Wednesday, April 18, 2007

GOD BLESS YOU, MR. VONNEGUT: God, Kurt Vonnegut and the hereafter

I knew he was getting older, and I knew he wasn’t long for this earth. The last time I saw a photo of Kurt Vonnegut—I think it was just last year—I was shocked. He looked old and worn out, like he was ready and willing to go. I saw the face of a tired and resigned old man, and the photo didn’t do him justice. But then it occurred to me that maybe he wanted it to look that way because that’s the way he felt.

I’d been reading KV ever since the early 1970s, when my cousin Cary first handed me a copy of “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” and I quickly became a fan for life. I’ve never been entirely sure what it was about his writing that so captured my attention, but I sensed a kindred spirit with a skewed perception of the crazy world we live in, and knew I’d found a writer that I would follow almost anywhere, even to places where other writers wouldn’t think, much less dare, to go. I felt a sense of whimsy when I read his books, yet there was something about his whimsical prose that allowed you to realize that he viewed life as a deadly serious affair, although one that you couldn’t take too seriously if you were going to survive for long. Did that statement even make sense? It did in Vonnegut’s world. He viewed the business of life as a conundrum we all have to deal with while we’re here, so we might as well make the best of it. But what touches my heart the most, at a point in my life now thirty-some odd years removed from my first introduction to KV, is the fact that this whimsical, self-described religious skeptic had a sweet spot for Christ and what he stood for, describing Him as "...that greatest and most humane of human beings."

The most powerful recurring theme in the bulk of Vonnegut’s writing is his constant asking of the question, “Why can’t we all just treat each other with a little common decency?” He never said it had to be love, and even once wrote that he cringed when someone said they loved him because he felt like they’d put a gun to his head and demanded the same response in return. He simply wished, with all his heart, that we’d treat each other better, even if it was only just a little bit better.

Quite a bit was written about him in the week following his death, but one thing that really caught my attention was this piece of writing that originally appeared online in 2004 under the rather broad title “Addicted to Oil and Violence.” In this sprawling piece, Vonnegut is at his cranky, compassionate best, and not at all like the writer who penned his later novels, where he appeared to be writing entirely for his own entertainment, or perhaps to fulfill a book contract. The broad scope of the piece was, of course, about oil and violence, but in typical KV fashion, he took us on a ride through his own thoughts first, entertaining us, teaching us and getting us greased up for the important stuff to follow. In this lead-up, he spoke of Americans and the state of denial we live in, how we claim to be one thing while living something else entirely. When speaking of Christ, he noted that most Christians seem to pay little attention to the teachings of Christ, teachings that are largely inconsistent with what it means to live the American lifestyle. Once again, while addressing the need for more compassion, for the need to just treat each other with a bit more common decency, he says:

"Doesn’t anything socialistic make you want to throw up? Like great public schools or health insurance for all? How about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes? "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God."

And so on. Not exactly planks in a Republican platform. Not exactly Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney stuff.

For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.

“Blessed are the merciful” in a courtroom? “Blessed are the peacemakers” in the Pentagon? Give me a break!"

But he doesn’t stop there. Upping the ante, he goes after the current administration and its ill-advised nation-building adventure into Iraq to tie up what oil is left while America continues to cap and save its own reserves so it can be the last country standing with access to oil.

"We’re spreading democracy, are we? Same way European explorers brought Christianity to the Indians, what we now call “Native Americans?” How ungrateful they were! How ungrateful are the people of Baghdad today. So let’s give another big tax cut to the super-rich. That’ll teach bin Laden a lesson he won’t soon forget. Hail to the Chief.

That chief and his cohorts have as little to do with Democracy as the Europeans had to do with Christianity. We the people have absolutely no say in whatever they choose to do next. In case you haven’t noticed, they’ve already cleaned out the treasury, passing it out to pals in the war and national security rackets, leaving your generation and the next one with a perfectly enormous debt that you’ll be asked to repay.

Nobody let out a peep when they did that to you, because they have disconnected every burglar alarm in the Constitution: The House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, the FBI, the free press (which, having been embedded, has forsaken the First Amendment) and We the People.

When you arrived in this world, even when I arrived in this world, the industrialized world was already hopelessly hooked on fossil fuels, and very soon now there won’t be any more of those. Cold turkey. Can I tell you the truth? I mean this isn’t like TV news, is it?

Here’s what I think the truth is: We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial, about to face cold turkey. And like so many addicts about to face cold turkey, our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we’re hooked on."

Mr. Vonnegut is gone now, and I’ll miss him. He brought a unique voice to my generation and although he couldn’t bring himself to see Christ’s divinity—choosing instead to merely see Him as the most humble and most wise human being who ever lived—I pray that Mr. Vonnegut will meet his maker with humility and grace. And I trust that Mr. Vonnegut’s maker will treat this fine human being lovingly and fairly.

And so it goes...