A Train Trip with the FT: Kurt Vonnegut on Computers, Wall Street, and the Human Soul
By Paul Sullivan; Financial Times: June 24, 2000
Impatiently waiting on the train platform at the Amtrak station in Springfield, Massachusetts, a small, depressed city about two hours west of Boston, I looked around and saw Kurt Vonnegut leaning against the station wall. It certainly was Kurt Vonnegut (the electrified, curled hair, the bushy moustache), but what was he doing in Springfield?
We both got on the train going to New York, three and a half hours south, and after the conductor clipped my ticket I made my way through the cars in search of the author.
When I saw him in business class with his head down in a magazine, I said somewhat nervously, “Mr. Vonnegut??” He looked up, nodded and shook my hand. He was staring at me as if searching his memory for my face. He has met a lot of people in his life, and I wasn’t one of them.
Glancing at my business card, for the FT in New York, he looked up and with a smile said, “You don’t have a British accent.”
He was right there. In an attempt to ingratiate myself, to find some common ground, I noted that like him I had gone to the University of Chicago for an MA. He nodded again and we exchanged concentrations—anthropology for him, history for me. He went on to other things, writing such modern American classics as Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions.
Then I asked if I could take him out to lunch, the usual venues for these chats with the FT, but it was an idea he seemed not to like. So, I asked if we could, perhaps, talk there, on the train, and he lowered the crossword puzzle he was doing and slid across to the window seat, motioning for me to sit. Fortunately I had brought a pad and pen.
He had been visiting some family in Northampton, a cultural enclave about 10 miles north of Springfield, as part of his recuperation. For the month of March he was in a hospital being treated for smoke inhalation from the fire in his Manhattan home.
“I’m a refugee from the fire,” he says.
Pausing, Vonnegut worries the interview might tire him, but he launches in to a disquisition on the ill effects of technology anyway.
“Computers are cheating people out of sociability and also out of relations with other people—out of something as exciting as food or sex,” he says. “People are getting cheated out of a whole lot of human experience and becoming uninteresting to themselves.”
Vonnegut, who is 77, proudly describes himself as a Luddite who uses nothing more sophisticated to write than an old Apple PowerBook, which is not connected to the Internet.
“The whole excitement of life is ‘becoming’. Now computers are doing the becoming for you,” he says. ‘Becoming’ is the process by which a person becomes a person, or an artist an artist.
It might not be long before a computer will write a poem for you or compose a song, he quips.
Is there a way to reverse this trend?
“There will be Luddite families, like me, and their children will become more interesting,” he said.
Vonnegut understands the lure of television, though.
“Here I am recovering and TV’s almost enough,” he says.
“Repetition is almost as important—Star Trek, Seinfeld, Frasier—it’s comforting for people to be with these artificial friends and relatives. They’re easier to be with.”
I glance over at the crossword puzzle now on his lap and see it is complete.
“The mafia used to control booze, gambling, and prostitution,” he says in an apparent shift of subjects. But there was a purpose to the randomness.
“Now booze is legal. And white collar people are doing what the mob used to do—they skim something off each game,” he says of stock underwriters. “They get a fee for doing nothing, for contributing nothing to society.”
Vonnegut is mystified by the technology-driven bull market and sounds like a wizened Wall Street bear as he laments inflated price-to-earnings ratios and the reduction of stock dividends.
“I used to buy stock for dividends as a working man, and at the end of they year I saw how much I’d added to my income,” he said. “They used to talk about clipping coupons on bonds [the periodic interest bonds pay], but I don’t know if anyone does that any more.”
Internet companies, he believes, seduce young investors who are looking for the next Microsoft or Amazon.com. And then there is Wall Street.
“Wall Street does nothing,” he says. “They’re not productive members of society. They contribute nothing to civilization.”
“I asked my friend John Kenneth Galbraith about the stock market bubble,” he says referring to the Harvard economist and former advisor to President John F. Kennedy. “He said he’s given up on predictions but the bubble will burst.”
Vonnegut recalls being seven years old in 1929 when another stock market bubble burst. Banks failed then because so many of them were linked to the stock market and investors perished because of indebtedness to banks for money lent to buy stock, a parallel he sees today in the Nasdaq.
“Have you ever seen how a mouse trap works?” he asks. “There’s a spring on this guillotine arrangement that snaps. It’s happened again and again” in the stock market.
What about prostitution, then, the other domain of the mafia? Has the mafia lost control of this as well?
“The mob is going out of business. You can pay $7.50 for a movie with a beautiful woman in it and you can watch it right there,” he says gesturing to an imaginary television. “A prostitute wouldn’t do it for $7.50.”
As an after thought he adds, “I imagine prostitution is not nearly the business it once was.”
A bit perplexed by his concern with the welfare of the mafia, I ask if New York City mayor Rudolph Guilianni’s campaign to rid Times Square of prostitutes and pornography has further hurt that industry.
“I’m old enough to remember another Italian named Mussolini,” says Vonnegut, whose experience as a German prisoner of war in Dresden formed the basis of Slaughterhouse-Five. “He identified a problem and zapped it.”
Shifting toward me in his seat, Vonnegut says, “There are a lot of gifted people—writers, artists, composers—who linger at the bottom. While there are a lot of ungifted people—politicians, university professors—who ascend to the top because there’s nothing to stop them.”
A cynic with regards to the dominance of the market economy, Vonnegut opts for a simple, almost corny antidote to the rush and clamor of the maddening crowd: Art.
“Art externalises your dignity,” he says without a hint of pompousness.
He recalls his time teaching at the Iowa Writers Workshop, the oldest writing program in the US, where people write fiction and poetry not to profit but to broaden themselves.
“It’s a way to make your soul grow,” he says.
With the publication of his Timequake in 1997, Vonnegut announced his retirement from novel writing. Since then two new books have appeared, Bagombo Snuff Box (1999), a collection of early short stories, and God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian (2000), a compilation of meditations on life and the afterlife that originally aired as 90 second spots on New York public radio.
When I ask if he really is done writing books, he answers, “I’m 77.”
“One of my students just won an Academy Award—John Irving” he adds proudly, referring to the author of The Cider House Rules. “I’m very upset he did not mention me in his acceptance speech.”
“But you don’t practice an art to make money or become famous. You do it to make your soul grow,” he notes.
And this brings us back to his concern about computers dulling people’s minds and acting as substitutes for human interaction.
“I think we’re going to run into people with starved souls because their computers have done the ‘becoming’ not their brains.”
Since this is where we began, I ask if he has any investment advice, something other than technology stocks, and he pauses: “I tell people to buy stock in laxative companies.”
“Peristalsis can’t do the job alone. Nature assumed we’d move along and all that.”
With that he turns toward the window and watches the trees and fields of central Connecticut rush past the train.
Any last thoughts?
“No,” he says. “That’s all.”