So It Goes (in Remembrance of Kurt Vonnegut)
One of the most awe inspiring and devastatingly beautiful books I have ever read is Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut, who died today (April 11th) at the age of 84. Vonnegut’s death – and I don’t hesitate to use the word death because Vonnegut, while he will live on forever in the amber of time, did not entertain the idea of an afterlife – is a strange occasion, not only because we have lost one of this country’s greatest national treasures, but I can only assume that Vonnegut greeted his death with humor and calm. In his latest book, Vonnegut jokes that he is “going to sue Pall Mall cigarettes, for a billion bucks!” because “[since he was] twelve years old, [he] has never chain-smoked anything else but unfiltered Pall Malls.” He continues to clarify his statement, saying “for many years now, right on the package, Brown and Williamson have promised to kill me. But I am now eighty-two. Thanks a lot you dirty rats.” Perhaps you could call him a cynic, but that is a good-humored view of death if I ever saw one.
Cynical as he may have been, Vonnegut enjoyed life for what it was. He would often tell stories of how he preferred walking to the post office over using e-mail because he enjoyed interacting with people along the way. He ends this story with a truism – “we are here on earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.” If Vonnegut’s life was dedicated to farting around, then he may have had the most productive farts of anyone who ever lived. He was a prolific writer and many of his books have become literary classics within his life time. He broke the barrier between science fiction and literature (but don’t call him a science fiction writer!), and one of his masterpieces, Slaughter-House Five, is read in class rooms all around the world.
He was, and remains, an excellent moralist and a master of satire. Vonnegut dedicated himself to compassion and rationality – beliefs that often put him on the fringes of society, but on the correct side of issues as well. He was an iconoclast and a rabble-rouser: Slaughter-House Five is one of the most banned books (for its candidness and not so kosher views), and he was often dry and sarcastic in interviews. I remember seeing him on the Daily Show Jon Stewart (whom Vonnegut considers to be very popular with the “right” sort of people, by the way) a while back when he expressed his “doubts” about evolution, because if things weren’t designed how would we get “giraffes, and hippopotami, and the clap.” Vonnegut was a committed humanist and socialist, both terms that he worked to de-stigmatize – and thank God for that. He saw socialism as the logical ends of compassion for fellow man, and as the only political system that could create the sense of community that he saw as so important to a person’s health. As for the former, he had the self-proclaimed “luxury” of being from a long line of rationalists and humanists – whom he described as “freethinkers [who] became Unitarians – and then humanists. [Humanists believe] that god has not made himself known to us, and thus we (humanists) expect no rewards or punishment in an afterlife. In our lives, we do our best to serve our community well, behave decently, and treat people well.” In this vein, he served as honorary president of the American Humanist Association, which was previously held by Isaac Asimov – a position which he describes as “totally functionless” except for its sense of community.
In spite of the fact – or is it because of it fact?- that he was only here to fart around, Vonnegut will be sorely missed. The value of his contributions to society – his compassion, his reason, and most importantly his literature – is limitless. He gave the gift of unencumbered thought to his readers, and surely made the most of the life he had. He is gone, but his gifts remain. So it goes.
I loved this man. He will be severely missed.