Friday, April 13, 2007

God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut, celebrated writer and bipedally-locomotive carbon-based terrestrial life form, fell recently and suffered brain injuries at his home in Manhattan. He died. He was 84. The moral and spiritual impoverishment of our times has increased exponentially. So it goes.

An author whose vision of our world and its people was by turns profoundly pessimistic and profoundly upbeat, Vonnegut brought us a mordant wit wrapped around an irrepressible moral vision. His fascination with science fiction underscored what seemed to be a deeply-held desire for escape from this earthly plane, flight from the charnel house of modern times -- a wish, couched in dark humor, one-liners and philosophical asides, to be anywhere else ... anywhere but here and now.

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Some of his novels, "Slaughterhouse-Five," "Cat's Cradle" and "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" in particular, were personal points of reference for college students in the 1960's and 1970's. For years you were guaranteed to find copies of those works and others at college bookstores and on plywood-and-cinderblock shelves in university dorm rooms across the country — a kind of red badge of undergraduate rebellion.

Vonnegut became something of a literary icon, one adored by students and the left. His very appearance -- bushy hair, tweed jacket, the obligatory Pall Mall cigarettes he favored -- suggesting a renegade college professor straight out of central casting.

Vonnegut came by his pessimism honestly. What may have been the definitive experience of his life was a defining moment for humanity as well. The firebombing of Dresden, Germany by British and American forces in 1945, an event he witnessed firsthand as a prisoner of war. Thousands of civilians were killed in the raids, many of them burned alive or asphyxiated by the firestorm that consumed the oxygen in the air.

"The firebombing of Dresden was a work of art … a tower of smoke and flame to commemorate the rage and heartbreak of so many who had had their lives warped or ruined by the indescribable greed and vanity and cruelty of Germany," he wrote in "Fates Worse Than Death: An Autobiographical Collage."

"The corpses, most of them in ordinary cellars, were so numerous and represented such a health hazard that they were cremated on huge funeral pyres, or by flamethrowers whose nozzles were thrust into the cellars, without being counted or identified."

That experience formed the backdrop of "Slaughterhouse-Five,"published in 1969 during the height of the Vietnam War, another indifferent conflagration.

In “Kurt Vonnegut’s Fantastic Faces,” a 1999 essay reprinted on the apparently official Vonnegut Web site, Peter Reed explains the way Vonnegut used sci-fi as a way into our rather more pedestrian world:

“Vonnegut has typically used science fiction to characterize the world and the nature of existence as he experiences them. His chaotic fictional universe abounds in wonder, coincidence, randomness and irrationality. Science fiction helps lend form to the presentation of this world view without imposing a falsifying causality upon it. In his vision, the fantastic offers perception into the quotidian, rather than escape from it."

Tom, a reviewer for Amazon.com, writing from Palatine, Ill., observed that "Vonnegut has a way of combining Orwell's eye with Updike's wit, and the sum is greater still, than the parts."

One of his oft-used visual symbols, what appears to be an asterisk, has done double-duty for years: It could be an anal sphincter. It could be a star in a distant galaxy. In the hands of Vonnegut the graphic artist, it could go either way, a symbol of our highest cosmic aspirations or a symbol of humanity at its most banal.

Despite writing celebrated novels that dwelt on the earthiest aspects of humanity, Vonnegut looked up in the night sky of his life and saw more than pinpricks of light. In a brief appearance in a 2002 film, for example, he said that "music is, to me, proof of the existence of God. It is so extraordinarily full of magic and in tough times of my life I can listen to music and it makes such a difference."

That was Vonnegut, all right: the spiritual mixed in with the humorist with a fatalist streak. "I've had a hell of a good time," Vonnegut once wrote. "I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you any different."

In his 1965 novel, "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," Vonnegut offered a philosophy strong enough to have been his valedictory if he’d stopped writing then. Written in the language of a greeting to newborns, it’s a philosophy that we, today, in a world more fractious and divisive and threatened than ever before, would do well to tell our children, our neighbors, ourselves, from now until the end of time:

"Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies — 'God damn it, you've got to be kind.' "
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Image credits: Vonnegut: ©2004 Mike Sands. Cat’s Cradle cover: © 1963 Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

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