Sci & Fi
Kepler - Technology & Plausibility - Warfare - Philosophy - Psychology (Article)
This page contains a brief look at the relation between science and fiction as this is relevant to Slaughterhouse-Five. I've supplied excerpts from Kepler's Dream (1620-30), Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), and Voltaire’s Micromégas (1752) to give some historical context. I've emphasized astronomy, military technology, philosophy, and psychology -- all central to Slaughterhouse-Five.
Starting about 1600, the twin developments of the microscope and telescope expanded human awareness of things that were too small to see with the human eye (cells, neurons, DNA, atoms, etc.) and too big to see with the human eye (such as distant galaxies, which were finally discovered in the early 1920s). Made possible by better telescopes, astronomy strongly influenced the history of scientific enquiry, intellectual freedom, and religion. The most famous example of this is the Church forcing Galileo in 1633 to recant his belief in the heliocentric model of the solar system (because this model conflicted with Ptolemy's model and the Old Testament model -- in which the earth doesn't move).
An early case of astronomy in sci-fi is The Dream by the Johannes Kepler, the early 17th Century astronomer who, along with Tycho Brahe, continued the astronomical revolution begun by Copernicus in the 16th Century:
[From Wikipedia:] Somnium (Latin for The Dream) is a fantasy written between 1620 and 1630 by Johannes Kepler in which a student of Tycho Brahe is transported to the Moon by occult forces. It presents a detailed imaginative description of how the earth might look when viewed from the moon, and is considered the first serious scientific treatise on lunar astronomy. Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov have referred to it as the first work of science fiction. Somnium began as a student dissertation in which Kepler defended the Copernican doctrine of the motion of the Earth, suggesting that an observer on the Moon would find the planet's movements as clearly visible as the Moon's activity is to the Earth's inhabitants. Nearly 20 years later, Kepler added the dream framework, and after another decade, he drafted a series of explanatory notes reflecting upon his turbulent career and the stages of his intellectual development. The book was edited by his heirs, including Jacob Bartsche, after Kepler's death in 1630, and was published posthumously in 1634.
Technology & Plausibility
While the scientific method was formulated around 1600 by Francis Bacon, and while the 17th century saw all kinds of scientific advances, it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution -- at the end of the 18th Century in England -- that technology started to alter our lives in ways we recognize today, with such things as factory production, machines, and eventually electricity and mass transit. It’s hard to grasp the radical nature of the change brought on by the development of the things we now take for granted -- such as the transportation technologies of the railway, car, and plane, or the communication technologies of the telegraph, photograph, radio, TV, and Internet.
As a result of this extensive technological application of science, fiction that dealt with science and technology became much more detailed, and, in many cases, much more plausible.
In his 1752 novella Micromégas, Voltaire could imagine an alien from another planet, yet he couldn't -- like Vonnegut in 1969 -- take for granted that travel beyond Earth was possible (the first human landed on the moon in 1969). Just as Kepler has to imagine an occult force that can get his character to the moon, so Voltaire has to imagine a fantastic use of gravity (formulated by Isaac Newton in his 1687 Principia) that can get his aliens from Sirius to Earth. Voltaire does, however, share Vonnegut's penchant for taking side-swipes at religious claims: here Voltaire makes fun of a parson who claims to have seen Heaven at the end of his telescope.
Those who travel only in coaches will doubtless be astonished at the sort of conveyance adopted up there; for we, on our little mound of mud (Earth), can imagine nothing beyond our own experience. Our [alien] traveler had such a marvellous acquaintance with the laws of gravitation, and all the forces of attraction and repulsion, and made such good use of his knowledge, that, sometimes by means of a sunbeam, and sometimes with the help of a comet, he went from one world to another as a bird hops from bough to bough. He traversed the Milky Way in a short time; and I am obliged to confess that he never saw, beyond the stars with which it is thickly sown, that beautiful celestial empyrean which the illustrious parson, Derham, boasts of having discovered at the end of his telescope. Not that I would for a moment suggest Mr. Derham mistook what he saw; Heaven forbid! But Micromegas was on the spot, he is an accurate observer, and I have no wish to contradict anybody.
The difference in plausibility between sci-fi in the early 18th Century and the 20th Century results largely because of momentous discoveries in fields such as evolutionary theory, astronomy, and genetics, many of which had occurred by the time Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World and George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four. In 1949, Orwell could easily imagine telescreens in every house. In 1932, Huxley could plausibly imagine a factory in which babies were incubated and eugenically programmed (the structure of DNA was finally mapped in 1953 by Watson and Crick).
