Mahesh's innovation was to translate the Hindu religious rite of Yogic meditation into a minimal format that could easily fit into the busy lives of 20th Century humans around the world. Transcendental Meditation, which became the brand name for his particular approach, involved no spiritual mysticism, and was compatible with any religious or even non-religious viewpoint. Each person was given a "mantra", a secret word, which they would focus their minds upon for 20 minutes at a time, approximately twice a day. This practice became popular around the world in the 1960's, especially in late 1967 and early 1968 when the Beatles briefly declared themselves members of the Mahirishi's movement.
Whether following the "TM" technique or not, meditation has become a part of American culture, and Mahirishi Mahesh Yogi is largely to thank for this undeniably positive development. People meditate in many different ways, but Mahesh's organization is still highly active. The great film director David Lynch wrote a book two years ago called Catching the Big Fish that explains how the practice of TM has made his career possible. Here he talks about his first experience with the technique:
So in July 1973 I went to the TM center in Los Angeles and met an instructor, and I liked her. She looked like Doris Day. And she taught me this technique. She gave me a mantra, which is a sound-vibration-thought. You don't meditate on he meaning of it, but it's a very specific sound-vibration-thought.
She took me into a little room to have my first meditation. I sat down, closed my eyes, started this mantra, and it was as if I were in an elevator and the cable had been cut. Boom! I fell into bliss -- pure bliss.
According to Jonathan Gould in Can't Buy Me Love, the Beatles had a more complex ongoing relationship with the Mahirishi's philosophy than is commonly known. John Lennon and George Harrison were the two who took it seriously, and according to Gould the song "Across the Universe" was originally written as a description of the experience of meditation:
restless wind inside a letter box
they tumble blindly as
they make their way across the universe
Jai guru deva om
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world
I am not a practitioner of Transcendental Meditation or any other specific approach, but I have been very influenced by this practice because I was introduced to it by my grandparents many years ago. My grandmother Jeannette Schwartz had attended one of the Mahirishi's introductions to meditation in the early 1970's, and became a lifelong convert. My grandfather Sidney enjoyed meditating too, and all of us grandchildren were given mantras and instructed to do our twenty minutes at a time together, twice a day, whenever we visited. I wrote some more about this when Grandma Jeannette died on Valentine's Day, 2002.
My grandparents never stopped meditating, and I have occasionally kept up the practice myself, though truly I'm a mediocre meditator at best. It seems to me that David Lynch or other enthusiastic followers of TM may alienate people with this "elevator drop pure bliss" stuff, since I've meditated a lot and find that it's usually nowhere near that exciting. Still, meditation does feel good, and it does help you expand the way you are thinking about the things in your life.
The Mahirishi has taken much criticism for his sometimes simplistic teachings, not to mention his often outrageous style. He giggles a lot and has been criticized for avoiding serious real-world politics and basking in luxury while the world suffers. He has generally worked as a peace activist, and as a sardonic, good-natured critic of Western materialism. Unlike other "modern mystics", there is nothing remotely cultish or megalomaniacal about the Mahirishi, or about his Transcendental Meditation movement.
It's too simple to be a cult. TM is all about this: 20 minutes at a time, twice a day. That's the whole thing. That's what the Mahirishi says you should do, and who thinks it's not worth a try?
Here are some other articles worth a look.
Neal Cassady, the real-life model for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac's On The Road, died forty years ago today, on February 4, 1968. There was recently much celebration of the 50th anniversary of the publication of On The Road, and it provides a sad perspective to put these anniversaries together and realize that On The Road gave Neal Cassady exactly one decade of literary "fame" before he died at the age of 42.
This anniversary seemed like a good occasion for me to email Carolyn Cassady a few wide-ranging questions, which she was kind enough to answer from her home in London:
Levi: So much has changed in the world since February 4th, 1968. Or has it? If Neal has been looking down on us all for all these years, what do you think he would say about the state of the world in 2008?
Carolyn: If Neal were watching us since the time he departed this planet, I think he would feel as I do that it is in a very sad state. He was such a loving person, and there is so little evidence of that in the affairs of the world. Acquiring money and/or power at any cost appears to be the religion and goal. Every time there's an "improvement" in products, they're much worse. Selfishness.
