Saturday, December 8, 2012

sometimes they don't stop for anything

Kurt Vonnegut was kind of a dick, as it turns out. A new biography by Charles Shields paints a picture of Vonnegut as a bitter, depressed man with a vicious temper born from survivor's guilt and family trauma, and it's really rattling the agreed-upon perception of Vonnegut as Literature's Frumpy Grandpa.

Or not. I mean, most of the authors we love, or have heard of, are famous for being complicated and dark. Roald Dahl, for example. Flannery O'Connor, although that's not much of a surprise to anyone familiar with her work. W.E.B. DuBois was a major-league asshole, and yet his work has endured and the world is better for it.

What bugs me about these kinds of discussions is the underlying assumption that the darker elements of someone's personality are the only true ones, and that everything else about them is a lie, and/or a shallow attempt to win us over for some other (usually financial) reason. I mean, look, Vonnegut was a POW during the Dresden firebombing, and he was part of the prison labor that collected and disposed of the bodies. Is it really a huge shock that he had trouble getting close to people, that he was depressed, that he was angry? Add in the difficulties of being a working writer, even back then, and whatever darkness Vonnegut had in him makes total sense.

I spend a lot of time thinking about art's ability to redeem. James Brown, for example, was a pretty terrible person--abusive husband, drug addict, temperamental workaholic--but his music was the soundtrack to the Civil Rights Movement and he prevented a riot in Boston after MLK was shot by performing a free concert there. His artistic legacy was ultimately positive, despite what a fucked-up guy he was on a personal level.

So what is the truth about James Brown? Was he a deeply flawed man who still managed to leave the world better than he found it, or was he a mean, sexist shitsock who just happened to write some good songs? And how does all this apply to Vonnegut, or anyone else whose public face contrasts so sharply with his/her private one? Clearly I have no idea, but I think it's worth asking those questions before joining the rush to judge and feel betrayed.

1 comment:

  1. I always wonder about these people before they're famous. Young Salinger, for example, attending New York parties vs. Old Salinger holed up with a shotgun. Or is the dickishness recognized as part of the mix. Should I start being a total dick so people will think I'm brilliant? I've always gotten the impression of Vonnegut as bitter and depressed. I don't know that I've ever met a depressed person who wasn't a dick sometimes, so I assumed he was a dick sometimes. But unless he did something really revolting that I'm unaware of, who gives a shit, I guess.