Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Kurt Vonnegut, off the deep end

Not many opponents of the war in Iraq would go so far as to praise suicide bombers. But now, Kurt Vonnegut boldly crosses that line. (Hat tip: Eugene Volokh.)

In an interview with The Weekend Australian, the 83-year-old novelist, out promoting his anti-Bush book of essays, Man Without a Country, says this:

Vonnegut said it was "sweet and honourable" to die for what you believe in, and rejected the idea that terrorists were motivated by twisted religious beliefs.

"They are dying for their own self-respect," he said. "It's a terrible thing to deprive someone of their self-respect. It's like your culture is
nothing, your race is nothing, you're nothing."

Asked if he thought of terrorists as soldiers, Vonnegut, a decorated World War II veteran, said: "I regard them as very brave people, yes."

He equated the actions of suicide bombers with US president Harry Truman's 1945 decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

On the Iraq war, he said: "What George Bush and his gang did not realise was that people fight back."

Vonnegut suggested suicide bombers must feel an "amazing high". He said: "You would know death is going to be painless, so the anticipation - it must be an amazing high."

Author David Nason adds with some deadpan irony, "Vonnegut's comments are sharply at odds with his reputation as a peace activist and his distinguished war service."

No kidding.

I don't think Vonnegut's rantings really require commentary, though James Lileks provides some. (For one, Vonnegut seems not to notice that his "brave people" are mainly murdering their own fellow Iraqis, including children. Or that their idea of their "culture," in many cases, includes the brutal killing of women and gays for sexual transgressions.) The only real question is whether the left will distance himself from this lunacy. Last year, Vonnegut's "Bush = Hitler" rant, "I Love You, Madam Librarian", appeared in the respected left-of-center magazine In These Times -- a publication that supports mainstream Democratic candidates, and whose masthead features such prominent, non-lunatic-fringe leftists as Barbara Ehrenreich -- and was reprinted on Michael Moore's site. Has he finally gone too far this time? So far, a Google search turns up no condemnation of Vonnegut's statements on any left-wing blogs.

I am truly to see Vonnegut descend to this; I've long been a fan of his novels -- Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five, Mother Night, God Bless you Mr. Rosewater -- and his short stories. I think writers who find modern Western civilization soulless and stultifying -- as Vonnegut clearly does -- can offer useful insights into what's lacking in our society and our lives, and create niches of alternative values that complement those of the dominant culture; but they ought to stick to literature. When they channel their distaste for modern civilization into politics, the results are usually not a pretty sight.

21 comments:

jess said...

Very sad, but the man is 83 years old now--I wonder if that's factor in these unhinged remarks. My once-brilliant grandfather, a surgeon and Quaker, turned bitter and hostile and started to make similar remarks at around the same age. I imagine many of Vonnegut's fans are trying to ignore these remarks out of sadness and respect.

Cathy Young said...

Perhaps, jess; though you can see the seeds of this in Vonnegut's earlier work as well. His writings have a strong misanthropic streak (think of humanity's destruction in Cat's Cradle -- maybe it's just different to see this kind of misanthropy applied to contemporary events.

Olga said...

I don't agree that Vonnegut's age and high degree of physical decrepitude are driving him off the deep end. It's not a long drive. He could have walked. I've read most of his oeuvre, except Player Piano (could never get through it, for some reason), and until Timequake, which is where I gave up, because it's been all steadily downhill since Deadeye Dick. Even at his prime best, he always saw the world in terms of black and white (not racially speaking), rich and poor, good and bad. He had some more nuanced novels, like Mother Night, my favorite, but they're less famous because they're less simplistic and incendiary. To paraphraze Churchill, if you didn't weep over Vonnegut's acclaimed social satire at 20, you had no heart. When I reread God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater at 35, I'd have had to have no brain and be completely ignorant of human nature in general to continue to weep. Oh, there is a masterful portrayal of the abyss between the "dirt-poor" and "filthy rich", and some witty arguments that the latter are far more useless than the former, but Vonnegut only casually mentions the fairly well-washed millions in between, the ground on which the demarcation lines are blurred and his personal rules of humanism are frequently set aside in favor of garden-variety street smarts. Vonnegut's trademark quirky characters, vivid style, and tight, beautifully wrapped up plot have always been very useful weapons in his emotional blackmail: if you don't see the world on his terms, if you take neither side, be ashamed of yourself! Be very ashamed of yourself...

He might be seen as going "off the deep end," but he had been going towards that deep end his whole life. Cf. Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons (essays written 1965 through 1974) -- you can hardly say you didn't see Man Without a Country coming. So, I think he's simply becoming more of everything he ever has been.

Given what I think of the decline of his writing since 1982, what Eric Hoffer says in True Believer makes perfect sense when applied to Vonnegut: "The slipping author, artist, scientist -- slipping because of a drying-up of the creative flow within -- drifts sooner or later into the camps of ardent patriots, race mongers, uplift promoters and champions of holy causes."

John Howard said...

