Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut

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.

11 comments:

busterp said...

Nicely done. He seemed interesting at the very least.

One of his first works I read was Welcome to the Monkey House. It was a short story in Playboy. (I actually read the magazine for some of the stories.)

In fact, I remember Crichton's Terminal Man as a short story I found via Playboy.

vikkitikkitavi said...

Thanks for the link. I spent last night thinking about all the different ways that Vonnegut has influenced my life, and I hope you like the story I picked to tell.

Erik Donald France said...

Viva Kurt Vonnegut! Writing and swinging to the end, even appearing on Bill Maher not that long ago. Nice post, Johnny.

Natalie said...

Great post. I couldn't bring myself to say much about it. I am usually okay with death but this one got me.

Flannery Alden said...

It got to me too. Nice post, JY. I'm off to see what Vikki has to say...

Barbara Bruederlin said...

His books sure had a huge impact on me, as a teenager. I haven't read his works in years, but now I think I'll revisit some of my favourites.

Bubs said...

I haven't read him in years, but my two favorites used to be Player Piano and Breakfast of Champions

Beth said...

Lovely post. Still so sad. So it goes.

Kathy said...

Last night I picked up whatever Vonnegut was lying around--Hocus Pocus--and started reading on page 203. What a hoot! (So why am I so sad?)

When we found out that he had died, my 11-year-old daughters asked, "Who's Kurt Vonnegut?" To try and explain, hubby started telling the girls about Ice-Nine. I had to stop him, because I think they should just read Cat's Cradle cold.

And I can't wait 'til the day they do!

JR's Thumbprints said...

I had met Kurt Vonnegut in the early 80's during a time when he was battling some personal demons. He was a very interesting character.

Dale said...

As I said somewhere else, I'm so glad that Kurt Vonnegut seems to have meant so much to so many. I loved his writing and original take on things.