Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Slaughterhouse-Five and Pillars of salt.

"And Lot's wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.
So she was turned to a pillar of salt. So it goes.
•  •  •
People aren't supposed to look back. I'm certainly not going to do it anymore.
I've finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun.
This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt."
— Slaughterhouse-Five

The book is a failure. Not in the sense that it's not going to make him a ton of money. Maybe it did. I think probably. But it is a failure in the sense that it will not succeed in being an anti-war book. It really is like being anti-glaciers (bracketing global climate change) to be against the human propensity to slaughter as many as technologically possible. (Hey, or maybe that's right: just as we've all stupidly banded together to energize the environment enough to melt all the glaciers, let's all band together stupidly and end global war.)

It will not succeed as an anti-war book because Vonnegut, being so human, looks back to an event that does not make any sense. He is a pillar of salt. But we all, being so human each of us, also look back to our own events that do not make any sense. We are all pillars of salt. Looking back at the past and becoming salt is what makes us all war in the first place. Looking back at the past and becoming salt is what makes us human in the first place. This is the paradox of what defines humanity that Slaughterhouse-Five begins with and continues in exploring. Darwin taught us corpses are improvement, we are meant to die. We don't yet believe it.

Vonnegut proceeds to tell us a brief recap of things at the start of the last chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five. The story goes, people are dying and killed. Notable people, nobodies too. He thinks about what the Tralfamadorians say. It's just the way it is. You only have to look at it. So, choose carefully what you will be looking at for all of eternity. Live your life with that in mind, increasing the number of good moments to visit. Billy Pilgrim only had one: silently riding in a cart in the afternoon after the worst massacre of the world up to that point in his life. Don't you make the horrible mistake of being the one who knows what it looks like to massacre entire people or hurt just the one. Vonnegut thinks about his own survival since. He's made his money, but Wild Bob had none and died alone and feverish. There is no deeper meaning to it. There is no pattern but natural death and evolution.

And, before we leave the narrator's world to go into the storyland, he leaves us with this:

The world is exploding with people. Each one of them a new little cart on the same railroad track. Each one of them a tiny, constrained and useless viewpoint on the world. Each one of them will, therefore, suffer the same fate of looking back and refusing to let go to the senselessness, refusing to let go of the wheel to a cart that's not listening and not steering.

"I suppose they will all want dignity," I said.
"I suppose," said O'Hare.

And then we are back into the storyland to finish out our story tempting us so persuasively, so very sweetly, and we end with Billy Pilgrim exactly the way our narrator intended: you were always going to end up where he said.

I love that you can look around the room and see which students didn't do the reading if you read this passage, the last piece of Chapter 1, aloud.

There is something very human about that need to know, for sure, if it's not all locked in. We don't want to believe it is closed, a one-way track, a determined universe that refuses change.

But that's because, as the flip goes, we look back to the senselessness. We try to find a reason and a meaning to it all, to all that bringing us still the pain. Blame the body, but we tend not to. Not the right way, at least. The way where we embrace it is machine nature, learn its machine workings, and... here's the punchline: flip the switches ourselves.

I guess, for me, that's the puzzle of it all, once I saw it for the first time. Is this idea the fundamental fantasy, or is the hesitation to flip them and change ourselves itself the fundamental fantasy? Which one is the lie, and which one is the truth?

Option One:
Can I really flip my biological machinery or even more richly my metaphysical machinery? Is the fundamental fantasy the idea that none of it will ever change?

Option Two:
Can I really let go of wanting to change things and control them? Is the fundamental fantasy the idea that all of it will change if I but try?

They cannot both be right.

Here's the twist: they can both be wrong.

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