Best known as one of America’s most astonishing and enduring contemporary novelists, Kurt Vonnegut was also a celebrated commencement address giver. Vonnegut never graduated from college, so his words to any class of graduating seniors always carried the delight, and gentle irony, of someone savoring an achievement he himself had not had occasion to savor on his own behalf.
“But about my Uncle Alex, who is up in Heaven now,” Vonnegut, an avowed Humanist, would say sometimes in a graduation speech, “one of the things he found objectionable about human beings was that they so rarely noticed it when they were happy. . . . We could be drinking lemonade in the summertime, and Uncle Alex would interrupt the conversation to say, ‘If this isn’t nice, what is?’”
If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? includes eleven speeches and four pieces of journalism on related themes. Six of the fifteen are new to the second edition—on topics as wide-ranging as why it is that Kurt Vonnegut’s dog loves people more than Kurt Vonnegut does, and what it feels like to be the most censored writer in America—and much, much more.
In each of these talks and short essays, Vonnegut takes pains to find the few things worth saying and a conversational voice to say them in that’s funny and serious and joyful even if sometimes without seeming so.
|Publisher:||Seven Stories Press|
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About the Author
Kurt Vonnegut (1922–2007) was among the very few grandmasters of late-twentieth-century American letters, one without whom the very term “American literature” would mean much less than it does now. Vonnegut’s other books from Seven Stories Press include his last major bestseller A Man Without a Country, as well as God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian and, with Lee Stringer, Like Shaking Hands with God.
In addition to these books, Seven Stories also publishes Kurt’s son Mark Vonnegut’s bestselling memoir, Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity, with a foreword by Kurt Vonnegut, and Gregory D. Sumner’s history of Vonnegut’s fourteen novels, Unstuck in Time: A Journey Through Kurt Vonnegut’s Life and Novels.
A longtime friend of Kurt Vonnegut’s, Dan Wakefield edited and introduced Kurt Vonnegut: Letters. Wakefield is the author of the memoirs New York in the Fifties and Returning: A Spiritual Journey. His novel, Going All the Way, was made into a movie starring Ben Affleck. Wakefield also created the NBC prime-time series, James at 15. He lives in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Date of Birth:November 11, 1922
Date of Death:April 11, 2007
Place of Birth:Indianapolis, Indiana
Place of Death:New York, New York
Education:Cornell University, 1940-42; Carnegie-Mellon University, 1943; University of Chicago, 1945-47; M.A., 1971
Read an Excerpt
HOW TO MAKE MONEY AND FIND LOVE!
Fredonia College, Fredonia, New York, May 20, 1978
As if that information weren't enough. Vonnegut explains why we laugh at jokes, why we are lonely, and why there are really six seasons in the year instead of only four.
Your class spokesperson has just said that she is sick and tired of hearing people say, "I'm glad I'm not a young person these days." All I can say is, "I'm glad I'm not a young person these days."
Your college's president wished to exclude all negative thinking from his farewell to you, and so has asked me to make this announcement: "All persons who still owe parking fees are to pay up before leaving the property, or there will be monkey business with their transcripts."
When I was a boy in Indianapolis, there was a humorist there named Kin Hubbard. He wrote a few lines for The Indianapolis News every day. Indianapolis needs all the humorists it can get. He was often as witty as Oscar Wilde. He said, for instance, that prohibition was better than no liquor at all. He said that whoever named near-beer was a poor judge of distance.
I assume that the really important stuff has been spread out over your four years here and that you have no need of anything much from me. This is lucky for me. I have only this to say, basically: this is the end — this is childhood's end for certain. "Sorry about that," as they used to say in the Vietnam War.
Perhaps you have read the novel Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke, one of the few masterpieces in the field of science fiction. All of the others were written by me. In Clarke's novel, the characters undergo spectacular evolutionary change. The children become very different from the parents, less physical, more spiritual — and one day they form up into a sort of column of light which spirals out into the universe, its mission unknown. The book ends there. You seniors, however, look a great deal like your parents, and I doubt that you will go radiantly into space as soon as you have your diplomas in hand. It is far more likely that you will go to Buffalo or Rochester or East Quogue — or Cohoes.
And I suppose you will all want money and true love, among other things. I will tell you how to make money: work very hard. I will tell you how to win love: wear nice clothing and smile all the time. Learn the words to all the latest songs.
What other advice can I give you? Eat lots of bran to provide necessary bulk in your diet. The only advice my father ever gave me was this: "Never stick anything in your ear." The tiniest bones in your body are inside your ears, you know — and your sense of balance, too. If you mess around with your ears, you could not only become deaf, but you could also start falling down all the time. So just leave your ears completely alone. They're fine, just the way they are.
