Tuesday, October 27, 2009

glamorous war?

After reading and analyzing Kurt Vonnegut’s, Slaughterhouse Five, the overall affect he wished to have was certainly obvious and able to be noted.  It is obvious that propaganda often time makes war glamorized; Vonnegut is very successful when he takes the appeal out of war and depicts the awfulness of it.

      Vonnegut first declares his anti-war views when the initial speaker visits an old military friend, O’Hare.  While visiting he notes that he feels most uncomfortable due to the fact that his friend’s wife seems to be less than friendly and not thrilled with his visit.  Eventually Mrs. O’Hare is no longer able to control herself and screams out, “You were just babies then!” (14).  Mary O’Hare goes further to say that war is indeed glamorized through the use of movies and fears that her husbands friend will write some sort of bestseller that will be turned into a movie with handsome and famous actors playing them.  This is clearly an attempt by Vonnegut to make his audience aware that the so called “men” fighting in the wars are often times not legally able to have a beer and are indeed very young to be fighting. 

      Further, several times Vonnegut refers to Derby as the oldest man in the war who has established a family and is the high school teacher.  The constant reference to Derby in this way leads us to believe he is the only one that is old enough to be settled down and the only one who had a career.  While these facts seemed to be redundant, it is obvious that the repetition was meant to remind us of the age gap and the age of those fighting in the war.

      Vonnegut goes into detail with how horrible the conditions were during the war and how nothing was safe.  He notes that Dresden was believed to be home free and within a matter of time it too was bombed.  The often grotesque descriptions of the war were very effective in that they were able to touch the audience.  While reading this I felt myself cringe and my heart went out to those who had to view the doings of mankind. 

      Vonnegut was very successful with connecting with his audience and forcing them to see what the soldiers in the war went through.  He is absolutely correct that our society has a way of making war look noble and exciting yet many times fails to show the awfulness and the true affect it has on people as well as places.  The characters in the book were funny, and kind, and very human, that is that I can imagine every young boy or girl who has had to encounter war being scared and often times wanting to be left to die and dealing with it in irrational ways.  Overall, I think Slaughterhouse Five is necessary in society because as I said it makes one way the consequences at hand.  

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Danger of Dreaming

The first thing that struck me about Slaughterhouse Five, one of Vonnegut’s most well-known works and the first of his that I have read, is the jarringly straightforward tone used to narrate the rollercoaster ride of crudely strung-together events of Billy Pilgrim “unstuck in time.”  Moments of patent bitter irony--like Roland Weary hearing Billy’s pain-induced convulsions as laughter while kicking him in the ribs with combat boots--and moments of tragic, poignant human emotion are told with consistent “See Spot Run”-like simplicity. (Appropriately enough, a dog named Spot—the Pilgrim family’s pet—pops into the narrative sporadically.)  The simplistic tone effectively anchors the extreme randomness of the discontinuous plot.  It makes this broken and interrupted narrative more accessible.

But such unapologetic frankness has a dangerous flipside.  For me, the tone had an almost lulling effect. I caught myself, at times, subconsciously equating candor of style with sincerity of content, drinking in Billy’s forays with the Tralfmadorians with an almost childlike wonder.  The narrative being rooted in an actual historical event—the Dresden bombing of WWII, which Vonnegut himself witnessed—amplified the subconscious lulling effect.  The novel was an experience uncomfortably similar to dreaming.  The uniformity of the tone, coupled with the splicing of fact with fiction, allowed me to swallow things like mass murder and time travel as easily as banal moments of small-scale human selfishness, like the protagonist’s loveless but fiscally profitable marriage.

            My sense of disillusionment while reading was called into question at one moment in the narrative: Valencia asks Billy, on their honeymoon, to talk about the war, he deflects her, saying “It would sound like a dream…Other people’s dreams aren’t very interesting, usually” (121).  In my experience hearing my friends recounting their dreams, it all depends on the quality of the narration.  I enjoy hearing about my friends’ dreams, because I delight in hearing about extreme ridiculousness; when auditing their accounts, I am generally entertained but ultimately a passive, removed listener. In the dreamlike narrative voice of Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut grips the reader’s attention by importing him into  the dream, giving him due cause to question everything that unfolds in the novel while simultaneously—ironically—making it incredibly challenging to pry himself awake enough to do so. 

humans and animals

Like Tyler, I found that in reading Slaughterhouse-Five I could not decide which questions to include in my presentation because the book leaves so much to unpack! I was particularly drawn to the descriptions of the humans versus the descriptions of the animals, which prove very different despite the overall idea that there exists no free will, that animals and humans are very much the same. I especially like how the humans are described as having a mechanical nature, how they are associated with details related to metallic machines and technology. Animals seem to be associated with their natural, instinctual, innocent nature, the nature that prevents them from even possessing the idea of a possible free will and therefore puts them under the command of the “machines”, or the humans
The Tralfamadorian zoo and its display of Billy Pilgrim show quite plainly what Billy and the other Earthlings really are, more animals. The Earthling habitat that consists of everything out of a Sears catalogue proves that the Tralfamadorians see the materialistic nature of humans, the nature that proves their habits and actions monetarily and technologically based and therefore adds to their mechanical attributes. Even the way that Billy interacts with the exhibit proves that he follows a structured routine, almost like a robot; it does not even seem that Billy knows why he even does everything he does, from shaving to exercising and cleaning his dishes. When asked if he is happy there, he replies “About as happy as I was on Earth”, proving that this routine is something that he practices no matter where he is because it is the only way he knows how to live. Billy and his Earthling routine bring up the question of what it means to be happy, or what some humans perceive as happiness. For Billy, happiness is somewhat passive; his routines make him “happy” or at least satisfy his needs. In a way Billy is very similar to animals because he falls to routines that are merely for getting by, although his routines may prove somewhat unnecessary in comparison to the survival habits of animals.
The Tralfamadorian emphasis on Billy’s nakedness seems to be an important detail that changes Billy’s perception of beauty and outlook on life. The Tralfamadorians think that Billy’s naked state is the most beautiful, hence why he must not wear clothing in his exhibit. This praise for Billy’s body gives Billy a sense of self-worth that he does not get from Earth. The one time his naked body is examined on Earth by mechanical men of the army, it is deemed weak and almost useless, emphasizing Billy’s lack of perfection rather than his important function as a human being. Because the Tralfamadorians can see the beauty in Billy’s somewhat imperfect body, Billy is able to see the beauty in his other experiences with nakedness and even naked truths. The Tralfamadorians therefore imprint their ideas of Earthlings on Billy and allow him to view his home planet in a light that is different from his fellow Earthlings. In a way this insight allows Billy to see Earth as something other than materialism and capitalism, placing his views closer to animals than other humans. His new views undermine the previous and show the ridiculousness behind the views of some of the other humans, or the ridiculousness behind those who place a huge emphasis on what is not natural or naked. The Tralfamadorians, though fictional characters, allow insight into what is truthful to the author, or what the author believes the truth behind human nature really is, this universal nakedness that puts humans on the same level as animals.

"Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt"

This was the second time I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter-House Five. My interpretation of certain aspects was different this time around. For example, I found Vonnegut’s style more humorous, and I felt that his invention of Tralfamadorian perception of time was actually something he was criticizing. The constant repetition of “so it goes” following any death, no matter how gruesome or sad, made death seem almost trivial. I found a few lines which made me think that Vonnegut’s point was criticism of overlooking the difficult parts of life and living only in happy moments. Perhaps the most memorable is the drawn epitaph, mentioned in the text on the previous page: Valencia is asking him about the war. “Was it awful?” she asks. He responds, “’Sometimes.’ A crazy thought now occurred to Billy. The truth of it startled him. It would make a good epitaph for Billy Pilgrim—and for me too” (155). That epitaph is, of course, “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.” How far from the truth! Vonnegut tells us in the very first chapter of this novel that this is untrue, and that he is writing this book to show us the horrors of war, the destructive affect is has on human beings, and when his friend asks him if it’s an anti-war book, he replies “Yeah, I guess,” a yes from Vonnegut. To say that everything was beautiful and nothing hurt renders their entire war experience meaningless. What’s interesting is that he says that it would make a good epitaph for himself as well, perhaps ironically. We see through scenes in this novel that many things were painful, and a lot of it wasn’t pretty.

