May 24, 2020
Dear Kurt Vonnegut,
You have been called “our most distinguished and indispensable grouch.”
You have been described as “a satirist with a heart, a moralist with a whoopee cushion, a cynic who wants to believe.”
In your book entitled Breakfast of Champions, we find there a very short story entitled “The Dancing Fool” which is about the perennial human frustration of communication failure and breakdown. You know the plot. “A flying saucer creature named Zog arrived on Earth to explain how wars could be prevented and how cancer could be cured. He brought the information from Margo, a planet where the natives conversed by means of farts and tap dancing. Zog landed at night in Connecticut. He had no sooner touched down than he saw a house on fire. He rushed into the house, farting and tap dancing, warning the people about the terrible danger they were in. The head of the house brained Zog with a golfclub.”
“Laughs,” you have said, “are exactly as honorable as tears. Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion, to the futility of thinking and striving anymore.” You went on to say, “I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward—and since I can start thinking and striving again that much sooner.”
“Incidentally,” you said later on, in a 2003 interview with The Progressive, “I am honorary president of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the great science fiction writer and biochemist Dr. Isaac Asimov. John Updike, who is religious, says I talk more about God than any seminarian.”
Kurt, this is all so good. Our most distinguished and indispensable grouch, indeed. Moralist with a whoopee cushion. Believer in the power of laughter in the face of frustration and exhaustion. Humanist who talks about God constantly.
Who just happened to grow up in an influential free-thinking Unitarian family. That’s why this Unitarian Universalist minister dares to write this letter to you. Your grandfather and father were the architects of the Unitarian church in your hometown, Indianapolis. You once mentioned how “The minister said one Easter Sunday that, if we listened closely to the bell on his church, we would hear it was singing, over and over again, ‘No hell, no hell, no hell.’”
When you delivered the Ware Lecture at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in 1984, you said, “In order not to seem a spiritual quadriplegic to strangers trying to get a fix on me, I sometimes say I’m a Unitarian Universalist. So that denomination claims me as one of their own.”
I and we do it shamelessly, Kurt. You are one of our own. The church I serve, West Shore, would be a congenial home to you, you with your unique Humanist vision that speaks so powerfully to Unitarian Universalists today.
Even when cussing is involved. You simply excel at cussing, and I have to say that that’s an additional attraction for me, who was born into a family of prodigious cussers. When I let one fly, sometimes a person will say, “But you are a minister!” I can’t help but follow up mentioning a scientific study of cussers and the scientific conclusion that they are, on the whole, more imaginative and intelligent than non-cussers.
That would certainly help explain imaginative, intelligent, and excellent you.
For example, this thing you call “Bokononism.” In Unitarian Universalist circles, there’s an adult religious education curriculum called “Building Your Own Theology,” and that’s what you do in all your books but most especially in Cat’s Cradle, where you flesh out an entire new religion called “Bokononism.” Wikipedia gives us a wicked-good and wicked-fast summary: “Bokononism is based on the concept of foma, which are defined as harmless untruths. A foundation of Bokononism is that the religion, including its texts, is formed entirely of lies; however, one who believes and adheres to these lies will have peace of mind, and perhaps live a good life. The primary tenet of Bokononism is to ‘Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.’”
How different this is from fear-based religion, where truth is used to threaten people into submission as well as to justify cruel actions which are done piously, “in God’s name.”
Reminds me of something I said to a reporter several years back, which happened to get national press in USA Today. “Rev. Anthony Makar, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta … says that ‘Unitarians would rather be kind than right. In our tradition, you get to be wrong. God is big. God is magnificent. You can’t tell me that we know everything there is to know about God yet.” That’s the quote. Unitarian Universalists are just not about fear—fear that if we don’t get it right, right NOW, we’re going to hell. Fear that if someone we love doesn’t get it right, right NOW, not only are they going to hell, but we have to fix them, we have to force them to change their ways.
I say we throw all that fear out, and your Bokononism says that too. “Live by the foma [the harmless untruths] that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.” The irony is that if we do, no doubt we will very spontaneously and very naturally live into at least moral truth, if not scientific truth. And do that without being piously obnoxious towards others or ourselves.
Bokononism. A moment ago I said that you made it up out of whole cloth, and you did a thorough job of it. You even gave it its own set of scriptures. You sketched out the Bible for Bokononism. Title page says this: “Don’t be a fool! Close this book at once! It is nothing but foma!”
But then you went on to share these in-the-beginning verses:
Verse 1: All of the true things that I am about to tell you are shameless lies.
Verses 2-4: In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness. And God said, “Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done.” And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man. Mud-as-man alone could speak. God leaned close as mud-as-man sat up, looked around, and spoke. Man blinked. “What is the purpose of all this?” he asked politely.
“Everything must have a purpose?” asked God.
“Certainly,” said man.
“Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,” said God.
And God went away.
Kurt, honestly, I’m not sure it’s accurate to call your untruths “harmless”—or “untruths.”
What is for sure is that every religion gives the world a creation story—you knew this perfectly well, trained as you were in anthropology by your professors at the University of Chicago—and now you present to the world Bokononism’s version.
Which is genuinely profound, whoopee cushion and all.
And strongly resonant with Unitarian Universalism’s Fifth Principle. The very first words out of the newly created mud-as-man’s mouth are “What is the purpose of all this?” The very first human words of all are ones “affirming the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
From the first mud-as-man, to the mud-as-man and -woman here and now. The mud and mess of our ever-so-fragile lives…
In your case, Kurt, you grew up experiencing the explosions of a mentally ill mother who would fall into fits of uncontrollable screaming and hurl horrible accusations against her husband, your father. (My mother was like that too.) She went on to commit suicide on Mother’s Day, 1944.
