All of the true things that I am about to tell you are shameless lies.
Kurt Vonnegut is dead. He was a funny man who happened to be old and not, as with some, the other way around; that he was old was a miracle he was confronted with every day for the sixty-two years since he survived the firebombing of Dresden, once the Florence of the Elbe.
I was reminded of Dresden the other day when I saw a picture of the Frauenkirche rising above newly laid cobblestone, its 314-foot tall dome looking every bit the architectural wonder that repelled Prussian cannonballs during the Seven Years’ War. It’s huge even today. I can only imagine what it must’ve looked like in the eighteenth century.
In 2001 I was 17 and in Europe for the first time in my life. I spoke fluent German (still do, though it’s slower now) and was steeped in Dresden’s lore, but not because I was particularly well read: I had to give a tour of the city. I pointed out its secrets and its history in the native tongue, and my German class forgave me my datives and subjunctives and duly noted my checklists and bullet points. We had each chosen a city in Germany, and we each gave a walking tour of that city, and we each bumbled our way through the arm length compound words and split verbs. It was awkward, but effective. That day I was speaking to the city for them, and they understood our communiques. Dresden did not speak back to me the way the great cities do, though. It was not simply that Dreden was a shadow, though it was that. Dresden was something even worse: modern. So much had been destroyed in 1945, and what was left was the loathsome grey of Soviet Bloc Europe. There seemed to be little reason to preserve character because what little there was carried with it too much ugliness and pain. The citizens had taken to the task of rebuilding with an enthusiasm that was the child of World War II and East Germany, and the city was now sleek and efficient and European. You can’t fault Dresdeners for this, but still and all: Dresden was unremarkable.
Except the Frauenkirche. It withstood two days of bombing but had finally succumbed after more than half a million bombs had been dropped on a city that, on February 15 1945, was melting at temperatures in excess of a thousand degrees centigrade. In 2001 it was being rebuilt, and that made me feel something at least: the ruins had lain dormant for so long as a symbol of the war, and now there were scaffolds and support structures and steel frameworks. It looked like something that would never be complete. It was strangely comforting. I felt that so long as it was incomplete it would be impossible to forget the war, to forget what it had destroyed (one of the greatest cities of Europe), and the skeletal building confirmed that.
In 2005 the church was “completed”. In 2007, Kurt Vonnegut is dead.
I saw a picture of the Frauenkirche, once one of the marvels of the continent, randomly, as these things happen, in a news item having nothing to do with Germany or war. The dim parts of my brain still connected to high school recognized its stone dome immediately, and the first thing I thought was pure Vonnegut: there must be tons of human bone meal in the ground. That’s from one of my favorite books in the entire universe, Slaughterhouse-Five.
I think Vonnegut would’ve struck a similar juxtaposition between renewal and discomfort. He would’ve done it in simple language, because he spent so many years on the brink of failure and also because his chief at the City News Bureau of Chicago had probably hammered simplicity into him, which was okay since Vonnegut was a police reporter there. I think there would likely be a doodle of some sort to accompany the language, hopefully something representing an asshole or an act of coitus. Vonnegut was good at presenting harmless whirls and loops and lines called drawings alongside the harmless whirls and loops and lines called writing to make sure we all knew that nothing was harmless, and that everything was innocent. It was a good way of reminding us that language is frighteningly important, and also that our idiosyncrasies and tics and ideas about language and its use are frighteningly dumb. People have burned Vonnegut’s whirls and loops and lines for a while, though now it’s probably less of a public ritual. He opposed this in typical fashion: by writing letters, and making fun of idiots by presenting them to themselves.
Vonnegut created a religion called Bokononism. Bokonon was a heretic and a charlatan and the smartest man in the world, which amounted to one giant ice cube in the end. Literally. His words are wise, starting with the introductory quote above…
All of the true things that I am about to tell you are shameless lies.
Amen, if you’ll pardon the blasphemy.
He said something else about lies, specifically harmless lies. He (I could be referring to Bokonon, or Vonnegut, or both) called them foma, and he said, so beautifully, so simply:
Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.
