Bamako, Mali Kurt is Up in Heaven Now

My favorite author, Kurt Vonnegut, died yesterday.

I spent a particularly grim stretch of my early twenties devouring everything he’d written – and little that he didn’t. I was broke and unemployed, aimless, friendless, and more than anything, I now realize, depressed.

His voice was the one I needed to hear. He told me we were put on this earth to fart around, that our way-too-big brains are much better at causing misery than anything else, and what the world needs more of isn’t love, but common decency.

He was a humanist. And he was, like me, depressed.

I imagine his ideas helped him some. Or at least sharing them did. They helped me too. I suppose I absorbed them as more than just ideas, but guiding principles…

We’re here to fart around? That’s it? Well then, I suppose I had better get farting.

He changed the way I think. He gave me tools to process things I’ve seen that would otherwise be too horrifying. I’m writing from West Africa, where “horrifying” is almost mundane. As a matter of fact, he documented firsthand the horrifyingly mundane situation in a country not far from here. It was called Biafra. It’s not called anything anymore. It got wiped off the map.

I’m writing from the Hotel Sofitel. It’s the nicest hotel in Mali. There is a pool and a golf course and tennis courts. Giant tortoises roam freely on the lawn. The lobby is filled with Europeans talking to each other and tickling their laptops, as I am doing right now. In the bar, local musicians are performing a version of “House of the Rising Sun” that is far too good for its audience.

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From the balcony of our room, I see abandoned hulks of concrete on every side. Shantytowns stretch off into the horizon. I see children playing in garbage heaps.

The obituaries keep calling Vonnegut a humorist, a satirist, and all that. I guess he was, but it seems to me that his humor was a side effect of boiling things down and explaining them in concise moral terms. The truth, when put simply, is often hilarious.

I’m not sad that he died. He was 84. That’s plenty of time for anyone – monumental for a guy with a habit of trying to kill himself. And I’m not sad that he won’t write again. His position was clear. He made his case.

He’s just dead. So it goes.

I’d like to mention that I’ve avoided the use of semicolons in this entry. He never used them. He felt that they are without purpose, that they are “transvestite hermaphrodites.” It took some effort to refrain, as I am mad for semicolons. That is my tribute.

I’m now going to fill some space with his quotes – lifted, of course, from Wikipedia.

Listen:

Human beings will be happier — not when they cure cancer or get to Mars or eliminate racial prejudice or flush Lake Erie — but when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities again. That’s my utopia.

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We’re terrible animals. I think that the Earth’s immune system is trying to get rid of us, as well it should.

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I do feel that evolution is being controlled by some sort of divine engineer. I can’t help thinking that. And this engineer knows exactly what he or she is doing and why, and where evolution is headed. That’s why we’ve got giraffes and hippopotami and the clap.

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There are plenty of good reasons for fighting," I said, "but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too. Where’s evil? It’s that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side.

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Live by the harmless untruths that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.

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The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist…It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

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The arts put man at the center of the universe, whether he belongs there or not. Military science, on the other hand, treats man as garbage— and his children, and his cities, too. Military science is probably right about the contemptibility of man in the vastness of the universe. Still— I deny that contemptibility, and I beg you to deny it, through the creation and appreciation of art.

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"You hate America, don’t you?" she said.
"That would be as silly as loving it," I said. "It’s impossible for me to get emotional about it, because real estate doesn’t interest me. It’s no doubt a great flaw in my personality, but I can’t think in terms of boundaries. Those imaginary lines are as unreal to me as elves and pixies. I can’t believe that they mark the end or the beginning of anything of real concern to the human soul. Virtues and vices, pleasures and pains cross boundaries at will."

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A great swindle of our time is the assumption that science has made religion obsolete. All science has damaged is the story of Adam and Eve and the story of Jonah and the Whale. Everything else holds up pretty well, particularly lessons about fairness and gentleness. People who find those lessons irrelevant in the twentieth century are simply using science as an excuse for greed and harshness. Science has nothing to do with it, friends.

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Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.

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Human beings are chimpanzees who get crazy drunk on power. By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their morale, like so many bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas.

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Here’s what I think the truth is: We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial, about to face cold turkey. And like so many addicts about to face cold turkey, our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we’re hooked on.

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For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.

"Blessed are the merciful" in a courtroom? "Blessed are the peacemakers" in the Pentagon? Give me a break!

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The moral of the story is we’re here on Earth to fart around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, what the computer people don’t realize, or they don’t care, is we’re dancing animals. You know, we love to move around.

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I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead.

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I am, incidentally, Honorary President of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that totally functionless capacity. We had a memorial service for Isaac a few years back, and I spoke and said at one point, "Isaac is up in heaven now." It was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. It was several minutes before order could be restored. And if I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, "Kurt is up in heaven now." That’s my favorite joke.

34 Responses to Bamako, Mali Kurt is Up in Heaven Now

  1. sansan

    Ahhh…another “something against”s…better add Portugal to your growing list.

    My roommate just finished reading “Slaughterhouse-Five” actually – it sounded pretty crazy so maybe I’ll get around to reading that one day.

  2. Victoria

    I’m approaching my early twenties (19) I’m depressed, and Vonnegut is my go to guy. I was talking about how sad I would be if he died the night before he died.

    It’s sad that he died. He was gonna die. But I’m glad he was alive while I was alive. He bridged the gap between generations.

  3. Pedro from Brazil

    Slaughterhouse Five was THE book of my 18th year or so. One of these four or five books in life that really affect the general direction you’re heading. And yes, Sansan, it is very funny, but also almost unbearably sad. The movie, by the way, although largely forgotten by now, was equally wonderful.

