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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Oraison funebre for Kurt Vonnegut

The old men are dying in a sordid time. They trooped off at 19, 20, 21, and saw something form that they spent their lifetimes trying to understand – they saw the synthesis between affluence and war, they saw the latest and maybe last form of the war culture that had risen up on its immense hind legs long before then and before Goya saw it from the rear and painted it and before it was lamented by Jeremiah and that had grown to niche in the sea, the land and the air, they saw the war which we eat in our bread and drink in our tap water today, that educated the kids in suburban schools and spread the suburbs out on the off chance that there would be survivors on the tenth circle, the twelfth circle, the twentieth circle out from ground zero. They saw the multiple shapes of the same worldwide system of production, called, for a while, communism and capitalism, battling it out but in fundamental agreement about sucking the earth dry on the short time horizon – here, destroying Lake Aral, there, mining to death the great Ogallala aquifer, growing cotton where even the devil never intended it to grow, promoting the usurpation of corn above all the grasses and fruits and vegetables of the world, monoculture without end. They woke up in the sixties, as America was attacking a place in Southeast Asia with all its might to protect a fictitious sovereignty and a mockery of democracy. They knew this was out of Conrad:

“Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn't even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech -- and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives -- he called them enemies! -- hidden out of sight somewhere.”

They all knew the kill ratios had improved considerably since then.

Vonnegut. James Jones. Mailer. Vidal. Styron. The poets of course have died a long time ago, because poets, before they were taken up in the great mother ship of the university and never heard from again, couldn’t stand it. Lowell didn’t go anyway – a conscientious objector, spent the war in jail.

Since world war two, has there ever been a more sordid decade to die in? There have been much more murderous ones, of course: the sixties and seventies, with the CIA sponsored mass murder in Indonesia, the U.S. army’s mass murder in Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge, Mao’s insane boxer rebellion Marxism starving the countryside, the tilt towards Pakistan heralding another half a million dead in Bangladesh (their bodies are stacked high in Midnight’s Children), Biafra (about which Vonnegut wrote a beautiful, despairing essay), and etcs. that have faded into that portable mass grave, the encyclopedia. But every decade has also had its power and its glory, and the murders always did seem, at least, to be getting us somewhere. Like the iron filings on a paper sheet lining up to represent the mysteriously beautiful field of force of the magnet beneath, the cadavres seemed to promise a pattern. But this decade? Never have the children been better behaved, never has the credit flowed so headily, never have the fathers so set our teeth on edge – not even with lies, for lies do require some backing plausibility, some reason to believe them. The collective collapse of a civilization can be measured by the effort it puts into believing the lies it fabricates: this civilization puts no effort into believing them, and every effort into fabricating them.

So: it is a sad thing to die in the reign of the Fisher King, Jr.
Sadly, sadly and nobly, the old men have roused themselves. They’ve squawked – since they can no longer bellow, the steer musculature for the bellow hangs precariously on their bones now – that this is something new. The war culture, whatever it did, wore a head. The head was a metal box with wires in it; the head came to a sharp point at the end, and at the base it had metal fins; the head was a mushroom cloud. But it was a head. The new thing is that there is no head there. This was definitely a new avatar of the alien.

Kurt Vonnegut, of course, rose through the ranks in a much different way than, say, Mailer, or Vidal. He came through genre, while they eventually fell, at least intermittently, back on it. What Vonnegut did was find a way to write what Musil called the essayistic novel – the novel that finds a living place, one with a scene, characters, a plot, for the essay, which is not philosophy insofar as the thoughts still have a skin warmth to them. They haven’t been thrust far enough from the body that thought them to take on that icy, abstract cool. He was a less pure novelist, in that sense, than Philip Dick, closer to someone like Calvino – or like the Twain of the 1890s, who often floundered to combine the message and the accoutrements of the prank. There was always a practical joke at the center of Twain’s fiction – but Vonnegut’s was only a practical joke once removed, as a metaphor. Twain never experienced anything like the WWII. He saw the country of his childhood rot in the gilded age, watched the trusts make corruption decorous, and found he could neither swallow nor spit out the poison in his children’s deaths. Vonnegut’s beginnings were, famously, less blessed. He survived the firebombing of Dresden – as did another now famous literary figure, Victor Klemperer. Fire responds to fire – the fire that destroyed Dresden on February 13, 1945 was of the same flame as that which destroyed Dresden’s synagogue on the night of 9 November 1938, even though the happy German crowd in 1938, entertained by the torching and the fortuitous torture of a Jewish teacher, forced to bow to the crowd and take off his hat, couldn’t see the obvious message in those flames. What power, high on its arrogance and so indebted to its power that it can only up the ante, ever has?

