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Pat Deneen Hearts Kurt Vonnegut

Unlike anyone named Peter on this blog, Pat Deneen regards Kurt as one of his heroes. Vonnegut’s writing, I agree, does at times movingly describe the "terrible loneliness" of the modern individual, and Kurt was certainly moved to write by that truthful human experience. But neither his explanation of or remedy for that loneliness ever was particularly clear to me. I’ve always thought he was basically a nihilist who regarded us all as embarrassed at being meaningless accidents; he’s lost in the cosmos and doesn’t have a clue why. (Compare Billy Pilgrim--the Vonnegut character unstuck in time--with the similar character--Will Barrett--in Walker Percy’s THE LAST GENTLEMAN. The Percy character gets a genuinely realistic understanding of what’s wrong with him and stops seeing himself and others as ghosts in machines etc.) And I have to add that the famous Vonnegut quote Pat gives us about telling babies to be kind doesn’t do much for me. Still, I really admire and have learned from all of Pat’s other literary heroes, and so I recommend we all give Kurt another chance. When I was in high school, I remember, I read all of Vonnegut’s books around at that time in several days and did a lot of laughing. So I can’t agree with the other Peter that Vonnegut is unreadable. He’s really, really readable.

Discussions - 8 Comments


Is that the correct link?

I haven't read KV since my college days, but I feel sad that he is gone. My wife and I talked about those days in the 70's when our friends carried ragged copies of Heller's "Catch-22," and KV's "Slaughterhouse Five" in our back pockets, and backpacks.

While I wasn't looking, I became a curmudgeon, because I am tempted to rant about I-pods and My-Space, and IM-ing and cell phones. My students walk through campus isolated from each other, and unable to talk to each other because they are plugged in to someone or something else, directed into their ears.

I would trade that all for the moments that occur when two people sit next to each other on the subway, or at the campus fountain, and recognize the paperback the other is reading, then launch into discussion.

If it wasn't the correct link, it is now.

Yes, I too read everything by Vonnegut when young, but found him unreadable twenty years later. I was trying to reread him, then, because my oldest sons were reading everything by him, along with Heller's "Catch-22" and everything by Douglas Adams. They were delighted and wanted to talk about those books. None of their friends read much, or their parents wouldn't let them read those authors, so my boys were stuck talking with each other and with me. I did not suppress their enjoyment with my ennui, but reached into memory to recall what had excited the younger me, when first reading those authors. But I had to give up the reading of them because, to my adult mind, they fell flat.

Maybe Vonnegut's writing is like the kind of joke that is funny the first time you hear it, but when the surprise of the punchline is gone, then it is not so funny, anymore. I do still think about his story about forced equality mentioned in the other post. Or I presume it is the same one, about people encumbered so no one might feel badly at being outshone by anyone else. Oh. Here
it is.

Fung, I still talk to strangers about what they are reading if it is a title I recognize and I have even a minute to spare. "Where are you in it? Did you like...?" It carries a similar pleasure to writing on this blog. Also, of course, teaching English I can make my students read the books I like and force them into discussion. Some balk and drop my class, or I assume that is why, after they express their shock with "You expect me to read a whole book?" and disappear after a few more classes. Those who remain are never disappointed and I get to revisit the books, which makes teaching the class a pleasure.

The link is not correct, but the piece is on the blog. Deneen is working on a bigger project about an "alternative tradition" in America, an insight that was also Carey McWilliams'. (Deneen has generously posted some of that as well.) The Vonnegut remarks are part of that alternative, a "voice" in that.

Fung - Great comment. Me too.

Well, I'm confused. I share Fung's nostalgia for ragged and talkable books, but Kate suggests that my memories may be spoiled if I actually tried to re-read Vonnegut. I will say if there's a category of books that you should love at a certain age and get over, it might well include Vonnegut and Ayn Rand. I sure prefer Vonnegut to Rand.

Salinger was for me an author I was infatuated with as a very yound man but have a hard time reading today. Six or seven years ago, through an extraordianry turn of fortune, I had dinner with Vonnegut in Manhatten and found hin to be a very thoughtful and articulate when discussing modern culture and some of its less attractive and more worrisome elements but stale and doctrinaire when expounding upon politics.

Peter L: Even I prefer Vonnegut to Rand. Didn't mean to be so dismissive of Vonnegut. It's been a long time since I read him. Maybe I should try again!

I had exactly Ivan K's impression of Vonnegut, from a talk of his and discussion quite a few years ago. That is, his writing and his cultural reflections were more interesting than his political rants.

I stopped reading Vonnegut after "Slapstick," which I found too cartoonish. I also found that the introduction to the book (in which he exhorts us to replace the hurtful things we do in the name of love with common decency) was much more profound than the book, itself.

John Irving (when a guest on the Daily Show) referred to Vonnegut as a mentor, and told a great story about giving KV the Heimlich, thinking that he was choking, when in fact, he was having a seizure.

Kate, I'm glad to hear that your kids liked him, suggesting that his appeal was not limited to the 70's zeitgeist.

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