Early on in the excellent biography “And So it Goes – Kurt Vonnegut: A Life,” the reader can detect the Rosebud-like origins of Vonnegut’s attitude toward history.
Novelists like Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer attributed their view of an irrational world to the chaos of World War II combat. But even before Vonnegut got off the POW train at Dresden, the author had been mugged by a chaotic world.
The author of “Slaughterhouse Five’s” privileged background was undone by the Wall Street crash, recalls the sturdy new tome by Charles J. Shield. Vonnegut’s brother frustrated his chance to go to Harvard by forcibly enrolling him into a science studies curriculum at Cornell. His mother committed suicide on Mother’s Day. Dresden is merely a compressed confirmation of Vonnegut’s view of “a world gone mad.”
And the list of maddening elements was only getting started.
British soldiers in drag, Nazi recruiters posing as Red Cross workers, Hitler Youth singing church hymns, Allies bombing their own men, starving POWs subsisting on quick dollops of syrup, circus animals freed by the bombing perching on the debris — all moved Vonnegut toward what would be his chief literary métier of irony.
The only refuge amid such events is resigned apathy, or “so it goes.” His own life was one of ironies. This darling of the counter-culture was in fact an investor in numerous corporations, some even manufacturing weapons for use in Vietnam. Socialist in many instances, Vonnegut nevertheless favored an enlightened free enterprise. Again and again, Shields reports the shock New Leftists felt when, upon meeting Vonnegut, they discovered he was not a comrade. But Shields seems so determined to hammer Vonnegut into a reasonably conservative mold that he misses the biggest irony of all.
The chronicler of chaotic history favored teleological socialism. Lenin’s train of history, moving steadily toward socialism, was at odds with Vonnegut’s portrayal in his novel of it zigging and zagging and even repeating itself (indeed, the only time Vonnegut strove to make a political point, where he had Pilgrim’s Green Beret son voice the same sentiments of his American Nazi visitor to the Dresden prisoners twenty years, showed history repeating itself not moving forward). Far from conservative, Vonnegut earned a candidacy for useful idiot.
When Alger Hiss could not secure a blurb for his autobiography or the publishers of his prison letters save for the Nation, Vonnegut alone wrote one, stating that because of the warmth and humanity of Hiss’s prison letters there was no way Hiss could be a Soviet spy (compartmentalization, the m.o. of spies, was not even considered).
His view of modern terrorists as “very brave people” further compounded his childish politics and showed how he willing he was to shelve his view of man carried along rather than imposing his will on history to make a leftist point. Moreover, Shields’ strongest argument for Vonnegut’s conservatism–his championing of GE–was in itself formed by his leftism.
Vonnegut supported GE because he viewed its welfare capitalism as socialist and embraced how it exported products to Iron Curtain countries. Vonnegut’s life shows that mastery of satire did not translate into deep thinking. Once during a debate with William F. Buckley, Vonnegut defined his own politics as “grotesque” because he “exaggerated.”
Indeed – and so it goes.