Vonnegut on censorship, suicide, humor, moralizing, and more

When I started to run out of Mark Twain’s nonfiction earlier this year, I turned to a fellow Twain maniac* for help. He sent me off in search of Kurt Vonnegut’s Palm Sunday (1981).

The book opens with some hilarious rants on censorship — “There is never any shortage anywhere of lawyers eager to attack the First Amendment, as though it were nothing more than a clause in a lease from a crooked slumlord,” says Vonnegut — gets in a drive-by appreciation of Mark Twain, and moves on to religion, joke theory, and Jonathan Swift. Nothing quite approaches the brilliance of Letters from the Earth, but then, what does?

Wanting more of Vonnegut’s scathing humor, I picked up Fates Worse than Death (1991). A more meandering and personal collection (or “autobiographical collage,” as Vonnegut would have it) than Palm Sunday, Fates appeared after our hero “went briefly nuts in the 1980s in an effort to get out of life entirely and wound up playing Eightball in a locked ward for thirty days instead.”

In the book he concocts a theory of the two distinct paths to suicide, and muses on the historical longevity of the moralist-writer.

[H]aving just finished reading William Styron’s short and elliptical account of his recent attack of melancholia, Darkness Visible (a suicide attempt may or may not have been involved), [I] am now prepared to say that suicidal persons can be divided into two sorts. Styron’s sort blames the wiring and chemistry of his brain, which could easily fit into a salad bowl. My sort blames the Universe. (Why mess around?) I don’t offer this insight as yet another joke…. It is my serious belief that those of us who become humorists (suicidal or not) feel free (as most people do not) to speak of life itself as a dirty joke, even though life is all there is or ever can be….

Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when he sorts through the possible consequences of doing himself in with a bare bodkin (sleeping pills and automobile exhaust and .375 Magnums were then unavailable), does not ponder the grief and confusion he might cause many who would still be alive. He was, after all, not only a close friend of Horatio, and beloved by darling Ophelia… but the future King of Denmark….

If Hamlet hoped to be remembered after he slammed the big door (or after somebody slammed it for him), I am sure he would have said so. Mark Twain (who wrote as though he would have liked to be remembered) said his reputation might outlive his body for at least a little while because he had moralized. (And indeed, his reputation has outlived his body.) I am sure he would have moralized in any case, but he had noticed that (for whatever reason) ancient writings which were still interesting in his day were all moralized. The anthology we call “The Bible” comes to mind. So should Lysistrata by Aristophanes (ca. 448-380 B.C.) and the Second Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865) and Candide by Voltaire (1694 – 1778) and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1857 – 1924)… and on and on So good advice to a young writer who wishes to circumvent morality might be: “Moralize.” I would add this caveat: “Be sure to sound reader-friendly and not all that serious when doing it.” Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1547 – 1616) comes to mind. The sermons of Cotton Mather (1663 – 1728 ) do not.

* If you’re saddened by the darkness at TMFTML, please note that Balk is now officially contributing here. I suspect a 3-month trial period.


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