Department of Nostalgia

Fine Here Is Your Bloody Kurt Vonnegut

I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different.When November 11 rolls around, it’s pretty common to see this Kurt Vonnegut quote about the date trotted out, and god knows we’ve done it ourselves a few times in the past ourselves. But it’s an awesome quote anyway, and since Vonnegut was never afraid of flirting with cliché, neither will we. Let’s have a nice rummage through the mental attic with Uncle Kurt:

So this book is a sidewalk strewn with junk, trash which I throw over my shoulders as I travel in time back to November eleventh, nineteen hundred and twenty-two.

I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.

So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.

What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance.

And all music is.

Breakfast of Champions (1973)

It’s just such a wonderfully Vonnegut-y quote, for all the terrific reasons there are to love and maybe be a little embarrassed by Vonnegut: The short, clipped sentences. The backwards time travel. The affectation of spelling out the year. The “men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind” — Jesus, that’s a lovely line! The definitive declarations that sound like pure Truth, but on reflection are, OK, kind of simplistic. The self-aware nostalgia and sentimentality, even as he cautions against nostalgia and sentimentality. And Romeo and Juliet, for chrissakes? Not King Lear, at least? In some ways, loving Vonnegut is such an adolescent thing to do, and sometimes it feels like Vonnegut is a writer that you ought to have grown out of. It’s a problem that Vonnegut was himself quite aware of, of course, as he noted in his interview with Playboy, also from 1973:

I deal with sophomoric questions that full adults regard as settled. I talk about what is God like, what could He want, is there a heaven, and, if there is, what would it be like? This is what college sophomores are into; these are the questions they enjoy having discussed. And more mature people find these subjects very tiresome, as though they’re settled.

By the time you’re in grad school, you know better than to talk about Vonnegut as if he were quite as deep as you were sure he was at seventeen. Grownup Serious Lit Students are allowed to quote Vonnegut as much as they want, as long as they treat him as an affectionate artifact they’ve outgrown, like model airplanes hanging from the ceiling or stuffed animals on a dorm bed. And then after you’re comfortably past the one-upmanship of a graduate seminar, you can go back to just enjoying Kurt Vonnegut all over again, even if you no longer zoom a plastic B-25 Mitchell bomber around your room (though maybe that’s more of a Joseph Heller thing, anyway).

The other Vonnegut quote about Armistice Day turning into Veteran’s Day comes from Mother Night (1961), and doesn’t get quoted nearly as often, but we like it for its explicit grumping about the motivation for the holiday’s metamorphosis:

“Oh, it’s just so damn cheap, so damn typical.” I said, “This used to be a day in honor of the dead of World War One, but the living couldn’t keep their grubby hands off of it, wanted the glory of the dead for themselves. So typical, so typical. Any time anything of real dignity appears in this country, it’s torn to shreds and thrown to the mob.”

We’ll agree that the quote from Breakfast of Champions, as worked out over a decade later, is a grander, more quotable passage, but there’s something awfully nice about the raw bitchiness of the earlier version. It’s sort of surprising to us that we haven’t seen any online pairings of the two, either — after all, yet another of the fun things about reading Vonnegut is seeing him turn over ideas again and again in his novels, taking them through their permutations like a Tralfamadorian looking through time.

It also seems fitting that, on what would have been Vonnegut’s 90th birthday, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis sponsored an event called “Veterans Reclaim Armistice Day: Healing Through the Humanities.” We’re also rather happy that this summer, we bought Kid Zoom his own copy of Slaughterhouse-Five, which we were relieved to learn he loved.

There are some things it might be a mistake to grow out of.

So happy Kurt Vonnegut’s birthday, and a peaceful Armistice / Veterans Day. Since there’s few things more fun than quoting Uncle Kurt, here are a couple of collections of Vonnegut quotes. And since the man liked music, here’s a song for Armistice – Remembrance – Veterans Day, Eric Bogle’s “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda”:

And may you spend the day, like Howard W. Campbell Jr. on VJ Day, walking around with a Purple Heart on.

OK, that quote is totally guy-centric; need something for the Ladeez, also from Breakfast of Champions:

Roses are red
And ready for plucking
You’re sixteen
And ready for high school.

[Mother Night / Breakfast of Champions]

About the author

Doktor Zoom Is the pseudonym of Marty Kelley, who lives in Boise, Idaho. He acquired his nym from a fan of Silver-Age comics after being differently punctual to too many meetings. He is not a medical doctor, although he has a real PhD (in Rhetoric and Composition).

View all articles by Doktor Zoom
What Others Are Reading

Hola wonkerados.

