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.”
Well when you say things like this you do not ingratiate yourself with the sort of people whose racket it is to nominate you for things like Nobel Prizes. You may get to eat at the consulate here in New York, but not at Town Hall in Stockholm with your face on a postage stamp. Once upon a very long time ago I asked him to review a Joe Heller novel for The New York Times. This is how he concluded his essay on Something Happened: “I say that this is the most memorable, and therefore the most permanent variation on a familiar theme, and that it says baldly what the other variations only implied, what the other variations tried with desperate sentimentality not to imply: That many lives, judged by the standards of the people who live them, are simply not worth living.”
Some of those variations are his own. A character in Slaughterhouse 5 tells a psychiatrist: “I think you guys are going to have to come up with a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren’t going to want to go on living.” The novelist himself tells us in Palm Sunday about seeing a Marcel Ophuls film that included pictures from the Dresden firebombing Vonnegut had lived through as a POW: “The Dresden atrocity,” he then decides, “tremendously expensive and meticulously planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person. I wrote this book, which earned a lot of money for me and made my reputation, such as it is. One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed. Some business I’m in.” In the same open vein, he wonders aloud in Hocus Pocus: “How is this for a definition of high art?… Making the most of the raw materials of futility.”
Indeed. So it goes. Imagine that. And yet there isn’t a person in this room has hasn’t experienced a personal Kurt kindness, or been kissed with grace by something in one of his novels, or both. The way he goes about his business has helped most of us to go on living, if only to find out what happens next. In Slapstick he insisted that even if we aren’t “really very good at life,” we must nonetheless, like Laurel and Hardy, “bargain in good faith” with our destinies. And he recommended instruction books on such bargaining: Robert’s Rules of Order, the Bill of Rights and the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. To these, Jailbird added two more how-to manuals: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, “with malice toward none,” and the Sermon on the Mount. Bluebeard suggested Goethe’s Faust, Picasso’s Guernica, Gulliver’s Travels, Alice in Wonderland and Don Quixote. Elsewhere, at the dedication of a library, he mentioned such “mantras” as War and Peace, Origin of Species, Critique of Pure Reason, Madame Bovary and The Red Badge of Courage; and in a speech to mental health professionals, such civilizing “fixtures” as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Beethoven’s Fifth, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Twain’s Huck Finn, the Great Wall of China, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Sphinx.
What are these fixtures, mantras and manuals but attempts to articulate standards according to which life is worth living? We read him as the woman in Jailbird read the books of Starbuck, “the way a young cannibal might eat the hearts of brave old enemies. Their magic would become hers.” Add to these his autumnal novel, Hocus Pocus, so prematurely valedictory, where the Civil War is far from over, the race war still rages and a class war between the dyslexic rich and the illiterate poor has just begun; where Eugene Debs Hartke, like Howard Campbell in Mother Night and Kilgore Trout in Jailbird, will go on trial for treason; where the novelist seems to say goodbye to American history and literature, to Moby Dick and Walt Whitman, as if covering so much territory–from evolution to outer space, from Abstract Expressionism to Watergate, from Holocaust to Hirsohima — had worn him out. But he came back to us, over the ice and through the fire.
That scary fire: Remembering how he looked in the hospital after he almost burned his house down, Billy Pilgrim this time smoked instead of smoking, and seeing him now in these bright lights, the black humorist in black tie, I think we are blessed. It’s as if he had returned, in reverse, from Dresden, like those bombers of his in one of the loveliest passages in our literature: American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backwards from an air field in England. Over France, a few German fighters flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen… The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames.
The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the flames, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes…. When the bombers got back to base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating day and night, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their buisness to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.
My wish is for Kurt to enjoy his birthday as much as we have. Because then maybe he’d be happy.