“To Be Yourself is All that You Can Do”

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The book club of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library met last Thursday to discuss his final novel, Timequake. Published in 1997, it is the most autobiographical of Vonnegut’s novels (and they almost always are autobiographical to some extent). It is loosely constructed around an event called a “Timequake” in which history kind of “slips back” ten years and goes into a re-run. To those reliving the past ten years, it is nearly impossible to not drift into sort of an “autopilot mode” in which they know for certain that any free will is suppressed as the re-run plays out. Vonnegut uses this concept to explore the idea of free will and determinism. He more often, frankly, uses the book to comment on the human condition, and relate a lot of stories from his own life.

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(above: Chris Cornell & “Audioslave”)

While reading Timequake – as a fan of musician and songwriter Chris Cornell (front man for the band “Soundgarden” and later another favorite of mine, “Audioslave”) – I found myself often reminded of the great Audioslave song, “Be Yourself,” which includes the frequent refrain “(and) to be yourself is all that you can do…” Much of Vonnegut’s musing in the book settles back to this idea, probably most overtly in chapter 35, where after relating that geneticists are now “seeking and finding more and more genes that make us think this way or that way, just as a rerun or timequake would do.” He goes on to say that:

“…it appeared to me that Jane’s and my children, and Allie’s and Jim’s children, while not alike as grownups, had each become practically the type of grownups they had to be. All six are OK.”

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We had, as a guest at our book club meeting, author Majie Failey whose book about Vonnegut, “We Never Danced Cheek to Cheek,” I read last year. Somehow in our pre-game warmups before we started talking about Timequake, the matter of Vonnegut’s mother’s suicide came up. Mrs. Failey was of the firm belief that her death was accidental, citing several reasons why. One of our other members, Bob, pointed out that regardless of what we may believe, Vonnegut himself believed it, and it indelibly shaped the course of his life. He even states (chapter 26) “I’m a monopolar depressive descended from monopolar depressives.” Perhaps his life and artistic output was what simply had to be, or to paraphrase the words of Chris Cornell, “all that he could do.”

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This book was not among my Vonnegut favorites (too much of a downer) but there were many things about it I liked. One was the expanded role of Vonnegut’s recurring character, science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, who usually serves as the author’s alter-ego. Vonnegut also has several  insightful things to say about art as well. For example:

“Many years earlier, so long ago that I was a student at the University of Chicago, I had a conversation with my thesis advisor about the arts in general. At that time, I had no idea that I personally would go into any sort of art.
He said, ‘You know what artists are?’
I didn’t.
‘Artists,’ he said, ‘are the people who say, “I can’t fix my country my state or my city, or even my marriage. But by golly I can make this square of canvas, or this eight-and-a-half-by-eleven piece of paper, or this lump of clay, or these twelves bars of music, be exactly what they ought to be.”’

True, Vonnegut didn’t make this statement himself, but it’s yet another “bulls-eye” found in his writing.

Our club’s resident poet, Bill Briscoe, composed a second “diamanté” poem for this book. A snapshot is presented below. Information on the “rules” of diamanté poems have been presented previously on my blog here.

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I look forward to next month’s meeting, where we will be discussing the posthumously published short story collection, Bagombo Snuff Box, a selection of Vonnegut’s previously unpublished work.

For those interested, here are the lyrics to the song “Be Yourself”:

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“Someone falls to pieces, sleeping all alone
Someone kills the pain, spinning in the silence
To finally drift away

Someone gets excited
In a chapel yard and catches a bouquet
Another lays a dozen, white roses on a grave

Yeah and to be yourself is all that you can do
Hey, to be yourself is all that you can do

Someone finds salvation in everyone, another only pain
Someone tries to hide himself, down inside himself he prays
Someone swears his true love until the end of time
Another runs away, separate or united, healthy or insane

And to be yourself is all that you can do, yeah
(All that you can do)
To be yourself is all that you can do
(All that you can do)

To be yourself is all that you can do
(All that you can do)
Hey, be yourself is all that you can do

Even when you’ve paid enough
Been pulled apart or been held up
Every single memory of the good or bad
Faces of luck

Don’t lose any sleep tonight
I’m sure everything will end up alright
You may win or lose

But to be yourself is all that you can do, yeah
To be yourself is all that you can do

Oh, to be yourself is all that you can do
(All that you can do)
Hey, to be yourself is all that you can do
(All that you can do)

To be yourself is all that you can
Be yourself is all that you can
Be yourself is all that you can do

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4 Comments

  1. Dale said,

    May 29, 2012 at 6:23 pm

    Jay, I don’t know this song, but I’m going to have to find it!
    This book club is a fascinating idea. Do they have a set goal to read everything Vonnegut wrote and then stop or will they start over when they are done? Or do they read other things Vonnegut related?

    Like

    • Tomo said,

      May 29, 2012 at 7:37 pm

      Jay,

      This entry is a very impressive piece of writing…

      Tomo

      Like

    • Jay said,

      May 30, 2012 at 8:21 am

      Hi Dale,
      It is a great book club. Most of the time we discuss books by vonnegut, but we have done some other readings as well. We’ve covered almost all of his published work by now, with just a few to go. The group itself is great, with people from a wide variety of backgrounds and vocations. I always learn a lot when I attend.
      -Jay

      Like


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