Thursday, April 12, 2007

R. I. P. Kurt

From an actual commencement speech Vonnegut gave in 1999:
Hello. I hope you are all wearing sunscreen.

We must be close to a very powerful transmitter for CNN, right? Anybody know where it is? Anybody know where Jane Fonda is?

In the early days of radio, I remember, people living too close to the transmitter of station KDKA in Pittsburgh used to hear soap operas in their bridgework and mattress springs.

And now CNN News plays such a big part in the lives of so many Americans, including mine, that we might as well be hearing Wolfe Blitzer and Christiane Amanpour in our bridgework and mattress springs.

And I won't lie to you: The news from CNN can be really bad these days.

But I also give you my word of honor that you before me, the Class of 1999 at Agnes Scott College, are near the very top of the best news I can ever hear. By working so hard at becoming wise and reasonable and well informed, you have made our little planet, our precious little moist, blue-green ball, a saner place than it was before you got here.

God bless you and the faculty of this college, and those who made it possible for you to go from strength to strength here. Thanks to all of you, the forces of ignorance and brutality have lost again.

Not that there hasn't been a lot of good news, along with the bad, long before you got here. I am talking about the birth of works of art, music, paintings, statues, buildings, poems, stories, plays and essays, and movies, (you bet), and humane ideas - which make us feel honored to be member of the human race.

What can you yourselves contribute? You've come this far anyway, and it wasn't easy. And I now recite a famous line by the poet Robert Browning, with one small change. I have replaced his word ''man,'' which in his time was taken to mean ''human being,'' with the word ''woman.''

May I say, too, that his wife Elizabeth Barrett was as great a poet as he was:

''How do I love thee'' Let me count the ways…'' and so on.

While I'm at it, get a load of this: The atomic bomb which we dropped on the people of Hiroshima, was first envisioned by a woman, not a man. She was, of course, Mary Wollstoncraft Shelley. She didn't call it an ''atomic bomb'' She called it ''the monster of Frankenstein.''

But back to Robert Browning, and what he said about anyone who hopes to make the world better. Again, I've changed his word ''man'' to ''woman'' for this occasion:

''A woman's reach should exceed her grasp, or what's a heaven for?''

And of course the original ''A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?''

Speaking of women: Pollyanna is not your graduation orator here today. Pollyanna is bound to be speaking somewhere - irrespressibly optimistic, seeing good in everything. So I will comment, as briefly and efficiently as possible, on the perfectly horrible news CNN has been giving us about the Balkans and that high school in Colorado.

I won't go on and on about it. We're here for a good time and we are darn well going to have one.

Others with axes to grind are playing the blame game: blaming the National Rifle Association, the movies, TV, pop music, video games, no prayers in the public schools.

I myself have an axe, which I have ground as sharp as a razor. What would I like to do with it, if I could? I would like to plant it in the forehead of the Babylonian King Hammurabi, who lived almost four thousand years ago.

Hammurabi gave us a code which is honored to his very day by many nations, including my own, and by all heroes in cowboy and gangster films, and by far too many people who feel they have been insulted or injured, however slightly. However accidentally:
An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
Revenge is not only sweet - it is a must!
What antidote can there be for an idea that popular and poisonous? Revenge provides revenge, which is sure to provide revenge, forming an endless chain of human misery.

Here's the antidote:
Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Some of you may know that I am a Humanist, not a Christian. But I say of Jesus, as all Humanists do, ''If what he said was good and so much of it is absolutely beautiful, what can it matter if he was God or not?''

If Christ hadn't delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn't want to be a human being.

I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.

OK, now let's have some fun. Let's talk about sex. Let's talk about women. Freud said he didn't know what women wanted. I know what women want. They want a whole lot of people to talk to. What do they want to talk about? They want to talk about everything.

What do men want? They want a lot of pals, and they wish people wouldn't get so mad at them.

Why are so many people getting divorced today? It's because most of us don't have extended families any more. It used to be that when a man and women got married, the bride got a lot more people to talk to about everything. The groom got a lot more pals to tell dumb jokes to.

