Life is no way to treat an animal

How beautiful it is to get up and go out and do something. We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.
– Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

I’ve been thinking about cynicism and poetry. It has to do with how we spend our time. (“we have all these instruments for slicing it up like a salami, clocks and calendars, and we name the slices as though we own them”) And what we notice when we get up and go outside.

According to the original cynics, all that you need to be happy is to get up, go outside, and search out where the hell the world hid its virtue. Not suffering is just a matter of finding value in what matters. I know that sounds redundant. It is. I suppose that’s poetry. 

To find value in what matters… tell me that you haven’t  intensely felt the difference. I don’t believe you. That’s poetry, too, I guess. 

Cynics today are pegged as cranky skeptics. This doesn’t surprise me. That the original cynics were compared to dogs doesn’t either. Both have a flat, “yeah kinda” side to them. 

Let’s say that I’m a cynic. Each day I walk out my door, seeking virtue. Seeking happiness. Seeking value in a  proudly ignorant, surprisingly humorless, fantastically selfish, war-seeking world. It takes a poet, a hero – hell it takes a dog – not to return home convinced that virtue set sail for another, more deserving planet. 

Still, at times I leave the house. At times, I walk out into that same, infuriating world. And I see something beautiful. Not just that, though. That’s easy. But beautiful, in a way that kind of… matters.

In A Man Without a Country, 145 skimpily worded pages that took him five years to write, an 82 year-old Kurt Vonnegut said that there were only two things that made his life worth living: music and all the saints he had met, “who could be anywhere.”

Vonnegut was an original cynic, seeking virtue in a country where everything was pretty much crap.

“A sappy woman from Ypsilanti sent me a letter a few years back… She was about to have a baby – not mine – and she wanted to know if it was a bad thing to bring such a sweet and innocent creature into a world as bad as this one.

“Don’t do it! I wanted to tell her. It could be another George W. Bush or Lucrezia Borgia. The kid would be lucky to be born into a society where even the poor people are overweight but unlucky to be in one without a national health plan or decent public education for most, where lethal injection and warfare are forms of entertainment, and where it costs an arm and a leg to go to college. This would not be the case if the kid were a Canuck or Swede or Limey or Frog or Kraut. So either go on practicing safe sex or emigrate.

“But I replied that what made being alive almost worthwhile, for me, besides music, was all the saints I met, who could be anywhere. By saints I meant people who behaved decently in a strikingly indecent society.”

Decency in an indecent world. Tiny moments of perfect.

Sometimes language is evocative, and meaning is beside the point.  I mean that literally; it’s right beside it. The abstract is rendered. Moments when virtue either lives or dies are imprisoned and then freed. Breathed without giving a damn about logic, unless it’s the kind that is intensely human. Meaning is kicked to the side and only its entrails remain. Because logic – the inhuman kind – would tell you that virtue doesn’t stand a chance. Would tell you that there are no saints. Would tell you to stop going outside altogether.

In poetry, everything matters. Poetry is the stuff of entrails. That’s the point.

There is always some dispute about poems and what they are or what they should be. Modern cynics might say it doesn’t matter. Original cynics, I think, would say the same. My favorite is the Polish guy who thought it was either about two things finding one another other, or it was about a state of mind. Like most academic opposites, I think it’s both. Something that matters bumps up against something else that matters, giving spark to rage or joy. I know this from my state of mind, which suddenly gives a fantastically giant shit about something.

Virtue is either powerfully living or painfully dying, and I am its witness. I stumble upon entrails; I put meaning beside the point.

I want to go back to Vonnegut and why, at 82, music was one of two reasons for staying alive.

“That specific remedy for the worldwide epidemic of depression is a gift called the blues. All pop music today – jazz, be-bop, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Stones, rock-and-roll, hop-hop, and on and on – is derived from the blues. 

“… The wonderful writer Albert Murray, who is a jazz historian and a friend of mine among other things, told me that during the era of slavery in this country – an atrocity from which we can never fully recover – the suicide rate per capita among slave owners was much higher than the suicide rate among slaves.”

Beating skepticism – not the cranky but the tragic kind that convinces us that we should probably stop reproducing – requires the faith of a cynic and the despair of a poet. It requires us to find and fight for something of value and then just flat-out refuse to watch it die yet again. It requires music. It assumes that we have felt the genuine value of something at least once in our life. So much so, that its death was our pain. Its life was our joy. Don’t say you haven’t felt it.

We still might not be happy. “Blues won’t drive depression clear out of the house,” after all, “but can drive it into the corners of any room.”

Farting around is the best way to find what matters. Farting around is serious business. Some people are experts in farting around, and I respect the shit out of them. You can be at the end of hope and still be farting. We’ve all heard music and met saints that remind us just how much all this farting and sniffing around matters. Let’s be cynics and skeptics and poets, and dogs.

Electronic communities are ok, despite what Vonnegut thought. But we need to also step outside, digging up virtue as it sinks into the ground. And when we come back here, like dancing animals to the keyboard, we need to fight for it.

Anyway, A Man Without a Country. Read it.

New York Times


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