Another time I thought Vonnegut was criticizing such an optimistic view of life was when the aliens are exasperatedly explaining to Billy Pilgrim how the universe ends and why they are always in the zoo. They say to him, concerning the days of war, “There isn’t anything we can do about them, so we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We spent eternity looking at pleasant moments—like today at the zoo. Isn’t this a nice moment?” He sums it up saying that humans should, “Ignore the awful times and concentrate on the good times” (150). I think that Vonnegut says to almost do the opposite. We’ve talked in class about what moments reveal the truth about a character’s strength, values, personality, etc., and none of those moments have been at the zoo. In writing this book, Vonnegut isn’t “concentrating on the good times.” He’s looking back at the horror of his experiences, the horrors of war, and this is why he calls himself a pillar of salt. He says about Lot’s wife, “But she did look back, and I love her for that because it was so human” (28). Every one of us is “so human.” No one is a Tralfamadorian. By denying what happened to him in the war, Billy Pilgrim goes insane, and tells himself that this is okay by inventing an alien abduction in which they tell him that this is okay. Really? I don’t know. The fact that Billy cries only in the war when he sees that the horses that have taken him out of Dresden and away from the destruction—ironically, only a few pages before his tears, Vonnegut tells us that “If this sort of selectivity,” the kind the aliens tell Billy about much earlier in the novel, “If this sort of selectivity had been possibly for Billy, he might have chosen as his happiest moment his sundrenched snooze in the back of the wagon” (249). Interesting that what Billy considers to be a happy moment is intertwined with death, with sadness, with exhaustion, and the decision to ignore it all for a moment.

Vonnegut says in the last chapter that if Tralfamadorian time is true, he is “not overjoyed” (269). This is because he realizes that in reality, suffering happens. It can’t be ignored; it has to be dealt with. He then describes what he was going to make the climax of the book in a passing summary. He leaves us with a bird talking. It seems harmless, but he has just been talking about the corpses, about men dying. It’s sad, but we almost don’t notice at this point. We as readers have become accustomed to death, to "so it goes." We have become aliens.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Power of Voice

When I was reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, I noticed the contrast of silence and voice, particularly in relation to Billy Pilgrim. The silence that preceded his most honest voice reminded me of the calm before the storm. I am all too familiar with hurricanes and there truly is an eerie calm right before a hurricane; one that stills the wind that has been whipping violently, one that turns the sky black no matter the time of day, and one that restrains the storm just enough so that it builds into something that can destroy. I don't know that Billy's voice is a storm, or anything meant to destroy, but it undoubtedly has a power over him, his audiences in the work and over me.

The first time I wrote, “VOICE” in the margin of my book, Billy had just been introduced as someone affected by numerous tragedies; Vonnegut writes, “after the airplane crash, he was quiet for a while…He didn’t resume practice. He had a housekeeper. His daughter came over almost every day. And then, without any warning, Billy went to New York City, and got on an all-night radio program devoted to talk. He told about having come unstuck in time” (pg. 25). The tragedies of both the “airplane crash” and his wife’s sudden death from carbon monoxide poisoning shroud Billy in silence; Vonnegut’s short, choppy sentences characterize the helplessness, the stillness that restraining the power of the story Billy will eventually tell. Not only does Billy find his voice through his story of “having come unstuck in time”, but Billy’s radio program is “devoted to talk”. Devoted. Billy’s newfound voice is elevated by devotion by the power it has to influence its hearers.

Billy’s voice is associated with a distinct and uncanny power that even commands his attention. Vonnegut writes that when Billy was elected President of the Lion’s Club, “he had nothing to say” (pg. 50), but somehow the restraint of silence has built up the strength of what lies within; “Billy opened his moth, and out came a deep, resonant tone. His voice was a gorgeous instrument. It told jokes which brought down the house. It grew serious, told jokes again, and ended on a note of humility” (pg. 50). Separating Billy’s voice from his physical being, his voice is once again revered. His human body acts as a mere vessel, carrying the sacred voice that is capable of what Vonnegut calls a “miracle” (pg. 50). The fact that the literal sound Billy makes is described as a “beautiful instrument” begs the question, of what? Does Billy’s voice serve a purpose? Is it an instrument used for something? In this circumstance, his voice brings “down the house” with laughter, “grows serious” and “humbles” Billy to his fellow club members, but in light of the entire work, what purpose does Billy’s voice serve? What purpose does Vonnegut’s voice serve? Are their voices sacred messages pouring out of human vessels?

"...if the accident will."

The issue of free will is complicated throughout Slaughterhouse-Five. The narrator seems to see this and comment on it from the beginning of the book with his exceptional liking of the phrase used unintentionally in a Christmas card: “if the accident will.” It is a theme that carries the reader throughout the jumbled text.

The Tralfamadorians do not place much stake in free will; instead, they maintain that each event just is, that we are all like “bugs in amber”—that there is no “why.” This would seem to mean that none of us has a choice; as Billy says later, “Everything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does.”

Billy’s and the Tralfamadorians’ opinions on free will are not, it would seem, analogous to Vonnegut’s, as Tyler pointed out earlier. He includes the Serenity Prayer, for instance, which clearly appeals to God for help differentiating between what can, and what cannot be changed—and changing those that can. Judging by this, it would seem that Vonnegut does see that not all situations can be changed—e.g. being abducted by aliens—but that we do have free will and can change our own courses of action.

Additionally, this passage would have me believe that Vonnegut wants to insiste that free will is not only existent, but necessary:
The doctors agreed: [Billy] was going crazy.
They didn’t think it had anything to do with the war. They were sure Billy was going to pieces because his father had thrown him into the deep end of the Y.M.C.A. swimming pool when he was a boy, and had then taken him to the rim of the Grand Canyon.

By denying Billy his autonomy at such a young age, his father has effectively denied him any sense of control over his own life or actions. We see Billy throughout the book, then, as a weakling, as a pathetic child and later, a pathetic man, who does not take action for himself. In the war, he is dragged around, yelled at, beaten, made fun of—yet none of this provokes him. After the war, he becomes an ophthalmologist simply because he is thrust into the field.

His lack of desire to even preserve his own life is a real sickness that seems to be directly cause by the removal of his free will—by his father, the war, the Tralfamadorians, his daughter. I think this is why he seems to be—to me and Ronald Weary, at least—repulsive. Though the robbery of his autonomy was nothing he could control (being that it was in the past), there is still so much Billy could change, if he wanted to: the present and the future.

Slaughterhouse Five: A failure?

In the very beginning of the novel Kurt Vonnegut tells his audience that his novel is a failure, “I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun. This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt.” (Vonnegut, 22) He is referencing the Bible story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the fact that Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt because she looked back upon the destruction. By writing this novel about the war Vonnegut admits to being a pillar of a salt and that it is human nature to look back upon destruction. Regardless of how much people claim they move on from something traumatic it is impossible to forget. For example when the anniversary of a loved one's death occurs every year it is hard not to reflect upon the past.
I agree with Katie, that Vonnegut presents a “drunken state of mind” through which Billy Pilgrim consistently falls back and forward in time almost like a drunken person faltering his steps after he’s had one too many. Many people use alcohol as an escape. Vonnegut mentions at the beginning of the novel this “disease” he has, drunk dialing. I think, being in college, we are all familiar with this concept (unfortunately). When you’re in an altered state of mind it is harder to differentiate between the real and the fantastical, and if you do something silly or embarrassing you have the fact that you were “so totally wasted” to blame.
Pilgrim mentions at certain times throughout the novel that he has seen his whole life and it is “bearable.” His happiest moments in life are when he is on Tralfamadore, which are humorous because his memories involve him having a “tremendous wang” (Vonnegut, 132) and having sex with Montana, the infamous porn star. It began as hard for me to recognize the humor in this novel because I found the humor somewhat misplaced and awkward, and then I realized that the misplacement was the point of the novel. Ultimately what I believe Vonnegut was trying to prove was the fact that war is as senseless, out of place, and disorienting as Pilgrim’s strange ability to time travel.
The final line in the novel sums up this idea, “One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, ‘Poo-tee-weet’?” (Vonnegut, 215) This is a reflection of what Vonnegut explains in the first chapter of the novel, he writes, “It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like ‘Poo-tee-weet?’” (Vonnegut, 19). I believe that what Vonnegut is trying to say is that all war/massacre is ultimately a failure and in proving that his book fails at being a failure, therefore it is a success.

tone and attitude in Slaughter House-Five

As I was reading Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughter House-Five, what particularly struck me was his matter-of-fact tone. He is incredibly desensitized by the things he saw in the war, which he deliberately incorporates into his writing style. His recognition of his detachment from the emotions that go along with death is what makes Slaughter House-Five such a powerful exposé.

