Life in a Feed Lot
Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five
by Michael E. Bailey
Despite modernity’s centuries-long turn toward the secular, the West has never shaken off the form of the Fall and Restoration as a way of making sense of our broken world. Even the liberation-obsessed 1960s, in which Kurt Vonnegut wrote his most influential and well-received novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, had its own variations on the theme, drawn in vulgarized fashion from the writings of earlier thinkers, most prominently Rousseau (who hated civilization), Marx (who hated capitalism), Freud (who hated religion), and Nietzsche (who hated everything else).
Painted in broad strokes, the 1960s version of the Fall and Restoration goes like this: Man never experienced a fall—he is innocent still—but the abuses of society cause him to do wicked things and to become dysfunctional in his own environment. Reforming society (or dropping out of it) is therefore a necessary step to restoring personal emotional and spiritual well-being.
What made the sixties a so-called idealistic generation was its easy-going belief that society could be reengineered to our advantage at will. Why wait until death to enter heaven? If only the right brains could implement the right kinds of government policies, then humanity could be restored to its promise of full autonomy for all.
Vonnegut’s fiction spoke to the sixties generation, but Vonnegut is no mere product of his times. Though his novels have received uneven treatment from critics, he is widely acknowledged as an innovative and important literary figure of the last half of the twentieth century. He draws upon one part science fiction, one part gonzo journalism, and one part verbal slapstick to create an irreverent and intensely personal style of fiction that is neither so much about plot nor about character as much as it is about Vonnegut’s own sad view of the world.
And that view is that humanity suffers from God’s ineffable and strangely cruel sense of humor. Vonnegut purchases his audience’s adoration chiefly through his humor, which runs in the vein of Mark Twain. Certainly few authors of any era can match Vonnegut for the number of ironic barbs he packs into his work, and at times his writing seems propelled from punch line to punch line.
That his masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five, published in 1969, appealed to sixties sensibilities is not surprising. On virtually every page, Vonnegut pokes authority in the eye, taking aim at the military, the government, science, business, the church—anyone who wears a uniform and claims to be in a position of responsibility. Slaughterhouse-Five treats in particular the decision some of our best and brightest made regarding the arguably criminal fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, during the last days of World War II.
Slaughterhouse-Five is the story of Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist who becomes unstuck in time. The story, like his character, jumps forwards and backwards over the course of Billy’s life. Of course, the book does have a plot, if a nonlinear one, and it artfully culminates in Billy’s experience of the fire-bombings of Dresden by the Allies. Billy also survives an airplane wreck and, apparently, abduction by Tralfamadorians, an advanced alien race.
Given all that happens to Billy, one might be tempted to call Slaughterhouse-Five an adventure. Adventure, however, implies the presence of a hero, a person whose thought and actions shape the course of the narrative. But Slaughterhouse-Five is about war, and war, says Vonnegut, is really about “listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.” And Billy is far from being a character, far less a hero.
Vonnegut suggests that, like all of us all of the time, Billy is subject to forces—not just war—that are bigger than himself. The Serenity Prayer hangs in his bedroom, but “among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.” Billy accepts his cosmic impotence through the coaching of his abductor Tralfamadorians, one of whom claims, “I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”
Read in one way, Billy can be viewed as an evolving character, due to the wisdom he gains from the Tralfamadorians. Among the wisdom that Billy gains is that death is not to be feared and, since we have no control over the unfolding of the universe, the best we can do is to “ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.” Not the worst advice ever given, but hardly the stuff of virtue, nobility, saintly sacrifice, or even hope. The major benefit this wisdom brings to Billy is that it allows him to live, to not kill himself.
To make sense of Billy’s otherwise tragically sad life, it is tempting to view his experience with the Tralfamadorians as real and the wisdom he receives as genuine. And it is also tempting to view the cosmically wise Billy as speaking for Vonnegut. But this common interpretation of the book is mistaken. Billy is not Vonnegut, a point Vonnegut makes clear by occasionally placing himself into the fiction.
More importantly, the book provides good textual evidence—though the verdict remains open—that Billy was never abducted at all but simply has gone mad. His encounter with the kindly Tralfamadorians is simply a delusion he creates to cope with his haunting war memories. It cannot be mere coincidence that his experience on Tralfamadore uncannily mirrors the science fiction of Kilgore Trout, a writer whose stories Billy read voraciously while staying at a ward for “nonviolent mental patients.”
That ours is a world that requires strategies to keep from killing oneself—including the strategy of going mad—is an important theme in Slaughterhouse-Five.