Don't murder anybody — even though New York State does not use the death penalty.
That's about it.
One sort of optional thing you might do is to realize there are six seasons instead of four. The poetry of four seasons is all wrong for this part of the planet, and this may explain why we are so depressed so much of the time. I mean, Spring doesn't feel like Spring a lot of the time, and November is all wrong for Fall and so on. Here is the truth about the seasons: Spring is May and June! What could be springier than May and June? Summer is July and August. Really hot, right? Autumn is September and October. See the pumpkins? Smell those burning leaves. Next comes the season called "Locking." That is when Nature shuts everything down. November and December aren't Winter. They're Locking. Next comes Winter, January and February. Boy! Are they ever cold! What comes next? Not Spring. Unlocking comes next. What else could April be?
One more optional piece of advice: if you ever have to give a speech, start with a joke, if you know one. For years I have been looking for the best joke in the world. I think I know what it is. I will tell it to you, but you have to help me. You have to say, "No," when I hold up my hand like this. All right? Don't let me down.
Do you know why cream is so much more expensive than milk?
It is because the cows hate to squat on those little bottles.
That is the best joke I know. One time when I worked for the General Electric Company over in Schenectady, I had to write speeches for company officers. I put that joke about the cows and the little bottles in a speech for a vice president. He was reading along, and he had never heard the joke before. He couldn't stop laughing, and he had to be led away from the podium with a nosebleed. I was fired the next day.
How do jokes work? The beginning of each good one challenges you to think. We are such earnest animals. When I asked you about cream, you could not help yourselves. You really tried to think of a sensible answer. Why does a chicken cross the road? Why does a fireman wear red suspenders? Why did they bury George Washington on the side of a hill?
The second part of the joke announces that nobody wants you to think, nobody wants to hear your wonderful answer. You are so relieved to at last meet somebody who doesn't demand that you be intelligent. You laugh for joy.
I have in fact designed this entire speech so as to allow you to be as stupid as you like, without strain, and without penalties of any kind. I have even written a ridiculous song for the occasion. It lacks music, but we are up to our necks in composers. One is sure to come along. The words go like this:
Adios to teachers and pneumonia.
If I find out where the party is,
I'll telephone ya.
I love you so much, Sonya,
That I am going to buy you a begonia.
You love me, too, doan ya, Sonya?
See — you were trying to guess what the next rhyme was going to be. Nobody cares how smart you are.
I am being so silly because I pity you so much. I pity all of us so much. Life is going to be very tough again, just as soon as this is over. And the most useful thought we can hold when all hell cuts loose again is that we are not members of different generations, as unlike, as some people would have us believe, as Eskimos and Australian Aborigines. We are all so close to each other in time that we should think of ourselves as brothers and sisters. I have several children — seven, to be exact — too many children for an atheist, certainly. Whenever my children complain about the planet to me, I say, "Shut up! I just got here myself. Who do you think I am — Methuselah? You think I like the news of the day any better than you do? You're wrong."
We are all experiencing more or less the same lifetime now.
What is it the slightly older people want from the slightly younger people? They want credit for having survived so long, and often imaginatively, under difficult conditions. Slightly younger people are intolerably stingy about giving them credit for that.
What is it the slightly younger people want from the slightly older people? More than anything, I think, they want acknowledgement, and without further ado, that they are without question women and men now. Slightly older people are intolerably stingy about making any such acknowledgement.
Therefore, I take it upon myself to pronounce those about to graduate women and men. No one must ever treat them like children again. Neither must they ever act like children — ever again.
This is what is known as a puberty ceremony.
I realize that it is coming a little late, but better late than never. Every primitive society ever studied has had a puberty ceremony, at which former children became unchallengeably women and men. Some Jewish communities still honor this old practice, of course, and benefit from it, in my opinion. But, by and large, ultramodern, massively industrialized societies like ours have decided to do without puberty ceremonies — unless you want to count the issuance of drivers' licenses at the age of 16. If you want to count that as a puberty ceremony, then it has a highly unusual feature: a judge can take your puberty away again, even if you're as old as I am.
Another event in the lives of American and European males which might be considered a puberty ceremony is war. If a male comes home from a war, especially with serious wounds, everybody agrees: here indeed is a man. When I came home to Indianapolis from the Second World War in Germany, an uncle of mine said to me, "By golly — you look like a man now." I wanted to strangle him. If I had, he would have been the first German I'd killed. I was a man before I went to war, but he was damned if he would say so.
