The Benefit of A Bleeding Heart: Book Review of Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Somehow, over the years, people have started using the phrase “bleeding-heart liberal” as if it were a bad thing. In Armageddon in Retrospect, a posthumous collection of essays and stories, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. comes off as a bleeding-heart liberal in the best sense of the term.

There’s a distinction to be made between the bleeding-heart liberal and the hardline leftist. Both are useful and valuable in their own way. For an example of the more hardened individual, let’s look to my idol Christopher Hitchens, who frequently writes of having to hold in his vomit whenever he meets perpetrators of crimes against humanity. Christopher never pulled his punches with serious offenders and was always quick to join in on idealogical battles when he could discern which side was right. Kurt Vonnegut on the other hand is more interested in the victims than the perpetrators, something that comes up in book after book throughout his long career.

In his most famous books, Vonnegut usually hides his bleeding heart under layers of irony and sardonic humor, but you can always tell its there, pulsing and gushing. Armageddon in Retrospect though is a collection of his unpublished writings concerning war and peace, and if I had to guess, the reason as to why these pieces went unpublished is because most lacked his trademark sense of humor. That’s not to say these entries aren’t good–no, many are good, but they’re different than what you’ve come to expect from Kurt Vonnegut’s ouevre.

For example, the most important piece in the collection is Kurt’s essay Wailing Shall Be In All Streets, where he once again revisits the frightful night when he witnessed the bombing of the German town Dresden by the Allied forces. If you’re not familiar with this incident, Kurt Vonnegut was a POW in WW2, and happened to be on the scene when the entire town of Dresden, which he called the most beautiful city in the world, was bombed for strategic reasons (a major railroad ran through it). This incident already provided the centerpiece for his greatest novel Slaughterhouse-Five. For those who simply won’t read that novel due to the sci-fi elements or the often crass humor, this essay is essential. Even those who have read and fallen in love with Slaughterhouse Five would benefit from reading the essay as it contains a more pure and refined take on the tragedy than appears in the novel.

If what you’re looking for is science-fiction, then you should skip ahead to Great Day, a story set on the battlefield of a future war where the army has found a way to distract the enemy with visions of soldiers from WW1 running rampant.

The title story is where we’re reunited with the classic smirking Kurt Vonnegut we know and love. In it, he gives us a vision of a world where Intelligent Design has run amok, and scientists are now tasked with trying to rid themselves of the Devil.

Some of the other stories that make up this short book are not quite as good. I have to wonder if Kurt Vonnegut would have even wanted these stories published were he alive today, but I’m sure this line of thought will only lead to specious reasoning. The weaker stories aren’t bad per se, but your time would be better spent re-reading his better stories like 2BRO2B.

If there’s one thing Kurt Vonnegut taught us, it’s that if we’re confronted with grave atrocities, it’s fine to let your heart bleed a little. Moreso, it’s human.

–reviewed by Corey Pung, author of The Madness of Art: Short Stories and A Rapturous Occasion.

Read my recent thoughts on the life and work of Ray Bradbury.

What was your opinion of Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut?

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