Slaughterhouse-Five: The Obscenity of Humanity

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As a soldier in World War II, the author Kurt Vonnegut experienced the bombing of Dresden, Germany, in 1945, while being held in that city as a POW. This one experience seemed to affect Vonnegut significantly during his entire life, as he would return to this topic, writing about it on more than one occasion. His most direct account of this event appears in an undated essay entitled “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets,” in which he vividly describes the physical and psychological destruction he encountered, estimating at the time that more than 130,000 people died in the attack. He also explains how he and the other prisoners were ordered to search for victims in the shattered buildings, extract the bodies, and incinerate the remains. This operation ran smoothly until they began to uncover entire rooms filled with people who seemed not to know what hit them. In an interview just months before his death, Vonnegut compared these victims to people sitting on a tram or a train car. At that point, they had to abort the systematic and humane procedure of removing individual bodies and burning them, using flame-throwers instead in a mass clean-up of the bodies that had begun to liquify. But he also talked about the victims of all ages, covered in rubble up to their shoulders, who appeared to be trying to claw their way out of their shelters as they were dying.

In the time since Vonnegut wrote that essay, the actual body counts have changed, with some researchers estimating that no more than 25,000 people may have died in the two-day allied attacks. However, no matter the actual number, it seems that Vonnegut saw this as an unwarranted attack on a defenseless city, the allied forces’ opportunity to flex their military muscle by targeting a city that played no role in the war, “an open city,” as he called it, with beautiful parks, a zoo, museums, schools, and hospitals. Having fought in World War II, Vonnegut says it was a justifiable war because of the ideals we were fighting to defend. However, he says that the allies made a mistake when they destroyed Dresden.

And even though Vonnegut had such strong feelings about Dresden, he did not finally write his best-known account of this event—the novel Slaughterhouse-Five—until 1968, during this country’s involvement in Vietnam, another war that Vonnegut saw as unnecessary. In chapter one of SH5, Vonnegut says it took so long to complete the book because he could not remember enough of the war to write a substantial novel. Arguably Vonnegut may have had trouble making sense of such destruction, trying to find the words that could clearly convey the horrors he witnessed and acknowledge the people who died during the raid, or perhaps he was struggling with his own demons. Nonetheless, in its finished form, Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s response to Dresden, an anti-war novel that seems “so short and jumbled and jangled…because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre” (19). He even promises Mary O’Hare, his war buddy’s wife, that he will not glorify war in the novel, subtitling it instead “The Children’s Crusade,” in reference to the Crusade of 1212 which was supposed to rid the Holy Land of Muslims. However, instead it was merely an attempt to sell unsuspecting children into slavery, many of whom died at sea. Similarly, many of the victims in WWII were young soldiers blindly marching off to fight and die in someone else’s war.

In the novel’s finished form, Vonnegut does not directly attack the United States and its decision to participate in the bombing of Dresden. Instead, he includes the science fiction sub-plot involving a race of aliens called the Tralfamadorians. Some authors choose this genre to more safely and more indirectly attack their target, and perhaps this was Vonnegut’s intent. However, it is also from the Tralfamadorians that Billy Pilgrim, the novel’s protagonist, claims he learns of the concept of “coming unstuck in time.” According to Billy, the Tralfamadorians can see four dimensions, unlike humans who see only three. The Tralfamadorians can also see into time, and having this ability, they know how life will end, being able to see all moments— past, present, and future—all at the same time. Consequently, they do not believe in free will. In fact they “claim” that Earth is the only planet they have studied where people do believe in free will. When they first “abduct” Billy, he asks them “Why me?” And they reply, “Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is.” Comparing Billy to a bug trapped in amber, his captors say, “Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why” (76-7). This response suggests that everyone is a plaything at the mercy of larger forces in a random universe. Events are determined to happen, and no one can change the outcome. This view of life negates the idea behind the serenity prayer hanging in Billy’s optometry office and around Montana Wildhack’s neck, making it ironic instead. The prayer asks for the wisdom to accept what one cannot change and the courage to change what one can. However, according to the Tralfamadorians, no one, including Billy can change or influence events in their lives. Instead, the Tralfamadorians encourage Billy to do as they do. “There isn’t anything we can do about them (wars), so we simply don’t look at them” they tell Billy. “We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments—like today at the zoo. Isn’t this a nice moment?…That’s one thing earthlings might learn to do if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones” (117). This is just what Billy tries to do, attempting to come to terms with his war experiences.

