A Man Without a Country, p.1Kurt Vonnegut
A Man without a Country
By the same author
The Sirens of Titan
Canary in a Cathouse
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater Welcome to the Monkey House Slaughterhouse-Five
Happy Birthday, Wanda June Between Time and Timbuktu Breakfast of Champions
Wampeters, Foma & Granfallons Slapstick
Fates Worse than Death
Bagombo Snuff Box
Like Shaking Hands With God (with Lee Stringer)
God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian
A Man without a Country
Edited by DANIEL SIMON
SEVEN STORIES PRESS
New York * London * Melbourne * Toronto
Copyright (c) 2005 by Kurt Vonnegut
Portions of the text of A Man without a Country appeared originally in In These Times magazine. The author's editor there, Joel Bleifuss, provided crucial editorial support of this project throughout. The pieces that appeared in the magazine then became the most visited parts of the In These Times website in the history of that publication.
Others who helped make this book a reality were Don Farber, Jill Krementz, David Shanks of Viking Penguin, and, at Seven Stories Press, Dan Simon, Jon Gilbert and Chris Peterson.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, by any means, including mechanical, electric, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
A man without a country/Kurt Vonnegut;
edited by Daniel Simon--1st ed.
1. Vonnegut, Kurt.
2. Authors, American--20th century--Biography.
3. United States--Politics and government--2001--
1. Simon, Daniel, 1957-11. Title.
As a kid I was the youngest
Do you know what a twerp is?
Here is a lesson in creative writing
I'm going to tell you some news
Okay, now let's have some fun
I have been called a Luddite
I turned eighty-two on November 11
Do you know what a humanist is?
Do unto others
A sappy woman from Ypsilanti
Now then, I have some good news
I used to be the owner and manager of an automobile dealership
There Is No Reason
I Want All Things to Make Some Sense
Funniest Joke in the World
Man in Hole
Boy Meets Girl
I Don't Know About You
That's How We Got Giraffes
We are Here on Earth to Fart Around
Do You Think Arabs Are Dumb?
The Highest Treason in the USA
We Do, Doodley Do
That's the End of Good News
What Can It Possibly Be
Life is No Way to Treat an Animal
Peculiar Travel Suggestions
Saab Dealership Self-portrait
My Father Said, "When in Doubt, Castle"
As a kid I was the youngest member of my family, and the youngest child in any family is always a jokemaker, because a joke is the only way he can enter into an adult conversation. My sister was five years older than I was, my brother was nine years older than I was, and my parents were both talkers. So at the dinner table when I was very young, I was boring to all those other people. They did not want to hear about the dumb childish news of my days. They wanted to talk about really important stuff that happened in high school or maybe in college or at work. So the only way I could get into a conversation was to say something funny. I think I must have done it accidentally at first, just accidentally made a pun that stopped the conversation, something of that sort. And then I found out that a joke was a way to break into an adult conversation.
I grew up at a time when comedy in this country was superb--it was the Great Depression. There were large numbers of absolutely top comedians on radio. And without intending to, I really studied them. I would listen to comedy at least an hour a night all through my youth, and I got very interested in what jokes were and how they worked.
When I'm being funny, I try not to offend. I don't think much of what I've done has been in really ghastly taste. I don't think I have embarrassed many people, or distressed them. The only shocks I use are an occasional obscene word. Some things aren't funny. I can't imagine a humorous book or skit about Auschwitz, for instance. And it's not possible for me to make a joke about the death of John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King. Otherwise I can't think of any subject that I would steer away from, that I could do nothing with. Total catastrophes are terribly amusing, as Voltaire demonstrated. You know, the Lisbon earthquake is funny.
I saw the destruction of Dresden. I saw the city before and then came out of an air-raid shelter and saw it afterward, and certainly one response was laughter. God knows, that's the soul seeking some relief.
Any subject is subject to laughter, and I suppose there was laughter of a very ghastly kind by victims in Auschwitz.
Humor is an almost physiological response to fear. Freud said that humor is a response to frustration--one of several. A dog, he said, when he can't get out a gate, will scratch and start digging and making meaningless gestures, perhaps growling or whatever, to deal with frustration or surprise or fear.
