Kurt Vonnegut Gives a Sermon on the Foolishness of Nuclear Arms: It’s Timely Again (Cathedral of St. John the Divine, 1982)

Image by Daniele Prati, via Flickr Commons

Many writers recoil at the notion of discussing where they get their ideas, but Kurt Vonnegut spoke on the subject willingly. "I get my ideas from dreams," he announced early in one speech, adding, "the wildest dream I have had so far is about The New Yorker magazine." In this dream, "the magazine has published a three-part essay by Jonathan Schell which proves that life on Earth is about to end. I am supposed to go to the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, where all the people are waiting, and say something wonderful — right before a hydrogen bomb is dropped on the Empire State Building."

It stands to reason that a such a vivid, frightening, and somehow funny scenario would unfold in the unconscious mind of a man who wrote such vivid, frightening, and somehow funny novels. (Vonnegut's own interpretation? "I consider myself an important writer, and I think The New Yorker should be ashamed that it has never published me.") As it happens, he did deliver these words in a cathedral, namely New York City's Cathedral of St. John the Divine in the spring of 1982.

This was just months after Schell's three-part essay "The Fate of the Earth" (all three parts of it still available online) really ran in The New Yorker, and Cold War fears about the probability of a hydrogen bomb really dropping on America ran high. Vonnegut's speech was one of a series of Sunday sermons the Cathedral had lined up on the subject of nuclear disarmament, assembling the rest of the roster from military, scientific, and activist fields. The author of Cat's CradleSlaughterhouse-Five, and Breakfast of Champions---fresh off a trip to the Galapagos Islands with the St. John the Divine's Bishop Paul Moore---presumably represented the realm of letters.

"At the time, NYPR Archives Director Andy Lanset covered the Vonnegut sermon as a volunteer for the WNYC News Department," wrote WNYC's William Rodney Allen in 2014 on the rediscovery and posting of Lanset's recording. (The same public radio station, incidentally, would fifteen or so years later commission Vonnegut for a series of reports from the afterlife.) Now we can not only read but also hear Vonnegut, in his own voice, trying to imagine aloud a series of "fates worse than death." Why? Not simply to indulge his famous sense of gallows humor, but in order to put the nuclear threat, and the anxieties it generated, into the proper context.

"I am sure you are sick and tired of hearing how all living things sizzle and pop inside a radioactive fireball," Vonnegut says, going on to assure his audience that "scientists, for all their creativity, will never discover a method for making people deader than dead. So if some of you are worried about being hydrogen-bombed, you are merely fearing death. There is nothing new in that. If there weren't any hydrogen bombs, death would still be after you."

In any event, despite having shuffled through several candidates ("Life without petroleum?"), Vonnegut can come up with no fate believably worse than death besides crucifixion. But given that non-crucified human beings nearly always and everywhere prefer life to death, perhaps "we might pray to be rescued from our inventiveness" which gave us the ability to destroy all life on Earth. But "the inventiveness which we so regret now may also be giving us, along with the rockets and warheads, the means to achieve what has hitherto been an impossibility, the unity of mankind."

Vonnegut sees this promise mainly in television, whose terribly realistic sounds and images ensure that "the people of every industrialized nation are nauseated by war by the time they are ten years old." A veteran of the Second World War, he himself remembers a very different time, back when "it used to be necessary for a young soldier to get into fighting before he became disillusioned about war," back when "it was unusual for an American, or a person of any nationality, for that matter, to know much about foreigners."

Even before the 1980s, "thanks to modern communications, we have seen sights and heard sounds from virtually every square mile of the land mass on this planet," and so "know for certain that there are no potential human enemies anywhere who are anything but human beings almost exactly like ourselves. They need food. How amazing. They love their children. How amazing. They obey their leaders. How amazing. They think like their neighbors. How amazing."

Modern communications have, of course, come astonishingly far in the 35 years since Vonnegut's Sunday sermon, but our fears about nuclear annihilation have had a way of resurfacing. In recent months, the American people have even heard talk of a reinvigorated nuclear arms race from their new president, a man whose rise detractors partly blame on modern communication technology — not a lack of it, but an excess.

"The global village that was once the internet has been replaced by digital islands of isolation that are drifting further apart each day," writes Mostafa M. El-Bermawy in a Wired piece on the threat social-media "filter bubbles" pose to democracy. "We need to remind ourselves that there are humans on the other side of the screen who want to be heard and can think and feel like us while at the same time reaching different conclusions." Recent developments would probably disappoint Vonnegut (not that they would surprise him), but he'd surely get a kick, as he always did, out of the irony of it all.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

W.B. Yeats’ Classic Poem “When You Are Old” Gets Adapted Into a Beautiful Short Film

W.B. Yeats’ 1891 poem "When You Are Old" is widely considered a commentary on his unrequited lifelong passion for actress, Irish Republican and suffragette Maud Gonne.

