Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: Part III

June 9, 2012

Example of cattle car used to transport prisoners circa World War II (Source: Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team)

At the start of the next class, I divided the students into four groups, according to which of the four subjects they had chosen to explore in their journals.  I then asked each group to share their entries with their peers and prepare an informal group report, highlighting evidence that relates to their focus. After twenty minutes of sharing journals and preparing reports, I called on the first group and prepared to serve as their scribe at the board, listing key phrases, examples, and page citations.  Not surprisingly, the first group had to be particularly selective, as nearly every page in the novel provides some evidence relative to their subject, “the horrors and absurdities of war.”  They began their list with the death of Roland Weary in the cattle-car, a victim of gangrene from his feet getting shredded by the clogs that Billy had once worn; they noted, too, that Billy took the blame, and that Lazzaro promised to revenge Weary’s death one day (pp. 101, 106).  They also listed

    • The first prison camp: the freezing prisoners running through the scalding process of de-lousing (p. 107), the American getting his teeth knocked out for a comment a German soldier didn’t like (p. 116); in the Dresden slaughterhouse, where Billy’s body shakes with “ravenous gratitude and applause” (p. 204) as he and his fellow prisoners sneak malt syrup to nourish their starving bodies, nourishment that proves far too little to eliminate all their sores (p. 208)

Aftermath of the fire-bombing of Dresden on February 13, 1945 (Source: www.neatorama.com)

  • Dresden: the shooting of Edgar Derby, tea-pot thief (p. 274); the “fire-storm” that incinerated “everything organic, everything that would burn” (p. 227); Billy and other prisoners, who survived the bombing in the meat-locker, serving with shovels and wheelbarrows in the Dresden “corpse mines” (p. 273); the Official History of the Army Air Force that said “almost nothing” about the raid on Dresden, keeping it a “secret from the American people” (p. 244)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, White House, June 22, 1963 (Source: rolexblog)

The second group provided an equally disturbing list of the cultural decadence spawned directly or indirectly by the recurrence of ‘children’s crusades’ and the devaluation of life.  They spoke of Kilgore Trout, the science fiction writer, who recruits children to sell subscriptions to the Illium Gazette and motivates them by telling them to “get off their dead butts and get their daily customers to subscribe to the fucking Sunday edition, too” (p. 212); they mentioned the bookstore that carries Trout’s novels as well as photographs of naked children performing sex (p. 256); and they cited a talk show focused on the “function of the novel in modern society,” one guest suggesting that books provide color in rooms with white walls, another praising novels that “describe blow-jobs artistically,” another favoring novels that give advice on how to behave in French restaurants (p. 264).  They also listed the racist American Nazi, Howard Campbell; Eliot Rosewater, the former infantry captain, who told Billy in the veterans’ hospital that psychiatrists will have to “come up with a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren’t going to want to go on living” (p. 129); and finally Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, both shot within one month in 1968 (p. 268).

Tralfamadorian (Source: complexoperations.org)

Turning to the third group, I asked if they had found more evidence of insanity or sanity in Billy’s responses to this corrupt, brutal culture.  Dafina, a member of group three, said that they had found several references to Billy’s mental or emotional instability.  Her list included Billy’s terror at the rim of the Grand Canyon, not long after his father had thrown him in the pool to ‘sink or swim’ (p. 127); his certainty that “he was going crazy when he heard himself proposing marriage” to the enormous Valencia Merble, a “girl nobody in his right mind would have married” (pp. 137, 151); his daughter Barbara chastising him in 1968 for acting like a “child,” failing to turn on the heater in his freezing house (p. 167); a mother at Billy’s optometry office telling Barbara that her father had gone “crazy,” telling her son about Tralfamadore as he tended to his eyes (p. 172).  Dafina then launched into a second list, one that, in her words, “makes Billy seem the only sane person in the book”: Billy’s excitement on Tralfamadore when he learns that their planet lives “in peace,” a lesson he wants them to teach to Earthlings (p. 148); Montana Wildhack, stunned by his modesty and gentleness, coming to “love and trust Billy Pilgrim” (p. 170); and, in the aftermath to the fire-bombing at Dresden, the sight of horses pulling a wagon loaded with objects looted from suburban houses, but doing so “insane with thirst” and tormented by their “bleeding” mouths and broken hooves, a sight that makes Billy “burst into tears” (pp. 251, 252).

