Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"Kurt Vonnegut: Quotes And Comments"

"So it goes." Unlike many of these quotes, the repeated refrain from Vonnegut's classic 'Slaughterhouse-Five' isn't notable for its unique wording so much as for how much emotion—and dismissal of emotion—it packs into three simple, world-weary words that simultaneously accept and dismiss everything. There's a reason this quote graced practically every elegy written for Vonnegut over the past two weeks (yes, including ours): It neatly encompasses a whole way of life. More crudely put: "Shit happens, and it's awful, but it's also okay. We deal with it because we have to."

"Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly; Man got to sit and wonder, 'Why, why, why?' Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land; Man got to tell himself he understand." Another koan of sorts from 'Cat's Cradle' and the Bokononist religion (which phrases many of its teachings as calypsos, as part of its absurdist bent), this piece of doggerel is simple and catchy, but it unpacks into a resonant, meaningful philosophy that reads as sympathetic to humanity, albeit from a removed, humoring, alien viewpoint. Man's just another animal, it implies, with his own peculiar instincts, and his own way of shutting them down. This is horrifically cynical when considered closely: If people deciding they understand the world is just another instinct, then enlightenment is little more than a pit-stop between insoluble questions, a necessary but ultimately meaningless way of taking a sanity break. At the same time, there's a kindness to Bokonon's belief that this is all inevitable and just part of being a person. Life is frustrating and full of pitfalls and dead ends, but everybody's gotta do it.

"There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind." This line from 'God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater' comes as part of a baptismal speech the protagonist says he's planning for his neighbors' twins: "Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind." It's an odd speech to make over a couple of infants, but it's playful, sweet, yet keenly precise in its summation of everything a new addition to the planet should need to know. By narrowing down all his advice for the future down to a few simple words, Vonnegut emphasizes what's most important in life. At the same time, he lets his frustration with all the people who obviously don't get it leak through just a little.

"Many people need desperately to receive this message: 'I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.'" In this response to his own question—"Why bother?"—in 'Timequake', his last novel, Vonnegut doesn't give a tired response about the urge to create; instead, he offers a pointed answer about how writing (and reading) make a lonesome world a little less so. The idea of connectedness—familial and otherwise—ran through much of his work, and it's nice to see that toward the end of his career, he hadn't lost the feeling that words can have an intimate, powerful impact.

"There are plenty of good reasons for fighting, but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too." Though this quote comes from the World War II-centered 'Mother Night' (published in 1961), its wisdom and ugly truth still ring. Vonnegut (who often said "The only difference between Bush and Hitler is that Hitler was elected") was righteously skeptical about war, having famously survived the only one worth fighting in his lifetime. And it's never been more true: Left or right, Christian or Muslim, those convinced they're doing violence in service of a higher power and against an irretrievably inhuman enemy are the most dangerous creatures of all.

"That is my principal objection to life, I think: It's too easy, when alive, to make perfectly horrible mistakes." The narrator delivering this line at the end of the first chapter of 'Deadeye Dick' is alluding both to his father's befriending of Hitler and his own accidental murder of his neighbor, but like so many of these quotes, it resonates well beyond its context. The underlying philosophy of Vonnegut's work was always that existence is capricious and senseless, a difficult sentiment that he captured time and again with a bemused shake of the head. Indeed, the idea that life is just a series of small decisions that culminate into some sort of "destiny" is maddening, because you could easily ruin it all simply by making the wrong one. Ordering the fish, stepping onto a balcony, booking the wrong flight, getting married—a single misstep, and you're done for. At least when you're dead, you don't have to make any more damn choices. Wherever Vonnegut is, he's no doubt grateful for that."
- Josh Modell, Kyle Ryan, Noel Murray, Scott Gordon, And Tasha Robinson
- http://www.avclub.com/articles/15-things-kurt-vonnegut-said-better-than-anyone-el,1858/

1 comment:

  1. Good post! I'm blogging about my experiences as Vonnegut's biographer at www.writingkurtvonnegut.com

    Best,

    Charles J. Shields
    And So It goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life (Holt, November)

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