I suggest to you that the withholding of a puberty ceremony from young males in our society is a scheme, devised cunningly but subconsciously, to make those males eager to go to war, no matter how terrible or unjust a war may be. There are just wars, too, of course. The war I was eager to go to happened to be a just one.
And when does a female stop being a little girl and become a woman, with all the rights and privileges appertaining thereto? We all know the answer in our bones: when she has a baby in wedlock, of course. If she has that first baby out of wedlock, she is still a child. What could be simpler or more natural and more obvious than that — or, in these days and in this society, at least, more unjust, irrelevant, and just plain stupid?
I think we had better, for our own safety, reinstate puberty ceremonies.
I not only pronounce those about to graduate as women and men. With all the powers vested in me, I pronounce them Clarks as well. Most of you know, I'm sure, that all white people named Clark are descended from inhabitants of the British Isles who were remarkable for being able to read and write. A black person named Clark, of course, would be descended, most likely, from someone who was forced to work without pay or rights of any kind by a white person named Clark. An interesting family — the Clarks.
I realize that you graduates are all specialized in some way. But you have spent most of the past sixteen or more years learning to read and write. People who can do those things well, as you can, are miracles and, in my opinion, entitle us to suspect that we may be civilized after all. It is terribly hard to learn to read and write. It takes simply forever. When we scold our schoolteachers about the low reading scores of their students, we pretend that it is the easiest thing in the world: to teach a person to read and write. Try it sometime, and you will discover that it is nearly impossible.
What good is being a Clark, now that we have computers and movies and television? Clarking, a wholly human enterprise, is sacred. Machinery is not. Clarking is the most profound and effective form of meditation practiced on this planet, and far surpasses any dream experienced by a Hindu on a mountaintop. Why? Because Clarks, by reading well, can think the thoughts of the wisest and most interesting human minds throughout all history. When Clarks meditate, even if they themselves have only mediocre intellects, they do it with the thoughts of angels. What could be more sacred than that?
So much for puberty and Clarking. Only two major subjects remain to be covered: loneliness and boredom. No matter what age any of us is now, we are going to be bored and lonely during what remains of our lives.
We are so lonely because we don't have enough friends and relatives. Human beings are supposed to live in stable, like-minded, extended families of fifty people or more.
Your class spokesperson mourned the collapse of the institution of marriage in this country. Marriage is collapsing because our families are too small. A man cannot be a whole society to a woman, and a woman cannot be a whole society to a man. We try, but it is scarcely surprising that so many of us go to pieces.
So I recommend that everybody here join all sorts of organizations, no matter how ridiculous, simply to get more people in his or her life. It does not matter much if all the other members are morons. Quantities of relatives of any sort are what we need.
As for boredom: Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, a German philosopher who died seventy-eight years ago, had this to say: "Against boredom even the gods contend in vain." We are supposed to be bored. It is a part of life. Learn to put up with it, or you will not be what I have declared the members of this graduating class to be: mature women and men.
I come to a close now by noting that the press, whose business is to know and understand everything, often find young people to be apathetic (especially when pundits and commentators can't think of anything else to write about or talk about). The new generation of graduates has failed to eat a certain vitamin or mineral perhaps, iron perhaps. They have tired blood. They need Geritol. Well, as a member of a zippier generation, with sparkle in its eyes and a snap in its stride, let me tell you what kept us as high as kites a lot of the time: hatred. All my life I've had people to hate — from Hitler to Nixon, not that those two are at all comparable in their villainy. It is a tragedy, perhaps, that human beings can get so much energy and enthusiasm from hate. If you want to feel ten feet tall and as though you could run a hundred miles without stopping, hate beats pure cocaine any day. Hitler resurrected a beaten, bankrupt, half-starved nation with hatred and nothing more. Imagine that.
So it seems quite likely to me that young people of today in the United States of America are not in fact apathetic, but only look that way to people who are used to getting their ecstasies from hatred, among other things, of course. The members of your graduating class are not sleepy, are not listless, are not apathetic. They are simply performing the experiment of doing without hate. Hate is the missing vitamin or mineral or whatever in their diet, they have sensed correctly that hate, in the long run, is about as nourishing as cyanide. This is a very exciting thing they are doing, and I wish them well.CHAPTER 2
ADVICE TO GRADUATING WOMEN (THAT ALL MEN SHOULD KNOW!)
Agnes Scott College, Decatur, Georgia, May 15, 1999
In which the author answers the question that Freud asked, but never could figure out: "What do women want?" For good measure, he also reveals what men really want.
