The Value of the Indefinite

It was another good day at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Book Club yesterday – for many reasons. First, we had two special guests, Majie Failey (author of a biographical book on Vonnegut, “We Never Danced Cheek to Cheek”) and author Dan Wakefield, who has a book coming out on Vonnegut’s letters at the end of October – not to mention he is also the author of the novel, “Going All the Way,” which was later made into a movie starring the then still relatively unknown actor, Ben Affleck. We also had, by my count anyway, five first time attendees and a record nineteen attendees in all. With so many people there I resolved to just “shut up and listen” for once and try to give others the opportunity to talk more.


I stuck to my strategy for the most part, except for one interlude when the topic came up about a letter Kurt wrote to his father while he (Kurt) was a prisoner of war. He advised his father not to write him back. There was some speculation on whether he said this because he actually didn’t want to hear from him or just because he knew the letter wouldn’t reach him where he was. At this point, it was revealed that the Vonnegut Library (located down the hall from where the book club meets) has among its displays a letter from Kurt Sr. to his son that has never been opened. If I am not mistaken, it was donated to the library under the expressed condition that it would remain unopened. One of our new attendees, an english teacher visiting from Ohio, was incredulous that such a potentially historical artifact had been left unopened. A brief debate flared up about whether it should be or not, with one member relating a story from his family about (I think it was) his mother who had requested that he and his sister burn an old box of love letters (without reading them, of course) when she passed away, since she wasn’t ready to part with them while she still lived. “And you did?!” asked the new attendee, again lamenting the loss of potentially historical documents. “Yes,” he said. “We honored her request.”

I eventually piped in and defended the “unopening” of the letter, relating, perhaps clumsily, the philosophical idea of the quality of the “indefinite.” While the letter remains unopened it can be thought to contain just about anything – a quality it would lose if its contents were to become known or fixed. We already have hundreds, maybe thousands, of letters related to Vonnegut that HAVE been opened so allowing one to remain unopened doesn’t seem so egregious. I admit this is a favorite concept of mine, reading about it a couple times before, once – I think, anyway – in Stephen King’s book, “On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft.” He spoke of the almost “magic” quality of an unspoiled ream of paper or notebook, awaiting whatever stories it might become. Kinda neat, huh?

The first time I remember reading about this is in a seemingly less likely place for a book blogger, though… In my years spent as a “serious amateur” playing in chess tournaments, I read many books about that game. One of my all-time favorites was by Scottish Grandmaster, Jonathan Rowson, who also studied philosophy and wrote a PhD thesis on “Wisdom.” His book was titled “The Seven Deadly Chess Sins,” covering in a general way the common types of mistakes chess players make in the course of play. Naturally, today I remember very little of that part of the book. What stuck with me was something he talked about in the opening chapter. Something called “the value of the indefinite.” For my money, it’s essentially the same thing we were talking about yesterday. Here’s the passage, talking about the starting position of a chess game:


“Let me borrow a Taoist idea to explain why this position is so fascinating. It is called ’the value of the indefinite’ and, suitably, is conveyed by considering an uncarved block of wood. Such a block has not been made into any particular object and serves no definite function. It has no distinctive shape and has no obvious aesthetic value. So if it’s worthless and plain you might suppose it’s not worth much, that it lacks value. The only way to make use of it is to carve it in a certain way, paint it, varnish it, make something of it, right? No. Give the matter further consideration and you see immense value in the uncarved block of wood. When you carve it, you gain something, but something else is lost. It may become one thing, but it loses its original potential for being an infinite number of different things. So, as Santo and Steele put it, in their Guidebook to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: ’A valuable actuality is gained, but an even more valuable reservoir of potentiality is lost.’ “

So, one never knows (or at least I never know) where discussions on books, authors and literature might lead. Perhaps that is why I enjoy them so much…

(Below: Chess Grandmaster Jonathan Rowson – a wise man indeed)



  1. derekemerson said,

    July 27, 2012 at 8:19 am

    I’m with you on leaving the letter unopened. Let our mind play with the possibilities instead of dealing with the reality. Why do kids go into post-Christmas depression? The anticipation, the wonder, the possibilities are all gone.

    As for your Taoist example, the opposite side (or maybe more an offshoot) is heard in what is probably a false story told about Da Vinci. When congratulated on one of his sculptures he says it is not that amazing. “The sculpture was in the marble. I just uncovered it.”


    • Jay said,

      July 29, 2012 at 8:00 am

      Great comments, Derek, and thanks for stopping by.

