Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut 1922 - 2007

L.A. Times
New York Times
Boston Globe

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"We are human only to the extent that our ideas remain humane."

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Vonnegut was no more political than he was religious. He transcended both political rhetoric and theology by taking reality down to its essence. We are lonely and miserable and perplexed, he said. We might as well laugh about this impossibly complicated and cruel world, because we're not going to fix it; we're not up to the task. We might as well enjoy the pleasant moments that come to us. And we must, we simply must, be kind to each other. He thought up schemes to institutionalize kindness, taking human nature into account. Extended families for everybody, assigned by the government, would mean that you would always have someone to call on in times of need. It would also mean that if someone was not a member of one of your extended families, when they applied to you for assistance, you could tell them to "go take a flying fuck at a rolling donut..." That dark side of utopia was a typical Vonnegut flourish.

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Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder why, why, why?

Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand

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Many of the writers who summarize Vonnegut's writing talk about the appeal it has for adolescents. I think it pleases people to patronize Vonnegut by calling his worldview simplistic or childish. He has a way of boiling everything down to basic components. I knew I had found a kindred spirit when I read this quote about his schooldays: "I was taught in the sixth grade that we had a standing army of just over a hundred thousand men and that the generals had nothing to say about what was done in Washington. I was taught to be proud of that and to pity Europe for having more than a million men under arms and spending all their money on airplanes and tanks. I simply never unlearned junior civics. I still believe in it. I got a very good grade."

I had a similar eperience although I went to school in a much different era. I was taught that the U.S. Constitution is a great document, worthy of being defended. I was taught that "with freedom goes responsibility." I learned the teachings of Jesus, very simple precepts: love your neighbor, turn the other cheek, walk the second mile. Then, I grew up. As I got older, I often encountered people who had learned the same lessons, attended the same schools but somehow seemed to have forgotten. Or their attitude was that the lessons were somehow an idealized version of reality, but that in the real world those ideas were not practical. But I never unlearned the simple, basic truths I was taught as a child. So now, I'm, what, a pacifist? an extremist? an idealist? a utopian? a communist? I don't know how that happened. But Vonnegut understood. The same thing happened to him. He saw the truth and he didn't outgrow it. In a harsh world, he found hope based on the mere existence of the Sermon on the Mount. He shouldered the responsibility of being human. He did God's work here on Earth.

When I was pondering this today, it came to me, a partial answer to a mystery I've been working on for many years. The truths are actually passed along mostly by people who don't really believe them. The famous "lip service" is good enough to keep the ideas alive. In every generation there will be some true believers, but they will necessarily be perplexed when they look around and see the disconnect between the ideas and the reality.

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"A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved. "

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"Busy, busy, busy, is what we Bokononists whisper whenever we think of how complicated and unpredictable the machinery of life really is. "

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Vonnegut insisted that the trauma of Dresden was not the definitive experience of his life. I believe him. His mother committed suicide on Mother's Day while he was home on leave, May 1944. The Dresden incident occurred the following February.

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"The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever. "

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I am very thankful that Kurt Vonnegut survived World War II and spent his life writing down his view of the world.

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"I don't know about you, but I practice a disorganized religion. I belong to an unholy disorder. We call ourselves "Our Lady of Perpetual Astonishment."

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God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut.

Hi ho.



Anonymous said...

Karen, in the middle of this obit storm, which seems to say, "Gosh, I'm not the only one who thought Kurt Vonnegut was a great writer and a worthy person.", I liked yours best.

It was World Class.



CP said...

Simply truthful. Simply lovely.

Your dad's comment is such a grand footnote.

And, me, who loves footnotes, am glad to have stumbled here before bed.