The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

On Vonnegut

In the UMass Campus Bookstore today I came across this little shrine erected to Kurt Vonnegut, consisting of this sign and a pile of his books for sale.

I was surprised that with all that was written about Vonnegut's ties to the region, no one mentioned how disgusted he was by the political correctness he found entrenched in Smith College when he taught there briefly around the year 2000. It was written up in the New York Times and elsewhere at the time how amazed Vonnegut was to discover how rigid the academic environment had become in enforcing leftist orthodoxy. Although a proud liberal himself, Vonnegut had no use for the modern intellectual environment and said so publicly. Somehow the local writers forgot to mention that in their reviews of Vonnegut's Pioneer Valley ties.

Like any young person with a heart, I was a fan of Vonnegut in my teenage years. His optimism and good humor in the face of life's repetitive, often tragic absurdities was exactly what one needed to hear at the beginning of one's own tragically absurd life. It was okay, his books seems to say, life is on some level tragic and absurd for everyone, so don't be frightened or discouraged. Just ride with it, and do it with as much kindness and good humor as you can muster.

The absurd tragedy of Vonnegut's own life was that he didn't follow his own advice. He became increasingly disillusioned and even embittered as his life progressed, shocking his fans by actually attempting suicide in 1984. He betrayed not just his fans but his best self when he let his vision turn so dreary, and the quality of his work plummeted as his vision darkened. His obituary writers are too kind to say so, but the truth is at the time of his death Vonnegut hadn't written anything of importance since the 1970's.

That's okay, as Ken Kesey used to say, "Cream rises and shit sinks." Vonnegut's best early work, with its wildly creative science fiction scenarios, his trademark catchphrases which reoccured again and again with different meanings in different contexts, his wonderfully sympathetic view of human foibles and admiration for human courage, all that will endure to entertain and console young readers for generations to come, while the rantings of the bitter, angry old curmudgeon will fade away.

Vonnegut was often compared to Mark Twain, who in his later years he even physically resembled. However, the truth is that for all his talent Vonnegut was never in the same league as Twain. Vonnegut's prose never came near Twain's sophistication and in fact, Vonnegut's entire collection of novels does not add up to even one Huckleberry Finn.

But in the context of his own time, if you define that time as stretching from the 1950's through the 1970's, then he was indeed a first rate writer of considerable importance, and a genuine hero to the youth of that era who had too few real heroes to look up to. Ayn Rand said that the definition of success in life is to arrive at the end of it with the best vision of yourself, even if unrealized, at least still intact. By that standard Vonnegut was a failure, but I'm not sure to what extent the realization of that would have bothered him.

As he might have said - so it goes.

I was down at The Fort restaurant in Springfield recently, and although it was nearly a week past Easter they still had this nice display on the mantle of the grand fireplace.

Of course the place itself is like dining in a museum, with artifacts and images from Springfield's past on display everywhere, such as this colored glass image of The Puritan.

Meanwhile the weather continues to really suck around here. When will it be Spring? Mother Nature, if you read this blog, please note the picture below, taken of me last July.

This is how I want it to be. This is what I want to do. So stop being such a mean Mother and make it happen! Thank you very much.

Finally, here's a video of the local avant-garde spacerock band ZEBU performing recently at The Red Barn in Amherst.


Anonymous said...

I too was a teenager when I found Vonnegut, and to my utter amazement, because of his books, found reading to be more than an academic task. I credit Vonnegut with my life long desire to read. Can there be a better gift? I think not, and I really meant to send him a note thanking him, but I figured it would be just a whisper in a cacophony of adulation. Maybe not though, I should have let him know. So it goes.


Beth Caldwell said...

Hi, I was searching Vonnegut and found your blog. I am wondering if you know the name of the photographer who took this picture of him (with his face in smoke). I would love to buy an archival copy of this photo.

Tommy said...

Sorry, I got that picture just by googling Vonnegut on Google Images. I agree it is a great photo!