Reflecting on Kurt Vonneguts Slaughterhouse-Five
Thirty Years Later
by Michael Wilt
An essay from the web site Nimble Spirit: The Literary Spirituality Review
In the pre-cable television era, when I was growing up in the New York metropolitan area, TV consisted of seven channels. Of the seven, three were the major networks--channels 2, 4, and 7--and of those three, at least on our black-and-white TV, the ABC network was characterized by a consistently snowy, fuzzy appearance. We just never could get decent reception for channel 7 even when, in moments of extreme motivation, my father took to the roof to fiddle with the antenna.
Consequently we did not watch ABC as much as we did CBS and NBC. I never got into the old Adam West Batman series, for example, but kept close track of The Monkees over on NBC and the Smothers Brothers on CBS. One exception I can recall is the ABC series Combat, which introduced me to the Second World War.
I don’t remember much about the plot lines of the Combat episodes. I watched the show through that fuzzy snow that infected the picture tube, but, even so, I do recall the visuals: the frequent darkness and rubble of bombed-out buildings, the grey uniforms and heavy boots worn by the soldiers. The American G.I.s were rough looking and always seemed pretty well beat up, while the Germans had helmets with a shine to them and their uniforms always seemed to have been recently pressed. It was as if the Germans had been plucked from corporate offices somewhere and had a decided advantage over the hapless underdog Yanks.
Fortunately I was undergoing a period of compulsory education at the time, so I learned, by and by, that there was more to World War II than G.I.s speaking in hushed tones among ruined European buildings and always coming out okay (that is, as long as the actor’s name appeared in the opening credits). But it took more than education and entertainment to provoke me to think seriously about war and its consequences. And when I did come to think about all that, it was part of a spiritual deepening at a time that war, in its Vietnam incarnation, had the potential to shake my world directly.
I don’t know if Kurt Vonnegut has ever been accused of being a “spiritual writer,” but because I am (often despite my own best efforts) a “spiritual reader,” it was on that level that his Slaughterhouse-Five made a difference in my life.
I read Slaughterhouse-Five when I was sixteen years old, a few years after it was published. The war in Vietnam was winding down, but my understanding of the powers-that-be had already eroded my trust in political leaders. I had seen the sudden, false promise of a negotiated peace announced by Nixon’s campaign not long before his 1972 roughshod run over George McGovern. As I came closer to the draftable age of eighteen and the war continued to peter out, the Watergate scandal broke, and I could only imagine to what lengths the disgraced president might go to deflect attention from his close-to-home troubles. The hostilities were certainly re-ignitable, and I and millions of other young men were available fodder. Montreal looked more and more like a nice place to live.
At the time I was also pulling away from the church I had always attended and the God who was proclaimed there. If anyone had asked, I would have said I was an agnostic. But my sense of the transcendent (a word I doubt I understood at the time) was strong. I retained a faith, of sorts, in the idea that humans are rooted in some ineffable something about which I knew nothing but yearned to know all. In this context I was also developing a conscience about issues larger than lying to my parents or lusting after every other girl I passed in the school hallway.
I was a confused but hope-filled teenager, never satisfied with pat answers but with little direction as to how to find answers other than the pat ones.
I am not sure what prompted me to read Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut was in the news, I suppose; maybe I had seen him interviewed on PBS or on Dick Cavett’s intelligent talk show. But, somewhere along the line, I plunked down ninety-five cents for a copy of the Dell paperback edition of the book and proceeded to read. That same ragged copy is before me now on my disheveled rolltop desk. Judging by its broken spine, I must have read it more than once, but other than a pair of elliptical doodles on the front cover and my name scrawled inside, it is unmarked. I have never been one for writing in books, particularly those that are long on wonder and short on pat answers.
In the nearly thirty years since I first read Slaughterhouse-Five, I have thought about it often. It is a book that has never left me. It has, in its way, haunted me.
I have never forgotten that it begins like this:
Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.
And that it ends:
And in between, trying to get unstuck, I once again wander through time with Billy Pilgrim. It is as if I never left.
Billy Pilgrim, in his seeming detached manner, walked me through his piece of World War II in a way I could not have stepped before. I came away from the novel with my infant anti-war sentiments fortified, even bordering on pacifism. Events like those described in Slaughterhouse-Five, I felt, should never visit the Earth again. I was undergoing what the liberation theologians might call a period of conscientization.