You could end a lot of wars with that one.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was my favorite living writer. That title now passes on to several writers whose collective karmic burden has been increased exponentially by the passing of the man from Indianapolis, and by the impossibility of anyone ever making Indianapolis interesting again. He was proud of his ineptitude in the war, critical of any and all crimes against freedom of speech, a lover of music, an unrepentant midnight dialer, a man whose vocation came to him happily and confusingly and bewilderingly, unafraid to deliver a searing word, capable of language so transcendent every book and letter and note seemed (like his speech on Palm Sunday, 1980, to the St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in New York) based on the Sermon on the Mount, an occasional alcoholic, a father of seven, a devout follower of St. Mark (the author of Huckleberry Finn, not the gospel), and a damn funny man. In the end, he was also an old man. I am reminded of his book Breakfast of Champions (Vonnegut gave it a grade of C, which I thought was unfair, but that was Vonnegut), and of fictional fiction writer Kilgore Trout’s response when God/Vonnegut (again, that was Vonnegut) released him into freedom: “Make me young again!… Make me young again!…“
That sentence always struck me as the saddest thing he ever wrote, mainly because he wrote it when he was in his early fifties. He had thirty plus more years to go until he met his maker, who, if there’s any justice in this world, will make Vonnegut young again. I am reminded of that sentence, which caused me to feel my own body aging for the first time, and of Hunter S. Thompson, who died two years ago having taken his own life after writing this:
No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won’t hurt.
And the only thing I can think is: man, getting old sucks.
Which I think is pretty appropriate, and both writers would have approved – with an addendum. Hunter would’ve demanded Wild Turkey be spilled over the page or screen, and included that all those getting old be required to shut the hell up and enjoy whatever narcotic substances, football games, fishing rods, typewriters, coffee, ocean and Wild Turkey they could get a hold of while they still could, and then probably something about buffalo meat and caribou hearts. Then he would’ve pulled out a .357 and laughed evilly.
Vonnegut? Who knows, but he might’ve talked a bit about Dresden. He once proposed to plot out Slaughterhouse-Five on the back of wallpaper with different colors representing the trajectories of individual lives, and the firebombing of Dresden would’ve been a giant vertical line of orange cross hatching. Some of the characters would make it through, most would not, and the surface would gradually drain of color until, if you went far enough, everyone was dead and the only color was the plain monotone of the back of wallpaper. It struck me as entirely appropriate. Dresden was the central point of Vonnegut’s life: that he survived one of the worst massacres of World War II is entirely dumb luck. Why him? I doubt he could’ve answered that. It must’ve struck him as entirely inappropriate, even through the constant, guilty thankfulness of those that live. But I’d like to think he’d say something about the Frauenkirche, and how the stones are not the same, that the human bone meal had disintegrated or blown away or been removed, that the new church was beautiful and a marvel and not real all at once. And about how none of that matters, because where there were stones and human bone meal and a ruined church there’s now something else, some other color we weren’t aware of. He would’ve made me feel stupid for feeling that the rebuilt church was wrong somehow, and he would’ve made me feel stupid for feeling stupid, which is the natural disposition of all humans unless they’re listening to music. And he would’ve drawn a sphincter right next to the Frauenkirche, and said they both mean the same thing anyway: whirls, loops, lines.
I consider H.S.T. and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. to be cut from the same mold even though their lives, their writing styles and their works are so wildly divergent. They were both men who spoke their minds out of necessity. They regarded the world with a mixture of bemusement, horror and fascination. They were both deeply suspicious of anyone in charge. They spoke truth to power, though not in that pithy clenched fist raising way; there was something seamless and natural about their drive to continually write what they wrote. It seemed as if everything else that didn’t involve the staccato typing of those “harmless” whirls and loops and lines was just an ill-fitting suit, and one that was hastily taken off with relief once they got back to their compounds and behind closed doors. They were famous for cussing, but their profanity was actually pretty mild, the truth behind the words more profane than anything marked by four letter words. They knew the military was an inherently insane thing, and so saluted it as a fellow traveler. They both enjoyed whiskey.
They both died too young.
I hope Vonnegut’s headstone reads as he wrote it, in Slaughterhouse-Five:
Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.
Which is a lie, but a harmless one.