69. Kurt Vonnegut lived at 226 East 48th St. near Second Avenue for 40 years. He frequented nearby Dag Hammarskjöld Park where he liked to walk his dog, Flour.
Welcome to Reading the City.
Wandering to each location is making me realize I have no real idea what’s in my own city. This adventure reminds me of Jorge Luis Borges’ one paragraph long short story, “On Exactitude in Science.” The 1946 story imagines an empire in which the science of cartography becomes so precise that the maps match the territory exactly. It’s not possible, of course. I feel this when I try to convey one of my drawing adventures from my Writing Manhattan map. This one is particularly difficult.
For starters, the address listed on the map for Vonnegut’s home doesn’t exist on the street. He lived in the same place for 40 years. E.B. White (72. Central Park Sailboat Pond) lived on the same block. The actual address is 228.
An angel spotted sitting on a ledge of the building.
In my late teens and early twenties, Vonnegut heavily influenced my worldview and perspective on the systems shaping our lives and society.
His fourth novel, Cat’s Cradle, is the one living in my head. I’m a futurist who specializes in complex systems and one of the reasons for this is having read Vonnegut’s ideas about politics, science and religion. What is “the truth?” If the systems we create are mechanisms for coping with an absurd universe, we might as well have a sense of humor about it.
The religion created in Cat’s Cradle is called Bokononism. It is based on the concept of “foma,” defined as harmless untruths to give people a sense of purpose and comfort their souls. Bokononists say “busy, busy, busy” to describe how unpredictable and complicated life is. Oh, BUSY, BUSY, BUSY indeed. Other terms in the book include “granfalloon,” a proud association of human beings organized by belief or vocation or self-identification. This association is meaningless in terms of doing God’s will. A “karass” is a group of spiritually connected people who are doing God’s will even if they don’t know it. A granfalloon is a false karass. For example, you might go to church (and thus belong to a granfalloon of other church-goers) but that’s not the same thing as actually doing the spiritual work (as part of a karass). A duprass is a karass made up of two people.
Vonnegut likes to walk his dog, Flour, at Dag Hammarskjöld Park, so off we went with our little dog, Annie.
A quote from Dag Hammarskjöld, the youngest secretary-general of the nearby United Nations and a great statesman, is etched in the stone compass:
Never, “for the sake of peace and quiet,” deny your own experience or convictions.
But as with all things, a deeper mystery invisibly lurks. Dag Hammarskjöld’s unsolved death in the 1961 Ndola United Nations DC-6 crash is explored in this 2019 Danish documentary, Cold Case Hammarskjöld, along with a theory that a white supremacist organization attempted to spread HIV/AIDS among black Africans.
We arrived at the park on a sapphire evening with amber squares of light appearing everywhere in windows along the park. Two long rows of benches face each other. A memorial garden dedicated to Katherine Hepburn is shadowed behind gates. Children played soccer with their masked father.
In the sketch above, see the vegetarian cafe called Peace Garden? Can you imagine what might be directly across the street from it?
This “world tower” was built by someone whose name has been on everyone’s lips for many years. I’m not going to say it. I don’t need to say it because you know his name. Everything he says gets repeated over and over and over, as if the entire country and world are a reflecting pond, an echo chamber that whisper back “lies” or “fake news” depending on one’s granfalloon. But the world’s karasses are still at work too.
I did have one chilling moment, looking at this tower and thinking about another sketch I did in Manhattan, of Cleopatra’s Needle. I’ve been studying obelisks and towers for a book I’ve been writing for the past seven years. Towers are like obelisks a deity or king can occupy. Building obelisk shaped towers with one’s name on them all over the world is a way to get that name on people’s lips — a way to grow viral power and gain attention. It worked.
We wandered toward the end of Dag Hammarskjöld Park to the United Nations, where the wrought iron gates are covered in banners showing people of the world. People who will never have towers with their names on them but who are impacted by those who do.
Behind cement drums and other ugly security measures, I spotted a sculpture of St. George slaughtering the dragon. Good Defeats Evil, by Zurab Tsereteli, installed in 1990.
The work combines bronze with another material — missiles. American and Soviet missiles. St. George, of course, represents “good” and the dragon is “evil.” But life is rarely so easy to parse. The dragon’s body is destroyed by St. George’s spear, is made of an American Pershing II missile and a Soviet SS20 missile.
In Cat’s Cradle, “dynamic tension,” is a Bokononist theory that good societies are built by pitting good against evil and the tension must be kept high at all times. Maybe this is just a harmless untruth spoken to keep our simple souls comforted. But if it’s true, then we should consider uniting against a real enemy instead of other people. A virus that has killed a million people worldwide and more than 210,000 in the United States would be a great common enemy. Instead, we are arguing over whether or not the small inconvenience of wearing a mask is too much of a limitation on freedom.
I will leave you with Vonnegut’s excellent Rules for Writers.
Vonnegut’s Rules for Writers
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
- Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
- Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.