Kurt Vonnegut: "Fates Worse Than Death"

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Writer Kurt Vonnegut , Jr., wearing academic robes, giving a sermon in a nuclear debate series at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City, May 23, 1982.

In the Spring of 1982 The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City launched a series of sermons on nuclear disarmament for their Sunday service. Among those invited to preach were activist Dr. Helen Caldicott, retired Admiral Hyman Rickover, arms negotiator Paul Warnke, physicist Wolfgang Panofsky, and the writer Kurt Vonnegut. At the time, NYPR Archives Director Andy Lanset covered the Vonnegut sermon as a volunteer for the WNYC News Department, but the entire recording has not been available, until now.

Kurt Vonnegut’s literary reputation rests primarily on his novels, especially the ones he published in the 1960s: Mother Night (1962), Cat’s Cradle (1963), God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965), and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). But he also wrote many, many great pieces of nonfiction--enough to fill three books with college graduation speeches, eulogies for fellow writers who had passed away, incisive analyses of American politics, observations on his German/American ancestry and his experience as a POW in World War II, tips on how to write well, and dozens of interviews over the years covering all these topics and many more. Along with Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and Hunter S. Thompson, Vonnegut was one of the creators of the “New Journalism” of the 60s and 70s, in which journalists often made themselves an integral part of the subject matter they were exploring. No one who loves Vonnegut’s fiction should miss the compelling essays collected in Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons (1974), Palm Sunday (1982), Fates Worse than Death (1991 ), and A Man Without a Country (2005).

Fates Worse than Death (whose transcript appears in the book of the same name) is one of Vonnegut’s nonfiction masterpieces. All his signature writerly tropes--friendly humor, withering irony, outrageous hyperbole, an ability to be simultaneously distanced from man’s folly and desperate to correct it--all are on display in this remarkable Vonnegut “sermon” delivered at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine on May 23, 1982. A life-long religious skeptic, Vonnegut got this unlikely speaking opportunity because he had recently gone on a trip to the Galapagos Islands with Paul Moore, the Bishop of St. John the Divine. The two had enjoyed each other’s company enough for Moore to invite Vonnegut to speak, and for Vonnegut to accept the invitation.

Fortunately, the resulting homily was recorded: hearing it rather than just reading it is a significantly more powerful experience. While he never raises his voice, Vonnegut doesn’t pull any rhetorical punches just because he’s addressing people sitting in a cathedral. The old phrase “like a bull in a china shop” comes to mind, as does “be careful what you wish for (Bishop Moore), since you might get it.” Vonnegut’s edgy topic is the elephant in the geopolitical room of the day: namely, how thoughtful Americans might respond to renewed Cold War tensions during the Reagan administration.

Vonnegut begins with an easy joke: “This is a pretty small church, but I guess I have to start somewhere.” He gets an easy laugh. But the laughter soon fades as he gets down to business. Are there really any “fates worse than death,” he asks? Would having the Russians take over America and enslave us be one? (While Vonnegut doesn’t mention it, the old 1950s anti-communist bumper sticker, “Better Dead than Red,” must have been in the back of his mind as he composed his oration). Or would being crucified be a fate worse than death, at least until one expired? What are our thousands of nukes really for, if not to deliver all of humanity from suffering fates worse than death? But then why do people usually try so hard to keep living when they’re occupied by foreign armies, enslaved, or even forced into death camps?

Only Kurt Vonnegut would pose such questions in a cathedral, and only he could answer them with the kind of moral clarity that makes this wondrous sermon a worthy successor to Emerson’s “Divinity School Address."


Special thanks to Dr. Mark Vonnegut.

Text of sermon.