In which John Green continues to teach you about Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. (WARNING: When Slaughterhouse-Five was published, some of the crude language in the book caused controversy. We quote one mildly controversial line in this video. If you’re mature enough to read this book, you’re likely mature enough to tolerate this quote, but we’re obliged to warn you about it.) Anyway, this week, John is going to talk about Slaughterhouse-Five’s status as an anti-war novel, and what exactly anti-war novels are good for. He’ll also get into the idea of free will, and to what degree Billy Pilgrim’s time-travel and abduction by aliens were hallucinations induced by posttraumatic stress disorder. John will even give you an interpretation of why the Tralfamadorians look like toilet plungers. Hint: it has to do with plunging metaphorical toilets.
Transcript Provided by YouTube:
Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course Literature, and today we’re going to continue
our discussion of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.
So, Slaughterhouse Five is often called an anti-war novel. But that raises a question:
What does it mean for a novel to be against war?
Are novels in the business of passing judgment? Can they actually change the actual world?
Well, that’s some of what we’re going to talk about today. So like Kurt Vonnegut,
our protagonist Billy Pilgrim struggles to make sense of what he has witnessed during
the Allied firebombing of Dresden in World War II.
And there’s a tremendous tension between the desire to testify to that violence and
a need to repress the traumatic memories of it.
Along the way we’re going to talk about free will and we’ll also probe Billy Pilgrim’s stories of alien abduction.
MFTP: Mr Green, Mr Green! Alien? Probe?
Boy, Me From the Past, if you think that’s funny, you’re gonna love the show South Park.
It comes out in about two years. But anyway, we are going to get to some anatomical humor.
And I’m sure it will please you.
So Vonnegut published Slaughterhouse Five in 1969, before the term “post-traumatic
stress disorder” had entered the language. But Billy Pilgrim clearly exhibits symptoms
of this condition. I mean, first off, his experiences during the war were definitely traumatic:
I mean, he gets lost behind enemy lines during the Battle of the Bulge. He is taken prisoner
by the Germans. He sees a fellow soldier die from gangrene while walking to a POW camp,
so it goes. He is crammed for days into a train with other POW’s. He survives the
bombing of Dresden and observes the aftermath of the firestorm, including, like, many charred
bodies. And then he witnesses a fellow POW being executed for stealing a teapot, so it
goes. So no wonder Pilgrim experiences flashbacks
to the war as if these incidents were happening in the present. It’s not surprising that
he suffers from hallucinations either. But what’s the deal with the toilet-plunger-shaped aliens?
So here’s an English-y way of looking at it:
Billy Pilgrim has a lot of blocked up stuff, right? Let’s call it excrement. Toilet
plungers are in the business of unblocking drains, right? So in other words, fantasies
involving the Tralfamadorian aliens help Pilgrim work out the shame and horror of his war experience.
I mean, look, the Germans made Pilgrim strip when he arrives at their camp, right? So do
the Tralfamadorians. The Germans refuse to answer why they beat one prisoner and not
another. The Tralfamadorians refuse to answer why they’ve kidnapped Pilgrim. The Germans
confine Pilgrim to a slaughterhouse. The Tralfamadorians confine him to a zoo.
So obviously there are parallels between Pilgrim’s past and his fantasy life.
But in his fantasy world, Pilgrim can rewrite these painful events, right? Like, for example,
Pilgrim felt emasculated when he was a prisoner of war. He was stripped, forced to don a woman’s
coat, and ridiculed. But in Pilgrim’s fantasy of alien captivity, he discovers that he can
“enjoy his body for the first time.” And he claims that the Tralfamadorians consider
him “a splendid specimen” (if only because they “had no way of knowing” otherwise).
And he describes himself, famously, as possessing, and here I am quoting, “a tremendous wang.”
He’s desired by a 20-year-old porn star, he’s incredibly virile, he’s able to sire
a child almost immediately. I mean, how is that for revisionism?
It’s the greatest POW experience of all time!
Now some would say this revisionism is a symptom of madness, but I would argue that it could
also be seen as a necessary step in the journey toward recovery.
And then there are the deeper, more philosophical aspects of Pilgrim’s fantasy — particularly
the Tralfamadorian concept of time and space. Tralfamadorians view past, present, and future
events all at once. Like one alien explains that these moments exist simultaneously and
can be viewed much as humans “might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains.” And since
an individual can’t change past, present, or future events, the Tralfamadorian vision
of time and space denies the possibility of free will, right?
Many classical Greek plays support the idea that individuals are governed by their fate.
Like you’ll remember our old friend Oedipus, told by the oracle that he would kill his
father and sleep with his mother, despite his best efforts – he does. And it’s still gross.
So why are we talking about free will in the context of reading Slaughterhouse Five? Well, let’s go to the Thought Bubble.
For one thing, the concept of free will is related to the concept of moral responsibility.
Like in the broadest terms: if one doesn’t have free will, one can’t be responsible
for one’s behavior. I mean, no matter how heinous the crime that you might commit, you
can be morally absolved because you had no choice.
In Slaughterhouse Five, Pilgrim makes some problematic life decisions. I mean, his choice
of a marriage partner, for one, is not particularly inspired: “Billy didn’t want to marry
ugly Valencia. She was one of the symptoms of his disease. He knew he was going crazy,
when he heard himself proposing marriage to her…”
Yet, his life choices aren’t particularly immoral. I mean he served as a chaplain’s
assistant in the war (a role in which he is “powerless to harm the enemy or help his
friends”). He works as an optometrist (a job in which he helps other people see better).
