I enjoy reading the 20th-century classics. They offer a window of insight into how we got where we are today, the early 21st century (which I for one think will be memorable). Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut fits the bill for this little hobby of mine. I was especially drawn to the book as I had not previously read anything by the author. I quite enjoyed the book — it is a fine piece of writing which explores some difficult themes that have gnawed at the hearts and minds of people since the enlightenment and especially since the horrors of the world wars.
In a telling portion of the book, the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, shares a room in a psychiatric ward with a fellow WW2 veteran, Eliot Rosewater. “They had both found life meaningless, partly because of what they had seen in war.” The author goes on to describe atrocities and tragedies that they had each witnessed. “So they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe.” Indeed. Hasn’t that been the intellectual project of so much Western thought? Having rejected Christianity or God as possible answers, it becomes necessary to “re-invent” ourselves and our universe, but built on a different foundation. Throughout the book, faith figures such as Christians and even Jesus himself are portrayed as misguided, pathetic, and especially capable of great cruelty. So it goes.
Lest you think I am reading this into the text, it goes on to make it clear. “[Rosewater] said that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov, by Feodor Dostoevsky. ‘But that isn’t enough any more,’ said Rosewater.” The Brothers Karamazov is one of the deepest literary explorations of the reasons for unbelief and for faith, which in the end makes a case for faith in God. But that isn’t enough anymore. And it seems to me this has been the experience of so many in our modern world, and forms part of the reason why this book has resonated so deeply with people in this age.
Billy overhears Rosewater say to a psychiatrist, “I think you guys are going to have to come up with a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren’t going to want to go on living.” Exactly. Vonnegut can see how the secular psychological-therapeutic industrial complex has in so many ways replaced the role that faith and religion once played in the lives of people and communities. But his cynicism and nihilism bleed through: these are just new lies to replace the old ones. For the moment I make no judgment here on that cynicism and nihilism. I can’t say I would feel any differently if I had been through the firebombing of Dresden, one of the absolute worst events of WW2.
The book is clever (at times very funny) and always dark. There are no heroic characters, and instances of goodness and beauty are fleeting and accidental. The mood of the book is bleak and numb. The violence described (especially the destruction of Dresden) is at once matter-of-fact and also morally shocking. The moral neutrality of the narration serves to amplify the reader’s moral reflex to such atrocities: These things should not be, and they should not be discussed in this way! And yet as a Christian I see a disconnect between the moral point Vonnegut seeks to make and the necessary philosophical undergirding that such moral imperatives require. This is an old objection, but it is a stubborn one: On what basis is such an event morally wrong? We all intuitively know that it is wrong, but not every worldview can explain both the intuition and the why the intuition is right all the way down.
The haunting question remains: If there is nothing eternal and life is full of seemingly meaningless suffering, what can be the point of living? Like Camus, Vonnegut points the reader to “Ignore the awful times and concentrate on the good ones.” At the end of it all, with great wit and cutting satire, Vonnegut, along with so many towering literary figures of the 20th century, can only say “So it goes”.
Slaughterhouse-Five is a semi-autobiographical novel for our times. It captures the mood of our age with wit and satire. From the vantage point of the year 2021, it seems to have, like the work of Camus, a certain romantic glow around its existentialism, a weak and flimsy bulwark against full-blown nihilism. In the intervening decades, it seems to me that the romance and glow have faded: young people either sink into that deeper despair of nihilism and destruction (self or otherwise) or they embrace the new religion of woke progressivism with all of the zeal and fervor of religious fanatics.
It seems we cannot live without meaning for very long. So it goes.