Authors: Kurt Vonnegut
“The Thomist hierarchy of laws is so far from being ridiculous that I have never met anybody who did not believe in it right down to the marrow of his or her bones. Everybody knows that there are laws with more grandeur than those which are printed in our statute books. The big trouble is that there is so little agreement as to how those grander laws are worded. Theologians can give us hints of the wording, but it takes a dictator to set them down just right—to dot the t’s and cross the i’s. A man who had been a mere corporal in the army did that for Germany and then for all of Europe, you may remember, not long ago. There was nothing he did not know about divine and natural law. He had fistfuls of aces and kings to play.
“Meanwhile, over on this side of the Atlantic, we were not playing with a full deck, as they say. Because of our Constitution, the highest card anybody had to play was a lousy queen, contemptible human law. That remains true today. I myself celebrate that incompleteness, since it has obviously been so good for us. I support the American Civil Liberties Union because it goes to court to insist that our government officials be guided by nothing grander than human law. Every time the circulation of this idea or that one is discouraged by an official in this country, that official is scorning the Constitution, and urging all of us to participate in far grander systems, again: divine or natural law.
“Cannot we, as libertarians, hunger for at least a little natural law? Can’t we learn from nature at least, without being burdened by another person’s idea of God?
“Certainly. Granola never harmed anybody, nor the birds and bees—not to mention milk. God is unknowable, but nature is explaining herself all the time. What has she told us so far? That blacks are obviously inferior to whites, for one thing, and intended for menial work on white man’s terms. This clear lesson from nature, we should remind ourselves from time to time, allowed Thomas Jefferson to own slaves. Imagine that.
“What troubles me most about my lovely country is that its children are seldom taught that American freedom will vanish, if, when they grow up, and in the exercise of their duties as citizens, they insist that our courts and policemen and prisons be guided by divine or natural law.
“Most teachers and parents and guardians do not teach this vital lesson because they themselves never learned it, or because they dare not. Why dare they not? People can get into a lot of trouble in this country, and often have to be defended by the American Civil Liberties Union, for laying the groundwork for the lesson, which is this: That no one really understands nature or God. It is my willingness to lay this groundwork, and not sex or violence, which has got my poor book in such trouble in Island Trees—and in Drake, North Dakota, where the book was burned, and in many other communities too numerous to mention.
“I have not said that our government is anti-nature and anti-God. I have said that it is non-nature and non-God, for very good reasons that could curl your hair.
“Well—all good things must come to an end, they say. So American freedom will come to an end, too, sooner or later. How will it end? As all freedoms end: by the surrender of our destinies to the highest laws.
“To return to my foolish analogy of playing cards: kings
and aces will be played. Nobody else will have anything higher than a queen.
“There will be a struggle between those holding kings and aces. The struggle will not end, not that the rest of us will care much by then, until somebody plays the ace of spades. Nothing beats the ace of spades.
“I thank you for your attention.”
• • •
I spoke at Gatsby’s house in the afternoon. When I got back to my own house in New York City, I wrote a letter to a friend in the Soviet Union, Felix Kuznetzov, a distinguished critic and teacher, and an officer in the Union of Writers of the USSR in Moscow. The date on the letter is the same as the date of the Sands Point oration.
There was a time when I might have been half-bombed on booze when writing such a letter so late at night, a time when I might have reeked of mustard gas and roses as I punched the keys. But I don’t drink anymore. Never in my life have I written anything for publication while sozzled. But I certainly used to write a lot of letters that way.
Be that as it may, I was sober then and am sober now, and Felix Kuznetzov and I had become friends during the previous summer—at an ecumenical meeting in New York City, sponsored by the Charles F. Kettering Foundation, of American and Soviet literary persons, about ten to a side. The American delegation was headed by Norman Cousins, and included myself and Edward Albee and Arthur Miller and William Styron and John Updike. All of us had been published in the Soviet Union. I am almost entirely in print over there—with the exception
of Mother Night
. Few, if any, of the Soviet delegates had had anything published here, and so their work was unknown to us.
We Americans were told by the Soviets that we should
be embarrassed that their country published so much of our work, and that we published so little of theirs. Our reply was that we would work to get more of them published over here, but that we felt, too, that the USSR could easily have put together a delegation whose works were admired and published here—and that we could easily have put together a delegation so unfamiliar to them that its members could have been sewer commissioners from Fresno, as far as anybody in the Soviet Union knew.
Felix Kuznetzov and I got along very well, at any rate. I had him over to my house, and we sat in my garden out back and talked away the better part of an afternoon.
But then, after everybody went home, there was some trouble in the Soviet Union about the publication of an outlaw magazine called
writers and editors were young, impatient with the strictures placed on their writings by old poops. Nothing in
, incidentally, was nearly as offensive as calling a chaplain’s assistant a “dumb motherfucker.” But the
people were denounced, and the magazine was suppressed, and ways were discussed for making life harder for anyone associated with it.
So Albee and Styron and Updike and I sent a cable to the Writers’ Union, saying that we thought it was wrong to penalize writers for what they wrote, no matter what they wrote. Felix Kuznetzov made an official reply on behalf of the union, giving the sense of a large meeting in which distinguished writer after distinguished writer testified that those who wrote for
weren’t really writers, that they were pornographers and other sorts of disturbers of the peace, and so on. He asked that his reply be published in
The New York Times
, and it was published there. Why not?
