Kurt Vonnegut Judges Modern Society As part of The Long View series of conversations on Morning Edition, author Kurt Vonnegut talks with Steve Inskeep about how society has changed in the last 50 years.
NPR logo

Kurt Vonnegut Judges Modern Society

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5165342/5167815" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Kurt Vonnegut Judges Modern Society

Kurt Vonnegut Judges Modern Society

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5165342/5167815" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


For weeks now on Morning Edition we've been listening to people of long experience. It's a series of conversations we call The Long View, and today we're going to hear from the novelist Kurt Vonnegut. He once wrote we are what we pretend to be so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. Vonnegut once pretended to be himself in a movie. In Back to School, a rich man, played by Rodney Dangerfield, tries for a degree by hiring teams of tutors. (Soundbite of "Back to School")

Mr. KEITH GORDON (Actor): You got a major paper comin' up on Kurt Vonnegut. You haven't even read any of the books.

Mr. RODNEY DANGERFIELD (Actor, Comedian): (As Thornton Melon) I tried. I don't understand a word of it.

Mr. KEITH GORDON (Actor): So how you gonna write the paper then, huh?

(Soundbite of door opening)

Mr. KURT VONNEGUT, Jr. (Author): (As Kurt Vonnegut) Hi, I'm Kurt Vonnegut. I'm looking for Thornton Melon.

INSKEEP: In that 1986 movie, Vonnegut goes on to ghost write a paper about himself which the professor fails, saying its author didn't understand Vonnegut. It took real-life critics years to understand Kurt Vonnegut. In his hands, a story about Nazis turns comic and a comedy about aliens turns profound. When he spoke to us, the conversation ranged from Jesus to Karl Marx.

Mr. KURT VONNEGUT, Jr. (Author): You know, Karl Marx got a bum rap. All he was trying to do was to figure out how to take care of a whole lot of people. Of course, socialism is just evil now. It's completely discredited supposedly by the collapse of the Soviet Union, but I can't help noticing that my grandchildren are heavily in hock to Communist China now which is evidently a whole lot better at business than we are. You know, you talk about the collapse of communism, or Soviet Union; my goodness, this country collapsed in 1929, I mean, it crashed big time, and capitalism looked like a very poor idea.

INSKEEP: Mr. Vonnegut, you're fortunate and rare in a way in that more than half a century ago you began writing novels, some of which were classified as science fiction or seemed to be a kind of cockeyed forecast of the future and then you've had time to look back and see if any part of those predictions came true. I'm thinking of your first published novel, Player Piano.

Mr. VONNEGUT: Well, I was working for General Electric back then as a publicity man. Incidentally, it was a great company, General Electric was then, as I saw America industry at its best.

INSKEEP: Well, you wrote about a world in which things were still being produced but they were being done automatically so there weren't jobs for most people and they were just given allowances and reduced to being nothing but consumers. People didn't exist to do anything except buy consumer products and keep the economy going. Has any part of that turned out to be true do you think?

Mr. VONNEGUT: All of it. Where have you been? When I worked with General Electric, again this was soon after the Second World War, you know, I was keeping up with new developments and they showed me a milling machine and this thing worked by punch cards--that's where computers were at that time, and everybody was sort of sheepish about how well this thing worked because in those days machinists were treated as though they were great musicians because they were virtuosos on these machines, and after that demonstration everybody was thinking, what's going to happen to these wonderful men who have been so useful to us? We have to give people something to do with life.

INSKEEP: There was another novel that you wrote called Slapstick.


INSKEEP: And part of that novel was that the United States had Balkanized. It had become a series of feudal societies. The Duke of Oklahoma was fighting wars against the King of Michigan and obviously that hasn't literally happened, but is there any way that, metaphorically, it has happened.

Mr. VONNEGUT: Well, we are terribly divided politically, yes, and, you know, I don't mean to intimidate you and your listeners but I have a master's degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: I'll try to get over my awe. Please continue.

Mr. VONNEGUT: So did Saul Bellow incidentally, from the same department.

INSKEEP: Okay, now I'm intimidated. Go ahead.

Mr. VONNEGUT: But anyway, it's obvious through human experience that extended families and tribes are terribly important. We can do without an extended family as human beings about as easily as we can do without vitamins or essential minerals. Where you can see tribal behavior now is in this business about teaching evolution in a science class and intelligent design. It's the scientists themselves are behaving tribally.

INSKEEP: How are the scientists behaving tribally?

Mr. VONNEGUT: They say, you know, about evolution, it surely happened because their fossil record shows that. Look, my body and your body are miracles of design. Scientists are pretending they have the answer as how we got this way when natural selection couldn't possibly have produced such machines.

INSKEEP: Does that mean you would favor teaching intelligent design in the classroom?

Mr. VONNEGUT: Look, if it's what we're thinking about all the time; if I were a physics teacher or a science teacher, it'd be on my mind all the time as how the hell we really got this way. It's a perfectly natural human thought and, okay, if you go into the science class you can't think this. Well, alright, as soon as you leave you can start thinking about it again without giving aid and comfort to the lunatic fringe of the Christian religion. Also, I think that, you know, it's tribal behavior. I don't think that Pat Robertson, for instance, doubts that we evolved. He is simply representing a tribe.

INSKEEP: There are tribes on both sides here in your view?


INSKEEP: May I ask what tribes, if any, you have belonged to over the years?

Mr. VONNEGUT: Well, it's an ancestral tribe. These were immigrants from north of Germany who came here about the time of the Civil War, but anyway, these people called themselves free thinkers. They were impressed, incidentally, by Darwin. They're called Humanists now; people who aren't so sure that the Bible is the Word of God.

INSKEEP: Who are denounced by some religious people as secular humanists?

Mr. VONNEGUT: Well, that's exactly what I am. The trouble with being a secular humanist is that we don't have a congregation. We don't meet so it's a very flimsy tribe, but there's a wonderful quotation from Nietzsche. Nietzsche said, Only a person of deep faith can afford the luxury of skepticism. Something perfectly is going on. I do not doubt it, but the explanations I hear do not satisfy me.

INSKEEP: That's the long view from Kurt Vonnegut. His latest book is called A Man without a Country. You can hear more conversations in this series at NPR.org. This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.