Kurt Vonnegut: "My God, Vesuvius has erupted again!"

At 79, the author of "Slaughterhouse Five" reflects on Sept. 11, death, heaven and the meaning of life.

Published December 12, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

About three miles from author Kurt Vonnegut's apartment, teams of construction workers are still sifting through tons of steaming rubble 24 hours a day, trying to find the remains of those who perished in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

Vonnegut says the attack reminded him of Mount Vesuvius.

In February 1945, Vonnegut was witness to another pretty good imitation of Mount Vesuvius: the firebombing by Allied forces of Dresden, a town in eastern Germany, during the last months of World War II. More than 600,000 incendiary bombs later, the city looked more like the surface of the moon. Returning home to Indianapolis after the war, Vonnegut began writing short stories for magazines like Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post and, seven years later, published his first novel, "Player Piano."

Finally, in 1969, he tackled the subject of war, recounting his experiences as a POW in Dresden, forced to dig corpses from the rubble. The resulting novel was "Slaughterhouse Five." Banned in several states -- and branded a "tool of the devil" in North Dakota -- it carried the snappy alternative title: "The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., a fourth-generation German-American now living in easy circumstances on Cape Cod (and smoking too much) who, as an American infantry scout hors de combat, as a prisoner of war, witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, 'The Florence of the Elbe,' a long time ago, and survived to tell the tale: This is a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore, where the flying saucers come from. Peace."

Catchy. With an alternate title like that, it's safe to assume the 79-year-old Vonnegut might have something to say about the Sept. 11 attacks, bringing Dresden to downtown Manhattan, and also the current war in Afghanistan, life and death, and what might come after.

I phoned Vonnegut for an interview. One of the first things he said was, "You don't sound like an American." He's right. I'm English, which wasn't a problem until he blamed me for the destruction of Dresden, an event that took place 27 years before my birth. Incidentally, this makes me -- by his estimation -- much too young to be taken seriously. Regardless, I maintain my innocence.

What is the purpose of life?

Well, I have a son who writes very well. He just wrote one book; it's called "The Eden Express." It's my son Mark, who is a pediatrician and who went crazy and recovered to graduate from Harvard Medical School. But anyway, he says, and I've quoted him in a couple of my books, "We're here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is." That's pretty good, don't you think?

Death is a central theme in many of your books. Why does it play such an integral role in your fiction?

Well, it's so terribly interesting to everyone. There's two things that people can't take their eyes off: People fucking and people getting killed. [laughs] These events seem to be terribly interesting. And also, we don't see it very often. I had one young woman, a student of mine, complain that she had never seen a dead person, and I said to her, "One must be patient."

Your mother committed suicide in 1944, on the eve of Mother's Day. You've also written extensively about your time as a soldier in World War II. Do you think these experiences, which took place when you were in your 20s, contributed to your attitudes toward death?

No, because they were quite firmly fixed. You know, if I'd been raised a Catholic, as a good boy I would have believed, or tried to believe, what the Catholics believe, for instance. My ancestors, first ancestors, came over here before the Civil War and they were all freethinkers and they were much influenced by science. They were educated people and figured that really the priest or the preacher didn't know what the hell he was talking about [laughs] and that Genesis was a lot of baloney and Jonah and the whale and so forth. So they were rationalists, I guess is what they were called, but they were a religious sect, they called themselves freethinkers.

I think in my piece I did for Studs Terkel [in Terkel's new book, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for a Faith"] I said that we try to behave as well as we can without any expectation of reward or punishment in the afterlife and we serve the highest abstraction with which we have any familiarity, which is our community. And that's been quite enough.

Nietzsche, who got a bum rap, incidentally -- he had nothing to do with Nazism in any way -- he said in effect, in German of course, "Only a person of deep faith can afford the luxury of skepticism." I know something terribly important is going on. I mean, my Lord, everything's so busy, and so, yeah, I have that kind of deep faith. So skepticism isn't a luxury at all. Death is ... I love sleep. Aye, there's the rub. Perchance to dream.

