Monday, March 10, 2014

A Duty-Dance with Death

     Death isn’t altogether uncommon in literature, but never before have I found it so prominent as it is in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Not only is the novel riddled with death, but each one is punctuated with the phrase “so it goes,” emphasizing death’s presence again and again. For Vonnegut, the use of this phrase creates a means of casting off the death as if it is not such a big deal. In fact, the narrator, Billy Pilgrim, as presented in the midst of war, is practically dead. Billy has nothing much to live for and is constantly cast from event to event, much like Candide in Voltaire’s text, not really having much agency in his life, being, for all intents and purposes, dead.
            Reflecting upon Billy Pilgrim’s experiences during this time, I can’t help but be reminded of a quote from Shawshank Redemption. When talking about the hopelessness of being stuck in prison, Tim Robbins’ character says that he has to “get busy living or get busy dying,” determining that he’s either going to maintain the hope for a better life, getting out of prison, or resolve to stay within this life of despair and submitting to his prison life. Billy has to make this same decision, whether he is going to submit to this life in the war or keep any sense of hope for the future.
            The narrator in Slaughterhouse-Five follows the themes of postmodern literature, though, and emphasizes this idea of “get[ting] busy dying.” Death becomes normal, almost expected in the novel, desensitizing the reader to its horrors. For people in the wake of WWII, the entire world was turned upside down and filled with destruction and chaos they were not accustomed to. Many people, especially those who had gone to war, did not know how to approach life anymore and became very detached and “dead” to the world. Death became just another part of life and its felt strongly throughout Vonnegut’s novel through the attitude of the narrator as well as Billy Pilgrim’s tale.   

            Thankfully, Billy Pilgrim turns his life around slightly after encountering the Tralfamadorians. After he adopts their views on time and events, he starts “get[ting] busy living,” by writing his book and taking his life into his own hands (even if his daughter isn’t the biggest fan). Even while taking this hold on his own life, Billy is accepting the immanence of death, knowing that death, too, will be just another “moment” as the Tralfamadorians referred to it, and nothing more.
            Although this may seem like a potential resolution to the uncomfortably prominent and horrifying presence of death in the novel and in life itself, I struggle to see it as such. Yes, we all die eventually, and yes, it is a natural part of life, but isn’t there a sort of reverence meant to be had for it? Is death not honorable at times? Is it not tragic? Vonnegut’s stance on death, given the time he was writing in, makes complete sense, but I can’t entirely jump on board. Death, for me, and I’m sure for most of mankind, is a hard topic to deal with and “living” while you can, is not entirely enough to make death easier to swallow and I don’t think that it ever should be. We all have our own "duty-dance with death" and there is no avoiding it, but that doesn't necessarily mean we should accept it as an everyday dance which isn't a significant event. As Elie Wiesel put it, “The opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

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