Alike Minds

Vonnegut’s Marriage, Herzog’s
Hypnotism & Sagan’s Apple Suit

Author Kurt Vonnegut is one of the greatest of his generation, but you wouldn’t believe the contract he once signed. We won’t talk about Werner Herzog’s movies, either, but you’ll find out what he did to a chicken.
And there was that time when astronomer Carl Sagan dropped his telescope and decided to sue Apple Computers. This post is about what happened when these three brilliant minds were left idle for a moment.
We’re not about to knock their gift at elevating our lowly commonality to epic status in the personal, idiosyncratic views of their work. Heaven knows that many already do that for a living, and we would never share a drink with that sort.
But as the recent, depressing performance on national TV, by an accomplished Hollywood star, has shown, a lot of what the famous and the talented do is not worth a pocketful of change.
Besides, who are we kidding here? Kurt, and Werner, and Carl, have all reached the kind of deserving status in our society to be safely away from most hacker jobs anyone would misguidedly attempt to undertake.
By now, it may be clear that the tenuous connecting tissue among these stories is the fact that they represent a curious take on the artists’ personalities. Also, that their names share a certain German accent. And that, of course, we’ve just found the basic facts about them in the very bottom of our files.

‘I, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., that is, do hereby swear that I will be faithful to the commitments hereunder listed.’ That’s how the author of Slaughterhouse-Five starts the contract he signed with his pregnant wife Jane Marie Cox.
It’s a prosaic commitment, put on writing, from the man who wrote Breakfast of Champions, promising his wife that, for as long as she would be carrying the baby, he would ‘scrub the bathroom and kitchen floors once a week.’
With the important conditional that Jane would not ‘nag, heckle, or otherwise disturb me on the subject,’ he also lists how he would go about those tasks, without the benefit of the proverbial cursing, which would then, supposedly, unleash his wife’s wrath.
From the point of view of a necessarily self-focused writer, his willingness to share the burden of boring housekeeping chores is quite admirable. There are even provisions for the case when a given task may be considered unattainable.
But for someone who’d go on to help define modern American literature, understanding what he went through can be a sobering experience. Fortunately, as we know, the contract didn’t break his spirit nor affected his creative juices.
The marriage, though, long lasting as it was by contemporary standards, was over after ‘only’ a quarter of century. There’s not much interest about the certainly very important lives of Jane and the child born at that time. Fortunately, the name Kurt Vonnegut remains a magnet for lucid and humanistic discussions.

The German filmmaker Werner Herzog has been active since the late 1960s. Even though his current output is mainly documentaries, he’s directed some highly regarded fiction too. They all display his boundless curiosity and open exploration of contemporary themes.
In Alan Greenberg’s Every Night the Trees Disappear, a book-length account of the making of Herzog’s 1976 film Heart of Glass, we learn about one of his unusual directorial style techniques: the use of hypnotism to help his mostly non-professional cast to act.
He had already received praise for coaching haunting performances from non-actor Bruno S., who played the title-role in the now classic Kaspar Hauser. Bruno S.’s also in Heart of Glass, a Medieval coming-of-age tale of ingenuity and communal identity.
Writing on the Los Angeles Review of Books, Paul Cullum says that the operatic, tragic atmosphere of Glass is ‘the director’s decision to hypnotize his entire cast, save for the glassblowers’ and the character of the seer, Hias.
The story, about the young man who, suddenly, has to fill in for the village’s master glassblower, benefits immensely from the zombielike atmosphere of impending doom. As the boy undertakes the task, most villagers don’t know that the glassblower died before passing along to him the secrets of his trade.
Cullum also points out that Herzog had already hypnotized chickens in his first film, Signs of Life, and in Hauser. And that the director thought such task to be ‘very easy (…): they are very prone to hypnosis.’
You may try that yourself, reader, but we can’t guarantee that you won’t run into trouble with Peta. Perhaps you should try it first with your cousins, then move up to weddings and Mitzvahs, and then with live chickens. Just don’t waste any time with cats.
There was a time when the software company Apple was still small, its computers were called Mackintosh (as the fruit), and its founder, Steve Jobs, was just a few years away from being kicked out of it.
It was also a time when Cosmos, a series about Astronomy was all the rage, and its long-haired, boyish host, Carl Sagan, had a refreshing and fun take on teaching and spreading interest in the study of science.
But somehow these two icons of the early age of digital culture got into a collision course, words were exchanged, insults were traded, and the courts were put on notice. Of that much ado it’s likely that only Sagan’s letter to Apple has survived.
According to, in the early 1990s, Sagan got a hold of an article about the coming launch of the Power Macintosh 7100, nicknamed ‘Carl Sagan,’ supposedly because it was expected to sell a lot.
Whether the good astronomer was unfamiliar with the geek humor of the day (yeah, the quip was supposed to be funny), or he’d just about to have enough, he got very cranky indeed with Apple. Funny how in hindsight both camps seem to belong to the same side, isn’t it?
The situation took a turn to the worst when said Apple comedians code-named the new Mac ‘BHA,’ as in ‘Butt-Head Astronomer.’ ‘Sagan filed a lawsuit for defamation of character, and lost. He then sued Apple again, for the original codename, and lost again.’
By 1995, reasonable minds prevailed and the suit was settled. Cancer took Sagan away the following year, and Apple took off, first as a then-dominant Microsoft’s competitor, then to utter and complete surrendering of all parties present and future, us included.
Even that much of what we used to know about the universe just 20 years ago is partly outdated, Sagan laid the groundwork for inserting excitement into mankind’s space exploration. Too bad we’re farther than ever from that ideal now.
Apple’s technological prowess is still years from being adopted by anything flying above Earth at this time. The gadgets that astronauts themselves carry in their pockets are probably more advanced than the Space Station’s outmoded circuitry.
Sagan’s enthusiasm, though, along with Apple’s continuous drive are the current standards on the ground, and two valuable tools if we’re to inspire people to go back up there, anytime soon.
But it may also take some growing up from the part of those ‘geniuses,’ specially when referring to the backbone of rocket scientists. They may be great at showing how much more they know about computers than thou. But let’s strap their skinny behinds to a real jet, just to see what happens.


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