Vonnegut subtitled his most famous novel ‘The Children’s Crusade”, and the way it got that subtitle is incorporated into the book in the first chapter, when Vonnegut goes to visit his ‘war buddy’, Bernard V. O'Hare, and discovers that O’Hare’s wife doesn’t like him. And then she tells him why:

“Then she turned to me, let me see how angry she was, and that the anger was for me. She had been talking to herself, so what she said was a fragment of a much larger conversation. "You were just babies then!" she said.
"What?" I said.
"You were just babies in the war -- like the ones upstairs!"
I nodded that this was true. We had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood.
"But you're not going to write it that way, are you." This wasn't a question. It was an accusation.
"I -- I don't know," I said.
"Well, I know," she said. "You'll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you'll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we'll have a lot more of them. And they'll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs."
So then I understood. It was war that made her so angry. She didn't want her babies or anybody else's babies killed in wars. And she thought wars were partly encouraged by books and movies.
* * *
So I held up my right hand and I made her a promise: "Mary," I said, "I don't think this book of mine is ever going to be finished. I must have written five thousand pages by now, and thrown them all away. If I ever do finish it, though, I give you my word of honor: there won't be a part for Frank Sinatra or John Wayne.
"I tell you what," I said, "I'll call it 'The Children's Crusade.' "

Kurt Vonnegut did as much as he could to take the piss out of the ‘glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men’. He lived to see their children set fires that call to other fires in the future, fire to fire. News of his death comes on the same day that the Pentagon announced “that most active duty Army units now in Iraq and Afghanistan and those sent in the future would serve 15-month tours, three months longer than the standard one-year tour.”


Amie said...

'I really wonder what gives us the right to wreck this poor planet of ours.'

roger said...

I'm struck by the outpouring by women re KV. This won't happen for Updike or, certainly, Mailer - in the latter case I think a bit unfairly. Oddly, the WWII generation of novelists seemed unable to do what any 2nd rate 19th century novelist could easily do: create credible female characters. It was as if doing so would somehow undermine their masculinity. I think Vonnegut never was bothered by that anxious misogyny.

That wasn't, of course, unnoticed, and I think lead to the idea that male writers couldn't imagine women characters - as if we existed as humans in rigid segregation. This notion is vanishing, I think - is anybody going to claim the male characters in Jane Smiley's Good Faith are less 'male' than the one's in Updike's Rabbit novels? But it did a lot of damage in every way to the reputation of the novel.

northanger said...

wiring diagrams. Jimmy the Greek lost his job saying black athletes were better than white athletes because of slave breeding. assuming a kernel of truth, what's the flip side? the white parallel? christians justified slavery for years. imho, could be similar to old men sending young kids to die in war. i learned the hard way that emotional wiring isn't always equal. it's a problem when someone wants an emotional response from me that they don't actually share. that's what i felt on January 10th. imho, Bush consistenly makes, & relies on, emotional appeals to patriotism & whatnot. i don't have the words to say this diplomatically for the Kanye challenged. but watching Bush do what he's doing to the military is like watching a slave owner abuse his slaves.

northanger said...

ps. not just our military, but also the people of Iraq.

amie said...

LI, that is a very interesting observation about the outpouring by women re KV. I can't help but think that it has something to do with what you mention in your post re his response - his promise - to his friend's wife: 'So I held up my right hand and I made her a promise'...

Anonymous said...

Amie - yes, he gave her moral standing. In contrast - speaking of Pennsylvania - Rabbit in the second volume cannot seem to find it in his heart to do that with his wife - nor, in the end, can updike.
north - you are entirely right. The fisher king jr embodies, in every pore and smile, inherited entitlement of the sort that would even make King Charles I frown.
- this is me, haloscan won't let me log in except as anonymous. What did I do, Lord?