U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reading Vonnegut: History, Trauma, and Time Travel


“So they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe. Science fiction was a big help”[1]

I’ve long had a Kurt Vonnegut problem. I get it him I think, but sometimes he seems to pile on his ironies a little too high. I rarely take the time to read Vonnegut in a close way like I would Faulkner or Melville or Kafka or whatever. I wonder now if this isn’t my loss. I’m not sure. One of my best friends in the world happens to be a Kurt Vonnegut fan. He lives in a small town in West Texas now. He’s a big Bernie Sanders supporter. He carries a leather wallet with a hammer and sickle imprinted on it. He also served in Afghanistan at one point in his life.

He called me up at two in the morning one time in what sounded like a panic. The conversation went something like this:

“Man, am I glad you picked up. I really needed to talk to someone.”

“Wow. That sounds serious. Are you doing OK? I mean, what’s up? Tell me about it.”

“Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about my life, and I realize now that I’m gonna make a serious life change, and it starts with a resolution I’ve made. It can’t wait.”

“Whoa there. What is it? Did you quit your job or something?”

“No, it’s not that.”

“Is everything OK with your wife? Did something happen to your mom?”

“No. Everybody is fine, man.”

“Then what the hell is it? You call me at two in the goddamned morning and you say it can’t wait, so out with it already.”

“Calm down man. Listen carefully, ok? I made a decision. I made it today. It’s a game changer.”

“Oh for Christ’s sake, what is it?

“I’ve decided to use my powers for good. That’s right. I’ve decided to use my powers for good.”

For some odd reason, this strikes me as just the kind of thing a Kurt Vonnegut fan would say. Was he serious? Was this a joke? Was some deeper significance at work, or was he just screwing around? The joke itself suggests a level of sophistication beyond mere bullshit, but there was simply no way to tell. I now consider it a darkly ironic joke. This same friend earned a history degree years ago. He told me once that his interest in American history came out of reading Kurt Vonnegut novels.

This makes sense. Not only does Vonnegut offer neat jabs at the received historical wisdom of whatever period he wrote in at the time, he gives openings for thinking about how to read sources. He leaves lots of things out. The reader has to follow the trail of breadcrumbs. As a satirist, he deals in irony, so unpacking his sentences can be worthwhile. What first looks like non sequitur more often comes loaded with complexities that refuse any customary resolution in climactic moments or plot denouement. I’ll summon up Hayden White here to help out:

Satire represents a different kind of qualification of the hopes, possibilities, and truths of human existence revealed in Romance, Comedy, and Tragedy respectively. It views these hopes, possibilities, and truths Ironically, in the atmosphere generated by the apprehension of the ultimate inadequacy of the visions of the world dramatically represented in the genres of Romance, Comedy, or Tragedy alike. As a phase in the evolution of an artistic style or literary tradition, the advent of the Satirical mode of representation signals a conviction that the world has grown old. Like philosophy itself, Satire “paints its gray on gray” in the awareness of its own inadequacy as an image of reality. It therefore prepares consciousness for its repudiation of all sophisticated conceptualizations of the world and anticipates a return to a mythic apprehension of the world and its processes.[2]

I recently read Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five again after at least a decade or more. The novel is a stunning antiwar historical artifact of the late 1960s that takes place in several different times and places, especially during the Allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945. Of course, Vonnegut drew on his own experiences to write the novel. He tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, a general misfit survivor of the bombing who becomes “unstuck” in time. The action refuses sequence. Kidnapped by a group of aliens called the Tralfamadorians in 1967, thereafter Billy travels back and forth in time. The Tralfamadorians don’t follow the Earthling perception of time and instead see everything in a single continuum, simply plucking out what moments they wish. Death is just another part of a cycle; the universe pretty much ends and starts over and over again at every moment. What is always was and always will be. The aliens are determinists. They reject free will, a kind of thinking they see as a quirk of Earthling sensibilities.

Billy Pilgrim also survives a plane crash in 1964. He recovers from his injuries in a hospital and his roommate there is a Harvard history professor named Bertram Copeland Rumfoord who, recovering from a skiing accident, happens to be writing an official history of the Army Air Force. As news of the Dresden bombing emerges in the 1960s, Rumfoord has to account for it. He does this rather grudgingly. Among the books he has with him is David Irving’s The Destruction of Dresden (1963). Vonnegut’s novel appeared well before Irving became an infamous Holocaust denier (more on this later). Irving’s book features a foreword from an RAF officer named Robert Saundby. The narrator quotes it directly, following it up with an odd reference to something mentioned much earlier in the novel, which seems out of place on its face. At the level of form, the novel has a sequence, but the events in it lack any sequence because Billy travels in time:

(Saundby’s is the first paragraph):

The advocates of nuclear disarmament seem to believe that, if they could achieve their aim, war would become tolerable and decent. They would do well to read this book and ponder the fate of Dresden, where 135,000 people died as a result of an air attack with conventional weapons. On the night of March 9th, 1945, an air attack on Tokyo by American heavy bombers, using incendiary and high explosive bombs, caused the death of 83,793 people. The atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed 71,379 people.

