Vonnegut Gone:
The one time I saw Kurt Vonnegut speak, it was an evening about writing, featuring John Updike and Vonnegut. He was already pushing 80, still verbally lively, but a bit subdued compared to the days of old. Still, there was one memorable, audience gasp-inducing moment, when Vonnegut was asked about writers growing older. Vonnegut said, and this is a paraphrase from a distant memory, "More writers need to be like Zelda Fitzgerald, who had the good sense to die in a fire in an insane asylum before she got old." A cruel statement, yes, but Vonnegut believed it. He didn't blithely toss off bon mots, but he said what he meant. He would talk about his own aging with the same bitter intensity.

For a man so very famous for his cynicism, he was incredibly hopeful, otherwise he wouldn't have been so actively involved in the world around him, whether it was heading to Biafra to do relief work in 1970 (after Slaughterhouse-Five had come out) during the Nigerian civil war, chronicled in "Biafra: A People Betrayed"; or by his work with PEN, his constant writing and speaking on issues of war and peace, and his devotion to teaching.

He was a huge supporter of dissidents and political prisoners around the world, especially those who did not have cause-celebre status. As he wrote in the Washington Post on March 31, 1989, regarding an imprisoned Czech writer, "If you are mistreated by your own government, your chances of being helped at least a little bit by foreigners are greatly increased if you have won a Nobel Prize or are recognized internationally as a good candidate for one." But his subject was not a superstar, and thus it was left to people like Vonnegut to speak for him: "God bless Ivan Martin Jirous, and God bless all the others like him in South Africa and Chile and Indonesia and Turkey and both Koreas, and on and on."

So much of what he wrote and said was prescient about our neverending stupidity, or, as he put it, our "nitwit primitive" ways. In 1992, he wrote in the Guardian, "[A]s a German-American I may be, although not necessarily, more sensitive to similarities between some of the attitudes and enterprises of my own government and the Nazi thing than are some of the other hyphens." Sensitive he was - and he cut to the goddamned point. "If you invade someone’s country,” Vonnegut said about the current war, “they’re going to fight back. Evidently that wasn’t taught at Yale."

From his strange and angry play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, here's what ought to become the epitaph for our nation in the new millenium: "What kind of a country has this become?" asks Harold Ryan, a hunter and soldier who was lost in the Amazon for seven years. "The men wear beads and refuse to fight--and the women adore them. America's days of greatness are over. It has drunk the blue soup."

He explains to his wife, Penelope, that it's "An Indian narcotic we were forced to drink. It put us in a haze--a honey-colored haze which was lavender around the edge. We laughed, we sang, we snoozed. When a bird called, we answered back. Every living thing was our brother or our sister, we thought...All the time we were drinking more blue soup, more blue soup! Never stopped drinking blue soup. Blue soup all the time. We'd go out after food in that honey-colored haze, and everything that was edible had a penumbra of lavender."

When Penelope tells Harold that it "Sounds quite beautiful," he explodes, "Beautiful, you say? It wasn't life, it wasn't death--it wasn't anything! Beautiful? Seven years gone--(snapping his fingers) like that, like that! Seven years of silliness and random dreams! Seven years of nothingness, when there could have been so much!"

"Like what?" Penelope asks.

Harold responds, "Action! Interaction! Give and take! Challenge and response!" Harold's a vulgar, violent asshole, bent on destruction, having killed 103 people for the hell of it. He embodies the extremes of America - murderous rage and vile complacency. So of course, in Vonnegut's world, he's dead-on.

Vonnegut was right,too , of course. We are lost in our haze of blue soup, electronically-mediated, information-controlled, politcally-spun honey-colored penumbrae. We've lost one of the only people who was willing to tell us so. There's precious, precious few left.

Let's leave with a remark from a commencement address Vonnegut gave in 1999 at Agnes Scott College. He distrusted technology and why not? What had technology done except destroy shit? "Don't try to make yourself an extended family out of ghosts on the Internet," he said. "Get yourself a Harley, and join Hell's Angels instead."