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A humanist goes to heaven: Remembering literary legend Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

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Author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. died last week at the age of 84, which isn’t a bad run considering he chain-smoked unfiltered Pall Malls since he was 12 years old. His works range widely from flat-out science fiction to burning, but often hilarious, analysis of modern life, politics, religion and the human condition. If you haven’t read him, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of his last effort, A Man Without A Country, which is a no-holds-barred look at life as seen through his widely experienced eyes at the age of 82. It’s a thin book and will only take a couple hours to read, but it’s guaranteed to inspire, infuriate and leave you laughing at the end.

Vonnegut is perhaps best known for his novel Slaughterhouse Five, which brought to the world’s attention the atrocity of the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, by Allied forces in World War II. He only survived the total destruction of the city because he was underground, held as a prisoner of war in a meat locker, from which came the title of the book.

For those who don’t know about this dark episode in our military past, on February 13 and 14, 1945, just before the end of the war, first British, then American bombers dropped an estimated 600,000 phosphorus bombs on a city of 1.2 million people, including hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the advance of the Soviet Army from the east. With no military units and no anti-aircraft batteries within the city, the term “defenseless civilians” is apropos.

With one bomb for every two people, the entire city was engulfed in a firestorm that sent flames and smoke three miles into the sky, created a tornado as it sucked in oxygen from miles around, and killed elderly men, women, children and wounded soldiers. Tens of thousands of bodies and, more accurately, what was left of bodies were counted afterward, but no one knows exactly how many people perished in the center of the city because temperatures there reached nearly 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, totally incinerating the victims.

When Vonnegut came out of the slaughterhouse, the devastation was overwhelming. As a prisoner of war, he was forced to dig bodies from the destruction and later wrote: “You guys burnt the place down, turned it into a single column of flame. More people died there in the firestorm, in that one big flame, than died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.”

One might think, as seems to be the case these days with vote-hungry politicians like John McCain, that anyone who survived being a prisoner of war and a holocaust fire-bombing would drop to his knees, thank God, and give a cheer for our side. But that’s not what Vonnegut did. Instead, he went on to condemn the brutality of war and the politicians who lead us so readily into it, to embrace humanism and to unequivocally deny the existence of a divine afterlife. When asked how humanists feel about Jesus, Vonnegut wrote: “I say of Jesus, as all humanists do, ‘If what he said is good, and so much of it is absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not?’”

He offers this insight on Bush in his last book: “George W. Bush has gathered around him upper-crust C-minus students who know no history or geography, plus not-so-closeted white supremacists, aka Christians, and plus, most frighteningly, psychopathic personalities, or PPs, the medical term for smart, personable people who have no consciences. What can be said to our young people, now that psychopathic personalities, which is to say persons without consciences, without senses of pity or shame, have taken all the money in the treasuries of our government and made it all their own?”

If that makes you want to cry, Vonnegut, using the literary dexterity he mastered, adds: “You know why I think George W. Bush is so pissed off at the Arabs? They brought us algebra. Also, the numbers we use, including a symbol for nothing, which Europeans had never had before. You think Arabs are dumb? Try doing long division with Roman numerals.”

As a humanist, Vonnegut believed we were responsible for the condition of our planet, and he was relentless in his criticism of just how bad a job we were doing. “Evolution can go to hell as far as I am concerned. What a mistake we are. We have mortally wounded this sweet life-supporting planet—the only one in the whole Milky Way—with a century of transportation whoopee. Don’t spoil the party, but here’s the truth: We have squandered our planet’s resources, including air and water, as though there were no tomorrow, so now there isn’t going to be one.”

Of his own work, Vonnegut wrote: “All I really wanted to do was give people the relief of laughing. Humor can be a relief, like an aspirin tablet. If a hundred years from now people are still laughing, I’d certainly be pleased.”

And humor is what he delivered. Following the death of Isaac Asimov, the famous scientist and fellow writer, Vonnegut says he was appointed to the “totally functionless capacity” as the Honorary President of the American Humanist Association. Speaking at the memorial service for Asimov, Vonnegut told the assembled crowd of humanists, who do not believe in an afterlife, that: “Isaac is up in heaven now.” According to his account, it “rolled them in the aisles. It was several minutes before order could be restored.”

Vonnegut has joined Asimov, passed from this vale, beyond any ability to bless us with his insight, humor and honesty. Yet, in that last thin book, he left one request: “If I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say ‘Kurt is up in heaven now.’ That’s my favorite joke.”

And so, in honor of this great American now gone, don’t fret overly much. Just remember, Kurt is up in heaven now.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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