A great hero of literature, Kurt Vonnegut, has died.
Old age wound up suiting him well, allowing him to live as a sage. He enjoyed dispensing pithy truths from on high, a prophet who lived long enough to see his prophesies come to pass. He would bristle at this, telling us that in time all things come to pass, even his life. Modesty was one of his endearing qualities.
It was from this deep Hoosier sense of modesty that he wrote. He could not help but see that the emperor had no clothes, and saw no reason why he should not mention it. So much of the world made no sense at all to him, at least not as it was presented.
He spoke once at Carnegie-Tech, which was the first of many Universities he went to. He was studied engineering there, but failed out after just one year. He told the gathered crowd that good literature was different from life in that the stories we celebrate have rises and falls of action, and life is just a daily slog. By the time he was done, the relevance of the handles “good” or “literature” made no sense to anyone who was paying attention. And that was his point.
We can see how he never would have been an engineer, like so many in his family. He wrote about what a terrible soldier he was, too. There can be no doubt that he struggled to find how he might be useful to the world, and what skill he might have.
His first novel, “Player Piano”, shows the struggle. It was only a quick leap from the world he lived in to the stifling dystopia of mechanical wonders he wrote about. He labored a bit too heavily to make it real, to have it make sense. He needn’t bother. Later, he learned to take advantage of the pattern matching machine that can make sense of cognitive dissonance, the human brain. He assaulted it with the obvious, the half-step back that told us none of it really made any sense. He told it plain and dry, with something like an engineer’s eye to the machinery that clicked along.
His skill is something that will always be needed in a mechanized, connected world like ours. Being able to see the world is it truly is, and not caring that it makes little sense, is a skill that is rarely dished up in popular media. It comes from great sages, people who have lived not one life but many. Vonnegut was a father first and foremost, a writer because he felt he had to be, and a human being because there wasn’t much alternative.
That was the life of a sage. He had his priorities down. That freed him to not worry about what the emperor had to say. He was more worried about the rest of us.