Each time Vonnegut speaks about the death of a person he knew, he brushes it under the rug with the phrase, "So it goes." In the second chapter, the pattern emerges."Toward the end of maneuvers, Billy was given an emergency furlough home because his father, a barber in Ilium, New York, was shot dead by a friend while they were out hunting deer. So it goes" (page 32). The repetition of these three words, in my opinion, is a device that helps him to evade the pent up emotions deep down. It also serves to construct the stoic image a solider is supposed to represent.

Another passage that perfectly embodies Vonnegut's feigned aloofness about the war is in his repetition of other nonchalant words and phrases, such as "theoretically." "An umpire appeared. There were umpires everywhere, men who said who was winning or losing and theoretical battle, who was alive and who was dead./ The umpire had comical news. The congregation had been theoretically spotted from the air by a theoretical enemy. They were all theoretically dead now. The theoretical corpses laughed and a ate a hearty noontime meal" (page 31). The thick sarcasm seen here shows that Vonnegut sees a great deal of stupidity in the unnecessary deaths that war incurs, but it also shows that he feels it would emasculate him to come out and say so.

As I continued reading Slaughter House-Five, I saw more and more indications that Vonnegut sees war as an inhumane and merciless, but I didn't know whether to say that it is regardless of his involvement in the war, or as a result of his involvement in the war. He puts on an unaffected disguise, which shows that the aftermath of war can often mean detachment from emotions, but at the same time, he is writing an entire book on war. To me, this indicates that he must have been tremendously affected. I believe that trivializing the death and destruction he witnessed is a method of repressing his terror.

"So it goes."

Perhaps I’m particularly unperceptive, but it took me until about half way through Slaughterhouse-Five to realize that Vonnegut always places the phrase “So it goes” immediately following any mention of death. Where originally I was frustrated by the constant repetition, once I established the connection, I couldn’t stop pondering its effect. It seems to me that the frequent repetition of “So it goes” is similar in kind to Twain’s frequent use of the n-word in Huck Finn. In Huck the reader becomes so accustomed to the word that he or she often forgets – or, at the very least, is forced to suspend – his or her aversion to it. Because the phrase “So it goes” implies normalcy, the reader is similarly forced to become comfortable with another uncomfortable topic: death.

Obviously the parallel isn’t perfect. Twain repeats a word that is inherently unjust and offensive. Death, on the other hand, is a fact of life. There is nothing necessarily offensive about it. Yet by repeating “So it goes” after each death, Vonnegut equalizes them all, from something as natural as “There used to be a dog named Spot, but he died. So it goes” (62) to something as gruesome as “There was so much to see – dragon’s teeth, killing machines, corpses with bare feet that were blue and ivory. So it goes” (65). That which makes each death different is not taken into account and the effect is somewhat numbing. “So it goes” forces the reader to accept death and move on. The device is almost necessary; otherwise, the reader might become too depressed to finish a novel so saturated with death.

Additionally, the repetition of “So it goes” draws the reader’s attention to every single instance of death in the novel. As the story progresses “So it goes” becomes a refrain of sorts; as it propels the reader forward, it also cues him or her. Thus, the reality of death becomes simultaneously more familiar and more difficult to ignore. Though I remain perplexed by this issue of “So it goes,” one thing is clear: Vonnegut crafts a far different type of war novel. Early in the tale, O’Hare and the narrator read a book about the Crusades which states “History in her solemn page informs us that the crusaders were but ignorant and savage men … that their pathway was one of blood and tears. Romance, on the other hand, dilates upon their piety and heroism, and portrays … their virtue and magnanimity…” (15-16). Vonnegut presents us with neither “history” nor “romance,” but perhaps something far more poignant – and accurate – than either.

"so it goes"

As my classmates have addressed, Kurt Vonnegut’s concept of being “unstuck in time” is found at the center of this novel; but it seems that the statements behind this concept are what truly rest at the heart of the work. The biblical story of Lot’s wife at the very beginning of the novel already begins to present what this story will attempt to get at: “And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human” (21-22). The fact that people are not supposed to look back implies a structuring of time as well as an intrinsic desire in human beings. Human beings want to look back and revisit, figuratively, the past- to extract meaning and explanation. But being unstuck deconstructs this conventional, very human concept of time and space.
Tralfamadorian novels put forth a view of time that is very different from that of human beings. “There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time” (88). Unlike human beings who attempt to see life and meaning in fragments, the Tralfamadorians take life and time all at once and intact. One of my favorite moments comes early on in the novel when the author expresses this view in relation to death. For human beings, death is the ultimate stop on time. But this notion of being unstuck shows us how death is not something that should be sad. We mourn those we loved, but what are we mourning? Poor old high school teacher, Edgar Derby dies, will die, and always has died after stealing a tea pot. But he is not lost. In this case, death is not an end because we exist always in all moments, including our death. But as human beings, we want to see life in terms of beginnings and ends.
Free will in regard to being unstuck in time is also a strange concept to human beings. As human beings, we assume that we have free will and that we may enact our will accordingly. But, upon his abduction, the Tralfamadorians explain to Billy that human beings are the only kind to ever even speak of free will- and would not even recognize this concept had it not been for Earthlings (86). I think Vonnegut’s voice really comes through here. This moment in the novel reminded me of our discussion of free will in Candide. Voltaire’s work allowed us to recognize our free will as human beings, to recognize our ability to shape our lives and our world. But here, with Vonnegut, Billy Pilgrim is often acted upon. Free will suggests culpability. By being acted upon, however, one is free from responsibility.
Although he is unstuck in time and able to experience all moments of his life at random time travels, he does not get to decide when or where he will travel. I did, however, consistently see a connection in his trips. Trips would often take him to a moment that was similar to the moment he had previously been involved in. (I do not know if this may be a bit of a stretch but) I also found significance in Billy Pilgrim’s bed. His vibrating bed with the magical fingers literally worked on Billy- and Valencia for that matter. Even when he wanted to rest and retire to his bed, Billy was acted upon. When he was away from home, he still put money in the bed he had and enjoyed the external workings of the vibrations. The constant use of “so it goes” by the author also suggests a kind of passivity.
The question of “why me?” comes up in the novel as well (with the Tralfamadorians and their abductees-Billy and Montana- and the German guard on page 91). I think this question is a very human one. It expresses the desire for explanation and for answers or reasons. But Vonnegut shows us, by having Billy Pilgrim unstuck in time, that we are always all the moments in our lives. The past is the present and so is the future. Free will is a foreign concept. Rather than revisiting, we should recognize that the moments in our lives are very much with us.

Humanism and Fatalism

One of the initial things that amazed me about “Slaughterhouse – Five” was just how much Vonnegut was able to cram into what is a really a pretty short novel. In coming up with discussion questions for the novel, I found myself easily rattling off question after question, trying to unravel Vonnegut’s dense satiric web of a man’s fractured life after witnessing atrocities of World War II. Of course, this is very common for postmodern novels, often leaving the question of where one would even start when attempting to start discussion. Since the book is structured very uniquely, it might seem best to start there. Here we have a novel written as if it is a Tralfamadorian novel using the fourth dimension: “Each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message – describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other [. . .] What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time” (88). Certainly as the plot dictates, the story should jump back and forth through time, because this is the way Billy experiences time, or so he claims. However, there is certainly more to it than that, and one of the reasons seems to be that for the most part, Billy’s wartime experiences are told chronologically. Every once in a while, there will be a flash towards a different time during the war, but in general, the book follows Billy from his wandering experiences with Weary to the labor camps to the firebombing of Dresden. Flashes to the rest of his life and his Tralfamadore experiences occur out of order and at random, but his wartime experiences don’t.
The question this raises is does Vonnegut share the fatalistic beliefs of the Tralfamadorians, that everything is predestined and that one should only focus on the happy parts of life? I certainly don’t think so, and it seems Vonnegut’s inclusion of the serenity prayer in the text gives us insight into his own beliefs. To a certain extent, Vonnegut makes it clear that some things may be predetermined, as one will naturally live out their life one must inevitably face death, and perhaps even something huge and insurmountable as war is unstoppable – it has been happening since the beginning of mankind and probably will continue. However, there are some things that can be changed, and something such as the firebombing of Dresden may be one of those unnecessary, inexcusable things, along with the execution of Edgar Derby at the end of the novel, something that doesn’t occur within the reaches of war, what amounts to essentially murder (over a tea pot). As Vonnegut is a renowned Humanist, a reasonable way to sum up what he might say about such events may be “that humans should be as nice to each other as they can be for the sake of each other’s humanity given the unchangeable passing of time.”

