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Kurt Vonnegut - God damn it, you've got to be kind

 
“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies-"God damn it, you've got to be kind.” 

My ideal man, since you’re asking, would be a combination of Neil Gaiman and Kurt Vonnegut in the body of Michel Huisman.  Of course, my husband already comes very close to this. Certainly on the beard front anyway.

But Kurt Vonnegut... seriously, what a man. 

I first fell in love with Kurt only a couple of years ago when I was dipping into the Paris Review of Books. I’m not going to pretend it was love at first sight. He smoked too much and looked like one of my boozy uncles. But over the course of four interviews, Vonnegut had me falling true.

 “Do you realize that all great literature is all about what a bummer it is to be a human being? Isn't it such a relief to have somebody say that?” 

In Vonnegut’s unpretentious questioning of sacred truths, I felt like I had found a true iconoclast. Not an iconoclast in the sense of someone who violently smashes up things, but someone who beckons you past the cold monument and points out the humans surrounding it.  An iconoclast who was great fun to be around and who had a tremendous capacity for loving his fellow humans.

His books haven’t and probably won’t sit in the realm of great literature in the way Hemingway’s have made themselves comfy.  Vonnegut’s books are too quirky and weird. Full of quotable stand alone lines, they are nonetheless too imbued with his idiosyncratic personality. And they’re science fiction, for heaven’s sake.  Nearly as bad as fantasy.

Slaughterhouse 5, his most famous book, is Vonnegut’s take on the senseless horror of the Dresden firebombing.  Dresden, an undefended German city known for its museums and parks, was attacked in WW2 with a series of fire bombs, a form of artillery that eats up every available bit of oxygen in the area. Those who weren’t burned alive, would have gradually suffocated to death. According to Vonnegut, 135,000 people were indiscriminately killed within a matter of hours.  That’s nearly the entire population of the city of Oxford.

 Slaughterhouse 5 is semi-autobiographical in that it is about a POW who manages to survive the firebombing because he is imprisoned in a meat locker two stories underground. This is exactly what happened to Vonnegut when he was 21 years old.   The book also has aliens in it. Who display Billy Pilgrim, the main character, naked in a zoo and force him to publicly mate with a movie star.  I’m guessing these bits aren’t autobiographical, but I’m open to being corrected. And to be honest, it’s hard to do justice to the book by simply describing the plot.

 “And so it goes.”

The catalogue of pain that Vonnegut experienced in his early life doesn’t stop there with his war horrors either. His mother committed suicide on Mother’s Day when he was on home leave. A couple of years later his sister and brother-in-law died within hours of each other.

So, perhaps it’s not surprising that Vonnegut was a staunch atheist. The universe he had witnessed was one devoid of meaning or benevolence. It was senseless and arbitrary, absurd and random.

 “Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.”

It might also, given this background, be quite understandable if Vonnegut had become a depressive nihilist prone to despair and misanthropy.

And yet this appears not to have been the case. 

“Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.” 

In spite of his sadness at the world, here was a man who, in the words of his friend Dan Wakefield, “laughed a lot and was kind to everyone.”

Famous for his public speeches, Vonnegut’s combination of humour, wisdom and kindness kept striking a chord with people facing an uncertain future.  An unusual counter-culture hero, Vonnegut’s message time and time again was not individual wildness and anarchy, but the importance of community and compassion.

“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.” 

This is a man who realised that, in a senseless random world, compassion and humour are the most important things we can practise.   

“And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.”

Vonnegut had little patience for conformity and dullness; he was a scientist who loved the arts in an unpretentious and wholly inclusive way.

“The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” 

Always self-deprecating, Vonnegut was also refreshingly and unflinchingly honest. A man who stated that there was only ever one person to benefit from the pointless atrocity of Dresden:

“The Dresden atrocity, tremendously expensive and meticulously planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person. I wrote this book, which earned a lot of money for me and made my reputation, such as it is. One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed. Some business I'm in.”

He could be resolutely scathing about the greed and hypocrisy of modern culture and society and he shot down the American Dream for what it was:

“Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say Napoleonic times. Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.” 

I’m not sure how highly computers would rate Kurt Vonnegut in terms of usefulness. But I do know he would have been the perfect person to have discussed this question with. And I do know his voice is one that urgently needs to be heard in times like this.

Kurt Vonnegut: a human worth celebrating.