Sunday, April 29, 2012

Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse-five

Slaughterhouse-five follows the life of Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier who is captured in the Battle of the Bulge in WW2 and transferred to the eastern Germany city of Dresden.  Here he observes the horrific loss of life and destruction which occurs during the fire-bombing of Dresden.  After the war, Billy becomes a successful optometrist, marries a wealthy but plain woman, and has several children. 

Then on the night of Billy's daughter's wedding, Billy is captured by aliens called the "Tralfamadorians" and is kept in their zoo.

It is never clear to me if the Tralfamadorians really exist or if they are just a way for Billy to deal with the aftermath of the war, the meaninglessness of life or some pre-existing mental condition.  After the war, Billy starts reading science fiction novels and reflecting on his own experiences during the war. Therefore I'm guessing that the creation of the Tralmadorians may be a coping mechanism to help Billy understand his own post-traumatic stress and the seemingly pointless loss of life and destruction he has seen. 

A typical Tralfamdorian
The Tralfamadorians capture Billy, but do not hold him prisoner. In fact, they show Billy how to travel through time.  The Tralfamadorians live life in 4-D, meaning they see life not as a linear series of events, but they observe everything simultaneously.  This ability allows Billy to at one moment be at his daughter's wedding, the next be back in Dresden during WW2, and the next seeing the moment of his own death decades later.  Billy is "unstuck" in time. Consequently, the story in this novel constantly jumps forward and backward in time, which allows Vonnegut to put together related events separated by many years.

So what happens when you live life in 4-D?

Seeing everything happen at once, Billy learns that he cannot change anything.  It's not because he would not want to, but because everything has already happened.  The decisions have already been made and he is just a passive observer along for the ride.  The deaths, the births, the is all just going to happen.  Billy watches war movies forwards and backwards, but they always turn out the same.  The rest of us see life as a series of cause-and-effect decisions.  However, Billy knows that everything is already predestined to occur and causality is just an illusion we use to understand our world.  As the Tralfamadorians tell Billy, "free will" is an Earthling concept and is a delusion unique to our species.  Of course living in 4-D seemingly removes us from personal responsibility.  Why do we care what our actions are if they do not matter? 

"So it goes"

After the bombing of Dresden, an American soldier named Edgar Derby is accused of looting a teapot from a burned out cellar. He is subsequently executed by the Germans.  Experiences like this in the novel highlight the absurdity of our existence. To survive the Battle of the Bulge, the Bombing of Dresden and to then be killed for taking a teapot trivializes Derby's life.  This theme is repeated in Slaughterhouse-five and is often followed by the phrase "So it goes", as if there was no other way for things to turn out. This is probably the most popular phrase written in any book by Vonnegut, because it sums up so much in just three words.  Really bad things are going to happen in life; and really good things may also happen.   You cannot always explain or understand why these things occur. They are just going to happen, so deal with it.  That is life.  So it goes.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) was an American writer and left-leaning intellectual.  He was known for being an outspoken supporter of human rights and vehemently opponent of war - especially the recent war in Iraq.  Part of this may be because Vonnegut served in the American army during WW2 and was captured during the Battle of the Bulge.  He was transfered to a prisoner of war camp in eastern Germany, near Dresden.  Here he witnessed one the of the most destructive events of WW2 - the Bombing of Dresden.

It is estimated that up to 135,000 people died in the fire bombing of Dresden and it is regarded by many as a war crime committed by the Americans and British.  Dresden was declared an Open City, it had no significant military value and the bombing was done just months before the end of the WW2.   Kurt Vonnegut survived the bombing because the prisoners he was with were in the basement of a slaughterhouse (Schlachthof) outside the city.  Ironically those in the slaughterhouse were safe, while those outside were slaughtered. 
Dresden destroyed
Vonnegut and his fellow prisoners were ordered by the Germans to collect the dead and decaying bodies from the rubble of the city, clawing their way through bomb shelters and cellars to collect rotting and incinerated corpses.  Eventually there proved to be just too many bodies, so the Germans began cremating corpses on the spot.  A few months later Soviet troops entered the city and the war was over. Vonnegut's experience in WW2, and witnessing the Bombing of Dresden, became the inspiration for his book Slaughterhouse-five, Vonnegut's most well-known novel.

