EDITOR’S NOTE: The speech was given by John Leonard at a birthday celebration for Kurt Vonnegut.
“I used to be funny,” Kurt Vonnegut informs us in A Man Without a Country (Seven Stories), “and perhaps I’m not anymore.” This last bit is untrue, of course. In these essays from the pages of the radical biweekly In These Times, he is very funny as often as he wants to be. For instance: “My wife is by far the oldest person I ever slept with.” And if you don’t smile for at least a week at the friendly notion of the corner mailbox as a “giant blue bullfrog,” you ought to have your license revoked.
But like Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln, even when he’s funny, he’s depressed. His has always been a weird jujitsu that throws us for a brilliant loop. As much as he would like to chat about semicolons, paper clips, giraffes, Vesuvius, and the Sermon on the Mount–“if Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being. I’d just as soon be a rattlesnake”–his own country has driven him to furious despair with its globocop belligerence, its contempt for civil liberties, and its holy war on the poor: “Mobilize the reserves! Privatize the public schools! Attack Iraq! Cut health care! Tap everybody’s telephone! Cut taxes on the rich! Build a trillion-dollar missile shield! Fuck habeas corpus and the Sierra Club… and kiss my ass!” The novelist/pacifist/socialist/humanist who has smoked unfiltered Pall Malls since he was twelve is suing the tobacco company that makes them because, “for many years now, right on the package, Brown and Williamson have promised to kill me. But I am now eighty-two. Thanks a lot, you dirty rats. The last thing I ever wanted was to be alive when the three most powerful people on the whole planet would be named Bush, Dick and Colon.”
So, although he does mention Jerry Garcia, Madame Blavatsky, Rush Limbaugh, and Saul Steinberg (“who, like everybody else I know, is dead now”), besides wonderfully observing that “Hamlet’s situation is the same as Cinderella’s, except that the sexes are reversed,” he can’t help but notice that “human beings, past and present, have trashed the joint,” and that we are stuck in “a really scary reality show” called “C-Students from Yale,” Thus he reiterates what Abraham Lincoln said about American imperialism in Mexico, what Mark Twain said about American imperialism in the Philippines, and what a visiting Martian anthropologist said about American culture in general in a novel Vonnegut hasn’t finished writing yet: “What can it possibly be about blow jobs and golf?”
When they were inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1973, Kurt Vonnegut said of Allen Ginsberg: “I like ‘Howl’ a lot. Who wouldn’t? It just doesn’t have much to do with me or what happened to my friends. For one thing, I believe that the best minds of my generation were probably musicians and physicists and mathematicians and biologists and archaeologists and chess masters and so on, and Ginsberg’s closest friends, if I’m not mistaken, were undergraduates in the English department of Columbia University. No offense intended, but it would never occur to me to look for the best minds in any generation in an undergraduate English department anywhere. I would certainly try the physics department or the music department first — and after that biochemistry. Everybody knows that the dumbest people in any American university are in the education department, and English after that.”