A Man Without a Country

By Kurt Vonnegut



Originally published

Sep 15, 2005




Dec 5, 2020


Dec 5, 2020

PurchaseExternal link
Quick, pointed, powerful read. Good literature holds its weight over time. Written largely in context of the Iraq War, this certainly holds its weight in light of the ongoing climate crisis, COVID, the Trump presidency, racial and economic inequality, etcetera.
Side note: I read this from ~ 2:30am to 5am and ~ 4pm to 5pm on a COVID Saturday. A great way to spend some time (though an odd distribution).
Towards the end of the book, he interjects: "And there, I've just used a semi-colon, which at the outset I told you never to use. It is to make a point that I did it. The point is: Rules only take us so far, even good rules." (134)
Story teller. Building a relationship with the reader. Tapping into a deeper meaning beyond the wordplay. He is direct. He mixes humor and pain. He says things for what they are. What if everyone was more direct?
"I wanted all the things to seem to make some sense, so we could all be happy, yes, instead of tense. And I made up lies, so they all fit nice, and I made this sad world a paradise." (7)
We live in a world of contradictions; to shy away from contradictions and complexities is...to lie
This was a main takeaway from URBS 452 with Andy Lamas
"One of the most impressive ways to tell your war story is to refuse to tell it" (20)
WWII veteran, as he's aged many friends and loved ones have passed away
Having good memories alone can bring us to a higher state. Take the good with the bad. Grow as a person. (31)
"The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something." (24)
Reminds me of a quote I heard in a podcast (I think) that to do something (especially a hobby) you don't have to be the best at it...neither do you have to be good at it...what matters is doing it. Engaging in the process.
"But what else is life but endless lending and borrowing, give and take?" (35)
Hopefully this is asymmetric. Value creating. Growing the pie. That would be actively living, caring, etc. Take a step back: is the way you live destroying value? Just trading things and not growing things?
"The truth is, we know so little about life, we don't really know what the good news is and what the bad news is." (37)
I don't know how I feel about this quote. I think I disagree. Sure, we know more in retrospect, perhaps generations in retrospect. But we have morals, we can read things on the fly. We have goals and beliefs...
"I am, of course, notoriously hooked in cigarettes. I keep hoping the things will kill me. A fire at one end and a fool at the other." (41)
Dark humor. Pretty funny. Living with contradictions and he is ok with that. Also, he is actively not a fool, unless effectively all of us are
Vonnegut sees humor and light in all darkness or all mundaneness
"I had my pocket picked in there and got to meet a cop and tell him about it" (61)
Kinda like James Clear: why say that you "have to" go to work when you can instead say you "get to" go to work
Everything is a choice
"Then I go outside and there is a mailbox. And I feed the pages to the giant blue bullfrog. And it says, 'Ribbit.'" (61)
These truly normal things in life are special. They are unique to being human, in the US, in this period in time
"I think one of the biggest mistakes we're making, second only to being people, has to do with what time really is" (119)
We are prisoners to both of these concepts...it is curious Vonnegut chooses to call them "mistakes"
"This may have happened already. I really don't know what I'm going to become from now on. I'm simply along for the ride to see what happens to this body and this brain of mine. I'm startled that I became a writer. I don't think I can control my life or my writing. Every other writer I know feels he is steering himself, and I don't have that fee4ling. I don't have that sort of control. I'm simply becoming." (130)
Passive. Dejected. Lacking free will. But of course his writing has produced fantastic works—regarded as some of the best across all American authors.
"[My good uncle] was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy...I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and explain or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'" (132)
Gratefulness. Thankfulness. Make an active effort to be present.
"The imagination circuit is taught to respond to the most minimal of cues. A book is an arrangement of twenty-six phonetic symbols, ten numerals, and about eight punctuation marks, and people can cast their eyes over these and envision the eruption of Mount Vesuvius or the Battle of Waterloo." (133)
Power of the mind. Human language. Don't take these things for granted.
We are able to compress, encode, and transfer knowledge in a way no other species we know of can. And we are getting better and better at accomplishing this over time.
"'religion is the opium of the people.' Marx said that back in 1844, when opium and opium derivatives were the only effective painkillers anyone could take." (12)
Context matters
Free Thinkers: "We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife." (79)
Reminds me of SSC-type morality
It's not about religion or an afterlife; "It was enough that they were alive" (80)
Isn't that a nice thought? A good goal?
"And if I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, 'Kurt is up in heaven now.' That's my favorite joke." (80)
"If what [Jesus] said is good, and so much of it is absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not?" (80)
If religion teaches virtues, it is clearly good regardless of if it is "correct" or not
In much of Christianity we blindly follow certain teachings but not others. We lose context. (98)
"By saints I meant people who behaved decently in a strikingly indecent society." (106)
"Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do...The irony would be that we know what we are doing." (137)
"know" is a very strong word here. I think many do not know the implications of their decisions. Do not know how to think long term. We all have lapses in judgement—in putting things in context—in thinking big.
