Kurt Vonnegut and the Cosmic Shrug
Any article you read about Kurt Vonnegut is pointless. That is the point. Most will tell you things you know. This paragraph is full of them. As is this article. You know the man was an incredible writer and person. He was so because he was able to be close and private without being invasive or strange. He was sarcastic without being smug. Anything anyone is going to say about him is going to be colored by these facts. Anyone who is going to read an article about him on his birthday already knows this.
Vonnegut’s works are important because they are pointless. They are aware of being pointless. Perhaps you know this too. I would hope you do. Let me then tell you something you do not know. Let me tell you a story about how I met him, through his work.
I read Slaughterhouse-Five in high school. It is the first time I can remember reading a full novel without it being assigned as classwork. I read it on breaks at work, in a pizza place. It was a local chain. We had a mascot, which was a bird, because we also sold chicken wings. It looked stoned, and this was fitting. I worked there for two years. I now hate Super Bowls due to my time there.
I felt smart reading that book. I was a nihilistic shit in high school, and here I thought I’d found someone who agreed with me. My manager Dan asked me what I thought of the book. Dan was 23 at the time, which makes him six or seven years older than me. He had read Slaughterhouse-Five in school. He had been manager for a few years, and never went to college. He was the first person I met who challenged my belief that only educated people can be smart. Vonnegut was the second.
I told Dan I liked the book as well as he did. For the same reasons, I would learn. The most important part, for us, was how meaningless everything in the book was. “So it goes,” and all that. We ate that up. We wallowed in it. We were assholes, but so was everyone. Only we were better, if only because we knew it. I didn’t yet understand the more important idea that you weren’t supposed to hate people, regardless of how you felt about them.
Dan liked me well enough before this episode, but liked me more afterward. He said I was wise beyond my years. I didn’t understand why, but I didn’t care. I assumed that was the point of the book, not to care about things. I was wrong, but I was on the right track.
You might say that story was pointless, much like Vonnegut’s works. I might agree with you. I told it anyway, because anyone who reads and enjoys Vonnegut is going to have a similar story. If pointless works, if art and storytelling, have value anyway, it’s relatability. We’re all together in the muck. I feel you, man.
Since then I have read a few others of Vonnegut’s books. The Sirens of Titan would be my favorite of his works, but I know I’m in a minority of one there - thus insane, according to some. It is the closest Vonnegut came, by my reckoning, at being pointful. Which is odd, given that, as I keep saying, the most important thing about him is that his works are pointless.
That is, of course, the point of them. They resonate because they remind you that life is fleeting and meaning is where you make it. You read them to learn to shrug on the cosmic level. Nothing in those books is true, just as Jonah says of Cat’s Cradle and his story in it. Yet they are true, if you need them to be which, as it turns out, most of us who read him do.
Some of this is obvious. Once you learn what a granfalloon is, you see them everywhere; they are to be avoided. You read all of Sirens just for the scene where Malachi returns to Earth and says “I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.” You need that to be true. Kilgore Trout becomes the person you never wanted to grow up to be. Only now you will, by virtue of crossing his path, and him worming into your thoughts. Just like Vonnegut.
So it goes. None of that matters anyway.
So we concede that Vonnegut’s writing is pointless. How is it, then, that he can be so important — and so close, and so private, and so cherished — to so many people, across such a span of time as his career, and onward? My guess is that he achieved the sort of state that goes even beyond timelessness. He is a mile-marker in the road of human culture, one that claims that everything beyond is new territory.
This I think is where the constant Twain comparison comes in. Sure, both men had their thumbs on the pulse of their days, but they demarcate history as well. Pre-Vonnegut America is not post-Vonnegut America, down to their respective cores, the same as pre- and post-Twain America.
As a culture, Vonnegut was not our first beaten idealist, which is how I define him. Instead, for a lot of us, he managed to make pessimism be fulfilling despite the paradox of it. He told us that life is and people are and birds go “Poo-tee-weet?” and these all hold the same value of nothing, and that just is as well. He told us that you can’t ever really hate the world and your fellow man, much as you might believe you do. He looked up at you from the muck and made you realize you were really standing next to him. Just like everyone else. Then he would shrug, and you would shrug, and that was that, since even shrugging is pointless. And that’s just fine.
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