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Vonnegut at 80

He's mad about being old and mad about what's going on in America, but author Kurt Vonnegut still extolls the virtues of basic human decency.
 
 
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Asked how he's doing, Kurt Vonnegut says, "I'm mad about being old and I'm mad about being American. Apart from that, OK."

VonnegutVonnegut 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. 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.

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 -- 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.

Kurt Vonnegut recently took some time to talk from his home in New York City about how he thinks things are going these days:

VonnegutIn 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.

And here we are on the brink of another war with Iraq.

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?

Please.

(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."

What's become of conscience?

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.

Has television played a part in this?

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 ...

We become spectators.

Yes. And that's enough. We're thanked for that: "Thank You For Watching ..." (laughs)

Ratings are becoming more important than votes.

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!

Technology changes us, yet it's very difficult for us to recognize the changes because we're in their midst.

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.

You've talked about how the Bush Administration seems driven by revenge.

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.

You've placed a high premium on what you call decency.

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.

That's interesting because it seems that psychopathic personalities tend to give courtesy a bad rap. They find it weak.

They are decisive. They are gonna do something every fuckin' day and they are not afraid.

You've used satire as a tool to defend against the world's insanity. Can it also work to change things?

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.

Why is that?

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)

Powers Hapgood was an internationally known Indianapolis radical and socialist. You met him didn't you?

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.

Why are they so intent on making god a punisher?

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.

You left Indianapolis for the East Coast. But you've also said there's good reason for staying put.

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.

Why is that? Attention to detail?

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?

Your work moves people across generations. How do you account for that?

I don't have to. All I know is it happened.

David Hoppe is associate/arts editor of Nuvo, a weekly newspaper in Indianapolis.