Friday, April 13, 2007

And So It Goes...

I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around,
and don't let anybody tell you different.

Kurt Vonnegut died this week at the age of 84.

He was a crotchety, cranky curmudgeon, a worthy successor to Mark Twain, and his witty, sorrowful and ironic voice will be missed.

Starting with pulp fiction fifty years ago, Vonnegut wrote 14 novels, lots of short stories, several plays, and a slew of articles, most recently for the liberal rag, In These Times. His last book, A Man Without a Country, published in 2005, was a collection of columns from that publication. In it, he bemoaned the fate of humanity in general, and under the heavy hand of George Bush in particular. The President, he wrote, "has gathered around him upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography." Elsewhere he had written: "True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country." And in an article the year before, Vonnegut had written "Our president is a Christian? So was Adolf Hitler." The only difference btween them, he said, was that "Hitler was actually elected." And in yet another rant, he wrote: "There is a tragic flaw in our precious Constitution, and I don't know what can be done to fix it. This is it: Only nut cases want to be president."

In his fiction, which veered frequently into the realms of science fiction, Vonnegut often turned tears into laughter, tragedy into the foibles of fools. Slaughterhouse Five, or the Children's Crusade was based on his experiences as a prisoner of war in Dresden during the firebombing of that city in 1945 and is an eloquent condemnation of the pathos and cruelty of war. Published in 1969, that book became a metaphor for the war in Vietnam and was absorbed by my generation. It should be read again as this country commits yet again the sin of agression against another people (which started with the Native Americans).

An avowed humanist, Vonnegut was no friend to organized religion "Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith," he wrote, "I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile!" In Cat's Cradle (1963), he wrote, "Anyone who cannot understand how useful a religion based on lies can be will not understand this book either." He believed, rather, that the madness and meaninglessness of modern civilization could only be redeemed by kindness. In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine, published in 1965, he wrote:
Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of babies, "God damni it, you've got to be kind."
On the other hand, in Wampeters (1974) Vonnegut said that the "great swindle of our time" is the assumption that science has made religion obsolete "All science has damaged is the story of Adam and Eve and the story of Jonah and the Whale. Everything else holds up pretty well, particularly lessons about fairness and gentleness." People who declare religion dead and science triumphant are "simply using science as an excuse for greed and harshness. Science has nothing to do with it, friends."

The answer is love. In Sirens of Titan (1959) he said, "A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved."
Still and all, why bother? Here's my answer. Many people need desperately to receive this message: I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.

Above all he was a humorist, his comedy a way to cope with the terrors of modern life. "Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion," Vonnegut wrote. "I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward." He told an interviewer that "the telling of jokes is an art of its own, and it always rises from some emotional threat. The best jokes are dangerous, and dangerous because they are in some way truthful." And in Cat's Cradle he wrote, "Maturity is a bitter disappointment for which no remedy exists, unless laughter can be said to remedy anything."

Vonnegut grew up in Indianpolis and worked in journalism and public relations before selling his first short story in 1955. He studied for a master's degree in anthropology at the University of Chicago but his thesis was rejected (25 years later the university accepted Cat's Cradle as his thesis and gave him the degree). His first novel, Player Piano (1952), was a satire on corporate life. The last novel was Timequake, published in 1996. Many of his books were made by Hollywood into films, including Slaughterhouse Five, which featured a young Holly Near as the daughter. In recent years he was a familiar figure in New York City where he lived and wrote, his perpetually rumpled appearance surrounded by a cloud of cigarette smoke.

In his last book, A Man Without a Country, Vonnegut defined his creed as trying "to behave as decently, as fairly and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards of punishments in an afterlife." He include this Requiem:

The crucified planet Earth,
should it find a voice
and a sense of irony,
might now well say
of our abuse of it,
"Forgive them, Father,
They know not what they do."

The irony would be
that we know what
we are doing.

When the last living thing
has died on account of us,
how poetical it would be
if Earth could say,
in a voice floating up
from the floor
of the Grand Canyon,
"It is done."
People did not like it here.

Two final quotes from Kurt Vonnegut:
You realize, of course, that everything I say is horseshit.

When you're dead, you're dead.

Rest in Peace, Kilgore Trout. And so it goes...

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