Here’s an idea: To honor the memory of Kurt Vonnegut, let’s declare a new national holiday—Vonnegut Day.
The idea of Vonnegut Day is simple: Wearing Kurt Vonnegut mustaches and wigs, we will try, for one day, to live by the principles he espoused in his beautiful books: honesty, outrage, righteous grumpiness, kindness, and the incantation, in plain speech, of certain truths normally considered too naïve to even speak aloud, much less to live by.
I will be happy to be the Commissar of Vonnegut Day. To this end, I have put together the following proposed slate of what I am calling Vonnegutian Immersions, designed to bring out the inner Vonnegut in all of us:
For the Tremendously Wealthy: In this Immersion, a wealthy person gets the opportunity to “buddy up” with a poor person, in order to see what the poor person’s day is like. The wealthy person drives to “work,” in a “crappy car” that needs a “jump-start,” where he/she will do some demeaning “physical labor” for eight hours, scrounge up some kind of disgusting/fattening lunch for under five dollars, go home to a messy house and some troubled kids he/she doesn’t have the time/energy to deal with, decide which bills not to pay, then collapse into bed while, outside, sirens wail.
For the Warmonger: Anyone enthusiastically advocating war will get a super opportunity to spend Vonnegut Day under actual bombardment in a special Bombardment SimuCenter, wearing ragged clothing, desperately searching for a family member, while a group of hostiles roam through the neighborhood, kicking down doors and making threats in a language he/she doesn’t understand.
For the Healthy: The healthy—especially the healthy who assume their health is related to virtuous living—will be injected with a special serum to make them feel exactly like they would feel if they were a poor African in the last throes of AIDS. The “afflicted” will be transported to a specially constructed “African Village,” where he/she will be shown videos of another set of human beings in a far-off, affluent land, people also afflicted with AIDS, but whose lives are being miraculously extended by medicine not available in “African Village.” When the unmedicated individuals ask why this should be the case, they will be roundly ignored by “African Village” staff, or else told to stop complaining and pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
For Anti-Immigration Hardliners: These folks will spend Vonnegut Day in a special facility called Don’tGetCaughtLand, where they will have a super opportunity to do dishes, or landscaping, or back-breaking farm work, all day long, for less than minimum wage. As part of the “The Illegal Immigrant Experience,” they will be administered a special Family Remembrance Drug, which makes them long for the company of family they haven’t seen in nearly two years because, if they cross the border, they might never get back in, and will therefore once again be as destitute as they were when they first made the risky decision to come to America.
In addition, Weapons Manufacturers will be made to watch real-time simulations of their loved ones being murdered with the very weapon they manufacture; Polluters will be forced to swim naked in rivers polluted with what they discharge; People Talking a Bunch of Racist Crap will be handcuffed to an affable, kind-hearted member of the group he or she routinely disparages and left out in the middle of a vast forest, with just a box of biscuits and a bottle of water.
Some of the other activities I have planned for Vonnegut Day will prove difficult to implement, given certain technological limitations, but here’s one: For Religious Fanatics—especially those willing to kill for God—Vonnegut Day activities might include being transported to Heaven and being seated at the right hand of the Actual God, to see how He/She feels about it as the souls of His/Her creatures who have been thus killed return to His/Her loving arms before their time.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, Politicians, Pundits and Talk-Radio Hosts of All Political Persuasions will simply have to shut up for the duration of Vonnegut Day, getting no attention whatsoever. No whining, accusation, rumor-mongering, dwelling on celebrity misfortune or wallowing in sickening, dehumanizing crime details will be permitted on Vonnegut Day. (Alternatively, these individuals may be permitted to stay on the air if they promise to say only positive things about the ethnic, political or national group they usually savage/exploit to further their own career ends.)
On Vonnegut Day, all across our cities and towns, special booths will be set up so that individuals can avail themselves of the opportunity to watch films that engage their natural empathy/pity, thus making them more Vonnegutian. These films might be of: animals about to be slaughtered; shy people unsuccessfully struggling to make an emotional connection by saying a first, tentative word to a person they have long had a crush on; cowering children in alcoholic households; old men and women dying alone, full of regret—for hours on end, until one’s ambient pity wells up, overwhelming our habitual indifference.
