Way back in the 4 June issue of The Nation, William Deresiewicz published a review essay about Kurt Vonnegut. As I read Mr Deresiewicz’ piece, it dawned on me that I had never read Slaughterhouse-Five. I’d read several of Vonnegut’s novels and miscellaneous writings, but had missed the most famous one. Embarrassingly enough, I had talked about Slaughterhouse-Five with a number of people over the years, conversations in the course of which I sincerely, if somewhat vaguely, believed that I had read the book at some point. Once, while still in high school, I even suggested to a friend that we co-author a tribute to Slaughterhouse-Five in comic book form. If he’d taken me up on that, I suppose it would have become clear to both of us quickly enough that I hadn’t read it, but we settled on a tribute to Froissart’s Chronicles instead.
So, not long after I read that issue, I reported to the library and checked out a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five. It was well worth reading. Mr Deresiewicz says that the novel’s real subject is not the firebombing of Dresden, but the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that the firebombing bequeathed to Vonnegut and other survivors. Mr Deresiewicz quotes a remark from the beginning of the novel, “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” The novel is great, he argues, because Vonnegut doesn’t try to offer answers or find meanings. He looks directly at an unintelligible world, a world in which human beings by the thousand can be incinerated in their homes, and does not flinch by looking away to something else, something reassuring in its logic. Instead, the novel’s Billy Pilgrim, like Vonnegut in his own authorial voice, says simply, “I was there.” Mr Deresiewicz writes:
“I was there,” he says. And he adds, “So was my old war buddy, Bernard V. O’Hare.” The moment prefigures the novel’s moral climax a few pages before the end. Billy’s in a hospital in 1968, after the plane crash. His roommate is a former Air Force general who is working on a history of the Army Air Corps in World War II. He is wealthy, healthy, masterful, accomplished (his name is Rumfoord, by the way), and he dismisses Billy, in his quasi-comatose state, as so much human refuse. He is telling someone that the raid on Dresden had been kept a secret for so long
“For fear that a lot of bleeding hearts…might not think it was such a wonderful thing to do.”
It was now that Billy Pilgrim spoke up intelligently. “I was there,” he said.
“I was there.” Meaning not, I suffered, but simply: It happened. It doesn’t fit the story that we tell ourselves about the war, but it happened. And I alone escaped to tell the tale. But not completely alone: my old war buddy was there as well, which means you can’t dismiss me as a lunatic. I was there. Or as the novel’s famous invocation, thrice repeated, puts it: Listen.
“I was there”—not, “The death of Dresden was a bitter tragedy, needlessly and willfully executed.” The sentence comes from a short, unpublished manuscript, included in the Library of America edition, that Vonnegut had worked on in the years immediately following the war. Before he could write the novel, I believe, he needed to surrender that sense of judgment. “It had to be done,” Rumfoord finally says to Billy. “I know,” Billy replies, “everybody has to do exactly what he does.”
Elsewhere in the novel, Vonnegut explicitly disavows judgment of the pilots who carried out the raid. He never did blame them, he says; he has known bombers and admired them. He describes the bombs as if they acted on their own, unassisted by human agency. In the novel, that description figures not as a psychological evasion, but as the facing of a supreme horror. A world dominated by malevolence and permeated by guilt would have a structure, and so would be intelligible. As such, even a realm of villainy would be easier to bear than the realm of sheer absurdity into which the massacre introduced its survivors.
In a bit of the novel that Mr Deresiewicz does not quote, Billy Pilgrim and his fellow prisoners are herded into Dresden. The crowd gives Billy dirty looks; one man confronts him and demands to know if he “thought we would laugh”? Billy is confused, then realizes that the miscellaneous items of clothing he has scavenged to cover his nakedness in his weeks as a prisoner adds up to a clown’s costume. Here, Billy parallels his creator. Cobbling together a way to tell his story, Vonnegut has gathered up bits of wartime memoir, of science fiction, of midlife-crisis narrative, of soft-core porn, of half a dozen other genres, and pasted them together. The result is a very odd book, at first glance an aggregation as clownish as Billy’s costume. It is precisely because Vonnegut is entirely willing to play the fool, to make himself as much a stranger to smart rhetoric as the war has made Billy a stranger to smart attire, that Slaughterhouse-Five is a possession for the ages.
