Vonnegut & Earth Day: Can a Granfalloon Save the Planet?
April 30, 1970
It was the night before Earth Day. Kurt Vonnegut, set off by the ambience of the Algonquin Hotel, looked more like Mark Twain than Hal Holbrook.
He was talking about the environment.
“Do you think, Mr. Vonnegut, that the environmental movement is a granfalloon or a universal karass?”
“Everybody knows the answer to that question. But that’s not for publication,” he said. “Not today. By next week, you might as well tell ’em.”
(In Vonnegutian, a granfalloon is a false and meaningless association of people. The Daughters of the American Revolution, citizens of a nation, the International Communist Party, and All-Persons-Under-30 are the examples of granfalloons. A karass, on the other hand, is a true connection among persons meant to be with one another.)
It’s now a week after Earth Day. It’s okay to print the answer. Which everybody knows anyway.
The environmental movement is a granfalloon. “It’s a big soppy pillow,” said Vonnegut. “Nobody’s going to do anything.” He did cheer up briefly and told about a man he’d heard of out at G.M. who’s “invented a big grinder to grind up all the automobiles. Last week they got rid of all the old cars in Cleveland.” He described the grinder with enthusiasm as looking like one a kid would design. He indicated a big crank.
Later he spoke, as in his novel The Sirens of Titan, of the essential capacity to bear pain. In Sirens, the hero is challenged to put up with shocks sent to antennae fixed in his brain whenever he starts to think about anything personal and/or true.
People read his books, Vonnegut supposes, because they’re interested in God. Also, he added, “I’m very funny. I’m the funniest writer in America. That’s always a trump.… All you can teach ’em,” he summed up, “all you can teach anybody, is how to endure.”
At noon, Earth Day, on the steps of the New York City Public Library, the Manhattan College of Music Brass Ensemble played fanfares, the sun burst forth, and whooshes of pigeons filled the air.
Kurt Vonnegut, famous author and Weary Space Traveler, emerged from the library portals and descended to the speakers’ platform. Among the several dignitaries, he was the gloomiest.
“It is unusual,” he began, “for a total pessimist to be speaking at a spring celebration. Anyway here we all are — the peaceful demonstrators. Mostly white… President Nixon has our power and our money and the best thing for him to do is get out of the war business. Will he do it? No.”
And as the war goes on, “meanwhile we are free to walk up and down Fifth Avenue picking up the trash missed by the Sanitation Department.… We can surely look forward to some great advertising campaigns.… Now polluters are looked upon as ordinary Joes just doing their jobs. In the future, they will be looked upon as swine.… Will the president do anything about pollution? Probably not.”
In closing, Vonnegut consoled the crowd — after his fashion. “Those who try their best to save the planet will find a loose, cheerful, sexy brass band waiting to honor them right outside the Pearly Gates. What will the band be playing? ‘When the Saints Come Marching In.’ ”
People in the crowd reacted to Vonnegut in various ways. One elderly lady paced this way and that, talking fiercely throughout all the speeches, including Vonnegut’s. Her name, she said, was Lydia Petrovna, and she looked it. She said she had been born just east of Odessa but had grown up in Yugoslavia. She was wearing black socks on her bulgy ankles, a large dusty black felt hat, and a Belgrade style maxi-coat. A gold monkey pin with green rhinestone eyes was pinned on the back of the hat and she carried a sturdy rubber-tipped cane. Although much of what she had to say was in Yugoslavian, she did get across in English that “the trouble is we don’t listen to the right teachers.”
This could be.
A music professor from Iowa with a neat white mustache walked down the middle of Fifth Avenue. He was holding a flower. He didn’t have time to make much of a comment on Vonnegut’s speech since he was intent on singing the 12th century canon, “Summer Is Icumen In,” in old English, all parts.
He preferred not to give his name, as he didn’t trust reporters. “Bad experiences, you know.” But he didn’t mind being called “Mr. Daffodil” for the day. “Like the roast beef once eaten on Fridays by resourceful medieval monks who baptized it as fish. ‘Te baptizo carpem.’ You can baptize me Daffodil,” he said rosily.
He and Lydia Petrovna gave the impression they knew a lot about how to endure.