So, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. died on Wednesday. Even the circumstances of his death, much like the man himself, has a touch of the comical and absurd about it. At the age of 84, the spritely and still razor-witted Vonnegut apparently suffered irreparable brain injuries from a fall. At least the cigarettes didn't get him. A committed and enthusiastic smoker, who once described the deadly habit as revolving around "a fire at one end and a fool at the other", Vonnegut is said to have often expressed his surprise that he had not been claimed by lung cancer.
I was first introduced to the writing of Kurt Vonnegut when I started my A-Levels way back in 1989. The lecturer of my Psychology class handed out a reading list at the start of the first term. Alongside the standard dry, academic textbooks that were required reading, he had included a number of literary works that either directly or indirectly shed some light on a number of psychological conditions or models. I might well have passed up the chance to dive into some of this "wider reading" had it not been for a smart piece of psychology deployed by the aforementioned educator. He'd written that Kurt Vonnegut's "Breakfast of Champions
" vividly, and wittily, illustrated the damage that an unhealthy thought could wreak when it entered a healthy mind. Intrigued, but not sold, I remember reading his next line: "Please, if your parents ask you who recommended this book to you, don't tell them it was me." What better recommendation could a young man chafing at parental authority need? "Breakfast of Champions
" was duly borrowed from the college library, read, re-read, returned, bought, read, and so on.
Vonnegut's was the first authoritative voice I'd read that not only had a weight to it, but at the same time seemed to relish playfulness. Having read many of his books, essays, and interviews in the intervening years, I often think of the man and his writing as childlike. Not in a perjorative sense: his was a voice that was often simple, yet rarely simplistic. His sentences have the simple, direct, declarative immediacy of a child's, yet he wrote of "adult" concerns. (I should note here that I'm having trouble parsing my tenses, with the effect that Vonnegut seems dead and not dead at the same time. I think that the Tralfamadorean in him would have liked that.) There was an unadorned sense of clarity to his writing and train of thought, whilst also encompassing the many shades of grey that are always present when writing concerns itself with humanity. Like the child who has yet to learn that it is more politic to hide their thoughts and feelings with diplomacy and obfuscation, the better to get by in this world, Vonnegut effortlessly cut through the bullshit that we deploy to distance ourselves from the horrors we unleash upon ourselves and our planet. Love and laughter are the best parts of human existence. As the man himself said, "Listen: We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different!"
Although my first exposure to Vonnegut was with "Breakfast of Champions
" (did Boards of Canada consciously echo that book's title, I wonder?), I suppose that it can safely be said that his first brush with wider recognition came with his WWII/sci-fi "mash-up" novel, "Slaughterhouse Five
". Drawing on his own experience as a prisoner of war held in Dresden, Germany, Vonnegut wrote about the terrible devastation of that city in a firestorm of British and American design. He was among the first writers from the victorious Allied countries to question the morality of the tactics used by the RAF/USAF on what was largely a civilian population. Displaying an empathy for his fellow humans that rises lightly above notions of good and evil, of what can and cannot be justified, whether in war or against the actions of our enemies, he essentially asks: This is what we do to each other? As far as we've come, finding more barbaric ways to slaughter others is what we do?
Yet there is/was no nihilistic, Kurtzian "the horror, the horror" element to Vonnegut, even when imagining the hellfire unleashed in the skies above Dresden. Whether he is writing of suffering or joy, what we cannot help but take from away from Vonnegut is the sense that this is our
suffering, this is our
joy. The injury I do you is an injury I do to myself. The man and his work illustrated what it is that disturbs the more excitable and agitated of our Christian and Muslim friends, what causes them to raise their voices to ever more shrill levels. It is that the fact of our existence in the universe; our fragility; our capacities to think, to feel, to create, and share; these things are reason enough for us to be compassionate to our fellow man and woman. There is no need for gods, or for judgements in the "next life" to force charitable compliance in this one. It is that morality, kindness, and compassion are not, and never were, solely the preserve of the religious.
What is it that I'm trying to say here? That Kurt Vonnegut was a great writer? He certainly produced many passages of inspired writing. I've deliberately refrained from quoting from his books and essays, from liberally sprinkling this "appreciation" of him with "So it goes", and the like. It's because I hope that anyone who reads this goes out and buys or borrows "Breakfast
", "Slaughterhouse Five
" or "Cat's Cradle
" and finds out for themselves; I don't want to be the equivalent of a trailer that throws away the best scenes in a movie. I hope that you'll discover Vonnegut for yourself (or rediscover, if you've already read him).
Am I trying to tell you that I think that Kurt Vonnegut was a great man? Yes and no. He could often be profound, penetrating in his ability to see the important kernel in issues that we often over-complicate. As I said earlier, he was simple yet rarely, if ever, simplistic. Some of his writings and exhortations to action are almost zen-like in their distilled clarity (Raymond Carver is the only other writer I've read that could strip his characters and their relationships down to their bare essences, leaving only what was necessary behind, whilst retaining a sense of weight and depth; the literary equivalent of the singularity of a star gone supernova.)
But it would be a mistake to deify Vonnegut, a fate which seems to befall every person who ever said or did anything half-interesting in these times. He doesn't need it (obviously, being dead), and wouldn't want it, being famed for his secular humanism (he gave the eulogy at Isaac Asimov's funeral, opening with "Isaac is in heaven now". Asimov, like Vonnegut, was a humanist.) Kurt Vonnegut was just a man, who told it like he saw it. He had a clear mind, and a clear eye (which, in every interview I ever saw him give, always seemed to have a twinkle in it), a fabulous sense of humour, and he created one of the most satisfying insults known to man (which will be attested to by anyone for whom the terms "rolling donut" and "moon" are familiar). Just a man, but one who showed exactly how full, how rich, how promising, and how worthwhile "just a man" can be.
What am I trying to say? Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., writer, husband, father, socialist, humanist, failed Saab dealership-owner, died yesterday. Thinking about him now makes me sad, and happy. Which reminds me I'm human, I suppose. Thanks for that, Mr. Vonnegut.Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Born 1922, died 2007.
Labels: Breakfast of Champions, Cat's Cradle, humanist, Kurt Vonnegut, secular, Slaughterhouse Five