I read Timequake (one of Vonnegut’s last books) recently and was surprised to see how often it related to the How to Win project. The novel isn’t about any one theme, but ideas of art and affecting change are woven throughout. Vonnegut seems to be reflecting on how his literature has connected with his politics.
In the novel, a timequake resets the universe 10 years, and humanity goes on autopilot, passively experiencing exactly what they had done the prior decade. When the timequake ends, no one realizes they have free will again, and in the initial moments the world becomes a violent orgy of bus crashes, explosions, and fire. Eighty-something-year-old, homeless writer Kilgore Trout–Vonnegut’s alter ego– is the only one who realizes what’s happened and begins running around trying to wake up everyone. Rather than try to explain that they have free will again, Trout exclaims, “You were sick, but now you’re well, and there’s work to do.” This white lie works, and the meme spreads, eventually helping everyone regain consciousness. Trout undertakes this mission, though, not as some bold hero, but because he is too old to do anything daring himself, and so needs others to put out the fires he is incapable of stopping.
The story, I think, is Vonnegut explaining his own work. Ever since Slaughterhouse 5 he was a hero of peace movements, and a symbol of Humanism. He was deified by some, or at least revered as a prophet. With this novel, I think he was explaining that he wasn’t a hero or a savior, just a man who saw a world engulfed in craziness, had a talent for writing, and so used it to try and awaken humanity’s consciousness. He loved art and respected the artist’s power to awaken and inspire, but he also understood that mail clerks, carpenters, chemists had just as much to offer the world.
With all this in mind, I assembled a handful of relevant quotes from Timequake, and a mash up of Vonnegut interviews addressing, art, politics, and living humanely.
Artists 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.
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. 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 paintings 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 viewerâs 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 their pictureness. There is also the matter of craftsmanship. 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.
I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, ‘The Beatles did’.
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 do not care about them. You are not alone.’
September 10, 2003
Renee Montagne: Was there something about the time, 1969, of course the Vietnam War was in full swing, that freed you to write the book?
Vonnegut: I think it not only freed me, it freed writers because the Vietnam War made our leadership and our motivates so scruffy and essentially stupid that we could finally talk about something bad that we did to the worst people imaginable, the Nazis. And what I saw, what I had to report made war look so ugly, you know, the truth can be really powerful stuff if you’re not expecting it.
Kurt Vonnegut vs. the !&#*!@
By Joel Bleifuss | 1.27.03
Bleifuss: My feeling from talking to readers and friends is that many people are beginning to despair. Do you think that we’ve lost reason to hope?
Vonnegut: I myself feel that our country, for whose Constitution I fought in a just war, might as well have been invaded by Martians and body snatchers. Sometimes I wish it had been. What has happened, though, is that it has been taken over by means of the sleaziest, low-comedy, Keystone Cops-style coup d’etat imaginable. And those now in charge of the federal government are upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography, plus not-so-closeted white supremacists, aka “Christians,” and plus, most frighteningly, psychopathic personalities, or “PPs.”
To say somebody is a PP is to make a perfectly respectable medical diagnosis, like saying he or she has appendicitis or athlete’s foot. The classic medical text on PPs is The Mask of Sanity by Dr. Hervey Cleckley. Read it! PPs are presentable, they know full well the suffering their actions may cause others, but they do not care. They cannot care because they are nuts. They have a screw loose!
And what syndrome better describes so many executives at Enron and WorldCom and on and on, who have enriched themselves while ruining their employees and investors and country, and who still feel as pure as the driven snow, no matter what anybody may say to or about them? And so many of these heartless PPs now hold big jobs in our federal government, as though they were leaders instead of sick.
What has allowed so many PPs to rise so high in corporations, and now in government, is that they are so decisive. Unlike normal people, they are never filled with doubts, for the simple reason that they cannot care what happens next. Simply can’t. Do this! Do that! Mobilize the reserves! Privatize the public schools! Attack Iraq! Cut health care! Tap everybody’s telephone! Cut taxes on the rich! Build a trillion-dollar missile shield! Fuck habeas corpus and the Sierra Club and In These Times, and kiss my ass!
How have you gotten involved in the anti-war movement? And how would you compare the movement against a war in Iraq with the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era?
When it became obvious what a dumb and cruel and spiritually and financially and militarily ruinous mistake our war in Vietnam was, every artist worth a damn in this country, every serious writer, painter, stand-up comedian, musician, actor and actress, you name it, came out against the thing. We formed what might be described as a laser beam of protest, with everybody aimed in the same direction, focused and intense. This weapon proved to have the power of a banana-cream pie three feet in diameter when dropped from a stepladder five-feet high.