Dresden was called the "Florence on the Elbe", the most beautiful city in Germany.  Seeing such pointless destruction and massive loss of life at the very end of the war left a profound mark on Vonnegut.  Slaughterhouse-five directly tackles the meaninglessness of life when we are confronted by situations beyond our control.  In affect, everything is beyond our control, but we must find a way to accept that live a meaningful existence.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


Catch-22 has a rich supply of characters and they are impossible to detail in a short blog post.  The main character, Captain John Yossarian, is a bombardier who desperately tries to avoid flying missions by feigning illnesses.  He is haunted throughout the novel by the death of his squadron gunner, Snowden, who is fatally wounded on a mission. Yossarian tries to save him but patches the wrong wound. Later, throughout the book, Yossarian seems far more concerned with self-preservation and satisfying immediate needs. In some ways Yossarian reminds me of Meursault from Camus's book The Stranger, since they both live in the moment. Of course in war it is difficult to plan for the future and the moment may be all you may have. 

The other characters deal with the war in their own unique way.  There are warmongers like Colonel Cathgart who keeps raising the number of missions men must fly before they are done.  Likewise General Peckem is more concerned about outshining and defeating his fellow General Dreedle (who he calls the real enemy).  Opportunists also flourish, like Milo Minderbinder who starts up a syndicate distributing goods throughout Europe and the Mediterranean (essentially war profiteering).  There are also idealists like Lieutenant Nately who believes the war is just and that his prostitute girlfriend is a modern Dulcinea (ala Don Quixote).  There is a building tension with the escalating mission numbers called for my Colonel Cathgart, the increase in erratic and desperate behavior in the airmen and the continuing deaths which highlight every one's mortality as they climb back into the plane for one more mission.

One of my favorite moments in the books is when Yossarian is asked by a doctor to pretend he is a dying soldier for a family that has come to visit their son, Giuseppe. The son has already died, but the doctor does not want to disappoint them. He therefore tells Yossarian to fill in. Yossarian insists on being called by his name and not Giuseppe. Despite this, the family treats him like their son and brother.  The critical question is: does it really matter who they see?  After all, "he's dying" just like everyone else.  Their son is already dead - would they rather see his remains? Giuseppe's mother eventually says "What difference does it make?"

Joseph Heller and Catch-22

Joseph Heller (1923-1999) was an American author most well-known for his novel “Catch-22”, a book which contributed a new term to our cultural lexicon.  A "Catch-22" is an unsolvable dilemma in which an individual cannot avoid failure because of contradictions in the rules. In the novel Catch-22, this is initially presented in the case of a U.S. Army Air Forces bombardier who wants to be grounded from combat flight.  This will only happen if the flight surgeon deems him "unfit to fly", and any pilot who wants to keep flying such dangerous missions is certainly crazy and "unfit".  However, to request an evaluation the person must be sane, therefore they cannot be declared "unfit". Thus, it is impossible to be called "unfit".  This is called by the doctor the catch,  "Catch-22". 

The events in the novel Catch-22 occur during WW2, near the Italian Front, and involve units in the U.S. Army Air Corps.  Like many authors Heller wrote from experience. He served in the U.S. Army Air Corp in WW2 as a B-25 bombardier on the Italian Front, flying over 60 missions just like the main character in the book, John Yossarian.

Catch-22 could be characterized as an anti-war novel since it presents the meaninglessness of war for the average Joe, the capricious and illogical reason of generals and commanders and the tortuous bureaurocratic ineptitude of the entire war-making machinery.   The characters in this novel are particularly interesting and I imagine they are drawn from Heller's own experience. However, Heller has stretched the attributes and idiosyncrasies of these individuals to the point of absurdity, but that works great in a novel like Catch-22 where the central theme is absurdity.