I am writing a post today on Kurt Vonnegut for no particular reason. There are other posts I could work on that would be far more in keeping with the overall theme of this blog, but this is what I feel like writing today. One of the nice things about a blog is that you can write anything you want and publish it. There’s no guarantee anyone will ever read it, but that holds true for books as well.
I heard Vonnegut speak at the University of Florida in 1995 or 1996, I can’t remember which anymore. I say “heard” because I only heard him. I have no idea what he looked like at the time, because the crowd that showed up was at least three times the capacity of the room he was speaking in (which wasn’t small). Fortunately, some genial wonderworker had the idea to move speakers out onto the lawn of the building, and we all sat around on the grass or the walls or wherever and those of who couldn’t get in probably had the more enjoyable experience in the end–especially once people began picnicking.
As I remember it, he spoke for about an hour and a half and covered quite a lot of ground. It was an extremely good talk, but doesn’t seem to have been preserved. That was in the days before everything anyone did was recorded by someone, and in this case that’s a shame. I’ve listened on YouTube to a few of his talks that were recorded, and I have yet to find one as stimulating, insightful, and funny as this one was.
Part of his talk covered some of the material in this video:
But in the talk I heard, he went further. He noted that many of the best stories didn’t follow these patterns. He described Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”–“And then he becomes a cockroach and things are even worse!”–and Hamlet, where he showed that every major point in the story is ambiguous. You never know whether what’s happening is good or bad. He compared this to stories from other cultures–such as the Native American stories he read during his abortive pursuit of an MA in Anthropology–in which good and ill fortune are similarly baffling to an outsider.
Anthropology came in for a lot of ribbing that evening, and being an Anthro major at the time, I loved it. He told us that his father once observed to him that there were no clear-cut heroes and villains in his stories. He assured his father, “That’s something I learned in school,” referring to his anthropology professors’ embrace of cultural relativism.
He noted that he called all of his talks at the time “How to Get a Job Like Mine” but seldom discussed the issue. His advice was succinct: “Don’t even try. Only a handful of us have been lucky enough to make this work.” I don’t think I can completely agree with him on this point, but the fact that he said it was endearing.
Toward the end of the talk he spoke a bit about what are and what should be “American” ideas and values. He questioned why socialism was a four-letter word–what’s so bad about it? He told a story from the Spanish-American War. An American ship had just won a naval battle. As the opposing ship was sinking the American sailors cheered, but their captain reprimanded them: “Don’t cheer boys, those men are dying.” Vonnegut’s comment was, “That used to be a very American sentiment! Why isn’t it anymore?”
I can say with no exaggeration that it was one of, if not the, best public talk I’ve ever heard given. The fact that I remember it in so much detail after more than twenty years should leave no doubt about the impact it had on me.
My own experience with Vonnegut as an author has been interesting. I read Slaughterhouse 5 as a first year student at UF. I loved it, but I completely misunderstood it. I took the aliens’ statement “So it goes” as Vonnegut’s own point of view and tried to read the story in that light. I was entranced by the intellectual side of the story but ignored the human side almost entirely. Five or six years later, while living in Chengdu for the first time, I reread the book and understood that Vonnegut was saying emphatically, undeniably, that this is not how it goes. We are responsible for the moral quality of our actions no matter how necessary they seem at the time.
I think Slaughterhouse 5 is his best novel by a long shot, but he has a lot of good ones. I’m particularly fond of Mother Night, which he begins by telling us the moral of the story (what storyteller would do such a thing!): “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be very careful what we pretend to be.” In spite of giving the moral away in the first paragraph, Vonnegut keeps you hooked on the story and makes every moment spent reading it worthwhile.
I have no idea why I’m writing this today, but I’m enjoying it. In his talk, Vonnegut–president of the Humanist Society at the time–said that we’re all just here to potter about. It’s another point on which we wouldn’t agree, but I think he would at least accept this bit of pottering in prose on my part.
Oh and just to be clear, both the video and the image above are obviously not my own productions and I claim no rights to them. Unfortunately, I don’t know whose they are, but whoever it is has my thanks. Many thanks also to my father, Charles Boyanton, for drawing my attention to all of the Vonnegut videos on YouTube. 🙂