Vonnegut and the Arrow of Time


Some time ago, triggered by a post on Universi Paralleli, I started re-reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. As everybody should know, the book is inspired by the author’s experience as a war prisoner in Dresden, during the Allied bombing that completely destroyed the city.

In the book, following a personal habit, Vonnegut fools around mischievously with time, going back and forth through it in almost every page. Not only that, but he actually has the protagonist travel subjectively in time, which he doesn’t experience in the usual, linear fashion. On the contrary, he goes through different moments of his life in a discontinuous way, jumping backward and forward in imitation of his author’s literary style.

Also featured are aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. The Tralfamadorians have as well a peculiar perception of time, since they see in four dimensions, the fourth being time. They thus perceive every instant of their lives simultaneously. So, for instance, nobody really dies for them. Any individual is only dead in given areas of the four-dimensional space, while in other spots he is indeed alive and well.

The book is full of time-based tricks. Let me offer you a taste of Vonnegut’s juggling with time. At a certain point, many years after the war, the protagonist is looking at a war documentary, while subjectively traveling backwards in time. Here is what he sees:

“American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen…

The bombers opened their bomb-bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.”

As it to happens quite often when confronted with something written by Vonnegut, I find this passage disturbingly poetic, utterly sad and outright beautiful at the same time.

Reading it, I almost wished for a moment that Vonnegut was still alive. Then I realized he is actually not quite dead. He only happen to be not very healthy in this particular moment.

So it goes.


7 Responses to “Vonnegut and the Arrow of Time”

  1. Actually, at this moment Vonnegut is chasing dogs on Tralfamadore. In the meantime, he has written a new book (other people will want to call it “posthumous”) that includes his first account of Dresda bombings. Reviewers say that it is even better than S5.

  2. The smile was inserted by malicious Tralfamodorians. It had to be a closed parentheses sign.

  3. Shame on me, I never read Vonnegut. After this post I decided it’s time to time-reverse this deficiency.

  4. “I almost wished for a moment that Vonnegut was still alive.”

    So do I… 🙂

  5. screwgravity Says:

    Olly Skit, i’ve burst into tears reading that.

  6. Jean-Bernard Brisset Says:

    This is the only way anglosaxons know how to make war. I am very surprised that the name of the brilliant british general who made himself famous by the stupidity of this barbaric bombing: Bomber Harris, is not mentionned. We french also have to thank him for the destruction of cities like Caen (cf; D.DAY by Anthony Beevor). Judging by all the fuss that is made in medias like CNN when a dozen iraki or afghan civilians are killed
    nowadays, it seems that hundreds of thousands of norman or german civilians were not worth the trouble.

    • Dear Jean-Bernard, I’m surprised somebody still pass by and comment this blog, which I had (shamefully) abandoned quite some time ago. However, I still reply to the few comments.

      “Bomber’ Harris was indeed mentioned in the post by Universi Paralleli (alas, in Italian) I linked at the beginning, and his role in the bombings justly stigmatized.

      I wouldn’t blame anglosaxons in general, though. Stupidity looks to me invariably present whenever people go to war.

      As to the fuss made over civilians killed in contemporary conflicts, we are supposed to have learned a hard lesson from WWII, and we should know by now that each one of them is one too much (and the military too…).

      But I’m not so sure this feeling is shared by everybody.

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