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Slaughterhouse Five is a story about war, yet one that seems to advance the thesis that there can be no war stories that don’t entirely falsify the experience and significance of war.
That falsification is effected by the way in which such stories a) make war the pornographic object of prurient, sadistic interest; b) glorify war, representing as powerful and heroic what is really a state of total, infantile helplessness; c) depict something inherently impersonal—the massacre of enormous numbers of anonymous human beings—as a personal struggle between well-defined characters, protagonists and antagonists; d) explain—via cause-and-effect plotting—something that is inexplicable.
Why is war so hard to talk about? For one thing, it can be severely traumatic, constituted as it is by attempts by human beings to banish each other’s life stories from space and time and experience. Survivors escape with their lives, and so escape this banishment on a physical level: but psychologically, they may become, like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, “unstuck in time.” In the form of flashbacks, their memories of trauma seem less like memories than re-experiencings. In acting on trauma—often in repetitively self-destructive ways—they operate on a kind of unconscious procedural memory that, in its failure to meaningfully link representations, has a timeless quality. Ultimately, they fail to make sense of their experiences and actions in terms of temporal cause and effect: which is to say, in terms of a plot. They fail to resolve their trauma by telling its story.
As the locus of total helplessness and violation, perhaps trauma cannot be accurately represented within a narrative, the very essence of which is to supply a sense of power and mastery by fitting raw experience into a causal framework. And so, Vonnegut seems to say, the only thing that can be said about trauma involves something like the pre-linguistic, senseless utterances of birds: “poo-tee-weet.”
How, then, does Vonnegut tell his story at all? He has a few strategies that might be seen as sublimated versions of various psychological defenses:
Obsessional Meta-Narrative: Vonnegut begins by talking not about his war story, but the process of trying to tell his war story, and in turn the process of trying to tell his story by talking about the telling of it, and so on in a hopelessly infinite recursion (the “Yon Yonson” effect). In doing so, he conveys something of the feeling of the narrative impotence of war, and points us more or less explicitly to some of the other themes outlined in this post.
Depersonalized Fantasy: When he finally gets to his story, Vonnegut talks not directly about his own experience, but about the impossible experiences of a fictional character, Billy Pilgrim. While it is not unusual for novels to make use of fictionalized autobiography, this displacement turns what was supposed to be a story about Vonnegut and the bombing of Dresden into something hyper-fictional, in that it is a science fiction story in which the bombing itself is never directly represented.
Structural Time-Busting: Vonnegut tackles the way in which trauma disrupts psychological time by giving us a story about a character whose actual timeline has been disrupted by aliens. In Billy Pilgrim’s forced time travel, Vonnegut tackles trauma’s immunity to causal and temporal narrative by showing this disruption within the narrative itself. We don’t talk about trauma; we exhibit it indirectly.
Manic Reversal: Vonnegut has his protagonist discover an upside to trauma’s temporal disruption: time is an illusion and the universe is actually timeless. Death becomes just one of many co-present moments in an atemporal tapestry. The reaction of the Tralfamadorians to death—“so it goes”—is both a reassurance to the protagonist and, in one of the few manifest points of contact between Vonnegut and Pilgrim, the author’s own mantra. “So it goes” transforms a) the impotent and meaningless “poo-tee-weet” into something meaningfully comforting; and b) the pessimistic fatalism that begins the story—about the inevitability of war and death—into a new sort of fatalism that becomes optimistic just in virtue of its being de-temporalized. “So it goes” attempts to story-fy trauma by incorporating the transcendence of time and causality into the narrative’s implied metaphysics.
Other Strategies: These including free association, the juxtaposition of the mundane and the horrible, the exposure of narrative artifice, and the gentle irony and humor that are in part the overall effect of the strategies outlined above.
Where do we find all of this in the text? Do these strategies actually work? What do they have to say about how we might deal with trauma in our own lives? Wes discusses these questions with Phi Fic podcaster and Partially Examined Life Blog Managing Editor Mary Ricci.