Levi: I know that you and Neal were interested together in the teachings of spiritual leader Edgar Cayce (by the way, I had a piano teacher as a kid who was a Caycean, so I know a little about it). Have you remained involved with this movement, and what do you think about it today?
Carolyn:Neal and I used the Cayce connection as the springboard for further studies in occult lore. We didn't continue after the first few years with just that. We explored all the scriptures from early Eastern systems, the Theosophists, Max Heindel, etc etc., and I became interested in Astrology. I am poor at interpretation, but I get a little. Otherwise, the teachings of that accumulated search and the present-day Truth movements, like Unity satisfy my needs nicely, and I try to live by the wisdom of the ages as best I can.
Levi: How do you feel about today's literature? What books have you recently enjoyed reading, and are there any newer writers you like, or any newer or older writers you can't stand?
Carolyn: I'm not an authority on today's literature. I read very few novels; I like biographies, documentaries and maybe historical novels. I have read more English writers since moving here, and I havaen't read any more American ones. I have enjoyed Julian Barnes, Jude Morgan, Roddy Doyle, Peter Ackroyd to name a few. I do read reviews in literary magazines so remain interested in trends.
Levi: Can you think of any surprising truth or fact about Neal Cassady (or about the times you spent with Neal and Jack Kerouac and the rest of the gang) that the world does not yet know?
Carolyn: My dear, my book is full of surprising truths about the lads, but not enough people read it or read it carefully. So there are still masses of myths and misinformation everywhere.
Levi: Is the date of February 4, 2008 going to be an especially significant one for you and your children? And do you have any thoughts you'd like to share on this 40th anniversary?
Carolyn: I remember February 4 with affection both for Neal and for Anne Murphy, who's birthday it is. I understand the Beat Museum in San Francisco is celebrating Neal's birthday on the 8th, but I am not included in that in any way -- except Neal's children will be there. I always think of Neal with gratitude for teaching me so much wisdom about life; I feel privileged to have known him, and I miss him always. He was a unique individual in spades.
Carolyn also told me: "You know how tired I am of living in the past, but I guess it's what makes the present." I don't like living in the past either, but I'll make an exception for Neal Cassady, because he has always been one of my very favorite Beat Generation figures. Some of the very first articles published on Literary Kicks were about the connected careers of Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, the Grateful Dead and Ken Kesey, and probably the very first exciting and impressive thing that happened to me after launching LitKicks was that I was put into contact with Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow, who had circulated a short article about the origin of the Grateful Dead song "Cassidy" online. I asked if I could give the piece a home on LitKicks, he happily agreed, and you can still read his excellent piece about "Cassidy" and Cassady here.
The following year I got a chance to interview John Allen Cassady, Neal's son, which was a very special event because John had not spoken out in public about his experiences as a child among Neal, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and the rest of the Beat crowd before. This interview meant a lot to me (and also helped put LitKicks "on the map", which I appreciated very much). I always sensed a deep, earthy warmth emanating from the members of Neal Cassady's family (and if you've ever dealt with literary estates or families, you know that deep, earthy warmth is not often what emanates from these sources). This seemed to speak, as did many other indicators, for an essential simple human goodness at the heart of Neal Cassady's legacy in this world.
"Did You Hear Neal Cassady Died?"
-- The Washington Squares
Did you hear Neal Cassady died?
Lying on the tracks down in Mexico
Did you hear Neal Cassady died, last night?
Can you see Neal Cassady drive?
An old car and a girl in heaven alive
Can you see Neal Cassady drive, last night?
He was a-lying on the tracks down in Mexico
What a sad, sad, lonely way to go
for the king of the hipster daddy-0's ...
Two years after On The Road became a smash success, Neal was arrested and convicted for selling a small amount of marijuana and spent two years separated from Carolyn and his children as a prisoner in San Quentin. Jack Kerouac never stopped blaming himself for ruining a hard-working family man's life by making him a celebrity lawbreaker and a target for law enforcement. After returning home following two years in jail, Neal juggled his job and large family precariously along with his crazy wanderings among Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters and various crazy hipsters coalescing around the growing San Francisco music scene.
