Kurt Vonnegut was a great writer. He is considered by many to have been a skeptic, an aetheist, and a humanist. He studied anthropology, he wrote, and he taught writing, before he died in 2007. Though he wrote under the genre of science fiction, I think it might more accurately be called “speculative fiction”.
Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, and “Harrison Bergeron” are the most memorable Vonnegut stories for me. Burning books, destroying libraries, controlling minds with technology, seem to me like metaphorical abstractions not so far from reality. And Vonnegut knew about the “desert of the real”. His mother committed suicide when he was just 21 years old, and he was a soldier and a prisoner of war during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. Apparently, the experience never left him.
And something else never left him: Shakepeare. What I repeatedly find so amazing, is the way that Hamlet haunts so many writers. Maybe once shown the ghost of this “poem unlimited”, the mind is opened to future imaginings of the infinite. Maybe Hamlet defies time and space and comes back to haunt the living.
Vonnegut gave an assignment to some of his students which read as follows:
“As for your term papers, I should like them to be both cynical and religious. I want you to adore the Universe, to be easily delighted, but to be prompt, as well as impatient, with those artists who offend your own deep notions of what the Universe is or should be. ‘This above all …'”
I wonder if Vonnegut loved and hated Polonius as I do?
I wonder what lines from Hamlet meant the most to him as he looked unashamedly at the ugliness and beauty of the universe?
The echoes of the past resonate in the ears of the present. If only we listen carefully.