I suppose it's appropriate that just after I bloviated about the importance of the arts in the world that one of my favorite artists of all time, who has influenced my perspective on the world so much, dies. Writer, free thinking, and all-around curmudgeon Kurt Vonnegut died last night in New York City. A lengthy New York Times obit is here, while the BBC also weighs in. In addition, the New York Times provides a page with links to review of Vonnegut's books, as well as articles written by him for the newspaper (his review of a reissue of Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land touches on the "serious" v. "pop" art schism I discussed yesterday).
I can't precisely remember my first exposure to Vonnegut's work and skewed view of the universe. I remember reading his short story "Harrison Bergeron," a tale of an exceptional individual burdened by the impact of state-imposed equality. The other early memory I have is borrowing a friend's mother's copy of the latter novel Galapagos, about the next phase of human evolution. They both contain that unique gift Vonnegut had for using humor, absurdity, and imagination to dig to the core of the human experience.
Regardless of the starting point, other Vonnegut works followed. The stack I pulled out of the "these books will go in the bookcases that will go in my studio" include Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan, Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and the short story collection Welcome to the Monkey House. Lurking somewhere, or perhaps loaned out and never returned, are others . . . Hocus Pocus, Timequake, and countless essays over the years. Oddly enough, just Monday I watched the 1996 film version of Mother Night, which was very good (and blessed by the man himself, apparently), but you could see the director and screenwriter struggling to deal with material that sometimes defies description.
Perhaps as a result of all this, I identify quite a bit with what appears to be Vonnegut's bi-polar view of the world. On the one had, humanity as whole has not evolved much beyond the old state of nature, where life was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." The catalog of man's inhumanity to his fellow men and women in the 20th century alone is enough to make you give up hope. On the other hand, when sufficiently motivated, human beings are capable of achieving great acts of beauty, kindness, and justice. The need is to get more people to do the latter rather than the former. As Vonnegut himself put it in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater:
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.Amen, brother Kurt. Thanks for everything.
* If you've read this blog and seen me talk about religion, you might wonder why I, of all people, would say "Kurt is up in heaven now." Well, it's because that's the way the man wanted it:
I am, incidentally, Honorary President of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that totally functionless capacity. We had a memorial service for Isaac 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.From A Man Without a Country.