In Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut insists that "there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre". How does he come to this conclusion? How does his use of repeated phrases help to make...
In Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut insists that "there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre". How does he come to this conclusion? How does his use of repeated phrases help to make his argument?
Wikipedia’s dictionary provides a very good definition of “absurdism” that seems very appropriate for any discussion of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic of literature, Slaughterhouse Five:
(Absurdism) In philosophy, "the Absurd" refers to the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any. In this context absurd does not mean "logically impossible", but rather "humanly impossible". ...
Early in Chapter 1 of his interpolation of science fiction and memoir, Vonnegut describes a vignette from his experiences in the greatest war the world has ever known, World War II, during which time he was taken prisoner along with other American soldiers. Slaughterhouse Five was intended to represent a cathartic experience for the veteran of that terrible war and of one of the war’s most tragic and little-known episodes, the Allied fire-bombing of the German city of Dresden. Vonnegut’s inability to come to grips with the scale of carnage to which he was an early witness – he and a handful of fellow prisoners-of-war were held in the meat lockers of a local slaughterhouse and consequently spared the incinerated fate of the city’s German population – rendered him “speechless” in terms of his efforts at understanding the destruction before him. That his book represents an important example of absurdist literature, then, lies in one minor episode that illuminated the surrealistic experiences of his youth, an episode he relates to an old war buddy who he has contacted with the intent of visiting and refreshing his memory regarding their shared history. Vonnegut mentions to this old colleague the execution of one of their fellow American prisoners for looting a teapot from the ruins of the destroyed city:
“’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 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’.”
Vonnegut’s story is the manifestation of one particularly perceptive individual’s efforts at putting such observations and experiences into words – and publishable words, at that. That the only way he can do this is by adopting an absurdist approach is the reason for the following message to the publishing company executive who signs Vonnegut to a contract:
“The friends of Seymour Lawrence call him ‘Sam.’ And I say to Sam now: ‘Sam – here’s the book.’
“It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.
“And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like ‘Poo-tee-weet?’”
Vonnegut ends Slaughterhouse Five with that bird sound: “Poo-tee-weet.” He does this because it makes as much sense as anything else. Also in that opening chapter, more of a preface, actually, is an anecdote regarding an exchange with somebody form the film industry who inquired regarding the author’s current writing project. Upon informing this individual of his intent to write an anti-war book, the film executive replies facetiously with a rhetorical question, “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book, instead?” Vonnegut understood the meaning of this response: war, like acts of nature, are inevitable. That one is entirely man-made and the others natural occurrences makes no difference. War has been a part of mankind as long as man has walked the earth, and therefore is as natural an act as a hurricane, tornado or glacier. And that is why, throughout his book, Vonnegut punctuates tragic anecdotes with the phrase “and so it goes.” Because bad things happen, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.
You're not going to understand a book like Slaughterhouse Five until you understand its context and the concept of absurdist literature. Slaughterhouse Five, to reiterate, is Vonnegut's attempt at articulating the horrors to which he was exposed -- horrors that only very recently, with the publication of new histories of the air war over Europe, have rejuvenated discussions of strategic bombing -- and that which were largely ignored in the public consciousness for years after Germany's defeat. Overshadowed by the atomic bombings of Japan, the firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo received scant attention, yet resulted in levels of destruction and numbers of casualties on par with what occurred in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Vonnegut was there; he witnessed the destruction of Dresden by Allied bombers. He struggled for a way to describe his observations and to make sense of it all. His use of repetition is a part of the methodology he chose to employ to emphasize the absurdity of it all (and, keep in mind his story of Edgar Derby). The first sign of life following a massacre, Vonnegut notes, is the presence of a bird making the sound "poo-tee-weet." His continued use of that transcription of a bird's tweeting is intended to punctuate observations. Similarly, the homily about Yon Yonson is employed as a method of reiterating the banality of much of what he has to say about the formative episode of his life. Vonnegut doesn't tell the reader how or why he arrived at the decision to use these exact phrases or transcriptions. He didn't have to. The fact of their usage serves his purpose in being nonsensical and repetitive in a book devoted to purging his soul of the aforementioned horrors at which he was present.