Saturday, September 29, 2007

Vonnegut's Last Laugh

Slaughterhouse Five was for me, like many of my generation, a seminal book by a guy I could relate to. Kurt Vonnegut, the "above average" geek who wrote science fiction stories, the sensitive, childlike man who found himself adrift in the very adult activities of World War II, who weathered all those grown-up trials and came through the other side still a child and convinced of the absurdity of life, was a character after my own heart. His Billy Pilgrim placidly observed the horrors of war and Vonnegut's imaginings of a postwar America. One of the things Vonnegut foresaw in late twentieth century America was that it would be balkanized into several smaller nations to reduce its power and hence its threat to world political stability. While his vision was never realized and politically naive (what historical precedence is there for any nation, much less the most powerful nation on Earth, relinquishing any of its power voluntarily?) the balkanization of American Culture continues apace. American intellectuals, among other groups, have moved from imagining themselves a demimonde of like minded spirits spread among the population at large to "the Society" itself, with the rest of the population as phantom observers. How else explain pundits like Daniel Lazare, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Carlin Romano confidently proclaiming the end of faith and scoffing away the last vestiges of our religious trappings in a country where 98% of the populace believe in God? Intellectuals, like celebrities and the very rich have often felt that their reality and/or morality have little to do with the rest of the world. Technological innovation has made it progressively easier to actually create an insular and alternate reality, given sufficient means.

Vonnegut's success as a writer allowed him to remain an outsized misantropic child to the very end (comparisons of Vonnegut to Mark Twain I think focus more on outward resemblances than actual philosophies of life, ignoring Twain's humanitarian core) surrounded by fans who shared his worldview. His balkanized America, while never a political reality, has become a societal one.

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