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Fine Here Is Your Bloody Kurt Vonnegut, Armistice Day 2014 Edition
When Nov. 11 rolls around, this quote from Breakfast of Champions gets dragged out of storage and put on display for the occasion of Kurt Vonnegut's birthday and Armistice/Veterans Day. But that's what remembrance and ceremony are for, after all, as mile markers on our half-blind flatcar ride through time. So it goes. And since it remains an awesome quote, and since Vonnegut never feared flirting with cliché (who are we kidding? He dived right in and consummated the relationship), neither will we. Let's have another nice rummage through the mental attic with Uncle Kurt:
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, 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 (1973)
It's just such a wonderfully Vonnegut-y quote, for all the terrific reasons there are to love and maybe be a little embarrassed by Vonnegut: The short, clipped sentences. The backwards time travel. The affectation of spelling out the year. The "men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind" -- Jesus, what a lovely line! The definitive declarations that sound like pure Truth, but on reflection are, OK, kind of simplistic. The self-aware nostalgia and sentimentality, even as he cautions against nostalgia and sentimentality. And Romeo and Juliet, for chrissakes? Not King Lear, at least? In some ways, loving Vonnegut is such an adolescent thing to do, and sometimes it's easy to feel as if Vonnegut is a writer that you're supposed to have grown out of. It's a problem of which Vonnegut himself was quite aware, of course, as he noted in his interview with Playboy, also from 1973:
I deal with sophomoric questions that full adults regard as settled. I talk about what is God like, what could He want, is there a heaven, and, if there is, what would it be like? This is what college sophomores are into; these are the questions they enjoy having discussed. And more mature people find these subjects very tiresome, as though they’re settled.
By the time you're in grad school, you know better than to talk about Vonnegut as if he were quite as deep as you were sure he was at 17. Grownup Serious Literature Students are allowed to quote Vonnegut as much as they want, as long as they treat him as an affectionate artifact they've outgrown, like model airplanes hanging from the ceiling or stuffed animals on a dorm bed. And then after you're comfortably past the one-upmanship of a graduate seminar, you can go back to just enjoying Kurt Vonnegut all over again, even if you no longer zoom a plastic B-25 Mitchell bomber around your room (though maybe that's more of a Joseph Heller thing, anyway).
The other great Vonnegut quote about Armistice Day turning into Veterans Day comes from Mother Night (1961), and doesn't get quoted nearly as often, but we like it for its explicit grumping about the motivation for the holiday's metamorphosis:
"Oh, it's just so damn cheap, so damn typical." I said, "This used to be a day in honor of the dead of World War One, but the living couldn't keep their grubby hands off of it, wanted the glory of the dead for themselves. So typical, so typical. Any time anything of real dignity appears in this country, it's torn to shreds and thrown to the mob."
We'll agree that the quote from Breakfast of Champions, as worked out over a decade later, is a grander, more quotable passage, but there's something awfully nice about the raw bitchiness of the earlier version. It's sort of surprising to us that we haven't seen any online pairings of the two, either -- after all, yet another of the fun things about reading Vonnegut is seeing him turn over ideas again and again in his novels, taking them through their permutations like a Tralfamadorian looking through time.
There are some things it might be a mistake to grow out of.
And so we'll go on quoting Kurt Vonnegut as much as we damn well please, thank you. We’re also rather happy that three summers ago, we bought Kid Zoom his own copy of Slaughterhouse-Five, which we were relieved to learn he loved. We'd like to recommend giving your favorite books to your kids -- it's a great way to start a conversation, or to keep one going.
So happy Kurt Vonnegut's birthday, and a peaceful Armistice/Veterans Day. Since there are few things more fun than quoting Uncle Kurt, here are a couple of collections of Vonnegut quotes. We added a quote for Armistice Day 2013 that wasn't in the inaugural version of this column:
“Perhaps, when we remember wars, we should take off our clothes and paint ourselves blue and go on all fours all day long and grunt like pigs. That would surely be more appropriate than noble oratory and shows of flags and well-oiled guns.”
-- Cat's Cradle
For 2014, with another beautiful new war looming and too many people who should know better urging that we get "boots on the ground" in Iraq and Syria -- let's only talk about the boots, not the young men and women wearing them -- children, really! Their cerebral cortexes aren't even grown up yet! -- our new, cautionary Vonnegut quote comes from a 1991 interview, shortly after the first Gulf War:
"We have become such a pitiless people," Vonnegut lamented. "And I think it's TV that's done it to us. When I went to war in World War II, we had two fears. One was we would be killed. The other was that we might have to kill somebody. And now killing is Whoopee. It does not seem much anymore. To my generation, it still seemed like an extraordinary thing to do, to kill."
If we're really lucky, we can keep adding a Kurt Vonnegut quote about war to this column every year until we run out of quotes, or we run out of wars.
And since Vonnegut liked music to consider it the only really plausible evidence that God might exist, here's a song for Armistice-Remembrance-Veterans Day, Eric Bogle's "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda":
And may you spend the day, like Howard W. Campbell Jr. on VJ Day, walking around with a Purple Heart on.
But because that joke is totally guy-centric, and we need something for the Ladeez, there's this, also from Breakfast of Champions:
Roses are red
And ready for plucking
And ready for high school.
What, one more video? OK, if you insist.