A Tale Unstuck in Time

Slaughterhouse-Five - Kurt Vonnegut

The thing that really captivates me about Vonnegut's writing is its the simplicity. In fact it is almost as if he is writing a book aimed at a much younger audience (sort of the age where they don't need pictures but still require simple sentences and a limited vocabulary), that is until he starts talking about men filling women with sperm and other concepts that some parents (such a mine) probably wouldn't want their eight or nine year old reading. I guess that is were a lot of Vonnegut's comedy lies and why I appreciate his writing: its simplicity and in turn its complexity. Vonnegut is certainly not a writer of children's fiction, particularly since his writing borders on the absurd, a philosophical concept that I would be surprised if children would even understand: at the age of eight I doubt many middle-class children would have lived much of life to be able to appreciate its absurdity.


Slaughterhouse Five is first and foremost a story about war, in particular the firebombing of Dresden in 1945. In fact the entire book revolves around that one event during World War II (and event which Vonnegut personally witnessed since he was a prisoner in Dresden at the time). His personal experience of the horror of war in the form of the firebombing adds quite a lot of weight to the telling of the story of Billy Pilgrim because in many cases he is able to describe Pilgrim's emotions from his own personal experience. However, Slaughterhouse Five is not just about the war, it is about quite a few other concepts as well, such as the absurdity of life, and the nature of time, as I will explain.


Dresden Firebombing Aftermath



People have debated about whether the bombing of Dresden was necessary ever since the event, though Vonnegut suggests in his book that the US government kept it hidden simply due to the utter destructiveness of it and the huge death toll that resulted (in fact the death toll in Dresden was almost twice as much as Hiroshima). I have refrained from using the term atrocity simply because in the midst of total war it can be really difficult to judge whether an action was right or not. While we may believe now that there was nothing of military importance in Dresden at the time of the bombing, can we be certain that the Allies were aware of that during the war? This is debatable, and in many cases we can never be certain of the truth. Was Dresden simply an action by the Americans to literally bomb Germany back into the stone age to prevent them from ever being able to wage that type of war again, or did it happen through faulty intelligence? In the end we will never know.

Dresden August 2011

I've actually been to Dresden, though it was only for a couple of hours. We were passing through on the train on our way to Berlin and we decided to jump off just to have a look around. I was particularly interested in seeing what the city that had become famous because of the firebombing looked like now. Unfortunately we didn't spend all that much time here, and ended up just wandering around a park where an elderly German man pointed out this large black cube and told us that it was called Frederick's List, and if with relieved ourselves on it then it would give us luck. Needless to say that we politely declined.

Frederick's List

Anyway, from what I remember of Dresden was that it is, like most parts of Germany, a fairly modern city with quite a lot of the old communist era apartments. Anyway, the Hauptbahnhof (main railway station) still looks like its 19th century original.

Dresden Hauptbanhoff

Anyway, I would like to touch on a number of things that come out of this story, but before I do so I think I should give you a bit of a warning:





Slaughterhouse Five is predominantly a war book, but while some suggest that it is an anti-war book I don't necessarily believe that this is the case. Sure, Vonnegut is critical of many aspects of human nature, and no doubt considers war as horrific as many other aspects of our life. If you have read some of his other works you will note that he refers to the pilgrims that colonised North America as little more than sea pirates. Yet Vonnegut doesn't rant and rave as some authors do, or paint incredibly horrific pictures, but rather brings about the absurdity of the situation. Life, in Vonnegut's eyes, is absurd, and war is just another aspect of this absurdity. When I speak about absurdity I speak with the idea that it simply makes no sense, and in a way I agree – war simply makes no sense – it is stupid, pointless, and ends up causing more trouble that it is worth. Just look at invasion of Iraq.


Vonnegut also calls his book the Children's Crusade. The term Children's Crusade comes from one of the Crusades during the Middle Ages when the children were given weapons and sent to march on Palestine (though apparently they all ended up being sold into slavery – children, remember, never talk to strangers, and never go with them if they invite you to go and liberate the promised land). The reason that the children were sent was because all of the able bodied men have already met their fate in the previous crusades so there were effectively nobody left.


However, in World War II Vonnegut is referring to the idea that many of the American soldiers were little more than children. It was not that they were eight or nine, but rather that they were not mentally mature. It was much the same with the Vietnam War, and I even remember songs about how the average age of the combat soldier was 19. Okay, many 18 and 19 year olds believe that are adults and that they should be treated as adults (namely because the law says so) however many of them do not have the life experience that others of us have. To a thirty, or even forty, year old they are still children.


It is also interesting how Vonnegut describes the American Army. He describes the soldiers as being clothed in ill fitting uniforms suggesting that the average combat soldiers are little more than a ragtag bunch. This is brought out a lot with Billy Pilgrim since by the end of the book his clothing is nothing short of absolutely bizarre. Vonnegut tells us how in former times the foot soldier would be dressed up in very colourful uniforms, which is not doubt the origin of the handsome man in uniform, however uniforms these days are very bland and boring. What Vonnegut doesn't seem to realise is that in the modern army the state provides everything to the soldier, where as in earlier times if you wanted decent equipment in the army, you had to pay for it out of your own pocket.


