April 12, 2007 | HARMLESS UNTRUTHS

So it goes

R.I.P. Kurt Vonnegut.

It may not be obvious, but this blog is technically named “Harmless Untruths” (a part of my larger website). This term, “harmless untruths,” comes from Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, one of my favorite books. In Cat’s Cradle, a strange religion called Bokononism admits that it is mostly made up of lies — called foma, or “harmless untruths.” Still, people take comfort in these lies and find them meaningful.

I don’t claim to totally understand the concept, but on the occasion of his death, I think it is nice — and harmless — to imagine concepts like Vonnegut “resting in peace” and finally hanging out in heaven, smoking cigarettes and telling dirty jokes with Mark Twain.

I first got into Vonnegut maybe ten years ago, and my feeling towards him and his work have shifted through time. In my early 20s, I really liked him a lot, and thought his writing was clear and vivid, and had the message that, even though life might be random and mostly meaningless, we can make up our own meaning by loving each other. As I got older, though (and maybe this is just related to the order in which I read his books), I found him a bit more distasteful. It all seemed so hopeless and bitter. The most recent book I read by him was Sirens of Titan, and I didn’t like it much at all. It made me feel like life and all human accomplishments were just part of a pointless accident.

But I don’t really believe that. I think it’s more useful to at least believe in something, whether it be religion or anything else. Why not cling to a few harmless untruths and think that life is meaningful? And despite his sometimes nihilistic attitude, I think maybe Vonnegut did.

As I have been less interested in his fiction lately, I have been drawn more to his essays and non-fiction. I love his commentaries on reading and books and short stories, like the introductory essay to Bagombo Snuff Box, which is a loving tribute to short stories in popular magazines of the mid-twentieth century. And I like his strange political writing, which is cynical but based on a belief that, if we don’t blow ourselves up, we will have to eventually reach some kind of global understanding.

One of my favorite Vonnegut bits comes from a speech he gave called “Fates Worse Than Death.” Since I work in a library, I was able to go find it on the shelves in a book of the same name. I hadn’t read the whole book before, and in it, Vonnegut introduces and concludes the speech with some caveats and disenchanted commentary, but still, I like the sentiment. He is speaking about nuclear disarmament (this was in the early ’80s) and his thesis is that there are no fates worse than death, that “death before dishonor” is a crock, and that the U.S. ought to give up some of its pride and honor and disarm, humbling itself a bit in the interest of saving all of humanity.

In “Fates Worse Than Death” he describes how, in the modern era, we know so much about the rest of the world that it could lead to peace:

“So we now know for certain that there are no potential human enemies anywhere who are anything but human beings like ourselves. They need food. How amazing. They love their children. How amazing. They obey their leaders. How amazing. They think like their neighbors. How amazing.

“Thanks to modern communications, we now have something we never had before: reason to mourn deeply the death or wounding of any human being on any side in any war.

“It was because of rotten communications and malicious, racist ignorance that we were able to celebrate the killing of almost all the inhabitants in Hiroshima, Japan, thirty-seven years ago. We thought they were vermin. They thought we were vermin. They would have clapped their little yellow hands with glee and grinned with their crooked buckteeth if they could have incinerated everybody in Kansas City, say.

“Thanks to how much the people of the world now know about all the other people of the world, the fun of killing enemies has lost its zing. It has so lost its zing that no sane citizen of the Soviet Union, if we were to go to war with that society, would feel anything but horror if his country were to kill practically everybody in New York and Chicago and San Francisco. Killing enemies has so lost its zing that no sane citizen of the United States would feel anything but horror if our country were to kill practically everybody in Moscow and Leningrad and Kiev.

“Or in Nagasaki, Japan, for that matter.

“We have often heard it said that people would have to change, or we would go on having wars. I bring you good news this morning: People have changed.

“We aren’t so ignorant and bloodthirsty anymore.”

He may have been a little early, but I think Vonnegut was on the right track about this. It’s about the best hope we have — that closer communication and better understanding will make us all see each other as human beings and stop us from killing each other, fighting wars, or destroying the planet.

It may be unrealistic — certainly war hasn’t stopped since he spoke those words two and a half decades ago — but it is the kind of harmless untruth that I can devote my life to.