Kurt Vonnegut and ‘original virtue’
So it goes.
April 11 marks the 10th anniversary of Kurt Vonnegut’s death.
He and I were friends – actually, “pals” was the term he used – during the last years of his life. Whenever I traveled to New York, generally four or five times a year, we would get together to swap stories and talk about life over Italian food (for lunch) or French cuisine (for dinner) at two of his favorite haunts in midtown Manhattan, where he lived.
In many ways, those occasions weren’t much different than any other times when two guys get together.
We drank some wine. We ate some good food. We talked. We told jokes. We laughed. We caught up.
In other ways, though, those meals weren’t like two guys hanging out because he was, well, Kurt Vonnegut. He looked at life through a different lens than the rest of us, one that offered a clear focus on moral questions.
As we approach this anniversary of his passing, I find myself thinking a lot about Kurt and about what he would think about this country and this world today.
When he and I began breaking bread together, George W. Bush had become president and the United States had embarked on the ill-advised and ultimately ill-fated war in Iraq. Kurt made jokes about “sociopaths” running the country.
Neo-conservatives who saw the world as a chess board were the focus of his jibes. Kurt thought that they forgot that the chess pieces, in this case, were human beings and their preoccupation with the “game” blinded them to the suffering involved.
That offended Kurt.
The bite in Kurt’s humor prompted some people to think of him as an acerbic figure, one with deep wells of bitterness.
They misread him.
He was a man of sensitivity and, at times, surpassing kindness. People who had experienced some injustice would reach out to him, convinced he would offer a sympathetic ear.
Sometimes Kurt routed those folks to me, to see if I could make a phone call or two and maybe find some relief for them, a little solace. Occasionally, I could. More often, I couldn’t.
At those times, Kurt and I would lament the fact that so many people had to suffer. Then he would close the conversation with a joke.
He relied on humor because he knew there are some sorrows in this world that are too deep for tears. He knew that, even though we humans may have to accept some measure of suffering as a part of this life, we don’t ever have to like it.
So it goes.
Those three words – the refrain from his most acclaimed and famous novel, “Slaughterhouse Five” – in some ways summed up the way he viewed life.
With rueful, bewildered, wounded and finally loving acceptance.
Kurt called himself a free thinker, harkening back to those 19th-century Americans who wanted to liberate themselves from what they saw as the bonds of organized religion. For a man who renounced faith, though, he appropriated and used many terms familiar to the devout.
People who had performed acts of kindness he said he would “proclaim angels, if I believed in heaven.”
Others who he thought had extended themselves to help others Kurt called “saints” who were born with “original virtue.” He said they were what kept him going in “a world this awful.”
“There’s only one rule that I know of, babies,” he wrote once. “You’ve got to be kind.”
I doubt Kurt would see much kindness in our public life now – in these days in which plain mean-spiritedness so often tries to disguise itself as a stand on principle or, heaven help us, as an effort to make America “great” again.
He would make jokes about the senseless cruelty, the pointless pain, our inhumanity to those who should be our brothers and sisters.
More sorrow too great for tears.
Kurt Vonnegut’s 10 years gone, but I can still hear him urging us to be kind, to be angels, to be saints with original virtue.
Somehow, though, while we always seem to respond to the voices pushing us toward anger and meanness, we have a hard time heeding those who urge us to be gentle.
So it goes.