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.


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