Kurt Vonnegut’s Message: You’ve Got To Be Kind

Kurt Vonnegut, whose enjoyably experimental novels vastly increased my appetite for literature when I was a kid, has died at the age of 84.

A thoroughly political and philosophical writer, Kurt Vonnegut argued zealously for the place of human kindness amid the crushing tumult of modern life. His literary expressions of this messsage were sometimes simple, sometimes repetitive — not because his intellect was limited, but because his conviction on this point was massive. “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'”

Who knows whether or not the Vonnegut Message was crystallized during the firebombing of Dresden, Germany during World War II, which he witnessed and wrote about in Slaughterhouse-Five? This coincidence of history gave him a personal vision of all-consuming hell on earth. The surreal horror of Dresden must have been magnified by the fact that Vonnegut was a German-American held as prisoner by enemy Germans underneath the city as it burned (he worked out many of his contradictory feelings about war, about violence, about human stupidity in novels like Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater).

My first favorite Vonnegut novel was Breakfast of Champions, in which a cloddish car dealer named Dwayne Hoover becomes convinced that other humans have no feelings, that he is the only sentient being on earth. This book exemplifies Vonnegut’s freewheeling and highly personal prose style, complete (in this case) with childish illustrations designed to puncture any sense of pretension or grandeur regarding the novel form.

Another early favorite of mine was Welcome to the Monkey House, a highly accessible collection of stories. The title story involves a monkey in a zoo whose scandalous sexual behavior shocks a prudish parent.

Slapstick is considered “late-period” Vonnegut and is often not listed among his best books, but this sad apocalyptic satire has always stuck with me. In a decimated future Earth, survivors desperately try to reconnect with the distant human capacity for love by forming into arbitrary “tribes” with names like Oyster, Hollyhock, Daffodil, Amoeba, Beryllium, Watermelon, Chickadee, Helium and Strawberry. If you meet someone who belongs to the same tribe, you’re supposed to be nice to that person.

Close Slapstick, and we’re back in reality, where humanity divides itself into tribes called American, Mexican, French, Russian, Chinese, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Sunni, Shiite, Liberal, Conservative. The slapstick is all around us. The master satirist is gone, and the player piano plays on.

14 Responses

  1. Back When Kurt Vonnegut
    Back When Kurt Vonnegut Ran

    the Greencastle 7-11…

    This sort of makes me sad — for no real reason other than Vonnegut seemed to be the sort of person whose ways complimented his thoughts which fit nicely, strongly, yet unassumingly into a world that often makes no sense. It was kind of cool to think he was still out there rascaling around. I’ve never read much Vonnegut, so perhaps I am not qualified to give a eulogy, however as a native son of my home state, Vonnegut embodied many of the overlooked and underappreciated characteristics that made many a Hoosier proud.

  2. thank you, leviThis
    thank you, levi

    This contemplative piece about Vonnegut gives a masterful salute to someone so important to me and perhaps all of my generation.

    His wit, sense of the absurd and accessible metaphor was a catalyst for me, running ravenous through his books and searching other modern writers for that incredible joy of hearing a voice that makes sense.

    Cat’s Cradle was the first book that fell into my hands and later as it passed from friend to friend returned to me slightly bloodied by sibling rivals. So, it remains in my memory as a doorway to the ‘real world.’ (‘a bad idea’)

    Thanks, Levi, for the excellent overview and your graceful personal reflection.

  3. advice to writersI remember
    advice to writers

    I remember going to a lecture Vonnegut gave (turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience) and he was energetic and funny and and he’d talk talk talk talk talk and then bam! say something incredibly sharp. What a guy. I’m sorry that he’s gone.

    My favorite thing he said was some advice he gave to writers (I’ve written about this here before, I’m sure). “Don’t use semicolons,” he said, and then explained that they were pointless, show-off punctuation. “They don’t stand for anything. They’re transvestite hermaphrodites.”

    I still use semicolons, but every time I do, I think of him and I probably will forever.

  4. A Passing EraOr something
    A Passing Era

    Or something like that. The death of Kurt Vonnegut, a hero of mine in grad school, reminds me not only that time is passing, but that things are changing, big-time. Vonnegut wrote a few years ago that he was one of the last of a type: a writer of literary novels that could become big sellers. I believe he included Mailer and Gore Vidal others in this category.

    In the mid fifties, rock music wiped out good music in a couple of years; the passing of good fiction has taken longer, but the result is just as deadly.

    Vonnegut was a wildly uneven writer. He admitted that, after a certain point, nobody edited his worko – anything he completed went straight to the printer. And he knew that this was not good. My favorite V’s are Cat’s Cradle, The Sirens of Titan, and Bluebeard (a little-known gem).

    What can I say? I’m sad.

  5. A lot of people didn’t like
    A lot of people didn’t like his novel, Hocus Pocus, but I really enjoyed it. A college professor gets fired from the college and gets a job across the lake, teaching in a prison. The college takes on aspects of a prison and vice versa (at least that’s the way I remember it).

  6. LoveLike two sides of a coin

    Like two sides of a coin are thought and action.

    Kurt Vonnegut’s statement,
    “You’ve got to be kind”
    pretty much translates into
    “Treat others how you would want to be treated”
    which pretty much translates to
    “Love your neighbor.”

    Summer of Love – not just a slogan to Vonnegut.

    Heads or tails,
    Love never fails.

    Coin trick.
    Hocus Pocus.

  7. I am actually crying…Inside
    I am actually crying…

    Inside and out.

    I always called him “Uncle Kurt.”

