Aggressively Unconventional: An Interview with Kurt Vonnegut
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.
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