Today is a day for thoughtful words. My favorite novelist, Kurt Vonnegut, has died at age 84. Mr. Vonnegut was, to me, the conscience of our literary selves - a voice speaking from common sense and experience. Why shouldn't we listen to someone with first-hand experience about things which are of the utmost importance to us? Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are all things in which Vonnegut was an expert.
Life: How can you be an expert in life unless you understand death? He was an Advance Infantry Scout with the Army during World War II, where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Ending up behind enemy lines after his unit was decimated, he was captured and sent to Dresden with thousands of other war prisoners. It was there while assigned to make vitamin supplements for the Nazis in the cellar of a meatpacking plant that he survived the firebombing of Dresden, one of the most destructive bombing campaigns ever conducted, where flaming jellied petroleum was dropped on the entire city, killing the population by flame or asphyxiation. Only seven Allied prisoners lived through the destruction and they were put to work stacking the dead, which were so numerous they couldn't be buried but had to be incinerated with flamethrowers instead. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone as closely acquainted with death as Kurt Vonnegut was, and with that familiarity came an appreciation for life and an understanding of how true humanity starkly contrasts our most notorious deeds.
Liberty: As a soldier and subsequently a prisoner, Vonnegut knew the value of liberty. One of the most enduring themes in his novels was self-determination. Through characters like Billy Pilgrim, Leon Trotsky Trout and Dr. Swain, he explored the idea that people don't really make their own life choices until something threatens their ability to make those choices. Breaking free of the herd requires a conscious reason to escape.
The Pursuit of Happiness: Every day was borrowed, every moment was bonus. He savored life as one who has known the fear of losing it. He was an accomplished man - an author, lecturer, teacher, and artist - not because he needed to impress anyone else, but because of an overwhelming desire to please himself, to experience his own satisfactions and savor the best and worst within his soul.
He was last century's Mark Twain, a witty satirist who told it like it is, who used humor like an executioner used an ax, violent, cruel, yet perfectly placed every time. As I said before, he was the conscience of us all. He advised, "There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’"
Some of us choose to misunderstand his message because that mirror he held up revealed the ugliest truths in our world. Some of us tried to understand him and tried to learn to be better human beings because of it. He was important. His words still are.
I will miss him.
rick, mourning the passing of a great man.