I'm mad about being old and I'm mad about being AmericanAsked how he"s doing, Kurt Vonnegut says, "I"m mad about being old and I"m mad about being American. Apart from that, OK." Vonnegut has just turned 80. Although he claims he's retired from writing, he has just finished an Introduction for a book of anti-war posters by artist Micah Ian Wright. Publishing aside, Vonnegut continues to be a cultural presence, speaking out against war with Iraq to 10,000 protestors at a rally in New York's Central Park and making a spoken-word contribution to the new multimedia world music production One Giant Leap. Last November he managed a trip back to hometown Indianapolis to help raise funds for the Athenaeum Foundation. Designed by his grandfather Bernard - the first licensed architect in Indiana - the Athenaeum, Vonnegut says, has a special place in his heart.
Indianapolis readers, in turn, continue to reserve a special place for Kurt Vonnegut. Although his adult life has taken place mainly on the East Coast, Vonnegut has maintained ties with Indianapolis, particularly through his writing. Indianapolis, in fact, is like a recurring character, a source Vonnegut has continually returned to in his fiction, essays and memoirs. This is his original place. All later experiences - war, suffering, parenthood, love, loss, politics, betrayals and acts of human decency - are measured and somehow understood by its light.
Vonnegut still calls himself a Hoosier. He says without hesitation that whatever he has made of himself is thanks to his education at Shortridge High School. He wants to know what's going on here - whether business is prospering, the state of the schools, crime, the arts. He seems genuinely heartened whenever the news is good.
It is hard to resist trying to find some essential reflection of Hoosier-ness in Vonnegut's philosophy or aesthetics. But, given the city's post-World War II conservatism, his work often seems more contrary than characteristic.
While Vonnegut has always owned his Indianapolis sense of place, he has seemed less interested in grounding himself to a particular locale than in using place as a portal to some greater, universal understanding of life. Vonnegut has long argued that we are, ultimately, planetary citizens - whether we realize it or not.
As extraordinarily popular as Vonnegut"s work has proved to be - virtually everything he's written is still in print, an achievement even more remarkable in today"s ruthless world of corporate publishing - he's hardly a bringer of reassuring tidings. History, he seems to suggest, is important not, as per Santyana, so that we can avoid past mistakes, but as a predictor of what we corrupt souls are likely to do to one another.
Vonnegut, after all, is an avant-garde artist, whose "aggressively unconventional" (his words) approach to storytelling would likely put readers off if it weren't for the wryly aphoristic, conversational tone of his voice. He has said he learned to effectively write the way he talked by having to phone in stories during his days as a reporter for the Chicago News Bureau. Indeed, that voice is probably Vonnegut's greatest literary creation. It makes the experimental seem everyday and helps his work make sense to teen-age rock 'n' rollers and senior citizens alike. Would that Indianapolis could deal with questions of civic identity in this same spirit, which Vonnegut has described as an effort to make "every architect"s dream come true, which is a dwelling such as no one has ever seen before, but which proves to be eminently habitable."
Vonnegut has always thought of readers as his collaborators. "Literature," he has written, "unlike any other artform, requires those who enjoy it to be performers. Reading is a performance, and anything a writer can do to make this difficult activity easier is of benefit to all concerned." Therein lies another key, not just to Vonnegut's literary success, but to the affection he has inspired in readers all over the world.
In 1991, Vonnegut returned to Indianapolis to open a city literary festival called Wordstruck. One night, while he was here, we were walking along Ohio Street near the Circle. He was telling me a story about how, in another era, a relative had smashed the mirror behind the bar in the Columbia Club. As Vonnegut was speaking, a horse-drawn carriage passed, going in the opposite direction. Next we heard a voice calling from behind us: "Mr. Vonnegut!" Turning, we saw the young woman driving the carriage, standing backwards on her seat, waving. Vonnegut, startled, waved back. For a moment the writer and his city, for all the changes between them, were perfectly in tune. Then the carriage drew beneath a streetlamp, turned a corner and disappeared.
Over the holidays, Kurt Vonnegut took some time to talk with NUVO from his home in New York City about how he thinks things are going these days ...
NUVO: In 1991, you spoke to the Wordstruck Festival in Indianapolis right after the end of the Gulf War against Iraq. During your speech you remarked on television footage you"d seen of Iraqi soldiers who"d been taken prisoner and said, "Those men are my brothers."
