Thursday, April 12, 2007

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

I'm not a person who easily admits admiration. I loathe the current tendency to throw the word "hero" around, not only because overuse cheapens the word itself, but because I have a problem with the notion of putting people on a pedestal and worshiping them. I can't think of many people I would use the word "heroic" to describe, but if I had to have a hero, Kurt Vonnegut would be it. And now he's gone.

I was thinking just a few weeks ago about the fact that Mr. Vonnegut was getting on in years, and that when he inevitably died, it would be tragic. When I re-read Timequake recently, I was struck once again by the singularity of his genius. I felt comforted by his existence in the world. I feel desolate at his absence.

At the basis of my affinity to Vonnegut lie some common beliefs about life. Before I knew what the word humanist meant, I was reading Vonnegut and thinking "Yes! He knows!" As a teenager who found herself completely at odds with the moral and religious beliefs of almost everyone around me, it was amazing to find a kindred spirit in the novels that helped me to mentally escape. In many ways he was my mentor. When I read the opening of Cat's Cradle, where he says "Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either," I had to swallow my pride. I didn't really see how a religion founded on lies could be useful, but I wasn't going to be the one who couldn't understand a Vonnegut novel. That sentence helps me remember to be tolerant of beliefs that are baffling to me. (It also makes me wonder what Vonnegut thought of H.L Mencken. I guess I have some reading to do.) His ability not only to accept, but to find humor in the absurdities of life and the inanity of human nature give me hope, and the fact that millions of people are able to love and appreciate his work makes me feel downright optimistic.

Just now I was flipping through the stack of his books from our shelves, refreshing my memory. I picked up Fates Worse Than Death, which I haven't read completely, and I came across a mass he wrote in response to one by the Pope from the year 1570. He inverts lines from the Papal mass requesting eternal light to shine upon the souls of the dead, asking instead

Rest eternal grant them, O cosmos,
And let not light perpetual
disturb their harmless sleep.

I know that, like me, Mr. Vonnegut dismissed the idea of an afterlife. His published thoughts about what we are doing to the world prove that he knew there would be life after death, just not his life after his death. His words and ideas are what remain, though nothing is left of their brilliant source. I refuse to believe that, like his narrator in Galapagos, he wrote"with air on air," and that nothing will endure. That is the one thought I refuse to entertain. My copies of three of his books are checked out to students as I write this, and I take comfort in knowing that another generation of readers and thinkers will take an interest in his work upon hearing of his passing.

I know that at times he wished for death, and that once he tried and then did his best to be glad he had failed. I know he joked that his ideal death would involve crashing into the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in an airplane, and that he lamented the slowness and indignity of old age. It pains me especially to know that he died of brain injuries sustained in a fall, not only because that is exactly the kind of age-related thing he dreaded, but because his life was in his mind and I hate to think that in the end he might have been robbed of its functioning properly. When I think of my own inevitable but hopefully far-distant end, I hope for two things: a lucid death, but also, and conversely, that my mind will play some fabulous trick in its final moments to create a comforting illusion, or at least a few moments of senseless beauty. So I hope that in the end, his big brain did him one last favor and created an illusion--maybe that he was on a plane, crashing painlessly and with fascination into Mt. Kilimanjaro, but I imagine he could come up with something better.

Rest eternal grant him, O cosmos, and let not light perpetual disturb his harmless sleep.



Jim said...

Well put.


Joseph Scotese said...

You will probably think me very bizarre -- but I don't know how you can like Kurt Vonnegut and not like Jane Austen -- I hope you give her a 2nd chance at some distant point.