“We can learn to live without the sick excitement, without the kick of having scores to settle.”
American Writer, Kurt Vonnegut who is most famous for his darkly satirical, bestselling novel Slaughterhouse-Five(1969), delivered a very thought-provoking speech to the 1999 graduating students of Agnes Scott College, Decatur, Georgia. He tried to answers the question that Freud asked, but never could figure out: “What do women want?” For good measure, he also reveals what men really want.
The below transcript was culled from Kurt Vonnegut’s book “If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young,” a 2013 collection of nine commencement speeches from Kurt Vonnegut, selected and introduced by Dan Wakefield.
Kurt Vonnegut’s 1999 Agnes Scott College Commencement Speech Transcript
This is a long-delayed puberty ceremony. You are at last officially full-grown women—what you were biologically by the age of 15 or so. I am as sorry as I can be that it took so much time and money before you could at last be licensed as grown-ups.
Kin Hubbard, a newspaper humorist in my hometown of Indianapolis when I was growing up, wrote a joke a day for The Indianapolis News. One day, I remember, he said, “It’s no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.” He said this about graduation addresses: “I think it would be better if colleges spread out the really important stuff over four years, instead of saving it all up for the very end.
But that’s what you’re going to get from me: All the really important stuff at the very end.
I am so smart I know what is wrong with the world. Everybody asks during and after our wars, and the continuing terrorist attacks all over the globe, “What’s gone wrong?”
What has gone wrong is that too many people, including high school kids and heads of state, are obeying the Code of Hammurabi, a King of Babylonia who lived nearly four thousand years ago. And you can find his code echoed in the Old Testament, too. Are you ready for this?
“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
“A categorical imperative for all who live in obedience to the Code of Hammurabi, which includes heroes of every cowboy show and gangster show you ever saw, is this: Every injury, real or imagined, shall be avenged. Somebody’s going to be really sorry.
Bombs away—or whatever.
“When Jesus Christ was nailed to a cross, he said, “Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do.” What kind of a man was that? Any real man, obeying the Code of Hammurabi, would have said, “Kill them, Dad, and all their friends and relatives, and make their deaths slow and painful.”
His greatest legacy to us, in my humble opinion, consists of only twelve words. They are the antidote to the poison of the Code of Hammurabi, a formula almost as compact as Albert Einstein’s “E = mc2.”
“Jesus of Nazareth told us to say these twelve words when we prayed: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Bye-bye, Code of Hammurabi.
And for those words alone, he deserves to be called “the Prince of Peace.”
Every act of war, every act of violence, even by a paranoid schizophrenic, celebrates Hammurabi and shows contempt for Jesus Christ.
Is anybody here a Presbyterian?
I want to warn you: Many people have been burned alive in public for believing what you believe. So watch your backs after you get out of here.
“Some of you may know that I am a Humanist, or Freethinker, as were my parents and grandparents and great grandparents—and so not a Christian. By being a Humanist, I am honoring my mother and father, which the Bible tells us is a good thing to do.
But I say with all my American ancestors, “If what Jesus said was good, and so much of it was absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not?”
If Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being. I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.
Revenge provokes revenge which provokes revenge which provokes revenge—forming an unbroken chain of death and destruction linking nations of today to barbarous tribes of thousands and thousands of years ago.
We may never dissuade leaders of our nation or any other nation from responding vengefully, violently, to every insult or injury. In this, the Age of Television, they will continue to find irresistible the temptation to become entertainers, to compete with movies by blowing up bridges and police stations and factories, and so on.
“Fires, explosions. Come look. Oh my gosh—hey wow.
To quote the late Irving Berlin: “There’s no business like show business.”
But in our personal lives, our inner lives, at least, we can learn to live without the sick excitement, without the kick of having scores to settle with this particular person, or that bunch of people, or that particular institution or race or nation.
“And we can then reasonably ask forgiveness for our trespasses since we forgive those who trespass against us. And we can teach our children and then our grandchildren to do the same—so that they, too, can never be a threat to anyone.
