Kurt Vonnegut: Letters

I had Kurt Vonnegut: Letters for Christmas and got through it in short order. I’ve only read two of his stories, Player Piano and Slaughterhouse-Five, but they made a big impression. His letters reveal a blunt human being, who occupies a space that encompasses someone who simply uses their skills to make a living and someone who is devoted to the art and craft of their work. He shows that the two aren’t necessarily incompatible. I want to share some bits that I thought were interesting.

To his daughter, Nanny Vonnegut (p.176)

Kurt wrote this while trying to repair his relationship with his youngest daughter, after he and his first wife (Jane) had parted.

You’re learning now that you do not inhabit a solid, reliable social structure – that the older people around you are worried, moody, goofy human beings who themselves were little kids only a few days ago. So home can fall apart and schools can fall apart, usually for childish reasons – and what have you got? A space wandered named Nan.

And that’s O.K. I’m a space wanderer named Kurt, and Jane’s a space wanderer named Jane, and so on. When things go well for days on end, it is an hilarious accident.

You are dismayed at having lost a year, maybe, because the school fell apart. Well – I feel as though I’ve lost the years since Slaughterhouse-Five was published, but that’s malarky. Those years weren’t lost. They simply weren’t the way I’d  planned them. Neither was the year in which Jim had to stay motionless in bed while he got over TB. Neither was the year in which Mark went crazy, then put himself together again. Those years were adventures. Planned years are not.

I look back on my own life, and I wouldn’t change anything, not even the times when I was raging drunk. I don’t drink much any more, by the way. And a screwy thing is happening, without any encouragement from anywhere –  I  am eating less and less meat.

I wish someone had told me this when I was in my teens. It would have made things a lot easier if someone had let me in on the secret that all these adult shaped people are just as potentially rudderless as you are. It’s something that’s embodied by the trend of ‘fully grown’ people saying ‘I don’t want to Adult today,’ as though Adult is a verb. It’s a neat recognition that adulthood; taking responsibility and direction for oneself is as much a performed role as anything else. Despite that, maturing into that role doesn’t suddenly negate the chaotic nature of life; we’re not smart enough to be able to predict and control life on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes changes happen that we can’t avoid, like getting TB, or discovering that less and less, without any encouragement, you are eating less meat. So it goes.

Although Kurt’s message is on point, I think his metaphor falls a little short. Space wanderer sounds so disconnected, floating through an empty void, no guidance or umbilical. I don’t think that’s quite right though; we have relationships with people, and with works of art that centre us in the great human endeavour of trying to understand our place in a constellation of varying view points.

To Nanny Vonnegut (p.214)

Another letter to his daughter, who he felt he didn’t see enough.

The second worst thing is that you see so little of us, so that we cease to be our actual selves to you and become creatures of your imagination.

I admire fiction, am amused and excited by the over-simplification of life it represents. I don’t want to become a character in fiction myself, however, and I want to get along very well with you. So you can do me an enormous favour by thinking of me as a person afloat in time, as you are, rather than as a character locked into the machinery of a fiction plot, with villains and temptresses and so on. The hell of it is that it is so easy to turn anybody’s life into some kind of story we have heard before. If I have money now, which I do, it is almost inevitable for people who don’t know me to project me into a clichéd tale about how the rich behave. I vanish, and the story lives on. I am a rich guy who abandons his wife to go to the big city and live in a town house and ride around in a Mercedes and live with the Wicked Witch of the East.

While literature is good at cementing our place amongst the rest of humanity, a little bit of connection with the rest of the human condition, the act of telling stories is an oversimplification and if done without the consistent reminder that these stories aren’t real, can lead to problems. Consider the news. The news constructs a narrative; the bare facts repeated one after another without linking would be incomprehensible and boring as hell, so a story is found that links together the facts. That story, though it may be an aspect, or facet of reality, can’t ever wholly reproduce reality objectively and accurately, only in part. If we have the same tendency to apply narratives  to the people in our lives, to turn them into characters instead of allowing them to be people, complex and multidimensional, we not only rob them of depth, but of agency.