And so it is with anti-war protests in the present day. Then as now, TV did not like anti-war protesters, nor any other sort of protesters, unless they rioted. Now, as then, on account of TV, the right of citizens to peaceably assemble, and petition their government for a redress of grievances, “ain’t worth a pitcher of warm spit,” as the saying goes.
As a writer and artist, have you noticed any difference between how the cultural leaders of the past and the cultural leaders of today view their responsibility to society?
Responsibility to which society? To Nazi Germany? To the Stalinist Soviet Union? What about responsibility to humanity in general? And leaders in what particular cultural activity? I guess you mean the fine arts. I hope you mean the fine arts. … Anybody practicing the fine art of composing music, no matter how cynical or greedy or scared, still can’t help serving all humanity. Music makes practically everybody fonder of life than he or she would be without it. Even military bands, although I am a pacifist, always cheer me up.
But that is the power of ear candy. The creation of such a universal confection for the eye, by means of printed poetry or fiction or history or essays or memoirs and so on, isn’t possible. Literature is by definition opinionated. It is bound to provoke the arguments in many quarters, not excluding the hometown or even the family of the author. Any ink-on-paper author can only hope at best to seem responsible to small groups or like-minded people somewhere. He or she might as well have given an interview to the editor of a small-circulation publication.
Maybe we can talk about the responsibilities to their societies of architects and sculptors and painters another time. And I will say this: TV drama, although not yet classified as fine art, has on occasion performed marvelous services for Americans who want us to be less paranoid, to be fairer and more merciful. M.A.S.H. and Law and Order, to name only two shows, have been stunning masterpieces in that regard.
That said, do you have any ideas for a really scary reality TV show?
“C students from Yale.” It would stand your hair on end.
What targets would you consider fair game for a satirist today?
Kurt Vonnegut: We have only a one party government. It’s the winners. And then everybody else is the losers. And the winners divided into two parties. The Republicans and the Democrats. What a charade the combat between the Republicans and the Democrats is. It’s rich kids…We had to choose between two members of Skull and Bones!
David Brancaccio: Well, I want to ask you about this. You ask in the book a question that actually you don’t answer so I want to –
But I want to– think about answering this one. You write “what can be said to our young people now that psychopathic personalities — which is to say persons without consciences, without senses of pity or shame — have taken all the money in the treasuries of our government and corporations and made it their own?” What can we say to younger people who have their whole lives ahead of them?
Well, you are human beings. Resourceful. Form a little society of your own. And, hang out with them. Get a gang.
You’re preaching getting into gangs?
Yes. Well, look, it’s–
A good gang.
Look, I don’t mean to intimidate you, but I have a master’s degree in anthropology.
From the University of Chicago– as did Saul Bellow, incidentally. But anyway, one thing I found out was that we need extended families. We need gangs. And, of course, if they’re tribes and clans and so forth have been dispersed by the industrial revolution by people looking for work wherever they can find it. And a nuclear family, a man, a woman and kids and a dog and cat is no survival scheme at all. Horribly vulnerable.
So yes, I tell people to formulate a little gang. And, you know, you love each other.
You’re a bit of a Luddite?
Yes. Absolutely. I — all the new technology seems redundant to me. I was quite happy with the United States mail service. And, I don’t even have an answering machine, for God’s sake.
Sounds un-American to me.
Yeah, well, certainly, for a science fiction writer. But Ray Bradbury can’t even drive.
So you have one up on him if you were selling Saabs.
There’s a little sweet moment, I’ve got to say, in a very intense book– your latest– in which you’re heading out the door and your wife says what are you doing? I think you say– I’m getting– I’m going to buy an envelope.
What happens then?
Oh, she says well, you’re not a poor man. You know, why don’t you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I’m going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope.
I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babes. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And, and ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don’t know. The moral of the story is, is we’re here on Earth to fart around.
And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, what the computer people don’t realize, or they don’t care, is we’re dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we’re not supposed to dance at all anymore.
Well you wrote in the book about this. You write; What makes being a live almost worthwhile–
–for me besides music, was all the Saints I met who could be anywhere. By ‘Saints’ I meant people who behaved decently, in a strikingly indecent society.
Yes. Their acts of kindness and reason. On a very– on a face-to-face. On a very local.
On a human level.
Yeah. On a human level. And, oh, I’ve also spoken about you, know you’ve heard of ‘original sin.’ Well, I also, I call attention to original virtue. Some people are born to be nice, and they’re gonna be nice all their lives, no matter what.
US Airways Magazine
Tell me the reasons you’ve been attracted to a life of creation, whether as a writer or an artist.