Neal was found dead by the side of a railroad track in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico where he'd been staying with friends. According to Carolyn Cassady's Off The Road, he had walked a quarter mile south towards the nearby town of Celaya when he seemed to have stopped walking. The manner of his death has always seemed significant -- of what? I'm not sure. But I tried to estimate where exactly this might have been on Google Maps, and this satellite image may show the spot:
Best wishes to the Cassady family. Of course, the spirit lives on.
I just read on Sarah Weinman's site that Ira Levin has died. Ira Levin was the author of Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives, two bestselling novels I enjoyed greatly when I was a kid in the 70's reading under the influence of my Grandma, my mom and my sister. These books were both made into excellent movies, of course (Roman Polanksi's chic spin on Rosemary's Baby was especially good) but the books were fun to read too. Ira Levin specialized in conspiracy theories: Rosemary's Baby presented a Satanic conspiracy and Stepford Wives a male chauvinist conspiracy. But Ira Levin wrote another conspiracy novel, This Perfect Day, which I also read as a teenager and liked perhaps even better than the other two.
Why did teenage me read this strange and even then little-known book, which depicts a rebel named Li RM35M4419 (nickname: Chip) who takes on a totalitarian government managed by a giant computer named UniComp? I guess I had a lot of time on my hands, but this often paid off, and This Perfect Day was a very exciting and rewarding read. I don't want to give away the core secret conspiracy that is revealed during the course of This Perfect Day, but perhaps I can suggest that some readers may want to honor this author's death not by rereading the familiar bestsellers but by finding copies of this one instead. You can read the Wikipedia page above if you don't mind a spoiler (no, UniComp is not gay) and I'll just say that the book does come up with a good payoff and stands up to 1984, Animal Farm, Slapstick, Brave New World and other totalitarian fables. Like these novels, it touches upon fascism, Stalinism and Maoism, but Ira Levin has more fun with these concepts than any of the others (except maybe Slapstick, since nobody ever had more fun with a concept than Kurt Vonnegut).
The book also offers a highly original message that has something to do with co-optation of the underground. Dana Spiotto's recent Eat The Document tells a similar story in a very different way.
I'll update this page with more links about Ira Levin as I find them. Farewell to a highly original author, Ira Levin of New York City, 78 years old.
Mailer popular first novel, The Naked and the Dead, was based on his experiences as a soldier on the Pacific front in World War II. A wild future lay ahead for the professional contrarian, who would go on to co-found the Village Voice, run for Mayor of New York City, stab his wife at a party, advocate for the parole of serial murderers with writing talent, and abandon the airy spheres of pure fiction to explore the lives of real life psychopaths like Gary Gilmore and Adolph Hitler in artful prose.
Here is Norman Mailer in a filmed fist-fight (a posture that suited him well) in 1970.
UPDATE: some nice words for Norman from Garth Risk Hallberg and Mark Sarvas.
I'll never forget those simple drawings of an insect crawling on the fabric of Mrs. Who's white robe. It looked like an ant walking a string tightrope. In those days, my friends and I learned as much science from comic books as from textbooks. An arch-villain called "Mr. 103" could morph into any element on the periodic table (now we would call him "Mr. 117"). Superman's x-ray vision couldn't penetrate lead, same as real x-rays. If The Flash vibrated fast enough, he could slide his molecules around the particles of a solid wall and pass through to the other side without damaging the wall.
But, A Wrinkle In Time was not a comic book. This was a gripping science fiction novel written for kids like me. It drew me in with a classic "dark and stormy night" beginning and launched me, not only to another planet, but also to a new plane of reading.
"You see," Mrs. Whatsit said, "if a very small insect were to move from the section of skirt in Mrs. Who's right hand to that in her left, it would be quite a long walk for him if he had to walk straight across."
Swiftly Mrs. Who brought her hands, still holding the skirt, together.
"Now, you see," Mrs. Whatsit said, "he would be there without the long trip. That is how we traveled."
