17 July 2007

So it goes.

I finished Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. There were three major points of impact that I took away from it.

First, the literary style was tremendous. Whatever you make of the political message and social commentary, I defy you to argue against the brilliance of his style.

My copy is a first edition, published in 1969. The thrill of turning the antique pages one by one definitely enlivened the experience and more keenly emphasized in my mind how the book must have been received stylistically when it was first published. It would be a mistake to think the style is easy just because it seems simple. From other reading about the author, I know he labored under great strain for 25 years before putting the story to paper. Perhaps he meant for the book's message to be its legacy, but I believe its style is its most enduring feature.

Second, his commentary on death stays with me. Vonnegut said that "there is nothing intelligent to say about massacre." Not so, as the novel itself proves. By reducing death to the commonplace, I believe Vonnegut intended to shock the conscience and emphasize the value of life. Even so, I think he failed in this effort largely because he overemphasized the ubiquity of death. It cannot shock the conscience to consider the death of animals and faceless, disconnected people alongside the death of people with whom the reader has a relationship. If death is the great equalizer, then by its very nature we cannot properly react with abhorrence to the atrocities of war that lead to the senseless killings of unknown men. Vonnegut would have made the point better by further emphasizing the randomness of lives that were spared indiscriminitely, like Pilgrim's, to draw distinction between lives preserved and lives taken unjustly. It was a bold attempt at an overarching irony that fell a little bit short.

Finally, the novel's politicization of war in a modern society is as applicable today as it was in the Vietnam era. And of course, it was as applicable then as it was in the early '40's when Vonnegut emerged from the slaughterhouse to find a city of 135,000 massacred souls.

Anti-war literature certainly has its place in society. Lobbying for peace is noble, but in a very socially important way it's not much different than a four year old lobbying for chocolate toothpaste. War is evil and destructive of man. But it is also the great purifier of a conflicted world. It has been around nearly forever, it it will be around nearly until the great end of time. Opposing the conflicts that lead to war seems much more sensible than opposing the great machine of destruction that will inevitably cut wide swaths across all societies in our day.

Maybe the book wasn't meant to halt war, but only to make us stop and think about the great sadness of war. If that is its purpose, it succeeds. And if the firm hand of reality prevails, and wars rage, then what is the harm of a brilliant novel that carves out a small space in the corner for discussions of the ideological lives of men?

If you read this book, you should pause before you begin and take two or three deep breaths. Vonnegut is a genius in his comments on the human condition. This novel is a wonderful work of art, blended with the messages that were important to the author when he wrote them and instructive to readers of any generation.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. died on April 11, 2007. So it goes.

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