatever can rarely do so without knowing something about the artist. Again, the situation is social rather than scientific. Any work of art is half of a conversation between two human beings, and it helps a lot to know who is talking at you. Does he or she have a reputation for seriousness, for religiosity, for suffering, for concupiscence, for rebellion, for sincerity, for jokes?

“There are virtually no respected paintings made by persons about whom we know zilch. [...]

“I dare to suggest that no picture can attract serious attention without a particular sort of human being attached to it in the viewer’s mind. If you are unwilling to claim credit for your pictures, and to say why you hoped others might find them worth examining, there goes the ball game.

“Pictures are famous for their humanness, and not for their pictureness.”




I myself was antique enough to remember as terrific music the hissing and rolling thunder of steam locomotives, and their mournful whistles, and the metronomic clicks of wheels on joints in the rails, and the apparent rise and fall, thanks to the Doppler effect, of the pitch of warning bells at crossings.



The optimism that infused so much of our writing was based on our belief that after Magna Carta, and then the Declaration of Independence, and then the Bill of Rights, and then Article XIX of the Constitution, which in 1920 entitled women to vote, some scheme for economic justice could also be devised. That was the logical next step.

And even in 1996, I in speeches propose the following amendments to the Constitution:

Article XXVIII: Every newborn shall be sincerely welcomed and cared for until maturity.

Article XXIX: Every adult who needs it shall be given meaningful work to do, at a living wage.




The Wrinkled Old Family Retainer is about a wedding. The bride is Mirabile Dictu, a virgin. The groom is Flagrante Delicto, a heartless womanizer.

Sotto Voce, a male guest standing at the fringe of the ceremony, says out of the corner of his mouth to a guy standing next to him, “I don’t bother with all this. I simply find a woman who hates me, and I give her a house.”



Trout again confronted him, saying, “Wake up! Wake up! You’ve got free will again, and there’s work to do!” And so on.


Trout had an inspiration! Instead of trying to sell the concept of free will, which he himself didn’t believe in, he said this: “You’ve been very sick! Now you’re well again. You’ve been very sick! Now you’re well again.”

That mantra worked!

Trout could have been a great advertising man. The same has been said of Jesus Christ. The basis of every great advertisement is a credible promise. Jesus promised better times in an afterlife. Trout was promising the same thing in the here and now.


Free will



At the time of their invention, books were devices as crassly practical for storing or transmitting language, albeit fabricated from scarcely modified substances found in forest and field and animals, as the latest Silicon Valley miracles. But by accident, not by cunning calculation, books, because of their weight and texture, and because of their sweetly token resistance to manipulation, involve our hands and eyes, and then our minds and souls, in a spiritual adventure I would be very sorry for my grandchildren not to know about.


Books (general)


Why throw money at problems? That is what money is for.

Should the nation’s wealth be redistributed? It has been and continues to be redistributed to a few people in a manner strikingly unhelpful.




What I find worth exclaiming about right now is the continuing applicability to the human condition, years after free will has ceased to be a novelty, of what jazzed Dudley Prince back to life, of what is now known generally as Kilgore’s Creed: “You were sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do.”

Teachers in public schools across the land, I hear, say Kilgore’s Creed to students after the students have recited the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of each school day. Teachers say it seems to help.

A friend told me he was at a wedding where the minister said at the climax of the ceremony: “You were sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do. I now pronounce you man and wife.”


In chapter 45, I proposed two new amendments to the Constitution. Here are two more, little enough to expect from life, one would think, like the Bill of Rights:

Article XXX: Every person, upon reaching a statutory age of puberty, shall be declared an adult in a solemn public ritual, during which he or she must welcome his or her new responsibilities in the community, and their attendant dignities.

Article XXXI: Every effort shall be made to make every person feel that he or she will be sorely missed when he or she is gone.

Such essential elements in an ideal diet for a human spirit, of course, can be provided convincingly only by extended families.


Steve Adams, one of my three adopted nephews, was a successful TV comedy writer in Los Angeles, California, a few years back. [...]

Steve learned the hard way that all his jokes for TV had to be about events that had been made much of by TV itself, and very recently. If a joke was about something that hadn’t been on TV for a month or more, the watchers wouldn’t have a clue, even though the laugh track was laughing, as to what they themselves were supposed to laugh about.

Guess what? TV is an eraser.




At Xanadu in 2001, I asked Kilgore Trout for his ballpark opinion of John Wilkes Booth. He said Booth’s performance in Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., on the night of Good Friday, April 14th, 1865, when he shot Lincoln and then jumped from a theater box to the stage, breaking his leg, was “the sort of thing which is bound to happen whenever an actor creates his own material.”




You think the ancient Romans were smart? Look at how dumb their numbers were. One theory of why they declined and fell is that their plumbing was lead. [...] Lead poisoning makes people stupid and lazy.

What’s your excuse?

She was pregnant, and she wanted to know if it was a mistake to bring an innocent little baby into a world this bad.

I replied that what made being alive almost worthwhile for me was the saints I met, people behaving unselfishly and capably. They turned up in the most unexpected places. Perhaps you, dear reader, are or can become a saint for her sweet child to meet.

I believe in original sin. I also believe in original virtue. Look around!



Original Sin

“Even if you’d taken an hour,” he said, “something would have passed between where those two heavenly bodies used to be, at, conservatively speaking, a million times the speed of light.”

“What was it?” I said.

“Your awareness,” he said. “That is a new quality in the Universe, which exists only because there are human beings. Physicists must from now on, when pondering the secrets of the Cosmos, factor in not only energy and matter and time, but something very new and beautiful, which is human awareness.”



text checked (see note) Oct 2009

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