My favorite author, Kurt Vonnegut, died yesterday.
I spent a particularly grim stretch of my early twenties devouring everything he’d written – and little that he didn’t. I was broke and unemployed, aimless, friendless, and more than anything, I now realize, depressed.
His voice was the one I needed to hear. He told me we were put on this earth to fart around, that our way-too-big brains are much better at causing misery than anything else, and what the world needs more of isn’t love, but common decency.
He was a humanist. And he was, like me, depressed.
I imagine his ideas helped him some. Or at least sharing them did. They helped me too. I suppose I absorbed them as more than just ideas, but guiding principles…
We’re here to fart around? That’s it? Well then, I suppose I had better get farting.
He changed the way I think. He gave me tools to process things I’ve seen that would otherwise be too horrifying. I’m writing from West Africa, where “horrifying” is almost mundane. As a matter of fact, he documented firsthand the horrifyingly mundane situation in a country not far from here. It was called Biafra. It’s not called anything anymore. It got wiped off the map.
I’m writing from the Hotel Sofitel. It’s the nicest hotel in Mali. There is a pool and a golf course and tennis courts. Giant tortoises roam freely on the lawn. The lobby is filled with Europeans talking to each other and tickling their laptops, as I am doing right now. In the bar, local musicians are performing a version of “House of the Rising Sun” that is far too good for its audience.
From the balcony of our room, I see abandoned hulks of concrete on every side. Shantytowns stretch off into the horizon. I see children playing in garbage heaps.
The obituaries keep calling Vonnegut a humorist, a satirist, and all that. I guess he was, but it seems to me that his humor was a side effect of boiling things down and explaining them in concise moral terms. The truth, when put simply, is often hilarious.
I’m not sad that he died. He was 84. That’s plenty of time for anyone – monumental for a guy with a habit of trying to kill himself. And I’m not sad that he won’t write again. His position was clear. He made his case.
He’s just dead. So it goes.
I’d like to mention that I’ve avoided the use of semicolons in this entry. He never used them. He felt that they are without purpose, that they are “transvestite hermaphrodites.” It took some effort to refrain, as I am mad for semicolons. That is my tribute.
I’m now going to fill some space with his quotes – lifted, of course, from Wikipedia.
Human beings will be happier — not when they cure cancer or get to Mars or eliminate racial prejudice or flush Lake Erie — but when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities again. That’s my utopia.
We’re terrible animals. I think that the Earth’s immune system is trying to get rid of us, as well it should.
I do feel that evolution is being controlled by some sort of divine engineer. I can’t help thinking that. And this engineer knows exactly what he or she is doing and why, and where evolution is headed. That’s why we’ve got giraffes and hippopotami and the clap.
There are plenty of good reasons for fighting," I said, "but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too. Where’s evil? It’s that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side.
Live by the harmless untruths that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.
The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist…It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
The arts put man at the center of the universe, whether he belongs there or not. Military science, on the other hand, treats man as garbage— and his children, and his cities, too. Military science is probably right about the contemptibility of man in the vastness of the universe. Still— I deny that contemptibility, and I beg you to deny it, through the creation and appreciation of art.
"You hate America, don’t you?" she said.
"That would be as silly as loving it," I said. "It’s impossible for me to get emotional about it, because real estate doesn’t interest me. It’s no doubt a great flaw in my personality, but I can’t think in terms of boundaries. Those imaginary lines are as unreal to me as elves and pixies. I can’t believe that they mark the end or the beginning of anything of real concern to the human soul. Virtues and vices, pleasures and pains cross boundaries at will."
A great swindle of our time is the assumption that science has made religion obsolete. All science has damaged is the story of Adam and Eve and the story of Jonah and the Whale. Everything else holds up pretty well, particularly lessons about fairness and gentleness. People who find those lessons irrelevant in the twentieth century are simply using science as an excuse for greed and harshness. Science has nothing to do with it, friends.
Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.
Human beings are chimpanzees who get crazy drunk on power. By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their morale, like so many bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas.
Here’s what I think the truth is: We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial, about to face cold turkey. And like so many addicts about to face cold turkey, our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we’re hooked on.
For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.
"Blessed are the merciful" in a courtroom? "Blessed are the peacemakers" in the Pentagon? Give me a break!
The moral of the story is we’re here on Earth to fart around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, what the computer people don’t realize, or they don’t care, is we’re dancing animals. You know, we love to move around.
I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead.
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.