On Kurt Vonnegut: ‘Armageddon in Retrospect’

I’m preparing for my first reading from the illustrated collection I produced last year: ‘100 Houses’. The poetry is unashamedly personal, although that’s also the reason why i’ve found it so hard to actually tell anybody that it exists, despite the fact it was published over a year ago.

All of the poems relate to my experience of psychosis. I feel driven, somehow, somewhere, to have a conversation about psychosis; about what it means for individuals in their daily lives; about how you cope during those times you can’t believe what is going on in your head, because everything is so unimaginably out of control.

And somehow I want to have a conversation about the the causes of psychosis. My mother, myself and now my son, have all displayed a propensity for psychotic experience. I don’t believe that the cause is simply a matter of saying that it’s a chemical component within the gene pool of our family. Although I do believe that there is a sensitivity that has been passed down. But that vulnerability is much more about feeling sensations and a way of making emotional connections that has been passed on, than it is about chemical imbalances in the brain, as the medical profession would have us believe, with its dominant emphasis on the illusive chemical cure.

I have an intangible sense from my own family of something accrued through our collective experience of war. Although it has been almost impossible to talk about, my life has largely been dominated by an over-riding immanent, but absurd sense of threat. I’ve been struggling for some months to write a poem about how the shadows of the family experience of war has been passed down.

Recently I came across a short story by an author whose work I admire – Kurt Vonnegut. ‘Armageddon in Retrospect’ is a posthumously published collection of essays and short stories by the author, all related to the theme of war. ‘The Commandant’s Desk’ is a short story about a Czech carpenter and his daughter. They have bitterly endured Nazi and Soviet occupation during the long years of World War II. The father looks forward to his country’s salvation when American forces move in…

The father says: “It’s over, the killing is over… and we’re alive. Did you think that was possible? Did anyone in his right mind expect to be alive when it was over?”
His daughter Marta responds: “I feel almost as though being alive were something to be shamed of.”

Both father and daughter endure three equally oppressive armies who come to invade and / or liberate.  And there is nowhere they can hide but in shame. In the story the father’s pacifism is overrun by hopelessness and leads to terrible consequences.

But in that short quote is the nub of the feeling I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully so far, to explore in my writing; that somehow surviving were something to be ashamed of. It isn’t something that’s easy to talk about, but there is a sense of guilt at being alive expressed in the story, that I can relate to strongly, instinctively.

The form of capitalism that has been developed since the industrial revolution, has been dependent on war; on producing mechanisms for war and for breeding the circumstances in which war occurs. Humans endure, life carries on after war, but individuals, their families and their offspring are never the same.

100 Houses is available from Amazon – price £5

About Knitting Time: art and poetry on the theme of psychosis

'Knitting Time: a journey through loss' is a poetry and visual arts project reflecting on the theme of art and psychosis. A book and exhibition of the work is due to be launched at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex on 10 October 2013 to celebrate World Mental Health Day. During this research and development phase I want to gather responses, thoughts, recollections and comments, so please fill in my surveymonkey at http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/F2MN2MT and add your let me know what you think? Or feel free to email me via knitting-time [at] btinternet.com
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8 Responses to On Kurt Vonnegut: ‘Armageddon in Retrospect’

  1. Merely wanna state that this is very beneficial , Thanks for taking your time to write this.

  2. sarah says:

    its brilliant, it’s captivating and wonderful to witness you opening like this ….I hope you get plenty of opportunities to spread it around and stir up some chat…. Cos it calls for that.

  3. Sometimes it can feel like not having survived at all. In the struggle to survive aspects of who one is inevitably die. I guess in part it’s to do with the change that takes place as we grow older and the inevitable cross-roads we reach through age. But broadly, yes, surviving is what I do to find those nuggets of ‘life’

    • Then please continue to survive until that nugget becomes a mine. One of my great losses through aging is a loss of principle. I used to be so in touch with who i was and what i believed him. I had a strong moral core which seems further and further away as I indulge in a game of que sera sera and resign myself to whatever will be will be. In some ways this switchover to a liassez faire approach has been a boon. It has prevented me from being engaged and has let others get away with stuff they shouldn’t be doing. It creates a protected space for others to become empowered but actually does very little for me. Against that the experience makes me look like a good advocate committed to self advocacy.

  4. I was most touched this week when i read a headline and a quote from the commentary. Basically a care leaver was told that he would survive when he left. But, he said, i want to live. Personally i’m starting to feel that i’ve survived long enough and its time to get on with finding a way to live a life that i truly appreciate. If survival and living is a continuum how do you move from one to the other.

    • I think we move from one to the other in a persistent exchange – more survival than life. Survival is what gets you through from day to day. Life is momentary. It can happen in the smile from a stranger or hearing the right word at the right time, or suddenly having enough space in your head to be able to fully appreciate the rarity and wonder of being here.

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