Oscillating to Eternity: Apocalypse and Eden in Vonnegut's Telegraphic Schizophrenic Novel

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.”
- Thoreau, Walden, 1854

All This Happened, More or Less

“Somebody was playing with the clocks, and not only with the electric clocks, but the wind-up kind, too. The second hand on my watch would twitch once, and a year would pass, and then it would twitch again.” So remarks the first-person narrator in the meta-fictional opening chapter to Vonnegut’s sublime masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-FiveSlaughterhouse-Five is a novel suffused with historical and temporal anxiety, which alludes to the far deeper existential uncertainty, guilt, and paranoia that haunts both Kurt Vonnegut and the postwar American consciousness. The terror of Slaughterhouse-Five is the terror of human indeterminacy amidst the incommensurate seas of history, time, fate, and circumstance. The crisis of Slaughterhouse-Five is the crisis of unmoored subjectivity in postwar America.

Vonnegut’s final unburdening of his Dresden story — in this supposed “failure” of a novel, in a narrative “so short and jumbled and jangled” — is a courageous rejection of the accidents of history and fate and a resolute defense of the human. Slaughterhouse-Five is itself a witness to the difficulties of finding meaning in the incomprehensible, and the fundamental uncertainty of the novel is further intended as a critique of the catastrophic twentieth century. The ambivalence pervading Slaughterhouse-Five (Vonnegut refers to it as “this lousy little book”) underscores Vonnegut’s own struggles with memory and identity. He compares himself to Lot’s wife, destroyed in her attempt to search the past for meaning. “There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” (Vonnegut's ambivalence further extends to the act of writing itself — he suggests that the "anti-war" novel is a failure in itself; one might as well write an "anti-glacier book.") Vonnegut yearns to move beyond history, but is ceaselessly pulled into the past. The firebombing of Dresden is the consuming no-thing of Vonnegut’s literary consciousness, and he struggles to address it directly without resigning to fatalism and while simultaneously maintaining his transcendent humanism. In order to do so, Vonnegut deftly weaves together four concurrent narratives in a novel “somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore.” Whereas Billy Pilgrim is unable to find redemption, Vonnegut attempts to erect literature as a narrative of redemption and as a rejection of fate. History is absurd; literature and art, suggests Vonnegut, may offer transcendence and meaning.

Against the meaninglessness of history and the absurdity of war, Vonnegut tears the tapestry of fate, weaving, instead, a resolute defense of the human. The human threatens to be washed away in the rapids of time; Vonnegut attempts to distill an eternal humanism as a bulwark against meaninglessness. In chapter one, Vonnegut’s narrator reads a book on Celine, whose macabre Journey to the End of Night influences Slaughterhouse-Five. “Time obsessed him,” Vonnegut remarks, sharing a scene in which “Celine wants to stop the bustling of a street crowd. He screams on paper, Make them stop... So that they won’t disappear anymore!” Celine’s desire to still the terror of history and resurrect the human therein is also Vonnegut’s. Slaughterhouse-Five is an attempt to find redemption or salvation through literature, to seek transcendence amidst chaos.

Slaughterhouse-Five is an index of Vonnegut’s anxieties. The jumbled structure of the novel reveals Vonnegut’s inability to and antipathy toward the comprehensible rendering of the meaninglessness of Dresden. But, his desire to weave this literary narrative speaks to a higher impulse toward transcendence for which Vonnegut yearns. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut deconstructs the novel in order to represent a disjointed world. More importantly, the deconstruction of the novel portends a reconstruction of the self. Literature, he suggests, can help break the self free from the bondage of history and offer the re-invention of being and time.

Billy Pilgrim Has Come Unstuck in Time

“Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time,” announces Vonnegut on his hero’s temporal rootlessness. To be unstuck in time is Vonnegut’s narrative strategy for conveying the trauma of Dresden and the crisis of postmodern subjectivity. While he intended to write a “masterpiece” of linear narrative, Vonnegut struggled to communicate through the void of disaster. Such a narrative is untenable. Like Vonnegut himself, Pilgrim finds his memory constantly gravitating back to the incomprehensibility of Dresden. Pilgrim is “spastic” in time, continually performing various roles in a fragmented life. He is randomly frisked between Dresden, a life of postwar prosperity (with Vonnegut’s ironic portrayal of the American Dream), and a life of quiet exile in a Tralfamadorian zoo.

