Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Reading Notes #1: Slaughterhouse-Five

Title: Slaughterhouse-Five
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Publisher: Dell
Form: Mass market paperback
Pages: 215
Date of Publication: 1969
Source: Borrowed from the Neutron Bar
Dates of Reading: 1/1/13 – 1/3/13
The List: #121

The skull and crossbones are a clue . . .
The skull and crossbones are a clue . . .
“He’s a pretty big man,” said Derby, who, of course, was a pretty big man himself.
            “Size don’t mean a thing.”
            “You’re going to shoot him?”
            “I’m gonna have him shot,” said Lazzaro. “He’ll get home after the war. He’ll be a big hero. The dames’ll be climbing all over him. He’ll settle down. A couple of years’ll go by. And then one day there’ll be a knock on his door. He’ll answer the door, and there’ll be a stranger out there. The stranger’ll ask him if he’s so-and-so. When he says he is, the stranger’ll say, ‘Paul Lazzaro sent me.’ And he’ll pull out a gun and shoot his pecker off. The stranger’ll let him think a couple of seconds about who Paul Lazzaro is and what life’s gonna be like without a pecker. Then he’ll shoot him once in the guts and walk away.” So it goes.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a book about death. It is undoubtedly about other things as well: the passage of time, the absurdity of war, the loss of will to live in a world gone mad. But for me, it is death, in its many shapes and sizes and numbers, in all its peculiarities and permutations, that dominates this book. Death casts its eerie shadow over every idea and object; it is by turns frivolous, fatigued, and horrifying, and usually, it is all of these at once.

He asked Billy what he thought the worst form of execution was. Billy had no opinion. The correct answer turned out to be this: “You stake a guy out on an anthill in the desert – see? He’s facing upward, and you put honey all over his balls and pecker, and you cut off his eyelids so he has to stare at the sun till he dies.” So it goes.

It’s not all about peckers, though:

They had both found life meaningless, partly because of what they had seen in war. Rosewater, for instance, had shot a fourteen-year-old fireman, mistaking him for a German soldier. So it goes. And Billy had seen the greatest massacre in European history, which was the firebombing of Dresden. So it goes.

Whether a boy or an entire city, death treats them all the same. Even the inanimate are not exempt:

There was a still life on Billy’s bedside table – two pills, an ashtray with three lipstick-stained cigarettes in it, one cigarette still burning, and a glass of water. The water was dead. So it goes.

“So it goes” is this book’s funny catchphrase, the refrain of death, both “poignant and hilarious,” as the Boston Globe says on the front cover of my copy. In general, I regard cover blurbs with disdain, but these words are quite apt. Vonnegut’s lines, the beautiful ones at least, are at once “poignant and hilarious,” sincere and satiric. By the directness of his art, sadness is somehow elevated to unbearable acuteness when transformed into humor.

The colonel imagined that he was addressing his beloved troops for the last time, and he told them that they had nothing to be ashamed of, that there were dead Germans all over the battlefield who wished to God that they had never heard of the Four-fifty-first. . . . He said all this while staring into Billy’s eyes. He made the inside of poor Billy’s skull echo with balderdash.

This colonel embodies the bravado and war glory that Vonnegut has consciously avoided. Vonnegut vows in Chapter One: “If I ever do finish it, though, I give you my word of honor: there won’t be a part for Frank Sinatra or John Wayne.” I’m not sure if John Wayne was the motivating force behind naming the main character Billy Pilgrim, but it makes sense. Here is the na├»ve, listless boy-man who represents the reality of war, “fought by babies,” swept aside by a cultural reimagining of war as some grand enterprise for heroes.

This is the willing blindness that allows some viewers of history to take a crime like the fire-bombing of Dresden (or the Trail of Tears, or enshrining slavery in the American Constitution, etc.) and try to justify it on moral grounds. The irony being that the actual governments that perpetrated this crime did it fully understanding its heinous criminality, without feeling any need to justify it to the public, and having made their peace with it long ago.

*          *          *

When I started reading the book, the person from whom I borrowed it warned me that it was “hard to follow,” as the narrative jumps around often and disconcertingly. Explaining here what happens in the book seems hardly necessary, as Vonnegut helpfully outlines the entire book in the first two chapters. Moreover, he writes, “There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces.” But perhaps it is a service to the reader of this post to distill the book’s events down to a few lines.

Billy Pilgrim was in World War II and was a prisoner of war in Dresden during the Allied fire-bombing of the city. His life afterward includes wealth and a family. At some point (it seems hardly relevant when), he becomes “unstuck in time,” meaning he travels from one point of his life to another against his will. Aliens from the planet Tralfamadore abduct him and he learns about their four-dimensional way of living, where moments in time can be seen all at once and will always exist.

