Kurt Vonnegut died today in 2007. I remember seeing this picture (drawn by Kurt) online that day at work and crying. He is one of the best, most affecting, and important writers of the last century. And in the pantheon that I am proposing, Kurt Vonnegut is the Paragon of looking at, and past, horror.
His unique place in the world is to see what is truly terrible, to sit with it and draw its portrait and then make you laugh about it. He never drifts too far from what is bad or what is senseless. Or from what is beautiful and good.
He is a particularly obvious secular saint, as former honorary president of the American Humanist Association. And the story of his memorial speech for Isaac Asimov cannot be repeated often enough.
“I am honorary president of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great, spectacularly prolific writer and scientist, Dr. Isaac Asimov in that essentially functionless capacity. At an A.H.A. memorial service for my predecessor I said, "Isaac is up in Heaven now." That was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. It rolled them in the aisles. Mirth! Several minutes had to pass before something resembling solemnity could be restored.” - Kurt Vonnegut
He was, as all satirists are, a critic. And much of his power as a critic was his capacity to see the world as it was, no matter how painful, or beautiful, or ridiculous.
"I do feel that evolution is being controlled by some sort of divine engineer. I can't help thinking that. And this engineer knows exactly what he or she is doing and why, and where evolution is headed. That’s why we’ve got giraffes and hippopotami and the clap." - Kurt Vonnegut on The Daily Show (13 September 2005)
He wrote about bravery in the face of reality. Of what we can't do, must do and can do.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers — joined in the serious business of keeping our food, shelter, clothing and loved ones from combining with oxygen. -Kurt Vonnegut God Bless You Mister Rosewater
But he is most important, and useful, to my mind as a source of great wisdom about how to cope with sadness. He was a very pessimistic man who had attempted suicide and spoke angrily about how cigarettes had failed to kill him. But he worked throughout his long life, much to our benefit, and left us with pieces of wisdom like this:
"I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is." " - "Knowing What's Nice", an essay from In These Times (2003)
On this day in 2007 Kurt Vonnegut died of traumatic brain injury.
So it goes.