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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

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    Vonnegut Dies … So it Goes

    Where did Kurt Vonnegut think he would go after he died?

    One could delve into a thousand pages of his writing and think “nowhere.” This is the man who said he wanted to sue the tobacco companies for failing in their promise to kill him. This is a man haunted by his mother’s suicide. This is the man who’s defining moment came to him in an underground meatpacking plant during the firebombing of Dresden in 1945. How many charred bodies did have to pull from the rubble before his view of death – and life – blackened?

    Kurt Vonnegut was often tagged as a modern Mark Twain, a reference to the black humor that permeated his 14 novels. In his book, “Fates Worse Than Death: An Autobiographical Collage,” Vonnegut wrote, “Mark Twain finally stopped laughing at his own agony and that of those around him. He denounced life on this planet as a crock. He died.” In his last book, “A Man Without a Country,” we can see Vonnegut undergoing a similar change. The book proved to be disturbing – in the collection of essays, he depicts a world so horrible that it stripped him, a black humorist, of his humor. You can guess what was left.

    Vonnegut promised “A Man Without a Country” would be his last literary work. It was. He died in a Manhattan hospital on April 11 after a fall damaged his brain. He was a hero of the American counter-culture during the Vietnam War. He was a leader in the Humanist movement. He was an educator. He was a philosopher, a designer, a poet and a playwright. He was loved and respected in academic institutions throughout the world.

    And after all of his laurels and titles, he was still so proud of just staying alive. In one of his novels, “Breakfast of Champions” he converses with himself:

    “This is a very bad book you’re writing,” I said to myself. “I know,” I said. “You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did,” I said. “I know,” I said.

    After attempting suicide himself in the 1980’s, he shed light on the topic of mental illness and suicide in a number of papers.

    But, amidst all of the absurdity and callousness Vonnegut saw in life, glimmers of hope shine throughout his works. In “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine,” he wrote, “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'”

    1997’s “Timequake” proved to be Vonnegut’s last of fiction. The character is Kilgore Trout, a regular of Vonnegut’s literature since the early days – the writer and the character were both old at that point, and they had been through a lot together. At the conclusion of the book – the last ending of the last novel – Kilgore Trout describes a possible reason for being alive: our human awareness adds a vital and beautiful new dimension to the universe, outside space and time. We exist to experience existence. Without us there to witness it, everything might as well cease to exist.

    “Robert Kennedy, whose summer home is eight miles from the home I live in all year round, was shot two nights ago. He died last night. So it goes,” Vonnegut wrote in “Slaughterhouse Five,” his most famous novel. It’s based on his experiences in Dresden. “Martain Luther King was shot a month ago. He died, too. So it goes. And every day my Government gives me a count of corpses created by military science in Vietnam. So it goes.” “So it goes” became a catchphrase of the anti-war movement in the 1970’s.

    What would Vonnegut say about his own death? Undoubtedly, “So it goes.” It is simple, ironic. It crystallizes, in death, the absurdity he saw in life.

    He also did drawings. One of them is on his official website. Check it out. It’s a picture of an open birdcage, above “Kurt Vonnegut 1922-2007.” It reminds me of something he once said. In 2006, he gave up on writing what would’ve been his last work. He said, “I’ve given up on it … It won’t happen. … The Army kept me on because I could type, so I was typing other people’s discharges and stuff. And my feeling was, ‘Please, I’ve done everything I was supposed to do. Can I go home now?’ That’s what I feel right now. I’ve written books. Lots of them. Please, I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do. Can I go home now?”

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