Disconnectedness in 'Slaughterhouse-Five'

Vonnegut's world in Slaughterhouse-Five is completely disconnected from itself, and on purpose. As Katie and Sara have previously argued, this theme of disconnectedness takes many forms to achieve different reactions in the reader. Vonnegut uses this strategy also to illuminate some "difficult truths" about life that had been glossed over, or completely ignored, in traditional literature.

Vonnegut's narrative itself is disrupted, first by his own point of view in Chapter one, which shifts to the third person story of Billy in Chapter two. This style is disorienting to a reader who is used to first, second or third person only. Vonnegut also warns of his story, "This one is a failure, and it had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt" (22). Vonnegut openly admits the inability to fully capture a narrative in retrospect. His encounters with the Tralfamadorians and the things he learns from them about life are an (at the very least) interesting alternative to more traditional, religious views.

In addition to Vonnegut's first person introduction, the story within a story, or the story of Billy Pilgrim, is inherently disconnected by his ability to be "unstuck in time" (23). This ability allows Billy to float in between events in his life freely and above chronological order. This shows the disconnectedness one can feel about life itself; that certain events are more influential than others. Obviously Vonnegut suggests Dresden is the pinnacle event in Billy's life-- he keeps coming back to those moments in time when he was involved in World War II. This piece also works as an anti-war novel, highlighting the disconnectedness of events in life and relating this back to the absurdity of events during wartime.

Vonnegut takes this theme even further by not only disconnecting each event chronologically, but also in the types of events themselves. Billy has normal, everyday life experiences, but some are atypical enough to throw off readers of Slaughterhouse-Five. Billy's experiences during his own infancy, as well as events on board an alien spacecraft, are intermingled with wartime narrative events. The variation between the kinds of experiences Billy has demonstrate the diverse nature of life as well as its various degrees of meaning.

Though disorienting at first, readers can get accustomed to Vonnegut's style and experience a truly new way of narration. If Slaughterhouse-Five can be seen the way it was envisioned, this fantastical story can be read as serious, comic and everything-in-between. This story suggests a redefinition of life, and what it truly means.

A Drunken State of Mind

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter-House Five is a novel packed with absurd things. Vonnegut captures the story of Billy Pilgrim with a sense of humor that is so complex, that you aren’t quite sure you should be even laughing. The novel describes the life of Billy Pilgrim and his state of being “unstuck in time”. Although this technique can be tricky to read, Vonnegut places us in Billy’s perspective and forces us to become “unstuck”.

At first when I was thinking of what to analyze, I was going to look at Billy’s job as an optometrist, finding it ironic that Billy wants to help correct the way people see, by prescribing them new lenses and frames, but right before I sat down to write this I read a quote that my friend had on her profile.

“And it starts, sometime around midnight.Or at least that’s when you lose yourselffor a minute or two.As you stand, under the bar lights.And the band plays some songabout forgetting yourself for a while.” – Airborn Toxic Event

This quote made me think that maybe Billy’s concept of being “unstuck” came from drinking because like the song implies, drinking helps you “lose yourself” and helps you “forget”. In Billy’s case, I feel that he tends to get lost in his past.

Let me try to explain my reasoning for this absurd thought, at the beginning of the novel Vonnegut starts off with stating “I have this disease late at night sometimes, involving alcohol and the telephone” (4). Vonnegut then goes into his discussion about how he drunk dials friends he hasn’t heard from in awhile. This concept really resonated with the idea that maybe Billy’s idea of the simultaneity of events from the past, present and future just represent his drunken state and the effects of alcohol on his memory.

It might be a stretch to think this, but Vonnegut opens with multiple references to alcohol which only puts an emphasis on using alcohol as an escape. Even when Vonnegut goes to visit the O’Hare’s there is mention that Bernard couldn’t “drink the hard stuff since the war” (13) and when they reminisce on the past Vonnegut mentions soldiers who were “happy and drunk” (14). Starting the novel with multiple instances of alcohol really caught my attention.

The fantastical concept of being “unstuck in time” and traveling to Tralfamadore only helps prove my point that Billy must have been on something. I don’t know if I believe Billy to be drunk throughout the novel, but I believe that he may use alcohol as a release allowing him to relive the events of his life. The usage of alcohol helps explain the collage of these drama filled experiences.

I feel that this novel demonstrates the effect of war on people’s perspectives and personalities. If Billy is not under the influence, then in one shape or from Vonnegut is trying to show us that Billy needs a sense of release. These flashbacks could be alcohol induced or just Billy daydreaming and reliving the events of his life. By depicting these events as they happen, Vonnegut puts his audience in the shoes of Billy Pilgrim demonstrating how daydreaming (or drunkenness) presents a whole new world (in this case Tralfamadore) that seems to be real. I think Vonnegut's dramatic play with the fantastical aspects within the story is what makes this novel a great novel.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Tralfamadores and Death

The whole narrative of Slaughterhouse 5 is one of a time warp where Billy constantly jumps from Dresden to Ilium and even to his death since Billy Pilgrim is “stuck in time”. At first it was a bit confusing and then after a while it became a gift in a way in that you never tired of the story since a new era of time was explored every few paragraphs. And despite of all this time jumping there is a very cohesive story about the devastation that is war and about how difficult it is to put words to a massacre (even though Vonnegut does a wonderful job doing so).

In the tradition of our class as one that focuses on banned books, one could point to the final chapter as a moment in which many ban-worthy suggestions are put forth by the all-knowing Tralfamadores.

On Tralfamadore, says Billy Pilgrim, there isn’t much interest in Jesus Christ. The Earthling figure who is most engaging to the Tralfamadorian and, he says, is Charles Darwin-who taught that those who die are meant to die, that corpses are improvements. So it goes.

In the course of the novel, the aliens that Billy says took him at the night of his daughters wedding and had observed him for years. They possessed the ability to see the entire duration of life within some other dimension and thus they had a completely different view upon death since they knew the person to be alive at some other point in the time continuum. It is from them that Billy gets the same ability to see his life as a whole and yet have many varying versions of the here and now.

With all of these elements in consideration it is obvious the first point of controversy in the above quote is the idea of Darwin, who’s Origin of the Species created the evolutionary theory that some Christians find to be an attack on God and the creation theory. Thus this quote drives in the idea of a Godless universe and that a human could be held in higher esteem than the Son of God.

And on a second level, another problem with that quote is the fact that it says the “those who die are meant to die, that corpses are improvements”. In a novel that depicts the utter horror of war it seems not only distasteful to suggest that some are meant to die when we have seen so many senseless ways to die in the massacre at Dresden.

