Friday, November 11, 2016

Kurt Vonnegut, born November 11, 1922: "the secret of good storytelling: to lie, but to keep the arithmetic sound"

Kurt Vonnegut on Mark Twain, 2007: " ... He himself was the most enchanting American at the heart of each of his tales. We can forgive this easily, for he managed to imply that the reader was enough like him to be his brother. He did this most strikingly in the personae of the riverboat pilot and Huckleberry Finn. He did this so well that the newest arrival to these shores, very likely a Vietnamese refugee, can, by reading him begin to imagine that he has some of idiosyncratically American charm of Mark Twain." Earlier in his remarks, Vonnegut explained Twain's "necessary miracle":

... This is the secret of good storytelling: to lie, but to keep the arithmetic sound. A storyteller, like any other sort of enthusiastic liar, is on an unpredictable adventure. His initial lie, his premise, will suggest many new lies of its own. The storyteller must choose among them, seeking those which are most believable, which keep the arithmetic sound. Thus does a story generate itself.
The wildest adventure with storytelling, with Missouri calculation, of which I know is A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. It was written in this sacredly absurd monument -- as were Tom Sawyer, A Tramp Abroad, The Prince and the Pauper, Life on the Mississippi, from which I have quoted, and the world masterpiece,Huckleberry Finn. Twain's most productive years were spent here--from the time he was 39 until he was my age, which, is 56. He was my age when he left here to live in Europe and Redding and New York, his greatest work behind him.
That is haw far down the river of life he was when he left here. He could not afford to live here anymore. He was very bad at business.
About A Connecticut Yankee: its premise, its first lie, seemed to promise a lark. What could more comical than sending back into the Dark Ages one late nineteenth-century optimist and technocrat? Such a premise was surely the key to a treasure chest of screamingly funny jokes and situations. Mark Twain would have been wise to say to himself as he picked that glittering key, "Keep your hat on. We may wind up miles from here."
I will refresh your memories as where he wound up, with or without his hat. The Yankee and his little band of electricians and mechanics and what-have-yous are being attacked by thousands of English warriors armed with swords and spears and axes. The Yankee has fortified his position with a series of electric fences and a moat. He also has several precursors to modern machine guns, which are Gatling guns.
Comically enough, thousands of early attackers have already been electrocuted. Ten thousand of the greatest knights in England have been held in reserve. Now they come. I quote, and I invite you to chuckle along with me as I read:
"The thirteen gatlings began to vomit death into the fated ten thousand. They halted,they stood their ground a moment against that withering deluge of fire, and then they broke, faced about, and swept toward the ditch like chaff before a gale. A full fourth part of their force never reached the top of the lofty embankment; the three-fourths it and plunged over-to death by drowning.
"Within ten short minutes after we had opened fire, armed resistance was totally annihilated, the campaign was ended, we fifty-four were masters of England! Twenty-five thousand men lay dead around us."
End quote.
What a funny ending.
Mark Twain died in 1910, at the age of 75 and four years before the start of World War I. I have heard it said that he predicted that war and all the wars after that in A Connecticut YankeeIt was not Twain who did that. It was his premise.
How appalled this entertainer must have been to have his innocent joking about technology and superstition lead him inexorably to such a ghastly end. Suddenly and horrifyingly, what had seemed so clear throughout the book was not clear at all -- who was good, who was bad, who was wise, who was foolish. I ask you: "Who was most crazed by superstition and bloodlust, the men with the swords or the men with the Gatling guns?"
And I suggest to you that the fatal premise of A Connecticut Yankee remains a chief premise of Western civilization, and increasingly of world civilization, to wit: the sanest, most likable persons, employing superior technology, will enforce sanity throughout the world.
Shall I read the ending of A Connecticut Yankee to you yet again?
No need. ...

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