Sunday, October 25, 2009

"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.

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