At the Bad Astronomy Blog, Phil posts on the life lessons of Kurt Vonnegut who died yesterday.
I’m profoundly saddened to hear that Kurt Vonnegut died today. He was 84.
He had a huge impact in my life, long before I knew who he was. I was attending a science fiction convention in high school, and found that the best part of the con were the movie showings. I watched one bad scifi flick after another (making fun of it was part of the fun)… and then one would pop up that was really good, and we were all surprised. I came in the middle of one such movie, and it was all wonky. Stuff would happen, and in the next scene more stuff would happen that didn’t make any sense, like the editor of the movie was high and edited the scenes together out of order. A woman has a serious car crash, then in the next scene you see her husband giving her the car as a present. I was getting seriously confused, when somebody finally put me out my misery: I was watching "Slaughterhouse-Five", they told me, made from the novel by Vonnegut.
It has a time travel theme, but is not really a time travel story. In it, Vonnegut says that time exists all at once, like a river exists all at once, even though water flows through it. We perceive time as flowing because we are limited in our three dimensions, like someone standing on the bank of the river and sees only the little bit of water flowing past. If we could break free of our limited perceptions, then we would see that something that exists at some point in time always exists, and always has existed, and always will.
That was a deeply profound concept to a naive 15 year old used to reading rocket ship stories. I wound up reading quite a few of this weird guy’s novels. Cat’s Cradle is amazing, and Sirens of Titan takes the concept of the permanence of time to an extreme but logical conclusion. I heartily recommend it.
I had the very distinct pleasure of hearing him speak back in grad school, when he came to UVa for a lecture. My girlfriend (the proto-Mrs. BA) and I laughed ourselves silly listening to him speak. He told a rambling tale of typing up a manuscript on a typewriter, bundling it up into a package to send to his editor, walking to the post office, meeting a wonderfully beautiful woman there with a gem in her nose, and chatting with her as he sent the package (there was quite a bit more detail to his story). There seemed no point to his tale, but then just as he finished it we all realized the point wasn’t the story itself, but the things he saw, the people with whom he interacted along the way. Then he punctuated this by saying, in his typically pithy way, "Life is farting around."
Life isn’t all farting around, but what I brought home from his talk is that sometimes you have to take your eyes off the goal and notice what’s happening all around you. The story of life may be profound, or dramatic, or deep, but the details are what give it flavor. You need to take a moment to taste them.
84 years is a pretty good run for a curmudgeonly cynic who loved life and its quirky weirdness so much. But then, he always existed, and always did, and always will.