And yet I do not think that the real meaning of the quote is the controversy but rather, a sage-like acceptance that life does and will come to an end no matter what. And then including this quote within the great line of thought of the whole novel, it could mean that perhaps death is indeed a part of life but that a massacre is an unnatural way to die that breaks the natural processes that move humanity forward.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Naivety and Suffering

Trying to find a connection between Voltaire’s “Candide” and my service experience at Govan’s has been especially more difficult than it normally is – perhaps this is because I haven’t been over there quite recently (last week was a professional development day), but there also seems to be such a wide difference between the experiences of the first graders learning basic math and the 18th century French story of a world traveler. The two experiences seem so distant and unlike, yet at a very basic level they share commonalities: both Candide and my first graders are constantly in a learning environment, being challenged to think in new ways, both have certainly felt some sort of suffering (as have all people), but most importantly they both share a certain sense of naivety about the world around them, the first graders simply because of their age and lack of experience, and Candide because of his firm beliefs in optimism and the words of Pangloss. Of course, this sense of naivety is much different, almost because of this sense of optimism that runs Candide’s life. In order to have this sense of optimism about the world on a greater scale, one must already be at a level where one realizes and thinks about the greater world on a scale besides how the world relates only to the self. By the first grade this type of thinking hasn’t really developed yet – emotions come and go as they please, and the children take life almost as if second by second. If they are happy, then they are living in the best of all possible worlds, but if they are sad, then they are living in the worst of all possible worlds.
Of course, for Voltaire, the naivety of Candide exists to serve his satirical purposes: by portraying violence and suffering in the world so bluntly through the eyes of one who cannot comprehend why this suffering exists, the suffering stands out even more, and the eventual disillusionment of the title character becomes a profound statement about philosophy in the real world. In a sense, this disillusionment is something that all humans go through during the course of one’s life, and one that parallels the growth of the children I am working with. Much like Candide eventually learns that his preconceived philosophical notions may be wrong, so too the first graders will eventually begin realizing that they do not exist as the center of the universe and that a greater world exists outside of themselves. It also reflects questions that most people struggle with daily, especially those who are especially religious: why does suffering exist? Why would an all-powerful, all-loving God allow this? In finding different ways to answer this question, many are left confused and inevitably struggle, questioning their faith in the process.
Although Voltaire leaves the question of how to accept this suffering somewhat ambiguous, saying only that one should “cultivate his garden,” there seems to be a clear connection between his answer and a fundamental principle of Japanese ethics: in that the question of philosophy shouldn’t be why suffering exists, but rather begin with an acceptance of that suffering. Whether Voltaire is advocating another specific philosophy by saying one should “cultivate his garden,” such as the ethics of labor in keeping one’s mind off of suffering, or if he is advocating pessimism as an alternative to optimism isn’t completely certain, but either way begins with an acceptance of suffering as a requirement, rather than asking why it exists. As I read the short novel and interpreted Voltaire’s philosophy, I found myself seeing in the work an actual denial of philosophy, or almost a refusal by Voltaire to subscribe to any philosophy in lieu of just living life and dealing with it as it comes. One may call this a philosophy in itself, but it is an anti-philosophy in a way, it is a way of living life rather than vainly trying to explain or understand it, a way of thinking that I personally have found attractive in my own philosophical “journey.” Although Voltaire might have been proposing this, it could be any number of things, which is why I feel he left the ending somewhat ambiguous, almost so that the reader takes out of it something different, so that they formulate their own beliefs about the world rather than simply subscribe to Voltaire’s, a mistake that I’m sure Voltaire would find as grave as Candide blindly following the beliefs of Pangloss.

The Best of All Possible Worlds?

In Candide, Voltaire satirizes both philosophy and religion relentlessly. Within the first quarter of the novel, countless jokes are made with respect to “effects and causes” (5), “sufficient reason” (8), and the concept that Candide’s world is “the best of worlds” (11). Though philosophy is central to the novel – and thus to Candide’s character – it is rarely portrayed in a positive light. Indeed, from the very first page, philosophy is mocked. Candide’s philosophy instructor Pangloss is described as a “professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology” (1). This term is clearly nonsensical and implies that the profession is infused with a kind of absurdity. Here, Voltaire immediately takes away from the legitimacy of the profession. Shortly following this statement, he writes that Dr. Pangloss was found “giving a lesson in experimental natural philosophy to her mother’s chamber-maid” (2). That is, he is found having sex with the chamber-maid. During Voltaire’s time, philosophers strove to transcend worldly pleasures and concern themselves only with love of knowledge. Here, Voltaire’s dry humor suggests the presence of hypocrisy within the profession.

Voltaire likewise mocks religion early in Candide. Upon reaching Holland, a land the reader is told is filled with “Christians,” Candide experiences only coldness and unfriendliness. At last, one man asks him “‘My friend … do you believe the Pope to be the Anti-Christ?’” (6). Candide apparently responds incorrectly, stating “‘I have not heard it’” (6). Because of this, the man refuses to help him. Indeed, the “Christians” in Holland behave rather un-Christianly in the modern sense of the term. They are selfish and, in fact, mean. Not until he meets the Anabaptist James does Candide find charity. That James, a member of a heretical religious sect, behaves more like a Christian than do the actual Christians is rather controversial. Additionally, James offers perhaps the most accurate representation of humanity. He says “‘It is more likely … mankind have a little corrupted nature, for they were not born wolves, and they have become wolves’” (9). This seems far closer to the truth as Candide experiences it than Pangloss’ idea of “the best of all possible worlds” (1).

Interestingly, though James and Pangloss represent opposing trains of thought, Voltaire kills them both. James drowns in the Bay of Lisbon attempting to save one of his sailors while Pangloss is hung in Portugal. Pangloss’ death, though sad because Candide cared for him, is perhaps a sign that his philosophy is flawed. This is somewhat comforting because, like Candide, the reader has trouble believing that the world of the book is the “best of all possible worlds.” James’ death is more discouraging because he is one of the truly good characters in the tale. Voltaire suggests, in killing James, that acting like a Christian often comes at a price. To remain “safe” one must behave like the “Christians” in Holland.

As I mentioned in class a few weeks ago, one of the students I tutor is not allowed to read the Harry Potter books because they possess potentially controversial implications for religion. In his words, “Harry Potter is about witchcraft.” Though not necessarily accurate, his statement reveals that religion remains an issue for readers today. Where readers in the past might have avoided Candide because of how harshly Voltaire critiques philosophy and religion, my student avoids the Harry Potter books because of its implications for religion. I personally think that Harry Potter actually promotes Christian ideals (rather than “witchcraft”) and that Voltaire, in satirizing the dominant philosophy and theology of his time, comes closer to the truth. Yet that these novels were and are so intimidating proves how significant a role religion plays in daily life.

Who wants to win the most miserable person contest?

The rapid-fire pace of the action in Voltaire’s Candide is anchored by intermittent existentialist-heavy questions and poignantly human moments.  In a story with an ultimately optimistic message, Voltaire creates incredibly jaded characters to challenge the persistent pluck and rose-colored-glasses outlook of hero Candide.  The philosopher Martin—winner of the ‘most miserable soul on this boat’ competition—is a standout among the cynics.  Instead of sticking to safe, new-acquaintance topics of conversation, Martin extends his perspective of bleak social truths to Candide: that the poor inevitably bear bitter resentment toward the rich, human envy poses the most ardent threat to the status quo, and ultimately, “private griefs are still more dreadful than public calamities” (82).  The placement of this sunny sentiment within the narrative is somewhat conspicuous—it occurs just pages after Candide is ‘thrown into a deep melancholy’ after the Dutch magistrate and Mynheer Vanderdendur successfully swindle fifty thousand piastres from him, putting him in an appropriately disillusioned state of mind to mindlessly pour more piastres into the impromptu ‘most miserable person’ contest.  His grief is profound enough for Voltaire to covertly enter the narrative with bold unequivocal statements: “…treatment completed Candide’s despair,” despite it being “true that he had suffered misfortunes a thousand times more grevious” (79).

            The episode is latent with a pretty profound truth: misfortune is easier to swallow when attributed to pure bum luck or broad circumstances.  When it gets personal, it sticks.  The events of a recent memorable morning at Govans Elementary serve as proof of this human truth. I was asked to help three fourth-grade girls—I’ll call them S, Y and T—with a homework assignment.  Easy, I thought, since a glance at the assignment told me that I had fortunately retained knowledge of rounding to the nearest tens, hundreds, and thousands place from my own elementary school days. 

            Oh, how wrong I was. Personal grasp of the material was a highly ineffective gauge of success for that tutoring session.  It soon became clear that the three girls, aside from differing in their respective understandings of the lesson, showed remarkably distinct attitudes toward the task of completing the work.  S was way ahead of the other two in terms of her understanding and kept asking me, politely but persistently, “Is this right?” Y covertly stole glances at S’s work and continued to do so even after I called her out on it by covering S’s paper with my hand.  But T was by far my most challenging tutee.  Frustrated at my unwillingness to devote my attention fully to her and her alone, she quickly quit working on assigned problems and wrote the word “CRY” in her notebook, which she proceeded to thrust in my line of vision, warning me of events to come.  It was unclear whether ‘cry’ that followed was more a result of frustration with the confusing new lesson or simply a cry for attention.  I left her to it for a while, as my own attention was under duress as it was between S and Y.  When I asked T if she’d be interested in returning to the task at hand, she became emotionally distraught about S and Y already being done the assignment.  Y helped me encourage her that these fears were unfounded—in reality, neither S nor Y was completely finished, with Y’s paper noticeably less complete than S’s.  T then did the most heartbreaking thing of all: she began to repeatedly insist that she was “too stupid” to do the work.  My efforts to reassure her that not only was she not stupid, but that I also get frustrated and lose patience when presented with challenging new concepts, did little to revive her spirit.

