God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

In Howard’s End, E.M. Forster wrote that “Death destroys a man, but it’s the idea of death that saves him.” Death is usually an ending, but death has been so instrumental in the intellectual and emotional development of so many writers in the twentieth century that it has become a beginning. This story begins like this:


Kurt Vonnegut was an absurd man.

It ends like this:

“I know, I know. I know.”


Kurt Vonnegut was an absurd man.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus described the absurd person as someone who has seen through the ridiculous repetitions of daily life and “At certain moments of lucidity, the mechanical aspects of their gestures, their meaningless pantomime makes silly everything that surrounds them.” The imagery of a mechanical pantomime (or dance) is very close to Vonnegut’s use of the metaphor “duty dance with death” to describe life in Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut used the author Louis Celine and his writings to bring this metaphor to life. Celine, who wrote Death on the Installment Plan (another metaphor for life), once wrote that “No art is possible without a dance with death.” Celine described it this way: “The truth is death. I’ve fought nicely against it as long as I could, danced with it, festooned it, waltzed it around.”

Camus began The Myth of Sisyphus by writing that “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” In other words, “The truth is death.”

For Camus, man is a stranger in exile in the universe devoid of meaning. Life must be, and can only be, infused with meaning by mankind. “What the hell are people for?” Vonnegut asked. His answer seems to be: To give meaning to this duty dance with death. How is that done? Since we cannot evade death, we must entertain death and keep it busy. We must waltz with it.

This is done, like in a dance, through repetition and remembering. In Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, Henri Bergson likened the comic to watching a room full of dancers but with one’s own ears stopped so that one cannot hear the music. He also saw comedy in man being turned into a machine and in the idea of repetition, both themes of Camus and Vonnegut.

For Camus the comic must be turned into the absurd and man must engage in rebellious repetition. He must fight death with Pyrrhic integrity; he must “thumb his nose,” like Bokonon at the end of Cat’s Cradle. The comic is turned into the absurd, and daily routine turned into Sisyphean rebellion, at just the point at which man becomes aware that life is a comic farce, a Slapstick which cannot be evaded.

Vonnegut knew this. Writing for Vonnegut was an act of Sisyphean repetition that infused his life with meaning by forcing him to remember what the hell people are for. In Slaughterhouse-Five he wrote, ironically, though many miss the irony: “People aren’t supposed to look back. I?m certainly not going to anymore.” Just prior to that he told the reader that it is precisely the act of “looking back” which makes us humans. To be human is to remember.

For Camus, Sisypheanism was refusing to forget where one is from; that is, looking back to Eden, remembering that one toils in exile and remembering where one is headed; that is, towards death. One cannot hide behind illusions because that would be, for Camus, “Forgetting just what I do not want to forget.”
The Yaqui Indians believe one should walk beside death like a companion to remind them that he could take them at any moment.

Camus and Vonnegut both understand that. Hemingway, another writer obsessed with death, did too.

Nick Adams, and I think Hemingway by proxy, was terrified of death. In the very first Nick Adams story, “Three Shots,” Nick is trying to sleep alone at camp when “suddenly he was afraid of dying.” A few weeks prior to that, in church, Nick realized he would die someday. “It made him feel quite sick.” Hemingway faced the fear of death and the seeming absurdity of life by shows of manly courage. Face the thing you fear head on and act simply and decisively. But the key was action. He even developed a writing style that was compact, tight and focused on life in the face of death. A style that fit a life of action.

Hemingway chose a life of action, and he wrote in order to try and hold off the increasingly overwhelming forces of meaninglessness that stormed the beaches of his soul. He was trying to keep death at bay. Writing for him was an end in itself. A mode of existence that gave meaning to his life, and when he felt he had lost that barrier between himself and death he gave in to it. Thanatos beat Eros and he killed himself.

For Vonnegut writing wasn’t an end in itself; it was a means to an end. It was an act of remembering and repetition, like dancing.
In an essay titled “A Room Called Remember,” Frederick Buechner wrote that “in the room called Remember it is possible to find peace- the peace that comes from looking back and remembering to remember that though most of the time we failed to see it, we were never really alone.”
John Donne wrote, “No man is an island entire to himself; therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Hemingway titled his greatest work on this passage of Donne’s, but he never understood that we find purpose and meaning in repetition and remembering and relation: our relationship to ourselves, to others, to our world and even to death.

In writing death lost its sting for Vonnegut; it died, to borrow from Donne again. Vonnegut screamed out to the universe “What the hell are people for” and back came a single word: “Remember.” So he put his back to the repetitious task of moving a boulder of words up a hill only to have to roll back down again and again. He took up his pen and dutifully danced with death. It all sounds so absurd.

“I know; I know. I know.”

2 thoughts on “God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

  1. This sentence at the close of your paper resonates deeply in me: “So he put his back to the repetitious task of moving a boulder of words up a hill only to have to roll back down again and again. He took up his pen and dutifully danced with death. It all sounds so absurd.”

    I found your weblog through LibraryThing (we have several books in common) and have read several posts here. Thank you for your thoughts on the eternal questions. I feel the hush of a monastery or a convent here.

    I have started writing as a way to work through issues of forgiveness. I am a catholic who lost a son last year at age 35. I read your poem describing the taunting thoughts in the darkness of night —I know that state well. Catholics believe in salvation through faith alone, not merit. I agonize over what that means, I accept it completely but can’t help analyzing the meaning of forgiveness— the boulder in my writing. Thanks for your words.

  2. I’ve read this essay of yours several times and enjoy it every time and sometimes whisper under my breath, if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.

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