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.

Advertisements

Poets Remembering Parents, Part I

April 21, 2012

Sylvia Plath (Source: http:/www.poets.org)

At the beginning of the next session, as I gathered students’ drafts on Lesson, I noted that Sylvia Plath was born a full generation after Richard Wright, but that she died in 1963, a victim of suicide, just three years after Wright’s death. Circulating a picture of Plath, I then asked what they learned in the introduction that made her death hard to understand. Several voices spoke at once, mentioning her marriage to poet Ted Hughes, their two children, her prestigious degree from Smith College, her Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge University, her publications. Next, I asked the painfully obvious question: “Why would a young, attractive wife and mother and successful poet have to take her own life? Does your book offer any help?” Dafina then mentioned the death of Plath’s father when she was only eight, saying that “it seems she never got over the anger and grief.” Then Shkodran mentioned the father’s authoritarian manner, a quality shared by her husband, who also resembled her father. I congratulated both students on their attentive reading and mentioned another key point from the introduction, that the merger of father and husband in the poem makes “Daddy” more than self-expressive, suggesting an attack on all oppressive men, possessors of the phallus, abusers of power.

I then asked that two women, two female voices, read “Daddy” aloud, each taking eight of the sixteen stanzas of the poem. Merita and Edita obliged; we all followed along as they gave voice to this anguished, angry poem. Thanking Merita and Edita for their voices and their daring, I asked the class to think about the images—both visual and auditory—that give the poem its power. “What about in the first two stanzas? What images define the child’s experience of the father’s tyrannical power?” In response, many voices spoke of the “black shoe,” the child smothered in the paternal shoe “like a foot,” afraid to “breathe.” Stressing Plath’s craft, I mentioned the visual intensity she creates with the “shoe,” this specialized form of figurative language, a synecdoche, which allows her to define the whole man by focusing on a cruel, suppressive part. “But does the narrator’s voice sound submissive, defeated?” I asked. Several voices responded with the defiant line, “I have had to kill you.” “What images suggest her contempt for the father?” Ragip responded, saying that she mocks his self-importance by calling him a “bag full of God” with a disgusting, “ghastly,” swollen toe.

Moving to other stanzas, I asked the class if they heard any love mixed in with the anger and contempt. Kadrije said she “used to pray to recover” (l. 14) him, that she tried to kill herself to “get back to you. I thought even the bones would do” (ll. 59-60), and Edita added that she “made a model of you” (l. 64) by marrying Hughes. I praised their answers but wondered why she uses Nazi imagery to describe this man, these men, she loves. Perceptively, Blerta stressed the metaphor: all men become Nazis, and all their women become “Jews,” receptacles for his dominating “root” (32, 23). “Why does she shift to the vampire imagery?” I asked. Besa replied that the blood-sucking imagery further stresses the way men use up women, drain them of life after biting the woman’s “pretty red heart in two” (l. 56). “Does she leave you with this image of victimization?” I asked Besa. She answered by reading the last two stanzas aloud, sounding the anger as the narrator-daughter-wife drives a “stake in your fat black heart” and proclaims, “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” (ll. 76, 80). Complimenting Besa’s strong reading, I mentioned again Plath’s craft, her alliterative use of harsh “b” and “d” sounds, the sequence of strong stresses in “fat black heart”; such cacophony, I said, creates the angry tone and complements the violent images of her final rejection of her father.

Just nine years old when Plath committed suicide, Rita Dove as an adult also wrote about her father, and she did so, according to our text, with the same “friction” that we found in Plath’s poetry (3135). Reminding the class of this claim, I asked, “Where do you see and hear friction in Dove’s ‘Adolescence III,’ which begins with the father’s absence and ends with his presence. What happens in between? What’s going on inside of her as she shares gardening with her mom?” Dafina noted the simile, with the girl keenly aware that, like the tomatoes, she grows “softer, swelling out” (l. 5). “Why does she have to wrap her scarred knees in the second stanza?” I pressed Dafina. She answered quickly, “She also feels the consequence of her hard work, and she wants to cover the scars with fancy old dresses “that once went to big-band dances” (l. 9). Thanking Dafina for her sensitive answers, I asked the class how this ‘friction’ between a hard reality and romantic fantasy plays out in the third stanza. Fidan responded, saying that she stands in “rows of clay and chicken manure” dreaming of a young man who would come, profess his love, and make the “scabs fall away,” until the “father” ends the fantasy (ll. 14-21). “What do you make of the closing image,” I asked Fidan, “carrying his ‘tears in a bowl’ as ‘blood hangs in the pine-soaked air’?” “Maybe the tears show his regret for deserting them, but the blood shows that his return threatens more abuse,” he guessed.

Praising all for their close readings, I then asked if anyone cared to share his or her journaling on suicide or on adolescent memories. Gezim responded first, reading an entertaining account of adolescent sibling rivalries and his great sufferings as the ‘oldest child,’ always having to tend to the younger brothers and getting punished for their pranks. Changing the mood dramatically, Besa read of her opposition to suicide, calling it “weakness,” a choice never justified even in times of immense suffering. To support her view, she described the persecution her Albanian family suffered at the hands of Serbian soldiers in the 1990s, the loss of home, the fear of the ever-present AK-47s. She acknowledged that she thought of suicide then, just to escape the terror, but her parents’ heroic example made her put aside such despairing thoughts.

