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Culture Re-View: Kurt Vonnegut's five best quotes

Author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in New York City in 1979.
Author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in New York City in 1979. Copyright AP Photo
Copyright AP Photo
By Jonny Walfisz
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On the anniversary of his death, we take a look at Kurt Vonnegut's life and some of his most inspirational quotes.

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11 April 2007: “So it goes” - Goodbye Kurt Vonnegut

“So it goes.” Today marks 16 years since the passing of American author Kurt Vonnegut. Born 11 November 1922 in Indianapolis, Vonnegut joined the US army during his university studies to help with the Second World War effort.

His experiences fighting in Europe, particularly witnessing the destruction of Dresden, deeply affected the young writer and would inform his works. On his return, he committed to creative pursuits, starting with his first novel in 1952, ‘Player Piano’.

Over the following five decades, Vonnegut established himself as one of the most creative and humorous voices in science-fiction. Like an American Douglas Adams, his books would frequently deal with aliens, time travel, and metafiction, but always with the intent of getting to the heart of human nature itself.

His greatest success and most famous novel, 1969’s ‘Slaughterhouse 5’ was a perfect example of Vonnegut’s trademark style. Through the narrative device of an alien race that transcends temporal dimensions, he unpacked his own inability to face the trauma of experiencing the Allied bombing of Dresden in the Second World War.

Throughout the novel, the phrase “So it goes” is repeated every time a character dies. It’s emblematic of Vonnegut’s frank and meditative approach to death. The world he saw at war was one where death’s inevitability was thrust to the forefront of mortal thought, yet the non-linear and emotionless approach of the novel’s aliens emphasise his peaceful ability to focus, not on the tragic, but the pulse of life that remains.

MATTHIAS RIETSCHEL/AP1998
US writer Kurt Vonnegut visits a former air-raid shelter, where he went during the World War II bomb attack on Dresden as prisoner of warMATTHIAS RIETSCHEL/AP1998

Vonnegut wrote many excellent books including ‘Cat’s Cradle’, ‘Breakfast of Champions’, and ‘Galápagos’. To celebrate the writer’s life, here are our top 5 quotes from him.

1. “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

From Vonnegut’s third novel ‘Mother Night’, it’s a beautiful and quick summation of an appreciation of the stark importance as well as the flimsiness of human identity.

2. “Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.’”

In Vonnegut’s final novel 1997’s ‘Timequake’, the writer uses his metanarrative alter-ego Kllgore Trout to pontificate on a lack of free will and his own struggle to write the novel. This passage is so perfect at underlining Vonnegut’s pure humanist message in the face of solipsism.

3. “And Lot's wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned into a pillar of salt. So it goes.”

My favourite little passage from ‘Slaughterhouse 5’. You get an example of the book’s famous “So it goes” line, as well as Vonnegut pontificating theologically on how the reasoning behind Lot’s biblical punishment are subordinate to far important qualities: curiosity and caring.

4. “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’”

From Vonnegut’s 1965 novel ‘God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater’. It’s a lovely section and adds credence to my theory Vonnegut is a sweet American version of Douglas Adams.

5. “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.”

Maybe Vonnegut’s most quoted line from ‘Slaughterhouse 5’. Much like essays and speeches where Vonnegut emphasises the importance of recognising when things are good. As the novel’s epigraph, though this line has a dual meaning. The protagonist has been abducted by aliens who’ve lost perspective on time and also all their cares in the world. While that response might have helped Vonnegut process the trauma of war, it’s not equivalent to living. Take joy in beauty, sure, but I believe this line also emphasises how sometimes accepting that things aren’t always beautiful and sometimes hurt is as important a part of life too.

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