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DE Gates's memorial of memento of KV below (above?) reminds me of what I intended at first to say about him and his writings.  In all the sumations of the pundits about his influence on a generation, telling uncomfortable truths, being a nihilist or a humanist or a cornpone philosopher or a cranky geezer, there really was very little about him and his work considered aesthetically, that is as art rather than commentary or propaganda or engagement or philosophy.  I was least impressed by those aspects of  his writing, and stopped reading it when they predominated (sometime after "Breakfast of Champions" I guess.)  The artfulness of "Cat's Cradle" and "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" and "Mother Night" could always be seen as secondary to the worldview, and go unnoticed -- ars celare artem -- but (maybe only because I was pondering the problems of a professon I hadn't yet made or joined) they seemed uppermost to me.  I still insist students read "Cat's Cradle" if they want to find out how to shape a story that is in effect over when it starts -- how to arrange the elements of a story that even its narrator knows the ending of.  Even more artful is how many of the elements that are part of the conclusion that is built toward -- ice-9, Bokononism -- are remote from the readers experience.  There's a wonderful (nihilistic?) circularity, or ring shape, to several of the novels, a circualrity hidden in the "random" way the information in them is assembled for the reader.  I don't suppose anyone would see a resemblance between his books and mine, but the way he can start up ten different threads of narrative that only gradually show themselves to be parts of the same story is something I think I tried to copy from him.  And of course aesthetic circularity, "random" narrative effects, unresolvable oppositions as story engines -- all these are "statements" or suggest "worldviews" too.  It was in a Vonnegut book that I first read that great humanist/atheist/dunnoist paradox I live by:  The universe is a safe with a combination lock, and the combination of the lock is locked inside the safe. 


( 35 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 14th, 2007 02:36 pm (UTC)
Riddle Me This
If you and he share the same worldview, why does he strike me as such a terrible whiner and you do not?

Epicureans. You guys are epicureans. Along with Asimov, Mencken, Ayn Rand and James Randi.

Sort of a mixed group.

Apr. 14th, 2007 03:03 pm (UTC)
Re: Riddle Me This
Perhaps because Vonnegut kept talking about how much it all hurts (with humor, weirdness, and kindness as only mildly effective anodynes), while crowleycrow doesn't? Or if he does, I haven't noticed it, so he might be more subtle.

What do you mean by epicureans?
Apr. 14th, 2007 04:20 pm (UTC)
This Worldview
Atheist / Humanist / skeptic (as John puts it) goes back to classical times.

There is no god (or there is but he cannot affect us), there is no life after death, what you see is what you get (and therefore the only real pleasures are physical pleasures), explanations for all phenomena can be found in nature. Basically.

I am not an epicurean.

It was supposedly invented out of whole cloth by a gentleman named Epicurus somewhere around 400 BC, if I recall correctly, and as the basis for Lucretius' great poem 'De Rerum Naturae' as well as the skepticism of Lucian (the original James Randi).

It has had a number of prominient exponents in modern times. It is, in fact, the basis for what they call 'scientific materialism'.

Marxism can be regarded as an epicurean heresy though I find it more useful to regard it as a Christian heresy.

Although I am not an epicurean and think that epicureanism is a mistaken view of the World, I value several epicureans highly, espcially Mencken.

Apr. 14th, 2007 08:18 pm (UTC)
I've heard that "scientific materialist"
was coined by the opposition for the effect of getting the higher ground in the arguments.
I think that the holders of the view prefer "atheistic science".

Kind of like John Searle's "hard ai", "soft ai" diminishing of the accomplishments of automation that does useful stuff.

back to Vonnegut. Missed him when he stopped by OSU in 2006. :o( Standing room only.

When I think of Vonnegut, I can't get the Dresden firebombing, as described by Richard Rhodes, out of my mind. When they came out everybody was dead and the streets and buildings had all melted.
Apr. 14th, 2007 08:37 pm (UTC)
Everyone Dies
Lots of people die violently.

I think - I know - the population of Nanking suffered worse than the population of Dresden. And that was mostly done with bayonets and swords.

Or the Mongol annihilation of the Iraqi cities. Or a number of other examples.

Burn to death or be raped, tortured, used for bayonet practice, possibly cannibalized.....

Apr. 14th, 2007 08:49 pm (UTC)
I was more impressed with the melted city than the deaths, for the reason you mentioned.
In totality, the melted Dresden was quite a new thing on the face of the Earth.
Apr. 14th, 2007 08:56 pm (UTC)
I'll Agree With That
And, to me, what is arguably worse is that there was no real military justification for this kind of behavior. It seems to have had no effect on the length of the war whatsoever: German military production was going up throughout the worst of the bombings.

Wars are won by guys with pointy sticks. This hasn't changed in thousands of years and is not likely to change anytime soon. Tactical bombing is certainly a lawful and useful military tactic. I would not agree that area bombing is either. But I am pretty conservative in these matters.