Seeing that everyone had been as moved to smiles and to deep sadness by this journaling, I thanked the readers for their candor and courage and the listeners for their attentiveness, and then asked everyone to prepare for the next session by reading three more poems packed with complicated memories about parents: Li-Young Lee’s “The Gift,” Louise Glück’s “Appearances,” and Yusef Komunyakaa’s “My Father’s Love Letters.” I also asked the students to prepare a journal entry, either in prose or in poetry, describing their fathers or mothers by using images, not abstractions, just as Plath and Dove had done.

The Bridge on the Drina

February 29, 2012

Ivo Andrić, 1961

Ivo Andrić, 1961 (Source: Wikipedia--click to view)

Yugoslavian diplomat Ivo Andrić died in 1975, but Bosnia and the Balkans honor him, as does the world, not only for his diplomacy but also for his fiction, particularly The Bridge on the Drina, which won him the Nobel Prize in 1961.

Set in Andrić’s native Bosnia, this historical novel spans three hundred years, beginning with the new wave of Ottomans in the late sixteenth century and ending with 1914 and the start of World War I, the life-time of the magnificent bridge that spanned the Drina River.  Covering this period with the precision of a scholar, Andrić narrates the parade of Turkish and Austrian powers that occupied this stunning mountainous region, but with the eye and heart of a poet Andrić populates this vast canvas with images of human beings so ordinary in their capacities for celebration and passion, so extraordinary in their capacities for brutality and courage.

Cover of The Bridge on the Drina

Cover of Andrić's The Bridge on the Drina

The novel begins with indelible images of the brutality that grows from the lust for power and land.  Though eventually a work of engineering art, its “eleven arches…perfect and wondrous in its beauty” (64), the bridge begins when a Turkish Vezir arrives and conscripts laborers, beating and even killing any man who resists, turning this town on the Drina “into a hell, a devil’s dance of incomprehensible works, of smoke, dust, shouts, and tumult” (29, 31).  Painfully aware that the bridge will benefit Turks, not Bosnians, workers grumble; some even plot to sabotage the bridge. Enraged by such covert resistance, the Vezir finds a scapegoat, a brave peasant who pays for his alleged sabotage by having his toenails torn from his feet, his chest wrapped in red-hot chains, and his anus pierced by a pike that runs out through the back of his neck.  Raised high on the emerging bridge for all would-be resisters to see, the impaled peasant “writhed convulsively” for hours before dying, just as the Vezir ordered (49).

We see the same brutality at the end of the novel, when World War I releases the “wild beast” inside us all that “does not dare to show itself until the barriers of law and custom have been removed” (282).  That beast obliterates this town and even its seemingly indestructible bridge, as a bomb planted on a pier causes it to “crumble away like a necklace; and once it began no one could hold it back” (313).  Perhaps the greatest cruelty, the survivors have no home, no place.

Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, Višegrad, Bosnia, 1900

Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, Višegrad, Bosnia, 1900 (Source: Wikipedia--click to view)

But between these bookends revealing our hearts of darkness, Andrić paints lighter hearts of those over these three centuries who take joy in simple pleasures, like fishing under the bridge (15) or meeting on the bridge to exchange flirtatious glances, to celebrate weddings, or to drink brandy and tell stories (19-21).

When William Faulkner accepted his Nobel Prize in Stockholm in 1950, he called on novelists not to paint portraits of despair; instead, he challenged writers to celebrate our strength, our ability not only to “endure” but to “prevail.”  As though accepting Faulkner’s charge, Andrić describes hearts capable not only of simple joys but also of endurance, as these Bosnians must suffer floods and droughts as well as invasions (76-79).  Following another Faulknerian challenge, to tell stories of the human heart “in conflict with itself,” Andrić weaves together numerous tales of such inner-conflict we can expect to find in any  century, such as Peter’s struggle with his addictive gambling (145-152); Fata’s torment over a marriage, having to obey her father or to obey her heart (104-112); or Zorka’s agony over two men, having to choose a good man who loves her but for whom she feels no love, or to wait for a lesser man indifferent to her passion (276-281).

Finally, Faulkner urged writers to uplift us with stories of human beings—however few—who show “compassion” for others and the willingness to “sacrifice” to relieve others’ pain.  Among several of Andrić’s characters who fit this description, Lotte stands tallest.  We meet her first in the middle of the novel, a beautiful young widow with “ivory white skin, black hair, smoldering eyes,” and a “free tongue,” and therefore enough brass to start a hotel in a patriarchal culture (177).  Far more than a shrewd business woman, Lotte serves as benefactress to many families, providing counseling and money for those whose lives have run amuck (180).  By the end of the novel, Lotte has “grown old.  Of her onetime beauty only traces remained” (257).  Unconcerned about her physical decline, Lotte worries instead about her ability to help others.  As the town has declined, Lotte’s once prosperous hotel has declined, too.  As a result, she suffers nightly over those in “hopeless poverty” that she can no longer relieve.  Though “tired” to the soul, Lotte still gives others what she has left, her sage counsel (262).  When we last see her, just before the bridge falls into the Drina, Lotte crosses bridge with a few other displaced old women—and with a “sickly child on a push-cart” (300).

Thanks to this Nobel Prize winner, then, no history of the Balkans can be complete that finds only cruelty in the human heart.

Ivo Andrić at Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, Višegrad, c. 1970?

Photo of Ivo Andrić at Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, Višegrad, Bosnia, c. 1970?; on display at his birthplace in Travnik, Bosnia and Herzegovina (Source: Wikipedia--click to view)

“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)