kurt vonnegut wisdom

A Brief Essay on the Life and Work of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

When I heard the news of Mr. Vonnegut‘s death this morning it aroused a rare feeling. It wasn’t sadness. I cannot imagine a human being more prepared to pass into eternity than Mr. Vonnegut. A more accurate description is a combination of awe and nostalgia. Awe of the fact that such a man ever existed and nostalgia for the time when I first experienced his work; for the person I was then and for the impact he has had on my thoughts in the ensuing years. From the outpouring I have read today, I perceive this feeling is shared by many others.

I am far from a Vonnegut scholar. In fact I have read only two of his books. But Vonnegut was not a scholarly writer, and that was the seat of his brilliance. He had the ability to bring the incredibly deep to the surface; to express the incomprehensibly complex with childlike simplicity.

Mr. Vonnegut belongs to the highest class of authors: those capable of writing books that remain in the mind for a lifetime; books that come back into your thoughts like an old friend. But to attempt to classify Mr. Vonnegut is to diminish his significance. His style is cannot be descrbed. It can only be experienced.

I first experienced the work of Mr. Vonnegut when I was handed a copy of Cat’s Cradle at the age of fourteen. Today I remember few details of the book, but I can distinctly recall the impression it made. He made me live the implausible and he made it feel real. Not through plot or description, but through the humanity of the people he created.

Reading the articles and watching this montage about Vonnegut’s life reminded me of what I’ve learned from him.

Humility

No other writer has so persuasively conveyed the reality of human frailty and insignificance. We really are just “dancing monkeys”. But hearing this from Vonnegut isn’t depressing. It’s empowering because it makes you realize that our weakness is what binds us together.

Compassion

I don’t think I had any conception of human suffering or the reality of war before reading Slaughter House Five. It taught me that civilization is madness, that every day people do irrational things to each other. WHY is the resounding question. Why are we so cruel? so weak? so desperate? But he also instilled a feeling of the eternal. So it goes. Today, tomorrow, no matter what happens to humanity, our individual lives will inevitably pass into oblivion. All we have are a few fleeting moments to fart around.
Purpose

Everything Mr. Vonnegut wrote had a purpose. In one memorable quote he said that the writer exists as an agent of change. I saw him appear on the Daily Show a couple years ago. He said:

I think we are terrible animals, and I think the planet’s immune system is trying to get rid of us and should.

He then listed human atrocities: the Spanish Inquisition, the Roman games, burning women in squares, World War I and World War II, the Holocaust, and Nagasaki. That’s quite a list and I was initially surprised by Vonnegut’s pessimism. But as I reflect, I realize he made those remarks, not because he’d lost hope for humanity, but with the purpose of eliciting just such a reaction.

He made me think. Is this what humanity really is? Are we really such low, primitive brutes? Is there any way to save our species from the fate it deserves? Asking these questions and holding ourselves responsible as agents of change is humanity’s only hope.

Mr. Vonnegut may be gone, but his work will continue to teach us, to remind us of what we are. No matter who you are or where you come from, we’re all in this together. If the amount of coverage his death has received is any indication, he’s made a similar impression on many other people.

It’s our responsibility to try, to try and save our species, to leave our future descendants with a habitable planet. Kurt is in heaven now. Let’s prove he tried for a reason.

  • michael

    You lucky bastard (Australian term denoting affection) you still have much joy in store. Sirens of Titan wil do for you! And the outpouring of love…good there may be hope for us yet. Oh and well said, well said.

  • http://www.pickthebrain.com John Wesley

    Alex,

    Saying the article made you want to read more of his work is the highest compliment I could imagine.

    michael,

    Thanks for the suggestion. I think realizing how much people were affected by Vonnegut is a sign of hope. I look forward to enjoying his work for many years.

  • Other Ryan

    I’ve never read any of his works, but I’ve heard about him here and there. Now he seems all the buzz. I might check out one of his books.

    Any suggestions for a Vonnegut-newbie?

    • Owen

      He started off as a sci fi writer, so if you’re into that sort of thing I suggest Player Piano, but to be honest you could just dip into anything.

  • http://www.pickthebrain.com John Wesley

    Other Ryan,

    From what I’ve experienced, you can’t really go wrong with any of his nooks. Slaughter House Five is probably the most famous — it will really open your eyes about war, time, and life.

    I came across this essay he wrote today. It’s very worth reading if you want to learn what his principles are.

    http://www.rense.com/general69/vonnegutsblues.htm

  • Other Ryan

    I was actually just looking at his book A Man Without A Country before I commented. I read the link you gave me, and it’s convinced me to pick up this book!

    It was a really good essay, and I hear this book is shorter than his other works, so it should be a good start. Thanks for the link!

