The Best Jokes Are Dangerous, An Interview with Kurt Vonnegut, Part One .
BY J. Rentilly
Q: It is a weird moment in history, don’t you think?
Kurt Vonnegut: Well, my late brother Bernie, who was a great expert on weather — at one point he knew more about tornadoes than anybody else on the planet, I imagine — was always approached by people who knew his background and wanted him to be an expert about it. “Bernie, isn’t this weather unusual?” And he would say, “The weather is always unusual.” I mean, this is a very special time in history, but every time is.
Q: I enjoyed God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian very much.
Vonnegut: Well, that’s nice.
Q: You spend the entire book going back and forth between this mortal coil and the afterlife.
Vonnegut: Oh, it’s just a short book. A pamphlet, really.
Q: Well, in your pamphlet, then, you spend a good deal of time talking with the dead. What do you think we can learn from those who have bailed-out before us?
Vonnegut: Well, there were — or maybe there are — a number of dead people out there. [Laughs] It’s a very crowded place. There is a Beethoven and a Shakespeare and a Hitler and an entire family out there. But, fortunately, you don’t have to go to Heaven to talk to some of them. A lot of them have left us amazing things on paper, and so their lives persist here anyway. Wonderful words. Beautiful music. Stunning things that resonate. I am, as we talk, quoting Shakespeare. I’m writing about the death of eloquence. Eloquence was so ordinary back then, in the time of Shakespeare. In contrast to Shakespearean speech, I was watching one of those television talk shows the other night where people air their disagreements with other people. There is a scene in Othello where Iago wants to get Cassio drunk on alcohol and…. Well, wait. Do you want to hear it?
Vonnegut: Hold on. I’ll get it. [Long pause, papers shuffling] Okay. I’ve got it. So Iago says, “Come, lieutenant, I have a stoup of wine; and here without are a brace of Cyprus gallants that would fain have a measure to the health of black Othello.” Cassio turns down the drink and says, “Not tonight, good Iago; I have very poor and unhappy brains for drinking: I could well wish courtesy would invent some other custom of entertainment.” And then we get back to what I saw the other guy say on tv — well, I read his lips actually, because we don’t get anything real on our televisions. And this talk show guy said, “Fuck you — you know what I’m saying?” [Laughs] I just don’t think people get off on language anymore. Language used to be an elevated art. It used to be for people what music can be. But people don’t learn to do that anymore, so eloquence is merely a matter of waste now. Who needs a good vocabulary and proper English? Eloquence — it’s dead and who needs it? We use shorthand nowadays. Fuck you — you know what I’m saying? [Laughs]
Q: By way of eloquence, you’ve said that you write in the voice of a child. Do you think —
Vonnegut: Well, that makes me readable in high school. Not too many big sentences. But I hope that my ideas attract a lively dialogue, even if my sentences are simple. Simple sentences have always served me well. And I don’t use semicolons. It’s hard to read anyway, especially for high school kids. Also, I avoid irony, too. I don’t like people saying one thing and meaning the other.
Q: Do you think several hundred years from now, if we should have a planet then, that there could be, between the Shakespeare and the Beethoven, a couple Kurt Vonnegut books?
Vonnegut: I can only think of an experience I had back when I was working PR at General Electric. I worked with a man who had been married for some time and was about to become a father. GE had just begun offering reduced rates on insurance plans — life insurance, health insurance. I was looking everything over, wondering what I might get, and I asked him, “Aren’t you going to get some life insurance?” And he looked at me and said, “Why should I? I’ll be dead. What do I care what happens to them after I’m gone?” [Laughs] Is that scientific enough?
Q: One of the funny things about your book, Dr. Kevorkian is that its central conceit — conversations with dead people — could in theory extend forever and ever. We never run out of dead people. Any plans for another so-called pamphlet?
Vonnegut: No. I don’t think so. I did this one as a fundraiser for WNYC, a local public radio station. They asked me to come up with any kind of short bits that they could drop into their programming throughout the day, and I came up with this. I think they’ve made over $40,000 from this thing.
Q: So is this really the final book? Timequake was supposed to be your farewell, and then Dr. Kevorkian came along.
Vonnegut: I don’t fucking know. I keep thinking I’ll die. Why do you think I smoke so much?
Q: How many packs are you up to a day?
Vonnegut: Never mind. It’s none of your fucking business. Fuck off — you know what I’m saying?
Q: I know you’re an avowed Humanist. Yet in a lot of your work you play with the idea of an afterlife or a heaven.
Vonnegut: Well, anything’s possible, isn’t it? But we don’t have enough graduates of Cornell University’s Hotel School to take care of us all on the other side.
Q: So in Dr. Kevorkian you were sort of experimenting with the idea of Heaven without actually dying.
Vonnegut: I was just farting around. That’s all.
Q: At least two of your titles contain benedictions of sorts — God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Considering your Humanist views, is there irony there, or does it just feel good to say?
Vonnegut: Oh, no. God is a nice idea. [Pause] Saying “God bless you” just helps make the titles a little longer.
Q: In some of your writing, you’ve discussed how one of the most horrifying and tragic and terrifying hypocrisies at the center of life is that human beings don’t really like life. Do you think this is still true?
Vonnegut: This is why drugs are as pervasive as they are today. We’ve got thousands and thousands of people locked up in prisons for trafficking, and yet the stuff is available everywhere. High schools, junior high schools, probably retirement homes. Everybody knows somebody who’s either buying it or selling it.
Q: Have you ever simply wanted to stop living?
Vonnegut: Well, sure. I would have liked to have died on D-Day. That would have been class. Real class.
Q: It seems that life is fraught with so many real-life dangers anyway.
Vonnegut: Near-death experiences? I imagine so.
SUGGESTED READSThe Best Jokes Are Dangerous, An Interview with Kurt Vonnegut, Part Two.
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