Friday, April 13, 2007


I woke up this morning with the slightly queasy feeling of loss, and the nagging suspicion I should write a condolence letter. In the haze of a confused or relaxed consciousness, it took me a minute to remember who had died, Kurt Vonnegut, a beloved but not close friend, and not more than a spit of time for the realization to sink in that I could not write to the person most appropriate to receive my condolences, since she, as Shakespeare might have put it, likes not me, and it is because of her constant intercession that Kurt and I did not become closer.
So I have decided to write to the one whose greatest loss it is, and that is the world, the planet that Kurt had such an elevated awareness about, whose despoiling he mourned for most of his intelligent life, exacerbated towards the end by his reasonable loathing of George W. Bush, and his grief over the ruination of what had been the country he was so proud of. Rage in Vonnegut wore the cloak of wit, expressed so originally and with such unique cadences that his popularity was greatest among those who fancied themselves rebels, as he was. I wrote several times to the Nobel Committee nominating him, which he found particularly amusing, since he understood how political that prize was, and how little chance there was of their ever taking him seriously, since the only living American(he was then) they were considering had to be a blowhard like Saul Bellow, when Kurt was a man who blew soft.
He was in his sixties when I first met him, an age I no longer consider old, but might have at the time because he was already venerable, the words he had written powerful as they were comic, or rather, loaded because comedy was their disguise. But he was also on the side of justice and sanity, neither of which were prevailing in his time, or maybe never were, and have certainly vanished now. My son likened him to Mark Twain, which the critics also did at his passing. But I suspect Mark Twain, who was a close friend of mine, though long dead, (see a meeting I had with him in Kingdom Come, for which I received an unsoliticted A+ from my college American Lit professor, Warner Berthoff) was a lot funnier, and perhaps more comfortable in his own skin than Vonnegut, pissed off at most things though he, too, was. Vonnegut's hair never got quite as white as Twain's, and his lot, I don't think, ever got as financially desperate(Twain had to roam the world as a travel writer to sustain himself in his later days, something I know from personal experience is a gift, but might not have seemed so to him at the time.) Kurt stayed closer to home, though he St. Barted in the winters, and looked forward to autumn, when he would travel north to New England to visit friends and see the leaves change.
If you have looked lately into the heart of a flower, fixed on it for some moments at least, you can see peace there, so I hope it was the same for him when he saw those sweeps of russet and gold on the canvas Nature made. When we became close to close, he was just turning seventy, complaining that he was already many years older than Steinbeck had been when he died, so the towel with which he mopped his cares was already poised to be thrown in. I was in my meditational phase, or trying to be, my attention playing hooky from serenity school, but I tried, in ways, to gentle him down, he was so anxious over having been abandoned. He was trying to write a book from the point of view of Booth, the actor who assassinated Lincoln, but it was not going well. Lincoln being a particular hero of his, I tried to get him to come to the 125th anniversary of the Los Angeles Public Library, using the lure of the wealthy woman here who has snagged all Lincoln's china and silver and high-faultin' doo-dads from that era, promising the dinner that honored him would have a table set with all those things, but he said it would make him too sad. I asked him why, and he said because Lincoln was dead. I tried to point out that even if he hadn't been shot, he would have passed anyway. But that was no consolation. Besides, his very hands-on spouse insisted to the woman whose task that event was, that it would be just too unmanageable, toting around that lumbering-- (he still was, then, not yet frail) giant on airplanes, unless they got to go first class and could bring everybody, which the library couldn't afford.
So he's gone, and with him, the conversations you could have with him, world. In recent years my conviction that This was not all there was has weakened, my hope, faith really, that there was some guiding intelligence behind the universe, and we were all headed for a place where we could chew over, without swallowing, what we had learned, has faltered. I would like to think that, cynic that he was or struggled to be, he might be having a pleasant surprise around now, and be in the Bardo, maybe with Steinbeck. But I am afraid in view of the spiritual mantel I long believed was protecting this country having shredded, the hope/faith/dream of all that might be delusion. If not, it's good, world that you paid at least some attention. Kiss him Goodbye.
And Heaven/Afterlife/Bardo-- if you're there, for God's sake welcome him, thank him, let him know he really made a difference. And show him there are more things in Heaven and Earth than have been dreamed of in even his philosophy. And so he goes.