Sunday, November 30, 2014

Kurt Vonnegut shows us how to be funny even "when speaking dismally of the future of mankind"


Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)

"Like Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln, even when he's funny Kurt Vonnegut is depressed."
-- John Leonard, in "God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut" (2004),
included as the afterword to Vonnegut by the Dozen

"I am moved to suspect that most of our finest humorists, including Mark Twain, may have been not especially funny people who painstakingl learned their clowning only in order to seem insincere when speaking dismally of the future of mankind."
-- Kurt Vonnegut, in "Only Kidding, Folks?," an essay on
the Polish science-fiction novelist Stanislaw Lem

by Ken

Last week, in a post called "Looking back at and with Molly Ivins (including her terrible times at the NY Times)," after peeking inside The Nation's lovely little book gathering some of Molly Ivins's writings for the magazine, Molly Ivins: Letters to The Nation, I threw out the above quote from the great literary critic, commentator, and editor John Leonard as a tease for the companion anthology Vonnegut by the Dozen -- both edited by onetime Executive Editor Richard Lingeman -- I ventured that Kurt Vonnegut was "a great novelist, and in his own distinctive way as great and cataclysmic a political observer, and perhaps even more distressing."

"Perhaps even more distressing," I meant to suggest, because the bleakness of his vision isn't always as inescapably upfront in his novels, peopled as they are with such extravagantly, deliriously delicious characters, and filled as they are with the author's proprietary whimsy and funniness.

We'll come back to that funniness later, but in the matter of literary seriousness, John Leonard once again went straight to the heart of the matter in these excerpts from a speech he gave on the occasion of his friend Kurt's birthday in 2004, published as "God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut," an obvious play on the title of his 1965 novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Here Leonard recalls, from his days as editor of the New York Times Book Review, having asked Vonnegut to review Joseph Heller's second novel, Something Happened (1974) -- itself an inspired idea. Who could possibly have been better equipped to write about the author of Catch-22 (1973) than the author of Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)?

"This," Leonard recalled, "is how he concluded his essay."
I say that this is the most memorable, and therefore the most permanent variation on a familiar theme, and that it says baldly what the other variations only implied, what the other variations tried with desperate sentimentality not to imply: that many lives, judged by the standards of the people who live them, are simply not worth living.
In a speech Vonnegut delivered at the Mark Twain House in Hartford, published as "The Necessary Miracle" (1979), Vonnegut notes that he, like Twain, clearly an idol of his, was a religious skeptic, and notes that "religious skeptics often become very bitter toward the end, as did Mark Twain.
I do not propose to guess now as to why he became so bitter. I know why I will beome bitter. I wil finally realize that I have had it right all along: that I will not see God, that there is no Heaven or Judgment Day.
He has a great deal to say about the mythologizing at the heart of Twain's address to the reader, and does a take on the horrifically uncomical ending of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court {"Comically enough," he begins, "thousands of early attackers have already been attacked," and the mayhem escalates from there), and finally invites us:
Imagine, if you will, the opinion we would now hold of ourselves and the opinions others would hold of us, if it were not for the myths about us created by Mark Twain. You can then begin to calculate our debt to this one man.

One man. Just one man.

I named my first-born son after him.

I thank you for your attention.
We'll come back to Mark Twain in a moment as well.


Back to John Leonard.
The novelist himself tells us in Palm Sunday about seeing a Marcel Ophuls film that included pictures from the Dresden fire-bombing Vonnegut had lived through as a POW: "The Dresden atrocity," he then decides, "tremendously expensive and meticulously planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person. I wrote this book, which earned a lot of money for me and made my reputation, such as it is. One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed. Some business I'm in."
In fact, in one of the pieces included in Vonnegut by the Dozen, a 1980 conversation with Robert K. Musil (whose bio on the website of the Rachel Carson Council, of which he became president and CEO this past February, only its third head, says he "specializes in contemporary global sustainability, security, and health issues, as well as Cold War history, culture, and policy"), Vonnegut estimates his haul from the book in question, Slaughterhouse-Five, at "about $4 for each person killed."