Yeats first met Gonne in 1889 (a meeting which Yeats was later to describe in his memoirs as the day ‘the troubling of my life began’) and he remained in love with her for much of his life, proposing marriage at least four times. Gonne became his muse, and he drew on his tortured love for her, albeit unnamed, as the inspiration for many of his works, including most notably the poem, "When You Are Old."

Freely based on a sonnet by Pierre de Ronsard, which first appeared in Le Second Livre Des Sonnets Pour Hélène in 1578, "When You Are Old" enjoins the object of an unreturned love to reflect--in years to come--on a love rejected, to remember one who ‘loved your moments of glad grace’, and who ‘loved the pilgrim soul in you, And loved the sorrows of your changing face.’

Although Yeats’s poetry is often very dense and rich in allusion to mythology, the occult and history, in "When You Are Old" the pain and bittersweet nature of a spurned love is all too apparent.

Australian playwright Jessica Bellamy drew on the poem and her love of W.B. Yeats’ work when writing the theatre monologue "Little Love," which she then adapted with director Damien Power to create the short film Bat Eyes. Watch it above.

In Bat Eyes, Adam and Jenny (‘Bat Eyes’) Barrett are brought together through an incident of classroom bullying. Through the metaphor of visual impairment and an eye examination undergone by an adult Adam, Bellamy and Power explore the poem’s themes of longing, insight, revelation and regret, and poetry's capacity to provide solace and awaken empathy in everyday life. The script of this beautiful short film consists principally of the text of the poem, with the film’s two young leads repeating Yeats’ words back and forth to each other, as the story flips back and forth in time, the meaning of the lines becoming more tangible and resonant with each recitation.

Says Jessica Bellamy:

‘Yeats writes about ancient mythology and the history of his time, but you don’t have to understand all that to get the feeling of what he has to say. There are lines, there are moments that, as a reader, you just get and you think: I’m not alone in this world and that someone else has felt these things as well. I hope viewers will hear the truth of what this poem is saying, and that they’ll see the film as an ode to love, relationships and to poetry itself.

Gonne, who died in 1953, outlived Yeats by 14 years. She was photographed by Life magazine in October 1948, old and grey, sitting by a fire and reading Yeats poetry.

You can watch the original monologue, "Little Love," here:

And read and listen to the text of "When You Are Old" here. There's also a version read by Colin Farrell. Find it below.

Dan Prichard is an online film and webseries producer, based in Sydney, whose work explores identity, place, and the space between film and performance in the digital arena. Visit his website here.

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Watch the Dutch Paint “the Largest Mondrian Painting in the World”

Earlier this month, the Dutch unveiled "the largest Mondrian painting in the world." Above, you can watch the City Hall building in The Hague (sometimes known as "The Ice Palace") get painted Mondrian-style, with those iconic red, yellow and blue surfaces and straight lines.

It was 100 years ago, in 1917, that the Dutch art movement called "De Stijl" (The Style) took flight. Led by the artists Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian, "De Stijl" embraced, notes The Art Story, "an abstract, pared-down aesthetic centered in basic visual elements such as geometric forms and primary colors." To mark the centenary of "De Stijl," the Hague is now staging a celebration, which includes 300 Mondrian works, all brought together for the first time, in an exhibition called "The Discovery of Mondrian." It runs from 3 June to 24 September.

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How James Joyce’s Daughter, Lucia, Was Treated for Schizophrenia by Carl Jung

The life of James Joyce’s schizophrenic daughter Lucia requires no particular embellishment to move and amaze us.  The “received wisdom,” writes Sean O’Hagan, about Lucia is that she lived a “blighted life,” as a “sickly second child” after her brother Giorgio. As a teenager, she “pursued a career as a modern dancer and was an accomplished illustrator. At 20, having abandoned both, she fell hopelessly in love with [Samuel] Beckett, a 21-year-old acolyte of her fathers.” He soon ended their one-sided relationship, an incident that may have triggered a psychotic break. Beckett was one of the few people to visit her later in the mental hospital where she died in 1982 after decades of institutionalization.