            If Candide proves one thing, it is that attitude is everything.  By the end, Candide’s experiences have tempered his attitude toward society: he no longer views the world with indiscriminate trust, but he stays removed from the ‘grand question’ of the human condition debated in the final pages.  The adage ‘if you play with fire, you’re going to get burned’ seems to neatly sum up Martin’s final musings about man living “either in the convulsions of misery, or in the lethargy of boredom” (127). The idea is perhaps summed up best in the statement, “There is pleasure in having no pleasure” (111—and again, Martin). Martin’s persistent cynicism seems to take on a clear theme, consistent with his own personally affronted attitude toward the misfortunes that have befallen him in life. Read in light of what the other characters suffer, his woes of losing his comfortable but tedious job, and getting robbed & beaten by his own family seem rather pale in comparison, which Voltaire makes a deliberate point of attention: “It must be acknowledged that the other competitors were at least as wretched as he” (80).  It seems that Voltaire would encourage us readers and the fourth-grade T to enter the fray, knowing full well that getting hurt to some extent is inevitable.  Our best defense against the lingering sting of “private griefs” is an acknowledgment that the world does not revolve around us personally.  With this in mind, we may, like Candide, foster a clear world-view unclouded by blind optimism or self-pitying pessimism.

The Power of Perspectives

My first month of service learning at Govans Elementary School has seemed to be quite uneventful, especially since I only last week started working directly with the students. Until this past week, I have been photocopying alphabet workbooks and folding papers into reading books, all of which felt like the opposite of what a service learning experience should feel like. I did not really think of my position in front of the copying machine of the teacher’s lounge as important or as the least bit educational, although I did feel that in one aspect I was helping out a teacher with her busy work. However, in light of Voltaire’s Candide, I see some of the educational aspects behind my weekly two hours at Govans, mainly in my interpretations of the conversations of the variety of faculty members. Like the characters of Candide and representative of the many different kinds of people and their world perspectives, the faculty members appear to me to invoke a number of the philosophies touched upon in the book, ranging from Candide and Pangloss’s optimism to Martin’s pessimism. Instead of traveling the world to comprehend what Candide learns by the end of his journeys, I merely stood in front of a machine situated directly in front of the faculty lunch table and listened to the different ways that certain teachers view their job and the Govans students.
Not knowing what to expect when I first set foot in the room, I was shocked to hear some of the teacher’s remarks regarding the students. A group of teachers openly conversed about the lack of intelligence of their seven year old students, directly calling out certain students and their particular classroom disabilities. Although this conversation seemed very unethical, more and more teachers joined in, some even attributing the “stupidity” of the students to their “thug”-like parents. Instead of talking about ways that they could aid in the progression of the students, the teachers just sat around and complained first about the students and then about their own lives, proving the point in Candide that everyone has something to complain about, no matter how trivial. I deduced from their conversation that the teachers are generally unhappy with their own lives and jobs and unfortunately take it out upon their students, furthering their own conclusions that the students are products of poor environments.
Most of the rounds of lunch groups proved very similar to the first, with new teachers entering the lounge and expressing complaints towards certain students that acted out. However, some teachers stood out as somewhat optimists amongst the group of seemingly pessimists. One teacher (the music teacher) actually countered one of the teacher’s complaints with a personal anecdote of how to respond to certain forms of disobedience, a lesson he learned from his own experiences with his children. This funny yet refreshing anecdote actually helped lighten the mood in the lounge, allowing for others to provide their own forms of input as to how the one teacher could reverse the disobedience of some of her students. The one music teacher added more depth to the conversation than any of the others, proving that an open-minded perspective and sense of individualism are way more important that following the crowd or adhering to one philosophical principle over another. While the numbers of gossiping teachers represent the many characters of Candide that fall to the philosophies, beliefs, and therefore attitudes of a distinct social group, the one teacher that dared to stand out could represent simply humanity and the power of the individual.
As for my own perspective of Govans, last week I finally got a chance to work directly with a small group of students and develop my own opinions to compare with those of the faculty members. In the first hour, after working with three students who needed more practice with numbers and counting, I realized that the teachers’ opinions and remarks towards the children were highly unnecessary, that the students tend to treat whoever is working with them with as much respect as is shown to them. Like the character of Cacambo, the students represent an open-minded loyalty to their teachers that may stem from their inexperience but definitely shows something about their youthful ability to work as individuals and view the classroom in many different lights. I was able to see the range of perspectives and their individual characteristics in the way that the kindergarten students approached play time. Unlike the teachers of the lounge, the students embraced their atmosphere and were able to play and work together in a way that suggested that their lack of a philosophy proves beneficial. Although not a kindergarten student, I feel like I can relate to the students and Candide in my attempts to adopt a more open-minded view of different people and places so as not to end up like the book’s characters—in a state of disillusionment at the failure of a certain perspective.
After comparing my experiences to Voltaire’s Candide, I can see why the book would have been banned, especially since it directly targets and mocks certain social groups and historical events and peoples. However, I think Voltaire somewhat keeps it fair in that he mocks every character and every philosophy, proving that no true philosophy really exists and that there is no perfect world (except for the fictional El Dorado); his use of exaggeration and emphasis of the faults of each character proves this theory. The fact that the teachers at Govans represent some of the fictional characters of Candide proves that his created people are at the same time exaggerated and truthful, that despite the emphasis on their individual philosophies they still represent people that Voltaire may have known or analyzed. Almost every one can relate to one or more of the philosophies of the characters described, adding to Voltaire’s argument that these beliefs really do, on lesser scales, exist.
The ending chapter with the idea of “cultivating the garden” proves to be both sad and realistic, for although one would like to think that this end is the solution for those who have given up hope, it is a solution that people in our society embrace all too often. Relating back to Govans, many of the teachers who complained about their jobs did not talk about making any changes in their work style or even changing jobs in general. Instead, they all resorted to continuing on with their unsatisfying choice of work, mimicking the ending of Candide and the hopelessness of the characters. Although Voltaire ends with this image of the garden, I do not think that he necessarily wants people to live their lives like Candide and his friends. I see the ending to be a kind of warning as to what can happen when one lets philosophies and the disillusionment that stems from the faults of these philosophies to take over. In this sense Voltaire ultimately does not tell the reader how to live or what to believe but just proves that the world is full of different perspectives that begin to have a bigger impact over actions than one’s own humanity. Voltaire leaves the ending ambiguous, allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions as to what is the right way of going about things. Such an open-ended result may, in the past, have been deemed controversial, but actually makes for an interesting read for those who, like me, are trying to develop an individual world perspective amongst a sea of different philosophies.

Setting Standards

            Throughout the text I couldn’t help but notice the amount of superstition present as well as the justification for when misfortune occurs.   It seems as though Pangloss has made his career by telling those who will listen that “all is for the best” and therefore unexpected occurrences should essentially be taken with a grain of salt.

            During one of Pangloss’ sessions with Candide, he immediately teaches him this lesson.  Pangloss claims, “there is no effect without a cause” and “things cannot be other than what they are, for since everything was made for a purpose, it follows that everything is made for the best purpose… It follows that those who maintain that all is right talk nonsense; they ought to say that all is for the best.” (20).  After reading these lines the message of them seemed to stick with me.  It seems that in our society this is the message we preach to others in order to have the same positive effect that Pangloss wished for. 

            Last year, I was a substitute teacher.  Some of the schools I was in were at an obvious disadvantage than others.  When actually in the classroom it seemed as though some students had a mindset that they didn’t have to work hard because regardless of how hard they did work it wouldn’t matter.  It seemed as though a great deal of these students lack of effort was based on the notion that they would never amount to anything anyways, because no one in their families had or no one they were friends with had, and so it wouldn’t matter and they were okay with that.

