Vonnegut: Fearful and Strange to See
We note the passing of Kurt Vonnegut this week. In the Introduction to Peace Studies Seminar that I help to co-teach here at OSU, we have students analyze a work of fiction or nonfiction as their final term paper. Frequently, students choose Slaughterhouse Five as their project. When they are asked why they chose it, most have been told by friends or family that it is a must read.
Students often find the book challenging, usually because of the nonlinear narrative time line and fantastic science fiction elements that intervene in the otherwise realistic depiction of Billy Pilgrim's life. Some students find this style difficult because they find it irrational.
Perhaps it would be better to say "absurd". Vonnegut, perhaps better than any in the Greatest Generation, understood that World War II was not irrational. It was not devoid of reason--there were supposedly many good and just reasons for the war and the war was conducted with excruciating detail and planning in many cases. But the Allied bombing of Dresden, the deliberate attack and terror on civilian populations, which Vonnegut experienced directly, displayed the absurdity of warfare itself. This true and just war still boiled down to killing other human beings in cruel and painful ways. I often wonder if Vonnegut had to rely on his fantasy style, writing about aliens and porn stars and other things that seemed to make no sense, because nothing else could make coherent the absurdity of organized killing which is war. So it goes.
A few lines from the chorus in Sophocles's "Antigone" that I hope Vonnegut would appreciate:
Many the forms of life,
Fearful and strange to see,
But man supreme stands out,
For strangeness and for fear.