Kurt Vonnegut: Anarchist and Social Critic

Photograph Source: Son of Groucho – CC BY 2.0

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. “All you had to do was explain,” say the relieved people to their cultural hero, now convinced they have acquired one of the world’s masterpieces. “If artists would explain more people would like art more.” Though Vonnegut repeats that workers simply want an explanation, the cynic suspects cynicism in him too.

“Sometimes I think the people of the world are begging to understand. And to be understood by the United States. They want to be understood more than they want to be ‘freed’ by America. Actually the US encourages not seeing other peoples. Disregard for other peoples is a matter of education. Making money is the point. Don’t waste your time. Withhold your time from people who can’t reward you. This started when Reagan came along and did away with social help using tax monies that Roosevelt’s New Deal had introduced. So the poor are now up the creek! (This was 1985, before Iraq and Afghanistan and East Africa and the war on terrorism.) “And our intellectuals didn’t react at all to his re-election,” says the self-proclaimed Socialist-anarchist. “He ran unopposed.”

In Deadeye Dick a neutron bomb being transported along the Interstate goes off, killing 100,000 people of a town but leaving everything else intact. After the dead are buried under the parking lot for sanitary reasons, the question is what to do with the contaminated area. Someone proposes moving Haitian immigrants there. The point is that Vonnegut’s technological society needs the workers but it cares even less for non-Americans than for its own citizens.

“I’m convinced that slavery will come back, and Haitians were after all once slaves. With all the automation, society needs slaves. One will perhaps have the option of selling one’s services for long periods, thirty years, or for life. There will be many takers. Like the Asians and Mexicans who work here now for less than minimum wages.”

Americans who make their lives abroad see this generalized blindness to other peoples in their fellow Americans quite clearly. Vonnegut must be right: it’s education … and the brainwash and spin, too. American Tourism to Europe and Asia and South America to photograph the natives doesn’t correct the blindness.

We’re drinking scotch and black coffee and chain smoking in the kitchen of his unpretentious but large and expensive townhouse—four stories, with garden—in a swanky area of Manhattan. A cold wind is blowing down from among new high-rise buildings. Long Vonnegut in baggy pants and wool shirt is sprawled on an iron garden chair, drawling out his witticisms, descriptions and pronouncements, having fun at the expense of everyone—himself, me, us and them—the artist and social critic and performer, too. He runs his slim delicate fingers through long reddish hair and pulls nervously at his mustache. His talk has the quality of being quiet and breath-taking simultaneously..

“I am successful,” he stresses, returning again and again to the money thing. “Privileged. When I was young and working for General Electric I was a hostage of society because I had six children. Now I’m free because I have money. I don’t like the privileged class, in the same way I will always resent the officers class. I was a private during the war and saw an infantry division wiped out its first time in combat because it was poorly led. Like America is poorly led today.”

Like many writers, Vonnegut said that writing for him was a way to rebel against his parents’ life style. He claimed he chose writing because he wrote better than he painted, and because you have to do something to make your mark. He liked writing for newspapers because of the immediate feedback. Journalists are as vain as novelists and find it rewarding to write an article in the evening and see it in print the next day.

“You can’t help but look back wistfully to the days of Bellini and Leonardo da Vinci who worked in many arts. There are so many things to do today that we don’t have the time to dedicate ourselves wholly to the arts. Still, I believe in the arts. My children say I dance well. I can shag and that’s mysterious to the young. I can jitterbug and that impresses them. And I play the clarinet lovingly. In general the arts have held up well in catastrophic situations. Yet there are preferences. It’s true that painters like to paint and writers hate to write. Putting paint on a canvas is fun and is easy. You don’t even have to finish it. After six strokes you have a painting. At that point you can frame it and hang it. Maybe that’s why writers like to paint and draw. Norman Mailer is a good drawer. Tennessee Williams does good watercolors. Henry Miller is the best writer-painter I have known. Poetry too is fast. That’s why poets have so much time to sit around cafés and talk. But the novelist is always busy, sitting at a typewriter like a stenographer, which is boring and lonely.

“My book, Breakfast of Champions, is about art. Art should be refreshing to everyone. But many artists are in league with the rich to make the poor feel dumb, like all the galleries downtown with walls covered in dots and blank whites. The rich organize art in such a way as to prove they have different souls from the poor, to give a biological justification to their status. Mystification is the secret. Ruling classes find it politically useful that workers can’t understand the pictures in the galleries. Inaccessible art grew out of industrialization. In the Renaissance art was of the people.”

