“Soft despotism is a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville describing the state into which a country overrun by "a network of small complicated rules" might degrade. Soft despotism is different from despotism (also called 'hard despotism') in the sense that it is not obvious to the people."

Thursday, April 12, 2007

So it goes. Kurt Vonnegut dies.


If you were a reader in the 1960's and 70's you probably read "Slaughterhouse Five." It was a reading experience that is not forgotten. The Boston Globe highlights the event that inspired the work of his life. If you have somehow missed reading the book, you owe it to yourself to do so.


Mr. Vonnegut's best-known work, "Slaughterhouse-Five" (1969), drew on his experience as a prisoner of war at the end of World War II. Like Mr. Vonnegut, Billy Pilgrim, the novel's hero, survives the fire-bombing of Dresden by Allied forces in February 1945. Billy then travels to another planet, Tralfamadore, where he is able to see all time. "So it goes," the novel's refrain, became a popular catchphrase, initially with protesters of the Vietnam War. Its combination of simplicity, irony, and rue is very much in the Vonnegut vein.

"He was sort of like nobody else," Gore Vidal told the Associated Press early this morning. "He was imaginative; our generation of writers didn't go in for imagination very much. Literary realism was the general style. Those of us who came out of the war in the 1940s made it sort of the official American prose, and it was often a bit on the dull side.

"Kurt was never dull."

Born on Nov. 11, 1922, in Indianapolis, Mr. Vonnegut was educated in public schools there. His father, Kurt Sr., was an architect. His mother, Edith, came from a wealthy brewery family. She suffered from mental illness.

"When my mother went off her rocker late at night, the hatred and contempt she sprayed on my father, as gentle and innocent a man as ever lived, was without limit and pure, untainted by ideas or information," Mr. Vonnegut wrote. She committed suicide. Later in his life, Mr. Vonnegut would suffer from depression, including a severe bout after the publication and success of "Slaughterhouse-Five."

In 1940, Mr. Vonnegut entered Cornell University to study biochemistry. His interest in writing led him to journalism, and he became a columnist and editor of the school paper. "I was flunking everything by the middle of my junior year," he later recalled. "I was delighted to join the Army and go to war."

While serving as an infantry scout during the Battle of the Bulge, he was captured by the Germans and put to work in a Dresden factory.

In the sort of surreal detail that would often figure in his fiction, Mr. Vonnegut survived the bombing of the city only because he was on a work detail in a refrigerated meat locker three stories beneath the ground. Following the raids, Mr. Vonnegut was put to work retrieving bodies and removing valuables. "One hundred thirty thousand corpses were hidden underground," he noted once in an interview. "It was a terribly elaborate Easter-egg hunt."


IMO none of his other works compared to "Slaughterhouse Five."


  1. A poem in it, which the NYT quotes in its obituary, sums up life on earth this way: "People did not like it here."

    He should speak for himself.

    At any rate, Vonnegut was also the author of "Harrison Bergeron," a wonderful short story that makes the utterly conservative point that forced equality is the enemy of freedom. It's amazing to think that an ACLU socialist wrote it. Here's the first paragraph:

    THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

    NR Corner

  2. RIP

    I always thought he was "too weird" but if I see Slaughterhouse Five, I'll buy it based on Deuce's recommendation.

  3. Cat's Cradle was another interesting book by Vonnegut. I particularly found his inventions of granfalloon and karass to be instructive. Basically a granfalloon is a set of false ties between people but it gives the illusion of a bond. The Nation, like the USA is an example of this. It leads to serious questions regarding ideas like patriotism.

    A karass, on the other hand, is a group of people whom you have more 'real' ties. Family, friends, fellow students...those people who's paths intersect more intimately with yours.

    All this is based on memories of mine from that book read many years ago.

  4. The Muslims will become Ash in your nuclear karass.