Requiem for a Dreamer

Kurt Vonnegut October 15, 2004

Editor’s note: What fol­lows is a con­ver­sa­tion between Kurt Von­negut and out-of-print sci­ence fic­tion writer Kil­go­re Trout. It was to be their last. Trout com­mit­ted sui­cide by drink­ing Dra­no at mid­night on Octo­ber 15 in Cohoes, New York, after a female psy­chic using tarot cards pre­dict­ed that the envi­ron­men­tal calami­ty George W. Bush would once again be elect­ed pres­i­dent of the most pow­er­ful nation on the plan­et by a five-to-four deci­sion of the Supreme Court, which includ­ed 100 per-cent of the black vote.”

TROUT: I’ve nev­er vot­ed in my whole damn life. I didn’t want to be com­plic­it. But is it time I did?

KV: The planet’s immune sys­tem is obvi­ous­ly try­ing to get rid of us, and high time! But sure, go vote for some­body. What the hell.

TROUT: Everybody’s so ignorant.

KV: The over­whelm­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty of Pres­i­dent Bush, in spite of every­thing, final­ly shows us what the Amer­i­can peo­ple, whom we have so sen­ti­men­tal­ized for so long, à la Nor­man Rock­well, real­ly are, thanks to TV and pur­pose­ly lousy pub­lic schools: igno­rant. Count on it!

TROUT: You ever meet any­body who was real­ly smart?

KV: Only one: Saul Stein­berg, the graph­ic artist who’s dead now. Every­body I know is dead now, present com­pa­ny except­ed. I could ask Saul any­thing, and six sec­onds would pass, and then he would give me a per­fect answer. He growled a per­fect answer. He was born in Ruma­nia, and, accord­ing to him, he was born into a house where the geese peeked in the windows.”

TROUT: Like what kind of questions?

KV: I said, Saul, what should I think about Picas­so?” Six sec­onds went by, and then he growled, God put him on Earth to show us what it’s like to be real­ly rich.” I said, Saul, I’m a nov­el­ist, and many of my friends are nov­el­ists, but I can’t help feel­ing that some of them are in a very dif­fer­ent busi­ness from mine, even though I like their books a lot. What would make me feel that way?” Six sec­onds went by, and then he growled, It is very sim­ple: There are two kinds of artists, and one is not supe­ri­or to the oth­er. But one kind responds to the his­to­ry of his or her art so far, and the oth­er responds to life itself.”

I said, Saul, are you gift­ed?” Six sec­onds went by, and then he growled, No. But what we respond to in any work of art is the artist’s strug­gle against his or her limitations.”

TROUT: OK.

KV: You seem unimpressed.

TROUT: I said, OK.”

KV: You said it so emp­ti­ly.

TROUT: Sor­ry. You know me: Always run­ning on empty.

KV: Some­body else smart? OK, try this: After the Sec­ond World War I enrolled in the grad­u­ate divi­sion of the Anthro­pol­o­gy Depart­ment of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, the most con­ceit­ed uni­ver­si­ty in the coun­try. And in a sem­i­nar for about eight of us, half of us vets on the GI Bill of Rights, my favorite pro­fes­sor, in fact my the­sis advi­sor, put this Socrat­ic ques­tion to us: What is it an artist does?”

TROUT: Hold on: What makes Chica­go so conceited?

KV: That it isn’t Harvard.

TROUT: Got it: That it isn’t high society.

KV: Bin­go. Any­way, I’m sure we all came up with smart-ass answers, since a grad­u­ate sem­i­nar in any sub­ject is a form of improv the­ater. But the only answer I remem­ber is the one he gave: An artist says, I can’t do any­thing about the chaos in the uni­verse or my coun­try, or even in my own mis­er­able life, but I can at least make this piece of paper or can­vas, or blob of clay or chunk of mar­ble, exact­ly what it should be.’”

TROUT: OK.

KV: Did you for­get to take your Via­gra today?

TROUT: Very fun­ny. But what he said an artist does is what I do every time I brush my teeth or tie my shoes. You thought this guy was smart? He’s an asshole.

KV: Look, when you put a piece of paper in your type­writer, don’t you try to make it exact­ly what it should be?

TROUT: No, I just eff­ing write.

KV: What are you eff­ing writ­ing now?

TROUT: It’s about how the future has as much to do with the present as the past does. Giraffes can only have come from the future. There’s no way evo­lu­tion in the past would have let some­thing that defense­less and imprac­ti­cal live for 15 minutes.

KV: If you say so.

TROUT: Try this: The First World War was caused by the sec­ond one. Oth­er­wise the first one makes no sense, wasn’t about any­thing. And all Picas­so had to do was paint pic­tures that were already hang­ing in muse­ums in the future.

KV: OK.

TROUT: Just try­ing to be Ein­stein. You nev­er know. But hey, the two peo­ple you said were so smart were both men. Women say smart things, too. I went walk­ing with a woman the oth­er day, if you can believe it, and I stopped to retie my shoes, and she said, Every time I go for a walk with a man he always has to stop to retie his shoes. Why won’t men tie dou­ble knots? A fear of com­mit­ment?” How’s that for anthro­pol­o­gy, the sci­ence of man? I’ll bet they didn’t teach you about men and shoelaces at Chicago.

KV: That isn’t anthro­pol­o­gy. That’s sociology.

TROUT: What’s the dif­fer­ence? I’ve often wondered.

KV: A soci­ol­o­gist is paid by the Soci­ol­o­gy Depart­ment. An anthro­pol­o­gist is paid by the Anthro­pol­o­gy Department.

TROUT: Glad to have that cleared up.

KV: Knowl­edge is power.

TROUT: Well, I’m off. Ciao, adiós and alo­ha.

KV: Whith­er bound?

TROUT: Back to Cohoes for an AA meeting.

KV: But you’re not an alcoholic.

TROUT: It’s the only place I can pick up women. They have their defens­es down. Hel­lo, I’m Kil­go­re Trout and I’m an alco­holic.” And I’ve met this babe named Flamin­go who is a pro­fes­sion­al psy­chic. She’s going to tell me our country’s for­tune. Who’ll win the next election.

KV: OK

TROUT: Take care. 

KV: You too.

Kurt Von­negut, the leg­endary author, WWII vet­er­an, human­ist, artist and smok­er, was an In These Times senior edi­tor until his death in April 2007. His clas­sic works include Slaugh­ter­house-Five, Break­fast of Cham­pi­ons and Cat’s Cra­dle, among many oth­ers. The last book by him pub­lished before his death, A Man With­out a Coun­try (2005), col­lects many of the arti­cles he wrote for this magazine.
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