Vonnegut's sci-fi differs from the realism or plausibility of Huxley and Orwell in that it includes aliens ("Tralfamadorians") as well as the technology and philosophy of these aliens. In this sense, Vonnegut's aliens bring a level of technology that borders on the occult force of Kepler and the planet hopping of Micromégas. Vonnegut allows for ambiguity here, for we can also see the Tralfamadorians as merely a function of Billy’s imagination, as merely the result of his desire to escape the real world. As such, the atheist Vonnegut often uses his fictional Tralfamadorian philosophy to mock idealistic religious beliefs -- for instance, the idea that we don't really die, but live in another world after death, or the idea that misery and suffering are unimportant in the greater scheme of things. As an atheist, Vonnegut doesn't believe in a greater scheme of things.
Vonnegut's aliens also bring a level of otherworldliness that explores new ways of seeing things. In the following excerpt they see the stars not just as "bright little dots" in the present, but as filaments or "luminous spaghetti" along the lines of their movement through the fourth dimension of time:
Billy Pilgrim says that the Universe does not look like a lot of bright little dots to the creatures from Tralfamadore. The creatures can see where each star has been and where it is going, so that the heavens are filled with rarefied, luminous spaghetti. And Tralfamadorians don't see human beings as two-legged creatures, either. They see them as great millepedes - "with babies' legs at one end and old people's legs at the other," says Billy Pilgrim.
Like the 18th century writer Jonathan Swift, Vonnegut sees the use of technology in war as an abuse of science. In Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Swift inveighs against the demonic tendency of humans to use technology to kill other humans:
[I told the king that] a proper quantity of this [gun] powder rammed into a hollow tube of brass or iron, according to its bigness, would drive a ball of iron or lead, with such violence and speed, as nothing was able to sustain its force. That the largest balls thus discharged, would not only destroy whole ranks of an army at once, but batter the strongest walls to the ground, sink down ships, with a thousand men in each, to the bottom of the sea, and when linked together by a chain, would cut through masts and rigging, divide hundreds of bodies in the middle, and lay all waste before them. That we often put this powder into large hollow balls of iron, and discharged them by an engine into some city we were besieging, which would rip up the pavements, tear the houses to pieces, burst and throw splinters on every side, dashing out the brains of all who came near.
The king was struck with horror […and] said, "some evil genius, enemy to mankind, must have been the first contriver. "
Robert Kennedy, whose summer home is eight miles from the home I live in all year round, was shot two nights ago [June 5, 1968]. He died last night. So it goes.
Martin Luther King was shot a month ago. He died, too. So it goes.
And every day my Government gives me a count of corpses created by military science in Vietnam.
[Trout’s novel The Gutless Wonder] was about a robot who had bad breath, who became popular after his halitosis was cured. But what made the story remarkable was that it predicted the widespread use of burning jellied gasoline on human beings.
It was dropped on them from airplanes. Robots did the dropping. They had no conscience, and no circuits which would allow them to imagine what was happening to the people on the ground.
Trout’s leading robot looked like a human being, and could talk and dance and so on, and go out with girls. And nobody held it against him that he dropped jellied gasoline on people. But they found his halitosis unforgivable. But then they cleared that up, and he was welcomed to the human race.
Vonnegut’s disgust for napalm -- jellied gasoline -- probably comes from its extensive use in the Vietnam War: "Reportedly about 388,000 tons of U.S. napalm bombs were dropped in the region between 1963 and 1973, compared to 32,357 tons used over three years in the Korean War, and 16,500 tons dropped on Japan in 1945" ("Napalm: An American Biography, by Robert M. Neer Harvard University Press -- from Wikipedia, "Napalm"].
Vonnegut's view of napalm echoes that of Trouin, the French bomber in Graham Greene's The Quiet American (1955):
The Quiet American (143-4)
'What I detest is napalm bombing. From 3,000, in safety.' He made a hopeless gesture. 'You see the forest catching fire. God knows what you would see from the ground. The poor devils are burnt alive, the flames go over them like water. They are wet through with fire. [...] The first time I dropped napalm I thought, this is the village where I was born. That is where M. Dubois, my father's old friend, lives. The baker -- I was very fond of the baker when I was a child -- is running away down there in the flames I've thrown.'
"If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings," said the Tralfamadorian, "I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by 'free will.' I've visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will."
Initially many in the 18th Century saw science as an extension of God’s Order in the universe. For instance, Alexander Pope (1688-1744) wrote the following couplet: Nature and Nature’s Law lay hid in Night; / God said, “Let Newton Be!” and all was Light. Yet with Darwin, Einstein, DNA, WWI and WWII, and Modernism in general, this marriage of science and religion became increasingly difficult to maintain. This shift toward doubt and chaos (the Archaic Greek beginning or "status quo") can be seen in the response of Sir John Squire (1884-1958): It did not last. The Devil, howling, “Ho! / Let Einstein Be!” restored the status quo.
