The master of irreverence on life, death, God, humanism, and the souls of aspiring artists
In Kurt Vonnegut's newest book, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, the intrepid author boldly crosses the threshold between life and death. Into the blue tunnel and through the pearly gates forges Vonnegut in search of precious interviews with post-mortems, from James Earl Ray and Eugene Victor Debs to William Shakespeare and Kilgore Trout. At the outset of this fictional narrative, the author of Slaughterhouse Five, Cat's Cradle, and Breakfast of Champions writes "My first near-death experience was an accident, a botched anesthesia during a triple-bypass." He finds the event so fascinating that he decides to elicit the assistance of Dr. Kevorkian in order to explore the afterlife and report his findings to a humanity so deathly afraid of death. Vonnegut's accounts, which were originally composed as three-minute bits on WNYC public radio, are all relatively short and lighthearted, but still intertwine social commentary and pointed comedy in the same way that his readers have long loved.
The Harvard Crimson had scheduled an interview with Mr. Vonnegut in February to discuss this book of fictional near-death experiences. However, only a few days before, the author's apartment in New York City caught on fire, hospitalizing him in critical condition with severe smoke inhalation. During the fire, he claims to have had his second non-fictional near-death experience, jokingly describing the event as "the railroad train to the afterlife." Three months later, we finally talk with a fully recovered Vonnegut about life, death, and everything in between.
The Harvard Crimson: We had tentatively scheduled an interview in February, but then a fire in your apartment hospitalized you for some time. How are you feeling right now?
Kurt Vonnegut: Fine, thank you. I am quite recovered. It was almost a near-death experience. Things weren't going so well for a little while, but I feel strong again.
THC: In this near death experience, did you ever see the "blue tunnel to the pearly white gates of the afterlife" that you describe in God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian and many of your other books?
KV: Well, when I was overcome by smoke inhalation, I was surprised to find that I did not hallucinate the blue tunnel. Instead, it was a passenger train-it made for a little less walking.
THC: Were you in first class?
KV: [Laughs] First class would be nice, but there were not classes on this train.
THC: In your newest book, you travel between the real world and the afterlife interviewing dead people. If you could pick your own afterlife, what would it be?
KV: That's a hard question, not one that a humanist concerns himself with too often. I guess it would be near water. But not just any water-it would have to be on a Great Lake. I can't stand salt water. It takes like chicken soup. You live out east, huh? Don't you get sick of the salt water?
THC: Well, I try not to drink it too often.
KV: I have another question for you. Have you read Shakespeare's Winter's Tale? Is it worth the time?
THC: Yes, I highly recommend it. It is one of his best and most realistic comedies, but there are some interesting tragic elements. Do you have any summer reading selections for me?
KV: Yes, you must read Candide by Voltaire. Voltaire was a freethinker like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and others, although they did not go by that name. Today freethinkers like myself and my family go by the name humanists. I'll tell you an interesting story about Voltaire. He was a landowner who had many employees, almost all Roman Catholics. Despite the fact that his humanism was skeptical of the existence of God, he never said anything to his workers to make them skeptical. Voltaire knew, respected, and valued how comforting religion was for them. He kept his humanist conversation within small circles of intellectuals.
THC: Have you been a humanist all of your life? Does humanism preclude the possibility that there is a God?
KV: I'll say this line slowly so you can get it down word for word: Only a person of deep faith can afford the luxury of skepticism. Pretty good one, huh? Some people are just not willing to accept whatever evangelists say to be truth. My family came to America after the Civil War as freethinkers from Germany. They were speculators too, and wanted to get rich. But they also wanted to have their state defined by the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. The concept of freethinker was so specifically German, and thus it became unpopular after the Anti-German backlashes during and after WWI and WWII, when all German enthusiasms became unpopular. To survive, free thinkers became Unitarians-and then humanists. God has not made himself known to us, and thus we expect no rewards and punishments in an afterlife. In our lives, we do our best to serve our community well, behave decently, and treat people well. The biggest advantages of Christianity are the congregations, which can serve as expanded families and close-knit communities.
THC: You returned to Dresden recently in October of 1998, where you narrowly survived a firebombing that killed hundreds of thousands. The location was also central to Slaughterhouse Five. How do humanists look at such events?
KV: If I were a religious person, my first question would be "Where the hell is God?" But I never expected him to be on the job.
THC: If you were to find God in the afterlife, what question would you ask?