  8. unstuck in time…I just
    unstuck in time…

    I just heard a quote on the TV as I was trying to think of how to share my take on how Vonnegut seemed to have explored death, and his own demise, and worked that out long ago.

    “The difference between the tragic and tragedy is inevitability.”

    I can’t say I really feel his death was either tragedy or tragic because he seemed comfortable with his own inevitable death. My impression is that Vonnegut had a pretty healthy outlook on death and the cycle of life, despite or because of Dresden.

    I suspect he might have liked to have gone like Billie Pilgrim, who, if I recall correctly, lived his life knowing when and where he’d die, accepting the inevitable was coming for much of his life and not trying to avoid it. He knew it was coming, and I’m sure he was waiting for it and accepting of the inevitibility.

    I don’t imagine he’d have wanted to go in a hospital bed on tubes, or kept alive any longer than he was meant to be here. If he was conscious in his last moments I picture him embracing death with a chuckle while saying to himself “so this is how it finally ends.”

    I have only vague memories of Slaughterhouse Five, both the book and the movie, and it’s the work that I think of most despite having read all the others because it’s the one that had a strong impact on me early in life.

    I think of him bouncing back and forth between the future and the past, living to die. I think it was, in a way, my introduction to the surreal reality of the horror of war and human atrocities back when I was ten to twelve years old. It taught me a lot about life and death.

    The way IMDB puts it seems fitting:

    ‘”Listen: Billie Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” The opening words of the famous novel are the quickest summary of this haunting, funny film.’

    The parts that took place off-planet were some of the earliest surreal scenes that stick in my mind. Something I initially thought was supposed to be a science fiction flick unfolded with views of Dresden I’ll never forget… and his take on the way that memory plays a role in creating a fragmented continuity in life filled with places we go inside our heads, haunted by our pasts and futures.

    I spent much of my childhood trying to project myself into the future only to now find my memories are vague and fleeting of the childhood that seemed too slow, and of the times I was wishing would pass. Every once in a while I have a sudden memory of some street or place in my past, triggered by who knows what. The places and feelings come back more than the events in these recycled bytes of memory that seem randomly triggered. Somehow in wanting to be in the future I lost a good part of my past by not being there, and by being unstuck in time. I still bounce around like Billie in my mind.

    It’s perhaps a shame his body went when his mind was still so strong, but in a way I think that’s more appropriate than the lengthy decay and reduced quality of life that seems to drag down many who die of old age or “natural causes”.

    I remember seeing him on some TV show, within the last year or so, I think on the Daily Show or Bill Maher. He was still sharp witted, and very direct in his criticisms of the state of the world and humanity in an articulate way that shined. At least that’s the way I remember him.

    I went and poked YouTube looking for some clips and saw there’s some odd interview he did in virtual reality on Second Life last year, and it seems appropriate that he was captured there in an unreal world created in the minds of many. I didn’t have the patience last night to watch it but was satisfied with just seeing that a few clips of him exist in various stages in life, waiting for me when I’m in the mood to see and hear him talk again.

    I think that will be soon. But right now I’d rather let my memory carry me back to when I last saw and heard him speak.

    I can’t remember anything he said on the TV appearance I saw but thinking about it brings back how I felt listening to him, laughing but also cringing at the same time at some of the truths he spoke, wishing I had half the wit and way with words that he did.

    He lived a rich and full life and touched many others, and I suspect he’d rather be celebrated than mourned.

  9. An Anti-Glacier BookPart of
    An Anti-Glacier Book

    Part of the reading/writing experience: “this is the first good book I’ve ever read” or “this is the best book I’ve ever read.” I imagine a lot of Vonnegut fans feel that way, me too. He was the literary voice of a generation, or more. That’s something, perhaps, to touch many lives in a positive way.

    My anti-war book… Vonnegut said that’s like writing an anti-glacier book. I guess Al Gore did that one. But I would want people to listen, to clean their dirty glasses. We read Vonnegut in high school study hall, instead of studying. Now he’s dead, and what have we learned. Shock ‘n awe in Baghdad; when will they ever learn…

    I think of Kilgore Trout’s words “make me young again” meaning nothing thirty years ago. Nothing but that meaning anything, today. Maybe Vonnegut started something, didn’t finish it. But started that anti-glacier book, and left it for us to write.

  10. For Kurt VonnegutFor Kurt
    For Kurt Vonnegut

    For Kurt Vonnegut

    When this planet
    take a final gasp

    and the remaining
    life on earth is
    fixated on the

    death rattle,

    you will be


    unaware, sipping
    bourbon with
    Mark Twain.

    after 84 years
    of life
    and a death
    do we seem to require
    your peculiar
    moral outrage
    now more
    than ever?

    after 15 years
    of writing poetry
    have I decided
    to write this
    my worst
    most sentimental
    now, for someone
    I will miss so dearly,
    and never even knew.

    (And appended it to your
    name, no less.


  11. the wisdom to know the
    the wisdom to know the difference.

    Slaughterhouse Five was the first real novel I ever read and I found it amazing. Especially at that time encountering the “serenity prayer” before it became an overused AA cliche.

    I enjoyed the movie version of it too.

    Years later I listened to an engaging audiobook of the novel Galapogas.

    Two things struck me about that book and have stayed with me ever since. True or not.

    Firstly that all these psychological insights one accumulates about life are no more than baseball cards or bottletops.

    And second, that the decision of when to step into the blue light (of the after life, the narrator is a ghost) is a decision no one else can make for you but you.

    At least that is how I remember it.

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