Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Despair as a form of hope

On November 11, Veteran's Day, The Rumpus Net reprinted an essay by Steve Almond, Boston-area writer, recounting his experience attending a talk some years ago by Kurt Vonnegut at the Connecticut Forum. Here are some excerpts from that essay (quoted portions in red):

Our citizens aren’t used to having their fantasies punctured. We don’t mind watching guys like Jon Stewart josh around about that silly war in Iraq, or global warming. But when someone actually points out that our species is goose-stepping toward extinction – without a comforting laugh line at the end – things get uncomfortable...

He [Vonnegut] had spent his entire life writing stories and essays and novels in the naked hope that he might redeem his readers. As grim and dystopic as some of those books were, every one was written under the assumption that human beings were capable of a greater decency. And not because of God’s will, that tired old crutch. But because of their simple duty to others of their kind.

Now, in the shadow of his own death, he was facing the incontrovertible evidence that his life’s work had been for naught. Right before his eyes, Americans had regressed to a state of infantile omnipotence. They drove SUVs and cheered for wars on TV and worshipped the beautiful and ignorant and despised the poor and brushed aside the science of their own doom. They had lost interest in their own consciences, and declined to make the sacrifices that might spare their very own grandchildren.

A woman at that gathering tells Steve Almond that she shared a cigarette-smoking session with Vonnegut--in a revolving door.

“I followed him, you know. Every time he went to have a cigarette. I just followed him and bummed a cigarette and we sat there talking. He was totally cool, too. Totally on top of it. They wouldn’t let us smoke inside and it was too cold outside, so you know what we did? We got in one of those things, those doors that spin around—”

“A revolving door?”

“Yeah. We got in one of the compartments and he pushed it around till there was just a crack. It was pretty warm in there and we could just blow the smoke outside.”

Almond found himself later focusing on that image--Vonnegut and the pretty young girl "puffing away like a couple of truants".

It helped me feel a little less hopeless. This made no sense. Vonnegut has been killing himself for years, or trying to, with those unfiltered Pall Malls.

But something occurred to me ... something Vonnegut has been trying to explain to the rest of us for most of his life. And that is this: Despair is a form of hope. It is an acknowledgment of the distance between ourselves and our appointed happiness.

At certain moments, it is reason enough to live.

~ ~ ~ ~

To read Steve Almond's essay in its entirety (and I can't recommend it highly enough), click here.

Can't find your copy of Kurt's Man Without a Country? Click here for a lengthy sample.

Some Vonnegut quoties:

A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved. ~~ Sirens of Titan.

Here is what I think truth is.  We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial, about to face cold turkey. ~~ Cold Turkey.

And my favorite:

All time is all time. It does not change.  It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations.  It simply is.  Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I've said before, bugs in amber. ~~ Slaughterhouse Five.

Click here for a video tribute to Kurt Vonnegut (with a scene from his talk at the Connecticut Forum, where he says he has a message for future generations, i.e., "Please accept our apologies").

Who, I wonder, will be the Kurt Vonneguts of the coming generation?

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