In the novel "Deadeye Dick" the protagonist accidentally shoots a pregnant woman on Mothers Day 1942. Is there a parallel between the event in your novel and your mother's death?

Oh, I would suppose that, I was 19, 20, 21, something like that when she did it, and I think that any child -- I mean, one reason suicide is a bad idea -- is any child is going to blame himself or herself to a certain extent: What did I say? What did I do?

In your last book, "God Bless You Dr Kevorkian," you make several visits to heaven as a roving reporter, via carefully controlled near-death experiences, to interview the spirits you encountered in the hundred yards of vacant lot between the blue tunnel and the Pearly Gates. It's a great book. But do you believe in heaven at all?

It's fun to think about, you know. I've actually imagined afterlives because it's amusing. Because of the hospitality problem and the entertainment problem, it's hideously impractical [laughs]. In one of my books, I forget which one, I imagine a heaven where, when you died, you got to be whatever age you were happiest on Earth. And it was a mess for me because my father was 10 years old. [laughs]

And he was difficult to relate to?

A real pain in the ass! [laughing harder]

What age would you choose to be if that were the case?

The best age for a man is 44. How old are you?

I'm 28.

All right. Well, when you're 44 people will finally take you seriously.

In December 1944, you were captured by the German army and became a prisoner of war. As you described in "Slaughterhouse Five," you narrowly escaped death during the firebombing of Dresden in February 1945.

Yes, by your people [the English], may I say. We were just the longest good neighbors in the daytime. You guys burned the place down, turned it into a single column of flame. More people died there in the firestorm in that one big flame, because there was nothing to breathe, than died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

I claim no responsibility for the firebombing of Dresden

Well, I'm fond of your people on occasion. I was just thinking about Bomber Harris, the marshall who was in charge of the RAF [Royal Air Force] who believed in attacks on civilian populations to make them give up, although quite the opposite had happened in Britain ... But a whole lot of RAF guys objected to a monument being put up to Bomber Harris. I think it probably finally did get up, but a hell of a lot of RAF guys were ashamed of what Harris had made them do. And that's really sportsmanship and, of course, Brits are famous for being good sports.

But the bombing [on Sept. 11], no, it was hellish. People in Indianapolis, Minneapolis and Los Angeles are all reeling from this terrible attack. And of course, everybody's reeling from what they saw on TV. [laughs] That's where we've gotten to now. We just respond to something that happens on TV. But I think, God, weren't they smart, the guys who did this? I had no idea those buildings were so fragile.

How close is your apartment to the site of the World Trade Center?

About three miles. A long way off. You know, I think about an amazing event like this, the firebombing of Dresden, any huge event: My God, Vesuvius has erupted again!

With the immediacy of television, do you think the attacks were overemphasized when compared with events like the firebombing of Dresden, during which 135,000 people were killed?

What I object to is that it's totally distracting, just as the O.J. Simpson case was totally distracting, and Gary Condit. And so TV has the power to make us think about one thing. And, you know, in Congress now all sorts of monkey business is going on, anti-environmentalist stuff, because the TV just keeps us focused on ground zero and Afghanistan.

Do you think our military response to the attacks has been appropriate?

Well, our foreign policy for years has been based on unmanned kamikazes. [laughs] You know, we've let quite a few of those go.

You were once attacked while speaking at the Library of Congress and accused of speaking ill of the United States, the most wonderful nation in the world. In a 1999 interview, in defense of your cynicism, you said simply, "But it is a shitty country." It seems there are people out there who agree with you.

I'd forgotten -- but that's pretty good [laughs]. It is preposterous to imagine that you belong to something as big as the United States. It's like saying, "Howdy, I'm from Asia. Where are you from?" [laughs] You know, every artist in the United States worth a shit was against the Vietnam War, which was, you know, cruelly stupid and unnecessary. So every writer, every painter, every poet, every musician was against the Vietnam War. And I have said that it's like a laser beam, you know, where all the beams of light are aimed in one direction and so all art, the total art world, and also a whole lot of other decent people, would form this laser beam, everybody aimed at the Vietnam War to stop it. And the power of this weapon turned out to be that of a custard pie, two feet in diameter, dropped from a stepladder six feet high [laughs]. It made no fucking difference.