Anyway, while I don't normally do quotes, I did want to quote this passage because I felt that the imagery was brilliant:


Billy was marching with his hand on top of his head, and so were all the other Americans. Billy was hobbing up-and-down. Now he crashed into Richard Weary accidentally. “I beg your pardon,” he said.

At each intersection Billy's group was joined by more Americans with their hands on top of their haloed heads. Billy had smiles for them all. They were moving like water, downhill all the time, and they flowed at last to a main highway on a valley's floor. Through the valley flowed a Mississippi of humiliated Americans. Tens of thousands of Americans shuffled eastward, their hands clasped on top of their heads. They sighed and groaned.



So it goes. This is the most common phrase in the book. Whenever Vonnegut tells us about somebody who has died he will append it with that short sentence – so it goes. This is another example of the absurdity of his writing. To many of us death is shocking and horrifying, but to a naturalist world death is simply another part of the order of things. Death happens, people die, so it goes. In a way by using this little phrase he effectively dulls the impact of those hundreds of thousands of deaths that have occurred throughout history. Yet in a way, in our comfortable Western world, that is what death is to us. Sure, some guy over the other side of town is hit by a bus – so it goes. We might be shocked and horrified by it at first, but then our mind puts it to the back of its consciousness so that we no longer need to feel confronted by our own mortality. It is not so much Vonnegut trying to make light of death, but rather how we simply try to ignore it because our own mortality literally fills us with dread.


Yet death in a sense is almost as absurd as war. Throughout the book we are told about this one soldier who was executed because he got caught stealing a teapot, so it goes. Yet we are told that every other surviving American, including Billy Pilgrim, returned from the war with spoils that they had looted from the dead. In fact the engagement ring that Billy's wife wears bears the diamond that Billy found in Dresden. Yet, despite all of this looting going on, the one soldier that is caught for stealing a teapot is executed. Mind you looting is a serious offence, and what wholesale looting demonstrates is a complete breakdown in law and order. Look what happened in Iraq when Saddam fled Bagdad – law and order completely broke down the the population ended stealing anything and everything that was bolted down.



When I was in Brisbane recently I was sitting in this club that was playing techno and was reading an article about philosophy on my mobile phone (the club was empty at the time, with the exception of me, the bartender, some guy dancing on the dancefloor, and a couple hidden in the corner – the reason being was that it was a Wednesday night). Anyway, one of the ideas that this article proposed was that time isn't linear. In fact it suggested that time exists in a way where it can all be viewed simultaneously, which is a concept called Eternalism. For those interested in the article you can find it here. For those interested in the nightclub it is called 'The Beat' and its details can be found here.



Anyway, the reason that I mentioned that (the article, not the nightclub) is because it reminded me of Vonnegut's concept of time in Slaughterhouse Five. The book begins with Billy Pilgrim becoming 'unstuck in time'. Basically he ceases to live life in a linear fashion and begins to experience all parts of his life from his birth to his death whenever he choses to experience them. In a sense he becomes immortal. Okay, his immortality is constrained by the period in which he is alive, but as the book progresses he begins to learn how to travel to various parts of his life when he chooses. He no longer lives life in a linear fashion, but his life becomes like a movie. For instance, with modern technology we can either watch a movie in its linear form, or we can watch whatever parts we want. We can watch the movie from the end to the beginning, and even random parts that to the casual observer looks completely absurd.



Vonnegut even suggests this during the book as Billy watches a World War II movie about the Dresden bombing backwards. Instead of the materials being dug up, turned into bombs, loaded into planes to be dropped onto Dresden and destroying it, the bombers fly over Dresden, suck the bombs up turning Dresden from a ruined landscape to the city it was prior to the bombing, fly back to base to unload the bombs where they are subsequently dismantled and the contents buried in the ground where nobody can find them. What Vonnegut has done is that he has turned a tale of destruction into a tale of creation simply by reversing the footage.



I should also mention the events on the planet of Tralfamadore. The thing about the Tralfamadorians is that they exist in time the same way that Billy exists in time. They don't live a linear existence but rather an existence where they can see all of time simultaneously. Billy's exposure to their world is what I suspect caused him to become unstuck in time, though he became unstuck long before he ever went to Tralfamadore, but that is because to the Tralfamadorians, and to Billy in particular, time does not exist in a linear function but rather can be seen all at once.



Of course this does cause some problems because time becomes set. Vonnegut mentions that proverb about changing the things we can, accepting that which we cannot change, and having the wisdom to know the difference. The problem is that when time is not linear there is nothing to change – everything is set. However this is the problem when one lives a linear existence in this concept of time – we do not realise that time has been set and that we are simply observers. Because we cannot see the future, we live with this absurd belief that we actually have some control over the future, when in reality we do not. We are simply blind to that fact and we fool ourselves because the future is unknown to us and convince ourselves that we have power over how it eventuates.


Needless to say that is not how I view time, but then again I am stuck in its linear progression much like I suspect everybody else who is reading this.

Source: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/967798701