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Thursday, April 12, 2007
And so it goes.
Kurt Vonnegut died yesterday. I got choked up when I read his obituary in the Chicago Tribune this morning. And I'm not usually the obituaries-choke-me-up type.

Vonnegut was hugely influential for me in early high school after I randomly came across Hocus Pocus in the Goshen Public Library. I was riveted from the first and read my way through every one of his novels I could get my hands on. When I decided to go to Goshen College I was really excited when I found out that Todd Davis was a Vonnegut scholar. And I had all sorts of intentions of studying him. But then I didn't. Maybe that was for the best as my memories of his novels are those of an enthusiastic teenager rather than a English major with too many literary theories and too little time.

As a young sheltered Mennonite adolescent, his novels dramatically broadened my horizons of the possible. His imagination carried me all over space and time. He was sharply honest, deeply cynical and grounded in a simple ethic of kindness. I usually credit Chomsky in opening my eyes to the political realities of money, power and domination. But looking back I wonder if Vonnegut's poetic science fiction and fantastic realism wasn't as least as influential.

As I was writing this I looked through my book shelf for some Vonnegut to quote and found Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons. I came across "Torture and Blubber" which was first published in the New York Times in 1971. But its even more relevant today. Here are some excerpts:

Agony never made a society quit fighting, as far as I know. A society has to be captured or killed--or offered things it values. While Germany was being tortured during the Second World War, with justice, may I add, its industrial output and the determination of its people increased. Hitler, according to Albert Speer, couldn't even be bothered with marveling at the ruins or comforting the survivors. The Biafrans were tortured simultaneously by Nigerians, Russians and British. Their children starved to death. The adults were skeletons. But they fought on.

One wonders now where our leaders got the idea that mass torture would work to our advantage in Indochina. It never worked anywhere else. They got the idea from childish fiction, I think, and from a childish awe of torture.

You can read the entire essay here:

God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut.


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