Vonnegut At The Blackboard

I saw Kurt Vonnegut speak at WPI sometime in the 1987-1991 range, where he gave this exact talk.  This is the one where he graphs the dramatic progress of major works of literature including Cinderella, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and Hamlet. His Y axis is basically the difference between “having a good life” and “having a bad life”, and the general dramatic plot is supposed to be “good person has bad things happen, over comes them, lives happily ever after.”

He draws Hamlet as a straight line. 

At the time, I was very upset by this.  In fact, I completely dismissed his talk because of it.  I attributed it to the rumor that he’d been out drinking with some students and was basically winging it.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of the man’s work, I’ve read everything I could get my hands on. But trying to make the point that the dramatic rise and fall of Hamlet equates to a straight line?

Now, almost 20 years later, I get it:

But there’s a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece: it’s that Shakespeare told us the truth, and people so rarely tell us the truth in this rise and fall here [indicates blackboard]. 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.

Very nice.  That might be the longest it’s ever taken me to get the point.

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.

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One thought on “Vonnegut At The Blackboard

  1. Back in high school, I read everything Vonnegut had written. I was a huge fan, although I just re-read Slaughterhouse Five, and it's like a completely different book twenty years later–incredibly richer.

    Anyway, there was an English teacher at my school who had seen Vonnegut "speak" once. Visibly drunk, he staggered to the lectern and gave a talk that consisted of him reading the dust-jacket copy from a collection of his novels.

    I'd have given anything to have seen it.

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