That’s about it. Everything else is stories about death and the morality that attends it. The disjointed narrative, jumping from time to time, is a way of avoiding a traditional narrative, and thus undermining the traditional narrative of the Second World War, and indeed, all wars and massacres.

Just as Billy Pilgrim is always lost between times, the reader is lost between actions. The morality is clear, yet the choice of action is murky. War is terrible and life is full of pain. But what do we do about it?

Vonnegut’s book is different from a book like Les Miserables, which comes down firmly on the side of social justice and presents a scathing view of how the world is, while working off the rational, even quasi-scientific, premise that human problems have human solutions. Slaughterhouse-Five seems to throw up its hands, crying aloud, How can the world be so screwed up even though we know how it ought to be?

I find something very comforting in the Tralfamadorian ability to stand outside of time and look at its wholeness, not its fleetingness. Knowing that whatever the most beautiful moments of your life were, they will always exist, that not even death can take them away. Billy announces to the world:

“The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”

And Billy again, as he announces that his death is imminent:

“If you protest, if you think that death is a terrible thing, then you have not understood a word I’ve said.”

Yet I don’t know if Vonnegut sympathizes with this view. Death is inevitable, and so our only way of facing it is to accept its power over us. But is war the same thing? What about cruelty and selfishness? Are they as immutable and predetermined as death?

“So it goes” is the Tralfamadorian, not the human, response to the fact that everything that happens, no matter how terrible, simply exists and cannot be altered. The terrible becomes mundane when we accept that we are not free to choose how we live and die. But if we adopt that view, what does that make us? Are we supposed to resign ourselves, when the tale of Dresden’s demise seems to require that we rage against injustice?

“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

By this alone, I believe that Vonnegut thinks there is something valuable, if slightly ludicrous, about free will and the humans who thrive on it. Removing the possibility of free will takes away Billy’s responsibility to make moral choices, and I don’t think we are to admire him for evading either tough choices or difficult experiences. On the other hand, he does endure a litany of traumatic events and injuries without becoming bitter or defeated. Ultimately though, this may be a sign of an elaborate psychic wall he has built up to defend himself.

My instinct is to reject the comfort of the Tralfamadorian eternality because it ignores the evanescence and uncertainty that are part of what makes life precious – knowing that we can’t relive the past, accepting that we can’t control the future, not because it is written, but precisely the opposite – because it is unpredictable. Yet there is value in trying to steer the future in a better direction than what the past has seen.

The Tralfamadorians are the book’s Chorus, commenting on human life, and their adage, “So it goes,” tries to encourage humanity toward their way of existence. But I think there is another phrase in Slaughterhouse-Five that captures more comprehensively the book’s spirit of outraged resignation.

In the most ordinary of settings and circumstances, sitting alone in his office staring out the window at cars in the parking lot, a middle-aged Billy Pilgrim wonders to himself, “Where have all the years gone?”

It would be nice to say that the years haven’t gone anywhere, that indeed, he will visit them over and over and be reassured by their permanence. But if beauty is to be permanent, then so is horror. And yet if all things are fleeting, then we are left only with a dwindling hourglass.

Eheu, fugaces labuntur anni – Alas, the fleeting years are slipping away
(quoted in Slaughterhouse-Five from Horace)

The specter of death is relentless in this book, and if there is value to four-dimensional vision, it is perhaps because it allows us to see that death, the inevitable, is not the enemy; rather, the enemy is to put one’s life in the service of death, when death needs no help from us.

*          *          *

As I tried to figure out what to say about Slaughterhouse-Five, I was reminded of one of my first memories from my days as a college student at the University of Chicago. I was browsing the Seminary Co-op Bookstore with a new friend I had met that first week, and she pulled out a book called An Unsentimental Education. The book is a collection of interviews in essay form with various literary lights who had either studied or taught at Chicago. One of the interviews is with Kurt Vonnegut. Along with some repeats of stories he tells in Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut reflects on his career as a novelist:

The novelist is in a funny position: utterly unqualified. Having no badge or rank, and cracking off about this or that. It peeves a lot of people. How dare we do what we do?
Yet novelists can have a great effect on young people. When I was between the ages of fourteen and twenty and starting to read just about anything, I had no immunity whatsoever to ideas. I would read Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dos Passos, and James T. Farrell – and their political opinions would become mine.
I assume that some kids have become pacifists because of me. Actually, I’m not even sure what my message as a novelist is. But I would like to infect people with humane ideas before they’re able to defend themselves.

I had never read Vonnegut before commencing my readings for this year with him. But I am lucky to have encountered in my youth many writers whose nobility of spirit were equal to his. Among the many humane passages in Slaughterhouse-Five, my favorite describes a gung-ho war movie that Billy watches in reverse, having become unstuck in time again:

            American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
            The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
            When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

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