Apr. 14th, 2007 09:55 pm (UTC)
Re: Dresden
It's been said the bombing of Dresden was in retaliation for the German bombing of Coventry; be that as it may, it's also been argued that Dresden was a legitimate military target. I agree about the pointy sticks, and that nothing much about human nature or the use of force has changed since, say, the 14th century, but the firestorms over Hamburg and Dresden did indeed represent a different order of magnitude. After the war, the Army Air Corps (and Curtis LeMay in particular) repeated over and over again the mantra that daylight pinpoint bombing was the most effective strategic weapon in the Allied arsenal, but after-action reports (John Kenneth Galbraith was on one investigative team) indicated that German industrial capacity quickly recovered from it. A lot of material debating both sides of both questions.
DE Gates
Apr. 14th, 2007 10:43 pm (UTC)
Curtis And The AAC
Well, they would say that, wouldn't they?

Perhaps in some parallel World a ranking general gets up in front of the civilian brass and confesses the essential uselessness of his branch of the service, recommending that his budget be applied to the infantry and the Marine Corps, but that world is explicitly not this one.

Apr. 15th, 2007 01:40 am (UTC)
Re: Dresden
Including the question of suffering. G.B. Shaw, responding to an agonized letter from a woman friend about the unbearable accumulation of suffering in the world (maybe WWI), said that we must remember that the total of suffering in the world is not more than one person can bear. Two tirtured people do not actually suffer more than one; the addition is made by the observer. The horrors of Dresden can be regarded as worse than the horrors of Nanking only to observers: those burned and beheaded etc. can make no comparison.
Apr. 16th, 2007 02:57 am (UTC)
Re: whir
A good friend of mine was expelled from the Storrs Quaker Meeting about the time Nixon bombed Cambodia because he was called to speak in meeting along the following lines: "Too bad they didn't have the neutron bomb in WWII: the people in Dresden would be just as dead, and we'd still have all the Vivaldi manuscripts."
Apr. 16th, 2007 11:31 am (UTC)
Re: whir
I don't think I would have expelled him (what do I know about Quaker rules?) but I would have pointed out that a people contemplating the advantages of a neutron bomb (or the gains in firestrom bombing) doesn't deserve Vivaldi manuscripts, nor a lot of other things either.
Apr. 15th, 2007 01:33 am (UTC)
Re: This Worldview
I don't know why those who don't believe in a (personal, transcendent, interested-in-us, self-aware) God get to have only physical pleasures. How about philosophical pleasures, or the pleasures of selfless commitment to the betterment of life for others, or aesthetic pleasure beyond the physical? I know that believers can only life without God as diminished, but it's as often the reverse.
Apr. 15th, 2007 01:41 am (UTC)
I am merely describing the basic epicurean philosophy as I understand it.

I certainly don't have an opinion either way.

I am a theist - even a Christian - and I aspire to the Stoa.

Apr. 15th, 2007 11:29 am (UTC)
Rand, in particular, was very big on the pleasure of doing work you care about well.

Side thought: I think that what are usually called physical pleasures are actually short-term sensory pleasures. Presumably, all pleasures have some physical aspect.
Apr. 16th, 2007 02:13 pm (UTC)
Re: This Worldview
"I know that believers can only [see] life without God as diminished, but it's as often the reverse."

God as a concept is totally reductive. It puts the breaks on infinity and spares believers the terror of the unknown and unknowable with the consolatory purposefulness of origins and teleology. That than which nothing greater can be thought is not God but no God at all, the difference being between a universe circumscribed and a universe unbounded.
Apr. 14th, 2007 03:08 pm (UTC)
Thanks for pointing out Vonnegut's aesthetic skill.

Is this the DE Gates piece you mentioned? It's interesting that (at least to me) links don't exactly have a spacial direction. The article is just on the other side of a click, or barely findable in a web of memory.
Apr. 14th, 2007 09:37 pm (UTC)
David Gates x 2
Actually, no. I posted a reply to John's IN MEMORIAM thread, on 4-12. I write mysteries under the name David Edgerley Gates; this other David Gates is a Newsweek staff writer, and author of the novel "Jernigan."
DE Gates
PS---An understandable confusion, and a sometime source of irritation to me.
Apr. 14th, 2007 09:42 pm (UTC)
Re: David Gates x 2
In all fairness, I should add that maybe this is a sometime source of irritation to Newsweek's David Gates, or, in deference to KV: "So it goes."
Apr. 14th, 2007 04:06 pm (UTC)
I was disgusted by the note they had on Vonnegut's dead at the online version of "Der Spiegel". They say that though he was prolific he remained a one-book author. They quote him saying that he was bombed by all air forces but the German, and then go on about Dresden for the length of a full column. Maybe that shows more clearly where the problem probably lies: An author of any value who ventures outside the ivory tower is immediately idolized and set upon the standards of every group that presumes him to be supportive of its ideals. I wholly agree with your assessment and thus, as a foreigner and member of a later generation, I feel lucky to have been able to read Vonnegut from a distance.
Apr. 14th, 2007 04:28 pm (UTC)
There's a lot of Vonnegut that I haven't re-read since my first burst of discovery in my teens*, before I really learned how to read. As a result, much of the writerly artfulness of his novels is something I've only recognized in retrospect, and I really should take his departure as an excuse to rediscover him.

