“So it goes.” Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s signature phrase, repeated in popular culture perhaps almost to the point of exhaustion, seems to be the most appropriate description of Mr. Vonnegut’s recent death. Vonnegut, at the age of 84, passed away in Manhattan on April 11, several weeks after a fall causing irreversible brain damage. Though a self-proclaimed dedicated Pall-Mall smoker, Vonnegut once said “smoking is a fairly sure, fairly honorable form of suicide.” I find it ironic that this enigmatic and ingenious writer’s death was not in any part due to a malady of the lungs or any other suicide of sorts, though he attempted suicide in 1984, but to a brain injury. And in a completely trite statement, all I have to say to reflect on this is, “so it goes.”
I don’t feel the need here to go into entirely detailed biographical descriptions of Vonnegut and his literary works, like so many other major publications have already done. Or to reflect, in depth, on the prolific and sometimes prophetic dystopian nature of his literature. I’m going out on a limb here and assuming most college students, at some point, have encountered Mr. Vonnegut’s transformative simplistic prose in some form, whether it be in one of his iconic novels, Slaughterhouse Five or Cat’s Cradle or one of his other 18 books. Instead I intend to reflect on Kurt Vonnegut the idol, the cult figure, the inspiration and affirmation behind so many disgruntled and misanthropic adolescents, as I once was.
I’ve always contemplated how Mr. Vonnegut would “go,” considering his writings have always carried a preoccupation with death. Born in 1922 and growing up in depression-era Indianapolis, Indiana, Vonnegut’s immediate arrival on earth was entrenched in death, perhaps at first through the more metaphorical financial and spiritual death of the depression. Then there was the suicide of his mother in 1944. And of course, Vonnegut’s experience as a soldier and Prisoner of War in World War II Dresden, witnessing the obliteration of that city from a meat cellar, and later famously recounting the event in his novel, Slaughterhouse Five. Then the death of his sister and closest friends. Almost all of his novels explicitly ruminate on death, whether it be the death of his friends and family or the eventual murderous death of the earth by humans that Vonnegut constantly made reference to.
But what is it about this man that makes him so iconic? Is it his trademark mustache? Those tragic and maudlin eyes that peer back from the inside of book jackets? Is it his felt tip pen illustrations? Or is it because he acted as a sort of literary prophet of the twentieth and twenty-first century, his morality a perfect ethos for us hedonistic youths? Vonnegut’s primary edict seems to simply be trying to increase the happiness of the self and those around you because, hey, the world is fucked anyway, and we’re all just “farting around,” waiting for death, an edict that is certainly persuasive to the rebellious, pseudo-iconoclasts that we Vonnegut followers once thought we were.
But, even before his death, Vonnegut had become more than just simply an author of dark humor or political satire. More than an intellectual reference, or even reverential, he has become a conversation piece, a standard name, a commonality among young people everywhere, and a legendary icon to some. This makes me wonder; if we say fictional characters are immortal and live forever within their texts, can we hold the same to be true for the authors, or icons, that create them? Or do the writer’s words, after their death, simply act as headstones, constant reminders of what or who was, and is no more?
Furthermore, how do we apply Mr. Vonnegut’s writings on death? For instance his ending of Breakfast of Champions, where he attempts to kill all of his characters to set them free, in effect attempting to end their literary immortality? Vonnegut enters the narrative of this novel, telling the character Kilgore Trout that he’s “setting him free,” and in a denial of death, Trout responds “Make me young, make me young, make me young!,” the last lines of his novel.
Can we, as devout readers and fans, effectively make Vonnegut forever young and immortalize him? Is that what he would want? In the literary tradition, I think it’s quite possible, though it is hard to say how his stylistically rich prose will age, along with the Vonnegut trademark essence, after his death.
Currently, Vonnegut’s official website, vonnegut.com, only displays an image--a Vonnegut felt tip drawing of an empty wire birdcage, cage door ajar. Under the image is the statement, “Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., 1922-2007.” Our generation has never had a great cultural iconic loss—our parent’s had the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. We’ve had the anonymous victims of 9/11 and Anna Nicole Smith. But here is some sort of loss perhaps some of us can personally identify with. Kurt Vonnegut is dead. And he died not as a political martyr, and he was not assassinated; he simply was a victim of the mishaps of life and mortality. So it goes. Life goes on and the birds will still keep asking, Poo-tee-weet?