To improve site performance, we did a thing. It could be up to three minutes before your comment appears. DON'T KEEP RETRYING, OKAY?

Also, if you are a new commenter, your comment may never appear. This is probably because we hate you.

168 comments

  1. Hammiepants

    I find "The Catcher in the Rye" to be MUCH more annoying, but then TCITR IS about an annoying adolescent.

    1. Misty Malarky

      He also managed the first SAAB dealership in the U.S. of A. It failed in less than a year.

      He jokingly blamed his failure at selling SAABs to Americans as the reason Sweden never gave him a Nobel Prize in Literature.

    1. StillGoinGreen

      But I got my free lunch from BJ's today. They charged me $3 for a coke, but my crappy chicken teriyaki was free… for FREEDOM!!

  2. Botlrokit

    Any time anything of real dignity appears in this country, it’s torn to shreds and thrown to the mob.

    I have hundreds of bibles. When do we start?!

  3. Jerri

    There are some things it might be a mistake to grow out of.

    So firmly, and unapologetically in this camp I should probably be embarrassed. And yet.

  4. prommie

    I hate when people trot out hackneyed cliches like "trot out," and then try to hipsterize their cliche'-trotting by all but air-quoting the trotting cliche' hackney thus bringing the meta-cliche' of referencing their awareness of the hackneyed nature of their cliche' trotting to the table, with that little eye-rolling thing they do.

    1. Botlrokit

      According to the host from Almost Live!, you've achieved middle-age once Neil Young's lyrics make sense.

    1. Lot_49

      Gunther? Heinz? Friedrich? Rudolf? All German boy names are übermenschlich. Well, "Adolf" is a bit sissified.

  5. MissTaken

    But according to my Facebook, the only thing important about yesterday was the birthday of the Marine Corps. What's this crap about Veterans and Armistice?

    1. UnholyMoses

      the only thing important about yesterday was the birthday of the Marine Corps.

      Even though the USMC b-day was Saturday.

        1. UnholyMoses

          And I bet they posted an image of someone in camo, not realizing it was an Army guy, like Fox News did. (Can't find a pic, but … yeah. Not surprising they goofed it.)

  6. Lot_49

    Maybe Armistice Day got hijacked by veterans. But there's still a day to honor the dead, although fewer and fewer remember that that is its purpose, rather than kicking off summer. It's called Memorial Day, which itself got hijacked from "Decoration Day." So one day for the survivors and one day for those who didn't make it home seems like a reasonable division of holidays.

    Here's Dan Wakefield, editor of Vonnegut's letters, in yesterday's NYT Book Review:

    My 16-year-old goddaughter was entranced reading his short story “Harrison Bergeron” in high school last year, and my friend Shaun O’Connell, an English professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, affirmed that “it’s hard to get students now to read Updike and Roth, but they still love Vonnegut.”

    Tolstoy and Shakespeare don't stand a chance if popularity with college students is the standard. How's Richard Brautigan's reputation holding up these days?

    1. Doktor Zoom

      I also think that, by the time the quote had evolved to its Breakfast Of Champions version (and after all that Vietnam stuff in the intervening decade) Vonnegut was also grouchy that a holiday commemorating the moment the guns fell silent had been repurposed to celebrate the guys who fought. I'm pretty sure he'd have been fine if there were a third holiday for vets, as long as Armistice Day hung around. But a Peace holiday never had a chance.

      EDIT: I get the NYT on my e-reader device every week, but never seem to make it as far as the Book Review. I'll be sure to this week — thanks!

      1. Defeatably_Joe

        That is definitely the part that always kinda bugged me, admittedly. I mean, our veterans do deserve respect and care, they are the modern-day human sacrifice, given themselves up to be destroyed, body, mind, and spirit, in furtherance of impulses we should have long outgrown as a species. But, at the same time, there's something to be said for a holiday to commemorate Peace, instead of, or at least in addition to those commemorating the blood-stained altar of nationalism.

  7. SayItWithWookies

    Funny, I tend to remember Kurt Vonnegut on February 13th, which is Billy Pilgrim's birthday as well as the anniversary of the Dresden firebombing, before realizing I don't know Vonnegut's real birthday. And if it's any consolation, I find Armistice Day just as preposterous and horrific as Vonnegut found Veteran's Day. For a load of laughs, I'd suggest Alistair Horne's The Price of Glory, an account of the Battle of Verdun in which the term "meat grinder" comes up with stark overabundance.

  8. nounverb911

    While we are being nostalgic for better days can I recommend some Ogden Nash?

    Candy
    Is dandy
    But liquor
    Is quicker.

