Sun Feb 05, 2006
re: Slaughterhouse '06
An Excerpt From
Last week, George Bush used his annual State Of The Union address to declare that his government is meeting its responsibility to provide healthcare for the poor and the elderly and spearheading a global quest for peace. Vonnegut’s stump speech states the opposite. In the land of his internal exile, corporate profiteers rule unchecked, extended families have been split into desperately vulnerable nuclear groups, “lethal injection and warfare are forms of entertainment” and Americans are “as feared and hated all over the world as the Nazis once were”.
When challenged about this last statement, Vonnegut repeats that US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and vice- president Dick Cheney are “jut-jawed, like Nazis” and argues that the main difference is that the Germans were justly feared for their military prowess.
“We have no army,” he says, “What makes us the most powerful nation on Earth is our willingness to kill people in their thousands with remote-controlled missiles, the fact that we’re prepared to set off nuclear explosions in the middle of unarmed people – men, women and children.
“Only one country has been crazy enough to set off a nuke in the middle of a civilian population. Did it twice, and that’s when members of my generation, soldiers, could see that ‘we’re not the good guys any more’. We were very careful not to hurt civilians.”
In his rage and despair he invokes the true guardians of America’s soul, quoting from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and Christ’s Sermon On The Mount. For a confirmed humanist, he mentions the Beatitudes surprisingly often, arguing that the President’s fundamentalist friends have forgotten the meek, the merciful, and the peacemakers.
Vonnegut once observed that he was at his funniest two days after Martin Luther King Jr was shot, because he was speaking to an audience “full of pain that they couldn’t do anything about … there was an enormous need to either laugh or cry”.
The punchline count is high in A Man Without A Country, as it has been in every one of his novels. On the first page he explains that, as the youngest child in a family of five, making jokes was the only way to get noticed in adult conversation. Reporting on the fall of Biafra in 1970, he noticed he still cracked wise as the Nigerian army approached, writing that “joking was my response to misery I couldn’t do anything about”.
Crucially, it has not been his only reflex. What elevates his work above gallows humour and exposes him as an idealist in pessimist’s clothing is his palpable compassion and the way in which he appeals to his readers’ better natures. “Practising any art is a way to make your soul grow,” he writes, and it is clear that this has been his own salvation. As we speak, he raises a glass : “To the arts.”
Later, when the food arrives, Vonnegut talks about the teacher who inspired him, James C Bean, reminding me that “the Great Depression was going on, and there were no good jobs, so it was a wonderful break to get to be a teacher or a mailman. Some of the best and smartest people in Indianapolis were teaching in school.
“All it takes is one great teacher,” he continues, and though he would never be so conceited as to admit it, he has evidently been that teacher, for his seven children, for students at various American universities, and for three generations of science-fiction fans.
What he has consistently taught is that art alone can rescue his homeland, through a series of personal revolutions. This belief in the transformative power of creativity is expressed beautifully in the preface to Wampeters, Foma, & Granfalloons (Opinions). “I now believe,” he writes, “that the only way in which Americans can rise above their ordinariness, can mature sufficiently to rescue themselves and to help rescue the planet, is through enthusiastic intimacy with works of their own imaginations.
“I am not especially satisfied with my own imaginative works, my fiction. I am simply impressed by the unexpected insights which shower down on me when my job is to imagine, as contrasted with the woodenly familiar ideas which clutter my desk when my job is to tell the truth.”
Category: appropriated material
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