Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut Says Hate Is What Gets Things Done


“As a member of a zippier generation, with sparkle in its eyes and a snap in its stride, let me tell you what kept us as high as kites a lot of the time: hatred. All my life I’ve had people to hate — from Hitler to Nixon, not that those two are at all comparable in their villainy. It is a tragedy, perhaps, that human beings can get so much energy and enthusiasm from hate. If you want to feel ten feet tall and as though you could run a hundred miles without stopping, hate beats pure cocaine any day. Hitler resurrected a beaten, bankrupt, half-starved nation with hatred and nothing more. Imagine that.

[…]

The members of your graduating class are not sleepy, are not listless, are not apathetic. They are simply performing the experiment of doing without hate. Hate is the missing vitamin or mineral or whatever in their diet, they have sensed correctly that hate, in the long run, is about as nourishing as cyanide.”

– Kurt Vonnegut, speaking to the graduating class at Fredonia College, 1978.
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I would have loved to hear Kurt Vonnegut speak publically. He was apparently as appreciable a speaker as a writer, as he was very frequently engaged. His tone is always one that catches us off guard with encouragement, whimsy, and dark self-deprecation toward the human race.

While I’m not sure that I have seen any evidence of a generation without hate for fuel, I do find his concept here simple, self-evident, and fundamentally understated else ware. Often men have worked entire philosophies off of a basis that includes this theory, but rarely does one actually think about the fact that fear and hate often work hand in hand as our greatest motivators. The great striding leaps of human ingenuity in the past couple centuries have not helped to build up individual security and eliminate worry and hatred as everyone seems always to be hoping they will. They have been fuel for and sparked by the greatest wars and genocides in history.

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Further Reading

What C.S. Lewis Knew About The Holocaust Before WWII

Vonnegut’s Views On Religion And Science

Wendell Berry On Family And The Cold War

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Author Quotes: Science, Religion, and Vonnegut’s Disrespect


PROTEIN
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“He was supposed to be our commencement speaker,” said Sandra.

“Who was?” I asked.

“Dr. Hoenikker – the old man.”

“What did he say?”

“He didn’t show up.”

“So you didn’t get a commencement address?”

“Oh, we got one. Dr. Breed, the one you’re gonna see tomorrow, he showed up, all out of breath, and he gave some kind of talk.”

“What did he say?”

“He said he hoped a lot of us would have careers in science,” she said. She didn’t see anything funny in that. She was remembering a lesson that had impressed her. She was repeating it gropingly, dutifully.

“He said, the trouble with the world was …”
She had to stop and think.

“The trouble with the world was,” she continued hesitatingly,

“that people were still superstitious instead of scientific. He said if everybody would study science more, there wouldn’t be all the trouble there was.”
“He said science was going to discover the basic secret of life someday,” the bartender put in. He scratched his head and frowned.

“Didn’t I read in the paper the other day where they’d finally found out what it was?”

“I missed that,” I murmured.

“I saw that,” said Sandra.

“About two days ago.”

“That’s right,” said the bartender.

“What is the secret of life?” I asked.

“I forget,” said Sandra.

“Protein,” the bartender declared.

“They found out something about protein.”

“Yeah,” said Sandra,

“that’s it.”

 

– Kurt Vonnegut, chapter 11 of Cat’s Cradle, titled “Protein.”

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I recently reviewed Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five on the blog, and everyone shouted loudly that I must read Cat’s Cradle, which I am happily diverting from my 55 List to indulge. As I mentioned before, Vonnegut gets us comfortable, speaks to us disarmingly and then makes a silly character of all of our presumptions and standards. He says, “look, I can show you the epitome of our social normalcy, and I can damn everything about these religions and this science and this culture. It’s all rotten.”

That’s what I like about this tiny chapter. It makes a perfectly poignant, stand-alone social commentary on how easily we can assume that science can replace religion, which can replace engagement. Apparently if we understand the “how”, we need not understand the “why”.