As the Periodicals Notes section of this website attests, I read a lot of magazines. After the attacks of 11 September 2001, I dropped several titles from my list of regular reads. These included The New Statesman, The National Review, The London Review of Books, and The American Spectator. Each of these magazines carried a number of piece about that series of massacres. There were many things to find objectionable about those pieces; certainly the right-wing publications did not cover themselves in glory by arguing that the appropriate response was to adopt policies that would punish all Muslims everywhere, and the others did their reputations no favors when they published remarks such as “the United States had it coming.” What I found most rebarbative about all of them was something I couldn’t put into words at the time, but Vonnegut crystallizes it perfectly. Each of those commentators, left and right, treated the massacres and their aftermath as a continuation of their lifelong quest to display their own brainpower to the utmost possible advantage. Because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre, the result of this contest to be the smartest one was an exhibition of moral idiocy on a spectacular scale.
If we don’t endeavor to make intelligent remarks about a massacre, how do we honor the dead it leaves behind? This is typically a religious question, so let’s see what we can say about Vonnegut and religion.
As Mr Deresiewicz documents, Vonnegut was raised to be skeptical of conventional religion*:
Vonnegut saw our spiritual anxiety, in the postwar chaos, and as a former public relations man, he knew our mass gullibility. He had also studied anthropology, an experience, he later said, that “confirmed my atheism, which was the faith of my fathers anyway. Religions were exhibited and studied as the Rube Goldberg inventions I’d always thought they were.” Now machines were taking control, so we needed to pretend that something else was in control. Or as he puts it in The Sirens of Titan, “Gimcrack religions were big business.” The Age of Aquarius surely came as no surprise to him—the age of crystals and gurus and mystical hucksters. Charles Manson and Jim Jones surely came as no surprise, and neither did L. Ron Hubbard, a man who started writing science fiction but decided he was writing Scripture.
If we reject the belief systems and hierarchies of traditional religions and the rites that go with them, how do we go about honoring the dead? I think I detect a kindred spirit in the Vonnegut/ Deresiewicz emphasis on “I was there, and so was Bernard V. O’Hare.” We honor the dead by remembering them. To do this we must turn our attention from ourselves and focus it on them, on them as they were individually and as they interacted with each other in groups. To sustain this focus we must resist the temptation to retreat into distractions, whether those distractions take the form of ideologies that make our losses bearable or of activities in which we ourselves become again the center of attention. We must give the dead our undivided attention, if only for a moment, if we are to honor them.
Religions can certainly be fruitful source of excuses for keeping the focus off the dead. Many funerary rites focus attention on clergy or other performers; many include invitations to dwell on recondite theological doctrines about the relationship between life and death. So I sympathize with opponents of religion like T. H. Huxley who say that respect for the dead requires us to renounce the conventional forms of religion. On the other hand, for many mourners these things quiet their minds and take them outside of themselves, enabling them to maintain a clear, unwavering focus on the dead. And there’s nothing to say that persons who find the ritual elements a distraction can’t learn to respond to them in the desired way. After all, the others learned it; no religious practice comes instinctively to anyone, even if there is an instinct for something called religion in general. So even proceeding from my idea that mourning should be a matter of focusing our attention on the dead, we don’t find an argument against funerary rites.