Vonnegut weaves this tripartite narrative of Pilgrim in order to emphasize what he sees as the “schizophrenia” of contemporary American consciousness. Vonnegut’s narrative presents a distressing portrait of Pilgrim, where overwhelming violence bleeds into suburban domesticity, and satisfaction is dependent upon repressing the trauma of history. But Pilgrim is unable to forget, and his uneasy pact with postwar peace is shattered when the exigencies of memory whisk him between war and peace.  Catastrophe has violently wrested Pilgrim from historical time, destroying his ability to make sense of the world or himself. The result is a radical instability of self. Pilgrim’s consciousness has been ruptured by war. In this way, Pilgrim stands as a synecdoche for postwar America, itself struggling to reconcile with the trauma of its past and present. “The time is out of joint,” remarks Hamlet, attempting to convey the existential anxiety of modern subjectivity. Vonnegut’s Pilgrim is similarly disjointed. As Heidegger suggests, temporality must anchor ontology — Pilgrim’s temporal spasticity impels an ontological crisis.

Vonnegut’s phenomenology of being “unstuck in time” is a surreal exploration of the painfulness of memory. Pilgrim had more or less succeeded in forgetting his past, and on the precarious foundations of postwar American prosperity he had constructed a life of opulence. The American consciousness is unabashedly futurist, attempting to repress the painfulness of historical memory in order to construct a City on a Hill. Vonnegut, like Hemingway, insists on the precarious impossibility of such repression and on the imaginative voracity of war. Any City, then, would be built on uncertain foundations. Like Jake Barnes or Nick Adams, Pilgrim carries unseen and unacknowledged wounds, ontological ruptures that infect his consciousness. Pilgrim’s repressed past rushes back to him as a nightmare. Singing friends at a birthday celebration mimic the orgiastic grotesqueries of apocalypse, and Billy’s memory of the past overwhelms his perception of the present — the two are married in a macabre braiding of perception and being. Pilgrim’s constructed postwar identity fragments under the burden of history. Vonnegut employs a strategy of Brechtian alienation throughout the novel, defamiliarizing the reader with the assumed history of World War II and postwar American prosperity. This strategy — what Brecht refers to as the “estrangement effect” — challenges the reader, forcing a re-evaluation of the self and of the world. For instance, the subtitle of Slaughterhouse-Five is, as he promises Mary O’Hare, is The Children’s Crusade, in reference to the absurdity of war and terror of history. He refuses to weave a romantic or heroic tale out of history. The comforting tapestry of the American Dream has, woven deeply into its narrative fabric, nightmare and apocalypse. As Pilgrim knows, the two are inseparable. The slaughterhouse is integral to society.

As dramatized in The Sirens of Titan, Vonnegut yearns for an escape from history. Boaz and Constant both become heroes in their transcendent resignation and their denial of absurdity through a Thoreauvian deliberation. This Edenic impulse beats powerfully through Vonnegut’s imagination, but the narrative structure of Slaughterhouse-Five forecloses on such transcendence. Vonnegut’s eerie appeal to a Tralfamadorian Eden speaks to the falsity of a paradise regained. Pilgrim achieves an illusion of postwar bliss with Montana Wildhack, the adult film star and Eve surrogate, in a Tralfamadorian zoo. Yet this mode of being strikes Vonnegut as naive and escapist, and Pilgrim is unable to sustain any satisfaction. Even after recovering this constructed paradise, Pilgrim’s temporal spasticity slings him back to war. History cannot be ignored.

The Tralfamadorians teach Pilgrim that “it is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.” Pilgrim, in order to cope with trauma, finds uncertain solace in floating above these beads, in observing history from an uncertain and detached perspective. However, Pilgrim’s life is devoid of will. He lacks imaginative agency and is alienated from his own experience. He is unable to make sense of his life, like the “many Americans...trying to construct a life of things...found in gift shops.” Whereas the Tralfamadorians posit memory as a salve against absurdity, where suffering can be alleviated through the selective focus on “pleasant moments,” Pilgrim is unable to suppress or surpass his own trauma. Seemingly every facet of his postwar life whisks him back to Dresden. Sleeping next to his wife reminds Pilgrim of his confinement in a train of prisoners, which in turn reminds him of his daughter’s wedding. Though supposedly freed from the deterministic contours of history through Tralfamadorian ideology, Pilgrim’s being lies in total bondage to the contours of history.

