November 19, 2005

My Imaginary Argument With Kurt Vonnegut

Those familiar with my writing know of my affection for the semicolon. My essays and books are littered with the semicolon; I don't know if I could write without using it. This under-utilized punctuation mark entered my consciousness mostly via the works of Dickens, as well as those of his literary heir, John Irving. I figure if it's good enough for them, etc.

But if this essay is to be believed, my fellow Americans take a dim view indeed of my beloved semicolon:

"Americans have long regarded the semi- colon with suspicion, as a genteel, self-conscious, neither-one-thing-nor-the other sort of punctuation mark, with neither the butchness of a full colon nor the flighty promiscuity of the comma. Hemingway and Chandler and Stephen King wouldn’t be seen dead in a ditch with a semi-colon (though Truman Capote might). Real men, goes the unwritten rule of American punctuation, don’t use semi-colons."

Actually, I've never heard any such thing. Who knew the semicolon was femme-y? Worse, in the next paragraph, I find a quote from Kurt Vonnegut attacking the semicolon. Now, I've tried to read five different Vonnegut books and given up five times by around the second chapter of each; I find his stuff to be tedious and precious. Still, he's supposed to be one of the greats, so I can't help but wonder if I've been wrong all along:

"If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be a homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts. But do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites, standing for absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college."

Well, I've never been to college, but I know a clunky metaphor when I read one. That's exactly why I can't read his books; he drops these absolute bombs and I always feel like, "That's it? Is this the part where I'm supposed to laugh?" Honestly, I can't figure out why people think this guy is funny or clever, or even a good writer. His one-liners are of the type you might expect to hear at a science fiction convention - just unbelievably cornball stuff. He's like a deranged Vaudeville comedian who follows you home after the show repeating "Take my wife... please!" until you force yourself to laugh so he'll go away.

So now I'm getting a little pissed off. Normally I don't get too worked up if somebody calls me a femme, but there's something irksome about having the manliness of one's preferences for punctuation called into question by such an obvious fop and fraud. The semicolon is an easy target - a cheap pop, like announcing the name of the town you're in when you step on stage. As the essayist notes, the semicolon has charms that might elude the likes of Vonnegut:

"The beauty of the semi-colon lies in its very vagueness. It indicates both connection and division. It is a gentle way of connecting thoughts, without applying the abrupt brake of a full stop or the breathiness of a comma. It implies a qualification or refinement of the idea stated in the first part of the sentence."

I'd love to argue against Vonnegut's assertion, but it's not really a declarative statement of any substance, it's just a bitchy one-liner that seems designed to elicit laughter from sycophants at cocktail parties. But as I was reading the blog on which I found this essay, I ran across a recent interview with Vonnegut.

I know one thing has nothing to do with the other, and that Vonnegut may be wrong about everything but the semicolon, and that ad hominem attacks pointing out that Kurt Vonnegut has lost every last one of his marbles don't make my case for me. I know all that, but I can't help feeling that a truly crazy worldview permeates ones thinking about even the small stuff:

From The Australian, Nov. 19, 2005:

Next I ask him about terrorism. It's not for any particular reason. It just seems a relevant thing to ask a writer who has seen war, who has written of war and who lives in New York City, where terrorism's horror is understood so well.

"What about terrorists? Do you understand where they're coming from? Do you regard them as soldiers too?" I ask.

Vonnegut's reply is startling. "I regard them as very brave people, yes," he says without a moment's hesitation.

"You don't think that they're mad, that, you know, anyone who would strap a bomb to himself must be mad?"

"Well, we had a guy [president Harry Truman] who dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, didn't we?" he says.

"What George Bush and his gang did not realise was that people fight back. Peace wasn't restored in Vietnam until we got kicked out. Everything's quiet there now."

There's a long pause before Vonnegut speaks again: "It is sweet and noble - sweet and honourable I guess it is - to die for what you believe in."

This borders on the outrageous. Is the author of one of the great anti-war books of the 20th century seriously saying that terrorists who kill civilians are "sweet and honourable"?

I ask one more question: "But terrorists believe in twisted religious things, don't they? So surely that can't be right?"

"Well, they're dying for their own self-respect," Vonnegut fires back. "It's a terrible thing to deprive someone of their self-respect. It's [like] your culture is nothing, your race is nothing, you're nothing."

There's another long pause and Vonnegut's eyes suggest his mind has wandered off somewhere. Then, suddenly, he turns back to me and says: "It must be an amazing high."

"What?" I ask. "Strapping a bomb to yourself," he says. "You would know death is going to be painless, so the anticipation ... must be an amazing high."

Now I ask you, would Dickens ever talk that kind of crap?

I rest my case.

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Posted by benweasel at 02:34 PM