Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut: He's up in heaven now

Kurt Vonnegut
November 11, 1922–April 11, 2007
Everything was beautiful. Nothing hurt.

[1961] We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
Mother Night

[1963] Nothing is this book is true. "Live by the foma [harmless untruths] that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy."
The Books of Bokonon 1:5
epigram in dedication to Cat's Cradle

[1963] We Bokonists believe that humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God's Will without ever discovering what they are doing. Such a team is called a karass by Bokonon [...]

"If you find your life tangled up with somebody else's life for no very logical reasons," writes Bokonon, "that person may be a member of your karass."

At another point in The Books of Bokonon he tells us, "man created the checkerboard; God created the karass." By that he means that a karass ignores national, institutional, occupational, familial, and class boundaries.

It is as free form as an amoeba.
Cat's Cradle

[1963] Hazel's obsession with Hoosiers around the world was a textbook example of a false karass, of a seeming team that was meaningless in terms of the ways God gets things done, a textbook example of what Bokonon calls a granfalloon. Other examples are the Communist party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the General Electric Company, the International Order of Odd Fellows - and any nation, anytime, anywhere.

As Bokonon invites us to sing along with him:
If you wish to study a granfalloon
Just remove the skin of a toy balloon.

Cat's Cradle

Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder why, why, why?

Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand
Cat's Cradle

[1963] I had heard it suggested one time that the seasons in the temperate zone should be six rather than four in number: summer, autumn, locking, winter, unlocking, and spring. And I remembered that as I straightened up beside our manhole, and stared and listened and sniffed.

There were no smells. There was no movement. Every step I took made a gravelly squeak in blue-white frost. And every squeak was echoed loudly. The season of locking was over. The earth was locked up tight.

It was winter, now and forever.
Cat's Cradle

[1969] "You were just babies then! she said.

"What?" I said.

"You were just babies in the war - like the ones upstairs!"

I nodded that this was true. We had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood.

"But you're not going to write it that way, are you." This wasn't a question. It was an accusation.

"I - I don't know," I said.

"Well I know," she said. "You'll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you'll be portrayed in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look juts wonderful, so we'll have a lot more of them. And they'll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs."

So then I understood. It was war that made her so angry. She didn't want her babies killed in wars. And she thought wars were partly encouraged by books and movies.

[1969] You know - we've had to imagine the war here, and we have imagined that it was being fought by aging men like ourselves. We had forgotten that wars were fought by babies. When I saw those freshly shaved faces, it was a shock. "My God, my God -" I said to myself, "it's the Children's Crusade."

[1969] So it goes.
Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
[1970] High school is closer to the core of the American experience that anything else I can think of.
Introduction to
Our Time Is Now: Notes From the High School Underground
John Birmingham, ed.

[1970] Artists use frauds to make human beings seem more wonderful than they really are. Dancers show us human beings who move much more gracefully than human beings really move. Films and books and plays show us people talking more entertainingly than people really talk, make paltry human enterprises seem important. Singers and musicians show us human beings making sounds far more lovely than human beings really make. Architects give us temples in which something marvelous is obviously going on. Actually, practically nothing is going on.

"When I Was Twenty-One"
"Address to Graduating Class At Bennington College, 1970" in
Wampeters, Foma and Granfaloons (1974)

[1971] I was taught in the sixth grade that we had a standing army of just over a hundred thousand men and that the generals had nothing to say about what was done in Washington. I was taught to be proud of that and to pity Europe for having more than a million men under arms and spending all their money on airplanes and tanks. I simply never unlearned junior civics. I still believe in it. I got a very good grade.
quoted by James Lundquist in
Kurt Vonnegut

[1973] We are human only to the extent that our ideas remain humane.
Breakfast of Champions

[1991] I think yet again of my father, who struggled to become a painter after he was forced into early and unwelcome retirement by the Great Depression. He has reason to be optimistic about his new career, since the early stages of his pictures, whether still or portraits or landscapes, were full of pow. Mother, meaning to be helpful, would say of each one: "That's really wonderful, Kurt. Now all you have to do is finish it." He would then ruin it. I remember a portrait he did of his only brother, Alex, who was an insurance salesman, which he called "Special Agent". When he roughed it in, his hand and eye conspired with a few bold strokes to capture several important truths about Alex, including a hint of disappointment. Uncle Alex was a proud graduate of Harvard, who would rather have been a scholar of literature than an insurance man.

