Two of our biggest adversaries — time and authority. Constraints that keep us from living in a pure state of freedom. One to keep us moving forward, the other to keep us in check. Occasionally moving us forward, in the process of keeping us in check. An irony of sorts, but society’s operant framing truth.
But what does that have to do with the title of this entry — which seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with time and/or authorty. Actually, it does, but it’ll take a step or two to get there.
Most of this title is rather self-explanatory, save for the “KVJ” part, I suppose. It’s not a composer’s numbering system, as you at first might have suspected. Instead, it is an acronym — short for Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. — who, as far as I know, is not that short. Neither in name nor physique. Certainly not literary stature. All I had to do was click on a web site or two to realize that he was far from forgotten; his status more than intact. Not only does he have people still reading him, he’s had singing groups like Ambrosia crafting songs using words from his books, or characters in movies (from Footloose to Back to School to The Recruit soliloquizing on his writing.
The guy’s ouevre is more than amply covered still in American popular culture. It has legs, merit, stickiness, relevance, gravitas. And, yes, I guess some people do still read KVJ.
But at the time that I was tooling around the city in my car this morning (this was pre-inadvertent intersection with another hurtling vehicle in simultaneous time/space-crunch-ohMy!-ouch!), I wasn’t sure about this vestigial popularity. And so, overwhelmed by the power of his wordsmanship as I was re-reading his first novel Player Piano at a red light, the question literally gushed through my consciousness like a flood of sunlight coursing through my windshield. (No, neither the reading nor the flood of sudden light were the culprits accounting for my inadvertent intersection with another hurtling vehicle in simultaneous time/space-crunch-ohMy!-ouch!).
Actually, the question arose in the first instance because I found myself thinking: “Man this isn’t right! This guy can really think! And he can write! But . . . he . . . is . . . not . . . right!”
I think what I read (the book is in the car which is now at the shop — yes, because of the inadvertent intersection with another hurtling vehicle in simultaneous ttime/space-crunch-ohMy!-ouch! — so, I can’t verify it precisely) is that the past exists (or is kept alive by those of us in the present) because it is humble (to our contemporary sensibilities) and (comparatively) allows us to glorify and gloat about our present.
(Yes, as you can fathom, this is not a direct quote).
Actually (I managed to fetch the lines from another copy in the library, and) the real quote is:
It was a vote of confidence from the past, he thought — where the past admitted how humble and shoddy it had been, where one could look from the old to the new and see that mankind really had come a long way…
And, when I read it at the time I thought to myself — well, you’ve already heard what I thought to myself — but what made me say that was because I immediately had that “yeah, but what about …” voice that is drilled into us in graduate school (usually from some smug balding guy with glasses and a few smart-ass kibbitzes — hey, someone who looks and sounds not very different than . . . me!) and in this case, it was followed by: “the Beatles? Or Ansel Adams? The U.S. Consitution? The Pieta? Abraham Lincoln? Mahatma Ghandi?” You know, running down the list of people and creations from our past that weren’t too shoddy. People who could make us hard-pressed in this present to prove that we could improve. That we were better . . . I mean: George Bush? “Texas Chainsaw” re-makes? Polluting our own home with our cars? Examples which, by the time I had weaned myself from playing the game of making lists, had consumed considerable time and great attention (but, no, that also was not the proximate cause of the inadvertent intersection with another hurtling vehicle in simultaneous time/space-crunch-ohMy!-ouch!)
It was more like one of those intellectual diversions that makes life fuller for living. And thanks KVJ for getting me to play.
How it got me to time and authority I cannot really tell you right now. I mean, of course, there was the authority in the form of the cops who were called in to ajudicate exactly who was most at fault in the inadvertent intersection between hurtling vehicles in simultaneous time/space-crunch-ohMy!-ouch! And time, of course, was involved in said measuring and diagramming and listening and disputing and reconciling discrepent versions of the inadvertent intersection between hurtling vehicles in simultaneous time/space-crunch-ohMy!-ouch!
But really the temporal and command aspects arose because of KVJ. Pure and simple. And how that was was this.