My Name is Yon Yonson

Pilgrim, through supposedly unstuck in time, is also described as a “bug trapped in amber,” a more appropriate metaphor for his crisis. Therein lies the paradox of Pilgrim — he is resolutely bound to innumerable discrete moments in the fragments of time. The Tralfamadorians suggest that this atemporality offers freedom in that the anxieties of will and fate are mollified. “The moment is structured that way,” they resolve, mitigating their own culpability in the destruction of the universe. But, for Pilgrim, the dissolution of his agency and identity ferments a heightened degree of existential anxiety. “He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next.” The absurdity of the human condition is embodied in Pilgrim as he flits meaninglessly throughout the fabric of time. Like Winston Niles Rumfoord of The Sirens of Titan, Pilgrim lives everywhere but dwells nowhere, and is totally overwhelmed by the trauma of history and the incomprehensibility of fate.

Heidegger employs the verb “to dwell” to denote the quality of Being (what Heidegger refers to as Dasein) as an unfolding process through which the self asserts the self into the world. The entirety of Pilgrim’s life is stirred into a senseless gallimaufry of circumstance, his identity is dissolved into the structures of history and the world — what Heidegger identifies as “fallen-ness.” In such a Heideggerian formulation, Pilgrim is unable to assert any authentic mode of being, any true Dasein, because he, as a “bug trapped in amber,” is irreparably bound to history. He is submerged into the Other of historical time — there is no self to Billy Pilgrim. Vonnegut repeatedly articulates a desire for the self to break free of the deterministic bonds of history, time, and space, which resonates with this Heideggerian impulse to assert an authentic mode of being over and against the fallen-ness of the world. Vonnegut, however, struggles with precisely how to sublimate this desire into his literature. One one hand, Vonnegut refuses to traffic in naive escapism, or in Heidegger’s own nostalgic (and fascistic) utopian eschatologies. But Vonnegut, in his existential sympathies, cannot allow the individual to dissolve into the crushing dialectic of historical time. Slaughterhouse-Five is an index of this tension. 

Throughout the novel, Pilgrim is haunted by eternal recurrence — the endless repetition of history celebrated by the Tralfamadorians. Pilgrim is condemned to the perpetual reliving of his trauma, what Nietzsche in The Gay Science identifies as “the greatest weight.” Milan Kundera, who toys with eternal recurrence in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, posits, “If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross. It is a terrifying prospect.” Vonnegut agrees — “If what Billy Pilgrim learned from the Tralfamadorians is true, that we will all live forever, no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be, I am not overjoyed.” In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut presents Pilgrim as similarly “nailed to eternity.”

Repeatedly, Pilgrim theorizes on the lightness and weight (to borrow a dichotomy from Kundera) of his being. At one point in the novel, Pilgrim imagines himself “[turning] to steam and [floating] up among the treetops.” He repeatedly imagines himself as a fluid (and, in on poignant revision of Twain, Vonnegut describes the "Mississippi of humiliated Americans" flowing through German valleys), contrasting his fluidity with the "stone" of a dead American. Pilgrim yearns to float above the continuum of history, to transcend and escape the burden of accident and fate. But he tragically remains a “bug trapped in amber,” inevitably and inescapably weighed down by history. The uncertain absolution offered to Pilgrim, that his will and identity will be dissolved into the ceaseless recurrence of historical time, offers meager recompense to Vonnegut.

Pilgrim and Vonnegut are both overwhelmed by the traumatic absurdity of history, and unable to cultivate what Nietzsche refers to as the amor fati, or “love of fate,” necessary to shoulder the enormous burden of eternal recurrence. “I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful,” Nietzsche suggests. The Tralfamadorians adopt this amor fati, eager to deny the terror of history and focus on moments of joy. Vonnegut, while admitting a certain degree of recompense in amor fati, is unable to stomach the overwhelming fatalism of eternal recurrence. Vonnegut cannot sustain the contented solipsism of the Tralfamadorians, who suggest, on war, that “there isn’t anything we can do about them, so we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments.”