And, at the end of Vonnegut Day, the grateful nation will erupt in fireworks, parties, celebrations, jokes, dancing. And music, lots of music. (“If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.”) We’ll gather in public places and read aloud our favorite Vonnegut passages. Then we’ll join our voices together and recite Vonnegut’s dual mantras—first, the words of Eugene Debs:
As long as there is a lower class, I am in it.
As long as there is a criminal element, I’m of it.
As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
And then the Beatitudes:
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall inherit mercy.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.
At the end of this annual, daylong national attempt to try and see the world the way Kurt Vonnegut saw it, we will be so happy! Why? Because Vonnegut’s voice is the quintessential American voice, the voice of the America we have never quite succeeded in becoming, the voice of the America that loves and honors its weak, its lame, its poor; that understands that its legacy lies in its ability to lift up and care for these, and not with how well it services its powerful.
It will be such a relief to us, to hear ourselves sound so much like the nation we have always longed to be.
Vonnegut was either the last representative of a certain American literary tradition (radical and socialist and Biblical and truly democratic, one that includes Emerson and Whitman and Dreiser and Dos Passos and Steinbeck) or—I prefer this version—a prophet of an entirely new tradition, the advance man for a forthcoming, reinvented, post-Iraq America dedicated not to filling its coffers and retaining its advantage and pummeling prospective competitors and spreading our great pigs-at-a-trough model of democracy, but rather to (humbly) using our wealth and power and creativity to lift up the weak and sick and poor, among us and far from us.
Wouldn’t that be something, to honor Kurt Vonnegut’s memory in this way? Wouldn’t he be proud of us, if we could purge ourselves, individually and collectively, of our philistinism, our defensiveness, our fear, our urge-to-deny, our aggression, our environmental sloth, and honor the essential Vonnegutian virtues: self-effacement, humor, wry wit, despondency when despondency is appropriate, and—most important of all—kindness?
Vonnegut once wrote: “If I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, ‘Kurt is up in heaven now.’ That’s my favorite joke.”
Well, I’m saying it, because I think it’s true, and furthermore, I’m saying that since Kurt may, in fact, be up in Heaven, looking down at us, that means we still have a chance to make him proud.
So that is why I have, even with my busy schedule, volunteered to be the first Commissar of Vonnegut Day.
So, Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, members of Congress, the Hallmark Card Company: I dare you.
Let’s give credit where credit is due. Let’s shoot high. Let’s reward a great and true national hero. Let’s have the Kurt Vonnegut National Airport, 20 or 30 Kurt Vonnegut Elementary Schools. I want to see that beautiful face on a stamp—hell, let’s put it on our money. (Note to self: Figure out how to say, in Latin: Beloved Subversive, Great National Wise Uncle, Left a Trail of Beautiful Books.)
Although, come to think of it … hmm. I may be starting to think like him already. Let’s not get the government involved in this after all. They’ll only muck it up and start arresting people for not liking Vonnegut enough, and next thing you know, we’ll have a secret Cuban prison for people who didn’t pick out a long enough passage to recite.
No, actually, you know what? Forget the whole thing. The only authentic Vonnegut Day is the one we celebrate in our hearts and heads and guts every time we read him, with the reading to be done whenever the hell and wherever the hell we feel like doing it.
I’m going to celebrate one right now, by ending this and taking Slaughterhouse- Five out into the yard and sitting there awhile in the sun.
Vonnegut lives. He’s gone—and yet he’s not. I never met him, but he was real and beloved to me. And still is. Because Vonnegut, like all of us, was alive in two ways: physically and in terms of his influence. His truths are still as present in the world as they were last month. They fill his books, his books are read, permanent changes take place in the minds of his readers, incremental movements towards patience and compassion occur, and thus the world is saved, a little bit at a time.
Happy Vonnegut Day, every day.
George Saunders’ most recent book is In Persuasion Nation (Riverhead).