Religion is, by definition, systematization and lifestyle adherence to a standardized philosophy. It often gives us answers which have been pre-reasoned for us. We are asked to simply concede their apparent truth. Science often attempts to walk a similar line, replacing the “here’s why” with a “here’s how.” Just because something is presented to us systematically does not invalidate it, but there is always paradox and apparent holes.

Vonnegut’s constant hostility toward these forms seems to come almost solely from his perspective on their complete lack of moral sustenance. Surviving WWII, his confidence in the integrity of most social institutions was utterly destroyed. He is able to look at Christianity and democracy and science through the lenses of Hiroshima and genocide, and his arguments are pretty convincing. Humanity is implicit in evil, Vonnegut is a grinning rebel against responsible parties, and his claim is that your religion and your scientific discoveries are worthless without moral bearings to reel them in.

Do you object?

 

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Further reading

What Christians Can Learn From An Atheist

Masanobu Fukuoka And The Philosophy Behind The Science

Wendell Berry On Paths V. Roads

Wanna Change The World? Shake Someone’s Hand!

55 Classics Review #8 – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut


Slaughterhouse-Five is turmoil turned ’round on itself, ad infinitum. So it goes.

Before I started reading Slaughterhouse I knew that I liked Vonnegut. I listened to Welcome To The Monkey House on audio book a few years ago and I found his speculative fiction fascinating and his writing style thoroughly comforting. Vonnegut is equally enjoyable read as he was read aloud.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a book of war. It tells you from the beginning that it has always been, even years before Vonnegut knew how to write it, a story of the Dresden fire-bombing of WWII. This bombing was the single most horrifying assault of the Second World War, targetting civilian populations and killing about twice as many as the atom bomb did in Hiroshima. The entire city of Dresden was razed to the ground and even after his widely acclaimed book it is little remembered. Vonnegut was a POW in Dresden at the time and one of a very small number of survivors. Like many war veterans, Vonnegut didn’t know how to deal with what he has experienced, but as a writer he couldn’t let something so definitive to his worldview be left untouched. Thus, Slaughterhouse-Five.

The book feels like a mad rambling. It begins and ends with a lot of Vonnegut personally talkings about how and why he is writing this book so many years later, and it doesn’t always make complete sense. When he finally gets along to the story he means to tell, it is also disjointed. It makes sense that it is disjointed, because his world is ultimately disjointed.

Even though I was familiar with some of his science fiction, I was completely caught off guard to find it here. The book follows Billy Pilgrim, Dresden POW, alien zoo experiment, and man disloged from time. Feeling like a series of end-of-life flashbacks, we are actually supposed to be traveling through time over and over, re-experiencing aspects of Pilgrim’s life at all its various stages. As a man who no longer thinks about his history linearly, Pilgrim has found infinite peace in being able to detatch himself from being effected by the horrors around him.

Vonnegut’s goal is not simply to tell horror stories of war. He excercises great restraint in sharing the details of Dresden. A considerably small percentage of the text actually covers the war. Much of it is spent in subsequent life and on an alien planet. It would be easy to interpret Pilgrim’s later alien adventures and time-traveling as Vonnegut’s attempt to point out how the insanity of war drives men to a truer insanity, but I think we lose something in explaining the book under strictly realistic experiences. We are meant to believe in Pilgrim’s aliens and travels. They mean something if they are real which they do not if they are hallucinations.

You can easily see that Vonnegut associated organized religion very closely with politicking and war-making. He uses the aliens and time traveling as an opportunity to predicts a philosophical loophole. Religions of the world can be damned, but there is probably something else out there, some better way to live and view our existing that puts all of human history in a catagory of foolishness beyond comprehension. Vonnegut is sold on the idea that this ideal exists, but he doesn’t write hoping of it. Pilgrim proclaims it but humanity is incapable of joining in his new bliss.

