The Novelist Who Hated War
Peace Be With You, Mr. Vonnegut By HARVEY WASSERMAN
As the media fills with whimsical good-byes to one of America’s greatest writers, lets not forget one of the great engines driving this wonderful man—he HATED war. Including this one in Iraq. And he had utter contempt for the men who brought it about.Kurt Vonnegut was a divine spark of liberating genius for an entire generation. His brilliant, beautiful, loving and utterly unfettered novels helped us redefine ourselves in leaving the corporate America in the 1950s and the Vietnam war that followed.
Having seen the worst of World War II from a meatlocker in fire-bombed Dresden, Kurt’s Sirens of Titan, Cat’s Cradle:, Slaughterhouse Five and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, cut us the intellectual and spiritual slack to seek out a new reality. It took a breathtaking psychic freedom to merge the interstellar worlds he created from whole cloth with the social imperatives of a changing age. It was that combination of talent, heart and liberation that gave Vonnegut a cutting edge he never lost.
Leaving us in his eighties, Kurt also leaves us decades of anecdotes and volumes of writings—and doodlings—about which to write. But lost in the mainstream obituaries—including the one in the New York Times—is the ferocity with which he opposed this latest claque of vicious war-mongers.
Vonnegut gave his last campus speech in Columbus. He and I met here many years ago, after another speech. Not knowing me from Adam, he was gracious enough to give me his home address.
Out of the blue, I sent him a book-length poem about the passing of my parents. I was shocked when he called me on the phone about it. I asked for his help in finding a publisher. He said to publish it on my own, and gave me advice on how to do it, along with a blurb for the cover.
From then on we talked by phone. His conversation was always friendly, funny, insightful. When last I asked him how he was, he replied: “Too fucking old!”
Last year, apparently on the spur of the moment, he agreed to speak again at Ohio State. It would be his last campus lecture.
When word spread, a line four thousand students long instantly formed at a university otherwise known only for its addiction to football.
Anyone expecting a safe, whimsical opener from this grand old man of sixties rebellion was in for a shock. “Can I speak frankly?” he asked Professor Manuel Luis Martinez, the poet and writing teacher who would “interview” him. “The only difference between George W. Bush and Adolph Hitler is that Hitler was actually elected.”
Holding up a book about Ohio 2004, he said: “You all know, of course, that the election was stolen. Right here.”
Explaining that this would he his “last speech for money,” Vonnegut said he couldn’t remember his first one. But it was “long long ago.
“I’m lucky enough to have known a great president, one who really cared about ALL the people, rich and poor. That was Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was rich himself, and his class considered him a traitor.
“We have people in this country who are richer than whole countries,” he says. “They run everything.
“We have no Democratic Party. It’s financed by the same millionaires and billionaires as the Republicans.
“So we have no representatives in Washington. Working people have no leverage whatsoever.
“I’m trying to write a novel about the end of the world. But the world is really ending! It’s becoming more and more uninhabitable because of our addiction to oil.
“Bush used that line recently,” Vonnegut added. “I should sue him for plagiarism.”
Things have gotten so bad, he said, “people are in revolt against life itself.”
Our economy has been making money, but “all the money that should have gone into research and development has gone into executive compensation. If people insist on living as if there’s no tomorrow, there really won’t be one.
“As the world is ending, I’m always glad to be entertained for a few moments. The best way to do that is with music. You should practice once a night.
“If you want really want to hurt your parents, go into the arts.” He then broke into song, with a passable, tender rendition of “Stardust Memories.”
By this time, the packed hall was reverential. The sound system, appropriately tenuous, forced us all to strain to hear every word.
“To hell with the advances in computers,” he said after he finished singing. “YOU are supposed to advance and become, not the computers. Find out what’s inside you. And don’t kill anybody.
“There are no factories any more. Where are the jobs supposed to come from? There’s nothing for people to do anymore. We need to ask the Seminoles: ‘what the hell did you do?” after the tribe’s traditional livelihood was taken away.
Answering questions written in by students, he explained the meaning of life. “We should be kind to each other. Be civil. And appreciate the good moments by saying ‘If this isn’t nice, what is?’
“You’re awful cute” he said to someone in the front row. He grinned and looked around. “If this isn’t nice, what is?
“You’re all perfectly safe, by the way. I took off my shoes at the airport. The terrorists hate the smell of feet.
“We are here on Earth to fart around,” he explained, and then embarked on a soliloquy about the joys of going to the store to buy an envelope. One talks to the people there, comments on the “silly-looking dog,” finds all sorts of adventures along the way.
As for being a Midwesterner, he recalled his roots in nearby Indianapolis, a heartland town, the next one west of here. “I’m a fresh water person. When I swim in the ocean, I feel like I’m swimming in chicken soup. Who wants to swim in flavored water?”
A key to great writing, he added, is to “never use semi-colons. What are they good for? What are you supposed to do with them? You’re reading along, and then suddenly, there it is. What does it mean? All semi-colons do is suggest you’ve been to college.”
Make sure, he added, “that your reader is having a good time. Get to the who, when, where, what right away, so the reader knows what is going on.”
As for making money, “war is a very profitable thing for a few people. Jesus used to be so merciful and loving of the poor. But now he’s a Republican.
“Our economy today is not capitalism. It’s casino-ism. That’s all the stock market is about. Gambling.
“Live one day at a time. Say ‘if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is!’
“You meet saints everywhere. They can be anywhere. They are people behaving decently in an indecent society.”
The greatest peace, Vonnegut wraps up, “comes from the knowledge that I have enough. Joe Heller told me that.
“I began writing because I found myself possessed. I looked at what I wrote and I said ‘How the hell did I do that?’
“We may all be possessed. I hope so.”
We were joined for after-speech drinks by the professor and several awe-struck graduate students. Kurt expressed an interest in renewable energy, so I sent him another book, and he called back with another blurb, and more advice on how to publish it.
We planned to have dinner. I wanted more than anything to introduce my daughters to him. But when I finally made it to New York, he was too ill. Now he’s gone. When a national treasure and a being of beauty like Kurt Vonnegut invites you to dinner, don’t make plans, hop on the next plane.
The mainstream obituaries are emphasizing Kurt’s “off-beat” career and the “mixed reviews” for his books. Don’t believe a word of them.
Kurt Vonnegut was a force of nature, with a heart the size of Titan, an unfettered genius who changed us all for the better. He was possessed of a sense of fairness and morality capable of inventing religions that could actually work.
Now he’s having dinner with our beloved siren of social justice, Molly Ivins, sharing a Manhattan, scorching this goddam war and this latest batch of fucking idiots.
It hurts to think about it. But we should be grateful for what we got, and all they gave us.
So it goes.