And I privately wrote to Kuznetzov as follows:
Dear Professor Kuznetzov—dear Felix—
I thank you for your prompt and frank and thoughtful
letter of August 20, and for the supplementary materials which accompanied it. I apologize for not replying in your own beautiful language, and I wish that we both might have employed from the first a more conversational tone in our discussion of the
affair. I will try to recapture the amiable, brotherly mood of our long talk in my garden here about a year ago.
You speak of us in your letter as “American authors.” We do not feel especially American in this instance, since we spoke only for ourselves—without consulting with any American institution whatsoever. We are simply “authors” in this case, expressing loyalty to the great and vulnerable family of writers throughout the world. You and all other members of the Union of Writers surely have the same family feelings. Those of us who sent the cable are so far from being organized that I have no idea what sorts of replies the others may be making to you.
As you must know, your response to our cable was printed recently in
The New York Times
, and perhaps elsewhere. The controversy has attracted little attention. It is a matter of interest, seemingly, only to other writers. Nobody cares much about writers but writers. And, if it weren’t for a few of us like the signers of the cable, I wonder if there would be anybody to care about writers—no matter how much trouble they were in. Should we, too, stop caring?
Well—I understand that our cultures are so different that we can never agree about freedom of expression. It is natural that we should disagree, and perhaps even commendable. What you may not know about our own culture is that writers such as those who signed the cable are routinely attacked by fellow citizens as being pornographers or corrupted of children and celebrators of violence and persons of no talent and so on. In my own case, such charges are brought against my works in court several times a year, usually by parents who, for religious or political reasons, do not want
their children to read what I have to say. The parents, incidentally, often find their charges supported by the lowest courts. The charges so far have been invariably overthrown in higher courts, those closer to the soul of the Constitution of the United States.
Please convey the contents of this letter to my brothers and sisters in the Writers’ Union, as we conveyed your letter to
The New York Times
. This letter is specifically for you, to do with as you please. I am not sending carbon copies to anyone. It has not even been read by my wife.
That homely detail, if brought to the attention of the Writers’ Union, might help its members to understand what I do not think is at all well understood now: That we are not nationalists, taking part in some cold-war enterprise. We simply care deeply about how things are going for writers here, there, and everywhere. Even when they are declared non-writers, as we have been, we continue to care.
• • •
Kuznetzov gave me a prompt and likewise private answer. It was gracious and humane. I could assume that we were still friends. He said nothing against his union of his government. Neither did he say anything to discourage me from feeling that writers everywhere, good and bad, were all first cousins—first cousins, at least.
And all the argle-bargling that goes on between educated persons in the United States and the Soviet Union is so touching and comical, really, as long as it does not lead to war. It draws its energy, in my opinion, from a desperate wish on both sides that each other’s utopias should work much better than they do. We want to tinker with theirs, to make it work much better than it does—so that people there, for example, can say whatever they please without fear of punishment. They want to tinker with ours, so that everybody here who wants a job can have one, and so that we don’t have to
tolerate the sales of fist-fucking films and snuff films and so on.
Neither utopia now works much better than the Page typesetting machine, in which Mark Twain invested and lost a fortune. That beautiful contraption actually set type just once, when only Twain and the inventor were watching. Twain called all the other investors to see this miracle, but, by the time they got there, the inventor had taken the machine all apart again. It never ran again.
AM DESCENDED FROM
Europeans who have been literate for a long time, as I will presently demonstrate, and who have not been slaves since the early days of the Roman games, most likely. A more meticulous historian might suggest that my European ancestors no doubt enslaved themselves to their own military commanders from time to time. When I examine my genealogy over the past century and a little more, however, I find no war lovers of any kind.
My father and grandfathers were in no wars. Only one of my four great-grandfathers was in a war, the Civil War. This was Peter Lieber, born in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1832. My mother’s maiden name was Lieber. This Peter Lieber, who is no more real to me than to you, came to America with one million other Germans in 1848. His father was a brush manufacturer. He was living in New Ulm, Minnesota, running a general store and trading for furs with the Indians, when the Civil War broke out. When Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers, Peter Lieber joined the 22nd Minnesota Battery of Light Artillery, and served for two years until wounded and honorably discharged.
“The knee-joint of his right leg was permanently damaged,
and he walked with a limp to the end of his days,” according to my Uncle John Rauch (1890-1976). Uncle John was not in fact my uncle, but the husband of a first cousin of my father, Gertrude Schnull Rauch. He was a Harvard graduate and a distinguished Indianapolis lawyer. Toward the end of his life, he made himself an historian,
, of his wife’s family—in part my family, too, although he was not related to it by blood, but only by marriage.
I am a highly diluted relative of his wife, and did not expect to appear as more than a footnote in the history—and so I was properly astonished when he one day made me a gift of a manuscript entitled “An Account of the Ancestry of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., by an Ancient Friend of His Family.” It was painstakingly researched and better written, by Uncle John himself, than much of my own stuff, sad to say. That manuscript is the most extravagant gift I ever expect to receive—and it came from a man who had never spoken favorably of my work in my presence, other than to say that he was “surprised by my convincing tone of authority,” and that he was sure I would make a great deal of money.
When I published my first short story, which was “Report on the Barnhouse Effect,” in
, its hero was a man who could control dice by thinking hard about them, and who could eventually loosen bricks in chimneys a mile away, and so on—and Uncle John said, “Now you will hear from every nut in the country. They can all do that.”
When I published the novel
, Uncle John sent me a postcard saying, “You’re saying that life is a load of crap, right? Read Thackeray!” He wasn’t joking.
I was no literary gentleman in his eyes, surely, and one satisfaction he may have found in writing about my ancestry was demonstrating how a gentleman wrote. I stand instructed.