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Slaughterhouse-Five - Chapter 2

#185: Nov. - Jan. 2023 (Fiction)

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Slaughterhouse-Five - Chapter 2

Slaughterhouse-Five
Chapter 2


Please use this thread to discuss the above chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five.
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Re: Slaughterhouse-Five - Chapter 2

After the extended throat clearing prolegomena of Chapter One, in which Vonnegut explains the personal background of how he came to write the novel, Chapter Two plunges into the story of Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut’s alter ego, captured in the Battle of the Bulge, taken to Dresden as a prisoner of war, returned to America to become a successful eye doctor, and engaging in travel to the mystery planet Tralfamadore after an accident damages his brain.

Weak and weedy in personality and physique, and having spent the war in the most pathetic role imaginable, a chaplain’s assistant, the alien abduction story which he freely tells in public makes everyone think Billy is a kook, especially his daughter. And yet, like all serious kooks, Billy is adamant that his experiences are entirely real. Recall a chaplain is often thought of as a failed minister, so a chaplain’s assistant is even more contemptible.

The reader is invited to identify with Billy as someone who has had experiences that the rest of the world cannot imagine. Tralfamadore is a parable for Vonnegut’s horrific trauma in the bombing of Dresden, helping him to cope with his experience through surreal comedy. Looking like toilet plungers with eyes, these beings have wisdom far beyond our own.

On Tralfamadore, they see in four dimensions, including time, so they can move between every different moment in their lives at will. This is a thoroughly deterministic view of reality, in which total physical causality means the seeming indeterminacy produced by freedom of the will is an illusion. The God’s-eye-view of the alien toilet plungers know the future as well as the past, with every seemingly random accident and decision programmed like clockwork mechanisms.

In philosophy, one example of such deterministic thinking comes from the Presocratic writer Parmenides, who contrasted the unavoidable way of truth with the uncertain path of appearance. Parmenides, like his Hermetic counterpart Poimandres, held that all is one. This means the future and past are just as real as the present. A similar idea is from Carlos Castaneda, that eternity surrounds you.
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Re: Slaughterhouse-Five - Chapter 2

I have trouble taking the Tralfamadorian perspective seriously. I have heard the same about God, from C.S. Lewis, and it strikes me as sci-fi folderol.

The most respectable version, to me, has history repeating itself ridiculously often. Even though we have been through X before, we repeat the doomed experiment in hopes of a better outcome. Why fight it? Ignorance and greed will always win out over foresight and prudence. Man butchers man, until things reverse and the opposite happens.

But in a way I admire Vonnegut's use of it. Science fiction is supposed to give us interesting implications of prognostication about scientific developments. KVJ (whose birthday today would have been his 100th) had already been nominated for Hugo Awards twice. His "Cat's Cradle" used the apparatus rather differently, as a way to bring in social perspectives and alternative psychological insights. I don't take it seriously, but I like the way he introduces ideas that I do take seriously through backdoor representations.
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Re: Slaughterhouse-Five - Chapter 2

It's early in the book, but I doubt we're supposed to take the Tralfamadorians "seriously."
  • "Little Billy was terrified" of a classic childhood "sink or swim" challenge where the unconscious Billy resents being rescued from drowning.
  • Billy first becomes "unstuck in time" during WWII. He was in the Battle of the Bulge. "Billy survived, but he was a dazed wanderer far behind the new German lines." He becomes a prisoner of war.
  • The firebombing of Dresden is yet to be described.
  • After the war he is "given shock treatments" in a veterans' hospital. At that time electoconvulsive therapy (ECT) was not too far from the torture depicted in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." It was used to treat severe depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental illnesses such as homosexuality. (Modern ECT is not nearly as painful, but I know from observing a family member that it still inflicts a lot of damage to memories and clarity without resolving depression.)
  • The Tralfamadorians don't start until after Billy survives a deadly plane crash with "a terrible scar across the top of his skull."
There is a lot of trauma involved! I expect the time-tripping and space aliens are Billy's ways of experiencing, understanding, and attempting to explain what's going on in his head.
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Re: Slaughterhouse-Five - Chapter 2

The 'time tripping' seems to me to be based on the flashbacks that people experience as part of post traumatic stress disorder.
What are flashbacks?

A flashback is a vivid experience in which you relive some aspects of a traumatic event or feel as if it is happening right now. This can sometimes be like watching a video of what happened, but flashbacks do not necessarily involve seeing images, or reliving events from start to finish. You might experience any of the following:

seeing full or partial images of what happened
noticing sounds, smells or tastes connected to the trauma
feeling physical sensations, such as pain or pressure
experiencing emotions that you felt during the trauma.
You might notice that particular places, people or situations can trigger a flashback for you, which could be due to them reminding you of the trauma in some way. Or you might find that flashbacks seem to happen at random. Flashbacks can last for just a few seconds, or continue for several hours or even days.

You can read some tips on how to cope with flashbacks on our page on self-care for PTSD.