While this new concept of temporality does allow the individual to conquer death in some sense (“the most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die”), simple resignation to fate offers facile recompense for the terror of history. The dissolution of will does not satisfy Vonnegut, and he rejects the quietist fatalism that many attribute to him. The Tralfamadorian amor fati represents a resignation to history, including suffering and war, that Vonnegut finds deeply unsettling. For Vonnegut as for Pilgrim, the present is interwoven with violence and trauma, and the necessity of the artist is to transcend the absurdity of history. Vonnegut presents Slaughterhouse-Five as “A Duty-Dance with Death,” and, for Vonnegut, the task of the artist is to reckon directly with death and absurdity. He paraphrases Celine — “no art is possible without a dance with death.”

Dostoevsky, Vonnegut, and the Telegraphic Schizophrenic Novel; or There Was a Young Man from Stamboul

While Pilgrim does not directly offer a model for Vonnegut’s own redemption, Pilgrim’s situation embodies Vonnegut’s fear that he will be unable to truly recover from the firebombing of Dresden. The consistent irony and detached narration of Slaughterhouse-Five allows Vonnegut to interrogate Dresden and his own fate without succumbing to despair — Vonnegut can only approach Dresden through a defensive and distancing irony. Moreover, observing Dresden through Pilgrim’s perspective allows Vonnegut to toy with ideas such as eternal recurrence and fatalism, while, ultimately, presenting Slaughterhouse-Five as an aesthetic reflection on eternity. Due the sublime, multi-tiered narrative structure of the novel, Vonnegut is able to mitigate the horror of Dresden, to sublimate his suffering into art. As John Updike suggests in an essay in The New Yorker, Vonnegut, “through the transpositions of science fiction, [had] found a way, instead of turning pain aside, to vaporize it, to scatter it on the plane of the cosmic and the comic.” He identifies the novel’s refrain, “so it goes,” as a “new way of stacking pain.”

Part of Vonnegut’s struggle in communicating the trauma of Dresden lies in the catastrophe’s opacity to literary narrative. Dresden eludes disclosure because it repels comprehension. Vonnegut shares that, upon returning from Dresden, he “thought it would be easy to write about... that it would be a masterpiece.” He even constructs a meticulous timeline, “the best outline I ever made, or anyway the prettiest one...on the back of a roll of wallpaper. I used my daughter’s crayons.” Despite his naive optimism, Vonnegut struggles; Dresden eludes him. “Not many words come now, either, when I have become an old fart with his memories and his Pall Malls, with his sons full grown.”

Vonnegut’s meta-fictional self-consciousness in his opening chapter suggests that, beyond the ostensible narrative of Slaughterhouse-Five, something much different is going on in Vonnegut’s imagination. He disrupts the construct of the novel as a stable aesthetic object and literary form, choosing instead continually to undercut his own authority. He de-mystifies and de-fetishizes the novel as a cultural product (even identifying it as “this lousy little book”), allowing it greater potency as polemic and platform for a radical re-envisioning of selfhood, culture, and history. Slaughterhouse-Five, then, must be conceptualized as a transgressive de-construction of the novel, meant to reflect the fragmentation of the world. In its place, Vonnegut hopes to cultivate an aesthetic and imaginative space in which the reader can critique the self and the world, and, ideally, strive for transformation. Vonnegut offers this “telegraphic schizophrenic” novel as an aesthetic and cultural experience that aims to de-familiarize the world in order to mystify it anew.