The 20th Century philosophy of existentialism (explored by the French writers Camus and Sartre) followed hard on the heels of Darwin. Whereas essentialism posits that we already have a meaning in the soul, which is our essence (and is connected with God), existentialism posits that we exist physically first and only afterward do we create our own meaning. Existentialism can thus be boiled down to the formula: existence before essence.
Here's a grim yet humorous take on religious optimism vs. existential pessimism -- from the TV series True Detective (2014):
The notion that we start off not as souls but as blank slates -- to be written onto, as it were, by experience -- was elaborated in the 17th Century by the empirical liberal thinker John Locke, yet the implications of this aren't easy to see until later developments in cellular biology, especially DNA. The genetic code helps to explain innate responses, yet in the 17th Century these responses must have appeared mysterious indeed.
In the following excerpt from the conclusion of Voltaire's Micromégas (1752), the giant aliens are listening to the tiny humans talk about their philosophies. One human echoes Locke, while the other human echoes the Medieval thinker Thomas Aquinas, whose Summa Theologica (1265-74) explained the universe from a Medieval Christian perspective -- in which the Christian God and the salvation of Jesus are at the very centre of the meaning of everything:
A little student of Locke was standing near; and when his opinion was at last asked: "I know nothing," said he, "of how I think, but I know I have never thought except on the suggestion of my senses. That there are immaterial and intelligent substances is not what I doubt; but that it is impossible for God to communicate the faculty of thought to matter is what I doubt very strongly. I adore the eternal Power, nor is it my part to limit its exercise; I assert nothing, I content myself with believing that more is possible than people think."
The creature of Sirius [Micromégas] smiled; he did not deem the last speaker the least sagacious of the company; and, were it possible, the dwarf of Saturn would have clasped Locke's disciple in his arms.
But unluckily a little animalcule [the human follower of Aquinas] was there in a square cap, who silenced all the other philosophical mites, saying that he knew the whole secret, that it was all to be found in the "Summa" of St. Thomas Aquinas; he scanned the pair of celestial visitors from top to toe, and maintained that they and all their kind, their suns and stars, were made solely for man's benefit.
At this speech our two travellers tumbled over each other, choking with that inextinguishable laughter which, according to Homer, is the special privilege of the gods; their shoulders shook, and their bodies heaved up and down, till in those merry convulsions, the ship the Saturnian held on his palm fell into his breeches pocket. These two good people, after a long search, recovered it at last, and duly set to rights all that had been displaced. The Saturnian once more took up the little mites, and Micromégas addressed them again with great kindness, though he was a little disgusted in the bottom of his heart at seeing such infinitely insignificant atoms so puffed up with pride. He promised to give them a rare book of philosophy, written in minute characters, for their special use, telling all that can be known of the ultimate essence of things, and he actually gave them the volume ere his departure. It was carried to Paris and laid before the Academy of Sciences; but when the old secretary came to open it, the pages were blank.
"Ah!" said he. "Just as I expected."
The two quotes below suggest that Vonnegut believes 1) the human body is a function of sensory perception, and 2) ideals such as the afterlife can be seen as forms of quietism.
Quietism: noun 1. (in the Christian faith) devotional contemplation and abandonment of the will as a form of religious mysticism. 2. calm acceptance of things as they are without attempts to resist or change them: i.e. political quietism (from Apple's American Dictionary).
There was alot that Billy said that was gibberish to the Tralfamadorians too. They couldn't imagine what time looked like to him. Billy had given up on explaining that. The [alien] guide outside [Billy's bubble on Tralfamadore] had to explain as best he could.
The guide invited the [alien] crowd to imagine that they were looking across a desert at a mountain range on a day that was twinkling bright and clear. They could look at a peak or a bird or cloud, at a stone right in front of them, or even down into a canyon behind them. But among them was this poor Earthling, and his head was encased in a steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eyehole through which he could look, and welded to that eyehole were six feet of pipe.
This was only the beginning of Billy's miseries in the metaphor. He was also strapped to a steel lattice which was bolted to a flatcar on rails, and there was no way he could turn his head or touch the pipe. The far end of the pipe rested on a bi-pod which was also bolted to the flatcar. All Billy could see was the little dot at the end of the pipe. He didn't know he was on a flatcar, didn't even know there was anything peculiar about his situation.
The flatcar sometimes crept, sometimes went extremely fast, often stopped -- went uphill, downhill, around curves, along straightaways. Whatever poor Billy saw through the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself, "That's life."