    1. actor212

      Or Dorothy Parker

      She’s perfect. Perfect! Quite a maid!
      Charming, bright, and full of vigor.
      But we all know what got her laid;
      I had tits, but hers were bigger.

      1. Misty Malarky

        Here lies the body of Mary Lee;
        died at the age of a hundred and three.
        For fifteen years she kept her virginity;
        not a bad record for this vicinity.

        Quint – JAWS

  9. MiniMencken

    I'm still try to puzzle out why, in the last year or so of his life, he explained himself to the New York Times art director Jerelle Kraus by saying he saw himself as "an old peace fig." Why not a peace kumquat? Quince? Anybody?

  10. MissTaken

    It's embarrassing to admit (obviously, I was not a lit or any other liberal arts major), but the first time I head of Kurt was in Bridget Jones' Diary and the annoying PR line about the shitty book her publisher was pushing. Something, searing vision, something, wounds this century has inflicted on traditional masculinity, it's positively Vonnegut-esque. I had no clue what she was talking about.

    I fully accept the drop in my p-ness this will undoubtedly cause.

      1. MissTaken

        Actually, yes! I was looking at his philosophy books once and had to ask how to pronounce Nietzsche. Then I explained what a credit default swap is. That was when he realized I was unlike the other girls he knew.

        1. SorosBot

          And I very much appreciate that; it's very sexy when you go into econ expert mode, even if a lot of what you say flies over my head.

  11. LibertyLover

    (warning, I wish this was snark, but it isn't)

    I have spent time since last Wednesday with my mother in another state while she marinated in the post mortem of the election through the eyes of Fox News. It was yesterday, the day that she put out the flag in honor of Veteran's Day, that we got into an argument about what the election meant for the country. I tried to comfort her that it was going to be ok and that her fears about Obama were unfounded. That it would be ok, after all, I understood how she felt, having lived through G. W. Bush's re-election in 2004.
    She would have none of it. And spouted lie after lie that she had "learned" on Fox News. I tried to refute each and every one, but there were too many to counter the sheer number of the lies and distortions. Until finally, I asked her if she wanted to go to war with Iran and if she knew what that meant. and she said one big bomb would take care of them.

    So on Armistace Day, my Fox news brainwashed parent, was wishing and hoping for another war. Oh, the irony.

    I still love Vonnegut. I loved his rare appearances on talk shows. He was witty and charming.
    I think I'll go dig out my copies of Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions and read a little sanity.

    1. Geminisunmars

      My condolences, LibLover. I commend you for growing up rational in that environment. My parents, while psychopaths, at least were liberals.

    2. PugglesRule

      Anyone who can read Slaughterhouse Five and Vonnegut's descriptions of the firebombing of Dresden and not weep probably has no soul. Or works for Fox News.

    3. DemmeFatale

      I extricated my liberal Mom from The Villages in FL, (I call it Glennbeckistan), and I have never encountered such mean and willfully ignorant people.
      She kept trying to tell me that it was just a Democrat vs. Republican situation, and that they disagreed with her, but that everyone simply wanted what was good for the country.
      I tried to tell her that these were not old-school Repubs she was dealing with, and that they were toxic. She dismissed my concerns.
      I guess delusional thinking can be found everywhere.

    4. Redgyal

      Well you might be pleased to know then that the Catholic Church issued a letter to everyone urging us to work together for the sake of the country. Also to put politics aside and be neutral. So

  12. Esteev

    "The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by our nation." — George Washington

  13. Goonemeritus

    Seeing how the last WW I veteran passed away last year I doubt they are overly concerned with this change.

  14. cousinitt

    Can we have a day to remember and revile American leaders who order the naive and the proud to die for no reason at all?

  15. Pap Finn

    Many moons ago, I used to sit in the back row of my high school algebra class, reading Vonnegut novels. I was in thrall to two gigantically mistaken beliefs: (1) I thought I was too cool for anything, and (2) I thought I was immortal. That little literate Fonzie act did, however, attract the attention of one of my classmates, and lo, a few short months later we relieved each other of our virginity, The End.

    Sorry. I get all sloppily nostalgic when Vonnegut comes up. *sniff* (cue Bob Seger's 'Night Moves'.)

  16. Misty Malarky

    Also by Vonnegut:

    Sally in the garden shifting cinders
    Lifted up her leg and farted like a man.

    The bursting of her drawers broke sixteen windows
    The cheeks of her ass went *clap*clap*clap*

    Jailbird – Kurt Vonnegut

  17. Monsieur_Grumpe

    Nice, nice very nice.

    When I was very young my mother got me a copy of Welcome to the Monkey House. Thanks mom!

