Friday, April 13, 2007

From a Daily Kos Diarist - - A "Nice" Essay About Vonnegut

In text, and with the links. Either way, you gotta get to the end.
So it goes.

Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt
by: pico

Thu Apr 12, 2007 at 00:49:56 AM EDT
(A fitting tribute to a great literary light who will be missed - promoted by Nonpartisan)

The New York Times is reporting that Kurt Vonnegut, one of the very few contemporary American writers who's earned the title of "classic", passed away today at the age of 84 as the result of brain damage from a recent fall.

Vonnegut was among the favorite writers on the left, in large part because his politics were so uncompromisingly leftist.

The first of his novels I read was the now grossly underappreciated Sirens of Titan, in which he skewers religion, corporatism, militarism, and other -isms generally opposed by writers on the left.

What separates Vonnegut from the pack, besides his instantly recognizable staccato prose rhythm, is his lack of vision for a better world: in fact, Vonnegut seems to fear prescriptions for change as much as he loathes the world as it is.

Does this make him an empty misanthrope?

Hardly: the real moral crux of his novels is a deep sadness and love of the human race, despite its many failings.

A happy ending in a Vonnegut novel is not about the world becoming a better place, but about a lonely person finding a moment of peace - which makes Sirens of Titan perhaps his most representative work of fiction.

Douglas Adams, of Hitchhiker's Guide fame, had this to say:

I've read The Sirens of Titan six times now, and it gets better every time. He is an influence, I must own up. Sirens of Titan is just one of those books - you read it through the first time and you think it's very loosely, casually written.

You think the fact that everything suddenly makes such good sense at the end is almost accidental. And then you read it a few more times, simultaneously finding out more about writing yourself, and you realise what an absolute tour de force it was, making something as beautifully honed as that appear so casual

Of course, most people know him for one of three novels: Slaughterhouse Five, Cat's Cradle, and/or Breakfast of Champions, all of which are perennial assigned reading at high schools and colleges, even though the latter of those expresses pretty succinctly how much it cares about that kind of canonization:

"I am programmed at 50 to perform childishly. To give an idea of the maturity of my illustrations for this book, here is my picture of an asshole:


Vonnegut's heritage in world fiction is the merging of science fiction and social satire with a deadpan, Hemingwayesque prose efficiency. For people on the left, he also represented the artistic wing of the anti-war movement, in large part because of his damning account of the Dresden firebombing in Slaughterhouse Five.

In what could be a recurring theme on this site, Vonnegut had something many of his critics did not: actual war experience. After most of his unit was obliterated in ground combat, he was taken prisoner and witnessed the firebombing first hand.

What a powerhouse for the left: war veteran, talented writer, acerbic wit, popular acclaim... And best of all, he never hurt nobody, as far as I can tell (he'd probably consider that more worthy praise than the rest).

Oddly, in his most challenging novel, he was accused not of extreme leftism but of the exact opposite: Mother Night was seen by some as an apologia for the Nazi and fascist movements.

But even here, the real moral lesson of the novel is a firmly leftist one: we'd all like to think that we are morally stronger than the people who succumbed to the evils of Nazism or fascism, but more likely we're just lucky to have been born under different circumstances.

Mother Night imagines how easily the ideals of a young American can buy into the world of Nazi Germany, pointing the finger back at a post World War II America that lives on facile comparisons of moral superiority to Nazi Germany:

"f I'd been born in Germany, I suppose I would have been a Nazi, bopping Jews and gypsies and Poles around, leaving boots sticking out of snow banks, warming myself with my secretly virtuous insides. So it goes. "

Needless to say, it was not his most popular novel.

I'll end this with my favorite Vonnegut quote of all, although it may be hard to see what's so beautiful about this without the context:

"If what Billy Pilgrim learned from the Tralfamadorians is true, that we will all live forever, no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be, I am not overjoyed. Still--if I am going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I'm grateful that so many of those moments are nice."

Those lines come from Slaughterhouse Five, after Vonnegut breaks out of the fictional narrative back into a painful, through-clenched-teeth passage about the most recent tragedies in American history (the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy) and his own life (the death of his father).

Life is a mean, petty exercise in mutual abuse, and even the hollow laughter of satire is no longer enough. But then that magic line:

"I'm grateful that so many of those moments are nice."

And the anger dissipates. Notice that Vonnegut doesn't describe these moments as "beautiful" or "wonderful" or anything that would give this line a hint of hyperbole or Romanticism - just "nice".

It's an acceptance and a resignation, but a regard that there is beauty in this world, and there is human kindness. And maybe that's enough.

1 comment:

Other Side said...

Thank you for the post.