Billy was working on his second letter when the first letter was published. The second letter started out like this:
"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.
"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's Psychological Strategies in Slaughterhouse-Five" by Reiko Nitta (PsyArt, 2011):
Slaughterhouse-Five's main story deals with Billy Pilgrim's memory of the war supported by such unrealistic elements as a kind of time warp, extraterrestrials and their four dimensional points of view. These science fictional elements are actually the lies Billy relies on in order to reduce, in his recollection of the air raid on Dresden, what Leon Festinger, the social-psychologist, calls "cognitive-dissonance." Though Vonnegut succeeds in driving the appalling tragedy of Dresden home to the readers in the 1960s, Billy is too weak to fight against wars or to protect any peace. This is why Vonnegut adds the other story of the writer who speaks of Billy's story, to complement Billy's story. This thesis discusses these literary and psychology techniques Vonnegut used in Slaughterhouse-Five to create "an anti-war novel" in the 1960s from his World War II experience.
It was in 1969, 24 years after witnessing the devastating air raid on Dresden, and 17 years after publishing his first novel, that Kurt Vonnegut published his sixth novel, Slaughterhouse-Five based on his own war experience. John Tomedi attributes this achievement to three major causes: "The Writers Workshop at Iowa was pivotal, to be sure, in allowing Vonnegut to find a voice in which he may tell the story. In 1967, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship which allowed him time to travel to Dresden to research the novel. The windfall of his three-book-deal with Seymour Lawrence […] gave Vonnegut the time and money necessary to begin devoting himself to his Dresden book whole-heartedly" (54-55). Yet Vonnegut confesses that "not many words about Dresden came from my mind then […] not many words come now, either"(2).
In 1969, the number of soldiers stationed in Vietnam rose to over 550, 000, reaching its peak. It is quite natural that Vonnegut was frustrated at his country's involvement in the war and wanted to write "an anti-war book"(3) based on his Dresden experience, but he also knew that "there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers"(3). To overcome this difficulty, he exerted all of the science fiction techniques and devices which he had mastered as a popular science fiction writer, as well as his sense of humor. However, Slaughterhouse-Five was not intended to be science fiction at all, as J. Michael Crichton clearly declares: "his science fiction heritage is clear, but his purposes are very different: he is nearly always talking about the past, not the future" (110). At the same time, because of the science fiction techniques and elements, this book is quite different from other war novels, not to mention the Holocaust novels.
Vonnegut's special usage of science fiction elements as well as the influence of the Dresden air raid on his writing have been discussed by many critics. Leslie Fiedler was one of the first critics who recognized his usage of science fiction as a typical postmodern technique in which high art adopted American Pop culture. He observes: "Vonnegut has had what we now realize to be an advantage in this regard, since he began as a Pop writer" (7). Robert Scholes also recognizes the humor accompanying Vonnegut's usage of science fiction as an original way of presenting a serious theme: "The humor in Vonnegut's fiction is what enables us to contemplate the horror that he finds in contemporary existence. It does not disguise the awful things perceived; it merely strengthens and comforts us to the point where such perception is bearable" (38).
Among the analyses of the forms and styles of Slaughterhouse-Five, Peter Freese's "Slaughterhouse-Five; or, How to Storify an Atrocity" is especially enlightening. Like Fiedler, he also recognizes Vonnegut's efforts in "closing the customary gap between 'high' and 'low' " (79). Furthermore, he examines how Vonnegut structured the book: "he uses the science-fiction motif of time-travel to break up not only the subjective experience but also the objective measurement of time and thereby to spatialize his tale" (79). He then concludes that the science fiction motif enabled Vonnegut to "achieve three goals at once, namely, to relativize the official versions of a historical event by reconstructing it from an idiosyncratic point of view, to thematize contemporary problems through a subjective consciousness, and to extrapolate the possibilities of tomorrow from the potential of today" (79). Freese's analyses are convincing and his discussion helps us to understand the novel better but his interest is mostly focused on Vonnegut's metafictional strategies such as "the blurring between fact and fiction as an expression of ontological insecurity, and the cumulation of multiply cross-referenced repetitions as an indication of man's imprisonment in the ruling linguistic discourses" (80) so that the psychological strategies Vonnegut uses in this novel have not yet been fully discussed in his or other studies.
In this essay, therefore, I would like to examine Vonnegut's usage of science fiction elements from a psychological point of view, especially in relation to cognitive dissonance, in order to clarify the psychological structure of this novel and its characteristics as an anti-war novel in the 1960s.
2. The Psychological Structure of Billy's Time Travel
At the very beginning of the description of Billy's time travel, Vonnegut repeats "he says" in order to insinuate that Billy's time travel is only what he claims and that the narrator-author has a different view of it:
Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.
Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between.
Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren't necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next. (23, emphasis [in bold] mine)
In spite of Vonnegut's insinuation, most critics accept the nonlinear time structures of Billy's story according to his description of them. Sharon Sieber even introduces the chaos theory of the twentieth century and James Gleick's opinion that "chaos and arbitrary or random events, characterized by a lack of any perceivable pattern, often involve the perception of yet a larger circle" (149). Their analyses are right in a way but Billy's "spastic" condition is not so unpredictable as he claims. His narrative is structured in a far more logical order than at first appears.
The scenes Billy visits are classified into two groups-during the war and during normal days. And the scenes during the war are arranged in a straight linear time structure: from his being shipped to the European theater, through being missing in action, the capture by the Germans, the dispatch to Dresden, the prison life and the air raid there, to the end of the war. In contrast with Billy's war memories, the scenes during Billy's normal days move back and forth in time. Yet, there is also a pattern: they correspond to Billy's emotional reaction to his war memories and through the process of jumping from one scene to another, he mitigates the pain attached to the recollection of his war experience. For example, Billy says that he came unstuck in time for the first time, when he was too tired to keep moving in the snowy forest behind the German line. His life was at risk then so that he is reminded of his childhood when he was almost drowned during his swimming training. In both cases, his life was jeopardized but the latter experience is one step farther from his death because the incident occurred in normal circumstances under his father's care. The subsequent scenes are similarly related to death but not his own, and when the scenes change, Billy gradually moves away from his own original terrifying moment and finally ends up in a happy memory so that he is ready to resume his recollection of the war again.
The two groups of scenes Billy visits are thus woven together with each other in consolation and entertainment, gradually leading the reader to the most heartrending war experience for Vonnegut, the Dresden raid. This is why Peter Freese thinks that Billy Pilgrim "evokes Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress and insinuates that Billy is a contemporary Everyman on his burdensome journey through an earthly valley of tears" (73). John Tomedi also observes: "The extraordinary effect of this [narrating the circumstances of the event like a Tralfamadorian] is to make all events, no matter when they occurred, to lead up to Dresden" (62). Therefore, Stanley Schatt is in a way right when he announces: "Slaughterhouse-Five is constructed much like Joseph Heller's Catch-22. Just as that novel's Yossarian is compelled to think about Snowden's death yet finds it too painful and tries to avoid the memory, so too is a reluctant Billy Pilgrim forced to return again and again to the fire-bombing of Dresden" (82). Yet, Schatt fails to recognize that there is a large difference between Yossarian and Billy. Yossarian can strongly resist the war and run away from it but Billy is always helpless and far more confused than Yossarian.
3. The Use of the Tralfamadore to Reduce Cognitive Dissonance
Billy's helplessness is more clearly demonstrated in his belief in the other science fictional elements -- the outer space planet, Tralfamadore, and its inhabitants' four-dimensional view. He starts earnestly advocating them after the unexpected death of his wife, Valencia:
"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. […]" (26-27)
Valencia died of carbon monoxide poisoning due to the breakdown of her car's exhaust system on her way to visit Billy in hospital. Billy miraculously survived the plane crash which killed all the other passengers and crew. He seems to have had much more reason to die than his wife who was in good health and only wanted to see him in hospital. Yet he survived and his wife died. Being ironically contrasted with his own lucky survival, the circumstances of Valencia's unexpected death look all the more absurd and extravagant so that they insinuate that her existence was meaningless and insignificant enough to be lost in such a farcical way. Billy could not face this fact calmly because Valencia was important and essential to his life. To preserve the dignity of her life, therefore, he believed in such a science fictional element as the Tralfamadorian four-dimensional view, because if those who die only appear to die, he could mitigate the pain caused to him by the loss of his beloved wife as well as annul the absurdity and inhumanity of its circumstances.
In this book, the absurd circumstances of Valencia's death are juxtaposed with the devastating destruction caused by the Dresden air raid. This raid is no more acceptable to Billy than his wife's death. At the first sight of Dresden, Billy was amazed at the old city with its cultural splendors. "It looked like a Sunday school picture of Heaven" (148). It must have seemed to him to represent human wisdom and virtues. Besides, he saw ordinary life going on there. "There were theaters and restaurants. There was a zoo. The principal enterprises of the city were medicine and food-processing and the making of cigarettes" (149). Dresden did not seem to have much to do with military action. Even those who took care of Billy and other American prisoners of the war there were either young boys or men past middle age and did not much resemble a part of the military force. As a result, the Dresden air raid seemed to Billy a meaningless military action, killing civilians and destroying a magnificent product of civilization constructed by excellent human talents and efforts. It is difficult for him to find any proper explanation for such an atrocious, indiscriminate destruction. Yet if he believes in the Tralfamadorian four-dimensional view, the many lives lost in it and the city mercilessly destroyed will exist in a better condition at another time. The Tralfamadorian view alleviates the pain accompanying the loss of too many lives and such a beautiful city. His belief is therefore a form of escapism as Merrill and Scholl perceive: "Faced with the sheer horror of life, epitomized by World War II and especially the fire-bombing of Dresden, Billy 'escapes' to Tralfamadore" (145).