When Father finished the portrait, made sure every square inch of masonite had its share of paint, Uncle Alex had disappeared entirely. We had a drunk and lustful Queen Victoria instead. This was terrible.
Fates Worse Than Death

[1991] I don't care if I'm remembered or not when I'm dead. (A scientist I knew at General Electric, who was married to a woman named Josephine, said to me, "Why should I buy life insurance? If I die, I won't care what's happening to Jo. I won't care about anything. I'll be dead.")
Fates Worse Than Death
1. Find a subject you care about.
2. Do not ramble, though.
3. Keep it simple.
4. Have the guts to cut.
5. Sound like yourself.
6. Say what you mean to say.
7. Pity the readers.
quoted in Science Fictionisms
compiled by William Rotsler

[1997] [When] I was a student at the University of Chicago, I had a conversation with my thesis advisor about the arts in general. At that time, I had no idea that I personally would go into any sort of art.

He said, "You know what artists are?"

I didn't.

"Artists," he said, "are people who say, "I can't fix my country or my state or my city, or even my marriage. But by golly, I can make this square of canvas, or this eight-and-a-half-by-eleven piece of paper, or this lump of clay, or these twelve bars of music, exactly what they ought to be!'"

[1997] Many people need desperately to receive this message: "I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people don't care about them. You are not alone."

[1997] That there are such devices as firearms, as easy to operate as cigarette lighters and as cheap as toasters, capable at anybody's whim of killing Father or Fats [Waller] or Abraham Lincoln or John Lennon or Martin Luther King, Jr., or a woman pushing a baby carriage, should be proof enough for anybody that, to quote the old science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, "being alive is a crock of shit."

[1997] "If I'd wasted my time creating characters," [science fiction writer Kilgore] Trout said, "I would never have gotten around to calling attention to things that really matter: irresistible forces in nature, and cruel inventions, and cockamammie ideals and governments and economies that make heroes and heroines alike feel like something the cat drug in"

Trout might have said, and it can be said of me as well, that he created caricatures rather than characters. His animus against so-called mainstream literature, moreover, wasn't peculiar to him. It was generic among writers of science fiction.

[1997] I thank [Kilgore] Trout for the concept of the man-woman hour as a unit of measurement of marital intimacy. This is an hour during which a husband and wife are close enough to be aware of each other, and for one to say something to the other without yelling, if he or she feels like it. Trout says in his story "Golden Wedding" that they needn't feel like saying anything in order to credit themselves with a man-woman hour. [...]

[A character in Trout's story] calculates that an average couple with separate places of work logs four man-woman hours each weekday, and sixteen of them on the weekends. Being asleep with each other doesn't count. This gives him a standard man-woman week of thirty-six man-woman hours.

He multiplies that by fifty-two. This gives him, when rounded off, a standard man-woman year of eighteen hundred man-woman hours. He advertises that any couple that has accumulated this many man-woman hours is entitled to celebrate an anniversary...

[1997] Science never cheered up anyone. The truth about the human situation is just too awful.

[1997] In real life, as in Grand Opera, arias only make hopeless situations worse.

[1997] [My brother] would not sign his pictures, he said, or admit publicly that he had made them, or describe how they were made. He plainly expected puffed-up critics to sweat bullets and excrete sizable chunks of masonry when trying to answer his cunningly innocent question: "Art or not?"

I was please to reply with an epistle which was frankly vengeful, since he and Father had screwed me out of a liberal arts college education: "Dear Brother: This is almost like telling you about the birds and the bees," I began. "There are many good people who are beneficially stimulated by some, but not all, manmade arrangements of colors and shapes on flat surfaces, essentially nonsense."

"You yourself are gratified by some music, arrangements of noises, and again essentially nonsense. If I were to kick a bucket down the cellar stairs, and then say to you that the racket I made was philosophically on a par with The Magic Flute, this would not be the beginning of a long and upsetting debate. An utterly satisfactory and complete response on your part would be. 'I like what Mozart did, and I hate what the bucket did.'

"Contemplating a purported work of art is a social activity. Either you have a rewarding time, or you don't. You don't have to say why afterward. You don't have to say anything.

"You are a justly revered experimentalist, dear Brother. If you really want to know whether your pictures are, as you say, 'art or not,' you must display them in a public place somewhere, and see if strangers like to look at them. That is the way the game is played. Let me know what happens."

I went on: "People capable of liking some paintings or prints or whatever can rarely do so without knowing something about the artist. Again, the situation is social rather than scientific. Any work of art is half of a conversation between two human beings, and it helps a lot to know who is talking to you. Does he or she have a reputation for seriousness, for religiosity, for suffering, for concupiscence, for rebellion, for sincerity, for jokes?