    1. Doktor Zoom

      When I was 14 I read the title story in some generic SF collection from the Catholic church youth group's lending shelf. I made the mistake of reading aloud the couplet about the side effects of Ethical Birth Control, which I found hilarious:

      So mourn my pecker, purple daughter
      all it passed was sky-blue water.

      Mom took the book to the priest and said that they needed to more carefully screen what the church allowed impressionable young folks access to.

      And really, she was right. Vonnegut was a gateway to a whole lot of dangerous ideas.

      1. natl_[redacted]_cmdr

        "So mourn my pecker, purple daughter
        all it passed was sky-blue water."

        He fucked a can of Hamm's?

  18. LibertyLover

    Along with my towel, I always travel across the Galaxy with a copy of Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five and being a liberal, I always catch that free ride.

        1. UnholyMoses

          That's a secret.

          But, as a hint, let me just type that if this damn robot doesn't cheer up soon and get me my sammich …

  19. memzilla

    Months of grinding routine and minutes of gut-dropping terror gave the Great War soldier a healthy skepticism of authority and what non-soldiers would call a sick sense of humor, but which is actually a survival coping mechanism.

    Vonnegut got it.

    Viz: "The Bells of Hell Go Ting-a-ling-a-ling:"

    The bells of hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling,
    For you but not for me,
    And the little devils how they sing-a-ling-a-ling,
    For you but not for me.
    Oh death, where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling,
    Oh grave, thy victory?
    The bells of hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling
    For you but not for me.

    And for the Chickenhawks, (I'm looking at you all, Mittens and Rove and Cheney), "I Wore A Tunic:"

    I wore a tunic,
    A dirty khaki tunic,
    And you wore your civvie clothes,
    We fought and bled at Loos
    While you were on the booze,
    The booze that no one here knows.
    You were out with the wenches
    While we were in the trenches
    Facing an angry foe.
    Oh, you were a-slacking
    While we were attacking
    The Germans on the Menin Road.

    Happy Armistice Day (which was actually yesterday).

  20. LibertyLover

    The finest quote I ever heard about war, came from a movie:

    "There's not much I can tell you about this war. It's like all wars, I guess. The undertakers are winning. And the politicians who talk about the glory of it. And the old men who talk about the need of it. And the soldiers, well, they just wanna go home."

    1. TribecaMike

      True that. Here's a personal fave from Sam Fuller's The Big Red One, which takes place during WWII:

      Johnson: Would you look at how fast they put up the names of all our guys who got killed?
      The Sergeant: That's a World War One memorial.
      Johnson: But the names are the same.
      The Sergeant: They always are.

      1. LibertyLover

        The only thing that I would add to that quote above that I mentioned would be this:
        "The war profiteers are always winning too."

  21. UW8316154

    I just finished reading "God Bless You Mr. Rosewater' as a tribute to the election. The money grubbing and class struggles are a fitting reflection of Romney's America.

  22. slithytoves

    Thanks Dok. I actually knew Kurt and he was every bit the fine human being that he appeared to be.

  23. sullivanst

    Very thoughtful of you, Dok, not to make me cry at work by picking a different Eric Bogle song in remembrance of WWI.

    Apparently there was nearly a riot when Bogle claimed the song as his own in an Irish bar where they were convinced it was totally the Fureys'.

    1. memzilla

      And when they ask us,
      how dangerous it was,
      Oh, we'll never tell them, no, we'll never tell them:
      We spent our pay in some cafe,
      And fought wild women night and day,
      'Twas the cushiest job we ever had.
      And when they ask us, and they're certainly going to ask us,
      The reason why we didn't win the Croix de Guerre,
      Oh, we'll never tell them, oh, we'll never tell them
      There was a front, but damned if we knew where.

      1. sullivanst

        Well now I know where the inspiration for the end of the last episode of Blackadder Goes Forth came from…

        1. memzilla

          According to the comment, that end scene showed 10,000 crosses. Each one required a hole to be dug; Attenborough wept while recounting that.

          By comparison, the Thiepval Memorial commemorates just the 72,000+ unidentified Allied casualties at The Somme.

          1. sullivanst

            Yeah, I've been to Thiepval, Tyne Cot, and Menin Gate. Those places'll make a pacifist outta most people, but the most somber place we visited was Langemark.

    1. CthuNHu

      Though it'd be nice, and certainly interesting, to have a sizable raging and feverish sector of the populace, influential vastly beyond their numbers, demanding that all America bow before and utterly accept the blazing truth of their pure patriotic and self-evident political creed, derived entirely from repeated passionately worshipful readings of the complete unedited works of Kurt Vonnegut and of no other writer or political thinker whatsoever.

