Sunday, April 15, 2007

Goodbye Means Hello

I haven't read Vonnegut in years but I will miss him anyway. I'll miss what he represented - originality and stylistic loopiness that opened up new windows into how people think and feel. I loved how he believed that we could imagine other worlds, and then went ahead and imagined them.

There's some good quotations in this clip from David L. Ulin's obit in the Los Angeles Times of April 13th. But there's also a tendency to cut Vonnegut down to size.

Here's Ulin:
"Slaughterhouse-Five," Vonnegut's masterpiece, is the story of a World War II veteran named Billy Pilgrim who comes unstuck in time. The book is centered around the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, by Allied forces near the end of World War II, which Vonnegut survived as a prisoner of war. It's no understatement to suggest that this was the defining experience of the author's life, not because it made him bitter but because it opened up his point of view.

Close to 100,000 people died in Dresden, almost all of them civilians: shopkeepers, nursemaids, teachers, children. It was a horror so incomprehensible that the only reasonable response was to see it as absurd. For Vonnegut, this was the linchpin in what became a humanistic outlook on the world. It allowed him, in some fundamental way, to develop his own odd bittersweet sense of humor, since he had witnessed such indiscriminate devastation and despair.

What set Vonnegut apart is that, even as he commented on this, he understood there was nothing to be done about it; when he acknowledged, in response to a question from an acquaintance, that he was writing an antiwar book, he was asked why he wasn't writing an anti-glacier book instead. "What he meant, of course," Vonnegut wrote, "was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too."

He was also smart enough to recognize his complicity, the idea that as a writer or observer, he was not above the fray. "One way or another," Vonnegut acknowledged ruefully in 1976, "I got two or three dollars for every person killed [in Dresden]. Some business I'm in."

This willingness to tell the truth would sometimes blur, as Vonnegut grew older, into cynicism. He could be a misanthrope; in his 1991 essay collection "Fates Worse Than Death," he described humanity as "an unstoppable glacier made of hot meat, which ate up everything in sight and then made love, and then doubled in size again," and later he would go so far as to say that we, as a species, had been a mistake.

Indeed, much of his later work was marked by a pessimism about the fate of the world and, indeed, the human race. "The good Earth — we could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy," he wrote in his last book, "A Man Without a Country," published in 2005.

Still, even the existence of that final effort spoke to an opposing, and more optimistic, point of view.
Actually, no. Vonnegut never thought there was nothing to be done about things like war. He was depressed and "pessimistic" because there were lots of things to do to stop war, global warming, etc. - we just weren't doing them. That's depressing.

He's gone and not suffering anymore. And he's not pessimistic anymore. And not gone - there are those amazing books. RIP Kurt. We will keep working on your other worlds.

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