Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Death, War, Time: "So It Goes"

Slaughterhouse Five is perhaps most famous for its repetitive catch-phrase, “And so it goes.” This phrase appears in the book 106 times (I counted and confirmed with another internet source), usually after describing someone’s death or some kind of devastation. The amount of times it appeared was annoying at first, but upon further analysis, its repetition, diction, and its nonchalant tone seems deliberately placed by the author to convey two things about death, time, and war: 1) that death does not matter in the face of time, and 2) that war is only an inevitable, but somehow inconsequential act humans do to pass the time.

Kurt Vannegut’s treatment of death in his strange novel is quite curious, because he conveys it through the lenses of time — more specifically, through time-seeing alien creatures called the Tralfamadorians and through the time-seeing-traveling protagonist, Billy Pilgrim. Time for us humans is a linear chronology of cause-effect events, but time for Vannegut’s alien creatures and protagonist is as fluid and not as defined as us: past, present, future are all clumped together in an ever-present present. Their ideas of death are not as defined either. As the Trafamadorians put it, “There is no beginning, no middle, no end…” (109). It seems the Trafamadorians act as the moral center of the novel. So, in that way, the phrase, “So it goes,” seems at once sarcastic and literal. Sarcastic because its choice of wording implies a linear progression, like time “going” through time, or a spaceship “going” through space. However, it is literal because its nonchalance of death, since the moral center implies death does not exist, convey an everlasting continuation of life through time. This double nature of the phrase “so it goes,” in addition to its placement at every mention of death or implied death, degrade death as an insignificant matter, which gives off a tone of uncomfortable apathy.

In light of war, Vannegut’s treatment of death in such a way conveys war as an equally insignificant matter in the face of time. Though Billy is baffled at the Tralfamadorian’s apathy to human warfare, the Tralfamadorians rationalized that the Universe will disappear one day, but not by human beings, and that there is nothing anyone can do because “the moment is [always] structured that way” (117). This apathy seems to carry into the tone and attitude of not only Billy Pilgrim, but also the narrator throughout the novel. The moral dilemma of war revolves mostly around the death of our loved ones, our fellow countrymen, and, in general, our fellow human brothers and sisters. If death is treated thus lightly, as implied by one phrase, “so it goes,” then war gets degraded to the same level of moral importance as death. The very tone of the phrase “so it goes” is by nature apathetic, as though it was just another detail with no weight and no intrinsic meaning. Death and war, then, is just another detail in this thing we call life, functioning on this plane we view as time, that means nothing in comparison.

Some people, like Mary Rose O’Reilley, may read Vannegut’s novel as an anti-war novel, but I do not agree. In the very beginning of the story, the narrator details how he came up with such a story and says that it was impossible to write an anti-war book because “there would always be wars” and death (3). Though the author might not have written it literally, the implication of its literalness can be seen through the novel’s treatment of war and death implied by its apathetic catch-phrase, “so it goes.” However, it does not promote warfare either: it is simply in the middle, almost agnostic, when it comes to these greater moral dilemmas. And instead of promoting better living, it degrades life even more by degrading death. The significance of life and death are two sides of the same coin: lower the value of one, the other becomes just as low in value. One my be indifferent to a flavor of cheese or a style of clothing, but when one is indifferent to life and death, then therein lies the true danger. But, so it goes.

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