A few Americans, but very few, still have extended families. The Navahos. The Kennedys.

But most of us, if we get married nowadays, are just one more person for the other person. The groom gets one more pal, but it's a woman. The woman gets one more person to talk to about everything, but it's a man.

When a couple has an argument nowadays, they may think it's about money or power or sex, not how to raise the kids, or whatever. What they're really saying to each other, though, without realizing it, is this:

''You are not enough people!''

I met a man in Nigeria one time, an Ibo who had six hundred relatives he knew quite well. His wife had just had a baby, the best possible news in any extended family.

They were going to take it to meet all its relatives, Ibos of all ages and sizes and shapes. It would even meet other babies, cousins not much older than it was. Everybody who was big enough and steady enough was going to get to hold it, cuddle it, gurgle to it, and say how pretty is was, or handsome.

Wouldn't you have loved to be that baby?

I sure wish I could wave a wand, and give every one of you an extended family - make you an Ibo or a Navaho - or a Kennedy.

The least I can do is give you health tips. I've already mentioned sun screen. And don't smoke cigarettes, which are as evil as Slobodan Milosovic.

But cigars are good for you. They are so healthful that there is even a magazine devoted to their enjoyment, with cigar-smoking role models on its cover - athletes, movie stars, rich guys. Why not the Surgeon General?

Cigars, of course are made of trail mix, a blend of raisins, cashews, and Granola, which has been soaked for a week in maple syrup. To celebrate the end of your graduation day, why not eat a cigar at bedtime?

No cholesterol!

Guns are also good for people. No nicotine and no cholesterol. As your Congress person if that isn't so.

Incidentally, if somebody asks you whether you are a Liberal or a Conservative, tell'em this:

''Listen, Buster - I'm a graduate of Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, zipcode, 30030. They taught me to think for myself there. You want to know if I'm a Liberal or a Conservative? I'm both of those, and neither one.

''Go jump in the lake. Go climb a tree.''

I have so far quoted Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Hammurabi and Jesus Christ. I now give you Sir William Gilbert, of the team of Gilbert and Sullivan:

I often think it's comical
how nature always does contrive
That every boy and every gal,
That's born into the world alive,
Is either a little Liberal,
Or else a little Conservative.

What the heck. While I'm at it, why don't I give you Eugene Victor Debs, the great labor leader who ran for President three times on the Socialist ticket, and who died in 1926, when I was four.

''As long as there is a lower class, I am in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I am of it. As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free.''

That's worth repeating: ''As long as there's a lower class, I'm in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I am of it. As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free.''

Wouldn't you like to say that when you get out of bed every morning, with the roosters crowing: ''As long as there is a lower class, I am in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I am of it. As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free.''

Excuse me. I beg your pardon. I'm receiving signals from CNN in my bridgework - Wolf Blitzer and Christiane Amanpour.

Wolf Blitzer and Christiane Amanpour say CNN's military consultants are unanimous in feeling that our revenge on the Serbs for their revenge on the Kosovars has gone about as well as could be expected.

The Code of Hammurabi, revenge, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, always works that way -- about as well as could be expected.

Wait a minute. Somebody else is speaking, not Wolf, not Christiane. Whoever it is, and I'll bet she's blond - she's saying I can lose thirty pounds in thirty days, and never once feel hungry.

OK, she's gone now, thank goodness. My bridgework has fallen silent of its own accord. I thought for a minute there, I was going to have to ask somebody for dental floss. High tech! How would that have been for high tech: tuning out CNN with dental floss?

How I love high tech! Forbes Magazine asked a bunch of us a while back to name our favorite technologies. I said the Encyclopedia Britannica on a shelf, because it's alphatetical, my address book, also alphabetical, and the mailbox on the corner. Putting a letter in that mailbox is like feeding a great big bullfrog painted blue. You know what its lid says to me when I close it? ''Ribbit,'' it says.