The proverbial fold in the fabric of time: a sci-fi staple.
L'Engle was born in New York City on November 29, 1918. Her father, Charles Wadsworth Camp, was a writer and drama critic. Her mother, Madeleine Hall Barnett Camp, was a pianist. Madeleine began writing stories, poems, and journals at an early age. When she was twelve, she moved with her parents to the Swiss Alps. She later went to high school in Charleston, South Carolina and graduated from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1941.
After college, L'Engle moved to Greenwich Village where she worked in the theater. In 1944, she wrote a play called 18 Washington Square South: A Comedy in One Act. She published her first novel, The Small Rain, in 1945, in which the "write what you know" ethic is quite evident. The events in the book are dramatized, but the main character, whose mother is a pianist, goes to a boarding school in Switzerland and later moves to Greenwich Village.
While she was an understudy in Anton Chekhov's play, The Cherry Orchard, she met her future husband, actor Hugh Franklin. They had a daughter and moved to Connecticut to live in a small farming village, where they bought and ran a general store for nine years. After their third child, the family moved back to the city so Hugh could pursue his acting career. In addition to writing and lecturing, Madeleine became the librarian for the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.
Hugh Franklin, perhaps best known as Dr. Charles Tyler on the television show All My Children, died of cancer in 1986. L'Engle said that writing and lecturing helped her cope with the sadness of losing her husband of forty years.
About a year ago, I wrote a letter to Madeleine L'Engle, asking her if she had ever read the works of Charles Hinton or Edwin Abbott, two authors who wrote about the fourth dimension in the late 1800's. I received a very pleasant letter back from her assistant, explaining that Madeleine was unable to answer inquiries due to her health. This gesture touched me. Even though Ms. L'Engle did not personally answer the letter, I believe it reflects on her generous nature that those close to her would take the time to do so.
Madeleine L'Engle is survived by children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and countless thankful fans.
Here are some inspiring words from Madeleine L'Engle's acceptance speech upon receiving The Margaret Edwards Award (American Library Association Lifetime Achievement Award For Writing In The Field Of Young Adult Literature):
"So WRINKLE (in Time), when it was finally published in 1962, after two years of rejections, broke several current taboos. The protagonist was female, and one of the unwritten rules of science fiction was that the protagonist should be male. I'm a female. Why would I give all the best ideas to a male?
"Another assumption was that science and fantasy don't mix. Why not? We live in a fantastic universe, and subatomic particles and quantum mechanics are even more fantastic than the macrocosm. Often the only way to look clearly at this extraordinary universe is through fantasy, fairy tale, myth. During the fifties Erich Fromm published a book called The Forgotten Language, in which he said that the only universal language which breaks across barriers of race, culture, time,is the language of fairy tale, fantasy, myth, parable, and that is why the same stories have been around in one form or another for hundreds of years."
Grace Paley was from a post-beat generation. One hears about Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and Philip Roth -- all of whom were dear friends of Grace's. But there was also a strong female counterpoint to these writers. And Grace embodied it. We used to call her "headquarters" because she was the mother of our needy female selves. Heterosexual, a lover of men, she helped us say things which were "feminist" but not hateful of men. And we all needed her maternity so much.
Grace was spurned by generations before her. W. H. Auden was her greatest influence, as well as Joyce's Dubliners (some say she protrayed New York as Joyce had portrayed Dublin, full of multicultural genes and voices and irreverancies). She did not believe in pandering to the "major media", in comforting audiences, in writers becoming "stars" instead of truth-tellers. Writing was not there to make people feel good and sell copies. It was there as an expression of social and personal turmoil, as truth, and even as a disturbance in the skies -- dark, troubling, discomforting.
This is most missed in what we see today, from my standpoint and hers. We had talked often about when the shift into writing as a consumer-pleasing commodity happened. I don't know how to express this without seeming unkind to so many "current" writers, but Grace deeply resented the course writers who needed celebritization of their work were taking these days. Writing was truth. And truth was uncomfortable. And one didn't write for a "consumer", One wrote to live and breathe and because one had to. She was subversive, quietly on this point.
