Thursday, April 12, 2007
So It Goes
Kurt Vonnegut is dead at the age of 84. I have anticipated and dreaded this day for years. Vonnegut was a man of advanced years and engrained vices. He once threatened to sue cigarette companies for not killing him fast enough. So it goes.
It’s no secret that I am a fan of Kurt Vonnegut. The title of my blog is a tribute to his pseudo-religion of Bokononism. Unlike the wire services and newspapers, I don’t have a canned pre-written obituary to dust off. I have to fight back tears in the few minutes I have before work to sort and organize my thoughts.
I have only had personal contact with him twice in my life. In my freshman year of college, I handwrote him a long fawning letter on cheap stationery and sent it to him through his literary agent. Weeks later I received a business envelope addressed in blue magic marker with no return address. It was his reply, which was gracious, personal, and inspiring.
I keep it framed on the shelf with my Kurt Vonnegut collection like a holy relic. The magic-markered signature complete with his trademark assterix has faded, but the words still ring in my ears.
For years, I hoped to meet him in person, but events always conspired to thwart me. The events and rituals of life led me away from the infrequent lecture tours he would make. Finally, I caught up with him at a book signing in Northern Virginia. The line wrapped around the block and only current copies of Timequake would be signed. Despite this assembly line affair, he kidded me about the garish shirt I was wearing and posed for a picture. That snapshot is lost somewhere in a giant plastic box of photos, but that moment is burned into my memory.
His works have been assimilated into the canon of modern literature, but it was not always so. For years he toiled unrecognized destined for the paperbacks-with-lurid-covers fate he heaped on his alter ego, Kilgore Trout. It wasn’t until the counter-culture latched onto his words expressing the absurdity of war and ridiculing the hypocrisy of society that he earned his moment in the sun. His reputation has faded and tarnished since the hippy-dippy era, but his messages have transcended that age. Like Orwell and Huxley, his cautionary warnings are more relevant today than when they were written. The satire of ‘Harrison Begeron’ has become public policy and “Vonnegutian” is a deep and complex adjective.
Much of what gets written about him in the next few days will be wrong. His cynicism and bleakness will be emphasized. People will miss the deeper meaning. Under his simple style he hid complicated ideas. He is the type of thinker that religious zealots fear. He teaches that we should be kinder and gentler to each other than any god or prophet would ever have us be. He is a Humanist of the transcendent variety. He sees humanity as frail and misguided creatures, and under the cynical pitch-dark humor, there was always hope.
While he did not believe in the comforts of the afterlife, I hope he is out there somewhere, laying on his back, grinning horribly, and thumbing his nose at You Know Who.
Update (3/17/07): I also have a meta-tribute with lots of links to other articles about and memorials to Kurt.