Wampeters, Foma Granfalloons Opinionsis a rare opportunity to experience Kurt Vonnegut speaking in his own voice about his own life, his views of the world, his writing, and the writing of others An indignant, outrageous, witty, deeply felt collection of reviews, essays, and speeches, this is a window not only into Vonnegut s mind but also into his heart. I began this week with a collection of essays by and interviews with the late Kurt Vonnegut entitled Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons The title confused my friendly community librarian Vonnegut introduces the book with an explanation Dear Reader The title of this book is composed of three words from my novel Cat s Cradle A wampeter is an object around which the lives of many otherwise unrelated people may revolve The Holy Grail would be a case in point Foma are harmless untruths, intended to comfort simple souls An example Prosperity is just around the corner A granfalloon is a proud and meaningless association of human beings Taken together, the words form as good an umbrella as any for this collection of some of the reviews and essays I ve written, a few of the speeches I made The book is difficult to comment on, particularly the first half Reading Vonnegut is like making your way through a literary funhouse you don t really know where you re going and the rules, if any, are completely unknown to you So unpredictable is Vonnegut that when he wrote a chapter on his experience living in Biafra, I thought he had made up a country to make some human interest point As it turns out, Biafra was a real country The book is a collection of various pieces of Vonnegut s work a few speeches, a book review, a short play, a travel account, and a few essays Vonnegut comments It is, after all, a sort of map of places I ve supposedly been and things I ve supposedly thought during a period of about twenty years I have arranged these clues in a supposedly chronological order If time is the straight and uniform string of beads most people think it is, and if I have matured gracefully, then the second half of this book should be better than the first half It is difficult to characterize a compilation of miscellaneous works like this, but I did notice that a common idea seemed to penetrate Vonnegut s writing and interviews in the second half of the book the idea that human beings are meant to live in small social groups and that we are uncomfortable in other situations Until recent times, you know, human beings usually had a permanent community of relatives They had dozens of homes to go to So when a married couple had a fight, one or they other could go to a house three doors down and stay with a close relative until he was feeling tender again Or if a kid got so fed up with his parents that he couldn t stand it, he could march over to his uncle s for a while And this is no longer possible Each family is locked into its little box The neighbors aren t relatives There aren t other houses where people can go to and be cared for When Nixon is pondering what s happening to America Where have the old values gone and all that the answer is perfectly simple We re lonesome We don t have enough friends or relatives any And we would if we lived in real communities Human beings will be happier not when they cure cancer or get to Mars or eliminate racial prejudice or flush Lake Erie but when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities again That s my utopia That s what I want for me The above quotation is from his Playboy interview where he articulates this idea most directly It reminds me of a lecture I heard recently by James Kunstler on Life After Peak Oil he predicts that as the automobile becomes a smaller part of our lives, communities will become smaller and life will become local again back to small, intimate communities Outside of this idea that pops up several times in the later half of the book, there s not that much cohesion to the book outside of the broad title he gave it There are a number of pieces of interest Science Fiction Vonnegut recalls that he is categorized as a science fiction author simply because some of his stories feature technology I didn t know that I supposed I was writing a novel about life I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled science fiction ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal Yes, We Have No Nirvanas Vonnegut writes about the rise of transcendental meditation According to him, he looked into it after his wife and daughter became Transcendentals He writes about his efforts to find out what it was about, and the essay turns into a critique of the religion that is not a religion but a technique and the Mariashi that created it I found it humorous Excelsior We re Going to the Moon Excelsior He writes on the space program s reception with people and science fiction He quotes Isaac Asimov s perception that there are three stages to science fiction adventure dominant, technology dominant, and sociology dominant The