While people often think Grace was a "political writer", what she meant by this was well quoted in a New York Times article written a long time ago (I was with her while she was being interviewed):
Mrs. Paley -- who has made no secret of her support for the peace movement, opposition to the war in Vietnam and her progressive political views -- had come to some non-literary prominence as a member of various demonstrations. Some of the reviews took note of these involvements, and suggested they distracted her from concentrated literary effort, an accusation that irritated Mrs. Paley.
"It was ridiculous," she said. "I mean, in Europe, for a writer not to be political is peculiar, and in this country for a writer to be political is considered some sort of aberration, or time waste. I'm not writing a history of famous people. I am interested in a history of everyday life."
This is quintessential to an understanding of Grace, I think ...
Many other salient parts of her literary vision focused on "personal voice", the personal as it hits against the global canvas, the daily news reports. The personal, small voice of everyday, inconsequential, searching. Not famous and loud.
Artistically, I think there is no better example of Grace's literary theory than the desciption she used in a famous short story called "A Conversation with My Father". It was an anti-linear, anti-narrative-arc policy. She believed it was the dailiness of of ordinary interaction that made fiction, not contrived "arcs".
This, of course, spoke to so many us as women. We had been left out entirely of the tradition which was based on that all-prevalent Aristotlean "narrative arc" principle. A friend of mine and I used to laugh, asking "doesn't anybody see this is a male ejection theory of literature? Come on, an arc? It arcs and ...uh ... ejaculates after penetration?" For Grace, fiction could also be like a feminine sexual experience. She was very sexual about writing. We women, she used to say, have little, multiple spasms of pleasure and truth, very modest. Not arcs!
Of course, Grace loved men. And I do, too! The above isn't meant as a rejection of men. Both Grace and I married two first-class men, and have both been married to the same guys for over thirty-five years! So I always resented people labeling Grace Paley a "male-hater" She loved men and I think this set her apart from the bitterness you will opten find in other "feminist writers" of her generation. She once remarked: "Bitterness only comes when one doesn't take an action, if one didn't exercise choice. I walked out on my first marriage. I took an action and I feel in love again!" So she called herself an "activist"!
Here is her most famous description of an anti-arc narrative approach, told with her initimable sense of humor from "A Conversation With My Father:
'I would like you to write a simple story just once more,' he (my father) says, 'the kind de Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov, the kind you used to write. Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next.' I say, 'Yes, why not? That's possible.' I want to please him, though I don't remember writing that way. I would like to try to tell such a story, if he means the kind that begins: 'There was a woman...' followed by plot, the absolute line between two points which I've always despised, not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life."
It was at a big pre-opening party/reading in April 2002 for Bob's then-brand-new Bowery Poetry Club. I was introduced to Elizabeth but I didn't know she was the well-known modern artist. I chatted with her for about fifteen pleasant minutes about the Lower East Side, spoken-word poetry, the Off-Off-Broadway drama scene in the 70's. She mentioned that she did some painting, and I remarked that I sometimes dabbled in painting myself. It was about two hours later that somebody mentioned to me that Elizabeth was Elizabeth Murray.
Judging from my one encounter, she was as vivid as her canvases. And if you look at her canvases you'll know that that's very vivid. Our thoughts are with Elizabeth's whole family, and Bob and all their children, in this sad time.
2. Poet Liam Rector has also died. Syntax of Things shares a poem.
3. A new DVD release of Jerry Aronson's great Beat Generation documentary The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg features a whole lot of good things on a second disc. Highlights include video from a memorial at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine featuring Ed Sanders (carrying his original paperback of Howl), Bob Rosenthal, Anne Waldman and a great, moving performance by Patti Smith reciting to the chiming tones of Philip Glass. You know I recently complained about a sup-par Patti gig, but this is Patti like she oughta be. Overall, I think the Allen Ginsberg memorial I attended in 1997 at St. Mark's Church was less rehearsed and therefore better, but all of these events are good enough for posterity.
Other special features in this new release include interviews with William S. Burroughs, Ken Kesey, Peter Hale and many others. But the main reason to buy this movie remains the main feature, which tells the story of Allen's extremely odd childhood and life. Ginsberg's life was an uncompromised inspiration; he even had a great death scene, surrounded by friends and Buddhist rituals. This film tells the whole story.
