Thursday, April 17, 2008

Billy Pilgrim could not sleep on his daughter's wedding night or an undoing of sorts

Some things cannot be undone, but it is feels good to imagine that they could. I was listening to Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. It had been some time since I read the book. I recently downloaded the book from Overdrive.

While I was listening, I hadn't realized that the sequence of the book had been altered. The audiobook is divided into six one-hour parts. As I listened, I actually heard part six instead of part three. It is a coincidence that this happened, since the book itself is snippets of the main character, Billy Pilgrim, slipping back and forth through different times of his life. He becomes "unstuck in time." Time interpreted in the book is one in which we are all stuck, like flies in amber. By listening to the book out of order, it was like becoming unstuck.

It becomes important because in the "middle" of the book there is commentary by the author with a war buddy, much in the same light as the author in the book discussing Billy Pilgrim. More importantly, there was a song on the audiobook. I could not find this song anywhere, but it seemed to enchant me. It speaks to me at a time in my life when I need to hear the idea of undoing something. The reference specifically is one of war. But, the general theme is that instead of destroying something, or having something destroyed, something becomes restored. I am posting the song with this famous quote from Slaughterhouse Five.

Updated, embed not working for song, try here

The text his here:
Billy Pilgrim could not sleep on his daughter's wedding night. He was 44. The wedding had taken place that afternoon in a gaily striped tent in Billy's backyard. The stripes were orange and black. Billy padded downstairs on his blue and ivory feet. He went into the kitchen where the moonlight called his attention to a half-bottle of champagne on the kitchen table all that was left from the reception in the tent. Somebody had stoppered it again. "Drink me" it seemed to say. So billy uncorked it with his thumbs. Didn't make a pop, the champagne was dead. So it goes.

He went into the living swinging the bottle like a dinner bell.

He became slightly unstuck in time, saw the late movie backwards, then forwards again. It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this :

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. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. 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 containers were stored neatly in racks. 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. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

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.

The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn't in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed."

Most people refer to this passage as one of Vonnegut's best. It conveys an apt anti-war message and is one of the best examples of Vonnegut's style, and humor used to convey a very important message.

It affected me differently this time. I related to it not as anti-war, but as the undoing of things. Better, a restoration of things that have happened. In war, you cannot take back bullets or restore lives. In life, you cannot change what has happened. Sometimes things don't work out the way they should. Sometimes things go off track and you wonder how that happened and wish it could be undone. It cannot be. However, to read this passage is a reminder of what can and cannot be restored.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In my opinion this is the start of Kurt Vonnegut’s later styles of expressing his political opinions in his writing through an abstract manner. It definitely is one of the greatest anti war quotes of all time.