Kurt Vonnegut

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Kurt Vonnegut (1922 – 2007) was an American writer of the 20th century. He wrote such works as ‘Mother Night’ (1961), ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ (1969), and ‘Breakfast of Champions’ (1973) blending satire, gallows humor, and science fiction. He was known for his humanist beliefs and was honorary president of the American Humanist Association. Vonnegut’s experience in WWII as a soldier and prisoner of war had a profound influence on his later work.

He was captured during the Battle of the Bulge. ‘The other American divisions on our flanks managed to pull out: We were obliged to stay and fight. Bayonets aren’t much good against tanks…’ Imprisoned in Dresden, Vonnegut was chosen as a leader of the POWs because he spoke some German. After telling the German guards ‘…just what I was going to do to them when the Russians came…’ he was beaten and had his position as leader taken away. While a prisoner, he witnessed the fire bombing of Dresden in February 1945 which destroyed most of the city.

Vonnegut was one of a group of American prisoners of war to survive the attack in an underground slaughterhouse meat locker used by the Germans as an ad hoc detention facility. The Germans called the building Schlachthof Fünf (Slaughterhouse Five) which the Allied POWs adopted as the name for their prison. Vonnegut said the aftermath of the attack was ‘utter destruction’ and ‘carnage unfathomable.’ This experience was the inspiration for his famous novel, ‘Slaughterhouse-Five,’ and is a central theme in at least six of his other books. In ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ he recalls that the remains of the city resembled the surface of the moon, and that the Germans put the surviving POWs to work, breaking into basements and bomb shelters to gather bodies for mass burial, while German civilians cursed and threw rocks at them.Vonnegut eventually remarked, ‘There were too many corpses to bury. So instead the Germans sent in troops with flamethrowers. All these civilians’ remains were burned to ashes.’

In the mid 1950s, Vonnegut worked very briefly for ‘Sports Illustrated’ magazine, where he was assigned to write a piece on a racehorse that had jumped a fence and attempted to run away. After staring at the blank piece of paper on his typewriter all morning, he typed, ‘The horse jumped over the fucking fence,’ and left. On the verge of abandoning writing, Vonnegut was offered a teaching job at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. While he was there, ‘Cat’s Cradle’ became a best-seller, and he began ‘Slaughterhouse-Five.’

His first novel was the dystopian novel ‘Player Piano’ (1952), in which human workers have been largely replaced by machines. He continued to write short stories before his second book, the Martian invasion novel, ‘The Sirens of Titan,’ was published in 1959. Through the 1960s, the form of his work changed, from the relatively orthodox structure of ‘Cat’s Cradle’ (which in 1971 earned him a Master’s Degree) to the acclaimed, semi-autobiographical ‘Slaughterhouse-Five,’ given a more experimental structure by using time travel as a plot device. These structural experiments were continued in ‘Breakfast of Champions’ (1973), which includes many rough illustrations, lengthy non-sequiturs and an appearance by the author himself, as a deus ex machina.

‘Deadeye Dick’ (1982), although mostly set in the mid-twentieth century, foreshadows the turbulent times of contemporary America; it ends prophetically with the lines ‘You want to know something? We are still in the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages — they haven’t ended yet.’ The novel explores themes of social isolation and alienation that are particularly relevant in the postmodern world. Society is seen as openly hostile or indifferent at best, and popular culture as superficial and excessively materialistic. Vonnegut’s mother killed herself on Mother’s Day 1944. Kurt attempted suicide in 1984 and later wrote about it in several essays.

‘Breakfast of Champions’ became one of his best-selling novels. It includes, in addition to the author himself, several of Vonnegut’s recurring characters. One of them, science fiction author Kilgore Trout, plays a major role and interacts with the author’s character. In addition to recurring characters, there are also recurring themes and ideas. One of them is ice-nine (a central wampeter, an object around which the lives of many otherwise unrelated people may revolve, in his novel ‘Cat’s Cradle’). Although many of his novels involved science fiction themes, they were widely read and reviewed outside the field, not least due to their anti-authoritarianism. For example, in his seminal short story ‘Harrison Bergeron’ egalitarianism is rigidly enforced by overbearing state authority, engendering horrific repression.

In much of his work, Vonnegut’s own voice is apparent, often filtered through the character of science fiction author Kilgore Trout (whose name is based on that of real-life science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon). It is characterized by wild leaps of imagination and a deep cynicism, tempered by humanism. In the foreword to ‘Breakfast of Champions,’ Vonnegut wrote that as a child, he saw men with locomotor ataxia, and it struck him that these men walked like broken machines; it followed that healthy people were working machines, suggesting that humans are helpless prisoners of determinism. Vonnegut also explored this theme in ‘Slaughterhouse-Five,’ in which protagonist Billy Pilgrim ‘has come unstuck in time’ and has so little control over his own life that he cannot even predict which part of it he will be living through from minute to minute. Vonnegut’s well-known phrase ‘So it goes,’ used ironically in reference to death, also originated in ‘Slaughterhouse-Five.’ ‘Its combination of simplicity, irony, and rue is very much in the Vonnegut vein.’

Vonnegut’s work as a graphic artist began with his illustrations for Slaughterhouse-Five and developed with Breakfast of Champions, which included numerous felt-tip pen illustrations. Later in his career, he became more interested in artwork, particularly silk-screen prints, which he pursued in collaboration with Joe Petro III. Vonnegut described himself variously as a skeptic, freethinker, humanist, Unitarian Universalist, agnostic, and atheist. He disbelieved in the supernatural, considered religious doctrine to be ‘so much arbitrary, clearly invented balderdash,’ and believed people were motivated by loneliness to join religions. Vonnegut considered humanism to be a modern-day form of freethought, and advocated it in various writings, speeches and interviews. His ties to organized humanism included membership as a Humanist Laureate in the Council for Secular Humanism’s International Academy of Humanism.In a letter to AHA members, Vonnegut wrote: ‘I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without expectations of rewards or punishments after I am dead.’

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