At the root of Vonnegut’s struggle with narrative is his wrestling with absurdity. At the foundation of Vonnegut’s consciousness is that war is meaningless and history absurd. To narrate a typical war-novel of literary realism — in the vein of Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, which “poor old Edgar Derby” reads to Pilgrim in a German hospital — risks rationalizing, minimizing, or romanticizing his trauma. A facile linearity risks smoothing these jagged edges and offering false appeasement to Vonnegut’s existential dread. Dresden is not a plot device but a rupture, an epistemic and existential tear in the fabric of experience. The realist novel is insufficient to communicating the experience of war because the realist novel offers a narrative structure that necessarily forges meaning. History is chaos, suggests Vonnegut, and a clean and linear narrative misrepresents this chaos by subjecting it to an ordering structure. To forge a linear narrative through Dresden would minimize suffering and justify war. Instead, he must construct a narrative that refuses this facile structure and adequately reflects the entropic anxiety of history. As Bertolt Brecht demands, a subversive or radical art must find new representative modes in order to reflect and change the world. “Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must also change.”

Walter Benjamin similarly critiques this conception of the linear inevitability of historical time. In his 1940 “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin calls for a re-imagining of history, uniting the past with the present in order to cultivate a new future and a new human. “A historian...stops telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary. Instead, he grasps the constellations which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one. Thus he establishes a concept of the present as the ‘time of the now’ which is shot through with chips of Messianic time.” Investigating the past, resurrecting it as something living, assumes for Benjamin a revolutionary and messianic potential. Whereas the Tralfamadorians seek solace in the denial of history, Vonnegut wishes to resurrect the past in order, as Benjamin suggests, to “explode the continuum of history.” For Vonnegut, all moments — past, present, and future — exist in the simultaneity of human consciousness. Vonnegut’s collapsing of historical time leads to a consequent expansion in human Being.

As the Tralfamadorians teach Pilgrim, “it is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.” The problem with this linearity is that the past remains in the past. But, for Vonnegut, the terror of the past is written onto the present and future — the nightmares of Pilgrim’s past infect his futures, in Vonnegut’s Faulknerian riff on history (“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” suggests Faulkner). Again, the slaughterhouse is written onto society. Vonnegut’s narrative strategy, then, is to shatter these rosary beads of historical time. Doing so allows him not only to re-write history, but also to re-invent the human. Opening a more honest conversation between the past and present allows Vonnegut to inaugurate new modes of being. The present is fractured, suggests Vonnegut, with nightmares of the past rushing through fissures in society and identity. This conversation, then, must inaugurate new imaginative frameworks to re-consider the self. While it may not be possible, or advisable, to realize an a-historical mode of being, Vonnegut yearns for an elusive eternity outside of history. In a world unstuck and otherwise haunted by time, Vonnegut’s utopianism strives for the timeless.

Vonnegut dedicates Slaughterhouse-Five to Mary O’Hare, who inspires Vonnegut to re-consider his “famous book on Dresden.” Furious, O’Hare accuses Vonnegut of attempting to romanticize war. “You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful.” A new narrative form, then, is necessary to communicate or comprehend the absurdity of war. Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade, presents a radically new literary form, one that rejects the urge to render facile or romantic meaning from the absurd, and one that equally rejects the solipsistic fatalism of ignoring or acquiescing to history. Unlike the Tralfamadorians, Vonnegut (and O’Hare) cannot condone the narrative justification or imaginative mitigation of suffering or evil. Literature instead must inspire a transformation in consciousness, while diving into the chilling waters of the absurd.

Vonnegut shares the key to Slaughterhouse-Five in a poignant conversation between Pilgrim and Eliot Rosewater, the hero of Vonnegut’s previous novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Billy Pilgrim has been hospitalized for a nervous breakdown after the nightmarish return of his repressed past. Rosewater and Pilgrim are both victims of World War II, and, because of their experience, “they had both found life meaningless.” Rosewater, however, seeks solace in literature, “in particular the writings of Kilgore Trout.” This obscure author of science-fiction surfaces in a few of Vonnegut’s novels, and Trout represents a certain sci-fi sensibility of Vonnegut. Appealing to Trout’s novels, Rosewater articulates a defense of the role of literature and the transformation of the human. Literature, Rosewater suggests, will help the two victims “re-invent themselves and their universe.” Rosewater continues, suggesting that “everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. ‘But that isn’t enough any more.’” Vonnegut’s literary ambition in Slaughterhouse-Five is nothing less than the creation of a new narrative form that can re-invent the human and universe through addressing the distinctive anxieties of postwar America.

