Scholar/Rogue of the week: Kurt Vonnegut

Note our new masthead. Our newest scholar rogue is Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007).

Hi Ho.

Most of you know Vonnegut as the author of the beloved counter culture sort of sci-fi/sort of philosophical/sort of satirical/inarguably great novels Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, and Slapstick. This is true.

It is also foma.*

Vonnegut was also more. He was a failed army scout, failed chemist, failed automobile mechanic, and failed anthropologist – by his own admission.

He was also:

– a survivor of one of the most horrific massacres of World War II – the incendiary bombing of the unarmed city of Dresden, Germany who believed “only one person benefited from the raid” – himself ;

– a writer who believed that English departments were probably the worst places to discover and develop writers because he felt “literature should not disappear up its own asshole”;

– a lover of jokes that most people don’t appreciate:


Do you know why cream is so much more expensive than milk?




Because the cows hate to squat on those little bottles. See, you didn’t laugh again, but I give you my sacred word of honor that those are splendid jokes. Exquisite craftsmanship.

– the best American humorist since Mark Twain;

Vonnegut was a fervent smoker of plain end cigarettes who lived to be 84 and died, not from lung or heart disease, but from a head injury caused by a fall – kind of a joke in itself – but a cruel example of pool-pah* for those of us left waiting for the punch line.

So it goes.

*foma – harmless untruths

*pool-pah – the wrath of God – “a shit storm”

17 replies »

  1. I wouldn’t call the bombing of Dresden a “massacre.” Even if they were “unarmed,” they were still participating in the war effort against the Allies. And I think we all know Germany’s stance on the issue of bombing civilian cities.

    Here’s a tip to those who don’t want to bombed: Don’t start wars.

  2. If you want to try and couch your argument in “the necessities of war,” go for it. But the suggestion that there are no innocent parties, no citizens who are not deserving of whatever happens to them is silliness. Yeah, so people died in the conflagration who righteously deserved it. But in case you haven’t checked, not all folks in your average nation are lock-step in line with the power-madness of their leaders, and to suggest that everybody in Dresden had their hearts and souls on the Hitler Bus is to exhibit an almost breathtaking lack of perspective.

    What you just did here was justify the nuking of Kansas City and all its inhabitants by Iraq’s insurgent leaders should they get their hands on a nuke because, you know, we invaded them.

    So, all those people who disagree with Bush and who put a great deal of effort into opposing him, they’re fair game because they’re on “his side.”

    Please – you can do better than this.

  3. Darren, most civilians don’t start wars. I did not start the Iraq War, and I wouldn’t wish to be bombed by some victims of that war simply because the leaders of my country did start it. Or because I (reluctantly) participate in it by paying taxes that are used to fund that war, or by buying gasoline for my car that is refined from imported oil that is a contributing cause to that war.

    Until World War II, the humane distinction usually observed was that civilians would not be attacked. The Nazis did not make that distinction, but neither did the US or the UK.

    Dresden was a massacre. Here’s a tip to those who would redefine it: Don’t start messing with semiotics if you don’t understand how signs and symbols affect thought processes.

  4. I’ve tried to refrain, as my colleagues have defended my use of the word “massacre” very well, but I need to get this off my chest:

    1) Germany, specifcally Nazi Germany, embraced the concept of “total war” you’re talking about, Darren, i.e., abstracting the murder of civilians to “collateral damage.” They gave us lots of other good ideas, too, like concentration camps – some of which we seem to be adopting now…moving us ever closer, one fears, to being like them in all the wrong ways….

    2) Boston in 1770, Paris in 1792, Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1890, St. Petersburg in 1905, Dresden in 1945 – in each of these cases there was a “war” scenario: Boston, Paris, and St. Petersburg were all part of revolutions; Wounded Knee and Dresden were nation v. nation conflicts – same thing happened. When well armed people kill unarmed, defenseless people, that’s a massacre. Whether we like the massacred people’s politics is irrelevant. Or it should be. As are numbers – whether it’s 5 in Boston or 154,000 in Dresden.

    3) I refer you to Robert Silvey’s excellent explanation of semiotics and of why calling a massacre something else doesn’t change its meaning – unless we let it.

  5. Note my small but vital change in my citation of total war. And note that I do this even though you’ve cited Wikipedia as a “source….” 🙂

  6. I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.
    -Kurt Vonnegut

    Thanks for honoring Vonnegut Sam. It was after taking your class and then reading s few of his books when things began to make a little more sense. I just thought this quote was fitting for the topic. PS, Dr. Denny and PJV eat the heart of J/MC students who use wiki as a source.

    J. Ter Meer

  7. I wouldn’t call 9/11 a “terrorist” attack. Even if the victims were “unarmed” they were still participating in the Empire effort against the Arabs. And I think we all know America’s stance on the issue of killing a few thousand civilians to achieve political aims.

    Here’s a tip to those who don’t want to bombed: Don’t mess with other countries.