Tuesday, December 27, 2005

David Nason is an Australian journalist living in New York. Last November, he interviewed Kurt Vonnegut, the sci-fi novelist, 60s counter-culture icon and champion of gloomy adolescents.

A narcissistic and self-absorbed interviewer, Nason’s style is of the “Well enough about me. What do you think about my career?” school. The interview itself doesn’t even begin until almost halfway through the article; that is, Nason apparently felt it more important to first discuss his supermarket shopping on the Upper West Side, the issues he intended to discuss with Vonnegut, and the fact that he hadn’t read the book that Vonnegut was meeting with him to promote. When he finally gets around to describing his meeting with Vonnegut, Nason notes that the author appeared to be an “unshaven, dishevelled man with wild, curly grey hair and frayed clothing. He looks as if he has just crawled out from under a bush in Central Park.”

“Don't get me wrong,” he adds, returning the spotlight on himself again, “I don't mind how people look and I often give money to beggars on the subway.”

Whatever. The only reason that this interview is noteworthy is that toward its end, Nason breezily recounts,

"Next I ask him about terrorism. It's not for any particular reason. It just seems a relevant thing to ask a writer who has seen war, who has written of war and who lives in New York City, where terrorism's horror is understood so well.

‘What about terrorists? Do you understand where they're coming from? Do you regard them as soldiers too?’ I ask.

“Vonnegut's reply is startling. ‘I regard them as very brave people, yes,’ he says without a moment's hesitation.

"'You don't think that they're mad, that, you know, anyone who would strap a bomb to himself must be mad?’

"'Well, we had a guy [president Harry Truman] who dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, didn't we?’ he says. "What George Bush and his gang did not realize was that people fight back. Peace wasn't restored in Vietnam until we got kicked out. Everything's quiet there now.’

“There's a long pause before Vonnegut speaks again: ‘It is sweet and noble - sweet and honourable I guess it is - to die for what you believe in.’

“This borders on the outrageous,” Nason feels obligated to point out, before asking rhetorically, “Is the author of one of the great anti-war books of the 20th century seriously saying that terrorists who kill civilians are ‘sweet and honourable?”

“I ask one more question,” Nason teasingly promises, although the interview does continue with a couple more:

“But terrorists believe in twisted religious things, don't they? So surely that can't be right?”

"'Well, they're dying for their own self-respect,’ Vonnegut fires back. ‘It's a terrible thing to deprive someone of their self-respect. It's [like] your culture is nothing, your race is nothing, you're nothing.’

At this point, Nason notes “there's another long pause and Vonnegut's eyes suggest his mind has wandered off somewhere.” This is, of course, pure speculation on Nason’s part about the 84-year-old author. Vonnegut’s eyes may have just as easily been suggesting that he has realized that he allowed himself to get caught by a third-rate journalist out to trap him.

“Then, suddenly, he turns back to me and says: ‘It must be an amazing high.’

“’What?’ I ask.

“‘Strapping a bomb to yourself,’ he says. ‘You would know death is going to be painless, so the anticipation ... must be an amazing high.”

Nason ends the interview with editorial comments, again starting with himself:

“At this point, I give up. I can't be bothered asking him about any of the things I'd thought about: his mother's suicide, how he raised his sister's kids, the great writers he knew and partied with, how he looks back on Dresden. Vonnegut has been many things: a grandmaster of American literature; a man who worked hard to support his family; a soldier who fought for his country. But now he's old and he doesn't want to live any more. You only have to read his book to understand that. And because he can't find anything worthwhile to keep him alive, he finds defending terrorists somehow amusing.”

But Nason still needs to get one last shot in. Earlier in the conversation, he notes, Vonnegut had talked about French writer Albert Camus, stating, "He got a Nobel Prize for saying essentially - among other things - that life is absurd, so the only philosophical question is whether to commit suicide or continue to participate in absurdity. But I feel absurd is too weak a word. I think life is preposterous."