      I’ve been repeating the “sculpture was already in the marble” story for years but mis-attributing it to Michelangelo…



  2. July 27, 2012 at 9:46 am

    Oh Jay, I can almost imagine you valiantly defending the “quality of the indefinite”. Good for you!

    I’m a curious person and an unsolved mystery, an unopened letter is always a tease, but it’s much more exciting, in these times of instant gratification, to still have them!

    It reminded me of a tour guide in some temples in China telling us that behind this huge stone-crafted doors was the tomb to a famous ruler. They were keeping it closed until they have the technology to make sure that everything doesn’t turn to dust when it’s finally opened and exposed to the atmosphere. And everyone was fascinated by that stone door. Much more, I imagine, than if they were watching the treasures inside.


  3. Dee said,

    July 27, 2012 at 12:42 pm

    I really love your words on this subject …… deepening is what we so long for in this present era when we are learning in myriad ways what the concept of “life speeding up” really means …..


  4. Dee said,

    July 27, 2012 at 12:49 pm

    ……… (to continue) the unopened Viking tombs in Uppsala, Sweden, are another beautiful example of this …. man’s curiosity has gone way too far – if it had stayed about the level of a cat’s, we would not be in the process of ruining our nest …. Our curiosity about what’s out there is far greater than our curiosity about what’s in here – thus, there’s more wilderness inside of humans than outside …..


    • Jay said,

      July 29, 2012 at 8:08 am

      Hi Dee,
      Thanks for the comment. I think we are on the same page, philosophically. Yes, we don’t have to know EVERYthing about everything, although that is seemingly what we strive for these days. I thought it was interesting that, at the meeting, it was the youngest attendee who suggested that “surely there was technology available” to read the letter without opening it. This, of course, would still violate the spirit of the “remain unopened” request and be just as morally wrong in my opinion.


  5. Richard Boyle said,

    July 27, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    Jay, I love your post and the subsequent replies. I agree with your assessment of the issue. There are so many letters already that the addition of one more seems inconsequential. On the other hand, suppose the circumstances dictated that it not only might but WOULD in fact be consequential and would provide an answer long sought after by scholars and historians? Adding this variable I suspect might cause us to arrive at a different conclusion outweighing the “value of the indefinite”. Thanks for another literate and thought-provoking post. Richard


    • Dee said,

      July 27, 2012 at 5:54 pm

      I am entertaining the thought that we could practice as a society and in our own private lives: NOT climbing Everest (even) just because it’s there.


    • Jay said,

      July 29, 2012 at 8:11 am

      Hi Richard,
      I agree that there could be extenuating circumstances that would trump one’s duty to the spirit of the value of the indefinite, or even the moral responsibility of keeping a promise. Thankfully, I don’t think they are in play in this case though.


  6. Dale said,

    July 28, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    I’m curious as to what Dan Wakefield had to say. I read “Going All The Way” when I still lived in Indy and really liked it. I recall that the movie wasn’t too bad, either. Doesn’t Wakefield mention The Red Key Tavern in the book? This might have to be a re-read one of these days.


    • Jay said,

      July 29, 2012 at 8:20 am

      Hi Dale,

      I don’t think he really took a position in the philosophical side of the debate, but he seemed to clearly be quietly enjoying our empassioned, though brief, debate about it. I think he may have been the one who suggested that Vonnegut’s request that his father not write him was due to the problematic logistics rather than an emotional one. Our club’s unofficial recording secretary usually emails a summary of our meeting after a few days, his memory may be better than mine.

      I’ve read Going All the Way also and I liked it too. Yes, the Red Key tavern figured in (or inspired the tavern in) the book. He mentioned that when they filmed the movie version they spent a lot of time there. Maybe not all of it “on the clock?” 🙂



  7. Jay said,

    July 29, 2012 at 8:33 am

    Thanks for the great comments, everyone! Certainly a fun topic to spend some time pondering. I’ll add one other example of something similar that I thought of this morning. I was a Classics Minor in college and I still remember the tremendous sense of loss or deflation when I learned about the actual numbers of lost works of antiquity. E.g., Sophocles has seven plays that have survived to modern times, but it is known (via references in other surviving works, or lists of the prize winners of the drama competitions) that he wrote perhaps as many as 123 plays in all. Today we can only speculate on what they were about and how good they were. Did the ones that have survived make it through history because they were the best or because of random chance? We just don’t know, nor does it look like we ever will. In this case we’ve had no say and are forced to celebrate their “value of the indefinite.”

    I have to admit I wish those numbers were reversed though, with 116 surviving…


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