So it goes.

“If you’re ever in Cody, Wyoming,” said Billy Pilgrim behind his white linen screens, “just ask for Wild Bob” (240).

“So it goes” is the phrase the Tralfamadorians use when someone dies. The narrator adopts it. That last bit about Wild Bob has to do with an event much earlier in the novel where the protagonist, captured by the Germans on the ragged edges of the Battle of the Bulge, is put on a railroad car with other prisoners. One of the men in the car is a dying U.S. colonel named “Wild Bob” who, in the throes of double pneumonia, looks at Billy directly, staring into his eyes, as if “he was addressing his beloved troops for the last time.” He tells Billy “If you’re ever in Cody, Wyoming, just ask for Wild Bob” (85-86).

The narrator then intervenes in the first person. This happens a few times in the book, and it resembles a general Vonnegut tendency toward the self-referential. This is not Billy Pilgrim speaking, but the narrator in something just shy of a rhyming couplet: “I was there. So was my old war buddy, Bernard V. O’Hare” (86).

On its face, this seems strange. We have an extended quote from the foreword of a popular and widely read early 1960s history of the Dresden bombing. Vonnegut juxtaposes it with an apparently random reference to a personal story. We wonder: what is this doing here?” It resembles Billy’s question for the Tralfamadorians in another place, “What I am doing here?” It happens to be a reasonable question that people who served in the Vietnam War asked on more than one occasion.

It’s worth starting with the premise that writers mean to put things where they do as part of a larger sense of the whole. Interventions like these have to mean something. Lots of unsaid things and assumptions must underlie it. We have to think about what those are.

First, we know that Billy is unstuck in time, so it stands to reason that he might simply make statements from one period in time at another period in time. He summons these things up from his memory, presumably in off-kilter ways because he alternately or even simultaneously lives in 1945 or 1967 or 1965. Phrases like these are immediate to him.

Through Saundby and the history of the Dresden bombing, Vonnegut draws the reader’s attention to numbers of dead on the one hand, which make human beings into abstractions, suggesting distance, and intimate interactions on the other, which don’t allow the same sort of abstraction of human life. Billy Pilgrim had looked directly into the eyes of the dying man.

Hospitality plays a role here. In mixed company in an unfamiliar place with strangers for an extended period of time, we have a tendency to say something like, “Look me up whenever you’re in my hometown,” with the secret hope that the person in question never really does that. Beyond the everyday, people in war or in prison often talk about home and invite fellow sufferers for a visit once the smoke clears or the extraordinary experience ends. They mean it. There is a “normal” world waiting out there somehow and somewhere. Delirious and sick, Wild Bob offered hospitality to Billy according to the hopeful delusion that he might meet him again in a normal world. Or he acted out of despair—a kind of sickness unto death. It makes horrible, perfect sense that Bob would offer hospitality in a war zone, because being truly hospitable, taking in the stranger-qua-stranger without any attachments, requires that we open ourselves up to the possibility of being violated in some way. The threat of violence dwells in the conceptual home of hospitality.

Vonnegut juxtaposes a delusional act of hospitality made by a dying man in an intimate setting—a tight train car—with a delusional act of violence by a war machine in a distant setting—fire raining down from airplanes. The phrase “just ask for Wild Bob” ironizes the Dresden bombing, figuratively reversing hope and intimacy in the context of distant violence. Saundby means to argue for the pointlessness of the anti-nuclear war position when it comes to conventional warfare. Recalling the words of “Wild Bob,” Billy Pilgrim recalls the darkly ironic, pointless hope of a madman dying before his eyes. To pick up Hayden White again, “Irony tends to dissolve all belief in the possibility of positive political actions. In its apprehension of the essential folly and absurdity of the human condition, it tends to engender belief in the “madness” of civilization itself and to inspire a Mandarin-like disdain for those seeking to grasp the nature of social reality in either science or art” (38).

The Tralfamadorians find human beings strange in any number of ways. One description in particular caught my eye. After being captured by the aliens, Billy says:

“How—how did I get here?”

“It would take another Earthling to explain it to you. Earthlings are the great explainers, explaining why this event is structured as it is, telling how other events may be achieved or avoided. I am a Tralfamadorian, seeing all time as you might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is” (108-109).

The aliens reject history. Historians are the master explainers among Earthlings. We think more than most about proper sequences, and we imagine causal relationships based upon those sequences. Unstuck in time, Billy Pilgrim’s historical consciousness gets confused. Unlike Christian in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, he never grows or comes into some spiritual being. This Pilgrim can’t make his way from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City because he experiences Dresden again and again as he travels in time.