Vonnegut realizes this new literary form, this new imaginative space in which humans can “re-invent themselves and their universe,” in the telegraphic schizophrenic literary mode adopted from the Tralfamadorians. Because the Tralfamadorians perceive time all at once, looking at “all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains,” linear narratives cannot sustain them. A Tralfamadorian novel, which informs the sublime construction of Slaughterhouse-Five, “produces an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep” because of its disjointed narrative structure. “What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.” Vonnegut’s goal, then, is to inspire this sublime sense of transcendence in his readers. He shatters the teleology of narrative in order to emphasize the epistemic, ontological, and temporal rupture of warfare, simultaneously re-inventing narrative in order to re-invent the human. Vonnegut seeks to break temporal and ontological shackles, ushering the human, through a new relationship with the self and the world, into a heightened awareness of Being. He strips away the determinism of history and circumstance, attempting to carve underneath the calcifications of fate and uncover the eternal. This desire to crack open the continuum of history and redeem the human therein surfaces throughout Vonnegut’s novels, and is given its most distilled and anguished articulation in Slaughterhouse-Five.

Billy Pilgrim Was Cinderella and The Gospel from Outer Space

The narrative structure and pervasive irony of Slaughterhouse-Five render it an elusive work, but a few moments can be identified as offering the re-invention of being that Rosewater cites as the chief goal of literature. An unrealized hero of the novel arises in Edgar Derby, the middle-aged schoolteacher who volunteers for the war. While Pilgrim and Derby are imprisoned by the Germans, Howard W. Campbell, American Nazi and protagonist of Mother Night, visits Slaughterhouse-Five. Campbell tries to persuade the American soldiers to defect and join the Nazis in the struggle against the Russians. In response, Derby delivers a vehement defense of American values, which resonates with Vonnegut’s own statement that he himself still believes in junior civics. Derby’s patriotism is not intended to be ironic. In his defense of “freedom and justice and opportunities and fair pay for all,” Derby achieves a heightened degree of imaginative intentionality, a focused sense of Being that Pilgrim lacks. Derby became a “character.”

The only response to Derby’s articulate defense of justice is the “mournful howl” of an air-raid siren. Vonnegut is haunted by doubt that Derby’s idealism has any role in the postwar world. Derby’s tragic and ironic death — executed for stealing a teapot — concludes the novel, and, beyond Vonnegut’s ubiquitous deployment of “so it goes,” the only response the novel provides is the bird’s bemused “poo-tee-weet?” Derby’s idealism is undercut by the novel’s structural irony. Like Samuel Beckett, Vonnegut reveals a postmodern anxiety about the role of the hero in the contemporary world. Vonnegut’s protagonist is an emblem of uncertainty and instability. Vonnegut is still waiting for Godot. But although Pilgrim’s story in itself offers only uncertain glimmers of hope, the frame narrative of Slaughterhouse-Five offers Vonnegut a more direct voice to discuss the relationship between literature, consciousness, and war.

Vonnegut’s frequent invocations of Eden speak to his desire to transcend the deterministic contours of history. In addition to Pilgrim’s porous Eden on Tralfamadore, Pilgrim, encountering German soldiers in World War II, reports staring “into the patina of the corporal’s boots, [seeing] Adam and Eve in the golden depths. They were naked. They were so innocent, so vulnerable, so eager to behave decently. Billy Pilgrim loved them.” Perhaps more dramatically, Pilgrim than describes a young boy as a “blond angel,” a “heavenly androgyne,” one “as beautiful as Eve.” American literature is replete with yearning for a recovered Eden, and Vonnegut’s novels, despite their postmodern form and technique, similarly traffic in this utopian imagination. Vonnegut’s awareness of these utopian eschatologies pervading the modern consciousness underscores both the centrality of the Eden myth in his fictions and in his desire to reconsider the form of this myth. For Vonnegut, Eden is less an imagined or imaginative space — such as Pilgrim’s Tralfamadorian zoo or the Tralfamadorian amor fati — as much as an awareness of messianic threads woven alongside those of apocalypse. Pilgrim can consider a German boy as “beautiful as Eve” through Vonnegut’s transcendent imagination — Vonnegut’s yearning to imagine the transformation of consciousness and humanity through literature and his impulse to locate threads of redemption amidst suffering. The dehumanized world of the present still bears within it these glimmers of new worlds and new modes of being. This messianic urge of Vonnegut’s fictions underscores his desire to transform and redeem the human.

