Kurt Vonnegut: Holy Atheist

I’m continuing with my tribute to the written word, those books and authors which have deeply influenced and taught me over the years. This week, I wanted to write about the novelist who carried me through my teens and early twenties, Kurt Vonnegut. Most people can remember their first kiss or the first time they saw the ocean. These moments are seared into our memory because they shift something in us emotionally, creating a sense of true wonder. I remember with absolute clarity the first time I picked up Siren’s Of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut. I was a sophomore in high school, sitting in a classroom with a teacher who seemed to have lost interest in teaching about ten years prior. He must have been especially tired that day, because instead of instruction, he told us to pick a book off the bookshelf and read it for the next forty-five minutes. I grabbed a beat-up paperback copy of Siren’s of Titan, finishing the book before the school day ended, feeling like I had discovered a great secret about the world which was hidden behind the existing status quo of small-town Western Kentucky, a place where I’d felt different and unusual ever since my family moved there.

If Siren’s Of Titan gently nudged my conscience toward the numinous, reading Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s masterpiece, resulted in a genuine spiritual experience. As many know, the book focuses on Billy Pilgrim, a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany during World War II. The character was based on Vonnegut’s own experiences, when he watched in horror as the entire city burned to the ground following its bombing by allied forces. In the book, when Billy Pilgrim’s character is witness to the death and destruction rained down on Dresden, he dissociates himself from the graphic scene, separating from the trauma by imagining he is on another planet where he shares a room with a beautiful woman who provides nurturing love to his wounded psyche. Not that I had ever experienced anything on par with war-induced PTSD, but I had been using my imagination to escape reality since I was a young child. Whether I was dreaming of what it would be like to be a Jedi from Star Wars, or imagining how it would feel to talk to the prettiest girl in school, I understood what it felt like to wish that you could escape from a reality that didn’t live up to the promise. In short, when I read Kurt Vonnegut, I didn’t feel alone. I knew that my people were out there somewhere.

When I was twenty years old, still trying to figure out who I was, I saw Kurt Vonnegut speak at a small college in Lexington, Kentucky. This was around 1993, not long after the Iraq War, a skirmish that I remember produced a lot of patriotic fervor. (Picture Whitney Huston singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl) I remember Vonnegut up at the podium, speaking to a crowd that looked especially conservative and buttoned-up. He told the audience that rather than feeling a kinship with the American soldiers, those he considered his brothers were the Iraqi prisoner’s of war, men obliged to die in a war commissioned by an egomaniacal dictator. There was an uncomfortable silence in the room after his statement, but Vonnegut was uncompromising in his belief that war, and the killing of human beings, should not be glorified under any conditions. I sat there smiling in stunned silence, knowing that I wanted to be the kind of man who spoke his mind regardless of public opinion, even if it meant alienating yourself from the crowd.

Surprisingly, Vonnegut was also a big fan of the Recovery Movement, a fact that I found helpful when I had to face the facts of my own addiction. I’m not sure if Vonnegut was an alcoholic or not, but it seems he may have checked out a few meetings along the way. “Alcoholics Anonymous gives people an extended family that’s very close to a blood-brotherhood. They talk about real troubles that aren’t spoken of in church. They hang around (AA) because they’re looking for companionship, for brotherhood and sisterhood, for an extended family.”

For a self-avowed atheist, Vonnegut talked about God a lot. After reading a biography about him few years ago, I came away with the impression that the things he saw in war prevented him from being able to resolve the problem of a loving God in a world of tremendous suffering. But whether or not he believed in a deity, he did believe in saints: “A saint is a person who behaves decently in shockingly indecent society.”

Vonnegut knew the truth: we’d all be better off if we focused on being decent, rather than perfect.

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