Monday, July 10, 2017

July 10: That was I, War is Shit, Albert Einstein

Billy looked inside the latrine.  The wailing was coming from in there.  The place was crammed with Americans who had taken their pants down.  The welcome feast had made them as sick as volcanoes.  The buckets were full or had been kicked over.

An American near Billy wailed that he had excreted everything but his brains.  Moments later he said, "There they go, there they go."  He meant his brains.

That was I.  That was me.  That was the author of this book.

Billy reeled away from his vision of Hell.  He passed three Englishmen who were watching the excrement festival from a distance.  They were catatonic with disgust.

"Button your pants!" said one as Billy went by.

So Billy buttoned his pants.  He came to the door of the little hospital by accident.  He went through the door, and found himself honeymooning again, going from the bathroom back to bed with his bride on Cape Ann.

"I missed you," said Valencia.

"I missed you," said Billy Pilgrim.

You will excuse me if I don't provide an extended commentary on this little latrine scene.  I am sort of like the three Englishmen catatonic with disgust.  I have never been able to deal with human excrement that well.  Did it with my children.  Not going to do it again until I have grandchildren, which I hope will not be for a long while.

The part of this little passage that I find most interesting is Vonnegut breaking the fictional wall and inserting himself into the story.  That sort of fascinates me, as if somehow it lends a certain truth to the narrative of Billy Pilgrim.  It's almost as if Vonnegut is saying, "Just in case you think all this shit is made-up, here I am."  Vonnegut's presence also echoes back through the rest of the war passages.  The most horrendous parts of Slaughterhouse are thereby made fact.

So Slaughterhouse isn't just science fiction or historical fiction or literary fiction.  It's all of those things.  But it's also a historical document, detailing the end of World War II from the perspective of an American prisoner of war.  Vonnegut is laying the groundwork for the upcoming bombing of Dresden.  He doesn't want anybody to mistake what he has to say about war as a flight of imagination.  It's not.  War is shit, literally and metaphorically.

That's not necessarily a new or profound statement.  We can trace that little kernel of wisdom all the way back to Homer.  Where Vonnegut breaks new ground is in his views on the inevitability of war and death.  Nothing is new.  Human beings will harm other human beings, no matter what.  It has happened, is happening, will happen again.  There's no escaping it.  So it goes.

I, myself, like to be a little more hopeful that the human race will eventually break this cycle.  The current state of the world is not really bolstering this hope at the moment.  At the moment, Vonnegut's views on time and war and violence seem to be winning.  At least in the United States.  But I am not giving up just yet.

Albert Einstein once said, "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."  So, extending Einstein into Vonnegut, we have to know about the mistakes we've made in the past in order to avoid them in the future.  Vonnegut documents war in order, perhaps, to sound an alarm (and hope) for the future.  At least, that's the way I read him.

Tomorrow morning, I head out on a little poetry reading trip to the east end of the Upper Peninsula.  I think that is an act of hope.  Any time truth is spoken, in any form--poetry, fiction, science fiction--the world is made a little better.

Saint Marty is thankful tonight for the gift of words.

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