And a great deal of laughter is induced by fear. I was working on a funny television series years ago. We were trying to put a show together that, as a basic principle, mentioned death in every episode and that this ingredient would make any laughter deeper without the audience's realizing how we were inducing belly laughs.
There is a superficial sort of laughter. Bob Hope, for example, was not really a humorist. He was a comedian with very thin stuff, never mentioning anything troubling. I used to laugh my head off at Laurel and Hardy. There is terrible tragedy there somehow. These men are too sweet to survive in this world and are in terrible danger all the time. They could be so easily killed.
Even the simplest jokes are based on tiny twinges of fear, such as the question, "What is the white stuff in bird poop?" The auditor, as though called upon to recite in school, is momentarily afraid of saying something stupid. When the auditor hears the answer, which is, "That's bird poop, too,"
"Why do firemen wear red suspenders?" And "Why did they bury George Washington on the side of a hill?" And on and on.
True enough, there are such things as laughless jokes, what Freud called gallows humor. There are real-life situations so hopeless that no relief is imaginable.
While we were being bombed in Dresden, sitting in a cellar with our arms over our heads in case the ceiling fell, one soldier said as though he were a duchess in a mansion on a cold and rainy night, "I wonder what the poor people are doing tonight." Nobody laughed, but we were still all glad he said it. At least we were still alive! He proved it.
Do you know what a twerp is? When I was in Shortridge High School in Indianapolis 65 years ago, a twerp was a guy who stuck a set of false teeth up his butt and bit the buttons off the back seats of taxicabs. (And a snarf was a guy who sniffed the seats of girls' bicycles.)
And I consider anybody a twerp who hasn't read the greatest American short story, which is "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," by Ambrose Bierce. It isn't remotely political. It is a flawless example of American genius, like "Sophisticated Lady" by Duke Ellington or the Franklin stove.
I consider anybody a twerp who hasn't read Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. There can never be a better book than that one on the strengths and vulnerabilities inherent in our form of government.
Want a taste of that great book? He says, and he said it 169 years ago, that in no country other than ours has love of money taken a stronger hold on the affections of men. Okay?
The French-Algerian writer Albert Camus, who won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, wrote, "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide."
So there's another barrel of laughs from literature. Camus died in an automobile accident. His dates? 1913-1960 A.D.
Do you realize that all great literature--Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, A Farewell to Arms, The Scarlet Letter, The Red Badge of Courage, The Iliad and The Odyssey, Crime and Punishment, The Bible, and "The Charge of the Light Brigade"--are all about what a bummer it is to be a human being? (Isn't it such a relief to have somebody say that?)
Evolution can go to hell as far as I am concerned. What a mistake we are. We have mortally wounded this sweet life-supporting planet--the only one in the whole Milky Way--with a century of transportation whoopee. Our government is conducting a war against drugs, is it? Let them go after petroleum. Talk about a destructive high! You put some of this stuff in your car and you can go a hundred miles an hour, run over the neighbor's dog, and tear the atmosphere to smithereens. Hey, as long as we are stuck with being homo sapiens, why mess around? Let's wreck the whole joint. Anybody got an atomic bomb? Who doesn't have an atomic bomb nowadays?
But I have to say this in defense of humankind: In no matter what era in history, including the Garden of Eden, everybody just got here. And, except for the Garden of Eden, there were already all these games going on that could make you act crazy, even if you weren't crazy to begin with. Some of the crazymaking games going on today are love and hate, liberalism and conservatism, automobiles and credit cards, golf, and girls' basketball.
I am one of America's Great Lakes people, her freshwater people, not an oceanic but a continental people. Whenever I swim in an ocean, I feel as though I am swimming in chicken soup.
Like me, many American socialists were freshwater people. Most Americans don't know what the socialists did during the first half of the past century with art, with eloquence, with organizing skills, to elevate the self-respect, the dignity and political acumen of American wage earners, of our working class.
