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.

(Click on image for a full-screen, no reading glasses required version.)

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.


Anonymous said...

Yellojkt, I am without words.

Thinking of you today.

Best regards,

Anonymous said...

yellojkt my friend, well said.


Anonymous said...

Somebody said (don't have time to Google it now) that Kurt Vonnegut was deep down a sugar pill with a bitter coating. Apt, but a little too pat to describe his complexity.

I guess I'm getting old, because it feels like all the heroes of my youth are going.

Anonymous said...

Good job. YJ. You evoked wet eyes in my and the glacier line is fab. You are so lucky. Envy? Nah, but such happiness for you.

Anonymous said...

That was me, the no envy one.

HRH Courtney, Queen of Everything said...

As I said in my earlier comment on a different post, I am sorry. I came running over here the minute I saw the news to offer my condolences to you, such a huge fan.

It's always such a sad moment when our idols leave us.

Pixel said...

A lovely tribute, YJ. It's difficult to reconcile the feelings of sadness and gladness that I feel today. We're so lucky to have had him as part of our lives.


Anonymous said...

You said it best in the last paragraph or so, thank you.

It was always comforting to know someone like Kurt existed on the planet. He will be missed.

Impetua said...

I read a lot of Vonnegut when I was too young to really "get" it. But I do remember the really very delicate, gentle under-flavoring of his works.

I think I'll start reading it again now.

My condolences to all of us.

Landru said...

Well stated. It's a hard, hard day. Thank you kindly.

Anonymous said...

Dead at last, dead at last, great god almighty, dead at last. Well, all I can say is "Welcome To The Monkey House", Mr. Vonnegut.

Back in '83 I played the vacuum cleaner salesman in the excellent off-broadway production of your play "Happy Birthday, Wanda June" at ELT in Manhattan, and we met backstage after opening night.

It was, for me, a watershed moment, and for the rest of my life I have been searching day-old bakery outlets for birthday cakes with inscriptions on them which are no longer apropos due to the violent deaths of the recipients prior to their celebratory events. I have never found one. (I saw that Robert Altman stole your idea, which found its way into his movie "Short Cuts", for which, by the way, I have never forgiven him. He's dead, too. Serves him right.)

And now that you are finally dead and gone, would you kindly re-animate your spirit in the body of my cat Po, so that I may once again have a reason for living.

J. Mathers

Anonymous said...

Soulmate, hero, inspiration, funny guy.
I used to work for PanAm and I bothered so many people cracking up reading Vonnegut on my trip to somewhere. I saw him lecture at Stanford in the 90s - best lecture I ever heard. Walking out at the end I heard some people say that he was really out of date.

No way was this great humanitarian out of date!!! Each book of his has a theme that is important to my life. No one mentions Galapagos - and his message about how we are trashing our environment. And Slapshot with the Presidential Slogan "Lonesome No More". The man will live on until we all blow up. I miss him so.

Anonymous said...

He was one of my heroes too. This poor cruel decrepit world is the poorer, crueler, and more decrepit for his passing.

A giant among men.

Dimestore Lipstick said...

I managed to hold it together today, until I swung by the official site and saw this, and proceeded to cry like a baby:

Anonymous said...

I never mentioned this before, but I got to do "Happy Birthday Wanda June" as a radio play back in college. I played the part of Looseleaf, which was a lot of fun.

Like Courtney, I saw the headline and came here first. There will never be another mind like his, and we are all the poorer for it.

Jeff and Charli Lee said...

Here's to Kurt Vonnegut... I'm very sorry for the personal sense of loss you must be feeling at this time.

Here's also to hoping you can find that picture someday.

2fs said...

It's been too long since I've read Vonnegut - I'll have to correct that. Too bad there's no afterlife - I think it would amuse him to see so many others like myself reading his work because he's dead.

It's also good to hear that, in your encounter with him, he was himself kind.

Anonymous said...

I am so glad that I learned the news of Vonnegut's passing through your blog. A tribute worthy of the man. Thank you

Elizabeth said...

Yep, you are the first one I thought of when I heard the news. I'm embarrassed to say I've never read anything of his. I'll go to the book store tomorrow and remedy that.

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