    And I second Janet’s opinion up there. Yep, you’re gonna be a hell of a writer. Why not start now by giving us a more detailed account of your travels? I’m a sucker for travel books. (Even though you have so far, from what I can gather in the map of your wanderings, studiously avoided that large mass in South America called Brazil.)

  4. Pedro from Brazil

    Incidentally: I came upon your dancing video by sheer chance, while looking for something totally different. A few days ago I was visited by a friend (and ex-girlfriend), a workaholic TV executive who was depressed over family problems and turning 50. So I showed her the video. I think it may please you to know that your flailing about gave her a few moments of pointless – and therefore much more valuable – joy. She even bought the CD with the music. And yes, since I also taught her how to download stuff from YouTube, you may appear copyrightlessly dancing on Brazilian TV very soon.

  5. Great post Matt. Hey it took me a long time to find a link to your blog. You might consider a more prominent link on WhereTheHellisMatt.com – just an idea. Take it easy, and happy travels.

  6. Owen

    Stumbled across your video for the first time last night. People already say lots of wonderful things about it.
    I never read anything by Kurt Vonnegut, but I think I’ll have to.

  7. Hi Matt, how about a little dance in more Seattle landmarks? Paramount Theater, Pike Place, Monorail? Checking in on your journal regularly and truly enjoying it. Well done.

  8. I see from your map that you are headed to Ethiopia. Good luck as I suspect that the poverty and hardship will make it hard to think clearly let alone dance but the children will still dance with you as they are oblivious to the harshness of life there. Amazing people.

    We’re hoping to see you down here in NZ again and will organise a dance-a-thon like no other for ya.

  9. If you ever tire of travel then you should take up writing full time! Your insights are really interesting. I feel a little behind having not read Kurt Vonnegut though :) I’ll have to look into it soon. Anyhow, I hope you are enjoying East Africa.

  10. so it goes, indeed. kurt’s books carried me through much of high school.

    glad to see that all the visas pulled together at the last minute and you were able to begin your latest round of adventures. please give melissa a big hug for me. tell her thanks for the birthday wishes!

  11. Candace Kowal

    Wonderful, wonderful post.

    You really ought to publish your thoughts one day!

    They’d be wonderful.

  12. Simon in Africa

    Dude, awesome stuff – love the idea! As a young 24 year old with a year to go before qualifying, I’m super keen to travel, this stuff is inspirational. But hey, pull in to South Africa – look me up and I’ll set up some big dancing speakers for you in one of God’s masterpiece countries :)

  13. Dan

    Cheers matt, i’m off tomorrow to my local bookstore to purchase Slaughter house five after what you’ve said :)

  14. Hi Matt, reading here to ease the shock and weird pain of the news about the 33 dead at Virginia Tech (a pretty place that I visited once upon a time). Kurt is right today.

  15. Gulchatai

    Quick question: Since you are from WA (so am I), are you a coffee junkie (like me), and if yes, did you get a chance to try different coffee around the world? What was you favourite?

  16. Neil

    Hey Matt, or whoever reads these comments. Just liked to say I repect what your doing, from what ive seen in this journal you are bound to be remembered as a great person, not just one of those people who say ”Remember that guy who danced?”. Hope you enjoy yourself and take a safe trip. Neil

  17. wow i love your quotes at the end – esp. this one:
    The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist…It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

    you are really inspiring Matt!!

  18. Colin

    “we’re dancing animals.” True dat. We all need to break the chains and dance more, me included.

  19. Paula Warke

    Um, Kurt was my favourite writer, has been since I was a teen…I was fortunate enough to see him lecture several times. He was a grumpy old man who told it like it was – and did the world a lot of good in the process of not trying to change anything. I was on holiday, so didn’t hear about his passing (timely as it was, he was bloody old!) until I read your blog, Matt. Full circle. And so it goes. Dance while you can, folks!

  20. Stephan

    sad news…vonnegut is my literary hero and i’m glad i’m not the only one who extracted profound moral lessons from his tongue-in-cheek writings. this is a fitting tribute, to be sure. thank you.

  21. Mindy

    Hi Matt,
    My sis, Hyun-Jung, sent me your website link. She mentioned that you guys are alums. I really enjoyed reading your posts. I hope you’ll write a book someday. You convinced me to read Kurt Vonnegut. His quotes were amazing, it was a great idea to post it. Just wanted to say, “keep going!!!”

  22. Michele

    I read about your site in the Nat. Geo. Traveler mag and HAD to check it out. How fun are you!! You rock! I have loved each video and the few journal entries I’ve read. You have a great talent and this seems to be the perfect way for you to display it. Humor and intelligence, my hero! You are very lucky to be able to parlay you’re experience into a career. Carry on! Can’t wait to see more.
    Also have to print out a few of those awesome Vonnegut quotes. Humanists rule and don’t let ANYONE (on either end of the spectrum) tell you differently. Spiritualism, and doing the right thing just because it’s the right thing to do is it’s own religion.

  23. adrean

    Just a quick observation:

    You are brilliant. You are lonely. You are insightful. You are searching.

    Not that my opinion matters but I really think that when you’ve gotten your travels complete and are ready to find the answer, it will find you. And when “it” does, please share it with all of us.

    I’ll venture a guess: having a child of your own.

  24. Enrico

    I can clearly understand why Kurt Vonnegut is your favorite author. Just by quickly reading few of the quotes i felt like i was understood him completly…

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