In which John Green teaches you about Kurt Vonnegut’s most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut wrote the book in the Vietnam era, and it closely mirrors his personal experiences in World War II, as long as you throw out the time travel and aliens and porn stars and stuff. Slaughterhouse-Five tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, a World War II veteran who was a prisoner of war, and survived the Battle of the Bulge and the fire-bombing of Dresden, goes home after the war, and has trouble adapting to civilian life (this is the part that’s like Vonnegut’s own experience). Billy Pilgrim has flashbacks to the war that he interprets as being “unstuck in time.” He believes he’s been abducted by aliens, and pretty much loses it. You’ll learn a little about Vonnegut’s life, quite a bit about Dresden, and probably more than you’d like about barbershop quartets as a metaphor for post traumatic stress.
Transcript Provided by YouTube:
Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course Literature,
and today we’re gonna talk about Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.
Mr. Green, Mr. Green! You mean, like the Motown group that sings that song – glad all over!
No singing, Me From the Past! And no, it is not a Motown group! You’re thinking of the
Dave Clark Five, and for the record, they were not a Motown group, they were British.
So, Slaughterhouse Five, also known by its underappreciated alternate title, The Children’s
Crusade, is one of the most widely read antiwar books of the late twentieth century.
It was written by Kurt Vonnegut during the height of the Vietnam War, but this novel
is an attempt to chronicle the violence of the World War II bombing of Dresden and modern
warfare more broadly. But it’s important to understand, again, those two historical
contexts. The one in which the book was written and the one the book is about.
And the question at the heart of Slaughterhouse Five is what role can literature, particularly
works of literary fiction, play in addressing large scale acts of violence? What is the
role of literature in examining war? But of course that makes Slaughterhouse Five
sound very sad and serious, which it is, but it’s also a surprisingly and very weirdly
funny book. Let’s start with an outline of the main events of Slaughterhouse Five.
in the Thought Bubble. So, Vonnegut’s protagonist is Billy Pilgrim.
But rather than being on a linear journey toward a holy place, as his name might suggest,
Pilgrim has flashbacks (and fantasies) that he believes are actual time travel. Pilgrim
describes himself as being “unstuck in time.” And rather than describing his life events
in chronological order, he jumps between times and places.
The events that comprise Pilgrim’s disjointed narrative actually have quite a logical progression.
Like a rough outline of them looks like this: Pilgrim fought in World War II. He was a prisoner
of war in Germany. He was being held in Dresden when that city was largely destroyed by Allied
bombing toward the end of the war. And Pilgrim survived because he and his fellow prisoners
were held sixty feet underground in a former slaughterhouse. After the firestorm, Pilgrim
and his fellow detainees are put to work cleaning up the charred remains of bodies. And then
after the war, Billy Pilgrim has trouble returning to civilian life, spends some time in a mental
institution, but then eventually marries and becomes an optometrist.
A profession, it rather goes without saying, that involves sight.
Anyway, then Pilgrim has a breakdown while listening to a barbershop quartet, whose expressions
remind him of his guards at Dresden. He becomes convinced that aliens (Tralfamadorians) abducted
him and increasingly unmoored, Pilgrim publicly professes the Tralfamadorian vision of time and space.
Now Pilgrim’s narrative sounds a little crazy (especially since it’s delivered in such a nonlinear manner),
but Vonnegut makes the logic of his mental breakdown perfectly clear.
As such, Vonnegut creates a novel that demonstrates how war trauma affects the individual psyche.
Thanks, Thought Bubble. So, where did Vonnegut get all of these insights? Well in part, they
came from Vonnegut’s own experience in the war, as he acknowledges in the book. It’s
very interesting that the first and last chapters of Slaughterhouse Five are written in first
person from the perspective of Kurt Vonnegut. In the very beginning of the novel and at
the very end, he calls attention to the fact that we are reading a novel.
That’s an unusual and bold choice because generally as readers we want to forget that
we’re reading a story, right? And feel like we’re living inside reality. But Vonnegut wants
to unmoor us from our expectations of fiction, just as Billy Pilgrim is unmoored from time.
Kurt Vonnegut was born — Oh, it’s time for the open letter! Hey there, Kurt Vonnegut.
Dear Kurt Vonnegut, I actually met you once at the University of Alabama. My primary memory
of that evening is that someone came up to you and said, “Sir, you can’t smoke in
here.” And you replied, “Well, I can smoke or I can leave!”
You were and remain a great inspiration to me as a writer and one thing that I always
think about with you is that even though obviously you had a pretty screwed-up life, I always
felt like you had it figured out. Long story short, I love you Kurt Vonnegut.
Kurt Puppet: I love you too! John: Aw, thank you Kurt! Best wishes, John Green.
Anyway, Vonnegut was born in beautiful Indianapolis in 1922, he spent some time at Cornell University
before entering the United States army at the age of twenty. Like Billy Pilgrim, he
was shipped to Europe, had a very brief combat experience, and then became a prisoner of
war during the Battle of the Bulge, which you’ll remember from Crash Course history.
And then like Pilgrim, Vonnegut was sent to Dresden, where he was interred at a former
slaughterhouse. At the time, Dresden was considered a relatively safe place to be. In Slaughterhouse
Five, an English officer envies the American prisoners who are sent to Dresden, he says:
You needn’t worry about bombs […] Dresden is an open city. It is undefended, and contains
no war industries or troop concentrations of any importance.
