Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut, R.I.P.

One of my intellectual heroes, the great Kurt Vonnegut, has passed away. Vonnegut's was a humane, sad and funny voice who revealed many of the absurdities of our age. He believed especially that the modern age was one of rootlessness and loneliness. He wrote, "Human beings have almost always been supported and comforted and disciplined and amused by stable lattices of many relatives and friends until the Great American Experiment, which is an experiment not only with liberty but with rootlessness, mobility, and impossibly tough-minded loneliness." His was one of the preeminent voices in the "alternative" American tradition.

His fiction and lectures spoke of ways we could attempt to overcome the terrible loneliness of our age (the Presidential candidate in his novel "Slapstick" runs and wins office on the slogan "Lonesome No More!" It's a slogan - and ambition - that our current candidates should consider). He recognized the tremendous, even insurmountable obstacles that the modern age presented to a simple return to what he admiringly called "folk societies" (based on a course he took with Robert Redfield during a brief stint of graduate work at the University of Chicago). He urged young people not to mindlessly pursue rewards so central to modern life, but to set their sights on truly challenging and difficult goals, above all, the creation of community in our most uncommunal time. As he said to a group of college graduates,

"What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured. Young people should also identify and expound theories about life in which sane human beings almost everywhere can believe."

And then, there's the inimitable advice he put in the mouth of Mr. Rosewater, who addressed a room full of newborns:

"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 I know of, babies – 'God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'"

Extra: Following the death of Wilson Carey McWilliams, I delivered the planned lecture on Vonnegut that Carey had assigned on the syllabus. An enterprising Haverford student recorded most of the lectures during the course of that semester, including my lecture on Vonnegut, which is preserved for posterity here. (Lecture #23, April 20, 2005. Listen to Carey's and Susan McWilliams' lectures while you're at it...)

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