Nov. 11, 2004
Poem: "Diner" by Louis Jenkins, from Sea Smoke © Holy Cow! Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission.
The time has come to say goodbye, our plates empty except
for our greasy napkins. Comrades, you on my left, balding,
middle-aged guy with a ponytail, and you, Lefty, there on my
right, though we barely spoke I feel our kinship. You were
steadfast in passing the ketchup, the salt and pepper, no man
could ask for better companions. Lunch is over, the cheese-
burger and fries, the Denver sandwich, the counter nearly
empty. Now we must go our separate ways. Not a fond embrace,
but perhaps a hearty handshake. No? Well then, farewell. It is
unlikely I'll pass this way again. Unlikely we will all meet again
on this earth, to sit together beneath the neon and fluorescent
calmly sipping our coffee, like the sages sipping their tea
underneath the willow, sitting quietly, saying nothing.
Literary and Historical Notes:
Today is Veterans Day, honoring Americans who have served their country in the armed forces.
November 11 was originally called Armistice Day because it was on this day in 1918 that the First World War came to an end. The armistice was signed at 11:00 AM, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year. After four years of brutal trench fighting, nine million soldiers had died and 21 million were wounded.
It was called "The War to End All Wars," because it was the bloodiest war in history up to that point, and it made many people so sick of war that they hoped no war would ever break out again.
Many intellectuals and artists were disillusioned by the war and thought it had been meaningless. But President Woodrow Wilson believed that the United States' participation in World War I was a great victory for idealism. He said, "The Americans who went to Europe to die are a unique breed. Never before have men crossed the seas to a foreign land to fight for a cause which they did not pretend was peculiarly their own, which they knew was the cause of humanity and mankind. These Americans gave the greatest of all gifts, the gift of life and the gift of spirit."
It's the birthday of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., born in Indianapolis, Indiana (1922). He's the author of many novels, including Cat's Cradle (1963), Hocus Pocus (1990) and, most recently, Timequake (1997). His family was descended from German immigrants, and both of his parents were fluent in German, but they did not teach the language to Kurt because he was born at a time when Americans still considered Germans an enemy from World War I. Vonnegut said, "[My parents] volunteered to make me ignorant and rootless as proof of their patriotism."
His father forced him to go to college to study biochemistry, though he wanted to be a journalist. Vonnegut said, "[College] was a boozy dream, partly because of booze itself, and partly because I was enrolled exclusively in courses I had no talent for." He was failing almost all of his classes when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and he jumped at the chance to join the army and get out of school.
In December of 1944, Vonnegut was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. He was imprisoned in a slaughterhouse in Dresden, and forced to work in a factory producing vitamin-enriched malt syrup for pregnant women. On the night of February 13, 1945, British and American bombers attacked Dresden, igniting a firestorm that burned up the oxygen in the city and killed almost all the city's inhabitants in two hours. Vonnegut and his fellow prisoners only survived because they slept in a meat locker three stories below the ground. When they walked outside, they were practically the only living people in a city that had burned to the ground.
After the war, Vonnegut started publishing fiction about the dangers of technology, but his work wasn't taken seriously. He said, "I have been a sore-headed occupant of a file drawer labeled 'Science Fiction'...and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal."
While writing other books, he kept trying to work on a novel about the bombing of Dresden. At one point he drew a diagram of the book's plot on the back of a roll of wallpaper. Finally, in 1967, he published Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), about a man named Billy Pilgrim who experiences the bombing of Dresden and loses his mind, believing he has traveled to an alien planet where time does not exist. Vonnegut said, "[I knew] after I finished Slaughterhouse-Five that I didn't have to write at all anymore if I didn't want to...I suppose that flowers, when they're through blooming, have some sort of awareness of some purpose having been served."
Slaughterhouse-Five was published at the height of the Vietnam War, and the book made Vonnegut a hero among the war protesters. Vonnegut said it was an anti-war book. But he also said, "Anti-war books are as likely to stop war as anti-glacier books are to stop glaciers." He has since become one of the most popular guest lecturers at universities across the country.
Kurt Vonnegut said, "We would be a lot safer if the government would take its money out of science and put it into astrology and the reading of palms...only in superstition is there hope. If you want to become a friend of civilization, then become an enemy of the truth and a fanatic for harmless balderdash."
It's the birthday of Fyodor Dostoevsky, born in Moscow (1821). He started out as a fairly ordinary, mostly political writer who attacked the evils of the Russian bureaucracy. Then in 1849, the Russian government arrested him along with a group of other writers for planning to distribute political pamphlets advocating socialism and the emancipation of the serfs. Czar Nicholas I decided to teach this group of writers a lesson. They were told that they had been sentenced to death by firing squad, but they were actually sentenced to prison for four years.
In a letter to his brother, Dostoevsky wrote, "They made us put on the white shirts worn by persons condemned to death. Thereupon we were bound in threes to stakes, to suffer execution. Being the third in the row, I concluded I had only a few minutes of life before me. I thought of you and your dear ones and I contrived to kiss [my friends] who were next to me, and to bid them farewell. Suddenly the troops beat a tattoo, we were unbound, brought back upon the scaffold, and informed that his Majesty had spared our lives." Two of Dostoevsky's friends never recovered their sanity.
After four years in prison, Dostoevsky began to write the novels that set him apart from other Russian realist writers. He called his work fantastic realism, because he tried to write the kinds of stories that would appear in sensationalist newspapers. He wrote about a paranoid man living in his basement in Notes from Underground (1864). He wrote about a college student who murders his landlady in Crime and Punishment (1886). And he wrote about a father who is murdered by one of his sons in The Brothers Karamazov (1880).
Fyodor Dostoevsky said, "You are told a lot about your education, but some beautiful, sacred memory, preserved since childhood, is perhaps the best education of all. If a man carries many such memories into life with him, he is saved for the rest of his days."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®