I’m no Vonnegut scholar but I have enjoyed a book or two. Cat’s Cradle, The Sirens of Titan, Breakfast of Champions. Well, okay, three. And certainly Slaughterhouse 5 is on my list of best novels of the past century. So, that brings us to four. There is a lot of time in S-5 — if I recall correctly, Billy Pilgrim is forced basically to live his life in a random array. For me that might have come in handy during the precise moment of inadvertent intersection between hurtling vehicles in simultaneous time/space-crunch-ohMy!-ouch! because I’ve been on that road literally hundreds of times over the past 20 years and in that particular space a goodly pecentage of times in which no one (else) was right there in that precise spot. Had it been the day before, or even this morning 5 seconds earlier, the space would have been solely mine!
But that actually is not what Vonnegut was getting at with Billy’s random life-event-series — since, in the novel, it was a handful of actual critical events in the life of Billy Pilgrim that was being experienced, rather than mundane moments like sitting at the breakfast table eating Wheaties and reading the morning paper.
This random-lived-life thing — that is something that we peripatetiques might take issue with. After all, when we travel we want to place things in context. Travel is made more real and more powerful the more places we can extract from the reservoir of memory to organize and highlight and compare with that which is right in front of us. And often our reaction to what is there depends on what has come before; or with what we have actively selected. And we have actively selected the new stuff, why?; because of what has come before.
A tautology! Running loose inbetween the lines of my blog. Stop it! Crush it! Kill it! Quick!
Now it’s after recess and the tautology is massed on the sole of our shoe and needless to say (don’t you just hate that phrase? — then why say it!!!), in a randomly-ordered life, this sort of control, this conscious participation in our unfolding, can be lost. It is rendered tenuous at best; pushed beyond our dominion and guiding hand.
So, authority. “Who is in charge of my trip?” is a prelude for the larger question: “who is in charge of my life”. In Slaughterhouse 5, the answer is “not you”. Because, Billy Pilgrim not only has no control over the sequencing of events that he experiences, he also cannot exert control over those things — such as his own death — which he has already seen. Instead, Billy is content to extol a brand of fatalism that convinces humans to accept the outcomes that, if not pre-ordained, have already been lived. Well, wait a second . . . that sounds a lot like pre-ordination to me.
We’ve intercepted some bad logics tonight. Some real combustible forces. Probably because today was that day. The day that I experienced that inadvertent intersection between hurtling vehicles in simultaneous time/space-crunch-ohMy!-ouch!
Well, anyway, Billy doesn’t have it entirely bad. I mean, aside from having been abducted by aliens and being held captive, millions of miles from home, and on display in a zoo on the Planet Tralfamadore. He is, after all, shacked up there with fellow-abductee, former porn star Montana Wildhack. Though some among us might deem that sort of fate a living hell, others might simply feel resigned to do as they are told. Life being often rough. Not to mention unfair.
Time to end. On whose authority? Well . . . mine!
And, victim of repeated, rather than random, events, I don’t really have a way to end this piece. I mean the resolution of the inadvertent intersection between hurtling vehicles in simultaneous time/space-crunch-ohMy!-ouch! is pending and it is in someone else’s hands — insurance adjustors whose decisions and revisions (to quote Ambrosia) will depend on cop reports. And whatever they decide won’t really stir my universe, one way or the other.
I know that life is not random, although it often seems far from planned. It is not fully organizable either. But from a peripatetic vantage point, it often has that melancholy freshness to it — that scent that this is all new, but this is also all there is. And for me, at least, it seems like we have the choice to subscribe to the Tralfamadorean creed — that we go through our paces having lived them all, just unaware of which ones come next — or we don’t. If we do, then I guess we end up as sort of non-participatory participants in our own lives. Which is not something that I advocate. So, while I still read KVJ, there are times when I have to scream back at the book I’m holding: “Man this isn’t right! This guy can really think! And he can write! But . . . he . . . is . . . not . . . right!”
Until I walk past the storefronts during any of my many peripatetic paces, and glance in — or snap a shot — and realize: “Hey, I’m no different than a Tralfamadorean. Watching that human perform.”
Trying to make sense of the motions that have randomly appeared before the viewfinder . . .