In a haunting and beautiful scene in Slaughterhouse-Five, Pilgrim, unstuck in time, watches a World War II film in reverse. Vonnegut's film transforms history into a sublime montage of redemption. He describes German and American planes resurrecting corpses, healing the landscape, and gathering bombs back into themselves. These bombs are deconstructed, their minerals buried in the earth “so they would never hurt anybody ever again.” Pilgrim continues to narrate history in reverse outside of the film, imagining that “all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve.” He constructs a utopian eschatology, which, however unreal, allows the reader to re-consider the world, history, and the self. The imaginative Eden is more potent than a falsely realized Eden; Vonnegut implores the reader to re-sacralize the world and the human. Eschatologies of Eden flow alongside narratives of apocalypse, and imagination must tap into the fertile potential for transformation therein. Vonnegut’s subversive imagination has the power to still the entropy of history and redeem the human. Furthermore, his literature purposely de-familiarizes the reader with the world — narrating war in reverse serves to render war absurd. Art has the power to compel such subversive re-imaginings, and Vonnegut’s teleology of redemption, however fragmented, shines through Slaughterhouse-Five.

In Man With a Movie Camera, avant-garde Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov constructs a similarly sacred teleology of redemption. “Kino-eye moves time backward,” Vertov proclaims, before engaging in a similar cinematic reversal of history. Vertov interrogates a slab of meat before reverse-narrating its processing through transgressive montage. The packaged commodity returns to the slaughterhouse, itself not unlike Vonnegut’s own “Schlachthof-fünf,” his eponymous prison in Dresden. Vertov imagines the slaughtered bull re-assembled with his organs, re-dressed in his original skin, and finally returning to life. Vertov’s resurrection of the bull forces the viewer to reconsider the totalizing machinations of capitalism, consumerism, and carnivorism, de-familiarizing the everyday in order to jostle the viewer into a new consciousness and new ethical imagination. As Vertov and Vonnegut both realize, the slaughterhouse (as both structure and symbol) is an integral — if unseen and unacknowledged — component of modernity. Vertov’s filmmaking impels the viewer to imagine the resurrected bull as sacred. Vonnegut’s literature attempts the same with the human.

Shortly after arriving at a German prison, a group of interned British soldiers perform a version of Cinderella for the Americans. Vonnegut describes Cinderella as the “most popular story ever told,” and its repetition in Slaughterhouse-Five underscores Vonnegut’s desire to uncover such archetypal narratives of redemption. Cinderella is, at heart, a narrative of redemption and transcendence, as Cinderella is able to exit the cyclical tragedy of history through what Benjamin refers to as “messianic time.” And, as the British adaptation underscores, Cinderella’s curse, like Pilgrim’s, is that of being “unstuck in time.” At midnight, Cinderella’s magical evening dissolves, and she is whisked back into the tragic inevitability of cyclical time. However, Cinderella is able to find eventual transcendence that Pilgrim cannot — her enchanted teleology of redemption carries her out of history and into the sublime. Pilgrim’s impossible desire to do the same is reinforced when he chooses to don the silver-painted combat boots that signify Cinderella’s glass slippers. “Billy Pilgrim was Cinderella, and Cinderella was Billy Pilgrim.” Pilgrim marches in these messianic slippers, but is tragically denied redemption.

This same desire for transcendence is further reinforced in the novel’s continual trafficking in Christian eschatology. Despite Vonnegut’s purported atheism, a thoroughly religious desire for transcendence and the sacred pervades his imagination. Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout even revises the Gospels in his own The Gospel from Outerspace, which emphasizes both the humanity of Christ and the sacredness of the human. And in Slaughterhouse-Five, the Christ narrative serves to underscore this sacrality and the desire to transcend historical time. The Christ narrative, like Cinderella’s, presents the redemptive and messianic exit from historical time, and this sublime desire for transcendence glimmers throughout Vonnegut’s fictions. Kundera remarks that, in eternal recurrence, the individual is nailed like Christ to the cross of eternity. What is unacknowledged in Kundera’s construction, however, is the subsequent exit from history that this narrative dares to imagine. Vonnegut is searching for a similar transcendence. Underscoring Vonnegut’s messianic urge, the epigraph for Slaughterhouse-Five is a carol celebrating the birth of Christ.


