Friday, April 13, 2007

So he goes

Kurt Vonnegut has left the planet. I hope the Tralfamadorians treat him well.

I grew up with Kurt. While my friends were reading Lord of the Rings, I was devouring Cat's Cradle, Sirens of Titan, Player Piano and Slaughterhouse-Five. Kurt's fantasy world just seemed so much more real.

Given my conservative political leanings, it may surprise you that Vonnegut is my favourite novelist. In my view, however, it is a mistake to consider Vonnegut a leftist as many, including himself, do.

Vonnegut regards himself as a man of the left, but I've met many libertarians, conservatives, and objectivists who admire Vonnegut's work. Libertarians admire him because he's antiwar and distrusts government. Objectivists mostly enjoy his atheism and Bokononist satire of religion. And conservatives discern a patriotic nostalgia for small town America in some of his work. While I think that's especially true of his short stories, I've met one conservative who was taken with Vonnegut's midwestern family history in Palm Sunday. Ralph Nader has praised such "true conservatism," distinguishing it from corporatism or empire building.

Player Piano illustrates in devastating fashion the ultimate inhumanity of the welfare state, while his classic short story Harrison Bergeron unmasks liberal pretensions to equalize the human condition. Vonnegut undoubtedly cared about his fellow man, but he was not naive.

To Mr. Vonnegut, the only possible redemption for the madness and apparent meaninglessness of existence was human kindness. The title character in his 1965 novel, “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine,” summed up his philosophy:

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’ ”

There is nothing inconsistent with conservatism in that. It is a philosophy to live by. I'll miss you Kurt.