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.”
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.’”
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.
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.
TROUT: Take care.
KV: You too.