Iconoclastic novelist, essayist and humanist Kurt Vonnegut Jr has died, at the age of 84. While Vonnegut would be best described as a libertarian socialist (putting him in a category with such groups as the ACLU and Food Not Bombs), he was the writer whose work most strongly influenced my left libertarian beliefs. The loss of his wry wit and great intellect is a loss to us all.
For anyone not familiar with Vonnegut, he was without question one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Penning such classics as Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut mixed science fiction, sarcasm, black humor, and keen insight to force us to confront the commonality of mankind. His “bad guys” were never people, but governments and situations. His characters were each “a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.”
Vonnegut spoke out against war, despite his belief that WWII was necessary. In Slaughterhouse Five, named after the underground meat-packing cellar in which he was held as a POW during the bombing of Dresden, he confronted a truth that most would like to overlook when he wrote, “You know we’ve had to imagine the war here, and we have imagined that it was being fought by aging men like ourselves. We had forgotten that wars were fought by babies. When I saw those freshly shaved faces, it was a shock. ‘My God, my God—’ I said to myself. ‘It’s the Children’s Crusade.’” His Slaughterhouse Five catchphrase “So it goes”, an ironic reference to death, was adopted by protesters during Vietnam.
His later essays made Vonnegut an even more controversial figure, which many didn’t think possible considering that some of his early novels had been banned. He spoke out strongly against Bush and the war in Iraq, much to the consternation of many given that he was a Purple Heart recipient, and he was eventually accused of harming the morale of soldiers with his sharp criticisms. He wrote in response, “By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their morale, like so many bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas in December.”
However, my favorite Vonnegut quote on politics will always be, “There is a tragic flaw in our precious Constitution, and I don’t know what can be done to fix it. This is it: Only nut cases want to be president.”
Vonnegut also wrote about death, and mused openly about its effect on the living. In Breakfast of Champions, he had a conversation with himself about his mother’s death by suicide on Mother’s Day 1944. “‘This is a very bad book you’re writing,’ I said to myself. “I know,’ I said. ‘You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did,’ I said. ‘I know,’ I said.”
He also mused through his novels that perhaps no one ever really dies. “The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”
So, what can be said to memorialize the passing of a brilliant man whose writing has had a profound impact on more than one generation? Vonnegut provided that answer for us.
“We had a memorial service for Isaac [Asimov] a few years back, and I spoke and said at one point, ‘Isaac is up in heaven now.’ It was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. It was several minutes before order could be restored. And if I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, ‘Kurt is up in heaven now.’ That’s my favorite joke.”
Goodnight, Kilgore Trout. You will be missed.