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Kurt Vonnegut was in his 80s when he wrote this book and it is a set of simple reflections and memories of his life, and thoughts and views of the world which he holds. It is very funny, touching, challenging and enjoyable from beginning to end. Vonnegut has had a reputation as a sort of hard-nosed fellow without much feeling. This volume is a strong challenge to that reputation.
The book is more like a series of memories and ideas that are still floating around in his head and he just starts writing them all down.
The copyright is from 2005. Vonnegut died just two years later in 2007, and this was his last published book. Below I just make a few comments chapter by chapter.
He argues that many jokes are rooted in laughing in the face of tragedy or misery as a mode of escape.
“Humor is an almost physiological response to fear.”
Vonnegut was a U.S. prisoner of war in Dresden during the fire-bombing of that city in WWII. About 135,000 people died.
The subtitle to his novel about that experience, “Slaughterhouse Five,” was “The Children’s Crusade” and was suggested to Vonnegut when he was trying to write about the bombing in some heroic manner and the wife of one of his friends criticized what they were doing by telling them (Vonnegut and his war buddies) that what they were doing was overblown and suggesting they were only children at the time of the bombing.
He recommends that all Americans read Democracy In America by Alexis de Tocqueville.
In the first ½ of the 20th century some important simple American folks asserted their greatness. He singles out Carl Sandburg and Eugene Debs and looks back to the 19th century and to Abraham Lincoln.
He celebrates several other unnamed folks of simple background and honors their contributions to history.
“The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable.”
While I’m very sympathetic to Vonnegut’s case, yet I found another route as well, simply opting out of “upward mobility” as the meaning of life and finding my own “joy in living” as my primary aim of living.
In this section he offers several very clever and even hilarious small diagram drawings to summarize some famous pieces of literature.
He talks of addictions and tells us he has a few if any of those “most famous” substance addictions, but he seems to see our addiction to fossil fuels as the most dangerous addiction of our time, perhaps of all time.
“… (we) have now all but destroyed this once salubrious planet as a life-support system in fewer than two hundred years, mainly by making thermodynamic whoopee with fossil fuels.”
He fears the end of our civilization (if we can even call it that) but seems to ignore any of the post-oil sources of energy.
The problem with the world is too many people don’t have an extended family.
Vonnegut came from a family of German immigrants and some were even wealthy Germans.
He simply describes several of his “Luddite” activities given his desire to write with his typewriter and not with a computer. Quite a touching section actually.
He can no longer parallel park worth a damn and “. . . gravity has become a lot less friendly and manageable than it used to be.”
In these few pages he hammers home some of American history’s less attractive “victories” and the U.S. tendency – like most nations of the world – to always glorify its victories in war no matter any issues of the moral status of those wars.
“Humor is an almost physiological response to fear.”
We are “guessers” at best, about the larger things. Vonnegut names two such guessers, the one he names as a good one is Aristotle, and the one other, a bad one, is Adolph Hitler.
Vonnegut emphasizes that we humans are not in control of our destines, which seems obvious to me, however, it doesn’t follow from that that our choices and behaviors are not significant factors of our own destiny.
This section is deeply down on humans! However, he does celebrate Ignaz Semmelweis who was born in 1818 in Budapest. He was an obstetrician and devoted his life to the health of babies and mothers. He was a man who tried hard to better the human situation and eventually simply gave up on life and humans.
Vonnegut celebrates the life and work of Eugene Debs. Overall this section is a vicious rant against the political right wing of the U.S. The major group in America which he embraces as really doing something important is the majority of head librarians in the U.S. who do keep books alive (not unlike this one – since I am reading a copy from the St. Louis Public Library).
A woman wrote to him seeking advice about bringing a child in the world. He replied that the world does need saints. He then goes on to describe what it is to be a saint. He describes some of the traits:
1. Be kind
2. Be a practical joker of jokes which criticize society.
3. Shoot people who have guns!
4. Struggle for a truth-telling society.
5. If one doubts the stupidity of humans Vonnegut recommends reading Mark Twain’s “The Mysterious Stranger.”
He actually offers bad news as well beginning with:
“. . . the Martians have landed in New York City and are staying at the Waldorf Astoria.
He doesn’t really give any good news; perhaps he just can’t imagine any. It is hard to imagine much good news now for the world, yet in the injustice of fate and accident, good certainly does happen to many of us, and I thankfully acknowledge that I am one with an extraordinary amount of that good luck.
Perhaps that’s what “good luck” really is: those things which make one aware and thankful for those events. Now that’s really three things:
a. The event
b. The awareness of its positivity
c. The thankfulness for it
Vonnegut claims he’s been working on a novel for years about a stand-up comic at the end of the world. No surprise to me there. I’d never consciously thought of Vonnegut in those terms, but once he announced them I recognized him right away as that comic.
He ends this quite funny rant with an epitaph for the Earth:
“. . . we could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy.
Vonnegut makes an interesting confession:
“It’s damn hard to make jokes work. In “Cat’s Cradle,” for instance, there are these very short chapters. Each one of them represents one day’s work, and each is a joke.”
That sounds like THIS book. I’ll have to re-read Cat’s Cradle with his comment in mind to see if he was joking or not!
This seems to be sort of a confession.
“All I really wanted to do was give people the relief of laughing. Humor can be a relief, like an aspirin tablet. If a hundred years from now people are still laughing, I’d certainly be pleased.’
The book concludes with a poem:
The crucified planet Earth,
Should it find a voice
and a sense of irony
might now well say
of our abuse of it,
“Forgive them, Father,
They know now what they do.”
The irony would be
that we know what
we are doing.
When the last living thing
has died on account of us,
how poetical it would be
if Earth could say,
in a voice floating up
from the floor
of the Grand Canyon,
“It is done”
People did not like it here.”
Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org