That wage earners, without social position or higher education or wealth, are of inferior intellect is surely belied by the fact that two of the most splendid writers and speakers on the deepest subjects in American history were self-taught workmen. I speak, of course, of Carl Sandburg the poet from Illinois, and Abraham Lincoln of Kentucky, then Indiana, and finally Illinois. Both, may I say, were continental, freshwater people like me. Another freshwater person and splendid speaker was the Socialist Party candidate Eugene Victor Debs, a former locomotive fireman who had been born to a middle class family in Terra Haute, Indiana.
Hooray for our team!
"Socialism" is no more an evil word than "Christianity." Socialism no more prescribed Joseph Stalin and his secret police and shuttered churches than Christianity prescribed the Spanish Inquisition. Christianity and socialism alike, in fact, prescribe a society dedicated to the proposition that all men, women, and children are created equal and shall not starve.
Adolf Hitler, incidentally, was a two-fer. He named his party the National Socialists, the Nazis. Hitler's swastika wasn't a pagan symbol, as so many people believe. It was a working person's Christian cross, made of axes, of tools.
About Stalin's shuttered churches, and those in China today: Such suppression of religion was supposedly justified by Karl Marx's statement that "religion is the opium of the people." Marx said that back in 1844, when opium and opium derivatives were the only effective painkillers anyone could take. Marx himself had taken them. He was grateful for the temporary relief they had given him. He was simply noticing, and surely not condemning, the fact that religion could also be comforting to those in economic or social distress. It was a casual truism, not a dictum.
When Marx wrote those words, by the way, we hadn't even freed our slaves yet. Who do you imagine was more pleasing in the eyes of a merciful God back then, Karl Marx or the United States of America?
Stalin was happy to take Marx's truism as a decree, and Chinese tyrants as well, since it seemingly empowered them to put preachers out of business who might speak ill of them or their goals.
The statement has also entitled many in this country to say that socialists are antireligion, are anti-God, and therefore absolutely loathsome.
I never met Carl Sandburg or Eugene Victor Debs, and I wish I had. I would have been tongue-tied in the presence of such national treasures.
I did get to know one socialist of their generation--Powers Hapgood of Indianapolis. He was a typical Hoosier idealist. Socialism is idealistic. Hapgood, like Debs, was a middle-class person who thought there could be more economic justice in this country. He wanted a better country, that's all.
After graduating from Harvard, he went to work as a coal miner, urging his working-class brothers to organize in order to get better pay and safer working conditions. He also led protesters at the execution of the anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in Massachusetts in 1927.
Hapgood's family owned a successful cannery in Indianapolis, and when Powers Hapgood inherited it, he turned it over to the employees, who ruined it.
We met in Indianapolis after the end of the Second World War. He had become an official in the CIO. There had been some sort of dust-up on a picket line, and he was testifying about it in court, and the judge stops everything and asks him, "Mr. Hapgood, here you are, you're a graduate of Harvard. Why would anyone with your advantages choose to live as you have?" Hapgood answered the judge: "Why, because of the Sermon on the Mount, sir."
And again: Hooray for our team.
I am from a family of artists. Here I am, making a living in the arts. It has not been a rebellion. It's as though I had taken over the family Esso station. My ancestors were all in the arts, so I'm simply making my living in the customary family way.
But my father, who was a painter and an architect, was so hurt by the Depression, when he was unable to make a living, that he thought I should have nothing to do with the arts. He warned me away from the arts because he had found them so useless as a way of producing money. He told me I could go to college only if I studied something serious, something practical.
As an undergraduate at Cornell I was a chemistry major because my brother was a big-shot chemist. Critics feel that a person cannot be a serious artist and also have had a techn
I became a so-called science fiction writer when someone decreed that I was a science fiction writer. I did not want to be classified as one, so I wondered in what way I'd offended that I would not get credit for being a serious writer. I decided that it was because I wrote about technology, and most fine American writers know nothing about technology. I got classified as a science fiction writer simply because I wrote about Schenectady, New York. My first book, Player Piano, was about Schenectady. There are huge factories in Schenectady and nothing else. I and my associates were engineers, physicists, chemists, and mathematicians. And when I wrote about the General Electric Company and Schenectady, it seemed a fantasy of the future to critics who had never seen the place.
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