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Kurt Vonnegut, RIP

A number of remarks on Vonnegut's passing have made the point that his work is an enthusiasm one outgrows. And I suppose that's true. I thought of him as a one-trick pony, and had no great urge to read more of his work after the three or four that I did read: Slaughterhouse Five, Cat's Cradle, and I think one or two others. But on the other hand, I never really forgot them, either. Occasionally darkness can illuminate, and Vonnegut's dark humor did. A Christian has to give him credit for illustrating the problem of evil with enormous force, even if we think he missed the solution. Besides, you can hardly blame a man who witnessed the bombing of Dresden for holding a pretty grim view of life.

Michael Potemra, writing at National Review Online, says something about Vonnegut's work that I haven't heard from anyone else:

I met him once, a couple of decades ago, and he was a really sweet guy. Sweetness is actually a central quality of his best books...

That seems true: it's the sweetness of a kind man with a broken heart.

Dawn Eden has something similar to say about the man: that he was "gentle and gracious." The bitter disappointment concealed beneath his cynicism did seem that of an essentially sweet nature. He seemed to believe that in a meaningless world the best we can do is to be kind to each other--not a great philosophy, but not the worst, either.

Unfortunately, like many people of skeptical religious views for whom compassion and tolerance are the core of ethics, he fell into the natural trap of the naturally nice person: he seems to have permitted himself to hate those whom he believed to be uncompassionate and intolerant. Apparently the great ironist missed that irony. So it goes.

It's been thirty-plus years since I read Cat'sCradle. I think I'll read it again. That business about Ice-9 was very funny. But the short story "Harrison Bergeron" is not funny at all, and really isn't very typical of his work. Like I said, I haven't read all that much of Vonnegut's work, but I doubt that he ever bettered this story. Don't say I didn't warn you, though.



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