from
Wampeters Foma & Granfalloons
(Opinions)

by

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

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Wampeters Foma & Granfalloons
(Opinions)

Copyright © 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974 by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Preface

I can name several good American writers who have become wonderful public speakers, who now find it hard to concentrate while they are merely writing. They miss the applause.

I do think, though, that public speaking is almost the only way a poet or a novelist or a playwright can have any political effectiveness in his creative prime. If he tries to put his politics into a work of the imagination, he will foul up his work beyond all recognition.

 

Among the many queer things about the American economy is this: a writer can get more money for a bungling speech at a bankrupt college than he can get for a short-story masterpiece. What’s more, he can sell the speech over and over again, and no one complains.

Topic:

Writing

The professor threw a narrow board, which was about the length of a bayonet, at the wall of the room, which was cinder block. “That’s noise,” he said.

Then he picked up seven more boards, and he threw them against the wall in rapid succession, as though he were a knife-thrower. The boards in sequence sang the opening notes of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” I was enchanted.

“That’s melody,” he said.

And fiction is melody, and journalism, new or old, is noise.

Topics:

Music

Journalism

He is the first President to hate the American people and all they stand for. He believes so vibrantly in his own purity, although he has committed crimes which are hideous, that I am bound to conclude that someone told him when he was very young that all serious crime was sexual, that no one could be a criminal who did not commit adultery or masturbate.

He is a useful man in that he has shown us that our Constitution is a defective document, which makes a childlike assumption that we would never elect a President who disliked us so.

I had hoped to include some poetry in this volume, but discovered that I have in all these years written only one poem which deserves to live another minute.

the poem

Brief Encounters on the Inland Waterway

copyright © Cowles Communications, Inc. 1966

First published in Venture

A roomful of professional sailors is a disconcerting thing to see. Nobody looks at anybody else. Everybody is scanning the horizon.

Frank warned me against following anybody. “Thinking the guy up ahead knows what he’s doing is the most dangerous religion there is,” he said.

Yes, We Have No Nirvanas

First published in Esquire

Maharishi replied that any oppressed person could rise by practicing Transcendental Mediation. He would automatically do his job better, and the economy would pay him more, and then he could buy anything he wanted. He wouldn’t be oppressed anymore. In other words, he should quit bitching, begin to meditate, grasp his garters, and float into a commanding position in the marketplace, where transactions are always fair.

And I opened my eyes, and I took a hard look at Maharishi. He hadn’t wafted me to India. He had sent me back to Schenectady, New York, where I used to be a public-relations man—years and years ago. That was where I had heard other euphoric men talk of the human condition in terms of switches and radios and the fairness of the marketplace. They, too, thought it was ridiculous for people to be unhappy, when there were so many simple things they could do to improve their lot. They, too, had Bachelor of Science degrees. Maharishi had come all the way from India to speak to the American people like a General Electric engineer.

Excelsior! We’re Going to the Moon! Excelsior!

First published in The New York Times Magazine

About the dumb Earthlings versus the smart Earthlings: I have known a fair number of scientists over the years, and I noticed they were often as bored by each other’s work as dumb people would be.

Earth is such a pretty blue and pink and white pearl in the pictures NASA sent me. It looks so clean. You can’t see all the hungry, angry Earthlings down there—and the smoke and the sewage and trash and sophisticated weaponry. I flew over Appalachia the other day—at about 500 miles an hour and five miles up. Life is said to be horrible down there in many places, but it looked like the Garden of Eden to me. I was a rich guy, way up in the sky, munching dry-roasted peanuts and sipping gin.

Topic:

Air travel

Maybe the Creator really does want us to travel a lot more than we have traveled so far. And maybe It really does want our nervous systems to become fancier all the time. Excelsior.

Excelsior.

I prefer to think not, though, for this simple-minded reason: Earthlings who have felt that the Creator clearly wanted this or that have almost always been pigheaded and cruel. You bet.

Address to the American Physical Society

I am charmed that you should call me in your program notes here a humanist. I have always thought of myself as a paranoid, as an overreactor, and a person who makes a questionable living with his mental diseases. Fiction writers are not customarily persons in the best of mental health.

Scientists will never be so innocent again. Any young scientist, by contrast, when asked by the military to create a terror weapon on the order of napalm, is bound to suspect that he may be committing modern sin. God bless him for that.
Good Missiles, Good Manners, Good Night

copyright © 1969 by The New York Times Company

Dr. Sternglass, a professor of radiation physics at the University of Pittsburgh, promised that, if Mr. Laird’s and Mr. Nixon’s Safeguard Antimissile system was ever used, all children born after that (anywhere) would die of birth defects before they could grow up and reproduce.

So I marveled again at the cheerfulness of our leaders, guys my age. They were calling for nothing less than the construction of a doomsday machine, but they went on smiling. Everything was OK.

Biafra: A People Betrayed

First published in McCall’s

“It’s hard to prove genocide,” said Hall. “If some Biafrans survive, then genocide hasn’t been committed. If no Biafrans survive, who will complain?”

Topic:

Genocide

As I left her room, I tripped on her doorsill, and a wounded soldier in the corridor said brightly, “Sorry, sah!” This was a form of politeness I had never encountered outside Biafra. Whenever I did something clumsy or unlucky, a Biafran was sure to say that: “Sorry, sah!” He would be genuinely sorry. He was on my side, and against a booby-trapped universe.

