Kurt Vonnegut’s Graduation Speech: What the “Ghost Dance” of the Native Americans and the French…

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Kurt Vonnegut

[Editor’s note: the following is excerpted from If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? Advice to the Young, a collection of Kurt Vonnegut speeches from Seven Stories Press. This particular speech was given at The University of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois on February 17, 1994]

What the “Ghost Dance” of the Native Americans and the French Painters Who Led the Cubist Movement Have in Common

In which Vonnegut tells how his own fiction writing was inspired by the professor who was “low man on the totem pole” in the University of Chicago Anthropology Department.

A young woman told me a couple of years ago that she had applied for admission here. The man who interviewed her asked her why she had found the place attractive. She said it was because Philip Roth and I had both gone here, along with many other considerations, of course. He replied that Philip and I were precisely the sorts of persons who never should have gone here. What could he have meant by that? If he is in this audience, I would appreciate meeting and talking to him afterward.

I came here in 1946, immediately following my participation in a war. It was the Second World War, a name and event worthy of H. G. Wells. That war ended with our dropping atomic bombs on the civilians, and their pets and house plants, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, quite a surprise to one and all. That such bombs were possible was first demonstrated in the abandoned football stadium of this very university, where the importance of contact sports had been discounted. The university president at that time, Robert Maynard Hutchins, was famous for saying that, whenever he felt in need of exercise, he lay down until the feeling passed. He finally wound up in a California think tank.

So far as I know, the only Second World War weapon worth a nickel to come out of Harvard, which thinks it’s such hot stuff, was Napalm or jellied gasoline.

I came here from Indianapolis. In those days, that was like a provincial Frenchman’s coming to Paris, or an Austrian bumpkin’s coming to Vienna, or, as in the case of Adolf Hitler, to Munich, Germany.

In those days, thanks again to Robert Maynard Hutchins, the undergraduate course consisted of only two years devoted to a study of the so-called Great Books. Philip Roth is a product of that short course. We would not meet until many years afterward. The graduate school was everything past what would have been the sophomore year at other American institutions. Like many returning veterans with more than two years’ worth of credits from someplace else, I was admitted to this unconventional graduate school, with three or four years to go before qualifying for an MA.

The credits I brought with me were near-flunks in chemistry, physics, math, and biology. I had actually twice flunked a course whose purpose is to exclude people like me from careers as scientists, which is thermodynamics.

Despite my inability to o’er-leap the intellectual barrier of thermodynamics, or pile of shit, if you like, I still wanted to be respected as a person who thought scientifically, who loved the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It was obvious that only a pseudoscience was a possibility for me. Ideally, I thought, it should be a pseudoscience socially superior to astrology, meteorology, hairdressing, economics, or embalming.

The two most prominent such, then as now, were psychoanalysis and cultural anthropology. Both were based, then as now, on what had regularly sent innocent persons to the electric chair or the hot squat, which is human testimony, which is blah-blah-blah. I chose cultural anthropology. The result now stands before you.

Much has been written about the effects on institutions of higher learning of the sudden influx of veterans after my war. One thing it did was bamboozle many teachers whose authority and glamour was based on their having seen a lot more of life and the world than their students had. In seminars I would occasionally try to talk about something I had observed about human beings while a soldier, as a prisoner of war, as a family man. I had a wife and kid then. This turned out to be very bad manners, like coming to a crap game with loaded dice. No fair.

Also: we were so innocent.

In retrospect, my trying to become a member of the anthropology department was like visiting a kibbutz, a kibbutz as described by Bruno Bettelheim in The Children of the Dream. We returning veterans were mildly interesting strangers to be treated politely, with our understanding and theirs that we would soon go away again. And we did.

At about that time there appeared in the New Yorker a series of stories by Ludwig Bemelmans about a busboy who assisted a waiter in a grand hotel in Paris. The waiter was named Mespoulets, “my little chickens.” Mespoulets’s specialty was serving persons the management didn’t want to come back again.

Every academic department has a sort of Mespoulets, I think. We certainly had one in the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa when I taught there. The Mespoulets in the anthropology department in my time I will call Dr. Z, who is no longer among the living.

