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Novelist Kurt Vonnegut Sunday described the characteristics of dignity before an audience of 600 at the First Parish Church in Harvard Square.
"Dignity is something human beings give to each other," Vonnegut said. Nevertheless, he filled his 15-minute address with characteristic, self-deprecating humor.
"This is a dream," he said, blinking at a crowd that included prominent local ministers and novelist John Updike '54. "And now that it's time for me to speak, I have nothing to say--doobie doobie do."
Vonnegut was the main speaker at a Cambridge Forum celebrating the 200th birthday of William Ellery Channing, a Cambridge minister who led abolitionist movements in the 1840s.
Clearly unwilling to preach about "moral dignity," Vonnegut instead spoke in parables and metaphors. Channing lived in America's close-knit "folk society," Vonnegut said. It was an "American Atlantis, swamped by the waves of immigrants."
In Channing's Cambridge, people needed permission from their minister to believe that Harvard was not the center of the universe, Vonnegut said. "Some people still have that problem," he added.
"Dignity can't buy anything but relief from hopelessness," he continued more solemnly, nothing that dignity always commands respect.
"If we call the planet dignified, we have to treat it with dignity, the way Channing treated his parishioners," Vonnegut said. "And we still have our missiles if my suggestion is no good," he deadpanned.
Later Vonnegut, who claimed a history of agnosticism, briefly discussed religion, calling it an escape from loneliness.
He then turned to love. "Love is... Love was...," he began haltingly. "Love was invented by a chef at the Brown Derby in Hollywood in 1939. It is traditionally served in a purple bowl."
"Love is a rotten substitute for respect, as any married person knows," he added.
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