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December 29, 2019

On Vonnegut


December 29, 2019

After my early enthusiasm about the writer Kurt Vonnegut, I became skeptical. Was he a phony? After I met him, his lifestyle in his sumptuous Manhattan East Side town house bothered me and seemed to belie his satires of that same life. Even the adoration for him in Europe at the time sharpened my suspicions that he was perhaps not what he seemed to be.

Despite my admiration for him the writer, the satirist, the anarchist, still for some time after our two meetings in the middle 1980s, I wondered if his claim that he belonged to the establishment because he was rich was not jaded. I wondered too about his “positive nihilist” role. What did that mean? It took me time to make full circle and again see him for what he was. What in the end endeared Kurt Vonnegut to me was his unwavering attack on the “American way of life”.

I’d thought Vonnegut would last forever, charming, joking, teasing, mocking, prickling, criticizing so wittily that the target of his pungent irony would think he was kidding, praising so ambiguously that those he loved thought he was criticizing, throwing mud pies in the faces of the powerful and boasting that he made lots of money being impolite.

“I most certainly am a member of the establishment,” Vonnegut told me that day in the fall of 1985 in his town house on the East Side in Manhattan. An Amsterdam magazine sent me to New York to interview the light of a “certain” American literature who so titillated Europeans by ridiculing the ridiculous sides of America.

“No one is more in its center than me though I don’t maintain contacts with the other members. Though I don’t feel solidarity with it, I admit membership and I don’t like establishment people who play at the false role of rebels. And the establishment needs people like me – however I’m a member only because I have money.”

At the appearance of his first novel, ‘Player Piano’, in 1952, in the same year that Hemingway published ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ and Steinbeck brought out ‘East of Eden’, Kurt Vonnegut was thirty and still widely considered an underground writer, despite Graham Greene’s labeling him “one of the best living American writers.”

Kurt Vonnegut (b 1922 in Indianapolis, d in New York, April 11, 2007) was a humorous man, so deceptively entertaining, marked by broad grins, soft delivery and false modesty. I wondered where the creative artist ended and the performer began. Or vice-versa. Was he a real social critic or simply a cynic?

After he became widely known in the sixties Vonnegut was identified with the revolt against realism and traditional forms of writing. Though he was a “social writer”, he was also more experimental than his contemporaries like Norman Mailer, Philip Roth and John Barth, more fascinated by the absurd and the ridiculous. His science fiction and short stories that had appeared in the best magazines in the post-war years, ‘Atlantic Monthly’, ‘Esquire’, ‘Playboy’, ‘Colliers’, ‘Cosmopolitan’, ‘Saturday Evening Post’, were marked by parody and ridicule. A cult grew around him, especially among youth, so that he remained “mysterious” even after he no longer belonged to the underground.

Things got underway in earnest already in that first novel. Vonnegut’s admiration for the marvels of technology had resulted in his early bent for science fiction, of which he wrote a lot. In ‘Player Piano’ he was “fascinated by the wonderfully sane engineers who could process anything … do anything on their own horizontal level. Miraculous what the engineers could do. They were brilliant but didn’t seem to do anything brilliant.” Drawn on Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ and science fiction in general, Vonnegut’s concern was that these specialists would soon produce their own leaders, a caste created by a technocracy barren of leaders capable of working on a vertical level and devoid of fresh humanistic ideas.

“Precisely this scientific system created our leaders. The problem is they brought little ideology into the factories. There is so little ideology left … if we ever had any. At least we appeal to justice. On the other hand, I have found that one can behave ideologically within a small group related by profession or interests. I’m fascinated by the Paris Commune for example, especially its branch of anarchism. People tend to hang onto natural anarchy.

“The life of Bakunin is useful. Seen as useful people, anarchists offer a fascinating alternative to big government today. When I was a prisoner of war in Germany my small labor unit was left to fend for itself in destroyed Dresden. (‘Slaughterhouse-Five’.) We dealt effectively with the thieves among us without being ferocious. We did that intuitively.”

That was Vonnegut.

One of his contorted Americas is controlled by one enormous corporation-state under the guidance of an ugly old girl whose weighty signature is her fingerprints (‘Jailbird’). In this society the poor spend their time squirting chemicals into their bodies for the simple reason that “on this planet they don’t have doodley-squat.” That was the society that concerned the writer, Kurt Vonnegut, searching for a place for the individual. Like himself his characters are amusing … and rebels all.

Yet his conclusions are seldom humorous. “Big government is like the weather, you can’t do anything about it. People are moving away from central authority and its ineffective bureaucracy, which has created too many artificial jobs in Washington to accommodate our children. Then, let’s face it, leadership is so poor.”

In fact, Vonnegut spent his later years attacking that bureaucracy, especially the George W Bush administration.

His artistic family background and his association with painters and musicians, engendered yearnings in him for the image of the Renaissance man. The day I spent the afternoon and early evening with him he invited me along to check in at the Greenwich Village gallery that was showing fifty of his book illustrations that he called “doodles with a felt-tip pen”. At the vernissage the vain writer-illustrator was as nervous as a Broadway musical star on opening night. But not to worry! His fans snapped them up at one thousand dollars each.

That exhibit was the stuff of a typical Vonnegut literary vignette as in ‘Breakfast of Champions’ in which he pokes fun at the art world, phony artists and gullible consumers. Karabekian has been paid $50,000 by the town for sticking a yellow strip of tape vertically on a piece of canvas. The whole town hates him for the swindle until he explains that it was an unwavering band of light, like each of them, like Saint Anthony.

Excerpted from: ‘Kurt Vonnegut: Anarchist and Social Critic’.