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Essay-a-week

God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

I have a boner for a man. A dead man. But in these days and times, sexually urging for a man, even a dead one, is not something to be ashamed of. Besides if you knew this man, you would have one too. This is because he is a true master of seduction, luring people in with the wave of his ballpoint pen. His name is Kurt Vonnegut Jr., and I met him late one night in my bed while intoxicated off his words, high off his sentences, pregnant by his humour, bonerific by his…

Err. That’s enough of that. I will spare the scarring mental images and bad jokes, for now at least. But crude jokes do have a point – as do boners. Both just point for different reasons. Let’s start off with the jokes because the other subject is too hard to begin with.

As my earlier joke demonstrated, I’m an idiot. I am not exactly aristocratic or crave sophistication or anything. On the best of days, I am a series of groans and mustard stains packaged into a pair of my brother’s underwear. I only joke as I do because I wish to show you what bad writing and horrible joking, both of which goes hand in hand with a Niburski, looks like. Now that you have seen an example of it, I can confidently claim that there is something called true comedy. It comes from the man who I still get the heebie-jeebies from. Kurt Vonnegut. He was the foremost American novelists of the last century, a world-renowned humourist, and the President of the America Humanist Association. Modestly said, he was and is the greatest.

Before I slip the funny beans on “How to grow Vonnegutian humour”, first let me tell you a little fact I picked up in one of his books Mother Night: everyone has a story to tell. Some of them recite the age old and certainly clichéd damsel in distress fable. They toss in a fire-breathing-but-unavoidably-sympathetic dragon, a cowardly prince, and those famous last words ‘the end’. Some stories, however, do not follow such a prescribed pattern. Some stories just rust away under the constant grinding of human fragility. Such stories are the best nights of a life that we can’t remember, the times we remember so much that we wish we could forget, and those days in between where we simply breathe, simply exist. And sometimes, stories don’t begin or end at all. Like words spun from the heavens, their tales are crafted so perfectly that the beginning and end are hummed constantly from the edge of the Universe, doomed to expand forever. It is these latter stories we strive to find. We spend our life searching for them, creating them, and most certainly, reading them.

Why?

Because as human beings, our lives are spent with our hands in our pockets, our feet nailed to the ground, and our minds always on the lookout for the next Armageddon. With wishes as ammunition, we pray that whatever this is – this thing called life – will pass us by somehow. If we become sick, let the curse of death sweep over us. If we become strong, let the salve of life stabilize us. So life cycles. And yet, there is no cure for birth or death, save to enjoy the interval in between. This ho-hum existential limbo of an ‘in between’ is where we quest for words to lift us off our concrete feet, because for a few seconds, we wish to dangle in the air helplessly. Without wings, we wish to fly. Without control, we wish to steer. Idle we stand, with our hands clutching on to the pages for support as we are carted to Eastern Canada, to Poland, to Neverland, to Eden, to Dresden, to Hell. Anywhere. And we are happy reading such a story for anywhere is better than where we are now. Here on earth, we are nowhere. But, we can be “now here” instead. All it takes is the right story.

Most stories aren’t the ‘right stories’. Usually, when somebody walks into a bookstore, they expect to find a book. Words on a page; nothing more, nothing less. But sometimes, something better rolls along than just paper harpooned carelessly together. The words transcend their prison, freeing themselves from their stripped pages. Coupled with that is the gold of a genius’s stroke who wrote them; the person who composed the story from the strings playing softly in their head. I’ve struck this gold and heard these strings 18 times in my life so far. On these rare occasions, I come out of the bookstore with pages brimming with the meaning of life, with a way out of that meaning, and then a way back into it. The Sirens of Titans. Cat’s Cradle. Slapstick. Welcome to the Monkey House. Galapagos. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. These are but a few of the entitled gems I have found.

And shit, these gems are priceless.

Now, I don’t consider myself well read by any means. When I look into a library, I see a life I will never be able to obtain, knowledge I’ll never get. Even if I were to spend forty years drowning in a sea of books that is a library, I wouldn’t even make it out of the kiddie pool. That being said, I have read other books by other authors on other days. Not many, but I have. The little scratch that I have made on the literary world has at least led me to believe that these other authors aren’t as enjoyable as Kurt Vonnegut books, for some reason or another. His stories always make me feel “now here”. Each word I want to memorize. Each sentence I want to recite. Most of all, the combination of words and sentences make me laugh. A book had never done this before. With Kurt’s pages curling under my greedy fingers, I look like a kid on Christmas day who can’t help but grinning a stupid smile. Funny thing though, he found me first, and thank God for that because I will find him during my last days first.

The first time I went into the bookstore to find a new read, an avalanche of books greeted me instead. Gazing into the avalanche to look for survivors, I was disappointed to see the gang of best-selling superstars: James Patterson, Nicholas Sparks, Jodi Picoult, and the crew. They did not interest me. These were the china dolls covered with glossy title pages to prove it. Instinct told me to move to the fiction section to see an old friend Voltaire.  As I passed Voltaire, my eyes fell on a foreign name I had never heard before: Vonnegut. Luck made me pick it up. Odd how things like that work out. If that book wasn’t there in that exact location, if I had not been distracted by the literary show-horses, if Voltaire wasn’t a name I always fancied for being more than an anagram, I wouldn’t have noticed Vonnegut. You can call it destiny. I call it a life long affair, for that very night, my fingers made love to its pages, my tongue mouthed each word like I was kissing them from a ghost’s lips. My first book was Slaughterhouse Five and for me, it really did put the laughter into slaughter.