Perhaps everyone has the opportunity to know but either actively (by their own doing or by the doing of others) or passively (too busy, etc.) does not know
"Our government is conducting a war against drugs, is it? Let them go after petroleum. Talk about a destructive high!" (9)
It is "as if everyone is living as members of Alcoholics Anonymous do, day by day. And a few more days will be enough. I know very few people who are dreaming of a world for their grandchildren." (71)
Unique are those who can think in decades
"the planet's immune system is trying to get rid of us with AIDS and new strains of flu and tuberculosis, and so on. I think the planet should get rid of us. We are really awful animals." (122)
Not to mention it gave us COVID today...largely as a result of how we mistreat other animals and fail to treat each other with ample respect and understanding
Politics, the USA
"...continental, freshwater people like me" (11)
Powerful way of framing this nation's divide between the coastal elite and others
"[Music] makes practically everybody fonder of life than he or she would be without it." (67); "Foreigners love us for our jazz. And they don't hate us for our purported liberty and justice for all. They hate us now for our arrogance." (69)f
He is quick to point out that jazz has roots in the oppressed and enslaved
Everything is a painful contradiction
"But the guessers, in fact, knew no more than the common people and sometimes less, even when, or especially when, they gave us the illusion that we were in control of our destinies." (82)
Who are the guessers and illusions of today?
Propagandists, science deniers, etc. "Guessers" is an interesting choice of words.
"the guessers are almost all highly educated people. Think of that. They have had to throw away educations, even Harvard or Yale educations." (86)
Trump, of course, went to Penn
"George W. Bush has gathered around him upper-crust C-students [from Yale] who know no history or geography" (99)
Ironic. What is the best education money can buy?
"Our leaders are sick of all of the solid information that has been dumped on humanity by research and scholarship and investigative reporting. They think that the whole country is sick of it, and they could be right." (83)
This is more true now than ever (elections, COVID, Fauci)
In case you haven't noticed, we are now as feared and hated all over the world as the Nazis once were. And with good reason. In case you haven't noticed, our unelected leaders have dehumanized millions and millions of human beings simply because of their religion and race. We wound 'em and kill 'em and torture 'em and imprison 'em all we want. Piece of cake. In case you haven't noticed, we also dehumanized our own soldiers, not because of their religion or race, but because of their low social class. Send 'em anywhere. Make 'em do anything. Piece of cake. The O'Reilly Factor. So I am a man without a country, except for the librarians and a Chicago paper called In these Times. Before we attacked Iraq, the majestic New York Times guaranteed that there were weapons of mass destruction there.
What part of America are we proud of now? Which American institutions have delivered on their promises?
"There's damn little caring for mothers, babies, old people, or anybody physically or economically weak these days as we become ever more industrialized and militarized with the guessers in charge." (90)
"They aren't really interested in saving lives. What matters to them is being listened to—as, however ignorantly, their guessing goes on and on and on. If there's anything they hate, it's a wise human. So be one anyway. Save our lives and your lives, too. Be honorable." (92-93)
These are powerful virtues with powerful framing. You can choose to be wise.
This reminds me of John Lewis's call to get in "good trouble, necessary trouble"
"We've sure come a long way since then. Sometimes I wish we hadn't. I hate H-bombs and the Jerry Springer Show." (96)
Eugene Debs: "As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free." (97)
"So many of these heartless PPs [psychopathic personalities] now hold big jobs in our federal government, as though they were leaders instead of sick. They have taken charge. They have taken charge of communications and schools, so we might as well be Poland under occupation...What has allowed so many PPs to rise so high in corporations, and now in government, is that they are so decisive. They are going to do something every fuckin' day and they are not afraid. Unlike normal people, they are never filled with doubts, for the simple reason that they don't give a fuck what happens next." (101)
Witty—this acronym calls then what they are...dicks
"So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House, the Supreme Court, the Senate, the House of Representatives, or the media. The America I loved still exists at the front desks of our public libraries. And still on the subject of books: Our daily news sources, newspapers, and TV, are now so craven, so unvigilant on behalf of the American people, so uninformative, that only in books do we learn what's really going on." (103)
"women want: a whole lot of people to talk to. What do they want to talk about? They want to talk about everything. What do men want? They want a lot of pals, and they wish people wouldn't get so mad at them." (47)
"It used to be that when a man and a woman got married, the bride got a lot more people to talk to about everything. The groom got a lot more pals to tell dumb jokes to...when a couple has an argument nowadays...What they're really saying to each other, though without realizing it, is this: 'You are not enough people!'" (48)
We form "vulnerable survival units" (48)
I've always wondered: why, after college, do we live in such small groups? Why confide ourselves to immediate families?
"I think that novels that leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex." (17)
"Bill Gates says, 'Wait till you can see what you computer can become.' But it's you who should be doing the becoming, not the damn fool computer." (56)

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