Bleak history is made darkly comedic in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Through his perpetual use of understatement, Vonnegut hilariously depicts the fault of human decision. The adventures of protagonist Billy Pilgrim make little to no sense as he travels back in history, into the future, and even through an alternate universe. The confusing reality of BIlly Pilgrim combined with the narrator’s flat affect are uncomfortable and somewhat disconcerting for the reader. Yet it is the alternating feelings of stability and discomfort that allow the reader to better understand the rather unsettling realities of the modern world.
The story of Billy Pilgrim is told by an omniscient narrator, one who often finishes his tales with the phrase “so it goes”. Whether the stories portray the problems of death, triumph, or mystical fantasy, “so it goes” is almost always the resolution. This bleak understatement is unsettling. The narrator is telling us that no matter what happens, we are only a small speck on the grand scale of human history. This feeling of worthlessness, however, is intentional. The disorientation that the reader experiences as Billy traverses between the worlds of his past, present, and future, makes the reader question the ultimate purpose of the novel. But this “what’s the point?” mentality is exactly what Vonnegut wants from us. If we question Billy’s reality, we must in turn question our own.
Perhaps the most bizarre faction of the novel, Billy’s adventures with the Tralfamadorians disorient the reader completely. One minute he’s sleeping next to his wife, and the next he’s trapped in an amber sediment. By observing his own world from the viewpoint of these aliens, Billy is offered a new perspective. “All time is all time”, a Tralfamadorian explains, “It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is” (86). This idea of stagnation, of things never changing, seems foreign to Billy, and to us as readers. As humans we consider ourselves agents of change and progress; but from an outsider’s perspective, we simply occupy a world where history continually repeats itself. The Tralfamadorian’s opinion blends perfectly with the narrator’s apathetic “so it goes” attitude. As readers however, we must realize that Billy’s journey with the Tralfamadorians mimics ours with Vonnegut’s. In reading Slaughterhouse Five, we experience a similar disorientation to Billy, which asks us to contemplate the realities that have been placed in front of us. Vonnegut wants us to question the concepts of war, violence, and destruction. He wants us to see that the way in which we solve our problems might not be the best, and that there is, somewhere out there, a differing perspective from our own. The consequence of not discovering these perspectives is becoming victim to the “so it goes” mentality, of becoming another worthless being incapable of change.
Though I don’t necessarily equate Jesuit education with dark humor, I find Vonnegut’s message strangely similar to that of St. Ignatius. The purpose of Vonnegut’s novel, as well as a Jesuit education, is change. Through learning about the world around us, by shedding previously held ideals, by getting in touch with the elusive “girtty reality” that Kolvenbach and many other Jesuits so often refer to, we can be changed for the better. It is only by removing ourselves from the comfort of our own reality (getting kidnapped by aliens or otherwise) that we can truly come to learn and grow from experience.
Without a doubt, I belong in the city. I like being surrounded by action and excitement. I like doing things, keeping busy. So not surprisingly, when I learned that I’d be traveling to Vanceburg, Kentucky for my spring break outreach trip two years ago, I was less than thrilled. When we arrived on the farm (yes, farm), there was nothing but long valleys and far off woods in sight. When we travelled “downtown” the small streets were cluttered with boarded up buildings and the occasional hardware store. Nothing about this place was familiar to me; nothing was comfortable. But as I was encouraged by my leader to “lean into discomfort”, I began to slowly open myself up to my new surroundings. Cleaning out an abandoned school made me think of my own experience with education. Laying down floorboards in a newly constructed house allowed me to appreciate the great comforts of my own home. And helping construct a new rehabilitation center for those experiencing addiction, made me feel more closely connected with members of my own family who have experienced it as well. This idea of “leaning into discomfort”, of slowly disorienting myself, actually enhanced my learning experience, and offered a new perspective of my own life. In allowing myself to be removed from the comfort of my own reality, I became an agent of change, unwilling to accept “so it goes” as an explanation or solution.