I think all readers of the book, aware that Vonnegut, like his troubled time-traveling and galaxy-hopping hero Billy Pilgrim, had lived through the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden, understood that it was a subject the author had lived with for more than two decades but had always known he had to write about. In the conversation with Robert Musil, asked how long he had thought "about describing an experience like Dresden," he gave a surprising explanation of the process.
Well, it seemed a categorical imperative that I write about Dresden, the fire-bombing of Dresden, since it was the largest massacre in the history of Europe and I am a person of European extraction and I, a writer, had been present. I had to say something about it. And it took me a long time and it was painful.

The most difficult thing about it was that I had forgotten about it. And I learned about catastrophes from that, and from talking to other people who had been involved in avalanches and floods and great fires, that there is some device in our brains which switches off and prevents our remembering catastrophes above a certain scale. I don't know whether it is just a limit of our nervous system, or whether it's actually a gadget which protects us in some way. But I, in fact, remembered nothing about the bombing of Dresden although I had been there, and did everything short of hiring a hypnotist to recover the information.

I wrote to many of the guys who went through it with me saying "Help me remember" and the answer every time was a refusal, a simple flat refusal. They did not want to think about it. There was a writer for Life magazine -- I don't know how much he knows about rabbits and the nervous system -- who claimed that rabbits have no memory, which is one of their defensive mechanisms. If they recalled every close shave they had in the course of just an hour, life would become insupportable. As soon as they'd escaped from a Doberman pinscher, why, they forgot all about it. And they could scarcely affod to remember it.
Musil asks whether the details came back to Vonnegut personally.
After all, it was a city enormous in area and I was on the ground, and there was smoke and fire, and so I could scarcely see eight feet, and the only way to see it would be on area photographs taken with the beautiful equipment that planes had. And so it was finally British military historians who produced more and more information and finally an estimate of the casualties.

East Germany would not respond to my inquiries at all. They weren't interested in the problem. Probably the most curious thing, in retrospect, is that I'm the only person who gives a damn that Dresden was bombed, because I have run into flyers of one sort or another who were in on the raid. They were rather sheepish about it, and they weren't proud of it. But I have found no one who is sorry, including the people who were bombed, although they must surely mourn relatives. I went back there with a friend and there was no German to say, "Ach, how beautiful this used to be, with the tree-lined streets and parks." They don't give a damn.
Vonnegut reminds Musil that he was trained as a chemist, and that his brother Bernard was "a leading atmospheric chemist now" ("the flashiest thing he discovered was that silver iodide will make it snow and rain"), and so for Kurt it was terrible,
after having believed so much in technology and having drawn so many pictures of dream automobiles and dream airplanes and dream human dwellings, to see the actual use of this technology in destroying a city and killing 135,000 people and then to see the even more sophisticated technology in the use of nuclear weapons on Japan. I was sickened by this use of the technology that I had had such great hopes for. And so I came to fear it. You know, it's like being a devout Christian and then seeing some horrible massacres conducted by Christians after a victory. It was a spiritual horror of that sort which I still carry today.
And an abiding horror for Vonnegut was policy-makers' "willingness to lie" about the use of that technology -- "it being a normal part of politics to lie." He recalls something said by his friend Bernie O'Hare (by then "a district attorney in Pennsylvania"), with whom he went through the war.
We came home on a troopship together and got off at Newport News. I said, "All right, what did you learn from it?" meaning World War II. We were both privates. He thought a minute and said, "I'll never believe my government again."

During the '30s when we grew up, we did believe our government and were great enthusiasts for it because the economy was being reborn. We were such cooperative citizens that it turned out to be a rather minor thing that made us decide that we couldn't believe our government anymore -- that we had caught it lying. It was quite something to catch your government lying then

What it was all about was bombing techniques. They said we had these magnificent bombsights which would allow us to drop a bomb down a smokestack, and that there was all this microsurgery going on on the ground. Then we saw what it really was. They would send a cloud of airplanes over and bomb the shit out of everything. There was no use of bombsights whatsoever, there was simply carpet bombing. And that was kept secret from the American people: the nature of the air raids and random bombings, the shooting and the blowing up of anything that moved.
Hmm, does this sound at all familiar?