Vonnegut’s heroes are outsiders, the rebels in big organizations who think the system is wrong and maybe want to change it. In a wacky and comical way he depicts the hopeless and sad human condition. His heroes care about involvement. Yet they are helpless. They have little power to decide anything.

“No man is in control,” he murmurs. “People are just born on this planet and are immediately hit over the head and yelled at. Ten per cent of the world’s children are abused. So what chance does man have? My own success is like an American dream. I’m prosperous. I can see how it worked for me. I’m convinced we’re all programmed in a certain way. Still, big bureaucracy appalls me. Gore Vidal was right that this is the only country in the world that does nothing for its citizens. Jobs don’t go around. The auto industry is laying people off. Still, I have to say that working on the assembly line is better than doing nothing at all. But the problem is we’re just not useful anymore.

“While the people lament gasoline prices and call for small cars, Detroit turns out bigger cars and lays off workers. The people eat macrobiotic foods and squirt chemicals up their assholes and swallow exotic anti-hemorrhoid salves.”

He speaks of the people! Not the people in his beloved New York. His settings are the wide expanses of America. Where the really funny, mad things happen. A world so far from Europe as to be incredible. A world that baffles Europeans.

After his wife had glanced in a couple times to check on the scotch level and after he told me he never gave interviews to the American press, only to Europeans, and pouring more scotch he said that interviews were hard work. I asked about his statement in a recent book that people and nations have their story that ends, after which it’s all epilogue. Vonnegut intimated that the US story ended after World War II.

“That was only a joke,” he said wryly, smiling sheepishly.

“It didn’t sound like a joke. It sounded quite serious.”

“Well” (reluctantly, perhaps not wanting to appear too critical of the USA to the European public), “the United States story will become epilogue unless it succeeds in renewing itself. Like a play peters out if it slows down and has nothing else to say. One must invent new themes for development. Economic justice is one such theme that would make our first two hundred years seem like only Act I. That would become Act II. If that theme is not developed, then our story peters out. Our legal justice would then become mockery. Remember the old quip: ‘It’s no disgrace to be poor but it might as well be.’

“In the Constitution there is nothing about economic justice, only the legal utopia. The Bill of Rights is a utopia. We have laws that violate the Constitution. It’s now time to start thinking about social fairness. Our superstar leaders deal with billions of dollars and we have individuals richer than the whole state of Wyoming. The military-industrial complex is robbing us blind to pay for sensitive weapons that don’t work in the dark or under 50°. We can’t possibly understand all that crap. Compare the arms manufacturers to the salesmen of snake eye in the frontier days. In the 1930s we had Eugene Debs who labeled arms manufacturers ‘merchants of death’. Then the crooks took over the labor unions and we have nothing left today so that I don’t have a banner to which I can adhere. And the same type of people are on top in our society today, selling their quack remedies, to protect us against the dread disease of Communism. And that’s what I say in my annual lectures at ten universities. I would like to see that change.

“Yet people don’t give a damn about anything. Few care what we pour into the world every day. Few care if we go to war. People are embarrassed about life and don’t care if it all ends. Humans have decided that the experiment of life is a failure.”

One of his characters speaks of being born like a disease: “I have caught life. I have come down with life.” Speaking about experiencing the destruction of Dresden, a city of beauty like Paris, Vonnegut said he was the only one there who found it remarkable that it all went up in smoke. “Not even the Germans seemed to care.”

The scotch flowed. The kitchen was blue with smoke. If I’d not been recording our talk little would have remained. At one point he said “doodley-squat.” He loved those sounds, spicing his novels liberally with skeedee wah, skeedee wo. At critical moments his heroes mumble in skat talk of the jazz era, skeedee beep, zang reepa dop, singing a few bars to chase the blues away. Then, yump-yump, tiddle-taddle, ra-a-a-a, yump-yump-boom. And abbreviations Ramjac, epicac and euphic. Onomatopeic and symbolic nonsense. Doodley-squat for the nothing at all the poor don’t have.

It all sounded OK in the smoky blue kitchen over scotch. Later I wondered what those sounds mean. Futuristic concepts? Or sounds of joy or despair? The voice of truth? Or just social chatter? Escape or mere foolishness? Is he writer or entertainer?

Any agreement on the basis of friendliness obliterates ideas and thinking. What about that?”

“Yes, I wrote that. The stupid performance of man and his degeneration are possible because no one is thinking. There has been a warm brotherhood of stupidity. What do words mean anyway? The old Hollywood joke is expressive:

Question: How do you say, ‘fuck yourself?’

Answer: ‘Trust me.’”