Mysterious Madame Blavatsky an essay on one of the founders of Theosophy that proved to be interesting Biafra A People Betrayed This is Vonnegut s account of his experiences in Biafra, before it was conquered by the Nigerian army I actually thought this essay was about a fictional place Address to Graduation Class at Bennington College , 1970 Vonnegut describes becoming a cultural pessimist and instructs the graduating class to go back to believing that humanity is at the center of the universe, the greatest concern of the gods perhaps then they will be motivated to treat people decently He also urges them to not buy into the idea that their generation must change the world he tells them to relax, to skylark , to enjoy life One day they will be in charge, and then they can worry about saving the planet Address to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1971 Vonnegut expounds on his idea that we are made of nothing than chemicals that make us yearn for community How lucky you are to be here today, for I can explain everything Sigmund Freud admitted that he did not know what women wanted I know what they want Cosmopolitan magazine says they want orgasms, which can only be a partial answer at best Here is what women really want they want lives in folk societies, wherein everyone is a friendly relative and no act or object is without holiness Chemicals make them want that Chemicals make us all want that Chemicals make us furious when we are treated as things rather than persons When anything happens to us which would not happen to us in a folk society, our chemicals make us feel like fish out of water Our chemicals demand that we get back into water again If we become increasingly wild and preposterous in modern times well, so do fish on river banks, for a little while In a Manner that Must Shame God Himself reflections on politics Address at Rededication of Wheateon College Library, 1973 Vonnegut writes on the importance of books and the meaning of social narratives Playboy Interview one of the longest parts of the book.As you can see, there s a lot here I rather enjoyed the experience of reading it, particularly the interviews and speeches I ll end this with one of my favorite quotations from the book I don t know why I like it, but I do You have called me a humanist, and I have looked into humanism some, and I have found that a humanist is a person who is tremendously interested in human beings My dog is a humanist His name is Sandy He is a sheep dog I know that Sandy is a dud name for a sheep dog, but there it is. At least once a year I find myself in need to fire up the bookmobile and drive up to Indiana to visit my Uncle Kurt.I have an eclectic literary family, wild old Uncle Bob Heinlein in Missouri, cousins Ray Bradbury and Poul Anderson, Ursula and Phil out in Berkley Seems we can never all get together.But driving up the Middle America street to Kurt Vonnegut s urbane but kooky house always makes me smile.Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons is Kurt s 1974 collection of essays, sketches, speeches, interviews and musings As always, his writing educates, amuses, entertains, and promotes thinking and most otherwise makes for a worthwhile reading experience.But here s the thing I call him uncle because his style of writing and his expressiveness has always seemed, to me at least, or less avuncular But being born in 1922 and a veteran of World War II, he is of my grandfather s generation, what many have deemed the greatest generation.What seems clear to me now, looking back on having read Vonnegut for about 30 years, is to highlight that he was of the greatest AMERICAN generation, and that he is of course a great American.What stands out in these pages and from a perspective of reading much of his work is his affinity for all things American It is no accident that this Midwestern Hoosier, of immigrant German lineage, was a WWII veteran, an upper middle class professional who came to writing later in life and who is fiercely American in his writings.And of course as any frequent reader of Vonnegut will know, he is not of the flag waiving, parade walking, chest thumping nationalistic jingoistic variety, Heavens no , he is rather of the old school democratic, progressive, and critically observant category, the kind of American who sees it as his civic duty to critique when necessary.Another observation that should be made in this humble and insufficient review, is that Vonnegut was NOT the model for Billy Pilgrim from his seminal work Slaughterhouse Five Kurt Vonnegut was not a bumbling, accidental soldier wearing poorly sized uniforms, not so Vonnegut was a forward scout and a prisoner of war who was beaten by his German guards when he told them in German what he would do to them when he was liberated by the Russians.What shows through so enormously, so peremptorily though with a sly wink and a nod, a subtle Midwestern barb was than his Americanism but rather the greatness of his humanism Vonnegut truly liked people