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Vonnegut, Kurt - Slaughterhouse-Five

Identifier

025050

Type of spiritual experience

Background

After spending much of two years at the writer's workshop at the University of Iowa, teaching one course each term, Vonnegut was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for research in Germany. By the time he won it, in March 1967, he was becoming a well-known writer. He used the funds to travel in Eastern Europe, including to Dresden, where he found many prominent buildings still in ruins. At the time of the bombing, Vonnegut had not appreciated the sheer scale of destruction in Dresden; his enlightenment came only slowly as information dribbled out, and based on early figures he came to believe that 135,000 had died there.

Vonnegut had been writing about his war experiences at Dresden ever since he returned from the war, but had never been able to write anything acceptable to himself or his publishers—Chapter 1 of Slaughterhouse-Five tells of his difficulties.

 Released in 1969, the novel rocketed Vonnegut to fame. It tells of the life of Billy Pilgrim, who like Vonnegut was born in 1922 and survives the bombing of Dresden. The story is told in a non-linear fashion, with many of the story's climaxes—Billy's death in 1976, his kidnapping by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore nine years earlier, and the execution of Billy's friend Edgar Derby in the ashes of Dresden for stealing a teapot—disclosed early in the story.

In 1972, Universal Pictures adapted Slaughterhouse-Five into a film which the author said was "flawless".

Vonnegut makes it clear that Billy has been totally traumatised by his experiences in the war, in his childhood and has in addition suffered since with additional trauma, just as he had himself done.  Billy Pilgrim is somewhat autobiographical as the events in the book mirror those in Vonnegut’s life, which makes the story that much more interesting as Billy Pilgrim was able to travel in time.  He could wander the loom of perceptions and be in the past and the future – or was it the future?  Although the book is principally about the war it is based on the concept of time being a fluid thing.  To the Tralfamadore, time is just an extra dimension they can experience, they perceive everything as four dimensions past, present and future.

And thus Billy knew his entire life, how he was born, how he lived and how he died.  From this point of view the book raises philosophical and metaphysical questions that are greater than the book itself and make it something of a gruesome masterwork.

A description of the experience

Extract Kurt Vonnegut - Slaughterhouse-Five

LISTEN

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.

He says.

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.

Billy was born in 1922 in llium, New York, the only child of a barber there. He was a funny-looking child who became a funny-looking youth-tall and weak and shaped like a bottle of-Coca-Cola. He graduated from llium High School in the upper third of his class, and attended night sessions at the llium School of Optometry for one semester before being drafted for military service in the Second World War. His father died in a hunting accident during the war.

So it goes…………..

[He says]  '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 the 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 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’.

The source of the experience

Vonnegut, Kurt

Concepts and Symbols used in the text or image

Activities

Observation contributed by: Rosie Rock-Evans