Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut is gone. So it goes.

Kurt Vonnegut's charmingly dark humor first caught my attention in high school. I devoured the meager selection of his books that the tiny town library offered, and most of them remain in my list of favorites. These works were simultaneously poignant, haunting, funny, sarcastic, witty, visionary, and philosophic. They spoke of true horrors of the past, possible horrors of the future, and imaginary horrors of the present, and presented them all with a mix of humor and portent.

He died earlier today. A man of creative invention and critical thinking, he died of brain injuries. So it goes.

Kurt Vonnegut briefly studied at my own alma mater, the University of Chicago. He spoke on campus once during my own time there, and I was lucky enough to attend. I have a signed copy of his last novel, Timequake. Below his signature he drew a picture of an asshole. He was a pessimist.

He was also an atheist -- arguably one of the more publicly popular atheists of our time. In this aspect, we have indeed lost one of our own. As with many things in his life, he seems to have viewed his humanist beliefs with sarcastic humor:
I spoke at a Humanist Association memorial service for Dr. Asimov a few years back. I said, “Isaac is up in Heaven now.” That was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. . . . When I myself am dead, God forbid, I hope some wag will say about me, “He’s up in Heaven now.”
Vonnegut inserted some of his humanist views into his 1963 novel Cat's Cradle. One character invents a new religion known as Bokononism, which decrees that it is man himself that is sacred. (Too bad the scientologists didn't pick up on that one.) As commentary, his stories are as relevant today as ever. The Ice Nine world-destroying device in Cat's Cradle becomes biochemical weapons, or the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran. The firestorms in Germany become the roadside bombs in Iraq. Michael Crichton said this of Vonnegut in 1969:
A Vonnegut book is not cute or precious. It is literally awful, for Vonnegut is one of the few writers able to lift the lid of the garbage can, and dispassionately examine the contents. . . . The ultimate difficulty with Vonnegut is precisely this: that he refuses to say who is wrong. . . . He ascribes no blame, sets no penalties. His commentary on the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King is the same as his comment on all other deaths: “So it goes,” he says and nothing more.
In Stranger in Strange Land, Heinlein says:

An artist can look at a pretty girl and see the old woman she will become. A better artist can look at an old woman and see the pretty girl that she used to be. But a great artist — a master — and that is what Auguste Rodin was — can look at an old woman, portray her exactly as she is… and force the viewer to see the pretty girl she used to be.
Vonnegut's writings, by this yardstick, were the work of a great artist. He told these stories exactly as they were, clearly and blamelessly. But he was able to force the reader to see the problems, and their causes. He will be missed dearly.

Kurt is up in Heaven now.


nullifidian said...

Bugger. We all have to go some time, though.

How's that for a philosophy? Yeah, yeah, it sucks...

gabe said...

just came across your blog. this is great. i am an atheist as well, and i wish the name didn't exist. to be an atheist means to acknowledge everyone else's delusion, and to state that we don't believe in it, makes me crazy.

it's absurd, but there is power in numbers, and we're left in the minority having absurd arguments with the rest of the population - ones that somehow can never be won.

in my hope of hopes, i think we're on the eve of an enlightenment. either that, or we're going to tear each other to shreds, like the crazy monkeys we are...

ANYway, dig your blog, and great to see the vonnegut feedback here. i'm a huge vonnegut fan, and putting on a tribute for him here in brooklyn at galapagos. would love to hear from you...

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