God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut
The late author speaks on fossil fuels, imagination and the absurd life
I’m intrigued by your idea in A Man Without a Country that geniuses like Shakespeare and Einstein might have been plagiarizing the future.
We’re dumb about a lot of things, but I think we’re really stupid about time. I think the future has as much to do with the present as the past. With the shape of animals, for instance—evolution. Part of that is in the future. The big clue to me is about the second world war causing the first one because the first one was about absolutely nothing.
How do you think things are going these days?
Well, I think the game is over, probably. We have so damaged the environment and I think it will continue to decay and support less and less life. One title I considered for the book was The Fifty-First State—and I don’t mean Puerto Rico. I mean denial. What we’re denying is all the harm we’ve done with fossil fuels. I got here in 1922 and all this crazy shit was already going on. Gasoline. It was just more fucking fun and important than most people had ever had before. It was like crack cocaine. It was just so much fun. You could be a nobody and, Jesus, the next thing you know you could be going 60 to 70 miles per hour! I remember my mother got in an argument with my father one time—she jumped in the car.
She drove away.
It’s so easy. And the Republicans are the Don’t Stop the Party party. The party is about to end. Nobody has come up with any substitute for petroleum and this is really going to be something—maybe in the next year. Suddenly all the industrialized nations will become big junkyards.
Well, turning away from junkyards for a moment.
I don’t want to be the party pooper.
You write about loneliness in the book. What is it about Americans that makes us so lonely?
Everybody should have an extended family, the same way everybody should have vitamin C. People will do anything to get a family because that’s the survival unit. The extended family, that is. The nuclear family is no survival scheme whatsoever. It’s terribly vulnerable. The popularity of the Religious Right is that it’s a family. You can offer all sorts of families. It’s why the humanists aren’t more popular than they are—it’s because we don’t gather.
What can people do to sustain community?
Well, a lot of people are doing it through supposed Christianity. I was talking to one guy who was very bright. He said that a whole lot of people will join a political movement—feminism, pacifism—in order to get identity. And once they get that, they don’t work very hard for it.
At another point in the book, you say you don’t think people are born with imagination.
I think it is a feature of civilization. Of a very stable, settled life. I wouldn’t die for that idea, it just seems to me that’s right. Look, in order to enjoy the arts, you have to have an imagination. … You can take control of some people’s imaginations with nothing but ink and paper. It used to be worthwhile to learn to read and write in order to be entertained because there wasn’t that much going on. It was good news in England when a big, fat, new Dickens novel appeared because that’d take care of winter.
George Bush makes sense in a culture where the imagination has been diminished.
With the cooperation of television, too. A lot of things are too bad. A memorable thing that Albert Camus said was that life is absurd. I would call it ridiculous, if you look at it. Anyway, Camus said that life is so absurd there is only one major philosophical question.
And the question was?
Suicide. Either you kill yourself or you keep going, leading an absurd life. So that’s what we do. And he was lucky. He got killed in an automobile accident (laughs). I’ve certainly tried.
You’re not driving Saabs anymore.
No, I’m not driving anymore. I just don’t want to kill anybody.