Vonnegut: Magic makes life more charming. For instance, astrology is nice because so many people feel like nothing now, including physicists. So many people are out of work or have no reason to respect themselves…there are fewer and fewer natural interdependencies. So a person [can introduce himself as a Leo] and so suddenly he becomes all these marvelous things… This is what a folk society does for any member in it…it makes a person feel important and gives a person a role to play.
Troy: Do you have any talismans you keep around you that do magic things for you?
Vonnegut: There have been several artists in my family, so I have things they have made — pictures, ashtrays. My grandfather was a painter and my father was a painter, and they were both architects too. They accumulated artifacts. I inherited these, and they do relate me to the past….
Troy: Do you think clothes set up vibrations with people? You don’t describe them much in your books.
Vonnegut: I describe uniforms…because they’re interesting and they’re frightening and they’re on my mind. [The Space Force utility uniforms are, surprisingly, camouflage. Gen. Jay Raymond, pictured, former head of Air Force Space Command, is now the first airman assigned to the Space Force.]
People dress to cheer each other up, which is nice.
An older person really dressed up, as his generation dresses up, can look pretty damned nice.
I was always cheered up when a friend of mine had a really sharp looking suit on and was prosperous. The clothes I’ve liked best lately, the ones I was most tempted by, were the mod clothes with the velvet collars, the Edwardian look with the very narrow trousers, jodhpur boots and all that. I liked it. I think it’s charming to be a dandy.
But nice manners and a rational approach to life and a Brooks Brothers suit won’t help you at all…they’re killers of communication.
Troy: So you don’t think a little irrationality, willingness to believe, can get us together more?
Vonnegut: Well, I think magic is socially useful, like astrology, to make people more important than they are…But I have gone to magic stores to buy a particular item, a bouquet that goes up one arm. You feed it down through the arm of your suit and any time you want to you can produce a bouquet.
You know, I’ve said in lectures that the principal function of the artist is to cheer other people up. So I did this trick at N.Y.U. one time and a girl came forward and said my books hadn’t cheered her up at all. So I gave her the bouquet of flowers. It turns out that this happens almost every time….
Magicians are charming, good people. I don’t think there’s any viciousness in them at all, or any deception. They want you to get good at it too, to be encouraged that anybody, no matter how clumsy, can get good at these tricks. They want you to join their gang.
Actually, fiction uses a lot of the principles of stage magic. It’s where you mention something casual…it’s just a perfectly innocent gesture…and then about three pages later this piece of information suddenly becomes terribly important. This is ‘misdirection,’ where the magician appears to be doing something when actually he’s setting up two tricks away.
Troy: Have you been to a fortune teller and really believed it?
Vonnegut: Yes, to a certain extent. I have a fair idea of how it’s going to go.
Palmistry isn’t related to the lines on your hands. It’s a way of touching people. And it’s a socially charming thing for a stranger to take you by the hand. The palmist I went to on Cape Cod — I don’t go to these people seriously I’m just interested, willing to believe — the lady on Cape Cod took my hand between both of hers and closed her eyes for a deeper reading, and did a sort of long-term forecast. She was doing it by touch. And she was right about a lot of things. She was a sort of low-grade clairvoyant. She could see people in my life.
And last night I was into the I Ching. Somebody had the book and was able to give the readings, and it made life seem more important than it is. There’s no way life could have been made to seem more important than it was last night by the I Ching — three pennies and a book.
So magic is distinctly useful. As people come to feel less and less able to deal with the outer world rationally, they’re perfectly rational to look for irrational ways to deal with it.