Wednesday, July 5, 2017

My Headstone

“Í don’t know what one puts on a stone when it’s murder…Can’t very well say ‘entered into rest’ or anything like that.  One will have to choose a text—something appropriate.  R.I.P.?  No, that’s only for Catholics.”
“O Lord, thou has seen my wrongs.  Judge thou my case,” murmured Mr. Entwhistle.

I have never really thought about what I want on my headstone.  Is this the sort of thing I should be pondering?  Janet would insist that this is precisely the sort of thing I should not be pondering.  Indeed, if I ever start a conversation with Janet with, “I was thinking about this today…” she could instantly reply that whatever comes next is surely not worthy of any attention, let alone the attention I gave it during the day.  Nevertheless, I persist in pondering such things.  In this case, I am not pondering what I would want on my headstone but whether I should be thinking about what I want on my headstone.  (Truth be told, I have never really even thought about whether I want a headstone in the first place.  But, let’s just pretend that question has been answered in the affirmative.) 

On the one hand, I think I probably shouldn’t care what is on my headstone because, not to mince words, I’ll never actually see or read said headstone.  On the other hand, said headstone will be the only permanent record of the fact that I have whiled away a few years in this Vale of Tears, and surely I should care about my Permanent Record.  Moreover, if I don’t think about this question now, then I am leaving it to my heirs to make this permanent decision at a time when they are (presumably (hopefully?)) in grief.  Surely, I  shouldn’t impose that burden on them.  Then again, is it really a burden on them since there is no chance that I will ever express disapproval of whatever choice they have made? And come to think of it, should I or the people who survive me decide on the content of my headstone?  After all, they are the ones who will read it, they are the ones who will use it as a Stone of Remembrance, so shouldn't they decide on the content?  Until now, I must admit, I have given this matter shockingly little thought.  And I still don’t know the answer.  I don’t really care about my headstone, but now I am wondering if I should care.

The quotation above is from (in case it isn’t obvious—maybe it is a famous quotation and you already know where it is from.  Oh dear.  What if that quotation is as famous as “to be or not to be,” and I am the only one on the planet who had never heard it before?  I guess I could check the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations to see if it is in there, but I am now afraid to do so in case it is in there and I was supposed to know it was in there.)—the quotation is from Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral.   The quotation has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the plot, by the way.  It just strikes me as strange bit.  I had no idea, for example, that RIP was Catholic; then again, maybe it isn’t—I am not sure a character in an Agatha Christie book is necessarily a reliable source of information.  Even still, I never would have made the R.I.P.-Catholic association.

I’ve read a lot of Agatha Christie before now.  But, until writing this blog post about a random quotation from the book, I have never really associated Agatha Christie with actual life and death.  Her books are so obviously fiction.  Why?  What does an Agatha Christie novel not seem more realistic than some sort of fantasy novel with sorcery and monsters?  It must be something to do with the constraints of the Whodunit genre.  To work, a Christie novel must have a confined feel; the murderer can’t show up out of the blue as someone we haven’t met earlier in the novel.  So, there must always be a limited number of people involved in the story.  And, then not only the murderer, but also assorted others must have some motive for actually murdering the deceased.  And on top of that, at least some of the non-murderers must have an unrelated secret which gives them an excuse for doing suspicious things.  And, when I compare all that to real life, I realize I have never been in a situation in my life with such tightly defined intrigue and back-story.  I suspect if I was ever in a remote country home with 8 other people and someone was murdered and the murder must have been done by one of the remaining 7 people, it would take all of about 30 seconds to figure out who the murderer must be. 

Maybe all this is obvious to everyone, but I have never once thought about any of this before. Which may explain why I never thought about my headstone either.  With all the Agatha Christie I have read, why have I never imagined being the victim of a murder or an even suspect in a murder case?  Instead, I read Christie and think of it as a nice little intellectual puzzle—one that you can’t really solve, but it sure feels like you could solve.  That is what makes them fun.  If this was real, it wouldn’t be quite so much fun would it?

To return to my headstone.  How about this?  I’d like the Raiders shield with the guy with the eyepatch and the crossed swords behind him on my headstone.  It’s like a skull and cross-bones, so it sort of fits in a  graveyard.  And that way when people see my headstone they will be reminded that something about which I dearly care survives me.  The Raiders will be here for a long time, too.  So, even after everyone I know is gone, people can still think fondly about the Raiders..  So how about: 

Your Humble Narrator
11/24/66 – [insert date]
Requiescat In Pace
Survived by the Raiders
[Insert Raiders logo]

Is that a good headstone?

Monday, July 3, 2017

Mr Rosewater

After deciding that the world is one meaningless thing after another, what then?  (Wait, the Hypothetical Reader asks, when did We decide that?)  (Well, Your Humble Narrator replies, the Hypothetical Reader May Not have Decided that.  What makes you, Hypothetical Reader, think that You are the One Doing the Thinking and Deciding Around these here parts?)  (But, I digress.)  (Then again, isn’t the whole point of using parentheses to demonstrate that this is a digression?  I think one uses parentheses for parenteral asides, right?  So, I guess saying “I digress” in parentheses is redundant)  (By this point, there are no Hypothetical Readers left, so We may now progress with the Main Event).  To remind ourselves of where We were: After deciding that the world is one meaningless act after another, what then?  Kurt Vonnegut (see, it wasn't about you, Hypothetical Reader) demonstrated the absolute absurdity of everything in Cat’s Cradle.  So, his next novel presented a challenge—does he simply double down on the meaninglessness of everything or is there some way out of this trap?