Vonnegut writes that he told a man he met that he was working on a book about the war, and that it would be an anti-war book. The man said, “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?” Vonnegut relates that conversation on page three of the novel; the man’s cynicism, or realism, did not stop me from being changed by Billy Pilgrim’s encounters with violence, candles made from the fat of murdered Jews, the firebombing of Dresden, the numberless anonymous dead, and poor old Edgar Derby, summarily executed for rescuing a teapot from the rubble of the city.
Anti-glacier comments notwithstanding, I had seen nothing like this on Combat.
The Children’s Crusade
The subtitle of Slaughterhouse-Five is “The Children’s Crusade.” In his introductory chapter, Vonnegut explains that he was reminded by the wife of an old war buddy that “You were just babies in the war—like the ones upstairs!” She goes on to accuse him of wanting to write a book that ignores this fact. She tells him, “You’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.”
Vonnegut responded by promising to call the book The Children’s Crusade.
I don’t know, for certain, how Vonnegut’s subtitle struck me at sixteen. At sixteen we resist thinking of ourselves as children; we are looking forward to putting on the garments of adulthood and something we call independence. I wonder if his point was lost on me.
As a kid, I knew just one guy who had fought in Vietnam. Robert was the oldest son of the family across the street. He was six or seven years older than me. He flew cargo and transport helicopters, sometimes in combat situations. He had never seemed like a child to me. To me, Robert was a full-fledged grownup, even when I was an elementary student and he was in high school. I remember his first car, a tiny red Metropolitan, parked on his parents’ front lawn, and how cool it was that he had a car of his own and that it was so different from all of the family cars on our street. It was one of the things that made him a grownup. I was in awe of him.
Robert went away to basic training at Fort Polk in Louisiana. He called it Fort Puke, Lousy Anna in his letters home—very adult humor to my middle school ears—and his letters from Vietnam were written in the tightly spaced, hard-to-read handwriting of a grown man. He came home after his tour of Vietnam and decided, against his parents’ wishes, to go back for a second tour, in exchange for a cutback in the number of years he had committed to the army. Everyone shook their heads over his choice, but he was, after all, an adult, and it was up to him.
With just a short time left in his second tour, his mother told us, shaking her head some more, that Robert had volunteered to fly a damaged helicopter quite a distance back to base a risky job for which he received some kind of perk or other. His mother probably saw that choice as another example of youthful folly on Robert’s part, but to me it was one more indication that he was an adult who knew what he was doing.
“Children’s crusade”? By the time I read Vonnegut, when Robert had been safely home for a couple of years, maybe I grasped the subtitle’s irony. And maybe not. But war did seem a manly thing to me when I was growing up, and I probably have Sinatra, Wayne, and Combat to thank for that. Now, unstuck in time as I am, Sinatra and company appear in frames of memory beside the exuberant Robert and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC and photos of piles of murdered Jews. And these appear beside my present reality in which, as a father with a baby upstairs, “children’s crusade” strikes me as an accurate way to describe a war.
A Duty-Dance With Death
Robert, as I mentioned, came safely home from Vietnam. He accepted Jesus as his personal savior and hooked up with a community of young conservative Christians. He joined the National Guard. He was killed in a helicopter crash in upstate New York during one of his weekends of service. I heard a report of the crash on the local evening news the day it happened. No victims’ names were given, pending notification of relatives. But I knew deep down, when I heard the report, that Robert was dead.
As Vonnegut would say, So it goes.
Or more accurately, as the creatures of Tralfamadore would say, So it goes.
As Billy Pilgrim travels, unstuck in time, he spends many pleasant moments on display in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore. His Earthling companion in the zoo is blue-movie actress Montana Wildhack, whose titillating and tender presence lights up several moments in the novel. While being a sort of novelty act for the Tralfamadorians, Billy learns from them a new perspective on time. They don’t, for example, see the universe as “a lot of bright little dots.” Rather, they “can see where each star has been and where it is going, so that the heavens are filled with rarefied, luminous spaghetti.” Humans, too, are seen from this perspective, “with babies’ legs at one end and old people’s legs at the other,” Shakespeare’s seven ages of man enacted in a visible unbroken thread.