Dr. Z was lacking in the charm and stage presence fundamental to the reputation of a great cultural anthropologist. He was also having trouble getting published. So he was made thesis advisor for those of us the department’s stars did not care to work with. He also gave a course in the summertime, when the rest of the department was on vacation or on a dig or whatever. The course could be about anything, since its real purpose was to entitle returning veterans to continue to receive living allowances from a grateful government. In order to make ends meet, I was working as a police reporter for the Chicago City News Bureau, practicing what might nowadays be called “urban anthropology.”

Becoming one of Dr. Z’s little chickens was one of the most fortunate things that ever happened to me, second only, perhaps, to my having been in Dresden when it was firebombed. He died a long time ago now, but many of his ideas live on with me. He died several years after I left. He was a suicide. He had great big ideas about science, about art, about religion, about evolution, and on and on, which he expressed in his cockamamie summer course. Many of these, and surely the grandeur of his dealing with the biggest issues imaginable, are elements in my works of fiction.

I don’t know if he left a suicide note. My guess is that he found it impossible to put his great big ideas on paper.

He had so many great big ideas that he gave me one for my thesis. I was a candidate for a master’s degree, mind you, for the rank of Corporal in Academia. He said my dissertation should deal with the sort of leadership required if a radical change in a culture was to be effected. Why mess around?

So I did it. He told me to compare the leadership which inspired a peaceful Indian tribe to fight the United States Army, the so-called “Ghost Dance,” with the leadership of the Cubists, who found brand-new things to do with surfaces and paint. He didn’t say so, but he had already done this. And, thus directed, I reached a conclusion he must have reached.

But my thesis was rejected by the department, as both grandiose and non-anthropological. And I was out of time and money, and I accepted a job in what was then arguably the most prosperous and compassionate socialist state in history, the General Electric Company in Schenectady, New York.

For whatever it may be worth, and it may be worth no more than “a pitcher of warm spit,” as we used to say in the Army: The leadership of both the Ghost Dance and the Cubist movement had these elements in common:

1) A charismatic, gifted leader who described cultural changes which should be made;

2) Two or more respected citizens who testified that this leader was not a lunatic, but was well worth listening to;

3) A glib, personable explainer, who told the general public what the leader was up to, why he was so wonderful, and so on, day after day.

Turns out that such a table of organization worked pretty well for Adolf Hitler, too, and maybe for Robert Maynard Hutchins, when he turned this place inside out and upside down sixty years ago.

I was in Chicago a couple of years back on business, and visited my old department. Professor Sol Tax was the only teacher from my time still on the job. I asked after some of my old classmates, kibbutzniks whose theses had been acceptable. One, he said, was practicing urban anthropology in Boston, and I allowed as how I had worked for a couple of years in an ad agency there.

I told him what I’ve told you, how much I owed Dr. Z. I didn’t comment on Z’s having been low man on the department’s totem pole, the Mespoulets. I would be very happy, incidentally, if that word, “Mespoulets,” became a part of academic conversations, identifying that faculty member stuck with being mentor to all the nobodies going nowhere. In ad agencies it is common to start out in the mail room. On faculties it is common to start out as a Mespoulets.

Use a new word three times in conversation, I read in Reader’s Digest when I was a juvenile delinquent, and it becomes a permanent part of your vocabulary. Dr. Z was a Mespoulets, and died without having risen above that rank. Sol Tax may have been a Mespoulets at one time, but he certainly wasn’t one when I got here. I find it hard to believe that the head of the department, Dr. Robert Redfield, who made his reputation, and the department’s reputation, too, with an extended essay called “The Folk Society,” had ever been a Mespoulets. There: that’s three times, I think.

Dr. Tax, recalling the department’s dead and gone Mespoulets of long ago, said that Dr. Z had written well about the controversial Native American religion, the Peyote Cult.

So far as Dr. Tax was aware, Dr. Z hadn’t done much writing since then. Only those of us who took Z’s freestyle summer course were aware of the scale of the ambitions of our mentor. Each seminar, we came to realize, was an airing and testing of ideas in a chapter of a book about the human condition he was writing or planned to write. I didn’t share that information with Dr. Tax, but I did ask him if he had the address of my dead mentor’s longtime widow. He did.

