Hearing that Kurt Vonnegut has died made me very sad. Since I'm on the move I don't have any of his books to hand to quote from, which has made me late to his wake. However yesterday I read a passage in an essay by another great American writer which sums up far more eloquently than I am able to the significance of people like Kurt Vonnegut. In "Down at the Cross", James Baldwin says:
"Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death - ought to decide, indeed, to earn one's death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: it is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us." (The Fire Next Time, p123).
Vonnegut faced death both in the large, serving in the second world war where he was one of seven US POWs to survive the bombing of Dresden, and in the small, with the suicide of his mother and his sister's death from cancer. He wrote about the conundrums of life with an unparalleled power of observation and a deceptively simple honesty. He cut through hypocrisy with an oxyacetylene satirical fire with which he wrought a delightfully light, achingly funny conversational style. This fire was no doubt powered in part by the debilitating depression that made him at times suicidal. Nevertheless he never invoked any of the fetishes of nationalism or religion which so many of us use to deaden the pain of the human condition. Kurt Vonnegut has earned his death.
He is in heaven now.
Kurt Vonnegut, 11 November 1922 - 11 April 2007.