Billy Pilgrim tells the world:
The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. ...
... Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “So it goes.”
When he closes the talks he gives about Tralfamadore, Billy Pilgrim says “Farewell, hello, farewell, hello.”
Slaughterhouse-Five has a second subtitle: “A Duty-Dance With Death.” “No art is possible without a dance with death,” Vonnegut says, paraphrasing Céline. Not just art, of course—life itself is not possible without a dance with death, life itself is a dance with death. That is the one truth I have encountered again and again in the pages of great books and the on the canvases of great artists, in the teachings of the great religions and in the street scenes and country scenes I have passed through, and in the hard and tragic and joyful and easy moments of my life. It is a truth that Vonnegut and Billy Pilgrim helped me prepare to live with.
Life is a dance with death, a necessary dance, a duty—we resist it at our own risk. I have learned to say “So it goes” when the moment demands—not because I have no tears to cry but because whatever has been “lost” is still there, as the Tralfamadorians would say, “in plenty of other moments,” and that “It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”
The Serenity to Accept
I think Kurt Vonnegut introduced me to the Serenity Prayer. I am sure I could not have avoided it much beyond the age of sixteen in any case. Billy Pilgrim had a framed copy of the prayer on his office wall. It kept him going, he said. The prayer appears again, on Tralfamadore, engraved on a heart-shaped locket nestled between Montana Wildhack’s breasts. Over the years, of course, I have heard the Serenity Prayer again and again in many contexts, so much so that without even trying I have learned it by heart.
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom always to tell the difference.
I have also learned that, rather than being a piece of anonymous wisdom, the Serenity Prayer is attributed to the famous Protestant German theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. You could look it up. Try Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.
The Serenity Prayer is omnipresent in contemporary culture. Latter-day gurus and faddish teachers tell us to take control of our lives and our world. Rock stars and activists tell us to change and rearrange the world. But when I look at the middle of the Serenity Prayer—Courage to change the things I can—my unstuck mind recalls this apparently unrelated riddle:
“Why does a dog lick his balls?”
“Because he can.”
Maybe the prayer would be improved by the word “should”: To change the things I should. The world and its people might suffer less if we thought twice, and two thousand times, before changing things simply because we can.
But I am no famous theologian. Take what I say with a grain of salt. You won’t find it in Bartlett’s.
“Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change,” Vonnegut tells us, “were the past, the present, and the future.”
The Tralfamadorians do not believe in free will. “I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe,” a Tralfamadorian tells Billy Pilgrim, “and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”
I still don’t know what to make of that—free will being such an essential element of Western philosophy and theology. Tralfamadorians, knowing they can’t change anything that has happened or will happen, simply ignore the horrible moments. “We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments like today at the zoo. Isn’t this a nice moment?”
Nice or not, it is a moment in which my admiration for the Tralfamadorian concept of time diminishes. We have all met people like these Tralfamadorians somewhere along the line—the ones whose insistent focus on “the positive” is in reality just a smokescreen for their own fear of conflict, loss, anger, or making mistakes. Their own fear of taking part in the dance with death, to put it plainly. People such as these are the most dangerous ones, the most potentially destructive. They are like the Tralfamadorians, who know in advance that they are responsible for the end of the universe “We blow it up, experimenting with new fuels for our flying saucers” but believe they have no power to prevent it, and so immerse themselves in “pleasant moments.”
I suppose they would call that the wisdom to always tell the difference.
My thirty-year-old copy of Slaughterhouse-Five is falling apart on my rolltop desk. So it goes. I think I will buy a new copy.
My seven-year-old baby is playing out in the driveway. His enthusiastic voice rises to and through my upstairs window. He already demonstrates a tremendous capacity for refusing to accept pat answers. I hear his toy laser gun as he pulls the trigger and obliterates an imagined but horrific enemy. He will save the world, he and his toy laser gun and space age battleships and children’s crusades.
I will buy a new copy of Slaughterhouse-Five. When my son is fifteen or sixteen I will place it in his way, just as it was somehow placed in my way, and hope that he will pick it up and read. And if he reads it, I hope that it deepens his appreciation of life and that he talks to me about it and that he takes the copy with him when he goes—farewell, hello—and reads it again a decade or two down the road.
Copyright © 2003 by Michael Wilt.