Uncle Kurt

Of all the people in the world who I don’t know personally, there is no person who has had a more profound and long-lasting impact on me than the author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. His novel Slaughterhouse Five is one of the first novels I read and whenever I am asked to name my favorite book it is the first one that comes to mind. I found it, or it found me, at the time in my life when I was changing from a dependent boy to an independent man. I was becoming many things – atheist, pacifist, vegetarian, musician, writer, lover, pothead, drunk, and left-winger – that I still am today, more or less.

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The latest addition to the Vonnegut library, and one them I am up to my eyeballs in, is called Letters. It is a fascinating glimpse into a life deeply marked by tragedy and humor. His mother committed suicide while he was home on leave before being shipped off to fight in the second world war, where he would become a POW. The thoughts he shares about these incidents with those closest to him, as well as reflections on his marriage, fatherhood, divorce, depression, infidelity, professional accomplishments, and the deaths of those he loves, including himself, make for reading as satisfying as his novels.

My understanding is that I am so odd emotionally and socially that I had better live alone for the rest of my days. During my last years with Jan, there was a formless anger in me which I could deal with only in solitude. Jane did not like it. There is no reason why she should. Nobody likes it. What is it? Well – if I had to guess, I would say that it was caused by a combination of bad chemicals in my bloodstream and the fact that my mother committed suicide. I have finally dealt with that suicide, by the way, in the book I just finished. My mother appears briefly at the end, but keeps her distance – because she is embarrassed by the suicide. And so she should be.

The great appeal of Vonnegut’s writing goes beyond his direct style that reads like a letter from an intimate friend. The simplicity of his humanist message, like Christ’s, makes the truth impossible to deny: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Christ’s came with the promise of heaven; Kurt’s did not.

I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of reward or punishment after I’m dead.

Kurt Vonnegut, like me, was a white man. People who aren’t white, and a lot of us who are, want to hear new stories from other perspectives. Fair enough. We have hogged the cultural conversation for centuries. But the greatest artists in any field illuminate eternal truths that transcend gender, nationality, “race”/culture, sexuality, income level, and age. Finding and sharing those universal truths is the artist’s only job.

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One of those truths is the great equalizer, Death. Kurt died in 2007, and left this thought behind for the end of his days:

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: ‘The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.

If, instead of carving messages in stone at the end of our lives, we were given little gold plaques at the beginning, with a message for the lives ahead of us, this one from Uncle Kurt might be a good place to start:

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.’

The Lost Art of Letter Writing: The Philosophical Diatribe

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Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

It is said that Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. didn’t edit his novels. Instead, he thought about each sentence in his head and did his revisions there before committing it to paper. It seems like he took the same approach to his letter writing.

This excerpt of a letter from Vonnegut to his friend and mentor Knox Burger is another example of the author’s tendency toward thinking that remains depressingly relevant. It is dated May 29, 1952:

…bureaucracy is nothing more than modern business practice applied to government. I think big business is a terrible thing for the spirit of the country, as our spirit is the best thing about us. Making us a nation of ass kissers. Only way, or virtually the only way, to get ahead these days. Deadly. Change the title of manager of sales to the Duke of Schenectady, and you start wondering if maybe the Revolutionary War was subversive.

Yours truly,

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

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Knox Burger

The Meaning of Life

 
 
I recently re-read Kurt Vonnegut’s second novel, The Sirens of Titan, from 1959. A reviewer of the book in Esquire wrote about the author: “He dares not only to ask the ultimate question about the meaning of life, but to answer it.”

The book is dedicated:

For Alex Vonnegut, special agent, with love.

Kurt had this to say about his Uncle Alex:

“He said that when things were really going well we should be sure to NOTICE it. He was talking about simple occasions, not great victories: maybe drinking lemonade on a hot afternoon in the shade, or smelling the aroma of a nearby bakery; or fishing, and not caring if we catch anything or not, or hearing somebody all alone playing a piano really well in the house next door.

Uncle Alex urged me to say this out loud during such epiphanies: “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

In The Sirens of Titan a man and woman are stranded together on one of Saturn’s moons for 20 years. At the age of 73, they fall in love. The man is the one who explains the meaning of life, to some sort of extraterrestrial robot, when he says, “It took us that long to realize a purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

Yoko Ono expressed a similar sentiment in her song Don’t Be Scared:

Don’t be scared
Don’t be scared
Don’t be scared to love
It’s better to love than never love at all
Don’t be scared

Don’t be shy
Don’t be shy
Don’t be shy to tell
You may miss the chance to tell
Don’t be shy

When your hearts are lit
Drop your survival kit
Then you’ll never have to run or split

Sun in the east
Moon in the west
Boats moving slow
There’s no land in sight at all
Away we go

Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade, A Duty-Dance with Death

Last week I was reading the third volume of Marcel Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu: The Guermantes Way. And it’s brilliant. I can see how people think Marcel Proust is the greatest writer who ever lived. He’s unique, and if the way he’s unique tickles your fancy, he’s your boy. But I was having a rough slog going through another one of the fashionable salons where everybody starts to blend together into one, mostly contemptible, lot.

It was enough to send me searching for something completely different. In a book store in Grand Central Station I ran into an old friend named Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

My favorite writers – Vonnegut, Dostoyevsky, and Poe – all write about the same thing: insanity. The insanity of individuals and the collective insanity we’ve created and named reality.  The Telltale Heart and Crime and Punishment go to places that still freak me out. But the book that changed me, when I was still in high school, was Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. To this day, I’ve never read a better book.

Consider this:

Rosewater said an interesting thing to Billy one time about a book that wasn’t science fiction. He said that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. “But that isn’t enough anymore,” said Rosewater.

Followed immediately by:

Another time Billy heard Rosewater say to a psychiatrist, “I thing you guys are going to have to come up with a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren’t going to want to go on living.”

THIS WEEK’S BONUS TRIVIA QUESTION:

Q:  What’s the largest three-day massacre in the history of Europe? Hint:

A: If you guessed The Fire-Bombing of Dresden, advance your piece three spaces. Well done.