KV: Well, if I really do take a railroad train to the afterlife, I would have no idea how to speak directly to him. It would be like talking to Shakespeare. How could I compete with God or him? I guess I would turn to Ben Franklin and ask him "How do you fucking talk to God?" [Laughs]
THC: You have said many times in your books that Eugene Debs is a hero of yours. I actually was up all night writing a paper about punishment and prisons, and I used quite a few quotes from Debs. Do you think there is any hope for the socialist movement outside of small, liberal, intellectual societies?
KV: I'll tell you what makes socialism stick in people's craw, and politicians always use it to their advantage: Marx's statement "religion is the opiate of the masses." Of course, he did not mean this is a negative way. Hell, Marx benefited from a variety of opiates all of his life, including lots of opium. Americans do not want to have their religion challenge by the state, but Marx had no such thoughts or intentions. And the media propagates this fear. You ask any journalist to recite a quote from Marx, and that is what they will say. The truth is, that is the only one they usually know. Unfortunately, you get someone like Stalin or Castro, who use Marx's words as an excuse to shut down churches, and then people believe that is what socialism is all about, which it certainly is not.
THC: The phrase "Hell is other people" comes up a couple times in God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian. Do you believe this quote from Sartre to be true?
KV: Well, I would revise it to "inconvenience is other people." I was giving a speech a while ago, and a woman asked if it was a terrible thing to bring a baby into a world this bad. I would say it is still a wonderful thing. What makes life worth living are the saints I meet-they can be long-time friends or someone I meet on a street. They find a way to behave decently in an indecent society.
THC: On that note, let's talk about the indecent society known as Harvard. You mention Harvard often in your books, and from what I understand you taught creative writing here briefly. How was that experience? Do you think someone can be taught how to be a great creative writer? If you were to give me a word of advice on how to be a great writer, what would it be?
KV: I taught at Harvard for one year, and it was enjoyable. The students were very talented individuals. Anyone who gets into Harvard doesn't need much instruction anyway. But teaching, no matter how you do it and who you teach, is always quite rewarding. As far as being a great writer, that is not the only purpose of writing. The real goal is to make your soul go, not to make a living. Practicing art, even in a mediocre way, can make the soul go. The most interesting writers are not those that take extensive writing classes, but those that put their soul into their writing.
THC: Which one of your books is closest to you?
KV: Well, my flagship is Cat's Cradle. One guy told me that his three favorite books all have "Cat" in their title: Catch 22, Catcher in the Rye, Cat's Cradle.
THC: That's a favorite for many of your readers. What makes it so special?
KV: It has certainly been a successful ship, and it's beautifully constructed. I often ask myself where it all came from. Reminds me of a man named Ted who we hired to fix our house on Cape Cod after it was nearly destroyed in a storm. He poured the concrete for the foundation, built the side walls, built the siding, constructed the roof, installed the windows, and everything else. When he was done, he called him me out and asked if I liked it. He did a great job, and while he was looking at the house as a whole, he turned to me and said, "How the fuck did I do that?" That is how I feel about many of my books.
THC: People also say that same phrase about the bad things they do.
KV: Of course! That is what Mother Night is about. The main character keeps saying, while he describes his actions, "That is not really me." So many Germans said the exact same things after WWII and the Holocaust. "That wasn't me."
THC: For me, one of the most powerful moments in your books is at the end of Breakfast of Champions, when you speak to Kilgore Trout directly and tell him that you are his creator. Trout's only reply was "Make me young!" If you could choose what age you could be forever, what age would it be?
KV: For a man, the best age to be is 44. That's when people finally take you seriously. If you ask women that, they are often insulted and say it is a sexist question. They believe that men insist the obvious answer is when they were most beautiful. But here is an interesting observation. If you ask a pretty woman over thirty how many times she has been head over heels in love, you will find that they almost always say three.
THC: I'll have to give that one a try.
KV: [Laughs] Well, you might not find it to be true. I have been full of shit before.
THE BEST VONNEGUT YOU'VE NEVER READ: SIRENS OF TITAN (1959) SLAPSTICK (1976) DEADEYE DICK (1982) GALAPAGOS (1985) BLUEBEARD (1987) HOCUS POCUS (1990) TIMEQUAKE (1994)
SIRENS OF TITAN (1959) SLAPSTICK (1976) DEADEYE DICK (1982) GALAPAGOS (1985) BLUEBEARD (1987)
HOCUS POCUS (1990) TIMEQUAKE (1994)