This messianic hope is the foundation of Vonnegut’s fictions. Through the temporal spasticity of Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut attempts to dig beneath the ontological and historical ossifications of the contemporary world in order to reveal a glimmer of eternity. Vonnegut yearns to uncover the essential and eternal human — the Adam and Eve who dwell beneath the rivers of historical time. In the opening chapter, Vonnegut, contemplating a river, asks himself “about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.” Like Thoreau, Vonnegut wishes to sift through the sands of time to find a glimmering diamond of transcendence and sublimity. He cannot learn to love his fate uncritically, but he can learn a subversive love for the human. Vonnegut must stare directly into the traumatic absurdity of history — his “duty-dance with death” — in order to insist, paradoxically, on the sacrality of the human. Imagination, not history or fate, must provide the foundation of the re-invented self and universe. Vonnegut’s fictions, then, are attempts at cultivating this transgressive and humanistic love.

In the end, Slaughterhouse-Five is an attempt to transmute, through literature, the suffering and absurdity of history. Vonnegut’s anxieties are embodied in the haunted Billy Pilgrim, but Vonnegut’s fate is not that of Pilgrim’s. Vonnegut hopes to shatter Pilgrim’s beads of historical recollection in order to imagine a new history and a new literature for the purpose of inaugurating a new mode of human being. Pilgrim is irreparably “trapped in the amber” of history; Vonnegut yearns to crack open the amber and redeem the human trapped within. His “duty-dance with death” succeeds because Vonnegut does not allow himself to be conquered by death or to succumb to nihilism or despair. Indeed, Vonnegut’s “dance” impels a transcendent humanism that denies the determinism of historical fate in favor of the beautiful cultivation of the human sublime. He had found a way to mitigate the suffering of history not through amor fati, but through something far more profound and more redemptive.

His fictions help impel a critical and ethical imagination in his readers, and his fictions are always grounded in the experience of the human. Human life is beautiful and sacred, Vonnegut continually insists, and his literatures help re-invigorate that sacrality. Through literature, Vonnegut seeks to sacralize the human and humanize the sacred.

In his seminal Fear and Trembling, Søren Kierkegaard writes of the “knights of faith.” These figures insist in redemption “by virtue of the absurd,” by which Kierkegaard refers to the overwhelming paradox of such faith in a world that denies its possibility. Vonnegut insists on this same faith in the human by virtue of the absurd. Although Pilgrim is unable to find transcendence, and although he is perpetually haunted by fate, Vonnegut continually imagines threads of redemption glistening alongside the catastrophe of history. Kierkegaard compares these knights to “ballet dancers” who, in their insistence on redemption, are able to make “the movement of infinity... to express the sublime in the pedestrian.” Such a knight is Abraham, who, even when drawing the knife against Isaac in Genesis 22, knows, by virtue of the absurd, that his son will be restored to him. This is the sublime paradox of Vonnegut, who, only after insisting on the meaninglessness of life, is able to resurrect the human as sacred. The metaphoric dancing of these knights suggests their confidence in redemption by virtue of the absurd. They are not weighed down by the burdens of history or fate, but buoyed by the desire for transcendence and their confidence therein.

Such is Vonnegut’s “duty-dance with death.” In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard laments that he “cannot make the movement of faith,” that he “cannot shut [his] eyes and plunge confidently into the absurd.” This plunge for Kierkegaard results in overwhelming anxiety; he doubts that he is able to transcend the paradox of the absurd. This is the plunge of Kurt Vonnegut, who continually insists on the sacredness of the human in the midst of the ruins of modernity. The world is meaningless, insists Vonnegut, but the human is sacred by virtue of the absurd. This is the plunge — and this is the faith — of Slaughterhouse-Five.