Category Archives: Philosophy

Kurt Vonnegut, 1922-2007

I am very, very rarely actually saddened by the death of a celebrity. The last time I can remember it happening was Mr. Rogers four years ago. But just as Mr. Rogers was, no joke, probably one of the most important people in my early childhood, being my television neighbor and all, Kurt Vonnegut, who I just learned is dead at 84, was one of the most important people of my adolescence. I won’t tell you he’s the greatest author who ever lived. But to this day, I’ll tell you he’s the greatest author I’ve ever read.

Vonnegut easily shaped my cynical worldview more than anybody I’ve ever known or anybody I’ve never known. He’s my literary hero. Every time I’ve ever made an abortive attempt to write fiction, from age 12 until now, it looks exactly like watered-down, cut-rate Vonnegut, all choppy sentences and free-flowing irony. His books are beautiful to read, and every one of them makes you think about some serious issues. They’re easy books, but they’re not easy books. From junior high through college, I read every book he ever wrote. I used to think that made me special and imagined that one day I’d meet him and tell him that, and that would make him happy. Then I read in interview in which he said tons of kids come up to him and tell him they’ve read all his books.

Here’s how much my brain was affected by Vonnegut: I was thinking about him just last night. I think about him a lot. Last night, I just so happened to be scouring the Internet for information about San Lorenzo, the fictional island nation in Cat’s Cradle, the first Vonnegut book I ever read and still my favorite, for sentimental and other reasons. Along the way, I came across a page that collects all the material from Cat’s Cradle about Bokononism. Has anybody ever invented a better fake religion? Vonnegut, of course, was a Bokononist himself, which is why it’s so convincing. I don’t expect he actually recited the Bokononist last rites, but I hope that’s how he felt at the end. I bet it was.

In my first few weeks of college, I found out a play based on one of my two or three favorite novels ever, The Sirens of Titan, was showing in Chicago. Nobody wanted to go with me, so I went myself. I got on the el, rode to the stop, got off, walked two blocks, was terrified by the sketchy neighborhood, and turned back. I still regret that for a variety of reasons.

A couple of years later, he came to the school to give a lecture, and I was excited for weeks at the prospect of actually seeing him in person. Then, back home in New York, he was sitting directly behind me at a small play about a female cop and a doorman falling in love. When I graduated and moved to the city, I lived near his neighborhood and saw him three or four times. I still remember the last time: He was looking withered and old, hunched over in a sweater vest, depositing something or other into a corner garbage can. He clearly lived on that block, and I remember wondering why he would have to use a public garbage can.

All those times, I never worked up the courage to talk to him. Now I never will. So it goes.

I saw him on the Daily Show last year. He sounded terrible, and I knew it wouldn’t be long. Now he’s dead. I remember when Timothy Leary, like Vonnegut an influential hippie-era counterculture philosopher, died of cancer years ago. He talked a big game and announced he was going to make a big show of his death, broadcasting it on the nascent World Wide Web. But somehow I knew it wasn’t going to happen. Sure enough, the time came, and we got nothing. He chickened out. Who can blame him? But somehow I bet Vonnegut wasn’t scared, even though he was a proud secular humanist who fervently believed there was nothing waiting for him in the great beyond except maybe, if he was lucky, a purple light and a hum for all eternity. He did a lot, a lot of thinking about death, and he seemed completely OK with it. Read all his books and see if you don’t believe me.

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Me: not an original thinker

Evidently, I’m a New Mysterian. I came up with this philosophy completely independently, honest — I had no idea anybody else had ever professed it or even thought of it. I guess everything has already been done, huh? It wasn’t until I stumbled across its Wikipedia article five minutes ago that I realized it was an actual, existing theory with an actual, existing name.

The situation is pretty dire. For one thing, “New Mysterianism” is a surpassingly dumb name that makes me think, above all, of ? & the Mysterians. And it only gets worse. One of the most prominent proponents of New Mysterianism is notorious jerk and admitted homophobe and racist John Derbyshire. And look at this guy, the world’s leading New Mysterian. Does he look like someone you can trust?

It’s enough to make me want to dump the idea, but sadly, I can’t — it just seems so obvious to me. I like to talk about it in terms of cats and calculus. My cat is one of the smartest animals I’ve ever encountered. She’s affectionate. She often exhibits behavior that seems strikingly human. But try as I might, I could never teach my cat differential calculus. At her evolutionary stage, she just doesn’t have the brain power to come close to comprehending it. That doesn’t mean that differential calculus doesn’t make sense, or that it isn’t real. Everybody who has a brain advanced enough to understand it knows that it’s perfectly logical and it works, and that it can explain countless puzzling mathematical problems. But my cat, a member of one of the most intelligent of the millions of species in the world, will never even come close to being able to fathom any of it.

Likewise, it’s arrogant and scientifically specious for us humans to assume that we exist at the highest possible plane of evolution. We can understand calculus, yes, but there must be truths about the universe that we still lack the brainpower to comprehend and will continue to do so for another million years or so. If there were things we couldn’t understand back when we thought at a cat level, what evidence is there to suggest there’s nothing we can’t figure out today?

There is one major problem in the world that nobody has ever been able to solve, and I seriously doubt that anyone — anyone that we would rightfully call a human being — will ever be able to solve. It’s perhaps the only fundamental problem shared by adherents of religious and atheistic philosophies: What happened in the beginning? I once saw a great episode of Kirk Cameron’s The Way of the Master in which one of the atheists being harassed on the street asked his inquisitors that very question. The fair-minded editors took it as an opportunity to cut him off and display Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” But that’s not good enough, which is what the atheist was undoubtedly trying to convey. Let’s say God created the heavens and the earth. Well, who or what created God? And who or what created that entity — and so on and so forth? Now, this is hardly an original question, and it’s been answered many times by many religious people over thousands of years: Nothing created God. He has always been and always will be. But if God has always been, why couldn’t a godless universe be eternal, too?

But we have to ask what came first, what happened at the beginning. We have to ask it because our brains can’t comprehend another scenario. We can talk about infinity, but we can’t really understand it. Maybe something did come first, and maybe that thing just happened, just came out of nothing, but that’s an impossible concept to us, too. Either way, we’re left with something beyond the reaches of our mind.

The concept that there are simply things we’re not advanced enough to understand, questions we can’t answer and never will, is the only logical conclusion.

I find it interesting that in the rudimentary research I’ve done on New Mysterianism, it seems to be principally an atheistic philosophy. Why can’t anybody, hardcore evangelical or militant god-hater, be a New Mysterian? Science and religion both leave important questions unanswered. Genesis 1:1 aside, neither one can really answer the fundamental “in the beginning” question. I would think the philosophy would be just as compatible with religion as with science — if not more so, because science by design seeks answers to all natural phenomena, whereas religion tends to be more comfortable with the unknown. Maybe that’s my original contribution to this whole line of thought. If I can’t invent it, at least I can contribute something good.

So I guess I’m a New Mysterian. Ugh. That’s going to take some getting used to. I guess I’ll go out now to buy some crystals and flowing sky-blue robes.