I liked this remark from Tim Sterne’s (non) obit post at Sarsaparilla so much I thought I’d lift it for this one. Hope you don’t mind, Tim!
Vonnegut lived about a dozen years longer than the average American male, due to his chain-smoking and rage and beach house. We will miss him.
But like Tim, I don’t want to write an obit either. What I want to comment on is what gets written in obits about literary figures (though it could easily, I imagine, extend to other cultural figures). Often there’s a sort of opus plus life format, where life is only tangentially related to the work. That’s something of a convention, and something of a convention that reflects ideas about the uniqueness of the aesthetic. It’s not necessarily a criticism, because I don’t think psychobiography is necessarily all that helpful either as lit crit or biography. But I do want to take note of the fact that part of this fetishisation of the aesthetic is a denial of the political. The NYT obit, to which I linked above, for instance, notes the marks on Vonnegut’s life (and to a lesser extent his work, the connection is really left hanging…) of events such as the Great Depression, the bombing of Dresden and the Vietnam War. But it signally fails to mention Vonnegut’s politics and the rich imbrication of politics and work in his oeuvre, and ignores totally the event which brought him probably most attention in the last few years – his searing attack on George W. Bush and the Iraq War in a 2004 article:
Many years ago, I was so innocent I still considered it possible that we could become the humane and reasonable America so many members of my generation used to dream of. We dreamed of such an America during the Great Depression, when there were no jobs. And then we fought and often died for that dream during the Second World War, when there was no peace.
But I know now that there is not a chance in hell of America’s becoming humane and reasonable. Because power corrupts us, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. 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.
Vonnegut, for his trouble, and his passion, was kicked from one end of the American media to the other end of the blogosphere and the noise machine, with strong insinuations of senility made. Let’s have a culture war, by all means, the motto seemed to have been, but let’s not have a culture figure pronounce on the politics of war.
Vonnegut was in fact a highly political person:
Vonnegut was a humanist; he served as Honorary President of the American Humanist Association, having replaced Isaac Asimov in what Vonnegut called “that totally functionless capacity”. He was deeply influenced by early socialist labor leaders, especially Indiana natives Powers Hapgood and Eugene V. Debs, and he frequently quotes them in his work. He named characters after both Debs (Eugene Debs Hartke in Hocus Pocus) and Russian socialist leader Leon Trotsky (Leon Trotsky Trout in Galapagos). He was a lifetime member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and was featured in a print advertisement for them.
Some might remember a furore around an interview Vonnegut gave to The Australian in 2005:
In 2005 Vonnegut was interviewed by David Neson for The Australian. During the course of the interview Vonnegut was asked his opinion of modern terrorists, to which he replied “I regard them as very brave people.” When pressed further Vonnegut also said that “They [suicide bombers] are dying for their own self-respect. It’s a terrible thing to deprive someone of their self-respect. It’s [like] your culture is nothing, your race is nothing, you’re nothing … It is sweet and noble – sweet and honourable I guess it is – to die for what you believe in.” (This last statement is a reference to the line “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” [“it is sweet and appropriate to die for your country”] from Horace’s Odes, or possibly from Wilfred Owen’s ironic use of the line in his Dulce Et Decorum Est.) David Neson took offense to Vonnegut’s comments and characterized him as an old man who “doesn’t want to live any more … and because he can’t find anything worthwhile to keep him alive, he finds defending terrorists somehow amusing.” Vonnegut’s son, Dr. Mark Vonnegut responded to the article by writing an editorial to the Boston Globe in which he explained the reasons behind his father’s “provocative posturing” and stated that “If these commentators can so badly misunderstand and underestimate an utterly unguarded English-speaking 83-year-old man with an extensive public record of exactly what he thinks, maybe we should worry about how well they understand an enemy they can’t figure out what to call.”
The text of the response from his son, Mark Vonnegut, is online. This wouldn’t make a bad obituary for Vonnegut’s fighting spirit, acute sense of justice, and insight into challenging received wisdom:
At no point did he say that blowing yourself up in a crowd of people was a good thing to do. What most outraged his interviewer was Kurt’s disinclination to dismiss the terrorists as mentally ill. He said that suicide bombers believed that they were dying for a just cause and that he imagined they were probably brave people. It was all speculation. Neither he nor his interviewer had any knowledge about suicide bombers or radical Islam. Nowhere in the interview did he say anything in support of terrorism, though I’m quite sure he enjoyed horrifying his interviewer by skating around it. Kurt, every so often, will play with people a little.
What Kurt can do better than most people is reframe things and turn them around in a way that creates a new perspective. Even if you disagree with that perspective, the plausibility and novelty of his vision are enough to make you think. We need to think a little more, not less.
It seems to me that we can do justice to Vonnegut’s own rage against the absurdities of injustice by not effacing the political dimensions of his life and work.
Tralfamadore #2 by Kurt Vonnegut.