Gezim, spokesperson for group four, volunteered at this point that his group had also selected Billy’s tearful response to the horses as their prime example of the kind of intelligence and compassion that Faulkner charged all novelists with weaving into their fictions that tell the truth about an otherwise chaotic and violent postmodern reality.  I then asked the group to what extent Vonnegut’s dark novel engenders hope that humanity will endure its often self-inflicted suffering and “prevail” over its penchant for self-serving, destructive behavior. Gezim reported that they struggled with this question.  On the one hand, he explained, his group admires Billy’s acceptance of death as simply a moment, not to be feared (p. 180), but they also find it depressing to watch Billy Pilgrim’s death, the consequence of Lazzaro’s bullet to his forehead (p. 182).  Similarly, he continued, they admire Billy’s courageous acceptance of the randomness of experience, which allows him to get on an airplane he knows will crash, but they also find it discouraging that the report of the crash leads to Valencia’s death (p. 234).  Noting the same pattern—a note of hopefulness followed by gratuitous suffering and death—he explained that they admire Derby’s patriotic speech in defiance of the Nazi Campbell (p. 209), but that his patriotism makes it all the harder to watch him stand before the firing squad in the ashes of Dresden (p. 274).

“So you’re saying,” I asked, “that Vonnegut provides credible examples of badly damaged but admirable human beings, Billy and Edgar most notably, but that Vonnegut holds out little hope that Children’s Crusades will end or that we will quit assassinating those who dare to effect positive change, people like Kennedy and King?”  Members of group four all shook their heads “yes.”  Thanking the group for their thoughtful analysis, I said that the last page would seem to support their sense that cruelty and injustice will prevail, ending as it does with the birds’ meaningless song, “Poo-tee-weet,” and with the image of horses pulling a “coffin-shaped” wagon out of Dresden.  “Yet did you notice the next-to-last image?” I prodded.  Edita read it for us: “The trees were leafing out” (p. 275).

Budding trees (Source)

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The Last Kosovo Serb Won’t Leave

March 4, 2012

Cover of Southworth's The Last Kosovo Serb Won't Leave

Cover of Southworth's The Last Kosovo Serb Won't Leave

Susan Southworth’s 2007 novel uncovers, as the title promises, the horrors that always transpire whenever one people, usually in the name of liberty, redefines another people as objects, a reclassification that characterizes ethnic cleansing as patriotism.  But this beautifully written novel does so much more.  Peeling back the labels resulting from centuries of warfare and hate, Southworth shows us the fears, yes, but also the dignity and nobility of Others, a revelation that should inspire us all even as we weep for their pain.

Map of Kosovo

Map of Kosovo (Source: pbs.org/newshour)

By end of the novel, we follow Donald, a retired American linguist, into southwest Kosovaran town Prizren, where the Kosova Liberation Army celebrates its 1999 triumph over the Serbs, a victory made possible by NATO bombing.  Absent from Prizren for a month, Donald expects to find what he left five weeks before: his Turkish friend and fellow linguist Bayram, with whom Donald can share his experiences living with Serbian peasants and resume their discussion of the Albanian language and culture.

Instead, he finds Bayram’s house trashed and valuable manuscripts scattered all over the grounds, acts of the new owner, an army thug.  Bayram himself Donald finds in a make-shift jail, cuffed and beaten, lying on a floor littered with feces and surrounded by walls splattered with other victims’ blood (100-108).  Though beaten himself, Donald escapes the Kosovaran violence via Macedonia, but not before witnessing Serbs shot in the street (120).  In the final chapter, the narrator shows us the fate of the Serbian peasants that had welcomed Donald: Petar has been beheaded, and his wife Leposava wonders off in a daze, looking for the “home”—their cabin and their country—now a “bloody mosaic,” the work of soldiers, not much more than boys, intoxicated by liberty and by a culture of retribution and guns (122).

