The mind of Kurt Vonnegut, like the protagonist of his best-known novel Slaughterhouse-Five, must have got “unstuck in time” somewhere along the line. How else could he have managed to write his distinctive brand of satirical but sincere fiction, hyper-aware of past, present, and future all at once? It must have made him a promising contributor indeed for Volkswagen’s 1988 Time magazine ad campaign, when the company “approached a number of notable thinkers and asked them to write a letter to the future — some words of advice to those living in 2088, to be precise.”
The beloved writer’s letter to the “Ladies & Gentlemen of A.D. 2088” begins as follows:
It has been suggested that you might welcome words of wisdom from the past, and that several of us in the twentieth century should send you some. Do you know this advice from Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: ‘This above all: to thine own self be true’? Or what about these instructions from St. John the Divine: ‘Fear God, and give glory to Him; for the hour of His judgment has come’? The best advice from my own era for you or for just about anybody anytime, I guess, is a prayer first used by alcoholics who hoped to never take a drink again: ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’
Our century hasn’t been as free with words of wisdom as some others, I think, because we were the first to get reliable information about the human situation: how many of us there were, how much food we could raise or gather, how fast we were reproducing, what made us sick, what made us die, how much damage we were doing to the air and water and topsoil on which most life forms depended, how violent and heartless nature can be, and on and on. Who could wax wise with so much bad news pouring in?
For me, the most paralyzing news was that Nature was no conservationist. It needed no help from us in taking the planet apart and putting it back together some different way, not necessarily improving it from the viewpoint of living things. It set fire to forests with lightning bolts. It paved vast tracts of arable land with lava, which could no more support life than big-city parking lots. It had in the past sent glaciers down from the North Pole to grind up major portions of Asia, Europe, and North America. Nor was there any reason to think that it wouldn’t do that again someday. At this very moment it is turning African farms to deserts, and can be expected to heave up tidal waves or shower down white-hot boulders from outer space at any time. It has not only exterminated exquisitely evolved species in a twinkling, but drained oceans and drowned continents as well. If people think Nature is their friend, then they sure don’t need an enemy.You can read the whole thing at Letters of Note, where Vonnegut goes on to give his own interpretation of humanity’s perspective at the time, when “we were seeing ourselves as a new sort of glacier, warm-blooded and clever, unstoppable, about to gobble up everything and then make love — and then double in size again.” He puts the question to his future-inhabiting readers directly: “Is it possible that we aimed rockets with hydrogen bomb warheads at each other, all set to go, in order to take our minds off the deeper problem—how cruelly Nature can be expected to treat us, Nature being Nature, in the by-and-by?”
Finally, Vonnegut issues seven commandments — as much directed to readers of the late 20th century as to readers of the late 21st, or indeed to those of the early 21st in which you read this now — intended to help humanity avert what he sees as the utter catastrophe looming ahead:
- Reduce and stabilize your population.
- Stop poisoning the air, the water, and the topsoil.
- Stop preparing for war and start dealing with your real problems.
- Teach your kids, and yourselves, too, while you’re at it, how to inhabit a small planet without helping to kill it.
- Stop thinking science can fix anything if you give it a trillion dollars.
- Stop thinking your grandchildren will be OK no matter how wasteful or destructive you may be, since they can go to a nice new planet on a spaceship. That is really mean, and stupid.
- And so on. Or else.
In 2006, a group of students at Xavier High School in New York City were given an assignment by their English teacher, Ms. Lockwood, that was to test their persuasive writing skills: they were asked to write to their favourite author and ask him or her to visit the school. It’s a measure of his ongoing influence that five of those pupils chose Kurt Vonnegut; sadly, however, he never made that trip. Instead, he wrote a wonderful letter. He was the only author to reply.
Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:
I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.
What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.
Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.
Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?
Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals [sic]. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.
God bless you all!
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