    1. Bezoar

      Now wait a minute, "Gangnam Style" is a hilarious send-up of the pretensions of the Korean nouveau-riche, and, was morphed perfectly into the great "Mitt Romney Style", which is well worth Googling up.

  24. RedStatePinko

    Not that there's anything wrong with it, but as an agnostic-tending-toward-atheism, the one spiritual principle I am trying to implement is to emulate the Buddha, defined as one who is madly in love with all beings. Before I can begin to move on to fleas, I need to get past my hesitancy to be in love with men. So far I've gotten past my reticence in this regard with Joey Ramone (dead, which helps, and "in love" in a kind of nurturing, wishing I had breast milk sort of way), and Willie Nelson (=Santa Claus). Let today mark the occasion that Kurt joined that group.

  25. Guppy

    And then after you’re comfortably past the one-upmanship of a graduate seminar

    My STEM BS and I will be over in the corner, pretending to be involved in the conversation.

  26. weejee

    Fifteen years back Mrs. weejee & I took our 15-year old twins on an east coast baseball tour following the Mariners. Between Camden Yard in Baltimore and Fenway in Boston, we took the train to DC to tour some terrazzo. Although work brought me back to DC many times I had never gone to the Vietnam Memorial. On our baseball trip we decided to swing by. After leaving the Lincoln Memorial we headed to the wall. Before we got there we ran into this statue. It caught me off guard and I broke down and just started to sob, really bawl. The kids and the Mrs. were quite patient with Dad and when I got my shit together we went on to Maya Lin's so beautiful, but tragic wall. Although I knew too many names that are etched on the wall I was okay there, as I was prepared. Dok's post here today, like the statue did 15 years ago, caught me unprepared. War is so horrible, it really is.

  27. jodyleek

    As always, I'm a bit late to the party. I didn't read Vonnegut in my youth. In fact, I just started a month ago. Since October, I have read ten of his books. After reading "Breakfast of Champions" I was hooked. No other author's work has prompted me to read and read and read some more. I've fallen in love with a dead man and I am not ashamed. Hi ho!

  28. natl_[redacted]_cmdr

    OT and I'm not sure if anyone posted this already but the sexy bisexual atheist Kyrsten Sinema won a seat in Congress!

  29. Monsieur_Grumpe

    I had a job as a technician in a public library. One of my jobs was to preview 16mm movies (Google it kids) for the library for possible purchase. I was the first filter. One movie came through that was an interview with Kurt Vonnegut. He came off surprising normal and I found that a little disappointing. But he seemed like the kind of guy that would have been a hell of a lot of fun to hang around.

  30. usuhname

    If he thinks Veterans day is bad, wait until we make it into Camo Day! The day when everyone wears camo Because America!

  31. sati_demise

    'A Man Without A Country' should be required reading for anyone studying the Bush years.

    Thanks for some Kurt V. today…

  32. LibrarianX

    "Maturity is a bitter disappointment for which no remedy exists, unless laughter could be said to remedy anything."
    Kurt Vonnegut

  33. ttommyunger

    I am embarrassed, humiliated and infuriated every year about this time here in Dumfukistan. A day which should be spent in solemn reflection over the loss of our loved ones is instead peppered with one martial celebration of organized mayhem after another, lionizing the patriotic blood lust we call war. As a veteran, I would like very much to be left alone on Veterans Day, but then that's true of most days.

  34. Steverino247

    My favorite Vonnegut story is "The Big Space Fuck." It's in one of the Harlan Ellison Dangerous Visions books. Just great stuff.

  35. MosesInvests

    If you ever find yourself in England, go to any small village, to the square in front of the church. There, you'll find the WWI memorial. And it will have the name of almost every young man from the village on it. Sometimes, the memorial will list the date of death-and it's often the same day for all of them. A whole generation from a village would get wiped out in one charge against the German machine guns. Hard to believe that it really wasn't "The War to End All Wars". I wish that it had been.

  36. Ground Zero Mostel

    When my life flashes before my eyes, I will see among other things, Kurt Vonnegut one Palm Sunday giving a sermon at St. Clemont's (The Actor's Church) in which he explained that Jesus had a sense of humor and was making a joke when he told Judas, "The poor you will always have with you."

  37. TootsStansbury

    The GOP overreached and therefore met their demise so it goes. Their feet were a beautiful shade of azure.

  38. decentcitizen

    In my youth I attended a prestigious private school. The "best" student of my class proclaimed any child could write as well as JV. What an idiot!

  39. Oblios_Cap

    I got to see him speak on campus with William Styron and Joseph Heller. And it was free.

    It was time well spent.

Comments are closed.