We approach a sacred date, and I thought it might be time to talk about someone I loved very deeply. The porcelain above is from a city in Germany called Dresden. Dresden was part of Germany at a time when Germany was doing a terrible thing in the world, and the people who sought to stop it from doing that terrible thing thought one of the best things to do was to destroy the city. Not only did they bomb the city but they covered it in accelerant with the express purpose of burning it in hellfire. Some people were there and say that Dresden was used as a staging stop for troop movements and that it was important. Some other people, like Vonnegut, were there and say it was what it had always been, a town of delicate arts and porcelains that had little to do with the waging of war. Certainly, the timing of the attack seems a little strange; the war with Germany was all but over. The Germans had very few options left. Whatever the case, and whatever your point of view, the attack happened over three days and Vonnegut was there to see it. He would never argue the point. He would let the city’s art speak for itself. This is what they did in Dresden, he would say. This is what they destroyed in fire and flame and the deaths of so many civilians. It is interesting how different wars can be between then and now. The Germans went out of their way to save the lives of the American POWs, even as their own citizens ran burning in the streets.
Sometimes it costs too much to create a genius.
Part of what makes an artist true is the stamp of his personality on whatever he creates. Pick almost any of Vonnegut’s works, grab a line in isolation, and chances are it will ring of the man himself.
He knew how to say things simply, to drag the fat from a phrase until it stood so naked you were forced to look at it, to see its truth without filters. He tried to tell us what we are really like. Simply.
Almost everyone can be good. Almost everyone can be bad. People mostly want to belong. One of his characters created a law from which everyone inherited a family name so everyone, everywhere would have a big family. You could travel all over America and pick up a phone book with assurance that you had family there. He wanted us to be reassured. He knew that life was less a matter of good and evil than of simple unintended consequences, a result of failing to think things through. He might have said—though he never did—that Hitler turned to Goebbels once and said, “Oops. I’m not sure we thought things through.” Vonnegut might have said—though he never did—that it is harder to really hate someone capable of saying “oops.”
Look at the USA. We have been at war for some ten years or so. A decade. It seems like we have fought at least one war every decade I have been alive. Maybe we should look at all the other superpower countries that can make that claim.
It seems like everybody wastes a lot of energy on their facades these days. Vonnegut would not have cared for that. He would have understood it, but he wouldn’t have cared for it. The world has always had snark; the world has always had irony. Vonnegut would find it silly that someone would think irony was a life-style. What next, obsequity? Time will have a new cover: Americans embrace the new Digital Obsequity. Maybe it will be ironic obsequity and no one will understand it at all, especially its followers. That’s the sort of thing you expect from irony, yet somehow the ironists never see it coming.
If Vonnegut were here he’d say—though he never did—that it is socially inappropriate to pretend to any attitude you cannot honestly feel during orgasm. That should be the rule. No one ponders hateful, obsequious, ironic orgasms so just drop those facades when you go out in public and give yourself an orgasmic face. We’d be a happier, more peaceful nation. The President would always wear a wacky grin, or his face would be composed in a serene, releasing expression. Imagine a whole world with everyone walking around in full Meg Ryan all the time. Hi-ho!
I like to think that as I wrote that, Vonnegut sat up there in the Mermaid Tavern and cocked his head to listen to me type. I like to think he would approve. I could do worse than live my life trying to deserve the approval of people like Vonnegut. I probably never will, but I can try.
I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.
Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.
So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.
What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance.
And all music is.
Breakfast of Champions
by Kurt Vonnegut
Happy Birthday, Mr. Vonnegut. Some of us forget. Some of us do not. So it goes.