11 March 2014
Viewing Reality Through Different Lenses
Throughout Slaughterhouse Five Vonnegut uses the lens motif as a way to shed light on the diversity that exists within human perception. Specifically, Vonnegut connects the way in which we perceive our world to the sensory function of vision. We all possess a unique set of lenses that are intrinsic to our biological makeup; these lenses are what cause us to observe things differently. Vonnegut also attributes our difference in perception to our tendency to project our own experiences and knowledge onto what is being observed. Our personal projections alter the field of vision and therefore help to shape our observations, our understanding of reality. Thus, no two individuals will view something in the same way: no two readers will experience Vonnegut’s text identically. Here, Vonnegut raises a central question: how can we ever know for certain what is being observed if our observations are dependent on our own individual experiences? Another way of asking this question is: how can we truly define “reality”; who has the authority to say what is real and what is fiction?
Vonnegut provides us with an answer to this question through his intentional blurring of the lines that exist between the imaginative realm and reality. Vonnegut writes, “And Billy, meanwhile, was trying to hang onto his dignity, to persuade Barbara and everybody else that he was far from senile, that, on the contrary, he was devoting himself to a calling much higher than mere business. He was doing nothing less now, he thought, than prescribing corrective lenses for Earthling souls. So many of those souls were lost and wretched, Billy believed, because they could not see as well as his little green friends on Tralfamadore”(29). In other words, both Vonnegut and Billy are working to teach their respective audiences that-- if we are wearing the appropriate lens--any fantasy can be perceived as real. If we accept this notion, then, an infinite number of “true account[s]”(45) can viably exist.
Vonnegut has no intention of imposing the Tralfamadore’s perspective onto us, but rather he uses a (seemingly) foreign alien race to remind us (his readers) to remain open-minded and to remind us that there are other ways of seeing the world—ways that may differ from our own. I found this reminder to be extremely relevant to my experiences at Tunbridge. I often find myself struggling to understand why some of the parents act in the ways they do, I find it difficult to see the world the way they see it. Specifically, a few weeks ago one of the children’s parents brought in donuts to school for her birthday. Although it was a very kind gesture (and super fun for the other children), this child’s mother made a comment to me that still irks me weeks later! After telling this mother that I went to Loyola and that I was swamped with homework, she responded by telling me, “You should have just found yourself a nice husband and had some kids, it would have been a lot easier!”. Of course finding a nice husband and having some kids are on my “to-do list”, but to flat out tell me that I should have chosen to be a housewife to avoid the challenge of receiving an education was appalling. How could a mother—with her daughter in close proximity—encourage such ridiculous behavior? However, even though I think that this woman is entirely delusional (and rude!) —according to Vonnegut—I don’t have the authority to deem her perspective "incorrect" (and Vonnegut is annoyingly right).
Although this mother and I did not see eye to eye on my decision to go to college, as long as we are aware and we acknowledge each other’s lenses, then there is no need for compromise. Vonnegut supports this notion and similarly asserts that if we are able to recognize that alternative perspectives exist, then we are better able to treat others who perceive differently from ourselves-- and with kindness and respect. Vonnegut writes: “[Rosewater] was experimenting with being ardently sympathetic with everybody he met. He thought that might make the world a slightly more pleasant place to live in”(102). By recognizing that there is more than one way of seeing the world-- and that all of these ways are equally as valid and real—we can work towards achieving a sense of universal sympathy for those who see the world differently than we do: for those who are observing reality but through a different lens.