Remembering Kurt Vonnegut
by Paul Krassner
Months before Timothy Leary died, he told me, “I watch words now. It’s an obsession. I learned it from Marshall McLuhan, of course. A terrible vice. Had it for years, but not actually telling people about it. I watch the words that people use. The medium is the message, you recall. The brain creates the realities she wants. When we see the prisms of these words that come through, we can understand.”
Hysteria over the word “Communist” was the forerunner of current hysteria over the word “terrorist.” The attorney general of Arizona rejected the Communist Party’s request for a place on the ballot because state law “prohibits official representation” for the Communists and, in addition, “The subversive nature of your organization is even more clearly designated by the fact that you do not even include your zip code.” Alvin Dark, manager of the Giants, announced that “Any pitcher who throws at a batter and deliberately tries to hit him is a Communist.” And singer Pat Boone declared at the Greater New York Anti-Communism Rally in Madison Square Garden: “I would rather see my four daughters shot before my eyes than have them grow up in a Communist United States. I would rather see those kids blown into Heaven than taught into Hell by the Communists.”
In a foreword to one of my books, Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “Paul Krassner in 1963 created a miracle of compressed intelligence nearly as admirable for potent simplicity, in my opiniion, as Einstein’s e=mc2. With the Vietnam War going on, and its critics discounted and scorned by the goverment and the mass media, Krassner put on sale a red, white and blue poster that said FUCK COMMUNISM.
“At the beginning of the 1960s, FUCK was believed to be so full of bad magic as to be unprintable. In the most humanely influential American novel of this half century, *The Catcher in the Rye,* Holden Caulfield, it will be remembered, was shocked to see that word on a subway-station wall. He wondered what seeing it might do to the mind of a little kid. COMMUNISM was to millions the name of the most loathsome evil imaginable. To call an American a communist was like calling somebody a Jew in Nazi Germany. By having FUCK and COMMUNISM fight it out in a single sentence, Krassner wasn’t merely being funny as heck. He was demonstrating how preposterous it was for so many people to be responding to both words with such cockamamie Pavlovian fear and alarm.”
On the evening of March 14, at about 8:15, Vonnegut was sitting on the stoop in front of his house–smoking a cigarette, of course. When he stood up, he lost his balance and fell. Although he was supposedly brain dead at the precise moment his head hit the steps, he was kept on life support for the next few weeks. When it became clear that he could never be revived, the decision was made to remove life support, as he had requested.
The news of his actual death on April 11 was, in the words of a close friend, “merely a postscript–a relief, actually–which is not to say it was so easy to process. I’d equate it to losing a family member, albeit one who had a long, incredible life–one who changed the lives and world-view of countless people who had never met him, and who remained entirely lucid and kept his miraculous sense of humor to the very end.”
Vonnegut loved to make people laugh at his own despair over the way the American dream has morphed into the American nightmare. The obituaries all seemed to stress how depressed he was, never failing to mention his failed attempt at committing suicide. So naturally I was surprised when such a pessimist told me that my satire made him feel *hopeful.*
“You made supposedly serious matters seem ridiculous,” he explained, “and this inspired many of your readers to decide for themselves what was ridiculous and what was not. Knowing that people were doing that, better late than never, made me optimistic.”
The first time I met Vonnegut was at a memorial for Abbie Hoffman, whom he referred to as “the holy anti-war clown.” The last time I saw him was at a panel on humor and satire at the Ethical Culture Society of New York. The panelists were Vonnegut, the late columnist Art Buchwald, stand-up comic Barry Crimmins, and myself. Of course, Vonnegut talked about the hellishness of living on earth. So, later that evening, my wife Nancy handed him a parody Monopoly card showing the rich-guy logo jumping away from flames, with this caption: “Get Out of Hell Free.” A year-and-a-half later, he finally accomplished that goal.
Paul Krassner is the author of One Hand Jerking: Reports From an Investigative Satirist and publisher of the Disneyland Memorial Orgy poster, both available from www.paulkrassner.com