Vonnegut's words echo CS Lewis in Abolition of Man: "When a Roman father told his son that it was a sweet and seemly thing to die for his country, he believed what he said. He was communicating to the son an emotion which he himself shared and which he believed to be in accord with the value which his judgement discerned in noble death. He was giving the boy the best he had, giving of his spirit to humanize him as he had given of his body to beget him."

Cathy Young said...

Olga, excellent points!

John -- I'm a bit confused. Were those Roman fathers proud of sons who "died for their country" in the process of killing innocent fellow Romans, including women and children?

Revenant said...

Vonnegut is a very old man who has devoted the last 60-odd years to being bitter and cynical and hating his fellow humans. I am unsurprised that he fantisizes about the nobility of suicide. What's he got to live for, really?

peter hoh said...

Yep, Vonnegut stepped in it. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

The left ought to distance itself -- but part of me distrusts this rhetoric of "someone on your side said this stupid thing. Why haven't you publicly renounced them yet?" This seems to be a new phenomenon -- I don't recall this kind of line coming up in debates during the 80s or 90s. Might have something to do with the 24 hour news cycle and the rapid response capabilities of the internet.

I'm not familiar with Vonnegut's novels -- yeah, I managed to duck Slaughterhouse-Five. I'm pretty sure I tried to read it once. Anyway, rather than misanthropy, I see nihilism behind his remarks. I think he's projecting something of himself onto the suicide bombers.

Cathy, interesting idea that we tolerate something when applied to historical events, but not when applied to contemporary events. The glamorization of pirates comes to mind.

John Howard said...

Were those Roman fathers proud of sons who "died for their country" in the process of killing innocent fellow Romans, including women and children?

I'm sure innocents died in the Roman wars, yes. Wasn't it the Romans who killed every baby in Palestine? Has the US killed no innocent women and children in Iraq?

Vonnegut wasn't saying "they get a thrill knowing that innocent people are going to die" anyway, so you are kind of off on a straw man - he was saying they get a thrill knowing they are dying for their country, and that dying for what you believe in was sweet and honorable. Not killing innocents. Dying for what you believe in. If he had said it was sweet and honorable to kill innocent people, then you'd have a point.

mike said...

John
"Has the US killed no innocent women and children in Iraq?" Interesting sentence structure. But in answer to that one would respond 1) not intentionally, and 2) not as many as the suicide bombers praised by Vonnegut.
And yes, Vonnegut didn't say it was sweet to die killing innocents but that is the effect of the suicide bombers. So your defense of Vonnegut is that he is either ignorant (in which case he should limit his remarks to a field in which he is knowledgeable) or he is morally indifferent to the suffering cause by those seeking this sweet experience (in which case he is reprehensible).

Cathy Young said...

Well said, Mike.

John Howard said...

As Vonnegut said, dropping the bomb on Hiroshima was an intentional act, and one that we knew would kill civilians and woman and children, and not done with a military purpose but done in order to demoralize the population. So were the bombs on Baghdad, Now we have smart bombs but that smartness is designed as much to shock and awe and demoralize the population as it to spare them. Soldiers have mothers and wives and children and civilian friends who send them into battle and welcome them back home, and they are the people that motivate the army.
I've never understood the distinction between the innocent civilians and the guilty people they send into wars for them, it seems grotesque that we have "rules" that the enemy is not allowed to kill the people that send an army to kill them, they can only kill the army that we send to kill them, or else we'll put them in jail after the war. The suicide bombers are women and children, they are Iraqi civilians. They know they aren't going to beat the US army in a military battle, but they think they might be able to win the war with a long drawn-out campaign of terrorism, to get the Iraqi people to demand that the US leave. And the suicide bombers seem to kill enough soldiers to get US congressmen to suggest that we should pull out, too.
It's funny, Vonnegut tries to make the point that we need to respect them a little bit for doing something noble, because the whole reason they are doing it is because we are disrespecting them, saying their culture is nothing, their morality is nothing, etc. But you just want to pile on more.
And it's also funny that you initially object with the very same sentiment that CS Lewis faults in Abolition of Man, which is, at heart, exactly the sort of anti-Tao self-righteousness that the insurgents are fighting. They aren't fighting the young soldiers we sent over there, they are fighting the people back here who are pursuing the Abolition of Man.

Cathy Young said...

John: we could discuss the morality of dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Let's say it was wrong and immoral -- how does that vindicate the suicide bombers? You don't seem to be getting the point... the suicide bombers are not killing primarily U.S. soldiers but Iraqi civilians including children!

And what "culture" and "morality" are they defending? The murderous dictatorship of Saddam Hussein?

You're making it really tough for me to adhere to my policy of not insulting my commenters.

Anonymous said...

It's really sad to see that so many people can so eagerly dismiss Vonnegut as an unhinged, old man. It seems as though none of you have ever really understood any of his writing. Vonnegut's comment lies in a similar vein as Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est". Vonnegut loves dark irony. He's saying that it's a very sad thing that terrorists feel that it's necessary to kill themselves to make a point. The fact that he's saying it in a subtle, if not provocative way, seems to rile some people up for no reason. David Nason simply missed the reference (as did most of you) and subsequently skewed the interview to make him look bad. That's the mark of a very poor writer.

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