Vonnegut was from somewhere else: Tralfamadore, perhaps.

I liked this remark from Tim Sterne’s (non) obit post at Sarsaparilla so much I thought I’d lift it for this one. Hope you don’t mind, Tim!

As already noted by commenters on Suz’ thread, Kurt Vonnegut has passed away. For a very concise obit, Wonkette does just fine:

Vonnegut lived about a dozen years longer than the average American male, due to his chain-smoking and rage and beach house. We will miss him.

But like Tim, I don’t want to write an obit either. What I want to comment on is what gets written in obits about literary figures (though it could easily, I imagine, extend to other cultural figures). Often there’s a sort of opus plus life format, where life is only tangentially related to the work. That’s something of a convention, and something of a convention that reflects ideas about the uniqueness of the aesthetic. It’s not necessarily a criticism, because I don’t think psychobiography is necessarily all that helpful either as lit crit or biography. But I do want to take note of the fact that part of this fetishisation of the aesthetic is a denial of the political. The NYT obit, to which I linked above, for instance, notes the marks on Vonnegut’s life (and to a lesser extent his work, the connection is really left hanging…) of events such as the Great Depression, the bombing of Dresden and the Vietnam War. But it signally fails to mention Vonnegut’s politics and the rich imbrication of politics and work in his oeuvre, and ignores totally the event which brought him probably most attention in the last few years – his searing attack on George W. Bush and the Iraq War in a 2004 article:

Many years ago, I was so innocent I still considered it possible that we could become the humane and reasonable America so many members of my generation used to dream of. We dreamed of such an America during the Great Depression, when there were no jobs. And then we fought and often died for that dream during the Second World War, when there was no peace.

But I know now that there is not a chance in hell of America’s becoming humane and reasonable. Because power corrupts us, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Human beings are chimpanzees who get crazy drunk on power. By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their morale, like so many bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas.

Vonnegut, for his trouble, and his passion, was kicked from one end of the American media to the other end of the blogosphere and the noise machine, with strong insinuations of senility made. Let’s have a culture war, by all means, the motto seemed to have been, but let’s not have a culture figure pronounce on the politics of war.

Vonnegut was in fact a highly political person:

Vonnegut was a humanist; he served as Honorary President of the American Humanist Association, having replaced Isaac Asimov in what Vonnegut called “that totally functionless capacity”. He was deeply influenced by early socialist labor leaders, especially Indiana natives Powers Hapgood and Eugene V. Debs, and he frequently quotes them in his work. He named characters after both Debs (Eugene Debs Hartke in Hocus Pocus) and Russian socialist leader Leon Trotsky (Leon Trotsky Trout in Galapagos). He was a lifetime member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and was featured in a print advertisement for them.

Some might remember a furore around an interview Vonnegut gave to The Australian in 2005:

In 2005 Vonnegut was interviewed by David Neson for The Australian. During the course of the interview Vonnegut was asked his opinion of modern terrorists, to which he replied “I regard them as very brave people.” When pressed further Vonnegut also said that “They [suicide bombers] are dying for their own self-respect. It’s a terrible thing to deprive someone of their self-respect. It’s [like] your culture is nothing, your race is nothing, you’re nothing … It is sweet and noble – sweet and honourable I guess it is – to die for what you believe in.” (This last statement is a reference to the line “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” [“it is sweet and appropriate to die for your country”] from Horace’s Odes, or possibly from Wilfred Owen’s ironic use of the line in his Dulce Et Decorum Est.) David Neson took offense to Vonnegut’s comments and characterized him as an old man who “doesn’t want to live any more … and because he can’t find anything worthwhile to keep him alive, he finds defending terrorists somehow amusing.” Vonnegut’s son, Dr. Mark Vonnegut responded to the article by writing an editorial to the Boston Globe in which he explained the reasons behind his father’s “provocative posturing” and stated that “If these commentators can so badly misunderstand and underestimate an utterly unguarded English-speaking 83-year-old man with an extensive public record of exactly what he thinks, maybe we should worry about how well they understand an enemy they can’t figure out what to call.”