Not that there hasn’t been a lot of good news, along with the bad, long before you got here. I am talking about the birth of works of art. Music, paintings. Statues, buildings, poems, stories, plays, and essays, and movies you bet), and humane ideas—which make us feel honored to be members of the human race.
What can you yourselves contribute? You’ve come this far anyway, and it wasn’t easy. And I now recite a famous line by the poet Robert Browning, with one small change. I have replaced his word “man,” which in his time was taken to mean “human being,” with the word “woman.”
May I say, too, that his wife Elizabeth Barrett was as great a poet as he was: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…” and so on.
“While I’m at it, get a load of this: The atomic bomb which we dropped on the people of Hiroshima was first envisioned by a woman, not a man. She was, of course, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. She didn’t call it an “atomic bomb.” She called it “the monster of Frankenstein.”
But back to Robert Browning, and what he said about anyone who hopes to make the world better. Again: I’ve changed his word “man” to “woman” for this occasion:
“A woman’s reach should exceed her grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
“And of course the original: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
Sigmund Freud said he didn’t know what women wanted. I am so smart I not only know what is wrong with the world, the Code of Hammurabi, but I know what women want. Women want a whole lot of people to talk to. What do they want to talk about?
They want to talk about everything.
Men want a lot of pals—and they don’t want people to get mad at them.
Some of you may become psychologists or ministers. In either case, you are going to have to deal with men, women, and children whose lives are being damaged by our country’s astronomical divorce rate. You should know that when a husband and wife fight, it may seem to be about money or sex or power.
But what they’re really yelling at each other about is loneliness. What they’re really saying is, “You’re not enough people.”
“Back when most human beings lived in extended families and lived in the same part of the world for the whole of their lives, a marriage was really something to celebrate. Wedding guests laugh instead of cry. The groom was going to get a lot of new pals, and the bride was going to get a whole new bunch of people to talk to about everything.
Nowadays, most of us when we marry get just one person—and, oh sure, maybe a few scruffy in-laws, ready to kill each other, and living hundreds of miles away, if you’re lucky—in someplace like Vancouver, British Columbia, or Hollywood, Florida.
So again: If any of you educated people find yourselves in a therapeutic situation vis-à-vis a marriage on the rocks, please realize that the real problem may not be money or sex or power or how to raise a kid. The real trouble with the wife, as far as the husband is concerned, maybe that she isn’t enough people. The real trouble with the husband, as far as the wife is concerned, maybe that he isn’t enough people.
If you determine that that really is what they’ve been yelling at each other about, tell them to become more people for each other by joining a synthetic extended family—like Hell’s Angels, perhaps, or the American Humanist Association, with headquarters in Amherst, New York—or the nearest church.
I met a man in Nigeria one time, an Ibo who had six hundred relatives he knew quite well. His wife had just had a baby, the best possible news in any extended family.
They were going to take it to meet all its relatives, Ibos of all ages and sizes and shapes. It would even meet other babies, cousins not much older than it was. Everybody who was big enough and steady enough was going to get to hold it, cuddle it, gurgle to it, and say how pretty it was, or handsome.
Wouldn’t you have loved to be that baby?
Here is a fact: This wonderful speech is already more than twice as long as the most efficient, effective oration in American history, Abraham Lincoln’s address on the battlefield at Gettysburg.
As I speak, the very air we breathe is vibrant with words and images from CNN. In the early days of radio, I remember, people living too close to the transmitter of KDKA in Pittsburgh used to receive soap operas in their bedsprings and bridgework.
And nowadays, surely, TV is such a pervasive part of so many Americans’ lives that they might as well be hearing Wolf Blitzer in their bedsprings and bridgework. And I have a son-in-law who has been swallowed by his computer. He disappeared into it, and I’m not sure we can ever get him back out again. And he has a wife and kids!
There was a time when a graduation speaker, looking out at a sea of beauty and innocence such as this one, would warn you about all the sewer rats you will meet as you flow out of here and into the gutters of the real world. I mean lascivious, untruthful men, tinhorn Casanovas and sociopathic Lochinvars. But Cosmopolitan and Elle magazines have told you all about them—and told you how to protect yourselves.
If somebody says he loves, you check it out.
