Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: Part II

June 2, 2012 (cont.)

Artist: Alida Rosie Sayer. Second part of Slaughterhouse-Five: Type and Form project, a hung piece made from 78 layers of hand-cut letterpress prints, April-June 2009. (Source: Alida Rosie Sayer blog, used with permission)

We then took up chapters two and three, where Vonnegut introduces his main character, Billy Pilgrim, through whom Vonnegut does his ‘looking back’ throughout the rest of the novel, but that looking back, I noted, violates chronological order because Billy has “come unstuck in time” (p. 29).  “What do you make of Billy’s time-travels,” I asked, “and of his abduction by Tralfamadorians?  Do you see Billy as deranged, driven mad by the absurd violence that punctuates his life, beginning with his experience as a prisoner of war and as a witness of the fire-bombing of Dresden and ending with the plane crash in 1968 that kills everyone but Billy?” My question quickly generated evidence for such a view, evidence focused primarily on the cartoonish goofiness of the Tralfamadorian aliens, described as “two feet high, and green, and shaped like plumber’s friends,” and on Billy’s equally improbable union with movie-star Montana Wildhack, with whom he starts a family inside their glass bubble on Tralfamadore (p. 32).  We noted, too, the reference to shock-treatments some veterans, including Billy, received after the war, suggesting that those driven mad by the war needed to be numbed and pacified so that they might re-enter society as seemingly normal (p. 30).  While commending such close reading, I suggested, too, that they remain open to competing interpretations of Billy’s insanity, particularly given the striking similarity between Billy’s time-travel, which allows him to see “his birth and his death many times,” to the Buddhist idea that our notions of time are illusory, that all moments occur simultaneously (p. 29), or, as Billy learns on Tralfamadore, that “all moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist” (p. 34).  Persuaded of the truth of this perspective on experience, I continued, when Billy tries to teach others about the simultaneity of every moment, he sees himself as a good postmodern optometrist, “prescribing corrective lenses for Earthling souls” (p. 36).

Offering to serve as scribe at the board, I then asked the students to list, focusing on chapters two and three, precisely what we see of the war through Billy’s corrective lenses.  Their listing kept me busy at the board:

  • Billy’s suffering as a front-line survivor: no helmet, no boots, feeling “cold, hungry, embarrassed, incompetent,” a “filthy flamingo” who saw “no important differences…between walking and standing still” (pp. 40-43)
  • Roland Weary, another child but a warped, sadistic one, who mocks Billy and torments him with talk of his brass knuckles and the blood-gutter on his ten-inch knife (pp. 44-47)
  • After their capture, Weary’s feet shredded by forced march in clogs (p. 70), splattered with “snot and blutwurst and tobacco juice” coming from a drunken German soldier (p. 82)
  • The crazed patriot colonel, “Wild Bob,” whose “lungs rattled like greasy paper bags” (pp. 84-85)
  • The grossly over-crowded, poorly ventilated, freezing train cars used to transport Billy, Weary, Wild Bob, and other prisoners to work camps (p. 90)

“Do you see Billy’s time-travel, then, as a way to escape an absurd, intolerable reality?” I asked.  In response, students found some evidence for this view: Billy’s travel to his successful optometry practice (p. 73), Billy riding in his Cadillac El Dorado (p. 72), his election as president of the Lions Club (p. 63).  “But does other evidence,” I asked, “undercut this view of time-travel as pleasurable escapism?”  Just as quickly, this question generated evidence of Billy traveling from the war to other horrible moments: his father throwing little Billy in the pool and telling him to “damn well swim” or sink (p. 55), his mother’s demented confusion (p. 56), the execution of Private Slovik (p. 57), the plane crash (p. 31).

Artist: Wiley Smith. Digital media collage, July 6, 2007. (Source: http://www.teachmix.com/litstudio128/)

All this suffering before, during, and after the war, I noted, makes Billy question his own stability, the condition of “his mind in general,” for he “tried to remember how old he was, couldn’t.  He tried to remember what year it was.  He couldn’t remember that, either” (p. 71).  “But do you see any evidence of sanity in Billy’s responses to the absurdity and violence that inform most of his moments?” I asked.  Silence followed.  I tried again: “What do we often see Billy doing, even in moments of comfort and prosperity?”  Blerta responded, saying that she finds sanity in these key quotations: “Every so often, for no apparent reason, Billy Pilgrim would find himself weeping….Sleep would not come.  Tears came instead” (pp. 78, 79).  Praising her insight, I asked the class if they could think of a more reasonable response to the horrors that Vonnegut has forced us to see.

With the period ending, I asked the class to complete the novel for the next session. I also asked them to choose one of the overlapping subjects I had written on the board and to write a substantial journal reflection, at least one page, focusing on chapters 4-9:

  • Further evidence of the horrors and absurdities of war
  • The decadence of twentieth-century culture
  • Further evidence of Billy’s insanity/sanity
  • Reasons for Faulknerian hope

Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: Part I

June 2, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut

In 1998, Mr. Vonnegut returned to Dresden, Germany; he revisited the slaughterhouse that served as an air-raid shelter during World War II where he and his fellow prisoners of war survived the fire bombing of Dresden. (Source: New York Times; Photo credit: Matthias Rietschel/Associated Press)