Although the term Post-Traumatic Distress Syndrome (PTDS) was not coined until the 1970’s as a result of the Vietnam War, the condition dates back at least as far as the early 19th century when soldiers were diagnosed with mental “fatigue.” And although the labels change, the symptoms remain the same, including flashbacks and repeated upsetting memories, such as Billy experiences in Slaughterhouse-Five. Billy also exhibits the avoidance commonly associated with PTDS: emotional ‘numbing,’ or feeling as though you don’t care about anything; feeling detached, being unable to remember important aspects of the trauma, having a lack of interest in normal activities, showing less of your moods; avoiding places, people, or thoughts that remind you of the event; feeling like you have no future (PubMed Health). As a coping strategy for the trauma he experiences during the war, especially the bombing of Dresden, Billy adopts the Tralfamadorians’ credo to focus on only the happy moments in life and ignore the painful memories. Additionally, Billy creates the belief that he comes “unstuck” in time to help him explain his flashbacks and recurring upsetting memories of the war.

Billy no longer lives his life chronologically, as he now repeatedly and uncomfortably sees “his birth and death many times” and as he “pays random visits to all the events in between…Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next” (23).

It seems that Billy cannot escape the horrors of World War II, which is why he constantly revisits those memories from his past. However, to insulate himself from those painful memories, using his experiences and encounters with other people after the war, Billy creates the fictional planet Tralfamadore, where he is on display in a geodesic dome in their zoo. Here in this dome (which one could argue is actually no larger than the inside of his own head), millions of light years from Earth, Billy is safe from humans, whom he refers to as “the terrors of the Universe” (116). In his mind, Billy shares his habitat with the actress Montana Wildhack. He also imagines that they mate, producing a son together, a son who will not know the horrors of war and life on earth as Billy and Montana raise him in this new Eden, a recurring vision for Billy throughout the novel on different occasions when he thinks he comes unstuck in time, an idea that comes to Billy only after learning of the science fiction author Kilgore Trout. Three years after the war, Billy voluntarily enters a Veterans’ Hospital where he shares a room with Eliot Rosewater, another war veteran who has also been traumatized by war, having killed a fourteen-year-old boy whom he mistakes for the enemy. It is Rosewater who introduces Billy to the science fiction writings of Kilgore Trout, who satirically uses this genre to address serious social issues, just as Vonnegut does with this novel. And it is from Trout that Billy gets the idea of traveling through time and space and being able to see into the future. From these seeds grow Billy’s fantastical visions of the Tralfamadorians and the idea of focusing on only life’s happy moments in order to cope with his grief and silent weeping.

Removing himself from the normal flow of time, Billy is able to revisit the past (whether he wants to or not) without being able to change history. However, in his mind, he is able to watch certain events in reverse, returning the world to a more innocent time. At one point, on the night of his daughter’s wedding, Billy watches a World War II film in reverse. He sees the planes flying backwards over their targets, retrieving the bombs they have dropped and restoring the people and buildings below. He then imagines watching the planes return to their bases where people unload the bombs, dismantle them, and return their unrefined components to the earth where they are no longer a threat to anyone. In one final speculative jump, Billy goes farther back beyond the beginning of the film, envisioning Hitler as a harmless baby, and then farther still to the time of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. With this final image, it seems that Vonnegut is saying this was the only time that the earth knew true innocence, until of course men came along to foul it up. Nonetheless, it seems Vonnegut is asking for people to try to return to a time not filled with hatred, envy, and wanton death. As further evidence of this idea, as Billy is being captured by the Germans during the war, he notices a pair of boots once owned by a Hungarian colonel. Vonnegut tells the following anecdote about those boots: the colonel kept the boots polished to such a bright sheen that “If you look deeply enough in there, you will see Adam and Eve” (53). Later on the same page, Vonnegut describes one of Billy’s fifteen-year-old captors, whose feet were covered with rags and hinged wooden clogs. And the boy had the face of a “blond angel….The boy was a beautiful as Eve” (53). Clearly, in having Billy say he “loves” these images of Adam and Eve, Vonnegut is also saying that Billy loves the innocence they represent.

Although Billy first learns of Trout’s ideas in 1948, he does not really begin trying to convince others about Tralfamadore and time travel until a plane crash in 1968. Billy survives the crash but suffers a head injury, placing him in a hospital in a semi-comatose state. His roommate, Bertram Rumfoord, thinks Billy is a useless vegetable who should be allowed to die. However, Billy is far from vegetative. In fact, “Billy’s outward listlessness was a screen. The listlessness concealed a mind which was fizzing and flashing thrillingly. It was preparing letters and lectures about the flying saucers, the negligibility of death, and the true nature of time” (190).

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More specifically, Billy begins thinking about the nonlinear nature of time in 1964, when he meets Trout in person. At that time Billy and Trout develop a strong enough relationship that Billy invites Trout to his anniversary party. Also at the party is a barbershop quartet called the Febs. Four years later the Febs will die in the plane crash that Billy survives, but on this evening they are part of an event that first triggers a traumatic past that Billy has been hiding from himself. Billy suddenly has an adverse reaction when they begin singing “That Old Gang of Mine.” Vonnegut notes that Billy “never had an old gang, old sweethearts and pals, but he missed one anyway….” (172). Or did he? Is he thinking of his war experiences and the soldiers and civilians who died in Dresden? Has he been hiding these memories from himself all this time, as a form of PTDS denial? Billy does not think he is coming unstuck in time at this point. However, Trout does offer an explanation that later becomes Billy’s notion of time traveling.

