Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Holy ripe avocados Batman, it has been a while! After finishing this novel I spent a lot of time going back to any quotes and notes I made during my read-through and gave myself a moment to digest. After letting it ripen in my brain and gathering my thoughts in a somewhat organized fashion, here I give you my thoughts on Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade. A book that  takes the reader on a humourous compassionate trip through the eyes of a man lost through time – his time. [sidebar: I don’t plan on really speaking towards the anti-war-ness of the book because I find the our extraterrestrial friends just oh so much fun! end of sidebar]
4120yizU-2LBilly Pilgrim is humble approachable man. He has a good profession as an optometrist, a wife who adores him, a daughter married to an optometrist, and a son who enlisted in the Green Berets. He is a World War II veteran who survived the bombing of Dresden. Years later, he survives a fatal plane crash leaving him as the lone survivor. He is a young boy who is aiming to get his license in optometry. He is an older gentleman stuck in a hospital bed reading novels by Kilgore Trout. He is an ill-equipped prisoner of war in WWII who doesn’t own a proper pair of boots for combat. He is a time traveller. He is a man who has come into contact with beings from Tralfamadore who put him on display in a Tralfamadorian zoo for them to study and observe.

One of these things are not like the others! [insert tune from Sesame Street]

Okay enough rambling. Billy Pilgrim is a man who claims to be have been abducted by aliens (from the planet Tralfamadore) in 1967 and learned about the ‘secrets of the dimension of time’. In his second public address about his interactions with the Tralfies (this is how I reference them in my notes so why not keep it?), he explains that the greatest lesson he learned from his friends are how they view the death of a person:

“When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments.”

The Tralfies are able to see in four dimensions, the three we see along with the dimension of time. They are able to see all moments at once. To them all major and minor life events are merely moments. When they see a dead person, they recognize that this moment is just one that happens to consist of death and “so it goes” (‘it’ being life). The curse of humanity prevents us from seeing all of our moments at once. We can only live it once and move forward from that point. We can glance back at our memories, but we cannot relive them; we cannot return to those moments that were alive.

The closest we can come to this revelation is a funeral. Billy’s extraterrestrial friends are in a constant state of “funeral”, but not in a way that results in the constant mourning of a loss. Instead, in a way that constantly remembers the moments that gave life and whimsy to other moments; a way that reminds us that this happened-to-be-dead-person is more than that; they lived moments that were happy and fortuitous. All of those good moments are able to outweigh the one dead moment. So it goes.

Clearly Billy was able to learn this philosophy from his friends, but I question whether or not he has learned to travel back and forth between the different moments in his life. He claims that the Tralfies “were simply able to give him insights into what was really going on” and give him an explanation as to what his flashbacks really were. Was he travelling through time and space, through that big ball of all that wibbily wobbly timey wimey stuff? No. But he was searching through his mind as to why he was having flashbacks and moments where he thought he was back in Dresden living those moments again. By claiming it was time travelling, he magnifies the intensity of him remembering those moments. That time in Dresden was so “traumatic”, that time in the hospital with the Trout novels, that time he had a breakdown because of the singing quartet. All of those memories give him the sensation of reliving it again and again. [sidebar: if you haven’t read my thoughts on Art Spiegelman’s Maus, I suggest you should if you’re interested in the whole flashback, past experiences haunting our present sort of thing. end of sidebar]

In our universe, people feel the great hardship of death, failure, despair, depression, and many other negative feelings. Why did this person have to die? It’s not fair. Why must the good die young? Why did I fail that test? Why didn’t I get into that program? Why is this all happening to me? Why? “This is a very Earthlight question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything?” Way to still my thunder Tralfamadore… I suppose I’ll just let you continue on with your thought…

“Earthlings are the great explainers, explaining why this event is structured as it is, telling how other events may be achieved or avoided. […] All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.”

As a kid, did you ever play the “But why?” game with your parents? You know, that game where you go: Why is the sky blue? Why is the grass green? Why are my shorts blue? Why do you do that? Why do you do this? Why? Why?? WHY? WHHHY? Right until your parents are so annoyed with your whys that all they can do to make you stop is say, in a exasperated tone: “It just is!” or any other variation of the saying. Humanity finds it very difficult to let go of the notion of a reason for everything. Whether the answer is science or “God has a plan”, we just need an answer.

Unfortunately sometimes, if not most times, the answer to our everlasting Why is not very satisfactory.Sometimes the answer is “It simply is” and it is nothing we can control. We will not always understand it. We will not always agree with it. All we can do, if we cannot fight it, is accept it and remember that this is a moment in the amber. This is this moment. The depression, despair, unhappiness, bad-feeling-ness is just another one. It is no bigger than the happy, fun, good moments we have on this planet. Billy’s friends, and ours, cannot make us unstuck from this moment we live in, but they can help us understand what is going on in this thing called life. Through Billy’s eyes we are able to see the moments he was alive and happy and the ones that were sad, annoying and maybe even traumatic (whether they were real or not). I’m no scientist nor the Doctor, but by jumping around in his time line, we see the contents of his ball of time. Despite all the bad times, the good ones still exist – they are still moments. All of his bugs are stuck in his own amber.


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