Thursday, April 12, 2007
So it goes
I rolled out of bed at 5:30, my wife and baby still sleeping. I pulled on some clothes and went out the door in search of coffee. Walking down 24th St., hunched over, hands in pockets, I glanced at a newspaper box and saw a headline that stopped me cold: "Kurt Vonnegut dead at 84."
Until I was roughly 12 or 13 years old, I was a voracious reader, but I read only comic books, trashy spy thrillers, and bad science fiction. I don't remember why I plucked Kurt Vonnegut's 1969 novel Slaughterhouse Five from the shelf of my school library (a book that conservative moralists have repeatedly fought to ban from library shelves). I was probably drawn to the science fictional premises -- time travel! aliens! -- but I do vividly remember how absorbed I was by the end of the first chapter. Slaughterhouse Five, which depicts the firebombing of Dresden during World War II, was my first true introduction to literature, and it served as a gateway to deeper reading.
Why did that strange novel grab me? When I flip through my junior high yearbook, I see bleak, snowy Michigan fields, girls with feathered hair, boys in members-only jackets, and pictures of teachers who seemed ancient at the time, but were probably much younger than I am today. I was a sad, confused kid, but not having a language or avenue to express it, I drove the sadness and confusion underground. I felt sorry for my parents, my classmates, my teachers, my town, and myself, because we all seemed to be locked into schedules, obligations, and values that we did not create and did not want.
During the next year, I read all of Vonnegut's novels and short-story collections that had been published up until that point. I did not understand most of what I read (and today I still get something new out of Vonnegut, every time I re-read one of his stories), but I knew that he seemed to perfectly capture the world I saw around me, giving voice to feelings that I didn't have the language or maturity to express. I see now that sometimes his sadness shaded over into pure depression and that there is a very fine line between his universal pity, which caused him to prescribe kindness as the best basis of human relations, and his own private self-pity, which derailed his more autobiographical work and seemed to cut him off from his readers.
Was it healthy for so young a kid to be exposed to Vonnegut's adult experience with war, death, and depression? In 1988, the psychologists N. T. Termine and C. E. Izard studied the effect of mothers' sadness on their infants. They found that expressions of sorrow through face and voice slowed the exploratory play of the babies; additional studies show that sadness slows cognitive processes and enables deliberate scrutiny of self and situations. Though we might see happiness as the apotheosis of human existence, sadness has its place in helping us to slow down and reflect upon our lives and the lives of the people around us. Whether we want to or not, we teach our children to be sad, and it's a good thing, too. Vonnegut (and others, of course) taught me how that sadness is something to cultivate alongside happiness. Both help us to get through our days.
Slaughterhouse Five also gave me my first glimpse at the real-world consequences of war and violence, something that American media and popular culture conceal from us. I gradually turned away from books, movies, and TV that portrayed killing as easy for the killers, war as a glorious endeavour, and aggression as a desirable trait. "God damn it," writes Vonnegut in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, "you've got to be kind."
I haven't always lived up to that advice, but I've tried. Thanks, Kurt, for the books.