As the students settled in for our next session, Ragip accepted my invitation to read aloud the first two pages of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. When he finished, we talked about the autobiographical nature of this preface to fiction, Vonnegut’s insistence that “all this happened, more or less,” that shortly after Dresden had been fire-bombed to ashes, a soldier much like the character Edgar Derby really did get shot by a firing squad “for taking a teapot” from among the ruins, that a soldier much like Paul Lazzaro really did pledge to murder one day those who slighted him or his friends during the war, that Vonnegut “really did go back” to Dresden in 1967 with his “old war buddy” Bernard V. O’Hare to visit the Dresden slaughterhouse where they had spent their nights as prisoners of war (p. 1). After I asked why Vonnegut would want to stress this factual basis for his fiction, our conversation, much to my delight, turned back to Ernest Gaines, whose fiction about injustice and transformation also rooted in Gaines’s experience growing up in Louisiana in the 1930s and ‘40s, and to William Faulkner, who challenged all fiction writers to tell the truth about human brutality and the conflicts of the human heart, but also to uplift readers with evidence of “compassion” and “sacrifice.” Having congratulated the students on their insights to the great paradox of literature, the fictions that reveal truths, I asked them to keep Faulkner’s speech in mind as we discussed Vonnegut’s novel. “Has Vonnegut written one of those visions of despair that Faulkner condemned, or does he manage to tell these terrifying truths and, at the same time, to inspire hope that we—as individuals and as a culture—might not only endure but ‘prevail.’”

First edition cover of Slaughterhouse-Five: Or the Children’s Crusade (Source: Wikipedia)

Leaving this question hanging in the air, I noted Vonnegut’s admission of the futility of writing an “anti-war book” (p. 4), which he follows immediately with a description of himself in the late-1960s, materially comfortable but given to drinking too much and making late-night phone calls to old veterans of World War II (p. 5). “Does this description clarify why he would write this book, if he considers its anti-war position pointless?” I asked. Albana said that he seems haunted by the past, which leads to self-destructive behaviors but also to the need to talk to those who remember. “Maybe the writing comes from this same need to talk about it,” she offered. “Yes,” I responded, “and notice that he feels compelled to tell us again, the second time in six pages, that the story will end with ‘the execution of Edgar Derby’ (p. 6). Can you name another work we have read where we find out about the ending, an execution, on the first page?” Many voices responded with Gaines’s Lesson and the promised execution of another good man, Jefferson. “How might this up-front emphasis on the brutal, senseless death of a good man relate to the Faulknerian challenge for uplifting fiction?” I asked. Besa responded, suggesting the symbolic power of both executions, images simultaneously revealing our capacities for mindless cruelty and for goodness.

Applauding Besa’s interpretation, I asked the class to consider another image that Vonnegut juxtaposes to the execution of Derby, that of the “rabid little American” Lazzaro heading home from the war with “emeralds and rubies” he snatched from dead people “in the cellars of Dresden” (pp. 7-8). “Did you notice that after both images, Derby’s death and Lazzaro’s violation of the dead, the narrator says, ‘So it goes’? What do you make of this refrain, which you’ll hear throughout the novel?” Fidan suggested that line acknowledges not just the inevitability of death but also our inability to explain the injustice of men like Derby dying and men like Lazzaro thriving. “It just happens,” he said.

Naturally, I commended this intelligent remark but also stressed Vonnegut’s postmodern need to tell the story, to help us see what happened, however futile his protest against war and against “plain old death” might seem (p. 4). Vonnegut admits, I continued, that his story has generated a “short and jumbled and jangled” book because “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre” (p. 24); still, he must write to set the record straight, to discredit versions of reality that ignore or hide that record. “Can you recall examples from chapter one of Vonnegut exposing others’ invitations to close our eyes to the truth?” I asked. Blerta mentioned Vonnegut’s anthropology professor, who teaches that “nobody was ridiculous or bad or disgusting,” a theory that would make no distinction between Derby and Lazzaro (p. 10). Her example sparked Gezim’s comments on Vonnegut’s boss, a man whose military service took him no further than Baltimore, who sneers at Vonnegut as an enlisted man and approves of war as a way for officers to advance. Gezim then quoted Vonnegut’s reflection on this smug non-combatant: “the ones who hated war the most were the ones who’d really fought” (p. 13).

“What about the episode at the O’Hare house? What terrible truth about war does Vonnegut insist that we see here?” I prodded. Hearing no answer, I asked, “Why do you think that Vonnegut mentions taking his daughter and her friend with him when he visits O’Hare to talk about the war?” Dafina said they he took the girls along just to see Cape Cod (p. 15). “Yes, I agreed, “but he has Dresden on his mind, and he knows that among the masses who died in the firestorm were thousands of little girls. How does one explain fire-bombing to children? Do you recall why Mary O’Hare, to whom Vonnegut dedicates his novel, initially resents Vonnegut’s visit? What does she assume his book will declare about war?” Albana promptly cited Mary’s anger, believing that Vonnegut would write a novel celebrating war, hiding the fact that “babies,” not men, do most of the dying (p. 18). “Yes,” I said, “and do you remember Jarrell’s “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” the ‘baby’ who dies in the belly of the bomber? How does Vonnegut respond to Mary?” Albana answered again, quoting Vonnegut’s promise to tell the truth about the “Children’s Crusade” in World War II, much like the Children’s Crusade that Vonnegut and O’Hare read about from the thirteenth century, when thousands of children were forced to fight in Palestine and then sold into sexual slavery (p. 20). Thanking Albana, I asked the class if they could explain why Vonnegut ends this chapter with an allusion to the Biblical story about Lot’s wife. Finding the reference, we all quickly agreed that Vonnegut the writer, like Lot’s wife, must “look back,” and he insists that we look, too.