“And how should we behave during this Apocalypse? We should be unusually kind to one another, certainly. But we should also stop being so serious. Jokes help a lot. And get a dog, if you don’t already have one.” —Kurt Vonnegut, from Armageddon in Retrospect: And Other New and Unpublished Writings on War and Peace
The times we are in today miss the great American author Kurt Vonnegut. War, atrocity, plague, Armageddon—he had a way in his writing of plumbing the depths of these terribly dark subject matters and somehow emerging with light. And even though he often wrote about doom and gloom and the insanity of the human race, he somehow made it so much fun to read! Slaughterhouse Five, Cat’s Cradle, Bluebeard: you start one of his great novels, and simply cannot stop. The words are read swiftly and with great pleasure and mirth, the pages turn as if of their own volition, and when the story ends you are satisfied and want more all at once. You find yourself lighter at heart for having read them. Saner. Wiser.
Oh, Kurt Vonnegut, we miss you.
Of course, from a certain perspective, he’s still right here! After all, as Vonnegut himself (in spirit at least partly a science-fiction writer) well knew, the magical thing about art is that it can function as a time machine—great fiction, great photography, they transcend space and time, transporting us across the ages. For instance, suddenly, thanks to this wonderful image taken by his wife, the eminent author/photographer Jill Krementz, here Kurt is, right before our eyes, alive and well and joyfully chasing their Lhasa Apso, Pumpkin, down a Long Island beach! And Vonnegut’s words, too, are alive, spoken to us as if from his lips just this very moment, as prescient now as they ever were. (After all, his heartfelt advice—be unusually kind, stop being so serious, get a dog—has a kind of immortality to it: it will never not be true.)
I’ve been reading his novel Bluebeard the past few days (and loving it), though the reason I bring it up is because of its epigraph, in which the author quotes a letter from his son, Dr. Mark Vonnegut: “We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.” For millions of readers, that’s exactly what Kurt did, and continues to do: somehow, he helps us persevere. Almost especially when times are as dark as these, he acts as if a guide, carrying a torch, illuminating our way along the shadowed path. With his unusual kindness, his ruthless honesty, and his tireless sense of humor, Vonnegut makes this strange existence we’ve all been thrust into a little lighter—and a lot more fun.
Coincidentally, this is of course what dogs do, too.