Before this bloody ending, however, primarily through Donald’s eyes, we learn to see Albanians, Turks, and Serbs not as oppressors or victims but as human beings worthy of our understanding and respect.  Through Donald, for instance, we learn to revere the ancient Albanian language and culture (33), and that respect helps us understand how Donald can look at an angry Albanian soldier and see a scared boy, a “sweet-faced teenager” (104) with baggy fatigues on his “skinny frame” (100).  Through Donald we also learn to relish coffee, dates, water pipes, baths—all things Turkish, especially his courteous friend Bayram (32-40).

Serbian Gusle & Bow

Serbian Gusle & Bow (Source: Wikipedia)

Through Donald we learn as well to respect Serbs who “won’t leave.”  Bogdan the Serbian policeman, for example, earns that respect by risking his life daily helping peasants to steer clear of the Liberation Army (5-15, 88-96), as does the young Serbian mountain man by hiding Donald, suspected of being an enemy courier (56-59).  Through Donald’s month-long sojourn with the Serbian farmer and his wife, we also come to admire Petar and Leposava, their spiritual intimacy with the land, their domestic harmony and peace, their generosity.  Revering their American guest, they feed him hearty bean soup, fresh eggs, and oatmeal cakes; they teach him to hoe the garden and to trap rabbits for supper; they show him how to bathe in the rain-water, how to dance with abandon, how to smell the seasons and fish in the stream (64-86).  They also share with Donald their Serbian epic poems, accompanied by Petar’s gusle, a one-string instrument that can come to life “like a snake” (83) under Petar’s bow and moan “like a sad wind” (77).  All Serbs, Petar sighs, “have too much history,” and he relates to Donald their own stories of grief over a grandfather lost in the war with Bulgaria, over an infant son who should not have died (80-83).

Possessed of these histories, we can no longer vilify oppressors and count victims; we can only acknowledge human beings and cry for the Balkans.

“To Your Own Blood”

February 2, 2012

The bitter cold continues in Pristina, and the snow has returned, though so far just flurries, no new drifts. I did face the elements long enough to get a haircut (which, alas, didn’t take long) and to buy more time for my local cell phone.

Serbian Empire 1355 AD

Serbian Empire 1355 AD (Source: Wikipedia--click image to view)

The rest of my day took place inside, where I continue to enjoy preparing for my American lit class. As I prepared a background lecture on psychoanalytic theory as a critical preface to Faulkner’s “Barn Burning,” I pondered several parallels between Faulkner’s 1938 tale and the current situation in Kosova. Though independent just four years, Kosova has always been cultural hub, not just in the old Yugoslavia but also in the ancient Balkans, a land where blood feuds have always continued because patriots on all sides, like Faulkner’s Abner Snopes, had and have a “ferocious conviction in the rightness of [their] own actions.” Of course, Snopes lays no claim to patriotism, having ‘served’—as a horse-thief—both the Federals and Confederates in the American Civil War. Still, Snopes feels justified in burning barns of rich white men like Major de Spain because his “wolflike independence” tells him that he has been unfairly labeled ‘trash’ and barred from wealth and power, the ‘phallus’ of American culture.

Former Yugoslavia

Former Yugoslavia (Source: Wikipedia--click image to view)

Unfortunately for pre-adolescent Sarty, his father Abner’s strong character yields only destruction and therefore only fear for the boy, a fear as strong as the smell of cheese that fills the store where Abner, at the beginning of the story, stands trial, again, for burning a barn. A good Jungian, Sarty understands “the old fierce pull of blood” and the myth of fire that informs his clan’s survival; he therefore will lie if he must to defend his father. Sarty will also fight men twice his size who shout “barn burner” at his father as they leave the courtroom store, with Abner free again, owing to lack of evidence, to burn more barns, more symbols of the phallic power he has always lacked.

Yet Sarty, just like many Kosovarans, longs to escape the cycle of violence, longs for his father’s reformation, so that he can love him without fear. Suspecting Sarty’s disloyalty, Snopes beats his son, teaching him that being a man means sticking “to your own blood,” not cow-towing (as Freud might say) to his “superego,” the internalized values of justice that make Sarty hope his father can “change…from what maybe he couldn’t help but be.”

