Kurt Vonnegut on Reading, Boredom, Belonging, and Our Human Responsibility
“Hate, in the long run, is about as nourishing as cyanide.”
By Maria Popova
What makes the commencement address such a singular pinnacle of the communication arts is that, in an era where religion is increasingly being displaced by culture and secular thought, it offers a secular version of the sermon — a packet of guidance on how to be a good human being and lead a good life. It is also one of the few cultural contexts in which a patronizing attitude, in the original sense of the term, is not only acceptable but desired — after all, the very notion of the graduation speech calls for a patronly father figure or matronly mother figure to get up at the podium and impart to young people hard-earned, experience-tested wisdom on how to live well. And implicit to that is an automatic disarmament of our otherwise unflinching culturally conditioned cynicism — which is also why the best commencement addresses are timeless and ageless and sing to us beyond the boundaries of our own life-stage. They supply even us cynical moderns with something true, something soul-affirming, something we can hang our beliefs on in a non-ironic way.
Kurt Vonnegut — a man of discipline, a champion of literary style, modern sage, poetic shaman of happiness, and one wise dad — endures as one of the most prolific and sought-after commencement speakers of all time. Nine of his finest commencement addresses, along with some of Vonnegut’s own drawings, are collected in the wonderful compendium If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young (public library), which also gave us Vonnegut on kindness and the power of great teachers.
In one of the best speeches in the collection, Vonnegut addresses the graduating class at Fredonia College in New York on May 20, 1978. He begins, Patti-Smith-style, with a silly and seemingly mundane piece of advice that he uses as a springboard for a deeper reflection:
I suppose you will all want money and true love, among other things. I will tell you how to make money: work very hard. I will tell you how to win love: wear nice clothing and smile all the time. Learn the words to all the latest songs.
What other advice can I give you? Eat lots of bran to provide necessary bulk in your diet. The only advice my father ever gave me was this: “Never stick anything in your ear.” The tiniest bones in your body are inside your ears, you know — and your sense of balance, too. If you mess around with your ears, you could not only become deaf, but you could also start falling down all the time. So just leave your ears completely alone. They’re fine, just the way they are.
Don’t murder anybody — even though New York State does not use the death penalty.
That’s about it.
But that, of course, isn’t it, as Vonnegut is no mere goof. Speaking the same year that Susan Sontag bemoaned how false polarities limit us, Vonnegut cracks open the heart of his message:
I am being so silly because I pity you so much. I pity all of us so much. Life is going to be very tough again, just as soon as this is over. And the most useful thought we can hold when all hell cuts loose again is that we are not members of different generations, as unlike, as some people would have us believe, as Eskimos and Australian Aborigines. We are all so close to each other in time that we should think of ourselves as brothers and sisters.
He extends this notion of our shared humanity by poking gentle fun at our sense of entitlement, uniformly exerted despite the different particularities on which it is pegged:
We are all experiencing more or less the same lifetime now.
What is it the slightly older people want from the slightly younger people? They want credit for having survived so long, and often imaginatively, under difficult conditions. Slightly younger people are intolerably stingy about giving them credit for that.
What is it the slightly younger people want from the slightly older people? More than anything, I think, they want acknowledgement, and without further ado, that they are without question women and men now. Slightly older people are intolerably stingy about making any such acknowledgement.
Above all, however, Vonnegut congratulates graduates for having blossomed into “Clarks,” named after “inhabitants of the British Isles who were remarkable for being able to read and write.” Twenty years before urging young women not to give up on books, Vonnegut celebrates the monumental gift of recorded thought:
You have spent most of the past sixteen or more years learning to read and write. People who can do those things well, as you can, are miracles and, in my opinion, entitle us to suspect that we may be civilized after all. It is terribly hard to learn to read and write. It takes simply forever. When we scold our schoolteachers about the low reading scores of their students, we pretend that it is the easiest thing in the world: to teach a person to read and write. Try it sometime, and you will discover that it is nearly impossible.
What good is being a Clark, now that we have computers and movies and television? Clarking, a wholly human enterprise, is sacred. Machinery is not. Clarking is the most profound and effective form of meditation practiced on this planet, and far surpasses any dream experienced by a Hindu on a mountaintop. Why? Because Clarks, by reading well, can think the thoughts of the wisest and most interesting human minds throughout all history. When Clarks meditate, even if they themselves have only mediocre intellects, they do it with the thoughts of angels. What could be more sacred than that?
Vonnegut moves on to the question of boredom and belonging:
No matter what age any of us is now, we are going to be bored and lonely during what remains of our lives.
We are so lonely because we don’t have enough friends and relatives. Human beings are supposed to live in stable, like-minded, extended families of fifty people or more.
Your class spokesperson mourned the collapse of the institution of marriage in this country. Marriage is collapsing because our families are too small. A man cannot be a whole society to a woman, and a woman cannot be a whole society to a man. We try, but it is scarcely surprising that so many of us go to pieces.
So I recommend that everybody here join all sorts of organizations, no matter how ridiculous, simply to get more people in his or her life. It does not matter much if all the other members are morons. Quantities of relatives of any sort are what we need.
(It’s hard not to wonder how Vonnegut might feel, if he were alive today — despite his unambiguous distaste for computers — about online communities and the relationships they sprout, which often spill into “offline” life.)
And yet, like Susan Sontag, he concedes that boredom is central to the human condition:
We are supposed to be bored. It is a part of life. Learn to put up with it, or you will not be what I have declared the members of this graduating class to be: mature women and men.
He leaves the graduates — members of a generation often criticized for being apathetic — with a meditation on the intoxicating poison of hate, which rings with double poignancy in our age of trolling and bullying:
As a member of a zippier generation, with sparkle in its eyes and a snap in its stride, let me tell you what kept us as high as kites a lot of the time: hatred. All my life I’ve had people to hate — from Hitler to Nixon, not that those two are at all comparable in their villainy. It is a tragedy, perhaps, that human beings can get so much energy and enthusiasm from hate. If you want to feel ten feet tall and as though you could run a hundred miles without stopping, hate beats pure cocaine any day. Hitler resurrected a beaten, bankrupt, half-starved nation with hatred and nothing more. Imagine that.
The members of your graduating class are not sleepy, are not listless, are not apathetic. They are simply performing the experiment of doing without hate. Hate is the missing vitamin or mineral or whatever in their diet, they have sensed correctly that hate, in the long run, is about as nourishing as cyanide.
If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young is a treasure trove from cover to cover, full of Vonnegut’s expansive spirit and irreverent wit. Complement it with more excellent commencement addresses, including George Saunders on the power of kindness, Anna Quindlen on the essentials of a happy life, Bill Watterson on not selling out, Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, David Foster Wallace on the meaning of life, Neil Gaiman on the resilience of the creative spirit, Ann Patchett on storytelling and belonging, and Joseph Brodsky on winning the game of life.
Published May 12, 2014