A Review of Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse Five, written in 1969, is overall an antiwar book in which war so messes with a person that they go in and out of imaginary dreams and experiences, time is totally disoriented, the traditional narrative of life is broken, and all that once seems normal is not.

The author purports at the beginning that he has long aimed to write a book about the experiences of the bombing of the German city of Dresden by Allied forces in 1945 at the end of World War II, but he didn’t know how to go about writing such a book, such a narrative; it is as if to try to write a rational book about so irrational an event is absurd.

So, instead, he writes an absurd book to reflect the absurd reality that he has found himself in. It is a book about a loser who goes to war and is captured by the Germans and abused, is put in a slaughterhouse to work like a slave, is in the meantime kidnapped by aliens and taken to an alien planet where he exists in a zoo so that the aliens can watch him. He is imprisoned, in other words, by these aliens, just as he is imprisoned by the Germans, imprisoned by his memory, imprisoned by his mind, constantly going back to tragic events that he wishes he could forget. His mind is so disordered, that not only does he imagine something as ludicrous as the aliens on Tralfamadore, and his presence there with a porn queen exhibiting sex for the aliens, but he also goes in and out of time, back and forth, whenever and wherever his disordered brain takes him.

In the book there is no sense of morality, or right and wrong, and the behavior of humans is generally disordered and often ludicrous. To treat others with such cruelty is ludicrous. And although Billy is generally an ok guy, not trying to harm anyone, he is constantly being harmed, by not only other humans, but even aliens as well. The order of Western Civilization, based on the order of human reason, God’s will, morality and goodness, and the order of time, its slow linear movement, has completely vanished in a world of hate and destruction, random events, and the overwhelming rule of chance and contingency.

Even though the Tralfamadorians lock him up in a zoo, Billy still is impressed by their philosophy of life, that death is an illusion, that we can experience life anytime we want to, that all of the moments of life are randomly available to us, and hence there is no death as an end to linear time, because linear time doesn’t exist, rather random moments of time exist; hence there is no end, it is all circular and sporadic. But it is godless, amoral, filled with chance and irregularity and senselessness, hence overall absurd. Why would anyone want to exist in such an existence of circular momentary recollection of random events? How can there be any meaning?

But of course there is no meaning. Vonnegut, who experienced the bombing of Dresden, taking refuge in a slaughterhouse while everyone outside was burnt to a crisp, comes out of the war with a sense of meaninglessness. This is what philosophers call the Postmodern, as it comes after the order and regularity of the Modern. The Postmodern is meaningless and absurd, and there is no purpose, no direction, no goodness, no God.

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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