To Nanny Vonnegut (p. 258)

About fear: I heard a Hindu holy man say at a lecture a couple of years ago that it was crucial to learn how to make decisions without allowing fear to become involved –  and that fear liked to hitch rides on all sorts of words and images. When fear intrudes on your thinking it may be an old fear, hitching a ride still, but one which need not really concern you any more. Example: If you do not perform brilliantly, your father will vanish from the lives of you and your mother again, and it will all be your fault somehow. That’s not true, of course, so you should scrape that fear off all sorts of words and images when you think. For one thing: I never left you. I would have had to leave the planet to do that.

Fear isn’t the only emotion that attaches itself to desires or actions and fouls them up. Want them too badly and the pressure to attain can kill your capacity to act competently. Fear has always been a big one for me, however. It’s nice to read it from someone who was very successful, and to know that other people have it too. This passage reminds me of The Litany Against Fear, from Dune.

To Bernard Vonnegut (Kurt’s Brother) p. 360.

Bernard wrote Kurt asking, to quote the editor ‘why paintings couldn’t be judged as art by their quality or lack of it without knowing anything about the artist.‘ His response sums up neatly how I feel about art, nearly to the exact sentiment. This is almost the full letter.

There are many good people who are beneficially stimulated by some but not all man-made arrangements of colours and shapes on flat surfaces, essentially nonsense. You are gratified by some music, arrangements of noises, again essentially nonsense.

If I were to kick a bucket down the cellar stairs and then say to you that the racket I’d made was philosophically on a par with The Magic Flute, this would not be the beginning of a long and pooping debate. An utterly satisfactory and complete response on your part would be, “I like what Mozart did and I hate what the bucket did.” Contemplating a purported work of art is a social activity. Either you have a good time or you don’t. You don’t have to say why afterwards. You don’t have to say anything.

You are a justly revered experimentalist. If you really want to know whether your pictures are, as you say, “art” or not, you must display them in a public place somewhere, and then try to judge whether or not strangers liked to look at them, were glad that you had made them. That is the way the game is played. Let me know what happens.

People capable of loving some paintings or etchings or whatever can rarely do this without knowing something about the artist. Again, the situation is social rather than scientific. Any work of art is one half a conversation between two human beings, and it helps a lot to know who is talking at you. Does he or she have a reputation for seriousness, or sincerity? There are virtually no beloved or respected  paintings made by persons of whom we know nothing. We can even surmise a lot about the lives of whoever did the paintings in the caves underneath Lascaux, France.

So I dare to suggest that no picture can attract serious attention without a human being attached to it in the viewer’s mind. If you are unwilling to attach your name to your pictures, and to say why you hope others might find them rewarding to look at, there goes the ballgame right there. Pictures are famous for their human-ness not their picture-ness.

There is also the matter of craftsmanship. Real picture lovers like to “play along,” so to speak, to look closely at the surface to see how the illusion was created by nothing but an unusual human being, with hands and eyes. If you are unwilling to say how you made your pictures, there goes the ballgame a second time.

The social context of art cannot be understated. Without human beings around to interpret and decode them, paintings and books are no more meaningful than rocks and leaves.


Relevantly, Kurt echoed many of the issues that today’s voters had during the American election last year.

Politics? I will vote Democratic because that is the most humane of the two parties, but not by much. The Clintons are shallow, opportunist Yuppies, but they are the only game in town. Doesn’t Dole make you ashamed to be a World War Two vet? What a crabby old poop!

Unfortunately for us, Kurt recognised something that many American voters seemed to have missed; that although the Democrats weren’t the best option, they were the most humane option. Compare that with today. Now we have to watch Donald Trump unleash his inhuman agenda on the planet. A very time for us space wanderers.

There are many other letters that I’d like to have shared with you but there’s not enough space. Kurt’s letters are interesting and funny; worth a read for anyone who is interested in the author or for fans of autobiography in general, especially considering that in comparison to other authors or stars, he led neither a glamorous or exciting life. The letters show a particularly personal life, filled with family, work, and living – a very human life.

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