We love you, are proud of you, expect good things from you, and wish you well.
This is a long-delayed puberty ceremony. You are at last officially full-grown women — what you were biologically by the age of 15 or so. I am as sorry as I can be that it took so much time and money before you could at last be licensed as grown-ups.
Kin Hubbard, a newspaper humorist in my hometown of Indianapolis when I was growing up, wrote a joke a day for The Indianapolis News. One day, I remember, he said, "It's no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be." He said this about graduation addresses: "I think it would be better if colleges spread out the really important stuff over four years, instead of saving it all up for the very end."
But that's what you're going to get from me: all the really important stuff at the very end.
I am so smart I know what is wrong with the world. Everybody asks during and after our wars, and the continuing terrorist attacks all over the globe, "What's gone wrong?"
What has gone wrong is that too many people, including high school kids and heads of state, are obeying the Code of Hammurabi, a King of Babylonia who lived nearly four thousand years ago. And you can find his code echoed in the Old Testament, too. Are you ready for this?
"An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."
A categorical imperative for all who live in obedience to the Code of Hammurabi, which includes heroes of every cowboy show and gangster show you ever saw, is this: Every injury, real or imagined, shall be avenged. Somebody's going to be really sorry.
Bombs away — or whatever.
When Jesus Christ was nailed to a cross, he said, "Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do." What kind of a man was that? Any real man, obeying the Code of Hammurabi, would have said, "Kill them, Dad, and all their friends and relatives, and make their deaths slow and painful."
His greatest legacy to us, in my humble opinion, consists of only twelve words. They are the antidote to the poison of the Code of Hammurabi, a formula almost as compact as Albert Einstein's E = mc.
Jesus of Nazareth told us to say these twelve words when we prayed: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."
Bye-bye, Code of Hammurabi.
And for those words alone, he deserves to be called "the Prince of Peace."
Every act of war, every act of violence, even by a paranoid schizophrenic, celebrates Hammurabi and shows contempt for Jesus Christ.
Is anybody here a Presbyterian?
I want to warn you: Many people have been burned alive in public for believing what you believe. So watch your backs after you get out of here.
Some of you may know that I am a Humanist, or Freethinker, as were my parents and grandparents and great grandparents — and so not a Christian. By being a Humanist, I am honoring my mother and father, which the Bible tells us is a good thing to do.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "If This Isn't Nice, What Is?"
Copyright © 2016 Kurt Vonnegut Jr..
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 How to Make Money and Find Love! Fredonia College, Fredonia, New York, May 20, 1978 3
2 Advice to Graduating Women (That All Men Should Know!) Agnes Scott College, Decatur, Georgia, May 15, 1999 17
3 How to Have Something Most Billionaires Don't Rice University, Houston, Texas, October 12, 2001 33
4 How Music Cures Our Ills (And There Are Lots of Them) Eastern Washington University, Spokane, Washington, April 17, 2004 41
5 What the "Ghost Dance" of the Native Americans and the French Painters Who Led the Cubist Movement Have in Common The University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, February 17, 1994 67
6 How I Learned From a Teacher What Artists Do Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York, May 8, 1994 83
7 Don't Forget Where You Come From Butler University, Indianapolis, Indiana, May 11, 1996 91
8 Why Social Justice Does More than Art to Nourish the American Dream State University of New York at Albany, May 20, 1972 97
9 How to be a Wise Guy or a Wise Girl* Southampton College, Jane 7, 1981 113
10 Why You Cant Stop Me From Speaking Ill of Thomas Jefferson The Indiana Civil Liberties Union (Now The American Civil Liberties Union Of Indiana), Indianapolis, Indiana, September 16, 2000 127
11 Pont Despair If You Never Went to College! On Receiving the Carl Sandburg Award, Chicago, Illinois, October 12, 2001 139
12 How I Got My First Job as a Reporter and Learned to write in a simple, direct way, while not getting a Degree in Anthropology* From An Unsentimenal Education: Writers and Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1995 147
13 Somebody should have told me not to join a fraternity* "If I Knew Then What I Know Now: Advice to the Class of '9-4 from Those Who Know Best," Cornell Magazine, May 1994 159
14 The Most Censored writer of his Time Defends the first Amendment* "The Idea Killers, "Playboy Magazine, January 1984 161
15 My Dog Likes Everybody, But Was Not Inspired By Ancient Greece and Rome or the Renaissance* "Why My Dog Is Not a Humanist," The Humanist, November/December 1992 171
Unstuck in Time-Quotes to Ponder 181