I’ve been watching The Daily Show a lot lately because, well, it’s pretty much the only news source I feel I can trust any more*. Whether that’s a sad commentary on myself, the state of American journalism, or a combination of the two, I’m not sure, but there you go. Anyway, I was really excited to hear that Kurt Vonnegut was scheduled to be a guest Tuesday night as a part of the show’s week-long “Evolution, Schmevolution” series.
I’ve been a big fan of Vonnegut’s work ever since I discovered “Slaughterhouse Five” when I was at the University of Maine (later than most, I know, but I somehow managed to miss several of the so-called modern classics in high school; I never even read “The Catcher in the Rye” until I was 23). His particular brand of disheartened humanism really appealed to me. Ever since that moment in my teens when the cynicism engines in my brain kicked into gear (and it happens to us all, unless you’re Pollyanna or you take really excellent anti-depressants), I’ve always been both amazed by the astounding potential of humanity – our capacity to expand the boundaries of understanding, the ability to create timeless works of art, and so forth – and dumbfounded at the incredible amount of disappointing, preventable, downright stupid shit we do as a species (you know, almost everything else). Vonnegut was probably the first author, and maybe even one of the very first people period, who every spoke to that feeling in me. He gave a lecture once at UMaine while I was going there, and in person that connection was cemented to an even greater degree (among other things, he stated that night that “human beings were put on this earth for no other reason than to fart around;” as I’m sure Erin can attest, I often take that philosophy a little too seriously). He was getting on in years by that point, but the energy and Trickster mentality that made him such an important voice in American literature, and indeed in the whole American dialogue, were still very present.
Which is what made Tuesday’s edition of The Daily Show so very difficult to watch. Jon Stewart introduces Vonnegut, heaping on the praise but stopping just shy of declaring the man his own personal deity, and then out comes… this hobbling, vaguely confused looking old man. And for a split second there, I honestly almost cried a little.
The interview itself didn’t really improve matters much, as Vonnegut began by rambling his way through a seeming non-sequitur that did, eventually, meander it’s way back to the topic of the evolution/intelligent design debate.** And it never really got any better after that. Stewart quickly seemed to give up the idea of staying on topic, switching gears to talk about politics and even Vonnegut himself, but that didn’t work so well either. The interview came to a quick end before Kurt could discuss his list of “liberal crap” he didn’t want to hear in the media anymore. It was the one thing I never would have expected – I tuned in for my own personal literary icon and what I got was Grandpa Simpson.
(If you're curious, you can read the list here.)
Saddest of all, though, was the look in the man’s eyes. They still had that same fire as I had seen in countless pictures through the years and in person for that one hour about a decade ago – the Trickster was still present in spirit, but the body wasn’t an adequate enough vessel anymore. I got the feeling that we probably won’t have good ol’ Uncle Kurt with us for much longer, which in itself is a sad and humbling thought, as I think it’s much harder to watch our heroes fade away than to lose them unexpectedly. Maybe it’s best to appreciate the time we have left in whatever form we can get it, which may have been a factor in what prompted Stewart to have him as a guest in the first place (besides having a new essay collection to promote, anyway).
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the man just had an off night. I certainly hope that’s the case. I mean, any of us should be so lucky to remain that lucid at the same age, but the urge to compare now and then, and the inevitable disappointment that follows, is just too inevitable to resist.
What a drag it is getting old, huh?
But I think the time has come to dip back into my Vonnegut stash (after I finish Sarah Vowell’s “Take the Cannoli,” anyway, which, BTW, is just as excellent as the rest of her work), and see if I can’t reconnect with the man’s legacy. With any luck, it may even make the reality a little easier to swallow.
*And there is enough actual news-related content on any given episode that I feel it does qualify as an actual news source, as opposed to The Onion, which is flat-out satire. Both are funny as hell, though, and well worth your time.
**Don't even get me started.