Harmoniums are cave-dwelling creatures that perpetually engage in a simple call-and-response: \”Here I am! Here I am! Here I am!\” \”So glad you are! So glad you are! So glad you are!\”
They are known to die of ecstasy when exposed to music.
And this is why I will miss Kurt Vonnegut.
He gave us Kilgore Trout, one of the 20th century’s most prolific (if far from eloquent) science fiction writers. He introduced us to one of Turkey’s most colorful modern artists. He taught us that indexing and foot sex were each an art. He introduced Bokonism, perhaps the truest religion (or at least the easiest to adhere to). He allowed Nazi war criminals absurdist cameos and, in a culture that seems to quickly tire of remembering, Vonnegut forced us to re-examine the atrocities of the first half of the century.
And half the time, we didn’t even realize we were doing it.
But he ruined me for lesser writers. He could deliver the most painful and astute observations of the human condition, but like a parent disguising cod liver oil in cherry syrup, he could really soften the blow. What other writer could document the completely unnecessary fire bombing of Dresden (a city that existed, as Vonnegut observed, simply to produce beautiful things), and create a brilliantly funny piece of humanist science fiction?
What other writer absolutely mastered the genre of humanist sci-fi?
It’s often been said that reading Vonnegut is like reading an alien’s guidebook to life on earth, and the first several times I experienced it, I thought the tone was intended for comedic effect. Yes, when we explain the modern English language, or what an asshole really looks like, it is rather ridiculous, isn’t it? But it was during my second or third skimming of Breakfast of Champions that I realized how crucial it was that Vonnegut actually pointed those things out to us. Too many of us weren’t paying attention.
And in cultural terms, Vonnegut brought faith back. Far from being the last resort for the weak, lazy or hopelessly naive, an undercurrent of faith in humanity ran through books that spoke to a hardened counterculture. Moments of intense beauty and celestial inspiration occurred in Pontiac lots or on desolate planets.
Whenever a luminary dies before his time (and Vonnegut’s failure to achieve immortality means, essentially, that he died before his time), there is the temptation to drag out that tired, Elton John-beaten image of a snuffed candle. This person was an enigma! we cry. So much more could have been accomplished! We don’t want to see what a world without [luminary] looks like!
But I’m calling Vonnegut as my devastating celebrity death: His is the NPR eulogy that will get weepy me on the 101. This is by no means exclusive. I invite anyone who ever had to skim Slaughterhouse Five for a class and actually kinda liked it, or who devoured the Vonnegut canon whole, to join me. He claimed his novel-crafting days were over with the publication of Timequake, even though he was writing his still-unfinished If God Were Alive Today on the sly, but his occasional appearance on Politically Incorrect or his seasonal commencement address was all that was needed to issue some much-needed levity into the universe.
The world is a little less sweet without Vonnegut in it, so let us turn now to a book of Vonnegut — Slaughterhouse Five — where it is written, “Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is, ‘So it goes.’ ”