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by David Hoppe May / June 2003

Few American writers since World War II have engaged the political issues of the times quite like Kurt Vonnegut, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find that the author of such gems as Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions is still challenging conventional wisdom at the age of 80. In this interview, Vonnegut holds forth on a variety of topics, from the “psychopathic personalities” who have conquered modern America to the role that satire might play in stopping them.

Asked how he’s doing, Kurt Vonnegut says, “I’m mad about being old and I’m mad about being American. Apart from that, OK.” Vonnegut just turned 80. Although the beloved novelist claims he’s retired from writing, he continues to be a cultural presence, speaking out against war with Iraq to protesters at a rally in New York’s Central Park and making a spoken-word contribution to the new multimedia world music production One Giant Leap.

As extraordinarily popular as Vonnegut’s work has been—virtually everything he’s written is still in print—he’s hardly a bringer of reassuring tidings. History, he seems to suggest, is important not as the philosopher George Santayana claimed, so that we can avoid the mistakes of the past, but as a predictor of what we corrupt souls are likely to do to one another in the future.

Vonnegut, after all, is an avant-garde artist, whose “aggressively unconventional” (his words) approach to storytelling probably would put readers off if it weren’t for the wryly aphoristic, conversational tone of his novels. Born in Indianapolis and a veteran of World War II, he has said he learned to write the way he talks by having to phone in stories during his days as a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago.

Vonnegut recently took time to talk about how he thinks things are going these days:

Right after the Gulf War against Iraq in 1991, you remarked on television footage you’d seen of Iraqi soldiers who had been taken prisoner, saying, “Those men are my brothers.”

All soldiers are.

And here we are on the brink of another war with Iraq.

I don’t want to belong to a country that attacks little countries. I wrote a piece for Seven Stories Press here in New York. They’re about to publish a book of anti-war posters by a guy nobody’s heard of before. He’s a pretty good artist and so I was asked to write a piece for it. Would you like me to read it?


(Reading) “These anti-war posters by Micah Ian Wright are reminiscent in spirit of works by artists like Kathe Kollwitz and Georg Grosz during the 1920s, when it was becoming ever more evident that the infant German democracy was about to be murdered by psychopathic personalities—hereinafter P.P.s—the medical term for smart, personable people who have no conscience. P.P.s are fully aware of how much suffering their actions will inflict on others but do not care. They cannot care.

“The classic medical text about how such attractive leaders bring us into unspeakable calamities is The Mask of Sanity by Hervey Cleckley. An American P.P. at the head of a corporation, for example, could enrich himself by ruining his employees and investors and still feel as pure as the driven snow. A P.P., should he attain a post near the top of our federal government, might feel that taking the country into an endless war with casualties in the millions was simply something decisive to do today.”

What’s become of conscience?

Again, as Cleckley says, these people are around and do rise. Women are attracted to them. I mean, this is a defect, but women are attracted to them because they are so confident. They really don’t give a fuck what happens—not even to themselves. But this is a serious defect and, no, we haven’t been invaded and conquered by Martians. We have been conquered by psychopathic personalities who are attractive.

Has television played a part in this?

We have no idea what technology has done to us. Last night I went to a party for Gordon Parks, a black genius. Walter Cronkite was there. Cronkite’s an old friend. I said to him, “You know, the country you did so much to shape seems so shapeless now.” One thing about TV is you don’t have to do anything.

We become spectators.

Yes. And that’s enough. We’re thanked for that: “Thank you for watching . . .” (laughs)

Ratings are becoming more important than votes.

Well, technology has fucked us up in many ways. The computer revolution has allowed white-collar criminals to do what the Mob would have loved to do—put a pawnshop and a loan shark in every home!

You’ve talked about how the Bush administration seems driven by revenge.

It’s a story to tell. He’s in the same business I’m in. He’s telling stories. It turns out this is the simplest of all stories to tell. I mean, I want to hold attention when I write something. What he wants to be is interesting. And revenge is interesting. Two radical ideas have been introduced into human thought. One of them is that energy and matter are pretty much the same sort of stuff. That’s Einstein. The other is that revenge is a bad idea. Revenge is an enormously popular idea but, of course, Jesus came along with the radical idea of forgiveness. If you’re insulted, you have to square accounts. So this invention by Jesus is as radical as Einstein’s.

You’ve placed a high premium on what you call decency. One kid said he had the key to all my books and he put it in a sentence. He said, “Love may fail but courtesy will prevail.” Love does fail all the time, you know, and it makes people vicious.

That’s interesting because it seems that psychopathic personalities tend to give courtesy a bad rap. They find it weak.

They are decisive. They are gonna do something every fuckin’ day and they are not afraid.

Powers Hapgood was an internationally known Indianapolis radical and socialist. You met him, didn’t you?

Oh, yes. He was an official of the CIO then. He was a typical Hoosier idealist. Socialism is idealistic. Think of [Socialist Party leader] Eugene Debs from Terre Haute. What Debs said echoes the Sermon on the Mount: “While there is a lower class, I am in it. While there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

Now why can’t the religious right recognize that as a paraphrase of the Sermon on the Mount? Hapgood and Debs were both middle-class people who thought there could be more economic justice in this country. They wanted a better country, that’s all. Hapgood was testifying in court in Indianapolis about some picket-line dust-up connected with the CIO and the judge stopped everything. He said, “Mr. Hapgood, here you are; you’re a graduate of Harvard and you own a successful business. Why would anyone with your advantages choose to live as you have?” Powers Hapgood actually became a coal miner for a while. His answer to the judge was great: “The Sermon on the Mount, sir.”

My God, the religious right will not acknowledge what a merciful person Jesus was.

You’ve used satire as a tool to defend against the world’s insanity. Can it also work to change things?

I guess it works some. Just telling people, “You are not alone. There are a lot of others who feel as you do.” We’re a terribly lonesome society. For all I know, all societies are. You can make a few new friends, that’s all. You can’t change history. History is happening to us now. George Bush has hydrogen bombs if he needs them. It really matters who’s around and who’s holding attention. I don’t think television will let anybody else hold attention.

Why is that?

During the Vietnam War, which lasted longer than any war we’ve ever been in—and which we lost—every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.

David Hoppe is associate/arts editor of Nuvo, an alternative weekly newspaper in Indianapolis. Excerpted from Nuvo. Subscriptions: $52/yr. (52 issues) from 3951 N. Meridian St., Suite 200, Indianapolis, IN 46208.

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