Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Live your truths, regardless of others'

Despite the obvious satire and making fun of the elements and institutions that make up our everyday life, Billy’s experience as a soldier who doesn’t want to be there is all too true. The most substantial part of his war experience is when he fades into Tralfamadorian life and travels through the passage of time. Billy is constantly surrounded by people who don’t understand him, so naturally, no one takes his claims about the Tralfamadorians seriously, and he is instead dismissed. Vonnegut tells us that Billy suffered a “mild nervous collapse” following his engagement, re-enrollment in optometry school, and most importantly, his service in the war (captured, held prisoner, and honorably discharged) (24). This supposedly “mild” mental breakdown is treated with shock treatments and Billy is released shortly thereafter.
Almost twenty years after his discharge, Billy sustains some sort of injury from a serious plane crash that killed everyone else on board. It is this incident that is said to be responsible for Billy’s wild claims of Tralfamadore and his newfound extraterrestrial friends. However, I feel that this is another facet of Vonnegut’s satire. Based on his obvious anti-war sentiments, I think he is suggesting that Billy’s recruitment as a soldier (the effects of physical violence, but also his capture as a prisoner) contributed greatly to his psychological impairment. Furthermore, I believe he is commenting on the way in which we go about treating war veterans for issues like PTSD – we “shock” them back to life and expect them to continue living unaffected by their traumatic pasts. Therefore, I see Tralfamadore as a manifestation of Billy’s psyche to further protect himself from being a victim, a perpetrator or a witness to gruesome violence while in a war setting. He dissociates from his surroundings as a result of trauma – and furthermore, from the people who recommend he ‘man up’ (i.e. Weary) and just deal with it. Vonnegut implies that Billy views the Tralfamadorians as a more reliable source of guidance than “Earthling souls” who have become “lost and wretched” (29).
We are also told that these extraterrestrials provide “insights into what was really going on” (30). But the Tralfamadorians really represent a source of hope for Billy whose foolishness often leaves him stunted. For example, the Tralfamadorian theory of time – “All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist” as well as the idea of death as a temporary condition provide some level of reassurance for Billy that there is some optimism both in this life and in the next (27). We see proof of this conviction later in his speech about his own death when he says, “If you protest, if you think that death is a terrible thing, then you have not understood a word I’ve said” and again in the last chapter when Vonnegut claims that, according to Billy, Tralfamadorians do not honor Jesus Christ, but rather are intrigued by Charles Darwin who has taught that we are all meant to die and that “corpses are improvements” (210).
Vonnegut even comments on Billy’s faith in Tralfamadorian philosophy, that “we will all live forever no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be,” and responds that he is not overjoyed (so Vonnegut of him!), but “if [he is] going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that,” he is “grateful that so many of those moments are nice” (211). This is a really pleasant way to end a book based almost entirely on satire – Vonnegut doesn’t right off or even judge the foolishness of Billy’s assertions about an imaginary planet, but rather, takes them with a grain of salt, indulging in the idea, and reacting to it positively. This small bit of commentary seems to be representative of Vonnegut’s thoughts on others’ seemingly crazy ideas or beliefs or values – that you don’t have to choose to agree with them, but they should likewise not be forced upon you. We are all human beings, which means we all learn through experience. You should not necessarily take someone else’s truth and live it as your own, particularly if you don’t believe it deep down. Follow your passions, explore your imagination, and as my father always says, “don’t let the bastards get you down!!” (I wish I could share this last sentiment with Billy). I just love this book all around and its many subtle satires of political correctness. You get a chance to see something different every time. Long live Vonnegut!

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