Sunday, December 10, 2006

Slaughterhouse Five

I'm falling off the face of the earth until Thursday. One distributed web-crawler and one speech-enabled grocery list coming up.

I finished Slaughterhouse Five. It's a book about fatalism, about a man who has come unstuck in time and continually revisits and relives his life, out of order. But since he's already done everything he's about to relive, he is a little helpless against his circumstances. As aliens from Tralfamadore explain to him, events are as they are out of mechanical necessity, not by choice. (In a way, Heroes is also about this issue.) Billy, the man, is a prisoner of war when Dresden is firebombed. Was that, too, a product of environmental conditions and robotic performance? Should those deaths be shrugged off, like so many others in the book, with another "So it goes"? No, no, never. I can't live like that.

So I give you dueling poems. They can be reconciled if you believe in a fixed past, but a wide-open future. Like many issues in philosophy, such a belief may be a question of thinkers justifying something people have long intuited. Good luck with life for the next few days.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it

Say not the struggle naught availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain.

If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
It may be, in yon smoke conceal'd,
Your comrades chase e'en now the fliers,
And, but for you, possess the field.

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light;
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly!
But westward, look, the land is bright!


vince said...

It has been 25 years since I read "Slaughterhouse Five or The Children's Crusade". It has long been one of my favorite books. A true modern classic. Reading your review I was wondering if you missed the heavy ironic voice of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.. Having read several of your blog entries , I am guessing that you did not miss the irony. ... but I like to hear my voice:

He is using irony to laugh at humanity and cry at inhumanity. In particular, to cry at the mindlessness of war, even our supposed 'just' war.

The bombing of Dresden, Germany had more destructive power in the conventional bombs than both of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. Mr. Vonnegut was a POW in the Slaughterhouses near Dresden. The war experience of Billy, a gentle idiot reminisent of 'The Idiot" of Dostoevsky, sees what Mr. Vonnegut saw.

The Russions are descending on Dresden after the allied bombing completely destroyed the city. The POWs were released by the evacuating Germans soldiers and were roaming about the rubble. Mr. Vonnegut's fellow POW is shot for 'looting' by a German soldier when his friend finds an unbroken teapot in the rubble of Dresden. Mindless.

The race of 4-dimensional aliens see the endless inhuman acts as a long mountain chain of events. To Vonnegut, the World War was as immoral as the Children Crusade of the 13th century, where a well-meaning band of Christian children were sold into slavery.

Fate is at most an acknowledgment of the seemingly inescapable inhumanity of humanity. If only we could see the long mountain chain of our inhumanity, we might avoid war, torture, etc... but alas.

Dan Lewis said...

Hi Vince.

I know I didn't quite do the book justice there. My fault for being confusing; I was trying to explain what the book was pointing to instead of actually disagreeing with it. In fact, on rereading it, I appear to be attempting to speak in the voice of the book. Of course, you would never know from the post itself.

I don't think that Vonnegut actually believes that we are helpless against our fate, or that we should go gently into that good night. I do think he is trying to depict social forces that often seem intractable and people that often feel powerless to stop them.

I think he is earnestly saying with the force of his irony that we had darned well better have something more to do at the scene of a death or a war or a massacre than to say "So it goes" and chirp like little birdies. That he wrote his book without quite saying that is one of the things that makes it so good.

I like to hear your voice too, so keep on writing.