A lifelong Vonnegut fan and, in more recent years, a climate activist, I never expected one to intersect with the other.
I recently started reading Naomi Klein’s 2019 book, On – The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, top one on the pile of books next to my bed, my favorite place to read. Three weeks into recovering from a back injury my mind finally felt clear enough, and my body uncomplaining enough, that I picked it up.
I don’t know what Klein or Simon & Schuster were thinking with the title. Klein is Canadian, maybe that explains it; they seem more capable of combining climate disaster facts and the whimsy of an emoji in the title. None the less I got into it, especially when I got to Chapter Two, ‘A Hole in the World’ — reminding me of how quickly we forgot, even forgave, the most massive oil spill in American history – the BP’s Deep Horizon offshore rig that actually tore a hole in the ocean floor and gushed oil for two months.
For now, I’ll spare you the Deep Horizon death toll, the fractured lives on land and sea that are still limping along today. As for what followed – ‘Capitalism vs the Climate’ – ‘When Science Says That Political Revolution is Our Only Hope’ & a dozen other chapter titles – that will have to wait as well. Vonnegut interrupted me.
The morning after engaging the climate emergency with Naomi Klein the back pain had returned, leaving me with little capacity for painful truths. I turned to second stack, some old books a dear friend had asked my wife to bring to me.
She said, “I just wanna get ‘em out from underfoot.” I knew better. In a couple decades of friendship we’d shared many a conversation about the old books I love to read.
Among the books she gave me was a 1969 hardcover edition of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5. It’s a thin book, just 190 pages. It was within reach of my bed, my glasses were handy and the morning sun was over my right shoulder.
When asked, I’ve always named Slaughterhouse-5 among my favorite books of all time. Yet, the last time I read it was 1975. The second time around I savored each page as though it were a photo of a long-lost friend. Billy Pilgrim came back to life, wandering back and forth from 1945 to 1967, transported willy-nilly from Dresden to upstate New York to the planet Tralfamadore.
But I quickly lost the illusion of nostalgia. As I read on, I understood, for a second time the essence of Vonnegut’s notorious anti-war narrative and the meaning of its alternate title, The Children’s Crusade.
During his many years of trying to write his seminal book about the horrific and unwarranted destruction of Dresden, Germany by the Allies at the end of WWII, Vonnegut visits an old war buddy. They were both American POWs who lived through the bombing of Dresden. After groping for conversation with his friend, who like most veterans wanted to just leave the war behind, Vonnegut realizes that his friend’s wife, Mary O’Hare, who had politely excused herself to tend to her children upstairs when he first arrived, had come back downstairs very angry at him. Angry about the book he intended to write.
“You were just babies then!” she said.
I nodded that this was true. We had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood.
“But you’re not going to write it that way, are you.” This wasn’t a question. It was an accusation.
“I – I don’t know,” I said.
“Well, I know,” she said. “You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be found by babies like the babies upstairs.”
Vonnegut dedicated Slaughterhouse-5 to Mary O’Hare.
I grew old with Kurt Vonnegut – reading Galapagos, Bluebeard, Timequake, re-reading Cat’s Cradle, Mother Night and Player Piano, grappling with his ideas on humanity’s calamitous over-sized brain, meditating on his sense of all time existing at once, the chrono-synclastic infundibulum which had explained Billy Pilgrims wanderings through time. By the time he wrote his final work, A Man Without A Country, in 2005, I was just as pissed off at America as he was. Again, the subtitle said it all, A Memoir of Life in George W Bush’s America.
I mourned Kurt Vonnegut’s death in 2007, sad that he had nothing left to teach me. I was wrong.
My second reading of Slaughterhouse-5 was the result of a delightful gift from an old friend. It thought it was merely a reprieve from the harsh climate realities that Naomi Klein had been so aptly describing. Wrong again.
Vonnegut’s interruption of Klein was a profound awakening. Like a perpetual shadow in the background that suddenly comes into focus, I realized that the peace movement which Vonnegut had helped inspire had not been replaced by a more pressing agenda. The climate crisis has not risen up as a more ominous threat than humanity’s perpetual wars. The climate emergency we face is an extension of war. It is the result of humanity’s conquering attitude toward planet earth.
We will not achieve the sweeping changes needed to mitigate the impact of climate change without first achieving peace. We cannot begin to face the global mass migration that will result from climate change or the sharing of food that will be required by a global shift in where crops are grown in the same world that continues to maintain standing armies ready to annihilate each other. We must find a way to be at peace or an angry planet will cast its final judgement on us.
As it turns out, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. had more to say even after his death in 2007. A book of his essays came out in 2008 entitled Armageddon in Retrospect. In the final fanciful essay Vonnegut describes a psychologist who claims to have come up with the means of achieving universal mental health by zapping the devil out of everyone. Just before he gives up his own life in his quest to vanquish the devil, Dr. Gorman Tarbell writes his own epitaph:
“If I have succeeded tonight, then the Devil is no longer among men. I can do no more. Now, if others will rid the earth of vanity, ignorance, and want, mankind can live happily ever after.”