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.

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