Vonnegut: All soldiers are.
NUVO: And here we are on the brink of another war with Iraq.
Vonnegut: I don"t want to belong to a country that attacks little countries. I don"t want to belong to that kind of a country. I wrote a piece for 7 Stories Press here in New York. They"re about to publish a book of anti-war posters by a guy nobody"s heard of before - he"s a pretty good artist and so I was asked to write a piece for it. Would you like me to read it?
Vonnegut: (reading) These anti-war posters by Micah Ian Wright are reminiscent in spirit of works by artists like Kathe Kollwitz and Georg Grosz and on and on during the 1920s, when it was becoming ever more evident that the infant German democracy was about to be murdered by psychopathic personalities - hereinafter P.P.s - the medical term for smart, personable people who have no conscience. P.P.s are fully aware of how much suffering their actions will inflict on others but do not care. They cannot care.
The classic medical text about how such attractive leaders bring us into unspeakable calamities is The Mask of Sanity by Dr. Hervey Cleckley. An American P.P. at the head of a corporation, for example, could enrich himself by ruining his employees and investors and still feel as pure as the driven snow. A P.P., should he attain a post near the top of our federal government, might feel that taking the country into an endless war with casualties in the millions was simply something decisive to do today. So to bed.
With a P.P., decisiveness is all. Or, to put it another way, we now have a Reichstag fire of our own.
NUVO: What's become of conscience?
Vonnegut: Again, as Cleckley says, these people are around and do rise. Women are attracted to them. I mean, this is a defect, but women are attracted to them because they are so confident. They really don't give a fuck what happens - not even to themselves. But this is a serious defect and, no, we haven"t been invaded and conquered by Martians. We have been conquered by psychopathic personalities who are attractive.
NUVO: Has television played a part in this?
Vonnegut: We have no idea what technology has done to us. Last night I went to a party for Gordon Parks, a black genius. Walter Cronkite was there. Cronkite's an old friend. I said to him, "You know, the country you did so much to shape seems so shapeless now." One thing about TV is you don"t have to do anything ...
NUVO: We become spectators.
Vonnegut: Yes. And that"s enough. We're thanked for that: "Thank You For Watching …" (laughs)
NUVO: Ratings are becoming more important than votes.
Vonnegut: Well, technology has fucked us up in many ways. What I've said about the computer revolution is that it's allowed white collar criminals to do what the Mob would have loved to do - put a pawn shop and a loan shark in every home!
NUVO: Technology changes us, yet it's very difficult for us to recognize the changes because we're in their midst.
Vonnegut: Of course it does. Life asks us for this and asks us for that: Go get yourself some food. You have tasks, it turns out, in order to get satisfied. But you don"t have to do them now. You can sit at home and it's simply done to you. So we"re not terribly interesting animals anymore.
NUVO: You've talked about how the Bush Administration seems driven by revenge.
Vonnegut: It's a story to tell. He's in the same business I'm in. He's telling stories. It turns out this is the simplest of all stories to tell. I mean, I want to hold attention when I write something. What he wants to be is interesting. And revenge is interesting. I've said there are two radical ideas that have been introduced into human thought. One of them is that energy and matter are pretty much the same sort of stuff. That's Einstein. The other is that revenge is a bad idea. It's an enormously popular idea but, of course, Jesus came along with the radical idea of forgiveness. That was radical. If you're insulted, you have to square accounts. So this invention by Jesus is as radical as Einstein's.
NUVO: You've placed a high premium on what you call decency.
Vonnegut: One kid said he had the key to all my books and he put it in a sentence. He said, "Love may fail but courtesy will prevail." Love does fail all the time, you know, and it makes people vicious.
NUVO: That's interesting because it seems that psychopathic personalities tend to give courtesy a bad rap. They find it weak.
Vonnegut: They are decisive. They are gonna do something every fuckin' day and they are not afraid.
NUVO: You've used satire as a tool to defend against the world's insanity. Can it also work to change things?
Vonnegut: I guess it works some. Just telling people, "You are not alone. There are a lot of others who feel as you do." We"re a terribly lonesome society. For all I know, all societies are. You can make a few new friends, that's all. You can't change history. History is happening to us now. George Bush has hydrogen bombs if he needs them. It really matters who's around and who's holding attention. I don't think television will let anybody else hold attention.
