Monday, October 26, 2009

"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.

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