“Life rarely turns out in the way the living hope for, and ‘So it goes’ has become one of the ways in which we verbally shrug our shoulders and accept what life gives us. But that is not its purpose in ‘Slaughterhouse-Five.’ ‘So it goes’ is not a way of accepting life but, rather, of facing death. It occurs in the text almost every single time someone dies, and only when death is evoked.
It is also deeply ironic. Beneath the apparent resignation is a sadness for which there are no words. This is the manner of the entire novel, and it has led to the novel being, in many cases, misunderstood. … [T]here are those who have accused it of the sin of ‘quietism,’ of a resigned acceptance… [but] nobody who futzed around so often and in so many ways with the idea of free will, or who cared so profoundly about the dead, could be described as a fatalist, or a quietist, or resigned. [Vonnegut’s] books argue about ideas of freedom and mourn the dead, from their first pages to their last.”“What Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ Tells Us Now,” Salman Rushdie, The New Yorker (June 13, 2019)
My point from last week smacked down…and by Salman Rushdie, no less.
Rushdie is right, of course. Vonnegut cares. He cares deeply. Every “So it goes” — the phrase appears 106 times in the novel, each time someone or something dies — is an elegy. It’s a subtle way of keeping a running death toll, and memorializing the dead is not a resigned action. It is very non-Tralfamadorian.
If the absence in the middle of Slaughterhouse-Five is not care, is it caregiving? Rarely do characters extend caring attention to one another. When the English officers do, they show more presumption and disdain than concern. The women in Billy Pilgrim’s life fail at the task: his fiancee, visiting him in a mental institution, eats candy bars and worries about china patterns. His daughter, looking after him as him as ages, patronizes (“Father, what are we going to do with you?”). Montana Wildhack is just some weird undeveloped excuse for Vonnegut’s protagonist to have sex with a “blue movie” actress.
Billy Pilgrim is himself a chaplain, but doesn’t extend any comfort or spiritual support to those around him.
But then something interesting happens in the last third of the novel. There is a scene of genuine caregiving. After the firebombing of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim and the other prisoners of war are being marched out of town by their four German guards, all old men and young boys. After walking all day across a blasted landscape — Vonnegut describes it as looking like the surface of the moon — they come to a suburb untouched by the fire and explosions. He writes,
The guards and the Americans came at nightfall to an inn which was open for business. There was candlelight. There were fires in three fireplaces downstairs. There were empty tables and chairs waiting for anyone who might come, and empty beds with covers turned down upstairs.
There was a blind innkeeper and his sighted wife, who was the cook, and their two young daughters, who worked as waitresses and maids. This family knew that Dresden was gone. Those with eyes had seen it burn and burn, understood that they were on the edge of a desert now. Still–they had opened for business, had polished the glasses and wound the clocks and stirred the fires, and waited and waited to see who would come.
There was no great flow of refugees from Dresden. The clocks ticked on, the fires crackled, the translucent candles dripped. And then there was a knock on the door, and in came four guards and one hundred American prisoners of war.”Slaughterhouse-Five, p 230-31
Immediately after this scene, in the throes of a flashback triggered by a barbershop quartet, Billy Pilgrim comes loose in time and is tossed and battered by an absolute avalanche of tragedy, human cruelty, and pointlessness. He survives a plane crash. Rushing to be with him at the hospital, his wife Valencia dies. Billy’s hospital roommate insists on explaining why the firebombing of Dresden, which killed 135,000 people, was necessary and morally right. Back in Dresden, Billy realizes he and his fellow prisoners have been mistreating a pair of draft horses, and bursts into tears.
As Rushdie argues, at the center of Vonnegut’s novel is a sadness for which there are no words. Life is random, people can be cruel, and history gives no shits as to whether you survive. In the face of the profound indifference of the universe, perhaps, like the blind innkeeper and his family, we just keep going: tending the fires, polishing the glasses, turning down the beds, and waiting for whatever comes out of the firestorm.
So much of healing consists of waiting in the dark.
And this is where we’ll pick up when we turn to Pat Barker’s Regeneration in May…