“Can I make a guess?” said Kilgore Trout. “You saw through a time window.”

“A what?” said Valencia.

“He suddenly saw the past or the future. Am I right?” (174).

What had startled Billy was not the quartet’s song but the looks on the quartet’s faces as they sang. He had seen similar expressions on the faces of the guards during the bombing of Dresden and its aftermath on February 13 and 14, 1945:

He was down in the meat locker on the night that Dresden was destroyed. There were sounds like giant footsteps above. Those were sticks of high-explosive bombs…A guard would go to the head of the stairs every so often to see what it was like outside, then he would come down and whisper to the other guards. There was a fire-storm out there. Dresden was one big flame…It wasn’t safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day…Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead….The guards drew together instinctively, rolled their eyes…They looked like a silent film of a barbershop quartet…”So long forever,” they might have been singing, “old fellows and pals….” 177-78

Once the remains cool, Billy and the other POW’s are recruited to search for and dispose of any human remains, just as Vonnegut himself was forced to do as a POW in Dresden. And now that Billy has acknowledged that he has been concealing these memories from himself, he must now try to come to terms with them. Like anyone suffering from PTSD, Billy must learn to cope with his trauma. Using what he has learned from Kilgore Trout, Billy’s solution is to create the idea of the Tralfamadorians who teach him about their concept of time and who encourage him to focus on only the happy moments of his life.

Billy’s vision is complete when he escapes to New York City once they release him from the hospital after the plane crash. He plans to appear on any television or radio program willing to listen to Billy’s “truth” about time and space. After all, as an optometrist, it has been Billy’s job for years to help people see, which is exactly what he now plans to do. However, his plans are de-railed when they escort him from the radio program he is able to sneak on to. The final piece falls into place for Billy when he visits an adult bookstore nearby. He is mostly interested in the books by Kilgore Trout in the store window. However, while there, he also is coaxed into watching a “blue” movie starring Montana Wildhack. He also sees a magazine with a headline that reads, “What really became of Montana Wildhack?” (204). The article suggests that she is at the bottom of San Pedro Bay. However, in Billy’s mind, she is currently on Tralfamadore in their geodesic dome, caring for their son. It is in this Eden that Billy envisions himself living with Montana and their son, safe from the dangers of war and senseless cruelty on earth.

In an indirect commentary addressing the true definition of obscenity and the idea of humans at their worst, Vonnegut includes a conversation between Billy and Montana when Billy “returns” to Tralfamadore after his “visit” to New York (all of which Billy is imagining while writing letters in his real home on earth in 1968). Montana asks Billy if he saw any plays while he was there. When he mentions her “blue” movie that he saw, she essentially says that her film is less obscene than what Billy has told her about the war: “Yes—” she said. “And I’ve heard about you in the war, about what a clown you were. And I’ve heard about the high school teacher who was shot. He made a blue movie with a firing squad” (207). It seems that Vonnegut is saying that man’s desire and ability to kill each other are much more obscene than the human body on display in a magazine or a film. He makes the same point earlier in the novel when Billy, Derby; and the young German, Werner Gluck, accidently walk in on teenage girls showering at the slaughterhouse in Dresden. Here Vonnegut shows real beauty surrounded by the obscenity of war.

Kurt Vonnegut, himself a survivor of Dresden, finally completed Slaughterhouse-Five in 1968, during the Vietnam War. He concludes his book by noting the significant murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the ongoing bombings in Vietnam. He then mentions Charles Darwin, whom the Tralfamadorians admire because of his theory of natural selection. However, it seems that Vonnegut disagrees here, wondering how the deaths of Kennedy and King and the war in Vietnam prove that “lesser” organisms must die in order for the human race to flourish. Vonnegut begins this novel by comparing himself to Lot’s wife who became a pillar of salt when she looked back at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Similarly, he has looked back at the destruction of Dresden, a city that he thought did not deserve the same fate as the biblical cities because the residents of Dresden were innocent. He then says he will not look back again. However, considering how often he did look back during his life, it seems that, as was the case with Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut was trying to come to terms with his own PTSD that he experienced from helping to clean up the remains of Dresden and more than 25,000 people who died there. Unlike Billy, though, instead of hiding in his mind on the planet of Tralfamadore, Vonnegut chose to exorcise his personal demons by creating Billy, who could help him cope with what he saw, in a novel that would tell his readers about the senselessness of war and man’s inhumanity to others.

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