I promised we would come back to the subject of Kurt V's funniness, and to the subject of Mark Twain. Here goes.

The first piece in Vonnegut by the Dozen after editor Richard LIngeman's introduction is called "Only Kidding, Folks?," "a review of ten books by the Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem."

Vonnegut notes that Lem, "one of the most popular science-fiction writers in the world," comes with a certifiable reputation for hilariousness : "tremendously amusing" (critic Leslie Fiedler), "fantastically humorous" (Russian cosmonaut Gherman Titov), "zany" (novelist Ursula Le Guin, herself a frequent sci-fi practitioner), "and so on." However, this isn't what he finds.
I myself find him a master of utterly terminal pessimism, appalled by all that an insane humanity may yet survive to do.

We are pollution.

He wants us to feel no pity for Homo sapiens, and so excludes appealing women and children from his tales. The adult males he sows us are variously bald, arthritic, sharp-kneed, squinting, jowly, rotten toothed and so on, and surely ludicrous -- save for his space crewmen, wo are as expendable as pawns in a chess game. We do not get to know anybody well enough to like him. If he dies, he dies.
Is there any common ground to found between these two hard-to-reconcile views? Maybe. Here's how it looks to our Kurt:
I do not think Lem would have as many readers as he does, including a boundlessly optimistic cosmonaut, if he did not go to such lengths to say, in effect, what bitter nightclub comics often say: "Only kidding, folks." When he predicts that our reason will soon be destroyed by mind-altering chemicals in careless hands (The Futurological Congress, Warsaw, 1971), or that many of our descendants will be spies or spy hunters in an underground Pentagon which has lost touch with the outside world (Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, Warsaw, 1971), or that, when we venture into space, we will become destroyers of all we cannot understand (The Invincible, Warsaw, 1967) or that our machines will soon be more intelligent and honorable than we are (the theme of tale after tale), he must be kidding, since, as Le Guin says, he is so "zany" all the time. I am moved to suspect that most of our finest humorists, including Mark Twain, may have been not especially funny people who painstakingly learned their clowning only in order to seem insincere when speaking dismally of the future of mankind.
Vonnegut guesses that Lem "is at his funniest when he has looked so hard and long at hopelessness that he is at last exhausted, and is seized by convulsions of laughter that threaten to tear him to pieces. It was during such a fit that he wrote The Futurological Congress, I am sure." He recommends this book to anyone who wants to sample Lem, pointing out that --

the hotel sheltering the congress is reduced to gravel by rioters and police, and the surviving futurologists wind up with the hotel staff in a sewer.

Laffs aplenty. Why not?
Editor Richard Lingeman, at the end of his introduction, after voicing thanks "for the mordantly funny writings assembled in this collection," adds: "Only he's not kidding, folks."


Even in such a slender book, here are just a few pieces I for sure meant to something about:

• a gorgeous tribute ("A Reluctant Big Shot") to the aggressively unassuming Walter Cronkite on his retirement from the CBS Evening News -- a man awash in "the raffsh gallantry of an old newspaperman."

• his own take -- as a nonbeliever, remember -- on what Jesus might actually have meant when he said, "The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me," suggesting that "perhaps a little something may have been lost in translation" from Jesus's Aramaic to Hebrew and on to Greek and Latin and archaic English, and hypothesizing that Jesus may have been telling a little joke, reminding us "that in translations jokes are commonly the first things to go." (Hint: The piece is called "Hypocrites You Always Have With You.")

• a charmingly low-key assessment of a leaked year's worth of minutes from the cabinet meetings of President Jimmy Carter ("Cabinet members, like first graders, it turns out," he writes, "sometimes refuse to bring anything to show or tell," and winds up suggesting "Subject for next week's cabinet meeting: 'What I Did Last Summer' ").

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home