Topic:

Manners

Address to Graduating Class at Bennington College, 1970

First published in Vogue as
“Up Is Better Than Down”

As I said on Earth Day in New York City not long ago: It isn’t often that a total pessimist is invited to speak in the springtime. I predicted that everything would become worse, and everything has become worse.

One trouble, it seems to me, is that the majority of the people who rule us, who have our money and power, are lawyers or military men. The lawyers want to talk our problems out of existence. The military men want us to find the bad guys and put bullets through their brains. These are not always the best solutions—particularly in the fields of sewage disposal and birth control.

Topic:

Pessimism

Young people owe it to themselves to understand how easily machine guns and tanks can control crowds.

There is a basic rule about tanks, and you should know it: The only man who ever beat a tank was John Wayne. And he was in another tank.

Now then—about machine guns: They work sort of like a garden hose, except they spray death. They should be approached with caution.

There is a lesson for all of us in machine guns and tanks: Work within the system.

Topic:

Weaponry

I fully expected that by the time I was twenty-one, some scientist, maybe my brother, would have taken a color photograph of God Almighty—and sold it to Popular Mechanics magazine.

Scientific truth was going to make us so happy and comfortable.

What actually happened when I was twenty-one was that we dropped scientific truth on Hiroshima.

Topic:

Science

I beg you to believe in the most ridiculous superstition of all: that humanity is at the center of the universe, the fulfiller or the frustrator of the grandest dreams of God Almighty.

If you can believe that, and make others believe it, then there might be hope for us. Human beings might stop treating each other like garbage, might begin to treasure and protect each other instead. Then it might be all right to have babies again.

Topic:

Belief

The arts put man at the center of the universe, whether he belongs there or not. Military science, on the other hand, treats man as garbage—and his children, and his cities, too. Military science is probably right about the contemptibility of man in the vastness of the universe. Still—I deny that contemptibility, and I beg you to deny it, through the creation of appreciation of art.

Topic:

Art

It has been said many times that man’s knowledge of himself has been left far behind by his understanding of technology, and that we can have peace and plenty and justice only when man’s knowledge of himself catches up. This is not true. Some people hope for great discoveries in the social sciences, social equivalents of F = ma and E = mc2, and so on. Others think we have to evolve, to become better monkeys with bigger brains. We don’t need more information. We don’t need bigger brains. All that is required is that we become less selfish than we are.

We already have plenty of sound suggestions as to how we are to act if things are to become better on earth. For instance: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Topic:

Ethics

Do not take the entire world on your shoulders. Do a certain amount of skylarking, as befits people your age. “Skylarking,” incidentally, used to be a minor offense under Naval Regulations. What a charming crime. It means intolerable lack of seriousness. I would love to have had a dishonorable discharge from the United States Navy—for skylarking not just once, but again and again and again.

When it really is time for you to save the world, when you have some power and know your way around, when people can’t mock you for looking so young, I suggest that you work for a socialist form of government. Free Enterprise is much too hard on the old and the sick and the shy and the poor and the stupid, and on people nobody likes. They just can’t cut the mustard under Free Enterprise. They lack that certain something that Nelson Rockefeller, for instance, so abundantly has.

So let’s divide up the wealth more fairly than we have divided it up so far. Let’s make sure that everybody has enough to eat, and a decent place to live, and medical help when he needs it.

Torture and Blubber

Agony never made a society quit fighting, as far as I know. A society has to be captured or killed—or offered things it values. [...]

One wonders now where our leaders got the idea that mass torture would work to our advantage in Indochina. It never worked anywhere else. They got the idea from childish fiction, I think, and from a childish awe of torture.

Topic:

Torture

Torture from the air was the only military scheme open to us, I suppose, since the extermination or capture of the North Vietnamese people would have started World War Three. In which case, we would have been tortured from the air.

I am sorry we tried torture. I am sorry we tried anything. I hope we never try torture again. It doesn’t work. Human beings are stubborn and brave animals everywhere. They can endure amazing amount of pain, if they have to.

Topic:

Vietnam War

Address to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1971

First published in Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Institute of Arts and Letters as
“The Happiest Day in the Life of My Father”

I was taught how to measure the size of the brain of a human being who had been dead a long time, who was all dried out. I bored a hole in his skull, and I filled it with grains of polished rice. Then I emptied the rice into a graduated cylinder. I found this tedious.

I switched to archaeology, and I learned something I already knew: that man had been a maker and smasher of crockery since the dawn of time. And I went to my faculty adviser, and I confessed that science did not charm me, that I longed for poetry instead. I was depressed. I knew my wife and my father would want to kill me, if I went into poetry.

My adviser smiled. “How would you like to study poetry which pretends to be scientific?” he asked me.

“Is such a thing possible?” I said.

He shook my hand. “Welcome to the field of social or cultural anthropology,” he said.

Here is what women really want: They want lives in folk societies, wherein everyone is a friendly relative, and no act or object is without holiness. Chemicals make them want that. Chemicals make us all want that.

Chemicals make us furious when we are treated as things rather than persons.

Compare to:

Terry Pratchett

text checked (see note) Apr 2009

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