Dear Kurt Vonnegut,
How fitting that I am writing my first letter to you just a few days after you died. I would like to believe that you would appreciate the ironic timing of my correspondence.
As I read your obituaries, the recollections from those of my generation (the '60s) as well as younger readers struck a responsive chord. The dog-eared copies of your books served as my frequent companion, affirming my views of how cockeyed and unfair our world is and providing me a welcome diversion from the insanity and stresses of that world. Occasionally your books inspired me to try to make a small difference, to direct my attention to my community's pressing problems. In hindsight, you also encouraged me to channel my fantasies and musings into writing. This medium has given me considerable satisfaction and a fair amount of therapeutic benefit.
As I thought about what I would say to you, a sports analogy came to mind. While I don't know if you were interested in baseball, the fact that you lived in Chicago and I have had a life-long obsession with the much loved, seldom victorious team from that city, the Cubs, makes me believe you must have had at least a passing interest in sports.
Call me serendipitous.
But I digress. The ease with which you used language to convey important ideas and evoke strong emotions put me in mind of Ozzie Smith scooping up a hard-hit ground ball or Ken Caminetti stopping a scorching line drive. Like those great infielders you made difficult feats seem deceptively easy, leaving your fans shaking their heads in disbelief as they muttered, "How did he do that?" How did you reach into the psyche of your readers, deftly unlatch the gate to our imagination, reach in and tickle the nerve that evokes uncontrollable laughter? And how were you able to prod that nerve to the precise point where the laughter turned into tears, which cleansed the lens through which we see the world? Thus allowing us to have an unobstructed view of the foibles and failures of our human institutions as well as the range of possibilities available to those of us who erect and sustain these structures
All of which is to say, you were blessed with the literary equivalent of soft hands.
But you were more than a literary exorcist, enabling us to laugh at what isn't really funny so we might see how readily we tolerate stupidity, greed and cruelty. For me, you were also a quixotic hero. Looking vulnerable in your skinny frame, frizzy hair and big glasses, you weren't afraid to stand up to those who cared less about our planet and its inhabitants than their own selfish desires.
In your oddly rhymed, quirky text you challenged the deception and lies of the men in power and reminded those who stood by silently that they too were responsible. It's not that you were the only one delivering this message. Others have spoken out with passion and clarity. What distinguished you was the vulnerability of your persona and odd simplicity of your presentation. Not exactly a formidable presence, you slipped through the well-guarded gates of the establishment's compound and proceeded to disarm them. Accustomed to frontal assaults and dirty tricks, our leaders were caught off-guard by your unconventional tactics. They didn't know what to do with someone who used absurdity and humor to expose their irrational and dishonest acts.
How clever of you to use absurdity to unmask absurdity. Those soft hands at work, again.
In addition to appreciating your uncanny ability to unlock imaginations and expose the cruel and deceitful actions of the wealthy and powerful, I also was struck by the common experiences and attributes you and I shared. Both of us spent time in Chicago and had an academic interest in the field of anthropology. You identified yourself as a secular humanist. While I find the label to be a little stiff and pedantic, I, too, consider myself to be a member of that camp. Finally, both of our mothers took their own lives just before we were supposed to become adults.
One of the many conversations I wish I could have had with you was on this last point. We both experienced this traumatic loss at roughly the same age. Yet the way we dealt with our losses seems so different. You went off to become a prisoner of war in WWII and I returned to a pastoral college campus in suburban New Jersey. You battled with depression throughout your life, almost succumbing to your mother's fate in your early 60s. I have been more fortunate. While I have endured an amorphous sadness that occasionally descends upon me without warning, this malady does not seem to have taken the same emotional toll on me. I wonder what accounts for the differences in how we coped? Genetics? Earlier experience? Circumstance? (College wasn't always idyllic but it beat the hell out of Dresden.) Luck?
Though we coped in different ways, I am confident we shared one common strategy. We both pursued work as an outlet for creative expression. And also as a way to drive the demons away.
How secular is that?
One final irony. As I am writing this letter, news of a horrible act of violence in Virginia fills the media. A student has gone on a rampage at one of our finest universities, killing 32 people and injuring others. This senseless act of violence has left the nation stunned. Even before the shock has subsided, discussion about the bigger meaning of this event has begun. Why would someone kill so many innocent people, should we tighten gun control laws, and how can we keep our campuses safe are some of the topics being addressed.
While I have no idea which literary vehicle you would choose to address this event, I am confident that you would add a unique and creative voice to this dialogue. In addition to being horrified by this meaningless slaughter, you would also likely be upset with those who sanctimoniously condemn the disturbed student who took these many innocent lives. I can imagine you drawing parallels between this horrific event and other senseless acts of carnage that pervade our society as you deliver the message that we should not focus our wrath on the flawed individuals who perpetrate this violence. We should instead focus on the stewards of our flawed and callous institutions that create conditions that allow us to be so cruel to so many innocent people. And how else would this soliloquy end than with the punch line you were so fond of using:
So it goes.
Goodbye, weary warrior. Goodbye, kind soul. Your writing will endure. S
Bob Cohen is professor and vice chair of the department of psychiatry at VCU. His latest mystery novel, "Hammond's Choice" will be published by Brandylane Publishers this winter.
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