KURT VONNEGUT--A NATIVE SON OF OUR CITY
LITERARY CHARACTER. One of Indianapolis' native sons, Kurt Vonnegut, 84, died today. Though literary satirist Vonnegut left Indy 50 years ago, he stayed connected to the city in many ways. Of his relationship to Indianapolis, Vonnegut said in 1986: "All my jokes are Indianapolis. All my attitudes are Indianapolis. My adenoids are Indianapolis. If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I would be out of business." I’ve got to admire a person who so freely acknowledges his connection to place in general and this place in particular.
AN ODD JUXTAPOSITION. Though Indianapolis is proud to name Vonnegut as a native son, the writer’s outspoken politics and life perspective seem at odds with the conservative Midwestern ethos of Indy. He was an agnostic, outspoken anti-war advocate, and intense critic of George W. Bush (he was a Bush basher when Bush bashing wasn’t cool). Certainly, those of us who long for rationality in government and an end to military violence as a way of solving conflicts have lost an agitating voice in Vonnegut. But no one who is sane would ever free-associate Vonnegut with Indianapolis politics. I suppose you wouldn’t free associate Vonnegut with any prevailing ideology. He was one of a kind.
OUTSPOKEN AGNOSTIC. Otherwise excellent local tributes to Vonnegut understate that he was also a rather outspoken agnostic. In his novels, essays and speeches, he lashes out--sometimes humorously, sometimes harshly--at religion, particularly Christianity. Maybe Vonnegut was never able to come to terms with the massive loss of civilian life in Dresden, Germany as a result of the American and Allied bombings he witnessed as a prisoner of war there near the end of World War II. His reflections on this experience in Slaughterhouse Five and other writings seem to indicate a conscience that could not reconcile such atrocity with Christian faith. Neither can mine.
A CYNICAL LENS FOR LIFE. I wonder if Vonnegut represents one of many people whose really irrational experiences and confrontations with evil in life are not fairly answered by shallow religious justifications or the rationales of the institutional church and civil religion. In light of their existential experiences unaddressed by wise spiritual counsel, folks tend to become cynics--and this becomes the lens through which they view every other experience the rest of their lives.
FROM CYNICISM TO FAITH. But the response to unjustifiable evil or irrational harm need not necessarily be one of cynicism. Another response is to name insanity and evil for what it is, take seriously the disarming alternative to cynicism offered in the Bible, and lean forward into a hopeful future beckoned by a God who has, does, and shall act to redeem fallen humanity in a heart-breaking world.
(Part of this post was submitted to the Indianapolis Star on April 13 as a "Letter to the Editor")