In passing ... remembering Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut died on April 11 and the world lost a great spirit.
Vonnegut was 84. For a good many of those years he shared his peculiar take on the world in a series of novels, science-fiction stories, essays, interviews and commencement addresses. Who doesn't grin with pleasure remembering when they read "Breakfast of Champions," "Cat's Cradle," "Sirens of Titan" and "Slaughterhouse Five"? The last book of his that I read was "Timequake," written in 1997.
Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.
Vonnegut shared many traits with other great American literary curmudgeons like Mark Twain, H.L. Menken, Will Rogers. He shared Twain's hair and mustache and Menken's disdain for shallow thinking. With both of them he still shared a great love for his fellow man.
A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.
Vonnegut has been described as having "wild leaps of imagination and a deep cynicism, tempered by humanism." Was he a cynic? Not to me. He had very little patience with the current administration.
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.
During my three years in Vietnam, I certainly heard plenty of last words by dying American footsoldiers. Not one of them, however, had illusions that he had somehow accomplished something worthwhile in the process of making the Supreme Sacrifice.
And he had given up on the idea of God, becoming a humanist instead. The funniest joke he thought he ever told was at Isaac Asimov's funeral. Vonnegut succeeded Asimov as president of the American Humanist Society and said of his predecessor, "Isaac's in heaven now." The whole assembly broke up into howls of laughter.
That ability to laugh at himself and at the absolute absurdity of much that transpires on this planet kept him from being a humorless haranguer.
Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.
He thought about suing the company that made his cigarettes. He had been smoking them for 40 years and they still hadn't killed him. "And so it goes," he was fond of saying. It was his version of "Life goes on," then he would leave you with a little quip that you could chew on for years.
I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, "The Beatles did."
He was asked on a number of occasions to grant interviews and to address college graduating classes. He would always leave them with some pithy words of Vonnegut wisdom.
New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become.
Just because some of us can read and write and do a little math, that doesn't mean we deserve to conquer the Universe.
He said that he wanted to stay as close to the edge as he could without going over. "Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can't see from the center." And from that perspective he described the state of the world in ways that stirred us, making us more than a little restless with the status quo.
Thanks to TV and for the convenience of TV, you can only be one of two kinds of human beings, either a liberal or a conservative.
He's gone, but we still have his books. Probably even have some tattered copies of old Vonnegut paperbacks stashed somewhere.
Veryln Klinkenborg, an editorial writer at The New York Times, recently wrote a nice piece on old Kurt. Here are some snippets:
"The time to read Mr. Vonnegut is just when you begin to suspect that the world is not what it appears to be. He is the indispensable footnote to everything everyone is trying to teach you. ...
"He says not only what no one is saying, but also what — as a mild young person — you know it is forbidden to say. No one nourishes the skepticism of the young like Kurt Vonnegut.
"So you get older ... the world seems more and more to have been written by Kurt Vonnegut and your life is now the footnote. Perhaps it is time to go back and revisit that earlier self, the one who seemed, for a while, so interwoven in the pages of those old paperbacks."
And so it goes.