I was saddened last night to hear that author Kurt Vonnegut had died. His novel Slaughterhouse Five was based on his real experiences-- surviving and witnessing, as a prisoner-of-war, the aftermath of the February 13-15 Allied firebombing of Dresden, Germany, a beautiful city of no military value. The stated intention of the bombing was to hamper the movement of German troops and hasten the fall of the Reich. The immediate effect was to kill 25,000-35,000 civilians and destroy a historic city known for its architecture and beautiful delicate china.
Vonnegut, unaware that he'd also survived another atrocity-- the execution of over a hundred American POW's by German SS troops in the Malmedy Massacre, was forced to help in the burying of the dead. When it became clear that there were too many dead to bury, the Germans began burning the bodies with flamethrowers.
This obviously had an impact on Vonnegut, a middle class guy from the midwest (Indiana). The fact that he, a soldier in the army that had committed the atrocity, was protected because of his POW status, while tens of thousands of German civilians were defenseless against the firebombing, must have given him a sense of the absurd that was profound.
My knowledge of Vonnegut's art is limited. I'm hoping Vikki, who has mentioned being a big Vonnegut fan (and like him, a native Hoosier) will do an overview of his work.
Like half the high school seniors in the United States, I read Cat's Cradle, a criticism of the blind advance of science outracing humanity's ability to deal with its moral and ethical ramifications (e.g. the atomic bomb). His masterwork, Slaughterhouse Five was almost a companion book to his friend Joseph Heller's Catch-22 in its examination of how even the Allies, in fighting a clearly evil power, began sliding down slippery moral slopes in fighting that power. The popularity of the books have to be understood in the context of the Vietnam War, in which many were questioning whether the United States had lost its moral compass entirely. The United States had emerged from World War II with a pretty legitimate sense of moral superiority in having helped defeat three fascist powers. Slaughterhouse Five questioned, to many readers, whether the ethical and moral slide had begun not with Vietnam, but much longer ago.
If I were to pick one word to describe Vonnegut, it would be "absurdity." He saw the aburdity of the human condition, of modern life and even the absurdity of his own life. One of my favorite pieces of his writing was an article he did in the Rolling Stone in 1981 in which he examined life and suicide. He mentioned being the child of a woman who'd committed suicide, and how that left the temptation to take that solution to life's difficulties. I think that Vonnegut would appreciate the absurdity that he, who'd missed being killed in the Battle of the Bulge, who'd avoided death in Dresden, would succumb to injuries suffered in a fall at home.