12 April 2007

Vonnegut

After hearing on the radio this morning that Kurt Vonnegut had died, I changed my plans for what I would do in classes. Instead of doing whatever I had planned, I read my students Vonnegut's story "Harrison Bergeron", not because it's my favorite, but because it's short enough to read aloud in class and because it was one of the first of his that I read. Some of my students had read one or two of Vonnegut's novels. Others had never heard of him. To everybody who passed by the open door of the room, I shouted, "Kurt Vonnegut died!" More than one person, shocked by my exclamation, stopped in to say a few words about one or another of Vonnegut's books that had meant something to them. The senior member of our English department told me stories of being in a class Vonnegut taught at the Iowa Writers' Workshop many years ago. "A helluva good guy," he said.

For me, a love of Vonnegut began with Cat's Cradle, then was reignited, more permanently, a few years later with Hocus Pocus. Both books blew my brain apart and reconfigured it. Opened up entire worlds of possibility. Lately, it's been Mother Night. I've used it again and again in classes, and it (along with J.M. Coetzee's very different Disgrace) is one of my two favorite novels to teach. It gets students talking. It contains immense depths beneath its apparently matter-of-fact surface. It is profoundly unsettling. And (unlike Disgrace) it's got a lot of funny bits.

One of my students said, "Mr. Cheney, you seem really upset about this." I said I was, but not in a mournful way, not in the way you are for a life cut short, but rather in a more selfish way -- the way that comes from knowing you now live in a world that this person, whose consciousness was so important to your own, does not live in. I'm glad to have lived in a world that Vonnegut shared for a time, but sad to soldier on without him.

For links to Vonnegut on the web, Ed Champion's got a great list.

It's impressive how admired Vonnegut is by so many people of different tastes and ideologies. All over the internet today, writers and bloggers are noting Vonnegut's death, saying a few words of remembrance, paying some honor to him, confessing tears. Here's a list of a few of the people I've seen mentioning the man and his life: Laila Lalami, Chris Barzak, Maud Newton, Clifford Garstang, Levi Asher, Dan Green, Deb Biancotti, Steven Beattie, Matthew Tiffany, Jodee Stanley, Christopher Rowe, Sonya Taaffe, Alex Irvine, Gwenda Bond, Ben Peek, Scott Eric Kaufman, and many, many more.

For some last words from here, how about the end of the introduction to Mother Night:
There's another clear moral to this tale, now that I think about it: When you're dead you're dead.

And yet another moral occurs to me now: Make love when you can. It's good for you.

3 comments:

  1. I found Cat's Cradle when I was about the same age as your students. It had the same affect on me.

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  2. So it goes.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=atABhlMLYvU

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  3. You said:"...knowing you now live in a world that this person, whose consciousness was so important to your own, does not live in. I'm glad to have lived in a world that Vonnegut shared for a time, but sad to soldier on without him."

    And I just wanted to say thanks for summing up the exact way I've felt since I heard the news, but was unable to articulate the right way.

    Busy, busy, busy.
    --Bill

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