Before succumbing to her illness, Lucia was a highly accomplished artist who worked “with a succession of radically innovative dance teachers,” notes Hermione Lee in a review of a recent biography that “prove[s]… Lucia had talent.” (See her above in Paris in 1929.) Her promise renders her fall that much more dramatic, and her tragedy has inspired variously sensational biographies, plays, a novel and a graphic novel. Lucia also inspired an unflattering portrait in Beckett’s Dream of Fair to Middling Women and, most famously, perhaps provided a model for the language of Finnegans Wake. As Joyce once remarked, “People talk of my influence on my daughter, but what about her influence on me?”

The relationship between father and daughter has provided a subject of disturbing speculation, possibly warranted by Lucia’s “father-fixated… mental agonies,” as Stanford's Robert M. Polhemus writes, and by “eroticized father-daughter, man-girl relationships” in Finnegans Wake that weave in Freud and Jung “with sexy nymphets on the couches of their secular confessionals.” At least in the excerpt Polhemus cites, Joyce uses the prurient language of psychoanalysis to seemingly express guilt, writing, “we grisly old Sykos who have done our unsmiling bits on ‘alices, when they were yung and easily freudened….”

Without inferring the worst, we can see the rest of this unsettling passage as parody of Jung and Freud’s ideas, of which, Louis Menand writes, he was “contemptuous.” And yet Joyce sent Lucia to see Carl Jung, “the Swiss Tweedledee,” he once wrote, “who is not to be confused with the Viennese Tweedledee.” His daughter’s behavior had become “increasingly erratic,” Lee writes, “she vomited up her food at table; she threw a chair at Nora [Barnacle, her mother] on Joyce’s 50th birthday… she cut the telephone wires on the congratulatory calls that friends were making about the imminent publication of ‘Ulysses’ in America; she set fire to things….”

After a succession of doctors and diagnoses and an “unwilling incarceration,” Jung agreed to analyze her. He had become acquainted with Joyce’s work, having written an ambivalent 1932 essay on Ulysses (calling it “a devotional book for the object-besotted white man”), which he sent to Joyce with a letter. Jung believed that both Lucia Joyce and her father were schizophrenics, but that Joyce, Menand writes, “was functional because he was a genius.” As Jung told Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann, Lucia and Joyce were “like two people going to the bottom of a river, one falling and the other diving.” Jung also, writes Lee, "thought her so bound up with her father's psychic system that analysis could not be successful." He was unable to help her, and Joyce reluctantly had her committed.

Much of the relationship between Joyce and his daughter remains a mystery because of the destruction of nearly all of their correspondence by Joyce’s friend Maria Jolas. (Likewise Beckett burned all of his letters from Lucia). This has not stopped her biographer Carol Loeb Shloss from writing about them as “dancing partners,” who “understood each other, for they speak the same language, a language not yet arrived into words….” What is clear is that “Joyce’s art surrounded” his daughter, “haunted her from birth,” and was part of the circumstances that led to her and her brother often living in extreme poverty and instability.

Lucia resented her father but was never able to fully separate herself from him after several failed relationships with other prominent figures, including American artist Alexander Calder. Whether we characterize her story as one of abuse or, as Lee writes of Shloss’ biography (Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake), one of “love and creative intimacy,” depends on what we make of the limited evidence available to us. The erasure of Lucia from her father’s life began not long after his death, and hers “is a story that was not supposed to be told,” writes Shloss. But it deserves to be, as best as it can. Had her life been different, she would doubtless be well-known as an artist in her own right. As one critic wrote of her skills as a performer, linguist, and choreographer in 1928, James Joyce “may yet be known as his daughter’s father.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Marcel Proust Plays Air Guitar on a Tennis Racket (1891)

Was "air guitar" a thing back in 1891, when a photographer captured young Marcel Proust in this playful photograph? Probably not. Maybe it's anachronistic to read the photograph this way. But you have to admit, it's worth suspending disbelief for a moment and imagining what song Marcel was playing. Any clever guesses?

via The Atlantic

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Walt Disney Creates a Frank Animation That Teaches High School Kids All About VD (1973)

The comically plainspoken, tough-guy sergeant is a heaven sent assignment for character actors.

Think R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket

Louis Gosset Jr. in An Officer and a Gentleman

Even Stripes’  Warren Oates.

Keenan Wynn, who strove to keep America safe from “deviated preverts” in 1964's Dr. Strangelove, was awarded the role of a lifetime nine years later, when Disney Studios was seeking vocal talent for VD Attack Plan, above, a 16-minute animation intended to teach high schoolers about the scourge of venereal disease.

Wynn (son of Ed) threw himself into the part with gusto, imbuing his badly-complected, Kaiser-helmeted germ commander with the sort of straight-talking charisma rarely seen in high school Health class.

