Kurt Vonnegut, 1922-2007

It’s hard to imagine why Kurt Vonnegut was called a “pessimist” or a “cynic.” He lived through three quarters of the worst century ever and saw enough of the next one to know it was already shaping up as a contender. He didn’t just read about the madness and horror: in World War II, it almost killed him when he was in a German POW camp in Dresden and American planes firebombed the city. And he responded to his times appropriately—with anger, with despair, with stoicism—and still managed to laugh, and to recommend and practice human kindness. Isn’t the expression for this something more like “role model”?

After the war, Vonnegut knocked around as a police reporter, an adman, a p.r. man for General Electric, and, briefly, as a Saab dealer. But he was also writing satirical fiction. His first novel, “Player Piano” (1952,) was a surreal spoof of the corporate world. His 1959 “sci-fi” novel, “The Sirens of Titan,” took on the military, capitalism and organized religion. In 1969, Vonnegut went from cult writer to best seller with “Slaughterhouse-Five,” which dealt directly—or as directly as he could in a novel also involving time travel and an alien abduction—with his experience in Dresden. This was the book which gave us the catchphrase “So it goes” as a response to deaths and disasters. Cynicism? Fair and balanced reporting.

Maybe Vonnegut, who loathed the Iraq war, its instigators and its cheerleaders, would get a laugh out of that allusion: in 2002, in an 80th-birthday interview, he said that “our country, for whose Constitution I fought in a just war, might as well have been invaded by Martians and body snatchers. Sometimes I wish it had been.” But as the honorary president of the American Humanist Association, he didn’t believe in an afterlife. (“I love sleep, don’t you?”) How typically odd it was, then, that he gave a particularly direct statement of the belief that guided his life and work to Christian Century magazine. “Well, of course, humor is an almost physiological response,” he said in a 1976 interview, “to fears, as I understand it…. I saw the destruction of Dresden. I mean I saw it before and then came out of an air-raid shelter and saw it afterwards, and certainly one response is laughter. God knows, that’s the soul seeking some relief.”