Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Time Keeps on Slipping

Slaughterhouse Five is Kurt Vonnegut’s time hopping tale of Billy Pilgrim: a soldier, husband, optometrist, father, and alien abductee. This book serves as an amazing example of how form meets function and the narrative is broken down into many smaller and sporadic episodes in Pilgrim’s life. One important aspect to note, significant to the story, is Pilgrim’s name. A pilgrim is defined as “one who journeys in foreign lands” or “one who travels to a shrine or holy place” (“pilgrim”). This name signifies much of what the main character will face along the way, traveling from Connecticut to Dresden, Germany, and , if one is to believe, all the way to the planet Tralfamadore. From the get go, Vonnegut introduces the narrator with the possibility of some untruthfulness, making the reader question the validity of the narrator. Just as Mark Twain “told the truth, mainly” with a few “things which he stretched” (Twain, 1) so too does Vonnegut introduce the possibility of some stretching of the truth in that the text begins with the line “all this happened, more or less” (Vonnegut, 1). Especially with intergalactic trips to human zoos and mating rituals with captured movie stars, it is difficult to ascertain whether the narrator is really telling the truth, and at some points, whether or not he is even sane.
            An important aspect of the reader’s ability to question what transpires in the narrative lies in the form in which the text is written. With sporadic hoppings between any given point in time, and Billy Pilgrim’s lack of awareness if a doorway will lead him into the next room or onto another planet, it is hard to discern what is really happening at any given point. However, Vonnegut does attest that, “the war parts, anyway, are pretty much true” (Vonnegut, 1). Billy Pilgrim is a character who has become “unstuck in time” and he can, seemingly, go “to sleep a senile widower” and wake up “on his wedding day” (Vonnegut, 14). Billy as a character “spastic in time” (Vonnegut, 14) seems to be important in light of the war and destruction that goes on around him. Vonnegut even points out that the book itself is “so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre” (Vonnegut, 13). As we have seen in our own history, this is definitely true of wartime especially situations the senseless massacre of people. Vonnegut would have written this without anticipating such destructive events as the bombing of the World Trade Center on 9/11 and other horrific and senseless shootings such as at Sandy Hook, the 2012 Aurora shooting in the cinema, or the shootings in the Charleston Church in 2015. Despite being unaware of such violence to come, the same message rings true, that there is “nothing intelligent to say about” them. He even suggests that “everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds” and they say all there is to say about it “like ‘Poo-tee-weet’” (Vonnegut, 13). This presents an interesting juxtaposition to the end of the novel in which “Birds were talking. One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, ‘Poo-tee-weet?’” (Vonnegut, 97). This suggests that this is the only question to be asked after such meaningless violence, there is nothing intelligible left after these heinous crimes.
            When asked if the text was going to be “an anti-war book”, Vonnegut replies “’Yes,’ I said. ‘I guess’” (Vonnegut, 6). Though a text against war and the senseless nature of massacre and murder, Vonnegut is willing to admit the inevitable reality of war since “What he meant, of course, was there would always be war, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that too” (Vonnegut, 6). He refers to war as if it is an act of nature that is nearly impossible to stop and comments that even war did not exist “there would still be plain old death” (Vonnegut, 6).
            One important, and frequently repeated, line in the text is “So it goes” (Vonnegut, 14). This phrase is used frequently to, again, signify the casual nature in which death is perceived, especially in wartime scenarios. Upon a search of the text, the phrase “So It goes” is used 99 times, each one referring to the inevitability of death or the light nature in which the dead are treated. It follows such lines as “his mother was incinerated in the Dresden fire-storm” (Vonnegut, 5) to the casual nature in which Paul Lazzaro had stolen “about a quart of diamonds and emeralds and rubies […]from dead people in the cellars of Dresden” (Vonnegut, 7). This line of “So it goes” in coordination with the time hopping nature of Billy Pilgrim’s life helps emphasize Vonnegut’s own views on how war can numb a man to the stark realities of cruelty, pain, and death. This does not mean, however, that Vonnegut condones war. Instead, it suggests that he was thrown into it just as Billy Pilgrim is thrown through time with “no control over where he is going next” (Vonnegut, 14).

With a chronologically inconsistent narrative such as this it allowed for an important question to raised “about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep” (Vonnegut, 12).   The text challenges us to make decisions for ourselves, in our time, because unlike Billy Pilgrim, we experience time in a linear fashion and we experience the reality of the now “because this moment simply is” (Vonnegut, 37). We are asked not question the reality of our situation, but instead to proceed through it and make the best decisions possible at the moment. We are asked, by the fourth dimensionally conscious Tralfamadorians to “Ignore the awful time, and concentrate on the good ones.” (Vonnegut, 55) since we can not change the mistakes are sad outcomes of the past, but merely move through time in whatever fashion seems best. 

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