Saturday, March 31, 2007

In Awe Over the Absurd


What can be said of a massacre?

Dresden, 1944. 130,000 innocents dead. One of Europe's most beautiful cities gratuitously destroyed in an ugly act of revenge. How does one offer an account of such a thing that measures up to the awfulness of the event?

What can be said is that life is both deadly serious and utterly absurd. That we are ridiculous and tragic. Contemptible and noble.

Just read Slaughterhouse Five for the second time in as many months. Vonnegut captures the absurdity and tragedy of our existence here on Earth without once turning maudlin or resorting to cheap cynicism.

When this was published in 1969, the carpet bombing of Laos was well underway. Two-hundred-million tons of bombs were dropped by America on an area the size of Minnesota. Dow Chemical, once famous for Saran Wrap, had become known almost exclusively for its production of napalm. And Vonnegut writes this passage:

"What are you," Trout asked the boy scornfully. "Some kind of gutless wonder?"

This, too, was the title of a book by Trout,
The Gutless Wonder. It was about a robot who had bad breath, who became popular after his halitosis was cured. But what made the story remarkable, since it was written in 1932, was that it predicted the widespread use of burning jellied gasoline on human beings.

It was dropped on them from airplanes. Robots did the dropping. They had no conscience, and no circuits which would allow them to imagine what was happening to the people on the ground.

Trout's leading robot looked like a human being, and could talk and dance and so on, and go out with girls. And no one held it against him that he dropped jellied gasoline on people. But they found his halitosis unforgivable. But then he cleared that up, and he was welcomed to the human race."

The controlled rage that lurks beneath this is breathtaking. Perfect pitch. I am in awe.

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