NUVO: Why is that?
Vonnegut: During the Vietnam War, which lasted longer than any war we've ever been in - and which we lost - every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high. (laughs)
NUVO: Powers Hapgood was an internationally known Indianapolis radical and socialist. You met him didn't you?
Vonnegut: Oh, yes. He was an official of the CIO then. He was a typical Hoosier idealist. Socialism is idealistic. Think of Eugene Debs from Terre Haute. What Debs said echoes the Sermon on the Mount: "As long as there"s a lower class I am in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I am of it. As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free." Now why can't the religious right recognize that as a paraphrase of the Sermon on the Mount? Hapgood and Debs were both middle-class people who thought there could be more economic justice in this country. They wanted a better country, that"s all. Hapgood's family owned a successful cannery in Indianapolis and Hapgood turned it over to the employees, who ruined it. He led the pickets against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. Hapgood was testifying in court in Indianapolis about some picket-line dust-up connected with the CIO and the judge stops everything. He says, "Mr. Hapgood, here you are, you"re a graduate of Harvard and you own a successful business. Why would anyone with your advantages choose to live as you have?" Powers Hapgood actually became a coal miner for a while. His answer to the judge was great: "The Sermon on the Mount, sir."
My God, the religious right will not acknowledge what a merciful person Jesus was.
NUVO: Why are they so intent on making God a punisher?
Vonnegut: Because they enjoy punishment. It's a form of entertainment. The reason we still have the death penalty in this country is because it's a major form of entertainment - a way of holding attention.
NUVO: Your work moves people across generations. How do you account for that?
Vonnegut: I don't have to. All I know is it happened.
NUVO: You left Indianapolis for the East Coast. But you've also said there's good reason for staying put.
Vonnegut: You leave home because of lonesomeness, no spiritual reason. You're not going to be able to have shop talk. So you're going to be terribly lonesome. So yes, you go to Greenwich Village or somewhere else where people are talking all the time. The turning point in my life, even though I was an established writer, was when I went to the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa. We were talking about literature all the time! On Cape Cod there was nobody for me to talk to. It's a very simple social reason. Of course, I"ve also said the more provincial a story is, the more universal it becomes. That just happens to be true.
NUVO: Why is that? Attention to detail?
Vonnegut: Yes. It's going to be a totally human story which people are going to recognize as such and so they'll resonate with it. I mean: Madame Bovary - how provincial can you get?
NUVO: What would you say has been the biggest change you"ve seen in America in your lifetime?
Vonnegut: The emerging genius of African-Americans. To hell with the German-Americans or any other kind of Americans. These children and grandchildren of slaves turned out to be extraordinary composers and writers and have done more to cheer us up, I think, than any other minority - women excluded, of course.
To Be a Native Middle WesternerBy Kurt Vonnegut Editor's note: The following contains excerpts from an essay Vonnegut wrote for the NUVO Cultural Institute in 1999. When I was born in 1922, barely a hundred years after Indiana became the 19th state in the Union, the Middle-West already boasted a constellation of cities with symphony orchestras and museums and libraries, and institutions of higher learning, and schools of music and art, reminiscent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the First World War. One could almost say that Chicago was our Vienna, Indianapolis our Prague, Cincinnati our Budapest and Cleveland our Bucharest. To grow up in such a city, as I did, was to find cultural institutions as ordinary as police stations or fire houses. So it was reasonable for a young person to daydream of becoming some sort of artist or intellectual, if not a policeman or fireman. So I did. So did many like me. It is unsurprising, then, that the Middle-West has produced so many artists of such different sorts, from world-class to merely competent, as provincial cities and towns in Europe used to do. I see no reason this satisfactory state of affairs should not go on and on, unless funding for instruction in and celebration of the arts, especially in public school systems, is withdrawn. New York and Boston and