Arguably, the chief character of the novel is not Billy but Death, the only character who does pretty much as he pleases. One can scarcely read five paragraphs in a row of Slaughterhouse-Five without encountering death, or the prospect of death, or the memory of someone’s death.
Death from every cause—from carbon monoxide poisoning, to disease, to war, to torture, to old age—fills the pages of the book. So it goes: “Even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.”
The challenge of life, it seems, is not how best to do great or noble things but simply how to cope with the ubiquity of death. One character says of a sleeping patient, “How nice—to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive.”
That death should fill his writing is unsurprising given Vonnegut’s own traumatic personal history. His mother committed suicide when he was a young man, and like his protagonist Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut experienced as a prisoner of war the fire-bombing of Dresden, in which some 130,000 souls were lost in about a day. Dealing with the carnage of this event and with the utter indifference of humanity, nature, and, seemingly, God toward human suffering is the focus of Slaughterhouse-Five and virtually all of his fiction.
The utter randomness of why pitiful Billy (and Vonnegut) survived while others died is a mystery without resolution for Vonnegut. One character tells Billy that there was once a time when “everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov, by Feodor Dostoevsky. ‘But that isn’t enough any more.’”
Religion provides little consolation for Vonnegut. God may not be dead, but he might as well be, given the alarming indifference to cruelty of so-called Christians.
In one of Slaughterhouse-Five’s most touching sequences, Vonnegut describes a World War II movie run backwards, in which “the bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes.”
Billy extrapolates the sequences until “all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve.” The human story, Vonnegut is suggesting, is perfectly backwards, morally speaking. Rather than progressing toward perfection, or at least toward decency, the human story is a story of degeneracy.
Vonnegut sees the human condition as one of misery—or the imminent threat of misery—both in this era and in eras past. Billy Pilgrim’s name is ironic: There is no pilgrimage; there’s just coping with the here and now. And, unlike a movie, there is no going backwards in real life. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount got the spirit of things as they should be, but let’s not fool ourselves, Vonnegut suggests: The meek did not, have not, and will never inherit the earth.
Like all great artists, Vonnegut transcends his own historical context, and certainly in his anti-utopianism he departs from the sixties generation that idolized him. Utopianism implies free will and mastery over one’s environment. Slaughterhouse-Five, in contrast, depicts human beings as complicated machines with tragic self-consciousness. Vonnegut was three decades ahead of his times. If the sixties were obsessed with how we can shape the environment, our world today seems equally bent on declaring that the environment determines our behavior—on explaining, or explaining away, our entire lives through our biology.
Slaughterhouse-Five again and again compares the human body to plumbing and wiring and mechanics. An example: “Weary drew back his right boot, aimed a kick at the spine, at the tube which had so many of Billy’s important wires in it. Weary was going to break that tube.” Vonnegut frequently reminds us that we are nothing but “big unlucky mammals.”
To make sure we get the point, he makes Billy the main exhibit of a zoo on Tralfamadore. Billy claims to have been about as happy there as he was on earth. The message: What’s the difference? Another piece of wisdom Billy picks up from the Tralfamadorians is that it is silly “that so many Earthlings are offended by the idea of being machines.”
But once again, Vonnegut is not Billy. Vonnegut understands that if we human beings are machines, we are the kinds of machines who cannot live gracefully with the knowledge of our machineness. Unlike other machines, human beings desperately search for meaning in their lives and live in terror of death.
The truth is that the Tralfamadorians, who live so comfortably with their machineness, have little wisdom to offer us. Their advice of concentrating only on happy times is cold comfort for those living without hope. Certainly it is not a path that Vonnegut, whose fiction focuses almost exclusively on the grotesquely violent and the tragically sad, can claim to have taken. Vonnegut’s art is more truthful than the wisdom of the Tralfamadorians.
No Insane Solution
In short, Vonnegut’s world is indeed fallen but has little hope of restoration, whether engineered, sixties-style, by our own labors or purchased through the crucified hands of a loving God. Billy Pilgrim copes with the hopelessness of life by going mad and inventing (or appropriating) harmless tales of abduction. But he can be no model for the rest of us because insanity is no solution for the human race, even if it brings a kind of pitiful comfort to Billy.
And so Vonnegut offers a sad world very little apart from his humor. Like the distant god of his own contemplation, his fiction paradoxically contributes to the discouraging view that life is but metaphysical irony. To be sure, countless millions of readers, including myself, are grateful for Vonnegut’s humor and genius, however sad. But for those of us who, like myself, continue to hope in a Restoration from a personal and loving God, we also know that irony, like The Brothers Karamazov, is not enough. •
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