4. Amber Simmons has something to say on A List Apart about a particular type of writing: the often banal "copy" writing required for any type of website. Web writing doesn't have to be anorexic.
5. William Safire better watch out. The Oxford University Press is muscling in on his turf with columns by linguists and etymologists like Ben Zimmer, here analyzing the origin of "mob".
6. This is a noteworthy newsy bit about a book that tells toddlers how not to be gay even though they were molested by their uncle (via Maud). But what really makes me like this piece is the closer line: "What ever happened to One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish?" Exactly what we were wondering.
7. No WAY! According to Lux Lotus, the award-winning Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie will finally be available in bookstores, and Adichie will be appearing at an "Upstairs in the Square" event with Katherine Lanpher and Craig Finn on September 13. I'll be there to enjoy.
8. The Sundance Channel just ran the old movie version of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. I'd seen it a long time ago but wanted a fresh look. The verdict? Despite the well-known pattern of awful movies based on Kurt Vonnegut's books, this isn't bad at all. Check it out if you get a chance.
2. I'm looking forward to next week's PEN World Voices festival in New York City. Here's the very impressive schedule of events.
3. Here's a fascinating Salon piece by Robert Marshall on the once popular and still legendary Carlos Castaneda, whose publishers are still in a bizarre state of denial over the fact that his stories were not true.
4. Scott Esposito on Cynthia Ozick on James Wood (and on the lit-crit landscape in general).
5. Via Variation, an appealing trailer for the upcoming movie version of an Ian McEwan book I liked very much, Atonement. I hope this movie is as good as it should be, and I will certainly be reviewing it in these pages come opening day.
6. Other movie news: Jindabyne is based on Raymond Carver's story "So Much Water So Close To Home". And there's apparently going to be a movie about a sans-serif font, Helvetica (more about it here and here). The film's director is Gary Hustwit, who was also the founder of the now-defunct but still memorable downtown New York publishing company Incommunicado Press.
As design-minded LitKicks readers will have noticed, I am personally very fond of Helvetica, which you can spot in numerous places on this site. In my opinion, a song needs drums and bass, an omelet needs eggs and cheese, and a webpage needs Helvetica and Trebuchet MS. Does this mean I'm going to rush out and see Hustwit's film? No, but I'm amused that it exists.
7. Steal This Wiki.
8. Champion has a point here. Enough with these titles.
9. A whole lot of Charles Bukowski manuscripts and memorabilia are up for sale at an upcoming auction. Whether you are wont to wield a paddle or not, it's worthwhile just looking through this extensive and well-illustrated online catalog.
10. What more can be said about Kurt Vonnegut? I've got a few shovelfulls more to throw.
• Here is a blogger tribute put together by Simon Owens of Bloggasm (I am one of the contributors).
• Fox News, still grumpy after being awakened from their dream of a successful Bush/Cheney presidency, has seen fit to disrespect Kurt Vonnegut at the time of his death, and both CJR Daily and Galley Cat are talking back.
• Via Syntax, here's a site called Vonnegut's Asshole, created by Eric Spitznagel
• As my own perverse tribute, it has occurred to me to list four bad movies that have been based on good Kurt Vonnegut novels: Slapstick, Breakfast of Champions, Slaughterhouse-Five, Mother Night. Amazingly, each of these films flopped upon release, giving Kurt Vonnegut perhaps the worst record for book-to-movie translations in all of modern literature. Somebody should really make terrible movies of Cat's Cradle and God Bless You Mr. Rosewater to complete the set. And if we wait around long enough, I have a feeling somebody will.
• Has anybody else been thinking about Dwayne Hoover this week? This character goes on a murderous rampage at the climax of Breakfast of Champions, possessed by the belief that everybody around him is a brainless automaton, that he is the only living, feeling person in the world. Seems to be a lot of that going around these days.
Kurt Vonnegut, whose enjoyably experimental novels vastly increased my appetite for literature when I was a kid, has died at the age of 84.
