I have often lamented our slavery to linear time. It is a peculiar form of universal injustice, this fact that we can never revisit moments once they become “the past”, that the present is continuously slipping through our hands and solidifying into something we cannot change, except through the careful or careless manipulations of memory and history. What would lives be like if we could experience every moment simultaneously? What if we were conscious of time not as a line but as a point, all possibilities raging furiously and brilliantly at once. Well, it would be overwhelming. And probably a little depressing.
Kurt Vonnegut’s depiction of the block time view of the universe, and its implications, is the most intriguing part of the famous and controversial Slaughterhouse-Five for me. Billy Pilgrim’s consciousness is drifting along different points in his personal worldline, effectively making it seem that he is mentally time travelling. This, along with his abduction and temporary imprisonment in a zoo by the Tralfamadorians, happens in such a way that no one could possibly prove Billy is travelling through time—ultimately, we are left to decide for ourselves whether Billy’s experiences are “real” or delusional.
Slaughterhouse-Five’s narrative structure works for me. Vonnegut’s prose is simple and so seductive yet extremely difficult, in a sense, because it is so satirical. It is all too easy for me to slip, skim, and start—“Wait, he said what?” Since Billy kept hopping to different points of his life, I did not have to spend any effort paying attention to when he was, only what was happening. Indeed, I think this book has given me a little more respect for novels that jump around in their internal chronology. Although I’m still not happy when novels that do not obviously involve time travel jump from present to past without so much as indicating it with a caption, I will try to be more sensitive to the artistic choice an author conveys with such shifts of reference.
Aside from throwing into question Billy’s very sanity, the major consequence of his time-travelling is a deeply-ingrained sense of fatalism. Billy knows how he is going to die; he has not merely seen his death but lived it. The Tralfamadorians are similar to Billy; they perceive the fourth dimension of time much as we perceive three dimensions of space, and so for them everyone is alive and dead at the same time—dead being slightly less interesting, of course. When they confess to Billy that they know how the universe ends—that they are, in fact, responsible—he asks them why they can’t work to prevent it. And they shrug and say they can’t because they know that’s how it will happen.
This is the betrayal of the non-linear existence, at least in this type of universe. Perceiving existence as a simultaneity of moments necessitates burying any hope of free will: we cannot change what we will do, because we are doing it and have always done it. And this type of fatalism is an invitation to nihilism, to a long, dark tea-time of the soul as one reflects that, if we have no ability to control our actions, then what kind of meaning can existence have? Hence the phrase that permeates this book: so it goes. For a non-linear narrative, those are awfully linear words, evoking an acceptance of the flow of events born out of awareness that those events are inevitable and unchanging.
Billy seems to handle his fatalism rather well, with the possible exception of going crazy. I suppose for a young soldier in World War II, knowing that one survives and goes on to become a successful optometrist could be very comforting. Similarly, while Billy is not particularly in love with the woman he marries, he does so because he has seen most of their marriage and decided it isn’t that bad. Billy is someone who settles, kind of a pushover. Another word might be equanimous. He accepts it all: his involvement in war, the bombing of Dresden, his marriage, his abduction, his death—what other choice does he have?
I suppose I am dancing around the central motif, war. I’m avoiding talking about it because I’m not sure what to say. Slaughterhouse-Five is a work that is both timeless and of its time: when it first came on the scene in 1969, it greeted a generation that was in the middle of the Vietnam War and a generation that had experienced the Second World War. Vonnegut addresses these generations explicitly, going so far as to make this book metafictional by writing himself as a character into the novel and including an introductory chapter explaining the genesis of this work.
This first chapter contains an extremely sensible declaration. Writing about his novel, the author says, “It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” This is the truth that literature returns to us. It reverses the damage done by statistics. When we say thousands and millions dead, we are being accurate and truthful—but we also have trouble feeling those deaths. My generation’s experience with war is going to be very different from those of my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Trench warfare has been superseded by guerrilla warfare, which in turn is being replaced by the warfare of robots, drones, and cyberspace. Our wars are becoming more abstract, and with that abstraction we are at risk of losing sight of the principal product of warfare: dead human bodies.
Slaughterhouse-Five and books like it rescue us from such a grim fate. They take an event so unimaginably unintelligible, like the Dresden bombing, and find a way to reconnect it to our human experiences. Different authors pursue this in different ways. Some opt for visceral descriptions of what it was like to be there; others choose to pursue the fallout of witnessing such a massacre as veterans attempt to move on with their lives. Vonnegut uses his sharp wit to pull back the curtain and wonder at the meaning of it all. It’s interesting to note that despite their different perspective on time, the Tralfamadorians do not have an eternally peaceful society:
“But you do have a peaceful planet here.’
“Today we do. On other days we have wars as horrible as everything you’ve ever seen or read about. There isn’t anything we can do about them, so we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments….”
I feel like Vonnegut is speaking directly to the future here. This is a declamation of our tendency toward apathy through wilful ignorance. Substitute “on other days” for “in other parts of the world”, and you have a description of our planet today. There isn’t anything we, as individuals, can do about the wars happening elsewhere—so most of the time, we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We look at pleasant moments: videos of cats, funny webcomics, and images of cats with hilarious captions. Because, ultimately, we don’t know how to deal, and we know we don’t know how to deal, so we avoid trying to deal with it at all.
So that’s the timeless aspect of Slaughterhouse-Five. I imagine it’s not the same effect it had in 1969, but this book talks about war in a way that will remain relevant until war itself becomes obsolete (and will that ever happen?). It is a large, literary shrug in the direction of those who go on about war being an inevitable, necessary action in the name of peace.