The text of the response from his son, Mark Vonnegut, is online. This wouldn’t make a bad obituary for Vonnegut’s fighting spirit, acute sense of justice, and insight into challenging received wisdom:

At no point did he say that blowing yourself up in a crowd of people was a good thing to do. What most outraged his interviewer was Kurt’s disinclination to dismiss the terrorists as mentally ill. He said that suicide bombers believed that they were dying for a just cause and that he imagined they were probably brave people. It was all speculation. Neither he nor his interviewer had any knowledge about suicide bombers or radical Islam. Nowhere in the interview did he say anything in support of terrorism, though I’m quite sure he enjoyed horrifying his interviewer by skating around it. Kurt, every so often, will play with people a little.

What Kurt can do better than most people is reframe things and turn them around in a way that creates a new perspective. Even if you disagree with that perspective, the plausibility and novelty of his vision are enough to make you think. We need to think a little more, not less.

It seems to me that we can do justice to Vonnegut’s own rage against the absurdities of injustice by not effacing the political dimensions of his life and work.

Elsewhere: Amanda at Pandagon certainly doesn’t! And Jesse Walker at Reason notes Vonnegut’s sympathies with the libertarian left. So why is it so hard for the papers of record to notice?

<img src="http://larvatusprodeo.net/wp-content/uploads/2007/04/tralfamadore.jpg&quot;

Tralfamadore #2 by Kurt Vonnegut.

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Books, Writers & Writing, culture, Disasters, Iraq, life, politics, War
20 comments on “Vonnegut was from somewhere else: Tralfamadore, perhaps.
  1. Christine Keeler says:

    Damn it Kim. Tralfamadore. Julie Bishop. I just knew it.

  2. Kim says:

    Heh. So she wasn’t a triffid after all!

    The resemblance is pretty striking…

  3. Christine Keeler says:

    Well, now that I’ve really looked into her eyes I’d have to say her position on performance-based pay is pretty compelling.

    One of us, one of us, one of us …

  4. Christine Keeler says:

    But anyway I’ve always been comforted by Kurt’s presence on the planet, even if SH5 is the only book of his I’ve read. He’ll be greatly missed.

  5. j_p_z says:

    Excellent post, Kim. Well done.

    The famous incidents and historical imprints that left a mark on Vonnegut’s life and work are well known, most notably the war and Dresden. What is not often discussed fully (although he discussed it) as an important building block in his skeptical world view, would have been his family’s collective memory of the mass vilification of Germans, and German language and culture, in Middle America during the First World War. I doubt he was old enough to experience it personally, but his family did, and he knew about it.

    The phenomenon was really quite astonishing, when you consider what an enormous ethnic bloc German-Americans were and are, and how completely at ease they were in the mainstream of American life: white, Protestant, prosperous, nothing outsiderish about them at all, and they were present in huge numbers, yet the German language was suddenly banned from schools, books were burned, etc etc. There wasn’t a heinous level of personal persecution, I don’t think, (certainly not on the level of other ethnic problems in American society) yet the thing was quite remarkable and weird, and is little discussed. Vonnegut was well aware of it, and I think it must have colored his views about what humans do, and how so much of what they do is baffling.

    Anyway, great post.

  6. Kim says:

    Thanks, j_p_z.

    And, of course, most German-Americans were Republicans too.

    Similar things happened here in WW1, though German immigration to Australia was a lot smaller than to the US.

    It doesn’t get talked about much here either, perhaps partly because to do so would clash with the myth that there were no ethnic minorities prior to the postWW2 immigration.

  7. Pavlov's Cat says:

    Similar things happened here in WW1, though German immigration to Australia was a lot smaller than to the US.

    It does get talked about in South Australia, because German immigration was proportionately very high and also very early, with Silesian religious refugees fleeing persecution to what they rightly saw as a haven in the so-called ‘paradise of dissent’ that was the colony of SA in the 1840s.

    What this resulted in was thousands of South Australian ethnic Germans, some of them third or even fourth generation, being overtly and covertly persecuted all through WW1, during which dozens of German place-names were changed.

    (And have since been changed back, I’m glad to say.)

  8. Nabakov says:

    …the mass vilification of Germans, and German language and culture, in Middle America during the First World War.

    When they renamed sauerkraut as liberty cabbage. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

    I have to confess I always found Vonnegut a bit too fey and whimsical for my taste. But reading Slaughterhouse 5 as a teenager into ratty SF, raised by parents bombed by the Luftwaffe and who’s relatives then bombed Dresden, it did make an indelible impression on me. Must reread it again to see if that impression is still indelible.

    Bur regardless of my view of his work, it’s always sad to see another witty, humane, thoughtful and productive member of the human race shufffle off this mortal coil.

