Here Is Your Kurt Vonnegut Armistice Day For A New, Non-Trumpy Era
It is November 11, 2020, and time again for our annual tribute to Kurt Vonnegut, who made me want to be a writer, and to his birthday, which this year falls on the 102nd anniversary of the end of what was optimistically called the War to End All Wars. This is our ninth consecutive Kurt Vonnegut's birthday here at Wonkette, if you can believe that!
Of course, it is mandatory we begin properly, with the quote from Breakfast of Champions that we take down from the attic every year, because what's a tradition without the proper decorations?
So this book is a sidewalk strewn with junk, trash which I throw over my shoulders as I travel in time back to November eleventh, nineteen hundred and twenty-two.
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 [...] 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 (1973)
And as I traditionally note, this is simply the most Vonnegut-y thing you could wish for: the time travel, the sentimentality, the affectation (which he used throughout Breakfast and in other novels) of writing out the year, and that beautiful line, "men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind" — Jesus, that's nice stuff.
This year, as we celebrate Kurt Vonnegut's birthday and the end of the first modern war — a science fiction spectacle, as we've noted previously — we're faced with the sort of planetary catastrophe Vonnegut often explored in his fiction. In Cat's Cradle, he imagined a terrible new world-ending weapon, "Ice-9," which froze water at room temperature. Let one drop of it get into a waterway, and that would be it for the human race. (Spoiler: the novel does not have a happy ending.)
I can only imagine what Vonnegut would make of the COVID-19 pandemic and the response to it. He'd no doubt be heartened by the kindness people around the world showed to each other, Italians singing opera from their windows, or kids going to a neighbor's porch to play a socially distanced duet.
Vonnegut would have had plenty to say about Donald Trump's deadly mismanagement of the pandemic, and none of it good. It might sound a little like what he wrote about the previous worst president, George W. Bush, in 2007's A Man Without a Country:
I myself feel that our country, for whose Constitution I fought in a just war, might as well have been invaded by Martians and body snatchers. Sometimes I wish it had been. What has happened, though, is that it has been taken over by means of the sleaziest, low-comedy, Keystone Cops-style coup d'etat imaginable. And those now in charge of the federal government are upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography, plus not-so-closeted white supremacists, aka 'Christians,' and plus, most frighteningly, psychopathic personalities, or "PPs."
Not that much different, we suppose, although he might add something about Trump's rank criminality, too. But I think that what Vonnegut would find most horrific is Trump's complete lack of empathy for those who are suffering. For a guy who wrote an entire novel, the not entirely successful Slapstick, about a system of artificial families aimed at reducing loneliness, Vonnegut would have been taken aback by Trump's seeming indifference to other people.
Vonnegut, like his predecessors Mark Twain and George Orwell, believed that people could be decent to each other, even if we're not very good at doing it consistently. It's a theme running throughout his work. In 1965's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, his sixth novel, the main character offers this benediction to newborn twins:
Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies-"God damn it, you've got to be kind."
Vonnegut was still chewing on the very same idea in his final novel, Timequake (1997):
Many people need desperately to receive this message: 'I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.
The idea of a country being led by a man with no interest in other human beings would have broken Vonnegut's heart, I think.
But here we are, with a new president-elect, who promises to turn us back to compassion and taking care of each other. In Timequake, people have been living the same 10 years over and over so long that they're completely numbed, unstuck in time, in a different sense than Billy Pilgrim was in Slaughterhouse-Five. As the time loop ends, Kilgore Trout is one of the only people not lost in a miasma of ennui. He's able to help other people return to reality and shake off their funk by telling them, "You were sick, but now you're well, and there's work to do."
America is still ailing, and there's so much work to do. But we do, at least, have each other, and the madness of the last four years feels like it's lifting. We'll stick with Kurt Vonnegut and the hope that human imagination can be turned toward helping each other. It would be a far better world if we could, now and again, try to remember the good we're capable of.
As ever, we'll close with Eric Bogle's version of "And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda," because music is sacred.
The last living veteran of that war, Florence Green, died in 2012 just two weeks short of her 111th birthday. Let us dream of a world that no longer manufactures any new veterans.
And now it is your OPEN THREAD.
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You Probably Need Books!
Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country
Kurt Vonnegut, Slapstick,
Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,
Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake
Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918
Ginger Strand, The Brothers Vonnegut
Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.