Billy's escapism looks perfectly natural because it is a well-known psychological attempt to "reduce cognitive dissonance." One's mind becomes unsettled in a situation which is difficult to explain. This is the phenomenon called "cognitive dissonance" and one tends to look for an explanation to relieve the inner tension created by it. Leon Festinger, one of the most eminent psychologists in this area, describes this tendency: "The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance" (3). Festinger furthermore comments: "persons frequently have cognitive elements which deviate markedly from reality" (11). He observes that in an unusual situation one can easily fall into absurd reasoning without facing reality and that the more difficult the situation is to face, the more easily one retreats from reality and relies on an absurd explanation.
In writing Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut was highly aware of this psychological phenomenon. When Billy had a nervous breakdown, his bed in the hospital was next to that of Eliot Rosewater. "Rosewater was twice as smart as Billy, but he and Billy were dealing with similar crises in similar ways. They had both found life meaningless, partly because of what they had seen in war" (101). Rosewater is wise enough to be able to explain what Billy unconsciously does. He thus suggests to a psychiatrist: "I think you guys are going to have to come up with a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren't going to want to go on living" (101). It is also Rosewater who introduces Billy to Kilgore Trout, the science fiction writer, and "Kilgore Trout became Billy's favorite living author and science fiction became the only sort of tales he could read" (101).
In The Psychology of "Making Oneself Believe," Satoru Kikuchi asserts that it is actually important to divert one's mind from reality when it is unbearable: "positive illusion plays the role of a favorable remedy for one's depression" (203). Kikuchi however comments that "because our cognition level becomes very low when we are depressed, we tend to fall into a fallacy to get rid of depression and lift our spirits" (203). This is why he concludes that it is important for us to "keep our heart hot and our mind cool" (204) in order to live wisely.
Billy's belief in Tralfamadore and time travel provides him what Rosewater calls "wonderful new lies," as long as it helps him to survive the war and his wife's death. At the same time, when his belief looks merely absurd, the difficulty and atrocity of the experience which has driven him into it is all the more impressive to the reader. Yet, it must be noted that Billy does not seem to keep his mind cool enough to live wisely with his lies. In fact, Vonnegut implies a warning against his beliefs. Lawrence Broer deciphers "Tralfamadore" and reveals that it is an anagram of "OR FATAL DREAM" (87). Tralfamadorians take it for granted that no one can prevent the Universe from being destroyed because "[t]he moment is structured that way" (117). They assume that everything is already there and predetermined. Their view induces the danger of fatalism so that Tonny Tanner suspects that it is "a culpable moral indifference" that "[t]he Tralfamadorian response to life is 'guilt-free' " (129). This is why Vonnegut clearly announces, at the end of the book, that his response to the Tralfamadorian view is different from Billy's: "If what Billy Pilgrim learned from the Tralfamadorians is true, that we will all live forever, no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be, I am not overjoyed" (211).
As "his method for keeping going" (60), Billy hangs up The Serenity Prayer: "GOD GRANT ME / THE SERENITY TO ACCEPT / THE THINGS I CANNOT CHANGE, / COURAGE / TO CHANGE THE THINGS I CAN, / AND WISDOM ALWAYS / TO TELL THE / DIFFERENCE" (60). Yet believing in such unrealistic dreams as time travel and Tralfamadore and yielding to the Tralfamadorian fatalistic four-dimensional view, he disregards all deaths without distinguishing between accidental and inevitable deaths and deaths inflicted by men in wars and massacres. "He was powerless to harm the enemy or to help his friends" (30) in the war, and even after the war, he continues to be called "Billy," a diminutive of "William" with a childish image because he is so thoroughly helpless that "[a]mong the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future" (60).
4. Vonnegut's Unique Situation in the War and Its Postmodern Characteristics
Through Billy's extraordinary time travel, Vonnegut opened a window on the confusion of our reality. Sharon Sieber observes this and asserts that "[h]is dizzying travels through and beyond any present moment introduce into the novel the modern fragmentation of perspective, perception, storyline, the structuring of thought and experience along associative patterns" (148). Sieber uses the word "modern," but she means "late 20th century" and the characteristics of this world emphasized by Billy's time travel are typically "postmodern."