In a number of your novels you state that evolution was really a bum deal, supplying man with brains that were far too large for his own good. With the attacks of Sept. 11, and the current bombing campaign in Afghanistan, do you think maybe we're seeing some effects of these large brains of ours?

Well yes. Evolution is utterly -- whatever the mechanism is, and I don't think much of natural selection as a mechanism -- but whatever the mechanism is, it has no conscience, it has no purpose.

But, you know, a science fiction clichi is that we don't know how to stop war or cure cancer, till people in flying saucers come and tell us how to do it, or till we grow an extra lobe on our brains and get smarter. We're getting smarter. Human beings are getting smarter, just like elephants in trouble, you know, saying, "Hey, you know, we're in trouble but we'll be OK if we put on a couple of hundred more pounds." Or a giraffe saying, "Boy, life is hell now but if we add a couple of feet to our necks we ought to be OK."

What would your alter ego Kilgore Trout say about the terrorist attacks?

Oh, I'll have to think a minute because I'm not really his spokesperson -- he's a separate personality. [Pauses] He ignored an awful lot. And specific events. I think he probably didn't make a comment. It would have been like an automobile accident or something.

Not too important, then?

No, but he's certainly interested in oceanic changes. Huge slow ones. Irresistible ones.

How would you like to die?

I don't know. When I was a soldier I just didn't want to be hurt. I hoped it wouldn't hurt. So I suppose painlessly because I hate pain and I love sleep. My dear sister died of cancer and her very last words were, sort of wondering, "No pain. No pain." That was so nice.

I once read an interview in which you were asked how you would like to die and you said, "In a plane crash on Mount Kilimanjiro." Were you in a better mood that day?

[Laughs] No, that was actually a Ray Bradbury story and that's how he thought Hemingway should have died. Maybe I said it sometime. Just fucking around. I have the feeling now that I had at the end of the Second World War: I've done everything I'm supposed to do, please can I go home now? And I have that feeling now, and then I think, "Well, where the hell is home?" And what I'm yearning for is back in Indianapolis when I had a brother and a sister and a mother and a father and I can't get that, but, if it were possible, I would like them alive and I would die among them.

Do you believe there is anything afterward at all?

No. Well, I don't know. It's biochemical to be redistributed, certainly. I think what Jung feared was that his intelligence would get mixed up with everybody else's. [laughs]

Have you written a suitable epitaph for yourself?

Yes, well, I've already said so in the books: "Everything was beautiful, nothing hurt."

What are you most scared of?

Bad things happening to my children and grandchildren.

What book influenced you the most?

"Candide" by Voltaire, I guess.

What book do you most wish you'd written yourself?

I wish I had written "Romeo and Juliet."

How do you define success?

I don't know. No answer.

What do you truly believe in?

Well, again, getting back to Nietzsche's statement, as a person of deep faith, I obviously believe in something in the end. I don't know what it is, but it's a great big something.

Do you have any regrets?


Given the opportunity, would you fix them?

No. Oh, I suppose, yeah. I don't like the question.

Are you working on a new book at the moment?

Yes, but like everybody else, I was just shocked by the World Trade Center thing. Also what it's done to the world economy. I mean, boy, you think those towers were something? It's such a fragile economy. Don't joke about economics because that's how you get food.

In several of your novels, characters become unstuck in time. In "Timequake," a bump in the space-time continuum causes everyone to relive the decade between 1991 and 2001, repeating everything they did the first time they lived it. Do you believe that, like characters caught in a timequake, we all have a chronology we are destined to follow, no matter what?

I think maybe the future has as much to do with who and what we are now as the past. It may be that you continue. Life is ... there's enough to think about. But I do suspect that the future has a hell of a lot more to do with stuff right now than we realize. And it wouldn't help much to realize it.

So essentially, we're all following a path that has been set for us, without having much control over it?

I'm afraid so. Why, are you in trouble?

By Christopher Kemp

Christopher Kemp is a writer in Cincinnati.

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