“I think you guys are going to have to come up with a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren’t going to want to go on living.” –“Eliot Rosewater” in Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
So it goes, Candide’s sense of optimism, cest la vie – there are dozens of phrases, words, and ideas meant to ease one’s mind about the events unfolding around us. In Voltaire’s Candide, I and many others in my class questioned the morality of accepting the hardships in life as “the best possible event” – would it make us passive bystanders to cruelty? Fate becomes a central theme to Vonnegut’s highly acclaimed anti-war novel, Slaughterhouse Five. However, instead of satirizing the belief of an inevitability to our lives (as Voltaire did), Vonnegut pokes and prods at the concept of free will, time, and fate.
According to the Tralfamadorians (aliens who abducted Billy Pilgrim), “only on Earth is there any talk of free will” (Vonnegut, 86). Because they can see the fourth dimension of time, Tralfamadorians view time as static as the Rocky Mountains. Every moment will go on continuously and simultaneously. No one is dead. Instead, one may live forever in the ever present past. One will live despite death. “So it goes.” The Tralfamadorians find comfort in this saying as they acknowledge the illusion of death within the confines of the human understanding of time. Additionally, free will is a foreign concept, because of this understanding of time. If all moments, past, present, and future, exist at the same time, then one is powerless to change any events. “So it goes.”
The Tralfamadorians may find comfort in this saying, but how can that be applied to humanity? The quote at the beginning of this post would indicate that Rosewater would scorn the Tralfamadorians – saying they were another form of psychiatrist coming up with a “wonderful new lie” so people would “want to go on living.” There is a description of Rosewater’s bedside table – “a still life [of] two pills, an ashtray with three…cigarettes in it, one cigarette still burning, and a glass of water. The water was dead. So it goes” (Vonnegut, 101). I find that this would be the perfectly human understanding of the Tralfamadorians view of time. A still life that is dead, alive in the past and not the present where we live, so our grief is valid.
To be honest, I’m not sure where I am going with this. Every one of us has felt death’s affect in our lives. A grandparent, a friend taken too early, a pet, etc. However, as this is an anti-war novel, it only seems fitting to talk about my brother’s volunteer service, in which he spent time with residents at the senior center. The elderly man he visited two hours twice a week was a Vietnam veteran named Samuel Mitchell. My brother once told me about a war-story Samuel shared. It was about Samuel and a young man he called his best friend. The best friend’s name was Charlie Winters. One day, their regiment was ambushed, but no one was killed. However, Samuel was among the casualties – his right leg blown completely off. He was sent back out of the field, and Charlie had to stay. Later on, Samuel got a notice that Charlie was killed in combat.
Samuel seemed hollow, so my brother tried to comfort him. My brother said at least Charlie’s memory lived on with Samuel. My brother said that maybe that’s what God intended. Maybe Charlie knew he had to be Samuel’s best friend, so Samuel wouldn’t have been the one who died. My brother knew Samuel was a religious man. Samuel, though, shook his head.
“Maybe God had a plan. Maybe fate said I was supposed to live. Maybe Charlie’s screamin’ at me from heaven for mournin’ him – for mournin’ my lost leg. …But I was still forced to go through life without my best friend.”
Maybe we can say “so it goes,” but mourning doesn’t work that way. We don’t see the fourth dimension like the Tralfamadorians. We are humans. We face massacres in our present and try to keep them from happening again in our future. We fight for the free will to “express contempt for people who think we need massacre machinery” (Vonnegut, 19). We are humans. We mourn and grieve and cry. We tell Fate what we think should have happened.