Those postmodern characteristics are further strengthened by the absurd incidents which are abundant in Billy's life. Billy was in danger of being killed by the army of his own side in the Dresden air raid. When he was running behind the battle front with the two scouts and Roland Weary, the two scouts were the first to die, in spite of having the greatest ability and training as soldiers among the four. Among the prisoners of war, Edgar Derby, who had the most common sense as an old high school teacher, was executed for plundering a teapot he carelessly picked up from the raided city. Similar absurdities are encountered by him outside the war, too. His father was shot to death while it was he who was hunting. And in the airplane crash, he alone survived only to learn of his wife's accidental death instead.
In this way, Vonnegut emphasizes absurdity and uncertainty in our life so much that any naïve truism about life could come to seem meaningless. This is why his straightforward pacifism seems nothing but a virtue praised by all but practiced by few when Vonnegut pompously preaches to his sons:
I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.
I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that. (19)
It is also true that Vonnegut sometimes looks as helpless as Billy. Whenever someone's death is mentioned, Vonnegut adds: "So it goes." Willis E. McNelly notes: "The words become a fatalistic chant, a dogmatic utterance, to permit Vonnegut himself to endure" (126). The phrase, "So it goes," not only helps Vonnegut endure the deaths, it allows him to be indifferent to them, implying that not only Billy but also Vonnegut himself cannot do much about those deaths. This is why this phrase sounds pessimistic. And the same pessimism is also detected in "Poo-tee-weet?" , which Vonnegut claims is "[a]ll there is to say about a massacre" (19).
Vonnegut's confounding ambivalence must be related to his unique situation in the Dresden air raid. Under the title of Slaughterhouse-Five, he describes it: "A FOURTH-GENERATION GERMAN-AMERICAN / […] WHO, AS AN AMERICAN INFANTRY SCOUT / HORS DE COMBAT, /AS A PRISONER OF WAR, / WITNESSED THE FIRE-BOMBING /OF DRESDEN, GERMANY, / "THE FLORENCE OF THE ELBE," / A LONG TIME AGO, / AND SURVIVED TO TELL THE TALE." In the war, Vonnegut fought as an American soldier against Germany, the country of his ancestors. He was then captured by Germans as their enemy and brought to their old city, Dresden. However, he found it beautiful and splendid and together with German citizens there, he was bombed by the Allies, his own side. He was, therefore, in a unique position to observe the war and the destruction of Dresden from the points of view of both opposing sides. And understanding the opinions and feelings of both sides, he could neither take any side rashly nor make any easy comment. He has fallen into a typically postmodern and indefinite, ambiguous position.
Consequently, instead of making any clear comment, he quotes President Harry S. Truman's well-known announcement to excuse the usage of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima: "The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor" (185). He also impassively introduces Lieutenant General Ira C. Eaker's vindictive announcement, "I remember who started the last war" (187) and his regret at the number of Allied casualties because it was much larger than the 135,000 casualties in the attack on Dresden, as well as British Air Marshal, Sir Robert Saundby's justifying explanation of the Dresden raid: "It was one of those terrible things that sometimes happen in wartime, brought about by an unfortunate combination of circumstances" (187). These are typical explanations of the usage of the atomic bomb and the Dresden raid. And his manner of introducing them is too detached to present them convincingly so that Vonnegut does not seem to be persuaded by any of them. Nevertheless, it cannot be overlooked that he never openly criticizes them, either.
Vonnegut is inarticulate when he mentions the Dresden raid to a University of Chicago professor and when the professor tells him, in return, about the concentration camps and other atrocities Germans committed. All he can say is: "I know, I know. I know" (10). The impatience in his voice suggests his disagreement but not more than that, revealing postmodern "aporia" in his attitudes. In this way, he is not different from Billy. Billy hears Prof. Bertram Copeland Rumford, a Harvard history professor, who wrote twenty-seven volumes about World War II but excluded a description of the Dresden raid, explaining to his secretary that he omitted it "[f]or fear that a lot of bleeding hearts […] might not think it was such a wonderful thing to do" (191). All Billy can tell Rumford then is: "I was there [in Dresden]" (191). It implies his resistance to Rumford's exclusion of the tragedy in Dresden but he cannot protest enough for Rumford to understand his protest. After all, because they witnessed the Dresden raid, neither Billy nor Vonnegut can excuse it for any reason, and yet neither can they blame anybody for it or for excusing it, either.
