Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Universal Will to Become

Note: the following entry was started immediately following the recent death of Kurt Vonnegut; it has become a project of somewhat greater scope than originally intended, and the author has decided to forgo the mad rush to comment on this sad event immediately in the interest of thoroughness. Any statements that reflect the time at which it was originally started have been preserved in the interest of authenticity.

Last night, on the way home from teaching the first lecture of my history class, I caught the end of a BBC World News story about Kurt Vonnegut;I've always been rapt whenever Vonnegut is mentioned, but it gave me pause because there was no mention of what he was doing now, and I immediately felt a sense of dread that soon turned out to be justified, but it took several phone calls until I could get a definite confirmation that one of my favorite writers was, in fact, dead (So it goes). If you've been following this blog (and I know that this is a highly select group), you might find it notable that this is the same stretch of road (Business 80 between the Watt and Exposition exits in Sacramento) where I got the news about my cousin's death (so it goes)--I'm not inclined to look for special significance in this kind of thing, but it seems kind of Vonnegut for that to be the place where I have contemplated the inevitable on more than one occasion.

I blew off grading the papers that I had promised my students for the next day and instead decided to get a little trashed and think about the most significant literary and philosophical influence on my twenties. In retrospect, Vonnegut popped up on a near-constant basis during that decade. I remember catching the excellent film adaptation of Mother Night at a now-defunct arthouse theater (just visible from the aforementioned stretch of highway) on a cold night just before Christmas--I saw it alone, and it cut me to the core in that depressing and life-affirming way that Vonnegut's work always seems to.

I saw Vonnegut speak at the Scottish Rite Temple at the end of my undergraduate coursework in English at CSUS. While what he said was not atypical, the experience was still a significant one. I was already bound for grad school, and I wanted to write a thesis on Vonnegut (this was born out of a bizarre academic standoff that was kind of the literary/critical equivalent of with me in the role of the Spartans--more on that later). This was one of the first times that I realized that the primary dividing line between me and "fans" of all types was my self-awareness about my interests--I loved Star Trek as a child, but couldn't cross into wearing Spock ears or going to conventions. The crowd wanted to hear the same things they had heard before, and the key moment came when a very earnest man from Eastern Europe begged Vonnegut to secure a better Russian translator. In good, but heavily accented English, he made his plea, and, in an attempt to be flattering, told the old man that to many people in his country, Vonnegut was "like a god." Vonnegut walked out of the room and had to be talked into coming back. This poor man was crestfallen, and I don't think Vonnegut was insensitive to his distress, but the bubble in which he has spent the bulk of his life was never more visible, and anyone who knows his work would understand why that specific phrase might be upsetting. I enjoyed myself, but I couldn't get the proper space in which to ask the very different kind of questions that I had, and I couldn't, couldn't fawn over him, before or after the incident.

About a year prior to that, I took a lit course that covered Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle. As we discussed the novel, a disagreement arose about the ending of the novel (the exact nature of the whole thing isn't specifically relevant, but it was my assertion that the final few sentences clearly indicate that the narrator commits suicide). The argument lasted two full class sessions and ended in a draw (although I later found that a few critics did share my view).

In The Sirens of Titan (a quite underrated part of the Vonnegut canon), Vonnegut writes about the Universal Will To Become (or UWTB). This is a cosmic force for change, adaptation, and growth--what makes things become the things they are, and strive to be the things the may one day be. I think it's a fair description of the man himself.

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