As I have noted in this space before, thanks to the Library of America, I am finally understanding Vonnegut.   Again, as noted before, I had read lots of Vonnegut in the past, I had enjoyed the novels when I read them, but a week after reading a novel, I had no memory of the content of the book.  But, reading them in order, it is all making so much more sense.  The Library of America is a National Treasure.

So, in Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut argues that the world is pointless and meaningless.  His next novel was God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.  I had read this novel before, and I only remembered one thing from it—a particular scene from the novel.  You can imagine my surprise when I realized that the one thing I remembered about this novel wasn't actually in this novel.  It must be from another Vonnegut novel—presumably I’ll get to that remembered scene at some point.  So, to correct the record—I had read this novel before, and I didn’t remember a single thing from it.

Coming after Cat’s Cradle, though, the novel makes a lot more sense.  Vonnegut’s universe is still meaningless.  But, a meaningless universe creates a new problem.  There are still people living in that meaningless universe.  What do you do about all the people living meaningless lives in a meaningless universe but who do not know the universe is meaningless and so don’t know they are just supposed to laugh at how meaningless everything is?  The temptation is just to ignore them.  After all, if you are faced with a meaningless universe, why not just enjoy yourself?  And if you have wealth and live in a meaningless universe, then why not just hang out with all the Beautiful people, and you and the other wealthy beautiful people can enjoy a beautiful life in a meaningless universe?  Should you worry about all those other people?  Why bother?  They are all sort of…repulsive and low-class, anyway…right?

Eliot Rosewater, the Mr. Rosewater of the title of the book, has more inherited wealth than he can spend.  And he makes a discovery.

“I look at these people, these Americans,” Eliot went on, “and I realize that they can’t even care about themselves any more—because they have no use.  The factory, the farms, the mines across the river—they’re almost completely automatic now.  And America doesn’t even need these people for war—not any more, Sylvia—I’m going to be an artist.”
“An artist?”
“I’m going to love these discarded Americans, even though they’re useless and unattractive.  That is going to be my work of art.”

That was published in…1965.  Imagine a large swath of Americans who have become largely irrelevant.  As the Vonnegut surrogate in the novel explains:

“In time almost all men and women will become worthless as producers of goods, food, services, and more machines, as sources of practical ideas in the areas of economics, engineering, and probably medicine too….Americans have long been taught to hate all people who will not or cannot work, to hate even themselves for that.  We can thank the vanished frontier for that piece of common-sense cruelty.  The time is coming, if it isn’t here now, when it will no longer be common sense.  It will simply be cruel.”

So, imagine a society divided with the Good, Beautiful People on the one side and Pointless, Pedestrian, Boring, Low-class people on the other side.  Imagine a person from the Good, Beautiful side of the tracks decided to love the latter set of people—and love them not from afar, but actually move into the neighborhood and help them out whenever they had a need, a real immediate need, like needing someone to talk with at 3 AM or someone to help out on the volunteer fire department.  If you knew someone who did that, who walked away from an Ivy League Education to move to a small town in the middle of nowhere, just to live there and be with those people, what would you call someone like that?  Insane, perhaps?  And therein is the plot of this Vonnegut novel.  Is Eliot Rosewater insane?

It is an eerie book to read in 2017, by the way.  This idea of a whole set of Americans who are angry because they feel useless and ignored and don’t like feeling useless and ignored, well…what would happen if they actually existed and then 50 years later they still actually existed and they were still angry that they felt useless and ignored?  Not a rhetorical question, obviously.

So, Vonnegut is providing an interesting answer to his problem from Cat’s Cradle.  It is all well and good to say that we live in a pointless world, where there are no higher goals or causes which can give our lives meaning; in fact if you are one of the wealthy, beautiful people, the type of people who have nice college educations and buy books by Kurt Vonnegut, then it is even fun to think about a world like that and imagine we live in a world like that, and even live as if we live a world like that.  But, if you are one of those people out there living in a small town like Rosewater, Indiana, well, you might not be enjoying your life as much as those people reading Cat’s Cradle and laughing at the pointlessness of it all.  And, maybe, just maybe, those people reading Cat’s Cradle should think about what it must be like for those other people and do something crazy like, love them.  Not love them from afar in some abstract, “I love humanity” way.  But, love them enough to set aside all their privileges and become like one of them.  A radical idea that.  Imagine the Social Justice Warrior who instead of joining a non-profit in Downtown Manhattan or a nice College Town and Working to solve the world’s problems from a nice one-bedroom apartment near cute vegetarian restaurants, imagine that person just deciding to move to Rosewater, Indiana or the equivalent town in Nowhere America and get a job at Wal-Mart and just live with people and love them.  That would be a radical act. 

Of course this is all just silly talk.  What kind of person would voluntarily set aside all the trappings of a very nice life and endure such humbling as to actually live with, among, and like the lowly, unworthy beings?  Empty yourself and become a servant?  Yeah, that would be insane.