There are virtually no respected painting made by persons about whom we know zilch. We can even surmise quite a bit about the lives of whoever did the paintings in the caverns underneath Lascaux, France.

I dare to suggest that no picture can attract serious attention without a particular sort of human being attached to it in the viewer's mind. If you are unwilling to claim credit for your pictures, and to say why you hoped others might find them worth examining, there goes the ball game.

"Pictures are famous for their humanness, and not for their pictureness."

I went on: "There is also the matter of craftmanship. Real picture-lovers like to play along, so to speak, to look closely at the surfaces, to see how the illusion was created. If you are unwilling to say how you made your pictures, there goes the ball game a second time.

"Good luck, and love as always," I wrote. And I signed my name.

[1997] Listen: we are here on Earth to fart around. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise.
[1999] My first near-death experience was an accident, a botched anesthesia during a triple bypass. I had listened to several people on TV talk shows who had gone down the blue tunnel tot he Pearly Gates, and even beyond the Pearly Gates, or so they said, and then come back to life again. But I certainly wouldn't have set out on such a risky expedition on purpose, without first having survived one [...]

To go through the Pearly Gates, no matter how tempting the inteviewee on the other side, as I myself discovered the hard way, is to run the risk that crotchety Saint Peter, depending on his mood, may never let you out again. Think of how heartbroken your friends and relatives would be if, by going through the Pearly Gates to talk to Napoleon, say, you in effect committed suicide.


About belief or lack of belief in an afterlife: Some of you may know that I am neither Chirstian nor Jewish nor Buddish, nor a conventionally religiious person of any sort.

I am a humanist, which mean, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I'm dead. My German-American ancestors, the earliest of whom settled in our Middle West about the time of our Civil War, called themselves "Freethinkers," which is the same sort of thing. My great grandfather Clemens Vonnegutwrote, for example, "If what Jesus said was good, what can it matter whether he was God or not?"

I myself have written, "If it weren't for the message of mercy and pity in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, I wouldn't want to be a human being. I would just as soon be a rattlesnake."

I am honorary president of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great, spectacularly prolific writer and scientist, Dr. Isaac Asimov in that essentially functionless capacity. At an A.H.A. memorial service for my predecessor I said, "Isaac is up in Heaven now." That was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. It rolled them in the aisles. Mirth! Several minutes had to pass before something resemble solemnity could be restored.

I made that joke, of course, before my first near-death experience -- the accidental one.

So when my own time comes to join the choir invisible or whatever, God forbid, I hope someone will say, "He's up in Heaven now." Who really knows? I could have dreamed all this.

My epitaph in any case? "Everything was beautiful. Nothing hurt." I will have gotten off so light, whatever the heck it is that was going on.
God Bless You Dr. Kevorkian

[2004] One of the few good things about modern times: If you die horribly on television, you will not have died in vain. You will have entertained us.
"Cold Turkey" in

(above quotes from my personal collection)

Wikipedia / Wikiquote

some more Vonnegut

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Bullshit, trolling, unthinking knee-jerk dogmatism and the drivel of idiots will be ruthlessly deleted and the posters banned.

Entertaining, interesting, intelligent, informed and informative comments will always be welcome, even when I disagree with them.

I am the sole judge of which of these qualities pertains.

All e-mail received is subject to being published on unfutz without identifying names or addresses.

I correct typos and other simple errors of grammar, syntax, style and presentation in my posts after the fact without necessarily posting notification of the change.

Substantive textual changes, especially reversals or major corrections, will be noted in an "Update" or a footnote.

Also, illustrations may be added to entries after their initial publication.
the story so far
unfutz: toiling in almost complete obscurity for almost 1500 days
2005 koufax awards


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the proud unfutz guarantee
If you read unfutz at least once a week, without fail, your teeth will be whiter and your love life more satisfying.

If you read it daily, I will come to your house, kiss you on the forehead, bathe your feet, and cook pancakes for you, with yummy syrup and everything.

(You might want to keep a watch on me, though, just to avoid the syrup ending up on your feet and the pancakes on your forehead.)

Finally, on a more mundane level, since I don't believe that anyone actually reads this stuff, I make this offer: I'll give five bucks to the first person who contacts me and asks for it -- and, believe me, right now five bucks might as well be five hundred, so this is no trivial offer.

original content
© 2003-2008
Ed Fitzgerald


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but credit all you take.

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