I’m so sorry.
1944 was also when you were in the army. As for what that was like for you, your book Slaughterhouse Five reveals some of your experience. At the Battle of the Bulge, your unit scouted for the army behind enemy lines and was captured by the Germans, taken eventually to the city of Dresden and forced to work in a vitamin factory.
“Slaughterhouse Five” was the meat locker you slept in at night and also what saved you when the Allies carpet-bombed the city, killing over one hundred thousand civilians. Even though Dresden was a purely civilian target and had had no militarily strategic value at all.
After you were saved, you and the other POWs were forced “to work as corpse miners, breaking into shelters” and cellars “where [as you say] 135,000 Hansels and Gretels had been baked like gingerbread men.”
Later, when you returned home to the states, you discovered that there was little to nothing in the news about what had happened to Dresden—that human tragedy you had lived through. It taught you to distrust government. Radicalized you thoroughly. It was a reason for why you were one of the pre-eminent protesters against Vietnam. Why you so thoroughly despised the foreign policy of President George W. Bush, and why you once said, “The only difference between Bush and Hitler is that Hitler was elected.”
Kurt, don’t hold back! What do you really think about W?
There’s definitely been mud and mess in your life. I could go on and on. Every one of us could, about our own mud and mess. People are so very fragile. And, as you say, there is no larger meaning to it. This is part and parcel of your humanism. People find themselves existing. People find themselves pregnant with questions. But whatever answers people come up with can only be temporary, useful in the here-and-now, not absolute, not rooted in a larger divine plan. “Harmless untruths,” right?
Or you put it this way: “All persons, living and dead, are purely coincidental.” “We humanists,” you say, “try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishment in an afterlife.”
“Everything must have a purpose?” asked God.
“Certainly,” said man.
“Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,” said God.
And He went away.
Kurt, the humanist in you feels continually the absence of God and searches constantly for the God who isn’t there. You’re a cynic who wants to believe. You once said that “people don’t come to church for preachments, but to daydream about God.”
Mmm… I wonder what my congregation would have to say about that as a definition for “worship.”
For myself, I will say that the daydreaming you speak of has to do with creativity. God leaves us holding the bag of all our questions, and the questions don’t let us go. They nag at us until we do something about it. We have to grapple with them using pluck, courage, determination, imagination, and all that is best in the human spirit. “So it goes” (which is your famous catchphrase) is just a way of saying “Stuff happens, yes, you betcha, but it’s also ok. It’s life. I can deal with it, one step at a time. I have what it takes. And I am not alone.”
So it goes.
Yes, you experience the absence of God, but in your daydream of God (and in mine too), you and me and all of us become creators in our own right. It’s that advice you once gave your creative writing students. You advised them to be sadistic. “No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters,” you said, “make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
Makes me wonder about who’s writing the current chapter of our lives right now—and what a reader might discover about what we’re made of….
Bad things happen. They happened to you, Kurt—and, once, you even tried to end your life by suicide—but this is how you got to see what you were made of. Everything you wrote was a way to redeem your experience, give it the only kind of meaning it was going to get, given the absence of God. Awful things, if we just let them sit there and fester, drain us; but if we allow their energy to move us into some kind of creative work—if we tell stories about them or paint them or make a movie about them; if we find jobs that allow us to transform our hurt into healing for others; if we allow awful things to move us to organize and protest and promote a better social vision and raise more funds—if we can do this with the awful things of our lives, then we find the blessing in the curse.
That’s how it works.
It’s the daydream. Kurt, you may be a grouch—the world may be absurd and empty of ultimate meaning and flying saucer creatures names Zog are coming to us all the time in some form or fashion with cures for cancer and recipes for world peace but they are always misunderstood and end up being brained by golf clubs—BUT life is still worth living, laughter is still the best medicine. “When you’re dead, you’re dead,” you say. “Make love when you can. It’s good for you.”
Above all, be kind. Now, you above all are perfectly clear on people’s vast capacity for inhumanity. As the Fourteenth Book of Bokononism says, “What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?” Answer: “Nothing.” You are cynical, you are. But your heart still beats. You haven’t given up. “So it goes.” And for you, the kindness message is given near-to-perfect expression by Jesus. As you put it, “I say of Jesus, as all Humanists do, ‘If what he said is good, and so much of it is absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not?’” And then you say, “But if Christ hadn’t delivered his Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being. I’d just as soon be a rattlesnake.”
Ugh, the need for kindness is so great…. Care for the earth, care for each other. Conflict is going to happen, among us mud-as-men and -women. No one gets out of this earthspace alive without breaking some eggs. “There are plenty of good reasons for fighting,” you once said, “but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too.”
Accordingly, the supreme act of worship of your personal religion of Bokononism is what you’ve come to call boko-maru: it’s a ritual where people take off their shoes and socks; they lie down on the floor with another person, feet to feet; and they touch naked soles to each other. Sole to sole.
Opposite of loneliness.
Kurt, it’s such a pleasure to write this letter. I wish you were still alive and maybe we could lie on the floor and practice your boko maru ritual and we could talk about how it is that all of us meet, always, in a mixed state of high aspiration and hope but also low frustration and exhaustion. Our muddiness. That is certainly how we meet you, through the lines and in-between the lines of all your books, and our naked soles touch each other.
To close an interview you gave, several years before your death in 2007, you said, “I’ve had a hell of a good time. And I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you any different. […] We’re dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go do something.” That’s what you said to your interviewer, and then you got up from your chair and literally danced a jig, while your interviewer’s jaw hit the floor.
Today, I’m going to dance a little jig. In honor of you. In honor of our muddy, beautiful lives, and our daydreaming response to that–our daydreaming about God.
So it goes.
I am yours, sincerely,