            After talking to a teacher who worked in one of the schools I subbed in I realized that with the “No Child Left Behind” mandate in place universal testing would be in place throughout counties.  Test scores determined how funding would be dispersed; an immediate red flag popped up in my head.  In my opinion if test scores are how they are going to determine the budget than the schools that have lower scores should receive more funding in order to attempt to better the atmosphere or supplies that are available to the students, not the other way around. 

            While spending my time in the copy room at Govan’s one afternoon, I overheard a teacher talking to another about how a mother had moved to Baltimore County yet preferred her son/daughter remain attending Govan’s, a city school, because she had gone there.  The teachers were perplexed as well as angry, they knew that the “blue ribbon county school”, as one of them called it, would be able to provide a better experience than the city school they work for.  Obviously, there are a lot of issues that I do not see in my two hours a week session, however, I will admit that I was guilty of assuming things about the school and when I actually got there I realized every single classroom had a smart board and three classrooms that I have seen have aids for the room that are not paired with a specific child.  With that said, it seems as though the reputation that has been set by city versus county schools has to a degree made success or failure satisfactory amongst the staff as well as the students. 

Happiness tied fo function

I have to confess that my first introduction to “Candide” was, like many things are in my life, through music. I played the overture to Bernstein’s “Candide” before I knew it was a book (though not before I knew who Voltaire was, in my defense). So after multiple viewings of the overture on YouTube and a few of poor Cunegonde’s struggle in Paris as she is “forced to glitter and be gay,” I finally moved from a fun piece of music to a fun piece of literature.

One aspect of all the misfortune that befalls every single character that is important is just that—no one is safe, and every person Candide encounters has a story of losing limbs, witnessing murder, etc. It’s just as the “old woman” says to them on their ship from Spain to America, “ask each passenger to tell you his story, and if you find a single one who hasn’t often cursed his life, who hasn’t often told himself that he was the most miserable man in the world, you can throw me overboard head first.” Though many of the characters often remind me of gloomy adolescents enjoying their suffering, the suffering isn’t without reason, and no character is naïve enough to believe that he/she is the only one suffering.

Though Voltaire’s “Candide” is filled with heavy criticism of every aspect of European and American life, it does have a fairly satisfying ending not completely plagued by disaster. Voltaire seems to take the Aristotelian view that man is happiest when he is succeeding at doing something. For the most part, Candide himself is an extremely passive character, more reacting to what happens to him and following the suggestions of others than doing anything of his own accord. Picking up Cunegonde’s handkerchief was perhaps one of the last things he did without prodding from someone else. He maintains throughout his whole life that this is the best of all possible worlds, even after remarks to the pessimistic Martin such as, “How right you are, my dear Martin! Life is nothing but illusions and calamities!”

The ending, for me, reminded me of my grandfather. “Man was not born to be idle.” My “Papi” (who is not my father, but I call him that because as a child I didn’t understand the concept of different relationships, so I called him what my mother called him), is eighty-seven years old, and probably my hero. He was a carpenter by profession and a self-taught but extremely talented guitarist. My earliest memories include him next to my grandmother, singing me a song on my birthday. He spends his time doing one of three things: building, playing, sleeping. Literally. Most of his time is spent either at my piano or sitting with a guitar in his lap, usually with no music in front of him, playing my favorite things to listen to. His dedication astounds me. Long after I’ve grown bored of staring at music at the piano, my grandfather plunks out notes and chords on a whim, attempting to explain to me in broken English what he’s doing. As a teenager, I was a brat about this and rolled my eyes whenever he’d try to teach me how the play the guitar (still not sure why he thought bossa nova was a good starting place for a beginner, though), but now I really enjoy that time spent with him.

One day I asked my mom what I could do to make my grandpa happier, since he seemed to be so bored around the house. She said just being with me and an instrument or a CD makes him happy. I guess that’s what, for him, “keeps [him] free of three great evils: boredom, vice, and poverty,” and it’s something that everyone has to find for him or herself.

And if you’re interested… here’s a song by my grandparents :)

Track 01 -

     Voltaire masterfully uses satire throughout Candide, juxtaposing extremes and extreme people—like Pangloss and Martin—to make a very pointed mockery of philosophy. It seems that Voltaire finds philosophy and similar studies pretty useless; Voltaire seems to be asking, as Mary titled her post, “What does it matter?” Time and time again, he shows the ridiculous situations philosophers get themselves into and the even more ridiculous ways in which they try to philosophize their experiences to make them fit some teaching, rather than allowing their experiences to direct their philosophies. This molding of experience to fit pre-existing philosophy also makes Voltaire’s characters particularly unwilling to take much action, but rather allow “the best of all possible worlds” act for them.

     Voltaire puts this corruption of philosophy quite concretely throughout Candide. We are constantly shown scenes like the following, from p. 81:

“Well, my dear Pangloss,” said Candide… “when you had been hanged, dissected, whipped,
and were tugging at the oar, did you always think that everything happens for the best?”
“I am still of my first opinion,” answered Pangloss, “for I am a philosopher and I cannot retract, especially as Leibnitz could never be wrong…”

     These characters, particularly Pangloss, are simply unwilling to change their beliefs, even when it has become apparent that their experiences negate the philosophy they have been taught. Candide, too, suffers this fault; until the last page of the book, he optimistically hopes that all is for the best in a child-like manner, yet will not do anything to ensure the best for himself.

     It seems that Voltaire’s major characters are by-and-large inactive people full of hot air—the only thing they seem to know how to do is talk in stories and complicated circles. Similarly, they have things done to them rather than doing things for themselves (e.g. Pangloss is hanged, sold off to slavery, etc. and is only free when Candide finally takes action). The moral of the book reflects this issue: Candide declares on the final page, “we must cultivate our garden.” (To which Pangloss responds, as though he’d know it all along, “You are right … for when man was first placed in the Garden of Eden, he was put there … that he might cultivate it; which shows us that man was not born to be idle.”)

     To connect this book to what we’ve read so far—and what seems to catch my eye in every book—I think Voltaire is criticizing what we consider knowledge and education. Everything else we’re read has, in some way, commented upon this, as well. I think that in all of these banned books, one of the most subversive ideas presented is that formal education alone is not going to lead to success; experiential knowledge, gained from actually living in and engaging with the world, is the most important element in our “education.”

     For Voltaire, it is not enough to be taught philosophies. The original philosophers gained their knowledge through experience of the world, yet the secondary and tertiary philosophers he presents us with—like Pangloss and Candide, who have gained their philosophical knowledge only from the works of other philosophers—have removed themselves from experience of the world.
     Similarly, it is not enough for Mark Twain that one merely memorize and call such a thing learning. Instead, he presents Huck Finn, a boy who takes nothing a face value; he questions everything he is taught, including the largely untouchable tenets of Christianity. However, Huck Finn lacks much formal knowledge; Twain isn’t showing us a perfect model of education, but it seems clear that experiential knowledge overtakes his lack of formal training.

     I think Fr. Kolvenbach put it most succinctly when he said: “When the heart is touched by direct experience, the mind may be challenged to change.” This is true for Huck Finn, and ultimately, it is true for Candide, as well. Before the book opens, Candide has known nothing but life inside of his castle, his proverbial Eden. He has been taught the best philosophy from a respectable mentor, but he has never questioned his teaching. Only after he is expelled from his Eden does he encounter the world, and even then, it is not generally of his own volition. By the last page, however, he has thoroughly experienced the tragedies of the world and questioned his optimistic philosophical education, and has made his first original reflection: “we must cultivate our garden.”

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Criticism: Destroying Art

Voltaire’s Candide addresses the concept of beauty. When Candide is amazed by the beauty within the play he cries. To his surprise a critic states: “Your tears are misplaced; that is a shocking actress; the actor who plays with her is yet worse; and the play is still worse than the actors” (57). By placing the critic in Candide, Voltaire demonstrates the annoyance of criticism on art and the parasitic role it plays on others.

Candide’s personal view of beauty is challenged; therefore the art becomes less important and the argument becomes the focus. I believe that Voltaire used this scene as a disclaimer, stating that with criticism comes a removal of pleasure within the art and he utilized this scene to prevent that from happening to his work. The critique beats up the art and its meaning, so pleasure is placed on pause while the audience is battling out on the meaning found within the art.

