Friday, April 13, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)

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There was a lovely Asian woman in a skin-tight pair of Guess jeans leaning up against a ill-maintained and weather-battered kiosk somewhere in the middle of the NYU campus. She was completely engrossed, mentally and physically it appeared, in Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan. She looked up just long enough to notice this Chasidic Jew, the quintessential anomaly on campus, checking out her ‘reading material’. As a knee jerk defense to being caught red-handed (or red-eyed!), I casually inquired as to what exactly it was that captured her unwavering attention, although I had already, in spite of being focused on her physique, caught the title in passing.

I had no moral right to interrogate her on the choice of reading material but, in an effort to deflect attention from my obvious moral misstep, I did so anyhow. She responded politely and expressed, in no few words, her intense appreciation for Vonnegut’s style. The conversation ended with me heading directly for the nearest bookstore and she, a woman whose name I hadn’t even bothered to ask, was left in a bit of shock over her first and probably final close encounter with a Chasidic Jew. There was likely something she wanted to ask me, but didn't. Even though our kind are found swarming all over New York, we aren’t exactly the most sociable or accessible.

This seemingly short and abrupt interaction led to my baptism into the cult of Vonnegut. Modern American literature, most certainly not someone as controversial as Vonnegut, is not a 'staple' of the yeshivishe intellectual diet. The garbage that passes for literature (music and art as well) in the sanctimonious, unimaginative, and victim-guilt ridden religious Jewish world becomes unreadable once a thinking or feeling person is confronted with real art and meaning. To be fair, the Moslems and Christians do no better in this respect. At best, the purveyors of religious literature parody the worst parts of secular art and infuse their plagiarism with morality and historical revisionism.

I was immediately enamored with Vonnegut as I had, albeit clandestinely, with Melville, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and many, many other great literary greats. I don’t have much to say about the man that hasn’t been shared by many others in much more eloquent fashion, so I won’t say more. I suppose I enjoyed Vonnegut for his caustic wit and ability to put things plainly, without hyperbole or exaggeration. He was clearly a beloved leftist and perhaps somewhat of a Budhist as well. I can very much associate with his sentiments and his not-so-subtle critique of the over-romanticism that most apply to life or seek to wring from it. Vonnegut saw the best parts of life as simply ‘nice’ moments. I saw the reflection of Spinoza in Vonnegut’s straightforward and plain outlook on his own experience. Vonnegut saw the good in people, in spite of his sometimes darkened attitude. Some might say this association is misplaced. They could be right.

I will miss you Kurt. Be at Peace.

Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.