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Sunday, March 22, 2009

So It Goes

"What a mistake we [humans] are.  We have mortally wounded this sweet life-supporting planet."
--Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

And Vonnegut was a humanist.

Toward the end of his life, though, he was also quite the misanthrope.  One can hardly blame him.  This was a man who, as a German POW, famously survived the bombing of Dresden in WWII--an act of barbarity that never stopped haunting him.  At the time his final book, A Man Without a Country, was published in 2005, the US was in its fourth year of Bush's regime, the fourth year of post-9/11 paranoia, and the 2nd year of the war in Iraq.  Who could blame him for feeling blue?

Still, there is something uniformly depressing about the mini-essays in this last book.  One would like to think that Vonnegut is kidding when he describes his utter fed-up-ness with modern humanity, but the overwhelming repetition of the central complaints--people have royally screwed up, the world is going to hell, there is very little hope--disabuses one of that notion.

Was this a persona?  Was he really that depressed?  He does take time to give kind words to some of the everyday people he encounters--his family, other artists and writers, and a postal clerk with whom he has fallen in love (silently, platonically, of course--Vonnegut was no elderly lecher).  Regardless, though, the reader often feels he is being browbeaten by a truly decent if overbearingly strident liberal scold.

Vonnegut was a great American writer, and he deserves his place in any pantheon of 20th-century men of letters.  As an atheistic humanist, he said that the funniest joke one could make upon his death was to say, "Well, Kurt Vonnegut is in heaven now."  But if there is a heaven for a humanist, it's probably just the act of living on in the fond memories and esteem held by those fellow apes who survived him, i.e, us. 

So let's forgive Vonnegut his curmudgeonly final words.  He's earned them.  Still, the Solipsist cannot whole-heartedly recommend A Man Without a Country.  Dust off your copy of Slaughter-House Five or Cat's Cradle instead.

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