I feel like I'm straddling a timeline where the past is pulling me in one direction and the present another. I see flashes of images and noises burst through, fear comes out of nowhere. My heart races, my breathing is loud and I no longer know where I am.
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Re: Slaughterhouse-Five - Chapter 2

Harry Marks wrote: Fri Nov 11, 2022 6:33 pm I have trouble taking the Tralfamadorian perspective seriously. I have heard the same about God, from C.S. Lewis, and it strikes me as sci-fi folderol.
Hi Harry, Tralfamadore is not meant to be taken seriously. It is carefully designed to be as extremely absurd as possible. The parable is that perhaps reality is quite different from our perceptions. That general principle is meant to be taken seriously. For example, we may perceive that the bombing of Dresden was a righteous and just exercise of revenge against the evil Nazis. Vonnegut’s perspective, having lived through the bombing, sees this exultation in revenge as entirely wrong. And yet for some, any criticism of the Allied war effort amounts to treason and Nazi apology. When two perspectives are in such conflict, they can be illustrated by the question of whether we are certain that Billy Pilgrim’s insane ideas are just the result of brain damage, as his daughter assumes.
Harry Marks wrote: Fri Nov 11, 2022 6:33 pm The most respectable version, to me, has history repeating itself ridiculously often. Even though we have been through X before, we repeat the doomed experiment in hopes of a better outcome. Why fight it? Ignorance and greed will always win out over foresight and prudence. Man butchers man, until things reverse and the opposite happens.
That opens Nietzsche’s famous theme of the eternal return of the same. My view is that this is best explained as a parable for the precession of the equinox, the idea that time rhymes based on physical patterns. But that is generally seen as a form of Tralfamadorian crankiness, excluded on principle by dominant cultural assumptions.
Harry Marks wrote: Fri Nov 11, 2022 6:33 pm
But in a way I admire Vonnegut's use of it. Science fiction is supposed to give us interesting implications of prognostication about scientific developments. KVJ (whose birthday today would have been his 100th) had already been nominated for Hugo Awards twice. His "Cat's Cradle" used the apparatus rather differently, as a way to bring in social perspectives and alternative psychological insights. I don't take it seriously, but I like the way he introduces ideas that I do take seriously through backdoor representations.
More than just prognostication about science and technology, science fiction has the capacity to present cultural commentary and satire. The Tralfamadore story is a satire of the reaction to conformist assumptions, with the suspended disbelief in whether this bizarre story might be really true, similar to what you say about Cat’s Cradle.

Billy Pilgrim has what we might call a dissociative temporal disorder, never knowing what day or year it might be when he wakes up in the morning. His consciousness is dissociated from the normal flow of time. This is a way of exploring how trauma can put people into a surreal headspace. It seems an absurd plot device, since it suggests that time is not real, that our location at any moment in time is a product of consciousness. If we think of the flow of time as real, inexorable and inevitable, there seems to be a basic conflict with fundamental laws of physics in imagining it might be possible to move through time at any rate other than one second per second, with all the relativistic trimmings.

Vonnegut has the science fiction luxury licence to say time is both exorable and evitable, whatever those words mean. They are just the opposites of inexorable and inevitable. We can suspend disbelief and choof off to Tralfamadore with Billy.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote:When Billy finally got home to Ilium after the airplane crash, he was quiet for a while. He had a terrible scar across the top of his skull. He didn't resume practice. He had a housekeeper. His daughter came over almost every day. And then, without any warning, Billy went to New York City, and got on an all-night radio program devoted to talk. He told about having come unstuck in time. He said, too, that he had been kidnapped by a flying saucer in 1967. The saucer was from the planet Tralfamadore, he said. He was taken to Tralfamadore, where he was displayed naked in a zoo, he said. He was mated there with a former Earthling movie star named Montana Wildhack. Some night owls in Ilium heard Billy on the radio, and one of them called Billy's daughter Barbara. Barbara was upset. She and her husband went down to New York and brought Billy home. Billy insisted mildly that everything he had said on the radio was true. He said he had been kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians on the night of his daughter's wedding. He hadn't been missed, he said, because the Tralfamadorians had taken him through a time warp, so that he could be on Tralfamadore for years, and still be away from Earth for only a microsecond. Another month went by without incident, and then Billy wrote a letter to the Ilium News Leader, which the paper published. It described the creatures from Tralfamadore. The letter said that they were two feet high, and green., and shaped like plumber's friends. Their suction cups were on the ground, and their shafts, which were extremely flexible, usually pointed to the sky. At the top of each shaft was a little hand with a green eye in its palm. The creatures were friendly, and they could see in four dimensions.
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Re: Slaughterhouse-Five - Chapter 2

Doing the Tralfamadorian time warp, we go back with Billy Pilgrim to the Battle of The Bulge in 1944, when the Germans destroyed his regiment, and he got to look like a completely pathetic fool, with no boots or helmet or overcoat or weapon, never even meeting the chaplain he was meant to assist, empty handed, bleakly ready for death, more filthy flamingo than soldier, cold, hungry, embarrassed, incompetent. He is too dazed to find cover when he gets shot at.

Billy’s protector is an anti-tank gunner called Roland Weary:
As a part of a gun crew, Weary had helped to fire one shot in anger-from a 57-millimeter antitank gun. The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of a zipper on the fly of God Almighty. The gun lapped up snow and vegetation with a blowtorch feet long. The flame left a black arrow on the ground, showing the Germans exactly where the gun was hidden. The shot was a miss.

What had been missed was a Tiger tank. It swiveled its 88-millimeter snout around sniffingly, saw the arrow on the ground. It fired. It killed everybody on the gun crew but Weary. So it goes.
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Re: Slaughterhouse-Five - Chapter 2

Roland thought he was part of a tight group of "3 Musketeers," but the other two abandoned him. Roland needs a scapegoat for his circumstances. During his time adventures, Billy understands the great importance of Roland Weary on his life and death. (More on that later.)

Kurt was a scout in WWII. The "2 Musketeers" that abandon Roland were scouts who are killed shortly thereafter. Not sure what to make of that, just pointing it out. We should probably keep a list of similarities of KV, Billy, and others...
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Re: Slaughterhouse-Five - Chapter 2

I met a Tralfamadorian in the bathroom today. He was polite, but also rather insistent and intrusive. Perhaps we should take them seriously.
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Re: Slaughterhouse-Five - Chapter 2

George Carlin discussing Billy Pilgrim's condition and political correctness.



Another euphemism from WWII was "the thousand yard stare."
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