Kurt Vonnegut 1922–2007
Kurt Vonnegut died yesterday at the ripe old age of 85. Despite explicitly asking for the following epitaph, “the only proof he needed for the existence of God was music”, bloggers around the Internet are tossing around his catchphrase, “and so it goes…”, ad nauseum instead. He made the request in his most recent book, a slim volume of thoughts he published after returning from retirement in a fit of pure frustration at the way the Bush administration was sullying America and doing such a crass, poor job of it, to boot. He even managed an appearance on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart late last year, passing the baton, as it were, to the next generation.
Vonnegut’s disgust with the Bush administration may have served as impetus for his last book, but its contents bespeak a much broader and deeper social knowledge. It includes many pearls of wisdom from one of America’s pre-eminent writers—one who never took himself too seriously, even when conspicuously quoting Mark Twain, to whom he could well be compared. Separated by 100 years, both were great American writers, started in comedic writing with a social bent and ended with strong humanist and anti-imperialist writings.
Novelist Kurt Vonnegut Dies at 84 (Democracy Now!) commemorates Vonnegut by citing a speech he gave in 2003, in which he cited a piece by Mark Twain, written in 1903. The piece by Twain addresses the purported “great victories” of the United States military against the people of the Philippines. Vonnegut clearly quotes it in order to draw horrifyingly obvious parallels to the “great victories” in our war against the people of Iraq. The citation reveals the words of a general writing to his commanding officer, informing him of news from the front:
“The enemy numbered six hundred – including women and children – and we abolished them utterly, leaving not even a baby alive to cry for its dead mother. This is incomparably the greatest victory that was ever achieved by the Christian soldiers of the United States. […]”
His commanding officer was Teddy Roosevelt, the president of the United States at the time. This is a president whose face is commemorated in a mountain of stone at Mount Rushmore, whose achievements are feted by wonks of all stripes, who is accepted by all right-thinking Americans as one of the great presidents—especially in a time when we struggle to remember the America that was as we suffer under the rule of one of the worst. His carefully considered response was as follows:
“I congratulate you and the officers and men of your command upon the brilliant feat of arms wherein you and they so well upheld the honor of the American flag.”
Vonnegut was clever enough to let others speak for him and to let the point speak for itself. He knew that nothing much had changed and that the bastards—called the “guessers” in his latest book—were still firmly in charge. He knew that our memories of Roosevelt, as stored in the national mind, were purest confabulation—as is most looking back on “good old times”. He knew that things were depressingly still the same, but saw no reason to give up; rather, he cheerfully (or sometimes, angrily) picked up where Twain—and countless other real heroes—had left off. He deliberately included the last piece of the citation, using Twain’s words as his own, in a phrasing that is still 100% accurate today:
“I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem. It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make these people free and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way; and so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.”
A Funny Guy
As noted above, though he was deadly serious about his love of America and his conviction that it could be a place that was good for the many instead of only the few, he made whatever he did palatable with a dry irony—the exact kind the Brits are always claiming Americans don’t have. For a rambling, good interview with Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, see The Joe & Kurt Show in May 1992 (Playboy). Here are some highlights:
- “VONNEGUT: Nietzsche had a little one-liner on how to choose a wife. He said, ‘’Are you willing to have a conversation with this woman for the next forty years?’‘ That’s how to pick a wife.”
- “HELLER: Bush still hadn’t figured out why he had invaded Panama, and he didn’t know why he was making war in Iraq”
“…Are you at all concerned about the government’s intrusion into our privacy?
“HELLER: Do I think, for example, this guy Pee-wee Herman should be arrested for playing with himself in an adult theater?
“VONNEGUT: Did he play to climax? I really haven’t kept up with the news as I should.”
- The Farce of War
- “VONNEGUT: There was a story in World War Two about a Dutch cruiser that escaped from the Nazis just as they were occupying Holland. The ship pulled into a fiord somewhere and put on war paint, purple and green stripes, and sailed into the Firth of Clyde, where the British navy was anchored in Scotland, and the skipper of the cruiser called to the flagship and asked, ‘’How do you like our new camouflage?’‘ And the answer that came back was ‘’Where are you?’‘”