But yes, the chaotic artistry of Cat's Cradle is breathtaking.

*I'm sure that it's possible to discover Vonnegut when one is not a teenager, but it's hard to see how...
Apr. 16th, 2007 08:18 am (UTC)
"*I'm sure that it's possible to discover Vonnegut when one is not a teenager, but it's hard to see how..."

Maybe that's because I'm French (or maybe not) but the name Vonnegut doesn't mean anything to me. reading what you say about him incites me to read it. I'm almost 30. Is it too late? I surely hope not.

What book would you point out as a good beginning to discover him? Obviously, one of the early ones (judging from Mr Crowley's post). Cat's Craddle seems to be his "chef d'oeuvre."
Apr. 24th, 2007 11:28 am (UTC)
Sorry to take so long to reply....

There's a cluster of his early novels which I think are seminal--Sirens of Titan, Mother Night, Cat's Cradle, and Slaughter-House 5--plus the short story collection Welcome to the Monkey House. That's the order of publication and is probably a reasonable approach to his oeuvre.
Apr. 14th, 2007 07:36 pm (UTC)
Good thing everything's here in the safe with us.
Apr. 14th, 2007 08:57 pm (UTC)
That is the first time ever picked up on someone referring to writing as "engagement." I really like that. I know that Vonnegut engaged my sensibilities and my imagination.
Apr. 15th, 2007 01:24 am (UTC)
Actually "engaged" means or used to mean having a strong political bent, almost always left, and believing it should shape your writing. Your meaning is better but not usual.
Apr. 15th, 2007 05:42 pm (UTC)
"The universe is a safe with a combination lock, and the combination of the lock is locked inside the safe."

I thought Pascal said that. :-)

R. Cunningham
Apr. 16th, 2007 08:12 am (UTC)
Chorus Movies?
"I don't suppose anyone would see a resemblance between his books and mine, but the way he can start up ten different threads of narrative that only gradually show themselves to be parts of the same story is something I think I tried to copy from him."

Something tilted within me at the reading of this sentence.

I'm curious --

As one who have copied entire passages of Little, Big in order to get pregnant with the mountain stream musicality of your style and who plans (but have yet to find the time to do so) to take notes on how you use time and narration in Little, Big, to know if you would describe your narrative style (as you describe it above) as a "chorus style," much like those movies who show a single story from the point of view of different characters that, at first, show very little common ground ("Magnolia" and "Crash" being two exemples that spring to mind now).
Apr. 16th, 2007 11:27 am (UTC)
Re: Chorus Movies?
If you mean polyphonic (like 15th c. choral music) I'd probably say yes, though I don't know enough about music to know if the analogy is proper. I know that the sensation of a multitude of voices layering, harmonizing, drifting apart, musing on one another and coming together in a big Amen is what moves me in that music, and what often aim for.
Apr. 16th, 2007 11:45 am (UTC)
Re: Chorus Movies?
Yes, that's it. I would say that the analogy is proper, but you may disagree.

What I found really astonishing in your writing (most notably in Little, Big) is how you began a story set in a time, then drifted to another story set in some past and inside that story another one could be found set in some more distant past, etc., the whole being from the same narrator, which was the common thread of all stories. (I can not give exemples here, since I have not my copy of Little, Big at hand.) Then, you focus on another character, and hence another narrator, Somehow, and do the same. Stories within stories (much like the faerie country, worlds within worlds, or Edgewood, houses within a house).

I want to be able to do the same. I plan (as already stated) to decompose Little, Big along these lines:

Chapter 1 -- 1st narrator: Smoky. Leaves the City and go to Edgewood. Remember past event. First "flashback." The structure resumes to chronological, i.e. from enfancy to his meeting with Alice.

Sometimes, I remember, you make several jumps back, from past to past to past.

I'm not sure I'm clear here.
Apr. 16th, 2007 11:46 am (UTC)
Re: Chorus Movies?
Sorry, forgot to log in. That was me above.
Apr. 17th, 2007 02:51 pm (UTC)
Re: Chorus Movies?
Maybe the analogy to Orchestral music or even a Wagnerian opera is good also. I think of things like "Mine's jes Bobby", just like some theme using the voice of a piccolo flute to remind the listener of itself.
Apr. 16th, 2007 04:41 pm (UTC)
On Vonnegut's æsthetics, I particularly liked this eulogy from a friend of mine:

I have especially loved the way he writes as though he were describing the world to an especially precocious five-year-old. If I were Vonnegut, I might explain, Gravity's this thing that makes other things go down. Apples fall down from trees. Houses fall down. Gravity pulls my breasts down more every year. It keeps us all from floating away from everything we love. Kurt Vonnegut has died, and he'll never get up again, and a lot of us are going to miss him like crazy.
May. 16th, 2007 04:07 am (UTC)
Pharmacy: meridia
Jun. 29th, 2007 04:33 am (UTC)
Let's get acquainted My name is Tomas!
My name is Tomas!

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