Original posting – April 14, 2007:
Goodbye Kurt Vonnegut
Sadly, Kurt Vonnegut died last week. His was no ordinary talent. Two of the essential books on the shelves of literate, usually counter-cultural, young persons in the U.S. over the past four decades are Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle, both written by Vonnegut.
On the surface Slaughterhouse Five sometimes fails to make sense, its chaotic narrative depicts a man, Billy Pilgrim, who has witnessed things too unbearable for a sane person to make sense of. I see it as an anguished commentary on the insanity of war, implicitly counselling us humans to stand up and assume ultimate responsibility for the consequences of our actions– and wars are the worst consequences of our actions. Don’t end up like Billy, who became unstuck in time and was pretty much carried along by the usually painful events happening around him. He finally decides it’s futile to try to control events in his own life and simply resigns himself to accept things the way they are. He takes the easy way out, and he thinks his life has become better for a time, but even though he ends up in a seemingly desirable place, shacked up with the beautiful Montana Wildhack, Billy discovers that he is really in a zoo-like bubble always under the watchful gaze of “the powers that be.”
Vonnegut’s point as I interpret it: we can all decide to either make a difference or not– it’s noble to be an activist willing to do the hard work of shaping destinies (and halting wars). Life for them will be more fullfilling, and free, than for the Billy Pilgrims of the world.
Cat’s Cradle is an allegory about a lot of things. It’s an exceptional novel, set in an absurd fantasy land, that warns of the possible self destruction of mankind. Most memorable is the substance called Ice-Nine that cannot touch water without instantly freezing it. Not only does this substance freeze the water it first touches; it continues to freeze all the water that that water touched and so on, potentially freezing all the water in the world. In fact, that’s how the book ends. The threat of Ice-Nine is a brilliant parody of the Cold War and nuclear proliferation and has been been used more recently as a literary reference by some commentators who warn against the risky potentials of the coming bio-tech and nano-tech revolutions. In his brilliant critique of contemporary science “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us” scientist Bill Joy referenced Ice-Nine and Ted Kaczynski to chilling effect.
Another great Vonnegut novel is God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. The story of Eliot Rosewater, a WW II vet and offspring of a wealthy industrialist, could be Mr. Vonnegut’s best piece of social criticism. In it, Mr Rosewater follows the normal path after his military service–he finishes college, marries and joins the family business. But unexpectedly he has an epiphany and moves to use his share of the family fortunes to help out the destitute. He sets up an office in a small town in Indiana and gives away money to anyone who asks for it.
Of course, before long a family lawyer wants to get Eliot declared insane in order to get the money out of his control. The theme is one of human redemption and Rosewater’s frequently tested belief that nearly everyone has at least some good in them. Also prominent, interspersed throughout the book, are incisive critiques of the history and nature of US capitalism. In his unique delivery, Vonnegut gives us pearls of wisdom couched in humor and humanity, it is also very funny.
Vonnegut also wrote under a pseudonym– Kilgore Trout. I treasure my tattered copy of Venus on the Half-Shell. In that epic science-fiction saga the protagonist, Space Wanderer, is an inter-galactic Earthman with an eye-patch whose only fault is that he asks questions that no one can answer: primarily, why are we created only to suffer and die? Vonnegut’s tremendous literary legacy should serve to answer that question in his case. His insights influenced millions of us baby-boomers; hence he has secured a hallowed place in the pantheon of 20th century American artists