Why did I laugh when reading it? Because this world makes shit-all sense. Kurt Vonnegut knew this better than most. He sees man as a being that laughs as a means of escaping the incomprehensible world. It is a device that allows people to hurtle through the worst of troubles. With each book Kurt has written, I feel as though he asked himself what are we without laughter? His answer: we are animals – bloody animals – who murder, eat, fart and not much more. Bewildered bohemians who blather on and on. Just a load of boozers, junkies, phonies, layabouts. Human beings are the worst kind of species.

Yet we, unlike any species before us, have the ability to change and become something different without having to plead to the gods of natural selection. For Kurt, this is done through art, or in his case, writing. Art is a product of humanity’s ingenuity. It is the combination of thought, sound, love, breath creating life, life creating breath. And yet, when the Thinker crumbles, the Sistine Chapel collapses, and Mona Lisa’s smile fades, humanity will be forgotten. Literary greatness like Kurt will be no more. In light of such a day, Kurt uses his humour as self-defense against the Universe.

“But what is this humour Kacper? Dig deeper bub,” you command. Well, I would like to, trust me, but my dearest reader, Kurt is not funny when one looks at his wit, dissects it, and tears it apart bit by bit. I believe that humour in general, especially Kurt’s, is meant to be a very serious thing; where it is the fullness of the piece that makes the joke. Without the entire piece, humour fails. When one permits themselves to become a hackneyed surgeon, bearing the load of subjectivity, they have abandoned the humour totally. They are like a drunk surgeon, cutting through the giblets of comedy.

Not unlike a good surgery, however, humour is a methodical process. Non sequitur, dark comedy, irony, hyperboles are but a few tools in the humourist’s arsenal. Yet knowing the techniques does not bring about a chuckle. Instead, it is the author’s verbal freshness that pokes us, scolds us, astonishes us, entertains us, mesmerizes us and, most of all, makes us laugh. In doing so, the author evokes the cynical chortle, the knowing grin, the inner laugh that soothes our troubled reflections. They make us believe that they’re as mad as hell, laughing wherever they go, even the end; and to me, without telling you why or how, Kurt is the Devil himself. He is a fallen angel who was doomed to laughter all the while mixing a curious blend of wisdom and bitterness, wit and resignation, and an endless nose thumbing at the Universe. All in all, Vonnegut is simply funny because, “Life is no way to treat an animal.”

Playboy, the first magazine that published a playboy like him, described him as “a moralist with a whoopee cushion, a comedian with a heart.” I think that’s fitting. No other humorist can seesaw from gravity to gobbledygook so effectively. His writing is wholly unique. With an extraordinary gift for parody and a linguistic dexterity equal to any satirist at their finest, Kurt remains a literary paragon. Even his early work hits an array of the highest volume that can’t have been heard since the Tsar Bomba. Both were destructive, but all Vonnegut needed was a pen, not explosives. Boom. That’s talent.

What is more is that good artists, as Oscar Wilde said, exist simply in what they make, and consequently are perfectly uninteresting in what they are. I believe this stands true for Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Although his life is important, it does not comprise the man. He was not fantastic because he was a Hoosier. He does not resonate with me because he survived a war. Hell, he isn’t even great because his mother killed herself on Mother’s day and he kept on living, kept on believing, kept on writing.

No.

He is great because he writes not as a man who wishes to be remembered but as a man who wishes to remember man. To Kurt, I feel as though he thinks humanity is going to hell in a hand basket. We never asked to be born. And yet, here we all are, thrust to breathe oxygen while the weight of the world sits on our shoulders. Sometimes, it’s too heavy. Sometimes, we collapse under it all. Sometimes, a man can only ease the weight by capturing human condition in a prison of prose. That man is Kurt. He uses stunning simplicity to stave off a world that is sold bit by bit to the highest bidder, that is covered with enough nukes to kill us all six times over, that shouts out the words “fuck you” more than the words “I love you”.

But after seeing a world burn before his eyes in 1945, he was there to pick up the rubble. He was there to make a difference. That’s why I like him: because despite it all, he believes in humanity. That is why he has one rule I know of, and one I desperately try to follow. It was stated in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. The main character, Eliot Rosewater, is one day asked to baptize babies. He is not a priest, but that doesn’t matter. Religion is a feeling, not a belief, and all that matters are the words he has chosen to say for the baptism and the words he chose not to. I will let him speak them for both these cases, because what words of mine could have an effect after his. I doubt any words can.

“I told her, “ said Eliot, and Mushari’s mind, which was equipped with ratchets, declined to accept this evidence, “that I wasn’t a religious person by any stretch of the imagination. I told her nothing I did would count in Heaven, but she insisted just the same. “

“What will you say? What will you do?”

“Oh- I don’t know.” Eliot’s sorrow and exhaustion dropped away for a moment as he became enchanted by the problem. A birdy little smile played over his lips. “Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkle some water on the babies and say, ‘ Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies —:”

“ ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

*

Kurt, wherever you are, either laughing in heaven or laughing in hell or laughing like a cold turkey in the ground, hopefully one day we human beings do become kind. Maybe one day we will be. Or maybe we won’t. As you say, “So it goes” and much of what I have learned, including most of this essay, is from you. So thanks and God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut. You’d laugh at that.

About kacperniburski

I am searching for something in between the letters. Follow my wordpress or my IG (@_kenkan)

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