And your State and Federal Governments, thank goodness, have told you not to smoke cigarettes, which are evil incarnate…. Who in his or her right mind doesn’t hate evil with a passion?
Cigarettes are very bad for you—but cigars are very good for you. Cigars are so healthful that there is a magazine devoted to them, with pictures of cigar-smoking celebrities on the cover.
Cigars, of course, are made of trail mix—of nuts and raisins and granola. Why don’t you all eat a cigar at bedtime tonight?
Firearms are also good for you. No fat, no nicotine, and no cholesterol.
Ask your Congressperson if this isn’t true.
And God bless the State and Federal Governments for taking such good care of the public health.
I hope you know that television and computers are no more your friends, and no more increasers of your brainpower, than slot machines. All they want is for you to sit still and buy all kinds of junk, and play the stock market as though it were a game of blackjack.
And only well-informed, warm-hearted people can teach other things they’ll always remember and love. Computers and TV don’t do that.
A computer teaches a child what a computer can become.
An educated human being teaches a child what a child can become.
“Bad men just want your bodies. TVs and computers want your money, which is even more disgusting. It’s so much more dehumanizing!
Given a choice, wouldn’t you rather have somebody like your body more than your money?
Forbes magazine asked me recently what my favorite technologies were, and I said a corner mailbox, my address book, and the Encyclopedia Britannica. The Britannica is arranged alphabetically, so you can find out all kinds of stuff, if you know your ABC’s.
And putting a letter in a corner mailbox is like feeding a great big bullfrog painted blue.
I thank you for becoming educated. By becoming reasonable and informed persons, you have made this a more rational world than it was before you got here. I give you my word of honor that you graduates are near the very top of the best news I ever hear. By working so hard at becoming wise and reasonable and well-informed, you have made our little planet, our precious little moist, blue-green ball, a saner place than it was before you got here.
Thanks, and God bless those who made it possible for you to improve your minds and souls in the company of students from every part of this country, and foreign nations besides.
What fun, eh? I should say.
Most of you are preparing to enter fields unattractive to greedy persons, such as education and the healing arts. Teaching, may I say, is the noblest profession of all in a democracy.
Some of you will become mothers. I don’t recommend it, but these things happen.
If that should fall your lot, you may find compensation in these words by the poet William Ross Wallace: “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.”
And keep that kid the hell away from computers and TV sets, unless you want it to be a lonesome imbecile, who steals money from your purse so it can buy stuff.
Don’t give up on books. They feel so good—their friendly heft. The sweet reluctance of their pages when you turn them with your sensitive fingertips. A large part of our brains is devoted to deciding what our hands are touching, is good or bad for us. Any brain worth a nickel knows books are good for us.
And don’t try to make yourself an extended family out of ghosts on the Internet.
Get yourself a Harley and join Hell’s Angels instead.
Every graduation pep talk I’ve ever given has ended with words about my father’s kid brother, Alex Vonnegut, a Harvard educated insurance agent in Indianapolis, who was well-read and wise.
The first graduation at which I spoke, incidentally, was at what was then a women’s college—Bennington, in Vermont. The Vietnam War was going on, and the graduates wore no make-up, to show how ashamed and sad they were.
But about my Uncle Alex, who is up in Heaven now.
One of the things he found objectionable about human beings was that they so rarely noticed it when they were happy. He himself did his best to acknowledge it when times were sweet. We could be drinking lemonade in the shade of an apple tree in the summertime, and Uncle Alex would interrupt the conversation to say, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”
So I hope that you will do the same for the rest of your lives. When things are going sweetly and peacefully, please pause a moment, and then say out loud, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”
Let that be the motto of your class: “If this isn’t nice, what is?”
That’s one favor I’ve asked of you. Now I ask for another one. I ask it not only of the graduates, but of everyone here, parents and teachers as well. I’ll want a show of hands after I ask this question.
How many of you have had a teacher at any level of your education who made you more excited to be alive, prouder to be alive, than you had previously believed possible?
Hold up your hands, please.
Now take down your hands and say the name of that teacher to someone else and tell them what that teacher did for you.
If this isn’t nice, what is?