He supports his family (a role in which he is a provider). So why would Pilgrim want
to be absolved of moral responsibility? Well it’s obviously because Billy feels
guilt: Guilt for surviving the Dresden bombings. Guilt for being on the same side as the bombers.
Guilt for becoming “well-to-do” after the war. In adopting a worldview that denies
free will, Billy can’t blame himself for surviving, or for being complicit in mass
murder, or for benefiting financially at the war’s end.
But we also see this conversation about the relationship between free will and moral responsibility
reflected in the structure of Vonnegut’s novel.
Vonnegut framed Slaughterhouse Five with two chapters that at least seem to be narrated
in his own voice. And at times he even includes himself as a character in the main action.
(For example, the author appears among the prisoners of war, and again at the Dresden
corpse mines.) And these appearances help ground the narrative in a form of reality
that Billy Pilgrim can’t see, our reality. But Vonnegut mainly presents scenes from Pilgrim’s
perspective and as such, the narrative conflates historical events with fiction and that fiction
is conflating historical events with fantasies of alien abduction.
Thanks, Thought Bubble. So since Vonnegut also presents these events
in the order that Pilgrim experiences them, the narrative jumps back and forth in time
and space. And that means that in certain ways, Slaughterhouse
Five is kind of a work of “Tralfamadorian” fiction, right? Pilgrim quotes an alien as
defining Tralfamadorian fiction as follows:
“…each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message—describing a situation, a scene.
We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any
particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully,
so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising
and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes,
no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen
all at one time.” Obviously back in 1969, Vonnegut had never
had the experience of scrolling through a Twitter feed, but I can’t help but notice
the similarity between his fantasy of Tralfamadorian literature and our reality of the feed-based
reading experience. Slaughterhouse Five – oh, it’s time for
the open letter! Oh, it’s my Twitter!
Dear Twitter, you really are all things at once, but I have to say, you’re kind of
the worst possible version of Tralfamadorian literature.
Like I follow Walt Whitman on Twitter, and yes, I am aware that he’s deceased, and
so sometimes my Twitter feed will literally be, “I contain multitudes,” then followed
by, “Don’t miss the new season of Rich Kids of Beverly Hills!” I made that show
up, isn’t that a hilarious idea for a show? Oh my god, are you kidding me? That’s real?
So I love the idea of your asynchronicity and I love how you unmoor me from time, but
I’m not sure that you present an image of life that’s beautiful and surprising and
deep so much as you present distraction. Best wishes, John Green.
Anyway, Slaughterhouse Five is obviously like Tralfamadorian literature because: 1) it contains
a series of brief, urgent messages; 2) its scenes are presented out of order (creating
the effect that they take place “all at once’); and 3) Vonnegut has obviously chosen
each scene carefully. And yet, it’s not a work of alien fiction.
It’s a deeply human book that does contain a beginning and a middle and an end, and it
does depict causes and effects; and it does create suspense, just not in the usual way.
Billy Pilgrim longs to believe that he can access past moments though time travel. And
although that might seem misguided, it’s actually a deeply human response to loss.
I mean, I think we’ve all felt that way. Who isn’t familiar with wanting to go back
to a time of innocence? In its way, Slaughterhouse Five is an anti-bildungsroman,
it’s a novel about someone who wants to go back to a world before their education.
Because Billy Pilgrim’s education has taught him, as the Romans put it, that “man is
a wolf to man.” One of the most famous aspects of Slaughterhouse
Five is that Vonnegut repeats the Tralfamadorian mantra “so it goes” each time he mentions
a death in the novel. It’s a brutal and radically unsentimental way of grappling with
death, and therein lies its power. I mean, how are we supposed to respond to
Billy Pilgrim’s mind being destroyed by wartime trauma; how is he supposed to respond
to it? So it goes. But I think it’s clear in Slaughterhouse
Five that Vonnegut doesn’t want readers just to accept traumatic events enabled by
weapons of mass destruction as a matter of course, as part of human life.
The novel is so intentionally unadorned and unsentimental that he’s aiming to shock
us out of our passive perspective. But I think Slaughterhouse Five is “Tralfamadorian”
literature in one sense, at least. As the alien confesses: “What we love in our books
are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at once.”
The word “marvelous” is very interesting there, because, of course, we don’t marvel
just at the wonderful things, we also marvel at the horrible ones.
Vonnegut’s gift was to render it all fresh and new, both the great and the terrible,
and allow us to marvel at it. Because it’s funny and because it’s absurd
and unflinching, Vonnegut describes mass murder and torture and ordinary death in a way that
makes it feel real. There are two great modern human dangers.
First the danger of our proclivity towards mass violence and secondly, the danger of
us averting our gaze from it. We all know that humans have the ability to distract ourselves
and in doing so, to tacitly accept the intolerable. I mean frankly, we’re all doing that every
day, and those dangers are the depths that Vonnegut seeks to expose.
And in that sense at least, I truly believe that a novel can be against war. Thanks for
watching; I’ll see you next week. Crash Course is made with the help of these
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This post was previously published on YouTube.