other ports on the Atlantic have Europe for an influential, often importunate neighbor. Middle-Westerners do not. Many of us of European ancestry are on that account ignorant of our families" past in the Old World and the culture there. Our only heritage is American. When Germans captured me during the Second World War, one asked me, "Why are you making war against your brothers?" I didn"t have a clue what he was talking about… Anglo-Americans and African-Americans, whose ancestors came to the Middle-West from the South, commonly have a much more compelling awareness of a homeland elsewhere in the past than I do - in Dixie, of course, not the British Isles or Africa. What geography can give all Middle-Westerners, along with the fresh water and topsoil, if they let it, is awe for an Edenic continent stretching forever in all directions. Makes you religious. Takes your breath away. This essay was originally published with the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Indiana Humanities Council. Vonnegut bibliography NOVELS ï Player Piano. 1952; published as Utopia 14 (1954). Published again as Player Piano, 1966. ï The Sirens of Titan. 1959. ï Mother Night. 1961. Hardcover edition, 1966. ï Cat"s Cradle. 1963. ï God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; or, Pearls before Swine. 1965. ï Slaughterhouse Five; or, The Children"s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., a Fourth-Generation German-American Now Living in Easy Circumstances on Cape Cod (and Smoking Too Much) Who, as an American Infantry Scout Hors de Combat, as a Prisoner of War, Witnessed the Fire-Bombing of Dreseden, Germany, the Florence of the Elbe, a Long Time Ago, and Survived to Tell the Tale: This Is a Novel Somewhat in the Telegraphic Schizophrenic Manner of Tales of the Planet Tralfamadore, Where the Flying Saucers Come From. 1969. Twenty-fifth anniversary edition, 1994. ï Breakfast of Champions; or, Goodbye Blue Monday. 1973. ï Slapstick; or, Lonesome No More. 1976. ï Jailbird. 1979. ï Deadeye Dick. 1982. ï Gal·pagos: A Novel. 1985. ï Bluebeard. 1987. ï Hocus Pocus. 1990. ï Timequake. 1997. Collected short fiction ï Canary in a Cathouse. 1961. All stories from Canary are reprinted in Welcome to the Monkey House with the exception of "Hal Irwin"s Magic Lamp." ï Welcome to the Monkey House: A Collection of Short Works. 1968. ï Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction. 1999. Plays, works for TV and adaptations by KV ï Penelope. 1960. Later revised as Happy Birthday, Wanda June. 1970. ï Between Time and Timbuktu; or, Prometheus Five: A Space Fantasy. National Educational Television Network. 1972. ï Make Up Your Mind. c. 1993. ï Miss Temptation. Edited by David Coperman. 1993. ï L"Histoire du Soldat. 1993, 1997. Adaptation. Collected essays, etc. ï Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons: (Opinions). 1974. ï Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage. 1981. ï Nothing Is Lost Save Honor: Two Essays. 1984. Contains "The Worse Addiction of Them All" and "Fates Worse than Death: Lecture at St. John the Divine, New York City, May 23, 1982." ï Fates Worse than Death: An Autobiographical Collage of the 1980s. 1991. ï God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian. 1999. Adaptations from Vonnegut"s work Film ï Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1971; Mark Robson, director) ï Slaughterhouse Five (1972; George Roy Hill, director) ï Next Door (1974) ï Slapstick (1983; Steven Paul, director) ï Mother Night (1996; Keith Gordon, director) ï Breakfast of Champions (Alan Rudolph, director) ï The screenplay of Sirens of Titan is in progress. Stage ï Welcome to the Monkey House (1970, 1974) ï The Sirens of Titan (1974) ï Cat"s Cradle (1976) ï God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater was produced as a musical (1979; adapted by Howard Ashman and Alan Menkin) and most recently was presented by HumDrum AmDram in Portsmouth, U.K. ï Edgar Grana"s composition of Requiem (Stone, Time, and Elements: A Humanist Requiem), based on a Vonnegut text, was performed by the Choir of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Buffalo, N.Y., in March 1988. ï Slaughterhouse-Five was staged as an opera at the Munich Opera Festival: adapted by Hans-J¸rgen von Bose, Schlachthof 5 premiered at the CuvilliËs Theater on July 1, 1996; also adapted for stage at Chicago"s Steppenwolf Theatre 1996. TV ï D.P. (1958, produced as Auf Wiedersehen; 1985, produced as Displaced Persons) ï Epicac (1974, 1992) ï Who Am I This Time? (1982) ï All the King"s Horses (1991) ï Next Door (1991) ï The Euphio Question (1991) ï Fortitude (1992) ï The Foster Portfolio (1992) ï More Stately Mansions (1992) ï Harrison Bergeron (1995)