Don't give up on books. They feel so good - their friendly heft, the sweet reluctance of their pages when you turn them with your sensitive fingertips. A large part of our brains is devoted to deciding whether what our hands are touching is good or bad for us. Any brain worth a nickel knows books are good for us.

Computers are insincere. Books are sincere.

And don't try to make yourself an extended family out of ghosts on the Internet.

Get yourself a Harley, and join Hell's Angels instead.

All right - let's stop kidding around, and get down to the nitty-gritty.

You know what you are, Class of 1999? You are a bunch of Eves, and this is Eden, and now that you've eaten the apple of knowledge you're getting kicked out of here.

Many of you intend to become teachers, which is the noblest of all professions in a democracy. Teachers can be so good for this country, but only if their classes can be cut to eighteen. Teaching is friendship, and nobody can deal intelligently with more than eighteen friends at any one time.

And only well-informed, warm-hearted people can teach others things they'll always remember and love. Computers and TV's can never do that.

A computer teaches a child what a computer can become.

An educated human being teaches a child what a child can become.

Some of you will be mothers. These things happen. If you should find yourselves sidelined in that fashion, remind yourself of these lines by the nineteenth century white male poet William Ross Wallace: ''The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.''

That being the case, you might teach the kid a couple of things it should say every day. ''Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,'' and, ''As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free.''

Ideas too unattainable? Class of 1999, let me impress on you that ideas, by their very definition, can never be too high - for children or anyone.

A child's reach should exceed its grasp, or what's a heaven for?

This wonderful speech is already nearly twice as long as the most efficient, effective oration in American history, Abraham Lincoln's address on the battlefield at Gettysburg. Lincoln was killed by a two-bit actor exercising his right to bear arms, but his truth goes marching on.

Up to now, most of what I've said has been a custom job for this Dixieland rite of passage. But every graduation pep talk I've ever given has ended with words about my father's kid brother, Alex Vonnegut, a Harvard educated insurance agent in Indianapolis, who was well-read and wise.

The first graduation at which I spoke, incidentally, was also at what was then a women's college - Bennington, in Vermont. The Vietnam War was going on, and the graduates wore no make-up, to show how ashamed and sad they were.

But about my Uncle Alex, who is up in Heaven now.

One of the things he found objectionable about human beings was that they so rarely noticed it when they were happy; He himself did his best to acknowledge it when times were sweet. We could be drinking lemonade in the shade of an apple tree in the summertime and Uncle Alex would interrupt the conversation to say, ''If this isn't nice, what is?''

So I hope that you adorable women before me will do the same for the rest of your lives. When things are going sweetly and peacefully, please pause a moment, and then say out loud, ''If this isn't nice, what is?''

Let that be the motto of the Agnes Scott College Class of 1999: ''If this isn't nice, what is?''

That's one favor I've asked of you. Now I ask for another one. I ask it not only of the graduates, but of everyone here, including President Mary Brown Bullock. I'll want a show of hands after I ask this questions, and keep your eyes on Dr. Bullock:

How many of you have had a teacher at any level of your education who made you more excited to be alive, proud to be alive, than you had previously believed possible?

Hold up your hands, please.

Now take down your hands and say the name of that teacher to someone sitting or standing near you.

All done?

If this isn't nice, what is?

I thank you for your attention.
(Much of this speech both pays tribute to and pokes fun at an internet hoax that Kurt Vonnegut gave a speech in 1997 at MIT)

I haven't read all of his work and no sane person I know will make that claim, because so much of his work never made it out of his brain, locked away. He gave it to us stingily, even if he wrote as prodigiously as he did.

Still, his stories and characters and inventions remain locked firmly in our consciousness: Ice-nine of Cat's Cradle, or Billy Pilgrim, the semi-autobiographical time traveller of Slaughterhouse Five, the themes of self-destruction or the dangers of technology, and the downsides of even the most noble of gestures and ethos.

You live on, sir, in my mind, working as deus ex machina to my posts here. You made me think, no, make me think, because in truth, Mr. Pilgrim, with your head injuries, you're still here travelling in time.