    Also interesting how few of the critical appreciations of Kurt’s work, and the current rash of obits, point out the immense influence of Mark Twain on his work. Now that’s a writer for the ages. Just reread for the first time in yonks, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”. Now that’s a book jus’ dying to be remaded now a al Winterbottom’s “Tristam Shandy”.

  9. Andrew E says:

    I’m embarrassed to say that I thought he had already died. Vonnegut deserved the kudos that goes so regularly and in absurd amounts to the execrable Mailer and Burroughs. The American Milligan. Goodbye, and thank you.

  10. tigtog says:

    Thanks for posting this, Kim. I’ll have to catch up on some of the classic Vonnegut I’ve missed.

  11. Peter Kemp says:


    A tiny smidgeon here tigtog on a 2005 video clip of the Daily Show

    The earth’s immune system is trying to get rid of us, and so it should.

    I’ll say something good about Bush. He’s not the dumbest in the administration, the dumbest is our Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld…

  12. aidan says:

    If you want a better quality version of that interview try here:


  13. Katz says:

    Passionate post Kim.

    I loved this bit from Vonnegut’s son about the utter vulgarity of Right Wing Culture Warriors:

    … If these commentators can so badly misunderstand and underestimate an utterly unguarded English-speaking 83-year-old man with an extensive public record of exactly what he thinks, maybe we should worry about how well they understand an enemy they can’t figure out what to call.

    It is possible that David Neson believed that, by stepping up to the plate to take a low blow at an octogenarian, he’d ingratiate himself to the Right Wing Noise Machine and find himself a steady, if not spiritually satisfying, career.

    But whoops!

    [Google] Results 1 – 10 of about 188 for “david neson”. (0.17 seconds)

    Neson’s literary career does not appear to have flourished.

  14. Katz says:

    However, David Nason has done quite well for himself:

    Results 1 – 10 of about 39,500 for “david nason”. (0.21 seconds)

  15. Helen says:

    Imbrication! Strewth. Not the first time I had to go to the OED (muttering imprecations) as a result of being on LP. Now I need an embrocation or two.

  16. joe2 says:

    This is the booklist stolen from Wikipedia, with personal grades given by Kurt V, if anyone needs a memory prod.

    Player Piano: B
    The Sirens of Titan: A
    Mother Night: A
    Cat’s Cradle: A-plus
    God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: A
    Slaughterhouse-Five: A-plus
    Welcome to the Monkey House: B-minus
    Happy Birthday, Wanda June: D
    Breakfast of Champions: C
    Slapstick: D
    Jailbird: A
    Palm Sunday: C

    I suspect there might be a few fans dusting off these old friends this weekend.
    He said he was sueing Pall Mall for false advertising because they promised , on the packet, to kill him and he had lasted so long. His books are addictive. Though I would never suggest starting with S.5.

    And thanks Kim.

  17. David Bath says:

    This is the only Vonnegut obit I’ve seen with a silly drawing. The extract from Wonkette was a damn good respectful parody of his style (although “Venus on the Half Shell”, originally published by “Kilgore Trout” was the best Vonnegut homage I’ve seen).

    We live in an silicon rather than mechanical Player Piano. Back to the keyboard.

  18. tim g says:

    Pavlov’s Cat: Not all German towns in SA reverted to their original names; Birdwood never returned to its original moniker Blumberg.

    Regarding the Nason interview, it seemed to me at the time that Vonnegut, knowing that Nason was employed by a real-life equivalent of the RAMJAC corporation, baited his hook and would have been gratified at how easily he landed a big, floppy wide-mouth bass.

  19. j_p_z says:

    Based on joe2’s list there, I’d say Our Man Kurt had a pretty clear-eyed view of the strengths and weaknesses of his achievement. The essential Vonnegut, I think, is Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle, and Slaughterhouse-Five. Everything else is optional to taste. As a kid I liked Breakfast of Champions, but it doesn’t hold up that well, except for the haunting ending.

    One of my favorite under-quoted moments in his work comes in Cat’s Cradle, where the typing-pool glee club at a Christmas party in a physics research lab mis-remembers the lines of a Christmas carol, and sings:

    The hopes and fears of all the years
    Are here with us tonight.

  20. boynton says:

    My favourite is Hocus Pocus which didn’t make the list.
    It was written nine years later.
    An A in my book.

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