February 3, 2011
Kurt Vonnegut: Satirist, Moralist, Cynic

I, like many of you here, share a deep, abiding love and appreciation for Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. I think novelist Jay McInerney says it best: Kurt Vonnegut “is a satirist with a heart, a moralist with a whoopee cushion, a cynic who wants to believe.”

We Hoosiers don’t merely love Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. because he’s from here. I suspect that we really love him because he has deviated from that usual Midwestern politeness and reserve that most of us exhibit. While we graciously avoid confrontation, often at the expense of our dignity or deep-held beliefs, our native son did not.

I’m sure he started out like us: Midwestern and modest and hard working. But I can’t escape an armchair psychiatrist’s explanation of those fateful few days of February 1945, because…

If you were an American and descendent of German immigrants fighting a war against Germany and taken prisoner by Germans and you happened to survive a devastating firebombing by Americans and Brits engaged in a fight against evil that nevertheless so callously and brutally destroyed the buildings and residents of Dresden, a leading European center of disciplines you held dear: art, classical music, culture, and science. And further, you survived by taking shelter in a slaughterhouse where they butcher animals. And though you had not shot and killed one German—who if you did shoot one may even have been your long-lost relation—you were forced by Germans to help bury dead German soldiers, citizens, and bystanders in the aftermath. Well, I think in this case, you, too, might tend to find the human condition in the 20th Century darkly ironic.

When I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Vonnegut, it was the day before the first anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks. And as I was writing up the interview, I wasn’t so nervous that Indianapolis Monthly was about to publish his utterance of the most notorious of expletives for probably the first and only time in the publication’s history. No, at the time I was more apprehensive about his comment that “what the crooks on Wall Street have done to us has been far more destructive” than 9/11.

Deep down Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. loved humanity, and he was profoundly disappointed in our failures and shortsightedness. He wanted the human race to aspire and achieve better goals.

So, the lasting legacy that we celebrate by proudly and audaciously opening this Library in our nice, polite little city that he loved so much is a reminder to us all to hold the human species to a higher standard, confront hypocrisy in an age often devoid of irony, live decently, and laugh, for God’s sake laugh!

This is an excerpt from a speech given at the grand opening of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library by Hugh Vandivier, the public art manager for the Arts Council of Indianapolis.

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