A risky maneuver, given that Vietnam-era teens did not share their parent’s generation’s respect for military authority and VD Attack Plan was the first educational short specifically aimed at the high school audience. Prior to that, such films were geared toward soldiers. (Disney waded into those waters in 1944, with the training film, A Few Quick Facts No. 7—Venereal Disease, the same year Mickey Mouse appeared in LOOK magazine, waging war on gonorrhea with sulfa drugs.

Gonorrhea was well represented in the Wynn’s Contagion Corps. The ranks were further swelled by Syphilis. Both platoons were outfitted with paramilitary style berets.

The Sarge pumped them up for the coming sneak attack by urging them to maim or better yet, kill their human enemy. Shaky recruits were reassured that Ignorance, Fear, and Shame would have their backs.

Scriptwriter Bill Bosche had quite the knack for identifying what sort of sugar would make the medicine go down. The Sarge intimates that only a few of the afflicted are “man enough” to inform their partners, and while Ignorance and Shame cause the majority to put their faith in ineffectual folk remedies, the “smart ones” seek treatment.

Elementary psychology, but effectual nonetheless.

Today’s viewers can’t help but note that HIV and AIDS had yet to assert their fearsome hold.

On the other hand, the Sarge’s matter of fact delivery regarding the potential for same sex transmission comes as a pleasant surprise. His primary objective is to set the record straight. No, birth control pills won’t protect you from contracting the clap. But don’t waste time worrying about picking it up from public toilet seats, either.

A word of caution to those planning to watch the film over breakfast, there are some truly gnarly graphic photos of rashes, sores, and skin eruptions. Helpful to teens seeking straight dope on their worrisome symptoms. Less so for anyone trying to enjoy their breakfast links sans the specter of burning urination.

So here’s to the sergeants of the silver screen, and the hardworking actors who embodied them, even those whose creations resembled Pillsbury’s Funny Face drink mix mascots. Let’s do as the Sarge says, and make every day V-D Day!

VD Attack Plan will be added to the animation section of our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City next week. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A Free Short Course on How Pixar Uses Physics to Make Its Effects

A new computer-animated spectacle that makes us rethink the relationship between imagination and technology seems, now, to come out every few months. Audiences have grown used to various computer animation studios all competing to wow them, but not so long ago the very notion of entertaining animation made with computers sounded like science fiction. All that changed in the mid-1980s when a young animator named John Lasseter breathed life into the CGI stars of such now simple-looking but then revolutionary shorts as The Adventures of André and Wally B. and Luxo Jr., the latter being the first independent production by a certain Pixar Animation Studios.

We know Pixar today as the outfit responsible for Toy Story, The IncrediblesWALL-E, and other groundbreaking computer-animated features, each one more impressive than the last. How do they do it? Why, with ever-larger and more highly skilled creative and technological teams, of course, all of whom work atop a basic foundation laid by Lasseter and his predecessors in the art of computer animation, in the search for answers to one question: how can we get these digital machines to convincingly simulate our world?

After all, even imaginary characters must emote, move around, and bump into one another with conviction, and do it in a medium of light, wind, water, and much else at that, all ultimately undergirded by the laws of physics.

Thanks to Pixar and their competition, not a few members of the past couple generations have grown up dreaming of mastering computer animation themselves. Now, in partnership with online educational organization Khan Academy, they have a place to start: Pixar in a Box, a series of short interactive courses on how to "animate bouncing balls, build a swarm of robots, and make virtual fireworks explode," which vividly demonstrates that "the subjects you learn in school — math, science, computer science, and humanities — are used every day to create amazing movies." The effects course gets deeper into the nitty-gritty of just how computer animators have found ways of taking real physical phenomena and "breaking them down into millions of tiny particles and controlling them using computer programming."

It all comes down to developing and using particle systems, programs designed to replicate the motion of the real particles that make up the physical world. "Using particles is a simplification of real physics," says Pixar Effects Technical Director Matt Wong, "but it's an effective tool for artists. The more particles you use, the closer you get to real physics. Most of our simulations require millions and millions of particles to create believable water," for instance, which requires a level of computing power scarcely imaginable in 1982, when Pixar's own effects artist Bill Reeves (who appears in the one of these videos) first used a particle system for a visual effect in Star Trek II. These effects have indeed come a long way, but as anyone who takes this course will suspect, computer animation has only begun to show us the worlds it can realize.

For more Pixar/Khan Academy courses, please see the items in the Relateds below.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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