Sunday, May 13, 2007


I've been thinking about what I wanted to say about the passing of KV, Jr. There are a lot of things that could be said. For starters, he wasn't considered a "great writer" like F. Scott Fitzgerald or Saul Bellow or James Joyce or one of those guys English department grad students get all excited about. But I've never gotten excited by that kind kind of writer.

I think "accessibility" is a key feature of a writer, and that's a trait that Vonnegut has to a much greater extent than the above-named wrtiers (esp. Joyce). But what really set Vonnegut apart was the sheer quality of his ideas. Ice-9 was, for example, a tremendous concept. A lot of writers seem to write books and books and books without ever saying anything interesting. Then there's the kind of gifted writer who blazes onto the scene with a compelling style, but never learns a damned thing about life worth passing on to the next generation. (I'm looking at you, Mr. Salinger.)

The first Vonnegut story I read was Galapagos. I noticed several interesting things. For starters, the narrator had the habit of putting asterisks next to characters when they were about to die. This way the death wouldn't come as a shock to the reader. It also dealt with evolution to some extent, but the great theme of Vonnegut was just how freakin' stupid the human species is. Somethings this theme collapsed into bleakness, but more often it validated its existence with a vicious streak of humor.

Hi ho!

After reading Galapagos I devoured most of Vonnegut's writing during high school. Of course I read Slaughterhouse Five, Cat's Cradle, Mother Night and God Bless You, Mrs. Rosewater; and in addition some of his lesser works: Bluebeard, Welcome to the Monkey House, Player Piano, Slapstick, Deadeye Dick, etc. I basically read everything except The Sirens of Titan. I still haven't read that book, for somewhat complicated reasons. But I'll get to it eventually.

The course of my intellectual development from the age of 14 to 18 is not something I can retrace so clearly. When I was 14, I was a practicing Catholic. I was even confirmed. By the time I was 18, I was an atheist, and even going to Georgetown University did little to rekindle any religious devotion.

I think Vonnegut was one of the key writers during this period. I got into the French existentialists a little bit, mainly Camus and Sartre. Other irreverent writers I liked included Joseph Heller, Samuel Beckett, Tom Stoppard, though for most of them I only read one or two works. (I tried reading other Heller books but didn't find them anywhere near the level of Catch 22.) With Vonnegut I read everything.

For a while I was a Deist - thinking that the workings of the universe were likely directed by a supreme being who stayed out of it. But as I've gotten older, I've come to view that attitude more as human projection. I do believe in the existence of order to the universe, but I think the variation between complexity and simplicity tends to defy our tiny little minds.

For a long time, I was really caught up with the epistemological questions of how people know anything. The certainty of mathematics is its greatest appeal to me: somehow, when one asserts a mathematical truth that has been properly verified, the proposition simply is true. It's not a matter of perspective, or interpretation. It simply is true. And I don't know of any field other than mathematics that has such a firm grip on truth value. Back in the days of ancient Greece, philosophers like Aristotle were considered equally valuable to Euclid and Pythagoras. But these days, Aristotle is considered laughable when he ventures into discussing the natural world, while the proofs of Euclid are just as valid today as they were 2500 years ago.

Vonnegut's writings were packed with this irreverence, which contrasts nicely with the overbearing assertiveness typical of arrogant American culture. Indeed, after leaving the Catholic Church and its reckless attitude towards making truth claims, I found it very hard to believe in anything. Lost myself in mathematics for a decade there, but that was to a great extent simply Avoiding the Question (in addition to a burgeoning contempt for our species that was reinforced at many occassions.) I only had a breakthrough in my early 30s when a friend who is in physics explained to me that absolutely every scientific proposition is always subject to review. Nothing is considered to be "true" in science in the same fashion as it is in mathematics.

I'm starting to get a grip on empiricism and natural philosophy. That means I'm catching up to 18th century science! Yay!


J. K. Jones said...

“I do believe in the existence of order to the universe, but I think the variation between complexity and simplicity tends to defy our tiny little minds.”

It might be that you just do not like the explanation.

whispers said...

Or it might be that I've yet to encounter anything cogent that resembles an 'explanation'. Let's not invent hypothetical emotional responses on my part as a substitute for debate.