If you ever wander through a Roman cemetery or catacombs, you will notice the inscription S T T L. Sit tibi terra levis. "May the earth be light upon you." That is my last wish for Kurt Vonnegut. The earth seemed heavy and screwed up to him, perhaps rightly so. His gift, though, was to make light of these thing in a way that made people think, reflect, and reconsider. And laugh.
Vonnegut was one of my favorite authors when I was in high school. He gave a lecture at my ollege when I was a sophomore, and it was quite the experience for me. In a way it was a sad experience for me, for Vonnegut had turned into a crotchety old man. Critique and satire had become complaints. But perhaps this is the difference between reading a book and meeting the man? Perhaps writing is a way to crystallize complaint into commentary?
As I read through the obituaries, a few things stood out. The first is something that I've know for quite some time, as the University of Chicago proudly proclaims Vonnegut to be an alum:
In Chicago, Mr. Vonnegut worked as a police reporter for the City News Bureau. He also studied for a master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Chicago, writing a thesis on “The Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tales.” It was rejected unanimously by the faculty. (The university finally awarded him a degree almost a quarter of a century later, allowing him to use his novel “Cat’s Cradle” as his thesis.)Vonnegut's comments on Allen Ginsberg struck me, as well:
When they were inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1973, Kurt Vonnegut said of Allen Ginsberg: "I like 'Howl' a lot. Who wouldn't? It just doesn't have much to do with me or what happened to my friends. For one thing, I believe that the best minds of my generation were probably musicians and physicists and mathematicians and biologists and archaeologists and chess masters and so on, and Ginsberg's closest friends, if I'm not mistaken, were undergraduates in the English department of Columbia University. No offense intended, but it would never occur to me to look for the best minds in any generation in an undergraduate English department anywhere. I would certainly try the physics department or the music department first -- and after that biochemistry. Everybody knows that the dumbest people in any American university are in the education department, and English after that."No offense intended," indeed. That takes cojones, my friend. And those are something Vonnegut always had.