She had long since remarried. I wrote to her, wanting to tell her how stimulating I had found her first husband, and how useful his wide-ranging speculations had been to me in my career in fiction. I must have reminded her of utterly ghastly unhappiness which she had hoped to put behind her. We had never met, and never will meet, for there was no reply.

If there had been one, I would have asked her if he got any of his big ideas on paper, and where, if anywhere, some pages were. Ah me.

Long term, I am as indebted to the head of the department in my day, Dr. Robert Redfield, as I am to its Mespoulets. Dostoyevsky suggested that one sacred memory from childhood was perhaps the best education. I say to you that one plausible, romantic theory about humanity is perhaps the best prize you can take away from a university. And Dr. Redfield’s theory of the Folk Society was that for me. It has been the starting point for my politics, such as they are.

My politics in a nutshell: let’s stop giving corporations and newfangled contraptions what they need, and get back to giving human beings what we need.

Long before I got here, all theories of cultural evolution had been proposed and discarded, for want of evidence to support them. Cultures were not describable, predictable rungs on a ladder societies were bound to climb, from polytheism to monotheism, for example, and so on.

But Dr. Redfield said, in effect, and I condense and paraphrase or worse: “Wait a minute. I think I can describe in some detail one stage many, many societies have reached or left behind, neither higher or lower than any other.” It might be worth thinking about because it was or had been so common. Dr. Redfield’s course in the Folk Society, which he gave every year, was enormously popular, drawing auditors from all over the university. Is his theory much discussed here or anywhere nowadays?

A Folk Society, he said, was a relatively small number of persons bonded by kinship and a common history of some duration, with a territory uncontested or easily defended, and sufficiently isolated so as to be little influenced by the cultures of other societies.

There can’t be many such societies nowadays. There were still quite a few when I first came here. I recall the testimony of some people who had lived in one to the effect that the isolation, the like-mindedness, the routines and so on were suffocating.

I can believe it. I myself never visited one, unless you want to count the anthropology department itself.

But I had certainly read about a lot of them in the library here. It seemed to me that they, because of their simplicity and isolation, might be regarded as petri dishes in which human beings might demonstrate certain apparently basic human needs other than food, shelter, clothing, and sex. For want of a better word, I will call such needs spiritual, by which I mean only that they are invisible, un-smellable, inaudible, intangible, and inedible.

Was it possible, I wondered, that certain features common to all of them not only revealed spiritual needs of all human beings, including those of us in this auditorium? Might not those features also show us methods for satisfying those needs, theatrical performances, if you will, which human beings, by their nature, can ill-afford to do without?

I think of the British Navy, whose sailors, although filling the world’s oceans, felt lousy all the time, until they started sucking limes. A vitamin deficiency, of course! And here we are in the post-industrial, post–Cold War whatchamacallit, feeling lousy all the time. We get all the minerals and vitamins we need. Is it conceivable that we are suffering from a cultural deficiency which we can remedy? Friends and neighbors, I say YES to that:

Let’s give everybody a totem at birth. What proof do I have that even highly educated people need nonsensical, arbitrary symbols which will relate them to other people and the Earth and the Universe? I am a Scorpio. Would those of you who are also Scorpios please hold up your hands? Lookee there! Dostoyevsky was one of us!

Yes, and let’s find a way to get ourselves and others extended families again. A husband and a wife and some kids aren’t a family, any more than a Diet Pepsi and three Oreos is a breakfast. Twenty, thirty, forty people — that’s a family. Marriages are all busting up. Why? Mates are saying to each other, because they’re human, “You’re not enough people for me.”

Yes, and let’s make sure every American gets a puberty ceremony, an impressive welcome to the rights and duties of grown-ups. As matters now stand, only practicing Jews get those. The only way the rest of us can feel like grown-ups is to get pregnant or get somebody else pregnant or commit a felony or go to war and then come back again.

I only want to say in closing that it’s nice to be home again.

***

photo by Edith Vonnegut

photo by Edith Vonnegut

KURT VONNEGUT (1922–2007) was among the few grandmasters of twentieth-century American letters, one without whom the very term American literature would mean much less than it does now. Vonnegut’s other books from Seven Stories Press include God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, the national hardcover and paperback bestseller A Man Without a Country, and, with Lee Stringer, Like Shaking Hands with God.

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