But it turns out, of course, that in World War II, such things were not prerequisites
for getting bombed. Between February 13th and 15th of 1945, British
and American bombers dropped nearly 4,000 tons of bombs and incendiary devices on Dresden.
This created a firestorm that destroyed an enormous part of the city and cost tens of
thousands of lives. And then Dresden was subject to more air raids
of this sort in March and April. Now by all accounts, the suffering on the ground was tremendous.
But writers, artists, and historians have found it difficult to adequately convey the horrors that took place.
Vonnegut approaches the need to testify to these events in Slaughterhouse Five by using
a fictional narrative that seeks to both understand and evade the past.
Like although his narrator was in Dresden during the bombing and firestorm, he learns
what took place by eavesdropping on whispering guards.
And that’s a way of diminishing the immediacy of violence to rumor. Like Pilgrim reports
the guards’ conversation as follows: There was a fire-storm out there. Dresden
was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn.
This conversation of whispers, transmitted in a foreign language, and translated by the
author is remembered many years after the fact. And as readers, we have plenty of reason
to question it. I mean, just look at the vague nature of the
language used. Consider the repetition of “everything” (“…everything organic,
everything that would burn”). Well, “everything” is a pretty broad concept.
And in this context, it allows the narrator not to imagine the specific, horrible details.
Like here, vague language provides a stand-in for detailed testimony.
But there’s also something horrific and visceral about that idea generally. The idea
of “everything organic” burning. It implies the loss of not just our lives
but all life. Slaughterhouse Five also uses figures of speech
as a means of evasion. The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden
was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. I mean, just as you can’t look directly
at the sun, Billy Pilgrim can’t look directly at the destruction of Dresden.
He has to tell us what it’s like because what it is is unspeakable. And this sort of evasion
is very common in eyewitness reports of violence. In fact, Sebald chronicled how often eyewitness
reports of the bombing of German cities contained “stereotypical phrases.”
These clichés, he explains, “cover up and neutralize experiences beyond our ability to comprehend.”
The quote “unreal effect” that they produce is a very real depiction of how the human mind reacts to extreme suffering.
Here’s another example of trying to see the horror of war by not looking directly at it. Vonnegut describes the
post-bombing Dresden as a mute reflection in the contorted faces of prison guards, and he creates a
shocking and memorable image: The guards drew together instinctively, rolled
their eyes. They experimented with one expression and then another, said nothing, though their
mouths were often open. They looked like a silent film of a barbershop quartet.
So what does this say about the guards? What are we to make of the silence in this scene?
Why is it that the guards say nothing? Finally, why might Vonnegut use this goofy metaphor
of a barbershop quartet in a silent film at this particular moment? Are we supposed to
laugh at absurd moments like this or the repetition of the phrase “so it goes” whenever someone
dies? And if we do feel that instinct to laugh,
are we then meant to cringe at ourselves for having had that impulse?
Regardless, that image doesn’t go where we expect it to and so it’s designed to
make us uncomfortable. And that’s its power. That’s its beauty.
And it’s worth remembering that Vonnegut describes himself as often feeling speechless
when thinking about the bombing of Dresden. Like in the first chapter of Slaughterhouse
Five, he writes: I thought it would be easy for me to write
about the destruction of Dresden since all I would have to do would be to report what
I had seen. And I thought too it would be a masterpiece, or at least make me a lot of
money since the subject was so big. But not many words about Dresden came from my mind
then… and not many words come now, either. And it’s clear that Vonnegut has a pretty
complicated relationship with the words that eventually do, in fact, come. Like his novel,
famously, opens with the following lines: All this happened, more or less. The war parts,
anyway, are pretty much true. Pretty much true? That’s another phrase
that’s designed to make us uncomfortable. And as Vonnegut hints at in that passage I
just read, what does it mean for Vonnegut to gain acclaim and wealth for what he has written?
In an introduction to the 1976 edition of Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut expresses
some guilt at having benefited from its publication: The Dresden atrocity, tremendously expensive
and meticulously planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire
planet got any benefit from it. I am that person. I wrote this book, which earned a
lot of money for me and made my reputation, such as it is. One way or another, I got two
or three dollars for every person killed. Some business I’m in.
Now that’s a classic example of Vonnegut’s self-deprecating humor, but the “business”
of providing testimony does remain important work, I would argue — even if it is through
the flawed vehicle of narrative fiction. Precisely because it struggles to look directly
at the firebombing of Dresden, Slaughterhouse Five provides ways of thinking about how we
live and love and fight and heal. And it makes us think about how we frame the
stories that we tell ourselves about the past. And Billy Pilgrim’s unstuckness in time
reminds us that, as the great William Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It’s not
even past.” Next week, we’ll talk about Billy Pilgrim’s
alternate universe filled with toilet-plunger aliens who offer a new perspective on the
violence of mankind. And we’ll discuss the philosophy of Tralfamadorians (a philosophy
summed up by the phrase, “and so it goes”). And, finally, we will consider what, if anything,
an “anti-war” can do about war, or really about anything else. Thanks for watching,
I’ll see you next week. Crash Course is made with the help of all
of these nice people, and it exists because of your support at Subbable.com, a voluntary
subscription service that allows you to support Crash Course directly so that we can keep
it free for everyone forever. You can also get great perks like signed posters,
so if you want to support Crash Course, please check it out. Thank you for watching, and
as we say in my hometown, don’t forget to be awesome.
This post was previously published on YouTube.