“How embarrassing to be human.”
– Kurt Vonnegut
“Those who look for me in person, or elsewhere than in my writings, lose me instead of find me. I hope and trust that you and I may meet in truth and know each other there, and know as we are known of God.”
– Mary Baker Eddy (The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany, page 120: 2
I did not know until last week that a biography had been written about one of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut. The book, called And So It Goes: A Life, was published in 2011 – four years after Vonnegut’s death – and, according to the reviews, presents a Vonnegut different than the man we see in his books. In reviewing the book, Joseph A. Domino writes: “I have not read a lot of biographies; they could probably be counted on two hands. But this one is definitely the strangest. It is a systematic and comprehensive chronicle of Vonnegut and well-written. But Shields has something negative to say on almost every page about the author to the point of moral judgment. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
Another reviewer, B. Wilfong, writes: “It seems on browsing through some of the reviews of And So It Goes that many readers picked up this biography hoping to find the persona that Kurt Vonnegut crafted, as opposed to an honest story about the person. This is not a hit piece, as some reviewers assert, but rather a biography of the man, not the image he cultivated to sell his books.”
So here’s the thing: I am a huge fan of Vonnegut’s writing – I love the humanity and humor he brings to his stories. I love the heart. His writing comes from a place of compassion and honesty, and forgiveness of people for their human-ness. All I want to know about Vonnegut I can find in his writing. The other stuff – personal insecurities, foibles, flaws, mistakes – that stuff doesn’t really interest me. When Wilfong refers to “the persona that Vonnegut crafted, as opposed to an honest story about the person” – I find myself asking who’s to say which is the real Vonnegut, and which the illusion? Maybe we find the real Vonnegut – the essence of him – in his writing.
The same is true for my feelings about Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. When people have used examples of her human-ness to discount her writings – she used morphine; she divorced; she wanted this painting of her to be touched-up to make her look more attractive; and, in the end, she died like everyone else – it doesn’t affect me the way maybe her critics expect these things to affect me. I can relate to Eddy wanting pictures of her to be attractive – I mean, how many times have I refused to let someone tag me in a Facebook picture? And the fact that Eddy died in the end, like everyone else, doesn’t at all take away, for me, the value of her words and thoughts.
I’ve never been someone who followed people, you know? I follow ideas. And I love the ideas I find in Vonnegut’s writing, and in Eddy’s. I don’t need to know about their personal lives to be able to appreciate the wisdom and truth in their words.
The Wikipedia page about the Death of Ludwig van Beethoven reads, in part: “There is dispute about the cause of Beethoven’s death; alcoholic cirrhosis, syphilis, infectious hepatitis, lead poisoning, sarcoidosis, and Whipple’s disease have all been proposed.” Does Beethoven’s alcoholism, or the venereal disease he suffered from, make his music less beautiful? From an historical perspective, the facts of his life are interesting, I guess – but I think where we find the real essence of Beethoven is in his music – that’s where we see him rising above his mortality. The Wikipedia page reads: “Beethoven suffered declining health throughout the last years of his life, including the so-called ‘Late period’ when he produced some of his most admired work.”
And then there’s my dad, Dee Molenaar, who will turn 100 in June. What a life he has had! The adventures! The things he’s seen! The amazing people he’s met! He is an extraordinary man who’s lead an extraordinary life. Has he made mistakes? Yup. Does he have flaws and foibles? Sure. He’s human, after all. And humans aren’t perfect. But I think it’s when you look at Dad’s artwork that you really see the essence of him. He captures the beauty he sees in “his” mountains and paints it on paper for all of us to see with him – through his eyes. That beauty he sees and loves – that’s who my dad really is – that’s Dad rising above his mortality and human-ness and helping us all catch a glimpse of the immortal – the beauty that endures.
That’s what the arts do for us, right? In poetry, music, painting – in creative forms of expression – we are lifted above our mortality into a higher realm. We are inspired. We glimpse something brighter and more beautiful than the human flaws, foibles, and mistakes that would try to anchor us to mortality. I think the arts help us see what is real in each other. I’m thinking we should let people’s art lift us up, instead of letting their human-ness keep us anchored to mortality.
“The real man is spiritual and immortal, but the mortal and imperfect so-called ‘children of men’ are counterfeits from the beginning, to be laid aside for the pure reality.”
– Mary Baker Eddy