I’ve been drawing all my life, just as a hobby, without really having shows or anything. It’s just an agreeable thing to do, and I recommend it to everybody. I always say to people, practice an art, no matter how well or badly , because then you have the experience of becoming, and it makes your soul grow. That includes singing, dancing, writing, drawing, playing a musical instrument. One thing I hate about school committees today is that they cut arts programs out of the curriculum because they say the arts aren’t a way to make a living. Well, there are lots of things worth doing that are no way to make a living. They are agreeable ways to make a more agreeable life.
In the process of your becoming, you’ve given the world much warmth and humor. That matters, doesn’t it?
I asked my son Mark what he thought life was all about, and he said, “We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.” I think that says it best. You can do that as a comedian, a writer, a painter, a musician. He’s a pediatrician. There are all kinds of ways we can help each other get through today. There are some things that help. Musicians really do it for me. I wish I were one, because they help a lot. They help us get through a couple hours.
“A lack of seriousness,” you wrote, “has led to all sorts of wonderful insights.”
Yes. The world is too serious. To get mad at a work of art — because maybe somebody, somewhere is blowing his stack over what I’ve done — is like getting mad at a hot fudge sundae.
Nearly forty years after Slaughterhouse-Five, people still love reading your books. Why do you think your books have such enduring appeal?
I’ve said it before: I write in the voice of a child. That makes me readable in high school. Not too many big sentences. But I hope that my ideas attract a lively dialogue, even if my sentences are simple. Simple sentences have always served me well. And I don’t use semicolons. It’s hard to read anyway, especially for high school kids. Also, I avoid irony. I don’t like people saying one thing and meaning the other.
When Timequake was published ten years ago, you said you were basically retired as a writer. You’ve published two essay collections since then, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian and the best-selling A Man Without a Country. I wonder if the visual arts have become a substitute for writing in your life.
Well, it’s something to do in my old age. As you may know, I’m suing a cigarette company because their product hasn’t killed me yet.
Is it a different creative process for you, sitting down to write or picking up a paintbrush?
No. I used to teach a writer’s workshop at the University of Iowa back in the ’60s, and I would say at the start of every semester, “The role model for this course is Vincent van Gogh — who sold two paintings to his brother.” I just sit and wait to see what’s inside me, and that’s the case for writing or for drawing, and then out it comes. There are times when nothing comes. James Brooks, the fine abstract-expressionist, I asked him what painting was like for him, and he said, “I put the first stroke on the canvas and then the canvas has to do half the work.” That’s how serious painters are. They’re waiting for the canvas to do half the work. Come on. Wake up.
We live in a very visual world today. Do words have any power left?
I was at a symposium some years back with my friends Joseph Heller and William Styron, both dead now, and we were talking about the death of the novel and the death of poetry, and Styron pointed out that the novel has always been an elitist art form. It’s an art form for very few people, because only a few can read very well. I’ve said that to open a novel is to arrive in a music hall and be handed a viola. You have to perform. To stare at horizontal lines of phonetic symbols and Arabic numbers and to be able to put a show on in your head, it requires the reader to perform. If you can do it, you can go whaling in the South Pacific with Herman Melville, or you can watch Madame Bovary make a mess of her life in Paris. With pictures and movies, all you have to do is sit there and look at them and it happens to you.
Many years ago, you said that a writer’s job is to use the time of a stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted. There are a lot of ways for a stranger to pass time these days.
That’s right. There are all these other things to do with time. It used to be people would wonder what the hell they were going to do for the winter. Then a big book would come out — a big, wonderful book — and everybody would be reading it to pass the time. It was a very primitive experiment, before television, where people would have to look at ink on paper, for God’s sake. I myself grew up when radio was very important. I’d come home from school and turn on the radio. There were funny comedians and wonderful music, and there were plays. I used to pass time with radio. Now, you don’t have to be literate to have a nice time.
You’ve stated that television is one of the most viable art forms in the world today.
Well, it is. It works like a dream. It’s a way to hold attention, and it’s awfully good at that. For a lot of people, TV is life itself. Churches used to provide people with better company than they had at home, but now, no matter what your neighborhood life or family life is like, you turn on the television and you get relatives, family. I don’t know if you’ve heard about this, but scientists have created baby geese that believe that an airplane is their mother. Human beings will believe in all kinds of things that aren’t true, and that’s okay. And TV is a part of that.
Is there another book in you, by chance?
No. Look, I’m 84 years old. Writers of fiction have usually done their best work by the time they’re 45. Chess masters are through when they’re 35, and so are baseball players. There are plenty of other people writing. Let them do it.
So what’s the old man’s game, then?
My country is in ruins. So I’m a fish in a poisoned fishbowl. I’m mostly just heartsick about this. There should have been hope. This should have been a great country. But we are despised all over the world now. I was hoping to build a country and add to its literature. That’s why I served in World War II, and that’s why I wrote books.