Last August, Mark Lannigan, A23, was browsing the list of students for The Politics and Philosophy of Kurt Vonnegut, a course he offered through Experimental collegeThe Explorations peer education program, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this fall.
He was almost downstairs when a name jumped out at him: Oliver Vonnegut, A25.
A fan of the famous author since before high school, Lannigan had read all of Vonnegut’s works and connected to a Vonnegut society, museum and library, spending years delving into his philosophy of death, his criticisms of liberalism modern and the modern state, and the mysterious sense of something deep underlying it all, waiting to be decoded.
Lannigan designed his Ex College course in hopes of not only introducing students to political theory and philosophy, but also of instilling the same curiosity and enthusiasm that had propelled him through Vonnegut’s works.
“I had a very weird moment where I was like, what is this? What’s going on? It was almost like a karass,said Lannigan, referring to Kurt’s concept of a group of people mysteriously brought together by fate.
Lannigan emailed Oliver and asked if he was related to Kurt. Oliver responded by signing his reply, “Third line to the throne of the Vonnegut dynasty.”
Grandson of the famous author, Oliver had always kept away from Kurt’s works. “This story of fame doesn’t appeal to me. I’ve known since I was 6 that I don’t want anything to do with it,” he said.
He had read only one of Kurt’s books: slaughterhouse five, which had been awarded in high school. He especially remembers the awkwardness of reading his grandfather’s sex scenes, and a remark made by a good friend: “I understand now. This book was written about how your brain works.
“It was just a devastating insult,” Oliver said. “It is intentionally the most chaotic and disorganized book of all time.”
Aspiring to political science and philosophy, Oliver chose Lannigan from Ex College’s list of peer mentors, seeing that he had the same major. Then he noticed what Lannigan was teaching. “Ah shit, you’re kidding me,” he remembers thinking. And then: “Okay, what is it. I should probably learn a little more about Kurt’s work, because I’m not going to do it myself.
In the first class, Lannigan told the students that they would be learning alongside Kurt’s grandson, just as Oliver walked through the door. “And that’s him,” Lannigan said, in a collective gasp.
Lannigan was initially nervous about having Oliver in the class, particularly because they would criticize his grandfather’s unorthodox and controversial ideas, as well as his outdated and sometimes offensive language.
He wondered if he should change his plan, which was centered on reading and discussing Kurt’s novels. Cat’s Cradle, Mermaids of Titan, and piano player and some of his essays—sometimes with the help of visiting Vonnegut scholars, who by now knew Lannigan. But Amy Goldstein, the Ex College’s associate principal, advised her simply to make sure Oliver was interested and learning something, and if not to go ahead as planned.
And in fact, Oliver proved more willing than anyone to criticize his grandfather, often taking the opposite stance whenever people backed up Kurt’s point of view too enthusiastically.
“People tend to think of Kurt as this wise, benevolent, great savior who came to let us all know the truth,” Oliver said. “But it’s also worth remembering that he really was a flawed human being.”
Often, if the class couldn’t figure out something Kurt wanted to say, they would ask Oliver. Sometimes he was able to offer insider insight, such as the fact that he had failed organic chemistry in college and was jealous of his older brother Bernie, a scientist, who might have shed some light. its negative representations of science.
At other times, Oliver was just as distraught as anyone. But he never failed to entertain, often sitting in the window seat instead of a chair, calling Kurt “Gramps” and writing joking remarks on class feedback cards. “It became Oliver as a sort of comic relief,” Lannigan said.
“The Vonnegut thing is really, as my dad would say, a leg to nowhere,” Oliver said. “Class was my excuse to have a little fun, and to discuss the parts of Kurt and his writing that I find interesting, and to explore that side of me.”
It was also an opportunity to educate his teacher. Oliver often arrived half an hour early with little-known facts about Kurt: he couldn’t cook. He was embarrassed by his skinny legs. He put all his energy into writing, often to the detriment of his family.
“Oliver was constantly bringing me stories about what I would call Kurt’s personal failings, to try to get him to turn around in my mind — not his writings, but as a person,” Lannigan said.
As for Oliver, the class shifted their feelings to his grandfather’s work, especially The cat’s cradle, his favorite novel in class. “The main reason I liked it was that he wasn’t trying to be like the other writers,” he said. “He has a unique style.”
Lannigan said he was proud of Oliver’s final project, which took the form of a podcast and covered human will, the divide between materialism and idealism, and the different forms truth can take. . “They put it all together really well,” he said.
Vonnegut can be difficult to get into, Lannigan said, in part because of its jerky prose, controversial themes, and apparent pessimism. But Lannigan also sees optimism there.
“You take from his books a vision of the unfortunate reality of things, but also clear and distinct solutions, and the hope that they can improve the world,” Lannigan said. “My recommendation is just to read it and see what you get.”
Lannigan also recommends having help along the way. When giving him feedback on the course, many students said they had made good friends and the rich discussions provided a fun and informative path through even Kurt’s most puzzling works.
“We dealt with things that seemed inconsistent or nonsensical by discussing how different people interpreted them. Sometimes we didn’t come to a consensus, but it always helped to sit down as a group and try to make sense together,” Lannigan said. “Even if all else fails and we can’t create a community society like Kurt envisions, we’ve at least built this little community here.”
Monica Jimenez can be reached at [email protected].