Streams

Kurt Vonnegut: "Fates Worse Than Death"

An Anti-Nuclear Sermon for a Cold War World

Wednesday, June 11, 2014 - 10:00 AM

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.

Editors:

Andy Lanset and Marcos Sueiro Bal

Tags:

More in:

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.

Sponsored

About NYPR Archives & Preservation

Mission Statement: The New York Public Radio Archives supports the mission and goals of WNYC and WQXR by honoring the broadcast heritage of the radio stations and preserving their organizational and programming legacy for future generations of public radio listeners. The Archives will collect, organize, document, showcase and make available for production all original work generated by and produced in association with WNYC and WQXR Radio.

The NYPR Archives serves the stations staff and producers by providing them with digital copies of our broadcast material spanning WNYC and WQXR's respective 90 and 77 year histories.  We also catalog, preserve and digitize, provide reference services, store, and acquire WNYC and WQXR broadcast material (originals and copies) missing from the collection. This repatriation effort has been aided by dozens of former WNYC and WQXR staff as well as a number of key institutions. Additionally, our collecting over the last ten years goes beyond sound and includes photos, publicity materials, program guides, microphones, coffee mugs, buttons and other ephemera. We've left no stone unturned in our pursuit of these artifacts. The History Notes is a showcase for many of these non-broadcast items in our collection. 

In fact, if you’ve got that vintage WNYC or WQXR knick-knack, gee-gaw, or maybe a photo of someone in front of our mic, an old program guide or vintage piece of remote equipment and would like to donate it to us, or provide a copy of the item to us, write to Andy Lanset at alanset@nypublicradio.org.   

The Archives and Preservation series was created to bring together the leading NYPR Archives related, created, or sourced content material at WNYC.org.

Feeds

Supported by