Of course, funerary rites do something else as well. They reassure the mourners that the remembrance of the dead is not a burden they will carry alone, but a bond they share with their community. Funerary rites aren’t the only social practices that give that assurance; one of the reasons we want medical professionals to make heroic efforts to save our loved ones is that we want to know that those professionals will remember them, at least as an interesting case. When someone is to blame for the death of a loved one, we want the same attention from the criminal justice system, in part for the same reason. That’s probably why murder mysteries are so popular. Some time ago, I saw an episode of Columbo on some cable TV channel that specializes in nostalgia. Lieutenant Columbo had caught the murderer hiding the victim’s body. In his bizarrely friendly way, Lieutenant Columbo was trying to keep the murderer from feeling too bad about himself, telling him, “Dead bodies have a way of turning up.” In reality, of course, they don’t. The only thing dead bodies actually have a way of doing is decomposing. Given enough time, it will be as if the dead had never lived. That may well be the world’s most unbearable fact. Many years ago, my wife lost her closest friend to an act of violence that was never investigated; with each passing year, fewer people remember her, and her family’s burden grows more obvious.
Medicine and the criminal justice system, whatever their virtues, are never entirely satisfactory substitutes for funerary rites. A course of medical treatment is an exercise in technology and finance that revolves around the person of a patient, but is never simply a tribute to that patient; a criminal proceeding is an exercise in institutionalized conflict in the course of which a person who is unavailable to participate actively is likely to vanish from view altogether.
Many people recommend political action as a way to honor the dead. I’m all for democracy, and I understand the power of martyrs to arouse a citizenry to action. So I’m not opposed to the idea of waging a campaign for reform in the name of some dead person. But consider. Every political dispute is complex; every political issue shades into other, related issues, and every person who takes part in a political disagreement is pursuing several objectives at once. To turn a person into a political symbol, therefore, is likely to make it virtually impossible to focus our undivided attention on that person. Again, not everyone sees that focus as the essence of honoring the dead; some may define honoring the dead in a way that begins and ends with the political utility of martyrdom, or in other ways that put a low priority on memory of them as they were. But for me, and perhaps for Vonnegut, the key thing is to meet the dead on their own terms, not to impose our preconceived notions on them or to lose sight of them in the midst of some other activity.
If we say that our ways of honoring the dead are part of our religion, whether we belong to any recognized religious tradition or not, then Vonnegut and I may share a religion. Moreover, at least in my version of that unnamed religion, politics is not part of the funerary rites by which we honor the dead. The rites of the various religious traditions that do have names and belief systems and hierarchies aren’t really part of it either, though they can serve the same purpose. What is a part of it? How do we go about focusing our attention simply on a person, not on desires and ideas of our own that we may associate with that person?
In a post a few years ago, I quoted a man who had said that his way of praying for a person was to hold an image in his mind of that person against a plain white background. This meditative exercise does not involve any words; that way he isn’t tempted to wish things on the person, or to try to recruit God as an ally in an effort to make the person do what he thinks is right. Instead, it enables him to see the person clearly, to listen to what the person is actually saying, to accept the person as s/he is, and to respect his or her journey in life. I’ve tried this exercise myself on many occasions, and can recommend it highly.
So that exercise is part of my religion, if you call it that. Science is part of it, too. Richard Feynman said in his 1974 commencement address at Caltech that in science, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself- and you are the easiest person to fool.” My favorite living philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, argues that healthy religious traditions represent lines of inquiry that guide their followers away from particular forms of self-deception. I don’t really understand how that is supposed to work; MacIntyre’s own religious tradition, as embodied in the Roman Catholic Church, seems to me to be an ever-flowing fountain from which self-deception springs in forms unimagined anywhere else. Be that as it may, science offers its practitioners tools unmatched in any other avenue of human pursuit for disabusing oneself of one’s pet ideas. Thomas à Kempis said that the highest reward of the contemplative life was that it had enabled him to free himself of a multitude of opinions; to the extent that Thomas’s words apply to religious practice in general, scientific inquiry is the most efficient of all forms of worship.
*To be precise about it, the Vonneguts were members of All Souls Unitarian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana when the novelist was growing up. At that time, the congregation met in a building designed by architect Kurt Vonnegut, Senior. In his maturity, Kurt Vonnegut, Junior did not identify even with the creedless religion of the Unitarians, or the Unitarian-Universalists as they became in 1961.