12 April 2007

Kurt Vonnegut, 1922 - 2007

It's a sad day. We've lost an icon.

In his most recent book, Kurt Vonnegut [at 18 on your right] expressed his sense of betrayal at the cigarette manufacturers who had been promising him death for years. He once explained that he smoked because it was the only socially acceptable means of suicide.

When I was a teenager, Vonnegut was my favorite writer. Like millions of his readers, I felt like I knew him, like he was an old friend. I can't help but feel sad for a variety of reasons. I was fond of him. I'll never again have that happy option of reading his new book. And I feel like we so disappointed him. This country didn't live up to his ideals, to our own potential.

It seems as though writers make a trade off. A writer has to be more aware and more able to articulate what is going on than the average person. And what is going on is rarely commendable. Judging from his last book, Man Without a Country, Vonnegut had simply had enough. He observed that people with a psychological defect had taken over. People unable to feel the pain of others, people intensely focused on their own good, were formulating policy in government and corporations. Only such personalities could so blithely ignore the tragic consequences of wars, layoffs, and environmental rot. The price Vonnegut paid for his keen awareness and wit was, ultimately, a keen sense of sadness about the human condition.

Vonnegut was delightfully contradictory, in ways that made perfect sense. He declared himself both an agnostic and someone who wouldn't have wanted to be a human being if it weren't for the Sermon on the Mount. He was one of the few survivors of the bombing of Dresden, a Nazi POW, and the experience helped make him a pacifist. He was an unrepentant socialist to the end, arguing that Stalin's purges and gulags had as much to do with socialism as the Spanish Inquisition had to do with Christianity. And he forecast the economic rise of the Chinese long before it was fashionable - although the rise he forecasted was fictional (in his novel Slapstick) and followed from their shrinking themselves in order to make their resources relatively abundant.

Vonnegut had worked with Ronald Reagan at General Electric, witnessing first-hand the emergence of Reagan's speaking ability and speech (the one he repeatedly gave traveling around the country in the days before CSPAN forced politicians to change speeches more than once a decade). He didn't see Reagan as an icon. To him, Reagan was a co-worker whose ideas had already bored him decades before they won national attention. And that seemed to capture Vonnegut's philosophy: to him, leaders were just people to whom we ought not to genuflect and the victims of war were just people who we ought not to dismiss.

Just days ago, I wrote about Vonnegut's take on the Sermon on the Mount. It seems fitting to repeat a portion of that in closing.

“For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the beatitudes, be posted anywhere.”
– Kurt Vonnegut

Imagine how different this country might be if "Blessed are the merciful" were posted in our courthouses, or "Blessed are the peacemakers" were posted on the walls of the Pentagon. Imagine how different our country might be if we had taken this brilliant comedy writer seriously. Vonnegut was an incredibly funny man who dared to ask what our world would be like if only we took life seriously.

God bless you, Mr. Rosewater.


clearthought said...

Many of the icons of the 20th century are passing away as we enter the 21st century. Vonnegut pretty much came to the conclusion that humans were evil (of course in more deep terms than the ones I just used).

Ron Davison said...

Vonnegut was an icon. I was quite heartened to see how many blog postings his passing provoked. It made me oddly optimistic about the future to think that so many of his fans have become bloggers.

Tisha! said...

Very touching tribute Ron brought tears to my eyes and as you know (thanks for comment btw) I sometimes feel the way you described Vonnegut did in Man Without a Country.

I will give it a read.

You're so profound :)