This is how trauma works. It’s the re-experiencing, in the present, of the violence and violation of the past. Maybe Vonnegut rejects historical thinking for a kind of historically informed trauma in Slaughterhouse-Five. Maybe this is why my friend likes it so much.

Rumsfoord, the jerk Harvard historian in the hospital writing the official history of the Army Air Force, eventually figures that he must include some kind of account of what happened in Dresden. He means to draw up a justification for it in his narrative. He means to explain it. “Pity the men who had to do it,” he tells Billy (254). Thinking Billy insane, he completely ignores him until he comes to realize that Pilgrim had actually been there.

Rumfoord sighed impatiently.

“Word of honor,” said Billy Pilgrim. “Do you believe me?”

“Must we talk about it now?” said Rumfoord.

He had heard. He didn’t believe.

“We don’t ever have to talk about it,” said Billy. “I just want you to know: I was there” (247).

Billy merely wants the historian to know that he was there. He gives simple testimony to that fact. He doesn’t try to explain. He merely witnesses. He describes what he saw.

The real shame of the book for me is that David Irving, on whom Vonnegut relies for a historical account of the Dresden bombing, became a Holocaust denier. Irving would later prop up Dresden to make crude moral equivalency arguments between the Nazis’ Final Solution and the Allied fire-bombing campaigns. Relying on Irving, Vonnegut gets the numbers wrong. Historians today contend that the number of dead in Dresden was closer to 25,000. In this case, painful though it may be, the abstractions mean something.

We get this unfortunate observation amidst Vonnegut’s dark satire: “Billy had seen the greatest massacre in European history, which was the fire-bombing of Dresden. So it goes” (128).

Dresden was not the greatest massacre in European history. As Irving’s book hit the bookshelves, the word “Holocaust” crept into standard usage in the world. Vonnegut’s novel makes me think of Hannah Arendt’s observation in Eichmann in Jerusalem that the most moving testimony about the Holocaust during the trial came from those who offered no explanations, but merely described their experiences. In that tale, the Nazis meant to consign an entire people to oblivion. As Arendt tells us, “The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story. Hence, nothing can ever be ‘practically useless,’ at least not in the long run.”[3]

I know three things after reading this book. I know we need this novel of time travel and its fractured story of trauma. I know I will answer the phone when my friend Dwayne calls. I also know we need history.

[1] Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (Dial Press, 1999), 128.

[2] Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe, (Johns Hopkins, 1973), 10.

[3] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Penguin, 2006), 232-233.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for this–it was such an enlightening read. Next time I pick up “Slaughterhouse-Five” (one of my favorite Vonnegut books) I will have to keep these ideas in mind.

    I do not have much to add, except I thoroughly enjoyed this. It reminds all of us the power novels can have when read through multiple lenses–of enjoyment, historical reflection, and critical analysis.

    • Thanks Robert. I do think it’s a really teachable novel. It works for multiple layers of context: 1960s, 1945, ” and so on.”

  2. I read Cat’s Cradle during my freshman year of high school. We had to write “book reports” — my god, it sounds like I was a whippersnapper in the 1920s or something — and that book was lying around on top of my teacher’s filing cabinet with some other titles. (I read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that year as well, fishing it out of the same pile.) It was jarring reading for a 14-year-old — for that 14-year-old, anyway. So my freshman English teacher clearly knew what the hell he was doing — if you leave live intellectual ammunition lying around like that, somebody’s mind is bound to get blown. God bless English teachers and book reports.

    And God bless you for writing this post.

    • I wish I had an English teacher who was like that. I did have one good guy. I still recall that he had us read _Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance_ along with a series of Joseph Campbell videos. Ah, the hero journey. That probably explains more than I would like it to explain.

  3. Peter–
    Thanks for that. Your comment about the different perspectives on time(caught in the chain of causality and surveying it from above) reminds me that “Catch-22” was/is a lot like “Slaugherhouse-Five.” Both were written “about” World War II yet both seemed to illuminate the experience of Vietnam with a fierce glare. Time-travel, eternal recurrence of the same, indeed!

    • Richard,

      When I get the time, I’d like to check out some criticism that combines different WWII novels. Mailer’s Naked and the Dead has those “Time Machine” sections for character development, doesn’t it, but it came out much earlier. I was thinking about this in relation to David Blight’s recent book about Civil War remembrance during the Civil Rights era. There has to be something out there about World War II accounts during the Vietnam War.

      • One other variation on this telescoping of wars and reversal of sequence is “Mash”(the film and the TV series) which was set in Korea but popular in the 1970s when Vietnam was winding down. It sort of fits

  4. Thanks. Haven’t picked up Vonnegut for forty years but had similar experiences. Helps understand the time and puts the feelings many of us had at the time. I have copies of all sorts of things left around for my grandkids to pick up, much as I did when teaching in hopes some curious mind would get stretched

  5. A wonderful article, Peter. I’m planning on teaching that book this fall, and your remarks will be a great help to me.

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