What Kurt Vonnegut had to say

Too many of my good friends are overwhelmed with work which prevents them living more peaceful, varied, interesting and fulfilled lives. For them, and as a reminder to myself, let me again spend a moment questioning priorities and imperatives taken for granted in a world increasingly devoted to non-stop busyness and oppressive deadlines.

Our lives of such infinite value come and go in a whirl of work. We hasten and hustle in an endless hubbub and there is never enough time and always too much information. The hours trip over themselves as they pass into eternity. You will never have them back so regret every one not spent as you would really wish them to be spent.

ian on sunday15Life increasingly is an unrelenting rush of activity and chores, appointments and commitments, all demons of the deadline. “Things that have to be done at once” dominate the day to such an extent that there is hardly a moment, or no moments whatsoever, for the far more important things that do not need to be done at all. There are more and more reports to be reported on. What spare hours there might be are spent dealing with the overflow from workdays cluttered with obligations which lead inexorably into other obligations.

The trouble is that human beings now aspire too fiercely to simultaneity and omniscience. Perhaps it is an ancient wish come true to be like God who said “Let there be light!” and at once there was light. We want to be where we only have to open our mouths to make a world happen and open our eyes to have a world appear. So we surf the Internet for access to all knowledge immediately, we press a button for instant cash, and the countless pieces of paper we generate at home and office simultaneously yield countless pieces of paper in every sort of elsewhere and vice versa until all the time we have is consumed in dealing with all that stuff we ourselves have helped create. We are constantly dealing desperately with overflow.

Now it is possible to carry an office in the form of a laptop inside a briefcase. Or the office will even fit in the palm of your hand. Convenient they call it; the roots of the word convenient are “with” and “come”. So now everything can come with you, into your car, into your bedroom, onto your wind-filled veranda, onto your holiday beach or into your forest hideaway. Every moment must be fully productive and cost-effective – nothing left for the kind of time that is vanishing in our lives, a time completely free of usefulness, a time zone of wonder, a time when we leave aside the habits of achievement and are startled into appreciating the rewards of a completely unplanned and uncommitted day.

The yearning after more and more speed – speed of exchanged communications, immediate access to information, concept instantly converted into conception – is destroying an important part of our lives. We are losing the art of waiting awhile.

Consider the joy of writing and receiving letters. Delay is an essential ingredient in the pleasure of correspondence. ‘Must do’ turns into the relished achievement of ‘just done’ and then you have the added pleasure of anticipating a reply. “The sending of a letter constitutes a magical grasp upon the future,” Iris Murdoch wrote. But that old magic has been completely destroyed by the e-mail. Now letter-writing, and all too many pleasurably drawn-out exchanges between human beings, are carried out in a frenzy of instant messages frantically sent and almost simultaneously returned. No space is left for valuable periods of meditation and review when those second and third thoughts come which are often best.

There is a poem by James Wright, one of my great favourites, ‘Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,’ which I like to read when life presses too hard on one’s precious time. I move it forward between the leaves of my diary so that I am reminded regularly what is, and what is not, important in life.


Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,

Asleep on the black trunk,

Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.

Down the ravine behind the empty house

The cowbells follow one another

Into the distances of the afternoon.

To my right,

In a field of sunlight between two pines,

The droppings of last year’s horses

Blaze up into golden stones.

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.

A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.

I have wasted my life.


The poem itself confirms the irony of its last line. It is not this experience of a world where nothing is lost, where tranquil beauty is contained in each passing moment, where dung blazes up like gold, it is not such an experience which is a waste of life. It is rather that in such an experience one realizes that a lifetime only of dutiful, anxious, unrelieved, repeated, treadmill effort is utterly foolish, a waste in truth.

The late novelist Kurt Vonnegut, once spoke in an interview about technology and himself. He worked at home and he said he could, if he wanted, have a computer by his bed and never have to leave it. But instead he used an old typewriter and afterwards marked up the pages with a pencil and went down to the local post office to mail the pages to a good typist he knew. And in the line at the post office and later in the line at the corner store where he bought pencils and newspapers and sweets he got to talk to any number of people – a birdwatcher desperately eager to get back to tracking blue-birds in the woods, a girl he fell half in love with, an off-duty cop full of stories – and he lazed around noticing the way shadows fall and the intricate lace of an old woman’s shawl. And then he would walk home slowly. “And I’ve had a hell of a good time. I tell you, as much as anything we are here on Earth to fart around and don’t let anybody tell you any different.”

Well, yes, I suppose that is one way of expressing what I’ve been trying to say.


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