Thursday, April 12, 2007

One of a Kind

Counterculture writer Kurt Vonnegut dies

You may enjoy reading this article Vonnegut wrote after being named American Humanist of the Year:

Why My Dog is Not a Humanist
by Kurt Vonnegut

The 1992 Humanist of the Year ponders the many meanings of "humanism" Kurt Vonnegut is honorary president of the American Humanist Association. On May 1, 1996, in Portland, Oregon, Vonnegut accepted the American Humanist of the Year Award. What follows is the text of this acceptance speech.

I was once a Boy Scout. The motto of the Boy Scouts, as you know, is ''Be Prepared'' So, several years ago I wrote a speech to be delivered in the event that I won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

It was only eight words long. I think I had better use it here. "Use it or lose it:" as the saying goes.

This is it: ''You have made me an old, old man''

I think I got this great honor because I've lasted so long. I dare to say of humanism what Lyndon Johnson said of politics. He said, ''Politics ain't hard. You just hang around and go to funerals.''

Forgive me if I am not solemn about my award tonight. I am here for your companionship and not any award.

Nicholas Murray Butler, the late president of Columbia University, was said by H. L. Mencken to have received more honorary degrees and medals and citations and so on than anyone else then on the planet. Mencken declared that all that remained to be done for him was to wrap him in sheet gold and burnish him until he blinded the sun itself.

This is not the first time I have been accused of being a humanist. All of 25 years ago, when I was teaching at the University of Iowa, a student all of a sudden said to me, ''I hear you're a humanist.''

I said, "Oh, yeah? What's a humanist?"

He said, ''That what I'm asking you. Aren't you getting paid to answer questions like that?''

I pointed out that my salary was a very modest one. I then gave him the names of several full professors who were making a heck of a lot more money than I was and who were doctors of philosophy besides--which I sure as heck wasn't, and which I am not now.

But his accusation stuck in my craw. And in the process of trying to cough it up so I could look at it, it occurred to me that a humanist, perhaps, was somebody who was crazy about human beings, who, like Will Rogers, had never met one he didn't like.

That certainly did not describe me.

It did describe my dog, though. His name was Sandy, although he wasn't a Scotsman. He was a puli--a Hungarian sheepdog with a face full of hair. I am a German, with a face full of hair.

I took Sandy to the little zoo in Iowa City. I expected him to enjoy the buffalo and the prairie dogs and the raccoons and the possoms and the foxes and the wolves and so on, and especially their stinks, which in the case of the buffalo were absolutely overwhelming.

But all Sandy paid any attention to was people, his tail wagging all the time. What a person looked like or smelled like didn't matter to Sandy. It could be a baby. It could be a drunk who hated dogs. It could be a young woman as voluptuous as Marilyn Monroe. It could have been Hitler. It could have been Eleanor Roosevelt. Whoever it was, Sandy would have wagged his tail.

I disqualified him as a humanist, though, after reading in the Encyclopedia Britannica that humanists were inspired by ancient Greece and Rome at their most rational, and by the Renaissance. No dog, not even Rin Tin Tin or Lassie, has ever been that. Humanists, moreover, I learned, were strikingly secular in their interests and enthusiasms, did not try to factor God Almighty into their equations, so to speak, along with all that could be seen and heard and felt and smelled and tasted in the here and now. Sandy obviously worshipped not just me but simply any person as though he or she were the creator and manager of the universe.

He was simply too dumb to be a humanist.

Sir Isaac Newton, incidentally, did think that was a reason able thing to do--to factor in a conventional God Almighty, along with whatever else might be going on. I don't believe Benjamin Franklin ever did. Charles Darwin pretended to do that, because of his place in polite society. But he was obviously very happy, after his visit to the Galapagos Islands, to give up that pretense. That was only 150 years ago.

As long as I've mentioned Franklin, let me digress a moment. He was a Freemason, as were Voltaire and Frederick the Great, and so were Washington and Jefferson and Madison.

Most of us here, I guess, would be honored if it was said that such great human beings were our spiritual ancestors. So why isn't this a gathering of Freemasons?

Can somebody here, after this speech, if you don't mind, tell me what went wrong with Freemasonry?

This much I think I understand: in Franklin's time--and in Voltaire's--Freemasonry was perceived as being anti Catholic. To be a Freemason was cause for excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church.

As the Roman Catholic population of this country grew by leaps and bounds, to be anti Catholic--in New York and Chicago and Boston, at least--was political suicide. It was also business suicide.

None of my real ancestors, blood ancestors, genetic ancestors in this country--every one of them of German decent--was a Freemason, so far as I know, and I am the fourth generation Vonnegut to be born here. Before World War I, though, a lot of them took part in the activities of a highly respectable but not impossibly serious organization much like this one, which they called ''the Freethinkers.''

There are a few Americans who call themselves that still--some of you in this room, no doubt. But the Freethinkers no longer exist as an organized presence of which communities are aware. This is because the movement was so overwhelmingly German American, and most German Americans found it prudent to abandon all activities that might make them seem apart from the general population when we entered World War I. Many Freethinkers, incidentally, were German Jews.

My great grandfather Clemens Vonnegut, an immigrant merchant from Munster, became a Freethinker after reading Darwin. In Indianapolis, there is a public school named after him. He was head of the school board there for many years.

So the sort of humanism I represent, to which I am an heir, draws energy not from the Renaissance or from an idealized pre Christian Greece and Rome but, rather, from very recent scientific discoveries and modes of seeking truth.

I myself at one time tried to become a biochemist--as did our darling, terribly missed brother Isaac Asimov. He actually became one. I didn't have a chance. He was smarter than me. We both knew that, incidentally. He is in heaven now.

My paternal grandfather and father were both architects, restructuring the reality of Indianapolis with meticulously measured quantities of materials whose presence--unlike that of a conventional God Almighty--could not be doubted: wood and steel, sand and lime and stone, copper, brass, bricks.

My only surviving sibling, Dr. Bernard Vonnegut, eight years my senior, is a physical chemist who thinks and thinks about the distribution of electrical charges in thunderstorms.

But now my big brother, like Isaac Asimov near the end of his life, surely, and like most of us here, has to admit that the fruits of science so far, put into the hands of governments, have turned out to be cruelties and stupidities exceeding by far those of the Spanish Inquisition and Genghis Khan and Ivan the Terrible and most of the demented Roman emperors, not excepting Heliogabalus.

Heliogabalus had a hollow iron bull in his banquet hall that had a door in its side. Its mouth was a hole, so sound could get out. He would have a human being put inside the bull and then a fire built on a hearth under its belly, so that the guests at his banquets would be entertained by the noises the bull made.

We modern humans roast people alive, tear their arms and legs off, or whatever, using airplanes or missile launchers or ships or artillery batteries--and do not hear their screams.

When I was a little boy in Indianapolis, I used to be thankful that there were no longer torture chambers with iron maidens and racks and thumbscrews and Spanish boots and so on. But there may be more of them now than ever--not in this country but elsewhere, often in countries we call our friends. Ask the Human Rights Watch. Ask Amnesty International if this isn't so. Don't ask the U.S. State Department.

And the horrors of those torture chambers--their powers of persuasion--have been upgraded, like those of warfare, by applied science, by the domestication of electricity and the de tailed understanding of the human nervous system, and so on.

Napalm, incidentally, is a gift to civilization from the chemistry department of Harvard University.

So science is yet another human made God to which I, unless in a satirical mood, an ironical mood, a lampooning mood, need not genuflect.

© Humanist, Nov 92, Vol. 52:6.5-6.