5. Slaughterhouse-Five as "a Really Wonderful New Lie"
Vonnegut experienced the Second World War from the point of view of both sides and is wise enough to have learned all kinds of views from both sides. This is why his attitudes toward the war are as full of postmodern uncertainty and ambiguity as Billy's life is. It cannot be denied, either, that Vonnegut has a streak of fatalism and pessimism. Nevertheless, it should not be overlooked that Vonnegut is not Billy. Robert Merrill and Peter A. Scholl complain that "most of Vonnegut's critics seem intent on reading the book [Slaughterhouse-Five] as if it were the work of a quietist" (143). This, they argue, is due to the fact that those critics think that Vonnegut is saying the same thing as Billy does, though in fact "Vonnegut offers many hints that the Tralfamadorians do not exist" (144). Besides Merrill and Scholl, Lawrence R. Broer also objects to "the standard view of Vonnegut as fatalist" (86) and observes the difference between Vonnegut and Billy: "Vonnegut is careful to dissociate himself from Billy as from no character before" (86).
If his preaching to his sons is not as effective as it is supposed to be, it shows that Vonnegut is different from Billy, who "was not moved to protest the bombing of North Vietnam, did not shudder about the hideous things he himself had seen bombing do" (60) when the Vietnam War was escalated. Billy even finds his son, Robert, clean and neat in the uniform of the Green Berets as if the Vietnam War could have done something good to him. In a similar situation, Vonnegut, who asks his sons not to take part in massacres under any circumstances, would never be satisfied.
A still more important difference between them is that Vonnegut could really take a more definite step than Billy. He knew how difficult it was to write "an anti-war novel." He also knew: "People aren't supposed to look back" (22). Against all of his good judgment, however, he wrote Slaughterhouse-Five. He regards his book as "a failure" (22) but must have thought "it was so human" (22) to write it, just as he comments on the deed of Lot's wife, who looked back in spite of God's prohibition. And this must be why Todd Davis regards Vonnegut as a Postmodern humanist, defining postmodern humanism as follows: "while postmodern humanism denies an essential individuality to the subject, it does not disregard the value of human life" (31). He claims that Vonnegut "offers a hopeful solution to the postmodern condition" (31) and distinguishes his positive writing from Billy's stories of resignation:
Time travel is Billy's therapy; his stories are his delusions. Conversely, Vonnegut uses writing as a form of therapy and social protest. Unlike Billy, Vonnegut never loses sight of the physical reality of war in the telling of his tale. (79)
As the main character of an anti-war novel, Billy needs to be weak enough to reduce the "cognitive dissonance" caused by his war experience and to escape into a science fictional belief. His belief can become all the more extraordinary because of his helplessness. And the more extravagant the belief which he uses to reduce the "cognitive dissonance" becomes, the more terrible and bewildering Billy's war experience looks. Billy also needs to be a weak anti-hero so as to allow Vonnegut to supply various points of view on the war without an authentic comment and thus to establish postmodern characteristics in the book. Above all, being an anti-hero, Billy prevents young people who were born after the war and have not experienced its grim reality, from being attracted by any war experience, as Vonnegut promised his friend's wife, Mary: "If I ever do finish it [my book], though, I give you my word of honor: there won't be a part for Frank Sinatra or John Wayne" (15). As an added effect, Billy's fantastic stories of the outer space aliens and his life with a gorgeous young woman, Montana Wildhack, following his abduction, entertain the readers of the younger generation and encourage them to keep reading the book based on the sober reality of the war. Slaughterhouse-Five is, therefore, a really successful anti-war novel for the younger generation after the war without incurring any risk of a future war. And writing such an anti-war novel despite all the odds is a good way for Vonnegut to practice the obligation and responsibility to resist any wars and massacres.
Wayne D. McGinnis indicates that the book consists of an open cycle and because "the cycle itself reflects man's own nature as he experiences the regeneration of immortality in his mind," (121) he regards Slaughterhouse-Five as "his[Vonnegut's] best and even most hopeful novel to date" (121). If his unique position in the war and his postmodern liberalism prevented Vonnegut from indicating more clearly how he should understand the Dresden air raid or how we should prevent another war and massacre, he commanded the courage to change what he can as a writer and as a man and wrote Slaughterhouse-Five as an anti-war novel. In this book, he used science fiction only for his literary strategies and retained a realistic view of the world. Slaughterhouse-Five is the fruit of Vonnegut's efforts to "keep his heart hot and his mind cool" and it is this book that really fulfills the criteria of what Eliot Rosewater calls "wonderful new lies."
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By Reiko Nitta, Graduate School of Letters, Hiroshima University, 1-2-3, Kagamiyama, Higashi-Hiroshima, Hiroshima, 739-8522, Japan, email@example.com