A thoroughly political and philosophical writer, Kurt Vonnegut argued zealously for the place of human kindness amid the crushing tumult of modern life. His literary expressions of this messsage were sometimes simple, sometimes repetitive -- not because his intellect was limited, but because his conviction on this point was massive. "There's only one rule that I know of, babies -- 'God damn it, you've got to be kind.'"
Who knows whether or not the Vonnegut Message was crystallized during the firebombing of Dresden, Germany during World War II, which he witnessed and wrote about in Slaughterhouse-Five? This coincidence of history gave him a personal vision of all-consuming hell on earth. The surreal horror of Dresden must have been magnified by the fact that Vonnegut was a German-American held as prisoner by enemy Germans underneath the city as it burned (he worked out many of his contradictory feelings about war, about violence, about human stupidity in novels like Mother Night, Cat's Cradle and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater).
My first favorite Vonnegut novel was Breakfast of Champions, in which a cloddish car dealer named Dwayne Hoover becomes convinced that other humans have no feelings, that he is the only sentient being on earth. This book exemplifies Vonnegut's freewheeling and highly personal prose style, complete (in this case) with childish illustrations designed to puncture any sense of pretension or grandeur regarding the novel form.
Another early favorite of mine was Welcome to the Monkey House, a highly accessible collection of stories. The title story involves a monkey in a zoo whose scandalous sexual behavior shocks a prudish parent.
Slapstick is considered "late-period" Vonnegut and is often not listed among his best books, but this sad apocalyptic satire has always stuck with me. In a decimated future Earth, survivors desperately try to reconnect with the distant human capacity for love by forming into arbitrary "tribes" with names like Oyster, Hollyhock, Daffodil, Amoeba, Beryllium, Watermelon, Chickadee, Helium and Strawberry. If you meet someone who belongs to the same tribe, you're supposed to be nice to that person.
Close Slapstick, and we're back in reality, where humanity divides itself into tribes called American, Mexican, French, Russian, Chinese, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Sunni, Shiite, Liberal, Conservative. The slapstick is all around us. The master satirist is gone, and the player piano plays on.
A novelist named E. Howard Hunt died today. Of course, E. Howard Hunt won't go down in history as a novelist, despite the fact that Amazon lists six (6!) pages of spy thrillers and non-fiction books he wrote, like Maelstrom, a potboiler from 1948. Howard Hunt will be remembered because he, along with G. Gordon Liddy, planned and executed the break-in at the Watergate national democratic headquarters in 1972 that eventually brought down the Nixon Presidency.
E. Howard Hunt, a dapper but dour CIA agent, lived an interesting life. The fight against Communism was his obsession, and in this capacity he holds the remarkable distinction of being involved in not one but two (2) major failures of American politics, having also played a leadership role in the disastrous anti-Castro Cuban invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Looking back, it's fairly clear that he should have stuck to writing novels. But history had its way with him, and today we can only reflect on his death.
How were his novels? I've looked at his later ones but none caught my interest; I'd love to look at one of his earlier pulp-style novels but you can't even find a title with a cover image on ALibris's long list of his books. The earliest one appears to be called East of Farewell, published in 1942 -- if anybody out there has read any of these books, please share your observations by posting a comment below.
Only in the ancient Hindu sense of all-universe acceptance can I say that I think E. Howard Hunt was a good man. But he did America a big favor in the summer of 1972: he got caught. As anybody who's read All The President's Men knows, he and Liddy were across the street at the Howard Johnson hotel watching with binoculars as the police burst in on the spies, and one of the men arrested had E. Howard Hunt's name and phone number at the White House listed in the phone book in his pocket. Thus did a President fall.
Coincidentally, Howard Hunt died on a day when Watergate is on many people's minds. If you haven't been paying attention, Dick Cheney's former chief of staff Lewis Libby is on trial for obstruction of justice in a case related to the pre-war search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Libby's defense is pointing a finger at President Bush's close advisor Karl Rove, and it's all starting to remind me of those good old days of John Dean, Bob Haldeman and ... E. Howard Hunt.
Farewell to a hard-working American patriot and writer, E. Howard Hunt.