and was genuinely offended by war and crime and political corporate shenanigans and other forms of bad manners, and in his homely but funny way he poked fun at those to whom fun needs poking, to those who need a reminder about civility and decency, and with a wry smile and a long drag on the ubiquitous cigarette, asks us like Thoreau to Emerson why we aren t hopping mad too Joking, he explains, is his response to misery I couldn t do anything about So, here s to you, Uncle Kurt, its always nice to visit. This collection of nonfiction demonstrates amply why so many people fall headlong in love with Vonnegut all aspects of his cranky humanity, his unimpeachable morality, his hard won cynicism are on show over these twenty five pieces The title isn t particularly catchy readers of Cat s Cradle will recognise the terms which Vonnegut says represent his dabblings in nonfiction Not so Among the brilliance here includes his take on SF as a literary art, his ornery take on the moon landing and a loving portrayal of mystic Madame Blavatsky The subtitle here is opinions, and fierier pieces include In a Manner That Must Shame God Himself which napalms the Nixon presidency, a provocative piece on Nigeria Biafra A People Betrayed, and a brief homage to Hunter S Thompson A Political Disease, where Vonnegut invents Thompson s Disease for those betrayed by their leaders to the point of mental collapse Thompson cured himself of his disease with a shotgun in 2005 So it goes The inclusion of several public speeches and throwaway shavings detract from the urgency somewhat, but the Playboy interview ends the collection on a marvellously lucid note Ah, the days Playboy was a respected literary organ I hope Nicole Ritchie s favourite book is Slaughterhouse Five, I really do A must read for ALL Vonnegut fans That s you Wampeters An object around which the lives of otherwise unrelated people revolve, e.g., The Holy Grail.Foma Harmless, comforting untruths, e.g., Prosperity is just around the corner Granfalloons A proud and meaningless association of human beings, e.g., The Veterans of Future Wars Taken together, the words form as good an umbrella as any for this collection of essays, book reviews and speeches written over the years by Vonnegut This review will contain a lot of excerpts, because I can think of no better way to clue any of you uninitiated in to just how wonderfully this man writes.The book starts off with an essay entitled Science Fiction in which Vonnegut discusses the genre When his first book, Player Piano, was published, he was surprised that reviewers referred to him as a science fiction writer I didn t know that I supposed that I was writing a novel about life, about things I could not avoid seeing and hearing in Schenectady, a very real town, awkwardly set in the gruesome now I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled science fiction ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.The way a person gets into this drawer, apparently, is to notice technology The feeling persists that no one can simultaneously be a respectable writer and know how a refrigerator works, just as no gentleman wears a brown suit in the city.In Teaching the Unteachable, he recounts his time spent teaching writer s workshops I tried to help those good students become what they were born to become, and to avoid intimidating them with masterpieces written by great men much older than they were In an alarming manner of speaking, I tried to reach into their mouths without being bitten or tripping their epiglottises Again, in a manner of speaking, I wanted to take hold of the end of a spool of ticker tape in the back of each student s throat I meant to pull it out inch by inch, so the student and I could read it.There are several terrific addresses to various organizations, and a moving essay about Biafra, however, I found the 1973 Playboy interview to be the most interesting Here Vonnegut talks off the cuff about the importance of family and community, war, the 1972 Presidential Election, and his writing VONNEGUT What s happened to me, though, is a standard American business story As I said, my family s always been in the arts, so the arts to me are business I started out with a pushcart and now I ve got several supermarkets at important intersections My career grew just the way a well managed business is supposed to grow After twenty years at a greasy grind, I find that all my books are in print and selling steadily They will go on selling for a little while Computers and printing presses are in charge That s the American way If the machines can find a way to use you, you will become a successful businessman I don t care much now whether the business grows or shrinks My kids are grown I have no fancy uses for money It isn t a love symbol to me.PLAYBOY What is a love symbol for you VONNEGUT Fudge is one.As usual, the man leaves me with a big old smile on my face.
- 318 pages
- Wampeters Foma & Granfalloons
- Kurt Vonnegut
- 02 February 2018 Kurt Vonnegut