The Philosophy Of Slaughterhouse-Five
In the year 1969, America witnessed the birth of a book that would go on to become one of the most influential and one of the, if not the greatest anti-war novel ever written.
Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade is a satirical novel written by Kurt Vonnegut, an American author. It is well known as one of the Vonnegut’s masterpieces, along with the Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions.
The unconventional novel begins with a narrator who seemingly is the author itself. After the first chapter, it tells the tale of Billy Pilgrim—who comes stuck and unstuck in time—in a series of flashbacks where the main storyline surrounds the Bombing of the city of Dresden, a tragic event in the devastation of World War II.
Billy Pilgrim, who is an anti-hero of sorts, has the ability to disconnect and come unstuck in other times of his lifetime. For instance, at one point he travels across the icy-landscape of Germany after taken prisoner by Nazi soldiers, and then comes unstuck in his bedroom with his wife, Valencia Merble. From there he proceeds to be abducted by an alien species called the Tralfamadorians, and placed as an exhibit in a space zoo on their planet, along with a model called Montana Wildback.
The book in itself has no conventional structure and has a nonlinear storyline which is supposedly hard to follow. It reads with ease and is written in a casual prose, with an open inclusion of sex and profanity, along with the refrain “So it goes” which signifies death, a reference to Tralfamadorian philosophy.
The book was, like all good books, banned from libraries and school curriculum in 1972.
But what's more to this book? Why is such an unusual book, which seemingly means nothing and mentions ridiculous details like a bird saying “Poo-tee-weet?” after a city has been bombed deemed to be one of the greatest novels ever written?
The book has more to it than just dissing war per se. It is regarded as an anti-war novel, and it is, in essence. The author holds no restraint in conveying his disgust about war and the whole deal of it—but the book also goes on to comment about the devastation on the human condition following World War 2. It follows Absurdist principles to comment on this matter.
At the end of the of the book, Billy Pilgrim becomes an optometrist. Many critics argue that the unconventional and wacky storyline along with Pilgrim becoming an optometrist, have deep literary significances.
When the world has crumbled into so many pieces you cannot begin to put it together; it only makes sense to look at it from another angle. That is why the unconventional storyline—pieces jumbled together and put in a different way. And Billy Pilgrim teaches the world to look at itself in new light—that is why perhaps, Pilgrim becomes an optometrist.
Take for example in the first chapter:
"I think the climax of the book will be the execution of poor old Edgar Derby," I said. "The irony is so great. A whole city gets burned down, and thousands of people are killed. And then this one American foot soldier is arrested in the ruins for taking a teapot. And he's given a regular trial, and then he's shot by a firing squad." –Kurt Vonnegut
The French philosopher Albert Camus described life in two irreconcilable parts—the human need to find meaning in life, and the universe’s utter indifference towards us. Even when faced with imminent death, human beings try to find morality and strive to do what is right, and somehow convince ourselves that the right adds meaning to our lives.
Another philosophy commonly noted throughout the book in the form of Pilgrim’s adventures with Tralfamadorian is one of “determinism and passivity.” The Tralfamadorian believe that all life is predetermined, and things will occur as they have always occurred, and free will is but an illusion that people— or Earthlings—as Vonnegut likes to call us, have believed in.
“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. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. 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.”- Kurt Vonnegut.
The Tralfamadorians also comment on the fickleness of life and the inevitability of death.
“When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. 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."” – Kurt Vonnegut
The book ends with the bombing of the city of Dresden, and Billy Pilgrim looking upon a bird that says “Poo-Tee-Weet?”. In the first chapter, Vonnegut mentions that there is “nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” He even describes his difficulty in writing the novel —which seemed to be an easy job previously. But the fact here is that no matter what kind of writer you are, or the number of degrees you have, or even the competitions you have won. There will never be anything to say about horrible things like massacres, famines, and droughts. When faced with the fickleness of human life, and the indifference of the universe towards it, there only remains unintelligible things to say, like “Poo-Tee-Weet?”
One of the main points of the book is that life does not matter. It is going to exhaust into nothingness anyway, and the universe will never even blink.
Good luck reviving your dead sleep after reading this. So it goes.