This then helps me move into my next point that art helps demonstrate free will and the formulation of unique interpretations. However, with this sense of criticism comes a “right” answer. Voltaire’s writing helps demonstrate that the art is more important than the “right” answer. The scene with Candide and the critic demonstrates everything Voltaire hoped wouldn’t happen to his art, Candide. However, the direct opposite happened when his novella was banned (kind of ironic?).

This reminded me of my service-learning at Education Based Latino Outreach, EBLO. Last week at EBLO, my service-learning (for my other class), the teacher I was working with told me that Carmen’s mother did not speak English. Given the name EBLO, I knew that for most of the children English was a second language, but I found Carmen’s case very interesting. Carmen was the best at reading and spelling in her class. To find out that her parents did not speak English astounded me. Carmen told me that she would take books out from the library to practice before she went to bed.

The concept of beauty came to my mind because Carmen loved this one book “Smelly Socks”, and because the other girls in the class were not on the same reading level they weren’t able to read it without assistance. So instead of asking Carmen what her favorite book was about, they just made fun of her and told her that it was a “boy’s book”. This experience made me see what other’s opinions could do to a little girl.

Just because the other girls didn’t think Smelly Socks was a good book, Carmen decided that she was going to change her favorite book to one the other girls liked. It hurt me to see this because Carmen enjoys reading, and I know that she appreciated the humor within Smelly Socks and to Carmen books were an escape for her, and these little girls (mini critics) put a damper on her book (art).

Voltaire’s Candide demonstrates the power of free will and the effect of criticism on the pleasure of art. I believe Voltaire placed the scene in the playhouse to say “don’t critique my work, just embrace it for what it is, otherwise the art behind it is lost”. I agree with that completely, because not only does criticism take away from the art it interferes with the overall purpose. People should acknowledge the works of art and see the beauty before the art gets subject to critics.


Voltaire writes, “Do you believe…that men have always massacred each other as they do to-day, that they have always been liars, cheats, traitors, ingrates, brigands, idiots, thieves, scoundrels, gluttons, drunkards, misers, envious, ambitious, bloody-minded, calumniators, debauchees, fanatics, hypocrites, and fools? Do you believe…that hawks have always eaten pigeons when they have found them? ...if hawks have always had the same character why should you imagine that men may have changed theirs? Oh!...there is a vast deal of difference, for free will---” (55).
Under the influence of Dr. Pangloss, a philosopher, Candide (sent out into the world) seeks to find that our world is “the best of all possible worlds.” He wants Pangloss to be proven right even when he suffers great pains and set backs. But as Candide, and ultimately Pangloss, come to learn, the free will of man shapes not only his life, but all lives he comes into contact with. Free will is equated with power, and Voltaire’s writing is at first satirical and entertaining, yet instructive as well.
Candide’s engagement in and with the world throughout his tumultuous adventures has afforded him clarity and understanding. Once he has ransomed his friends and settles in Turkey, Candide realizes that the best thing one can do is to cultivate his or her own garden. Mankind is not meant to remain idle. If all members of a community work to cultivate their own gardens, society and the community will prosper overall. The question at hand is not whether man has free will, but what he is to make of it. Free will should therefore be utilized in a collaborative manner in order to work towards the betterment of all.
To cultivate a garden and work in the earth presents the opportunity to play God. The gardener must attend to his crops, and the fruition of the crops relies directly upon the gardener’s will. It is up to the gardener to nurture and care for his crops. But if human beings are the plants in a larger “garden,” we differ from the plants we tend to in our own. Human beings have free will and may deviate from some set fate or predestination. Divine providence is a prevalent theme throughout Voltaire’s work. And Candide’s recognition that the best thing to do is to cultivate one’s own garden signifies his understanding of the free will of human beings. If God exists, human beings co create with him. We have choice as well as the potential to enact change in the world we live in; human beings have a cognitive understanding of the inherent power in our free will.
This work reminds me of many instances in my own life. While I cannot say that I have suffered any extreme events such as the ones our characters face, I have seen-both abroad and at home-how one’s experiences in and with the world may shape and even alter one’s perception or understanding of it. At home, my family is very much into gardening. My mother plants flowers and helps in the garden, but my father particularly takes an interest in working in the garden with my younger sister. I have personally noticed the difference and contrast that gardening presents to his work life. When he comes home after a day in the office, gardening is something that presents a release. It is easy to feel controlled at both work and school, to feel like we have no free will at all. We are expected and made to work, to not deviate from a position or occupation. But gardening allows us to exercise and express our free will in ways we forget we can. We get to play God and take care of something that relies on us completely. The decisions of our free will, how we choose to use it, will directly affect our garden. A garden may also be quite personal. Everyone will have his or her own method or way of approaching gardening. The expression of individual free will will then be visibly indicated by the actual garden.
I have seen this as well in my own life. An elderly man and his elderly daughter are neighbors of ours. I think that their garden means even more to them because of their age and decreased ability to do some of the other things they used to be able to do. The daughter has also been sick her entire life and suffers from muscle control problems. She has not lived a typical life, but enjoys her gardening a great deal. Her interaction with my dad through a shared love of gardening has also brought her joy. There is no doubt that I will see her either standing by the fence or in my backyard talking with my dad and giving him gardening advice on a given day in the summertime. I feel bad for her when I see her just standing in the front of her house or walking up and down the street, but I also admire her passion for gardening. She too has found an outlet for her free will despite her limitations. Through this woman, I have seen how gardening may be either a very independent activity or a very inclusive one that may bring people and a community together. Candide and the reader learn that “the best of all possible worlds” is not something given; rather it is something we must create for ourselves given our free will.


The most striking question from “Candide” was whether to view life optimistically, or to view life as a living hell. In the beginning of the story, Candide looks at life as an amazing gift, and believes the world is perfect. As he journeys through life he is physically and mentally beaten at every turn, and it appears that nothing can go his way. Even upon finally reaching his dream of finding Cungonde, he finds her to be slowly becoming more and more unattractive both inside and out. Through it all, he managed to hold on to his positive outlook on life, until encountering the misery of others, and eventually conceding to life as living hell.

The story made me question whether when forced to choose between looking at life as perfect, or looking at life as completely bad, which was the better option. I found myself frustrated at Candide’s inability to see the negative aspects of the world, but disappointed when he completely surrendered to the idea that life is terrible. When applying this to our current world, I found myself questioning what the students at Cristo Rey High School would say about the world.
Cristo Rey is a high school that only takes students who are living in poverty, and it is a high school that acts as a college prep high school. All of the students are required to do an internship, to give them exposure to the world beyond high school, and to help build their self esteem and professional skills.

My first day at Cristo Rey began with Ms. Hughes asking me to edit a student’s paper. The purpose of the essay was to tell a first person narrative about something that happened in the past. As I began to read the story I was struck by two things; the language and the content. The girl chose to write a story about her grandmother getting very ill, and how terrifying it was, and how difficult it was for her in the hospital. As a ninth grader, I went into the school with the assumption that the students would have an understanding of the past and present tense, but this was not the case. Almost every verb was written in the present tense, but in a sentence with past tense context. I tried to help the student by having her read the sentences out loud. If she couldn’t pick up on the error, I would then point to the verb and ask her if it was in the present or past tense. This seemed to work, and soon she was finding her own errors, and excitedly changing them. The entire time, the girl had a smile on her face, and seemed so excited to be learning and talking to someone about her writing.

I found myself feeling upset, that someone with such a desire to learn, because of their financial situation, or physical location, was not able to get the same level of education as I did. It was amazing to see the drive that some of the student’s had to succeed. I couldn’t help but ask myself if I was growing up in their situation, with the many educational disadvantages, if I would be able to remain positive and hopeful, or if I would look at the world in a constant negative lens at what I did not have.

If I had to choose between looking at life as all bad, or looking at life as all good, I think I would choose to look at life as all good. If you focus on the negative you can succumb to it, and loose hope for a better life. While it is not good to be naive, I still think it is better to be positive. Volunteering is one of the experiences that allows you to find a common ground between these two extremes. It is important to hope for positivity, and do everything you can to insure positivity, but it is also important to be aware of the negative aspects of life, and the struggles that others, as well as yourself face and will have to face in the future.