“That's a matter of opinion,” Nason says in closing, “but if Vonnegut in his old age persists in defending terrorists, preposterous may be precisely how people remember him, and that would be unfortunate.”

This interview, along with Nason’s editorializations, has become fodder for right-wing pundits and bloggers. “Vonnegut defends terrorists!” they exclaim. “He believes killing innocent civilians is sweet and honorable.”

Well, killing innocent civilians was not exactly what he was describing as “sweet and honorable” if you go back are read what he said and the context in which he said it. But further, the reference - you can see he’s struggling to recall the exact words - was to "Dulce et Decorum Est," a poem from the First World War that depicts the horrible death scene of a man who has been gassed in battle, with a last line that translates: “The old Lie: It is sweet and honorable to die for your country.” It was Vonnegut’s way of saying suicide bombers were dying for a foolish cause, but it went over Nason's head.

The ensuing controversy has caused Vonnegut’s son, Mark, a pediatrician living in Milton, Massachusetts, to write a somewhat apologetic, somewhat defensive editorial in today’s Boston Globe. “At no point did he say that blowing yourself up in a crowd of people was a good thing to do,” the younger Vonnegut notes. “What most outraged his interviewer was Kurt's disinclination to dismiss the terrorists as mentally ill. He said that suicide bombers believed that they were dying for a just cause and that he imagined they were probably brave people. It was all speculation. Neither he nor his interviewer had any knowledge about suicide bombers or radical Islam. Nowhere in the interview did he say anything in support of terrorism, though I'm quite sure he enjoyed horrifying his interviewer by skating around it. Kurt, every so often, will play with people a little.”

“What Kurt can do better than most people is reframe things and turn them around in a way that creates a new perspective. Even if you disagree with that perspective, the plausibility and novelty of his vision are enough to make you think. We need to think a little more, not less.”

Exactly. But my point here is not to defend Vonnegut nor to attack him. I’m neutral here. Like many people of my generation, I was a big Vonnegut fan in my teens, and his dark, pessimistic world view matched my adolescent gloominess well. However, like many people of my generation, I outgrew my fixation, and hardly consider him relevant any longer to my current outlook or the present times.

But I do share Mark’s concern that Vonnegut’s detractors are trying to twist his provocative statements to support their view that anyone who is critical of the war must therefore be pro-terrorist. It’s that sort of divisive duality that’s making the current dialog on our involvement in Iraq so impossibly shrill.

We don't need more name calling. We need more thinking.


GreenSmile said...

Very intersting dissection of Nason. And you save me the trouble of ever having to read another word of his.

Michael Shirmer [the professional skeptic writing] in this month's SciAm comes to a different analysis of the suicide bomber's mind...but he too does not find these acts dismissable as merely crazy. Dismissing them is exactly what their intended targets, the "oppressive" goverments and cultures, must do at all costs or, basically, the perpetrators have landed their blow or delivered their message if you will. The targets of terrorism in short, have a huge incentive to be in denial about the meaning of these terrible acts. Given america's neurotic attachment to being alive, the dismissal is an easy sell [and the terrorist should know that other means of protest could work as well and not be so easily misconstrued.]

It is fascinating that one Buddhist version of taking ones life as an act of attention getting protest is the self immolation of Viet Namese monks...images vivid in my mind nearly 40 years after the event. Clear message, one or no victims depending on your accounting and ever more clear to me they were not irrational acts.

Kathleen Callon said...

Weird, I just started Vonnegut's "The Sirens of the Titans", because I saw him on Jon Stewart and realized Kurt reminds me of a modern Twain. Hope all is well.

Glynne Jones said...

Even at 83 Kurt Vonnegut is a lucid and independent thinker as demonstrated in a simply wonderful interview with him by Philip Adams on Australian radio... download mp3 from:


Just 4 Me said...

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Just 4 Travel