I think that the juxtaposition of Vonnegut’s style against his attitudes adds a huge element of what draws people to his work. He writes straightforward and comical persons and scenes. When he describes a man, we invision a dopy, cartoon character that feels foolishly and warmly human. Then this character commits historically-accurate crimes against humanity. Or he stands by and becomes numb to his hurts, is mocked as a fool for being totally shaken, and lives on to inflict lesser hurts on his home in its future peace. Vonnegut warms us up and then gently affirms that existence is a train of horrors at the hands of humanity.

I think that Slaughterhouse-Five is valuable, important even. It displays just how enjoyable a book can been even in describing utter evil, which is a confusing and concerning reality. It points to every man as an open book with a broken spine. There is no good or bad man, there is only mankind, and it is gross and predicatable.

The books thesis, repeated over and over when referring flippantly to death and distruction, is, simply, “So It Goes.”

“What is your favorite ‘classic’ literary period and why?”


Over at The Classic’s Club they like to publish a “Monthly Meme”, a monthly blogging prompt question for the member to participate in. This months question is

“What is your favorite ‘classic’ literary period and why?”

I’ll provide my answer and ask you guys to feel free to do the same!

If you’ve been reading this blog then you know that I like to play fast and loose with terms like “classic”. Maurice Sendak is classic, Orson Scott Card is classic, Neil Gaiman is classic. In the same way I’m gonna bend the rules in defining my idea of a “literary period” as well. I ask for immense grace on the part of the reader.

I’m not really a fan of any one particular genre or period in which great work has been done; my tastes span just about every style from every time period. However, if I had to choose one time period as being great for the arts, I would choose 1914 to 1945. That is to say, the time frame from the beginning of The Great War to the end of World War II.

It is a hard truth to swallow, but war encourages good art. War encouraged better politics, better philosophy, better religion, and better culture. Are these worth the price? They probably never could be, but for some reason we need war to sharpen our ideas into feasible, real-world scenarios. I use the word “need” here not as an absolute belief but based on cyclical, historic evidence.

War takes the extreme ideals of young men and forces upon them (and everyone else) the costs and consequences of those ideas. Throughout history cultures have come to radical political and philosophical conclusions and have seen them tested in action through various political upheavals. A world-wide war has the unique sobering effect of drastically changing and solidifying the most earnest opinions at the very heart of every man. The World Wars and the time between them were an era of intense and costly trial and error, a time when every man and women, whether identified now as aggressor, defender, or victim, was drastically solidified in a frame of mind that would haunt or direct the remainder of his or her earthly experience. Grandiose philosophical and political ideals would eventually be pulverized into crippling fear, stunning bravery, blinding hatred, and inspiring forgiveness and understanding. All of the destruction wreaked resulted very clearly in artistic revolutions of all kinds.

Concerning World War I, I think literarally of D.H. Lawrence, W. Somerset Maugham, Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, and T.S. Eliot among dozens of others. These are not necessarily known for war literature, but war imposed itself upon and transformed all in their craft. I consider C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien, destined to be friends as both fought through some of the most bloody and unsurvivable experiences of The Great War. Both lost most of their dearest friends, and even their more whimsical works are depicted with the sobriety of a man who has wrestled with war first-hand.

I consider the upheaved, unsettled time between the wars and the seemingly unavoidable onset of the Second World War. Another generation of men and women are rocked to their very cores, including Lee, Capote, Salinger, Vonnegut, Wouk, Mailer, and Lois Lowry among an entire generation in transition. Most rebelled against society at large, unable to cope with the unforeseen impacts that continue to ripple through culture today.

I especially think of the story of Ernest Hemmingway, already a revered author and now a war correspondent, meeting for drinks with a then-undiscovered J.D. Salinger, in a little house near the frontline in the midst of WWII. Young Salinger had carried a rough draft of the first six chapters of what would become The Catcher In The Rye stuffed in his jacket since before he landed on the beaches on D-Day and he had somehow found time to write and submit short stories to magazines from on the frontline. He had already built up a bit of a reputation with Hemmingway, and they spent a hearty evening together, drinking wine through the cold winter night and discussing the quality of Salinger’s work and literature in general. Before dawn they separated once more, and from what we know had very little interaction thereafter. Eventually, the elder would turn into a severe alcoholic before committing suicide, while the younger would seek solace in mystic religion and half a century of extreme reclusion.