But Snopes, indeed, cannot change, as he proves when he sets out to burn the barn of his new employer, Major de Spain. When Sarty breaks free from his mother’s restraining arms, he knows that he must betray his father to de Spain, that he must betray him to save him. After the betrayal, as he runs away, Sarty hears repeated shots in the distance, knowing then that his intent has back-fired, that he has enabled the killing of “Pap…Pap…Father.”

Kosovo Today

Kosovo today (Source: Wikipedia--click image to view)

Such names underscore Sarty’s love for his father, a man who he still believes fought in the cavalry under Colonel Sartoris. Yet he does his mourning on the run and does not “look back,” knowing the direction of freedom and peace.

While it may seem a stretch to make a Balkans allegory out of Faulkner’s post-Civil War story, the parallels seem compelling, at least as I sit here in Kosova, where fidelity to blood has assured its continued spilling. Yet an equally important difference stands out: Sarty did not look back; the Balkans must.

The Balkans

The Balkans (Source: Wikipedia--click image to view)

From Mulliqi and Miller to the American Corner

January 31-February 1, 2012

National Theatre of Kosova

National Theatre of Kosova

On Monday night Dave McTier and I visited the National Theatre, braving temperatures near zero F to do so. Though we had hoped to see Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, we learned on arrival that we had been misinformed about the schedule. Instead, we saw a piece by a local intellectual, Haqif Mulliqi. Never having received a program, I can’t report the title of the play, but I can say that the audience loved it, laughing heartily throughout. I loved it, too, even though my nascent Albanian skills proved no match for the rapid dialogue and rather loud musical motifs. The four characters, three middle-aged men and a young woman, seemed adrift, homeless, lugging huge valises constantly about the street. Yet they all showed a zest for life—for vigorous debate, for sexual passion, for patriotism, for friendship, and most of all for laughter. The actors, just like the characters they played, had great fun, embracing one another and thumbing their noses at hard times.

Having thawed out by Tuesday morning—temperatures had fallen below zero by the end of the play and dropped to -8 over night—I spent the day mainly inside, revisiting Willy Loman, a character who could have used the good company I saw on stage last night. As I thought about ways of using Marxist critical theory to help my students understand Willy, I realized that I have always seen the failed Salesman as more than a proletariat victim of capitalist hegemony, that I continue to buy Arthur Miller’s claim that a low-man can attain tragic dignity, so long as we can see, however “wrong” his American dream, that he suffers for the woman and the sons he has hurt but intended—in living and in dying—to love.

Fakulteti i Filologjisë (Faculty [College] of Philology)

Fakulteti i Filologjisë (College of Philology)

Today, February 1, I met Professor Lindita Rugova at the Fakulteti i Filologjisë (Faculty [College] of Philology) at the University of Pristina. Lindita serves as vice dean and teaches in the Departamenti i Gjuhë dhe Letërsi Angleze (Department of English Language and Literature), where I will teach.

My Classroom, in Fakulteti i Filologjisë

My Classroom, in Fakulteti i Filologjisë

Kindly spending two hours with me, Lindita showed me my office and the classroom where I will teach; she also introduced me to Dean Osman Gashi, to the Head of English Language and Literature, Professor Shykrane Germizaj, and to several other colleagues whose names I have yet to master. Though I slipped and slid on ice en route to the university, I could not have asked for a warmer reception.

Then from 2:30-5:00, Dave McTier and I took a cab to the US Embassy, where we received security and medical briefings and learned about the vast array of cultural opportunities available throughout Pristina, including the National Theatre, described above. We also learned more about the “American Corner,” where Fulbrighters and other Americans meet with students, citizens, and tourists for formal presentations and informal discussions on all aspects of American culture. Naturally, I’ll blog about these Kosovaran and American events in the months to come. Expect to hear, too, about Jennifer Washeleski, Aferdita Krasniq, Paul Engelstad, Eileen Drummond, Chuck Harrison, and Svetlana Breca, the US Embassy officers who coordinate such events and who provide briefings and on-going support for visiting professors like Dave and me.