I’m skeptical of grief for public figures. People who dissolve in tears before the flowery gate of a celebrity, even mourners who line a fallen leader’s procession, seem— I’m sorry—silly. Yet, when Kurt Vonnegut died five years ago, I grieved.
I grieved not because he left before his time or because he passed down an incomplete body of work or because he was the last century’s grand literary giant whose like will never be seen again. Some people may have felt so, but for the last thirty years of his life Vonnegut appeared to be preparing for death. And his prolific creations never produced a shining work pretending to literary greatness. He wrote some very good books—certainly some very entertaining ones—but if he ever insisted on being included on any “greatest” list, I never heard it…nor, until those florid moments surrounding his death, did I hear anyone clamoring to put him on one.
Yet, I grieved his loss, his humor, his forbearance, his—okay, I’ll say it—nobility.
At the end of the opening chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut (in the guise of himself) expresses his love for Lot’s wife. Sodom and Gomorrah were burning, and all she had to do was keep her eyes forward and not look back. “But she did look back,” Vonnegut wrote, “and I love her for that, because it was so human.” Vonnegut was human, utterly convinced of our corruption, yet devoted to human beauty, the small, sweet moments when we match our promise.
Vonnegut led a difficult life—witnessing the massacre in Dresden, yes, but also a mother who went mad, nightly assailing his father, whom Vonnegut called “As gentle and innocent a man as ever lived,” with “hatred and contempt.” She later committed suicide, and Vonnegut admitted feeling the temptation of suicide ever after that. He made one attempt in 1984.
Still, he seldom missed an opportunity to laugh, even if in a mordant way. Beneath the humor was genuine warmth. I think of Billy Pilgrim, the hero of Slaughterhouse-Five, suddenly finding himself weeping. His father’s son, Vonnegut was outwardly glib, responding to the death of champagne bubbles and an ivory-toed corpse with the same “So it goes.” Yet the weeping was visible too, deep but surfacing in moments of unabashed sweetness—the devotion of Hocus Pocus‘ Eugene Hartke taking his mad wife and mother-in-law fishing, Billy Pilgrim sharing a spoon of vitamin-laced syrup in the factory in Dresden and moving the recipient to burst into grateful tears, and all the other pronouncements of hope that arrived at the oddest moments.
I remember quite a number of Vonnegut’s obituaries quoted a pronouncement from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: “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.”
Vonnegut could be harsh too, and balanced the equation with vitriol appropriate to a jeremiad. One of my favorites comes from Hocus Pocus, when he suggests an epitaph for the planet, “We could have saved it, but we were too doggone cheap.” Even at such moments, however, Vonnegut was looking at what we might do, what we could and might be.
Billy Pilgrim watches a war movie in reverse one night, planes gathering fire into bombs, bombs into bomb bays, war planes into airports. The scene concludes with minerals carefully put back underground, “so they would never hurt anybody again.” For Vonnegut that seemed a sort of wish fulfillment.
Ultimately, what moved me to grieve was no more complicated than admiration—a desire that my own dark life might also have such moments of light in it, that whenever I grow to feel people are no damn good, I might remember a beautiful garden of innocence and see those planes return until, “all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve.”