  • Alex Goad

    Hi John,

    I appreciated your essay, it made me want to go out and buy more of these works of art.

    I remember as a teenager, laughing out loud as I read “Beakfast of Champions”.

    A unique voice if there ever was one.

  • http://www.unboundedition.com/ samantha

    Vonnegut was the first male writer I ever connected with. I found an article “So It Goes” on this site, and the guy feels like I feel.

    http://www.unboundedition.com/

  • Jimbo

    “and so it goes”

    I was just about to email you and when I saw your topic today. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I thought Vonnegut’s death would a subject you would want to comment on and as usual you’re 2 steps ahead.

  • http://www.pickthebrain.com John Wesley

    That’s an interesting coincidence. I really wasn’t planning on writing anything about Vonnegut at first. His death has gotten so much coverage that I thought it would be overkill and that I couldn’t add anything new.

    But then last night, thoughts started to come to me and I knew it was important to put them down. This one basically wrote itself.

  • http://www.findingyourmarbles.com Scott

    Other Ryan,

    Slaughterhouse 5 is very good, but it’s a tough book to start with if you want to read Vonnegut. I’d suggest starting with Breakfast of Champions. It’s not easy by a long shot, but it’s a good introduction to Vonnegut’s unique style of writing.

    Soon you too will be drawing the “asterisk” on the walls of public bathrooms.

  • penny

    His short stories are the easiest entry.
    In particular, I like “Welcome to the Monkey House”–about leveling by the the State.
    Penny

  • penny

    What I liked about SL5 wasn’t the descriptions of the bombing of Dresden–even if he did live it–but the satire on “nonlinear time, flashbacks in the modern novel; such as ‘Lord Jim’”.

    In SL5 the concept is :”narrative time as
    a uniformly distributed random variable on an interval”. Thus, it is a book based on a mathematical satire.

    The sina quo non of GOOD science fiction is a GOOD and ORIGINAL Science idea as theme.
    PENNY

  • penny

    In a similar way, he uses ICE 9. I only know of one other author who has used the phase diagram of water as a story theme. That is Hal Clement.

    In another story, he investigates the idea that human high intelligence is an evolutionary “mistake” and we evolve out of it. The only “flaw” is that it was done previously by H.G. Wells in “The Time Machine”.

    I like idea driven science fiction. If I want great characters and prose style ( but sadly no science ideas), I can always read
    Jane Austin.
    Penny

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  • Biggles

    Mr Vonnegut is no more. He is not in Heaven now, he is simply gone like we all will be.

    Other than that, I really enjoyed your article. Thanks for writing it.

  • http://www.pickthebrain.com John Wesley

    Biggles,

    I agree with you about Kurt being gone. I included that line because I read a story about Vonnegut where he said,”I hope they say that Kurt’s in heaven. That’s my favorite joke.”

  • Biggles

    Ah, that’s new to me. All apologies.

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  • http://www.socialnatural.com/blog Gabriel

    A strong voice like Kurt’s elicit those reactions he wanted in his audience to move us and make us think about the world we live in are the best authors.

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    The time in what he kept holding onto him.

  • Revoseek

    Very Interesting post- Really.

  • Jack’s Muscle Building Diets

    such great man for sure has no regrets on the life he lived, so i’m pretty sure that he is in peace.

    - Jack Leak

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  • Jake Walnut – Freelance Writer

    I’m not so sure that he is in peace.

    He may have lived a full life by many people’s standards, but if you take a closer look at his life it is easy to see that he was troubled. The views that he shared in his written work actually seem to go against his personal actions. I mean, everyone has a hard time living up to their ideals sometimes, so you can’t really put him down for that.

    I love Kurt Vonnegut and he is one of my favorite writers, but I think that exploring the relationship between the man and his work is almost more fascinating than his actual work. When I was a teenager Kurt made me feel like I wasn’t alone – something that many teenagers need. I felt like Kurt was a friend – an older, wiser friend – who shared a similar way of thinking. I still feel much the same way.

    Sorry for blabbing. I just really enjoyed this post.

  • Jake Walnut – Freelance Writer

    I’m not so sure that he is in peace.

    He may have lived a full life by many people’s standards, but if you take a closer look at his life it is easy to see that he was troubled. The views that he shared in his written work actually seem to go against his personal actions. I mean, everyone has a hard time living up to their ideals sometimes, so you can’t really put him down for that.

    I love Kurt Vonnegut and he is one of my favorite writers, but I think that exploring the relationship between the man and his work is almost more fascinating than his actual work. When I was a teenager Kurt made me feel like I wasn’t alone – something that many teenagers need. I felt like Kurt was a friend – an older, wiser friend – who shared a similar way of thinking. I still feel much the same way.

    Sorry for blabbing. I just really enjoyed this post.

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