While it can feel trite to explore the literary implications of the most destructive periods in world history, our art has more to say than anything else when we look to see how the minds of men are molded by these terrors. The lives of these artists, perhaps more so than their art at times, display the coping of humanity with unspeakable confusion. Some we find doubly moored to the foundations they already claimed, other finding some source of respite in the aftermath. So many others we find spiraling without answer, creating in the constant wake of the thousand-yard stare.

The Classics Club


This morning I stumbled upon a wonderful blog called The Classics Club. Its exactly what I never knew I was searching for!

The premise of the club is a simple one. To join, one must simply submit a list of at least 50 titles that you personally consider classic in some way and commit to attempting to read and review all of them within a time frame of hire own choosing, up to five years. I eagerly spent some of my morning and afternoon building my own classics list.

A Few Notes Concerning My Selections

• I chose a very broad spectrum of titles because I am interested in a broad spectrum of fiction. I am aware that many, nay most, are probably not classics or only exist as classics in a certain subculture.

• They are in the order I came up with them, so I will not be reading them in this or any other particular order.

• I chose a number of children’s titles because I love children’s literature more now than when I was a kid.

• The spirit of the club is to read new titles, so I have only allowed myself step or three re-reads. I chose them mostly because they are lesser known titles and I was eager to re-read them to review them.

• Most of these are either titles I own and have not read or titles I started once and got side-tracked from finishing.  I thought this seemed like a great opportunity to officially pursue them more diligently.

• The list is mainly novels and chapter books, with a smattering of short story collections, picture books, essays, and curated diaries.

• I intend to use the maximum allotment of five years, finishing the list by 2/22/2019.

The List (55 titles)

– The Plague by Albert Camus

– The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

– Watership Downs by Richard Adams

– Letters To An American Lady by C.S. Lewis

– On Stories by C.S. Lewis

– The Worm of Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison

– The Giver by Lois Lowry

– Mr. Bliss by J.R.R. Tolkien

– Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

– The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

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– Odd And The Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

– Phantastes by George MacDonald

– The Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier

– The Silmarilion by J.R.R. Tolkien

– Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

– Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

– A Room With A View by E. M. Forster

– Redwall by Brian Jacques

– Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie

– Poems of John Keats by John Keats

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– Brothers and Friends : The Diaries of Major Warren Lewis by Warren Lewis

– The Third Man by Graham Greene

– The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

– The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

– Peril At End House by Agatha Christie

– Bring It To The Table: On Farming And Food by Wendell Berry

– The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

– Descent Into Hell by Charles Williams

– War In Heaven by Charles Williams

– The Food Of The Gods And How It Came To Earth by H. G. Wells

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– Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang by Ian Fleming

– Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers

– The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

– At The Back Of The North Wing by George MacDonald

– Jeeves In The Offering by P. G. Wodehouse

– Heavy Weather by P. G. Wodehouse

– Middlemarch by George Eliot

– The Narrative Of Arthur Gordon Pym Of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe

– Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

– The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

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– On Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

– A Confederacy Of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

– An Arsene Lupin Omnibus by Maurice LeBlanc

– The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton

– The Innocence of Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton

– King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard

– The Sorrows Of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

– Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

– In The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak

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– Runaway by Alice Munro

– The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchanan

– I Sing The Body Electric by Ray Bradbury

– Walden by Henry David Thoreau

– My First Summer In The Sierras by John Muir

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As a somewhat saddening side-note, I realized while curating this list that I finished reading every Sherlock Holmes novel years ago. While there are only four novel-length Holmes stories, I was surprised to realize that I had finished all of them years ago. I’m certain that I haven’t read all the short stories yet, but it was a strange sensation to realize that I had long since finished these and even forgotten that I had completed every one of them.

Anyway, I am excited to get any feedback as I start! If you have any personal thoughts, experiences, or opinions on any or all of these titles, I would love to hear them. I need all the advice I can get!