Reflections on Kurt Vonnegut, a Man of Funny Fearlessness
My friendship with Kurt Vonnegut blossomed in the last years and months of Kurt's life, after 9/11. He was a dedicated friend, all his friends knew it, and he taught me about the creativity of friendship, with his careful postcards and his rhythm of gifts. His first gift was always the funny fearlessness.
He encouraged us to sing and preach in Union Square in the week after 9/11. "Go! Just go!" Or he would tell us to "Go down to Ground Zero and preach the First Amendment!" And we'd say, "You come with, Kurt -- we'll send a car!" And he'd say, "I'll be with you in spirit. I'm tired." But he never seemed that tired to me. He had powerfully mixed feelings about ending life. As a child of a mother who took her life, he always talked about death as a choice.
But then, as he grew older and older, he was busily creative all the time. When he came to our shows, he would make up names for gods and saints with us. He thought hard about what post-religious worship was and would surprise us with disconcertingly basic questions. I see they unearthed his prayer to "Our Lady of Perpetual Astonishment" -- reprinted in the New York Times yesterday.
He came to our 9/11 anniversary service at St. Mark's, in September of 2002, where a ten year old boy read aloud from Slaughterhouse-Five. Mostly, though, we'd have our visits at his home, sit in the living room, or go to the girl-watching stoop, an old-fashioned high stoop fronting his East 48th Street home, and just let the talk go. He would bide his time, waiting to think, with utterly gracious descriptions of friends. Then gradually his visions took on their famous, off-the-cuff hallucinatory bite. In the time of these late wars - Kurt Vonnegut's response was something to behold. I don't complain that I didn't know him when he was younger. Now feel that I wasted time demanding his approval, which he lent until he couldn't, but I wish I had all those minutes and hours back. Because Kurt was on a roll. "Nietzsche got a raw deal! The puritans of course need to reject him. But let's read him again!" Or, "Would a President be so afraid of peace that he would imitate a psychotic until he WAS one? Bush is a psychotic on purpose. Consciously so. He calls it patriotism."
At the turn of the millennium he became the beloved old crank of American letters, and of the New York literary scene. Although he is always compared to Mark Twain, he was a bit more like the great writers who established New York as a literary center, Poe, Melville and Whitman. Like them, Kurt was an outsider, at odds with the stylish uptown of the salons, emerging as he did from the World Wrestling Association of the book world -- a science fiction writer from the Midwest. He was accepted here when he could no longer be resisted, and finally had the home on the sound and the townhouse, too. But the boldness never left him, because he practiced it in small ways every few minutes, as he painted, as he went to his stoop to watch the world. He always practiced his sneaky casual epigrams. Short sentences that had a quality of everyday modesty, but would then address all of our lives at once. "Reverend, we don't need your jazz riffs. Just say it plain. And no semi-colons!"
Suddenly when the World Trade Towers came down, he was among the only public people who knew what to say. There was a thorough absence of guidance toward peace. I remember only Susan Sontag, Joan Baez, and Lewis Lapham (Kurt's friend who used the phrase "American Jihad" in Harper's within a couple months of the attacks.) You will recall that this was a time when the New York Times and the New Yorker both, in those critical days of September, were ready to go to war. A peace march of 10,000 would be demoted to page 8 of the Metro section. The theaters were shuttered, much to their shame. The arts stopped, religion and the academy were dazed -- and Rudy and Bush rampaged. But Kurt Vonnegut was still down under the Dresden fire-bombing of all those jingoists. His bottom line was peace, and he was talking peace immediately after 9/11 -- really the great test for moral counsel, the test of our age.
Kurt lost his footing on the stoop in front of his home. Girl-watching again. Maybe he saw "Our Lady of Perpetual Astonishment" and became astonished with her. Kurt fell, and if he had the classic life-flash-before-the-eyes, the way they say it happens, then he fell and fell through so many pages, and so many open wonderings by Kilgore Trout, and so many unlikely inventions -- like those special bombers that sucked flames away from children and healed the countryside. ... Oh, think of all that hard-working healing in his 84 years - the impossible job of outwitting violent America.
Walking with him on 2nd Avenue, you could see that people would stop a block away and smile when his white head appeared. His unsentimental comedies created a kind of listening in his millions of readers. We felt a distinctive kind of listening and talk, a gentle back and forth of words, on matters of life and death. We all feel that we talked with Kurt, don't we? Which isn't very possible, but it is as necessary as peace.