Kurt Vonnegut on Loneliness, Old Age, and the Extended Family


I have always admired  Kurt Vonnegut’s unique, ineffably sane take on the destructive history of the 20th century.

In the remarkable documentary, Kurt Vonnegut:  Unstuck in Time, filmmaker Robert B. Weide interviews Kurt Vonnegut and intersperses their witty chats with old home movies provided by Kurt’s older brother, Bernard Vonnegut, photos of family and friends, his children’s reminiscences, Kurt at his high school reunion, love letters, accounts of his two marriages, high school plaques with names of men he knew who died in World War II, and historic footage of wars and other events. 

 Vonnegut grew up in a huge extended family in Indianapolis, Indiana: there were at least 30 Vonneguts in the Indianapolis phone book.  He underwent his share of trauma later:  he was a Prisoner of War during World War II, who survived the fire-bombing of Dresden because he was imprisoned at night in a slaughterhouse.  Later, while working in the PR department of GE,  he discovered that  GE was creating machines that would do men’s jobs and replace them in the workplace.  He quit to become a short story writer and novelist.

Vonnegut’s jokes are so outrageous that I fear he would offend today’s milquetoast audiences.  College students were once his biggest supporters, but I’m not sure they “get” satire anymore.

Here’s a witty, heartbreaking Vonnegut quote from the documentary.

My books are about loneliness and people being driven out of the Garden of Eden.  The world’s full of lonesome old people.  And when trouble comes they call either the police or the fire department.  Lonesome?  Dial 911.  And I say, Get an extended family.

In Slapstick, he makes similar observations. The hero, Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, runs for President of the United States on the radical platform of “Lonesome No More!”  He promises to provide every American with a huge, supportive extended family.  But first, because there is a fuel shortage, he has to burn Nixon’s papers from the National Archives to generate electricity so the computers can assign new middle names to the citizens.   (The middle name will identify your new family of tens of thousands of people.) 

I guess the critics didn’t like his attack on the loneliness of the nuclear family:  Vonnegut himself says he never got nastier reviews.   But in this darkly comic post-apocalyptic novel, Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain is working for the good of the crumbling American society.

. What I love about Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, or do I mean Vonnegut?, is that he laughs in the darkness.

And so we will vote for Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain in the next election.  We love his ideas!

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