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Vonnegut, Kurt - Graduation Speech: What the ‘Ghost Dance’ of the Native Americans and the French Painters Who Led the Cubist Movement Have in Common



Type of Spiritual Experience


The Ghost Dance thesis

After he returned from the war, Vonnegut married Jane Marie Cox, his high school girlfriend and classmate since kindergarten, on September 1, 1945.  The pair relocated to Chicago; there, Vonnegut enrolled in the University of Chicago as an anthropology student.  His master's thesis was on the Ghost Dance religious movement, a movement which is described in the section on the Native American Indians.  The paper was rejected by the department, which says a good deal more about the department than it does about the thesis.

A description of the experience

Extract Vonnegut, Kurt - Graduation Speech: What the ‘Ghost Dance’ of the Native Americans and the French Painters Who Led the Cubist Movement Have inCommon

Becoming one of Dr. Z’s little chickens was one of the most fortunate things that ever happened to me, second only, perhaps, to my having been in Dresden when it was firebombed. He died a long time ago now, but many of his ideas live on with me. He died several years after I left. He was a suicide. He had great big ideas about science, about art, about religion, about evolution, and on and on, which he expressed in his cockamamie summer course. Many of these, and surely the grandeur of his dealing with the biggest issues imaginable, are elements in my works of fiction.

I don’t know if he left a suicide note. My guess is that he found it impossible to put his great big ideas on paper.

He had so many great big ideas that he gave me one for my thesis. I was a candidate for a master’s degree, mind you, for the rank of Corporal in Academia. He said my dissertation should deal with the sort of leadership required if a radical change in a culture was to be effected. Why mess around?

So I did it. He told me to compare the leadership which inspired a peaceful Indian tribe to fight the United States Army, the so-called “Ghost Dance,” with the leadership of the Cubists, who found brand-new things to do with surfaces and paint. He didn’t say so, but he had already done this. And, thus directed, I reached a conclusion he must have reached.

But my thesis was rejected by the department, as both grandiose and non-anthropological. And I was out of time and money, and I accepted a job in what was then arguably the most prosperous and compassionate socialist state in history, the General Electric Company in Schenectady, New York.

For whatever it may be worth, and it may be worth no more than “a pitcher of warm spit,” as we used to say in the Army: The leadership of both the Ghost Dance and the Cubist movement had these elements in common:

1) A charismatic, gifted leader who described cultural changes which should be made;

2) Two or more respected citizens who testified that this leader was not a lunatic, but was well worth listening to;

3) A glib, personable explainer, who told the general public what the leader was up to, why he was so wonderful, and so on, day after day.


A Folk Society is a relatively small number of persons bonded by kinship and a common history of some duration, with a territory uncontested or easily defended, and sufficiently isolated so as to be little influenced by the cultures of other societies.

There can’t be many such societies nowadays. There were still quite a few when I first came here. I recall the testimony of some people who had lived in one to the effect that the isolation, the like-mindedness, the routines and so on were suffocating.

I can believe it. I myself never visited one, unless you want to count the anthropology department itself.

But I had certainly read about a lot of them in the library here. It seemed to me that they, because of their simplicity and isolation, might be regarded as petri dishes in which human beings might demonstrate certain apparently basic human needs other than food, shelter, clothing, and sex. For want of a better word, I will call such needs spiritual, by which I mean only that they are invisible, un-smellable, inaudible, intangible, and inedible.

Was it possible, I wondered, that certain features common to all of them not only revealed spiritual needs of all human beings, including those of us in this auditorium? Might not those features also show us methods for satisfying those needs, theatrical performances, if you will, which human beings, by their nature, can ill-afford to do without?

I think of the British Navy, whose sailors, although filling the world’s oceans, felt lousy all the time, until they started sucking limes. A vitamin deficiency, of course! And here we are in the post-industrial, post–Cold War whatchamacallit, feeling lousy all the time. We get all the minerals and vitamins we need. Is it conceivable that we are suffering from a cultural deficiency which we can remedy? Friends and neighbors, I say YES to that:

Let’s give everybody a totem at birth. What proof do I have that even highly educated people need nonsensical, arbitrary symbols which will relate them to other people and the Earth and the Universe? I am a Scorpio. Would those of you who are also Scorpios please hold up your hands? Lookee there! Dostoyevsky was one of us!

Yes, and let’s find a way to get ourselves and others extended families again. A husband and a wife and some kids aren’t a family, any more than a Diet Pepsi and three Oreos is a breakfast. Twenty, thirty, forty people — that’s a family. Marriages are all busting up. Why? Mates are saying to each other, because they’re human, “You’re not enough people for me.”

Yes, and let’s make sure every American gets a puberty ceremony, an impressive welcome to the rights and duties of grown-ups. As matters now stand, only practicing Jews get those. The only way the rest of us can feel like grown-ups is to get pregnant or get somebody else pregnant or commit a felony or go to war and then come back again.

I only want to say in closing that it’s nice to be home again.

The source of the experience

Vonnegut, Kurt

Concepts, symbols and science items


Science Items

Activities and commonsteps