Posts Tagged ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’

Angry Atheist Syndrome

May 1, 2016



The following exchange from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five takes place in a  WWII POW camp between a German guard and an American prisoner.  It highlights the arbitrary and capricious nature of human existence.

An American had muttered something which a guard did not like. The guard knew English, and he hauled the American out of ranks, knocked him down.
The American was astonished. He stood up shakily, spitting blood. He had meant no harm by what he had said, evidently, had no idea the guard would hear or understand.
“Why me?” he asked the guard.
Vy you? Vy anybody?” he said.

“That’s not fair” is a common kid complaint, to which parents in Southern California sometimes respond “If you want fair, go to Pomona.” (Pomona is where the LA County Fairgrounds are.)  In other words, “Life ain’t fair, kid; you better hurry up and get used to it.”

Human beings (and at least some of our poop-flinging primate cousins) are hardwired by evolution to seek fairness and equity. So a big part of the human struggle consists of coming to terms with a world where, as poet Robert Pinsky notes,  “nobody gets what they deserve more than everybody else.

This is something that Christian and nonbeliever alike must deal with. Theosophy is the branch of theology devoted to answering the following question: How can a just, merciful, and loving God allow so much suffering to exist in the world? Here are some stock answers: God is a mystery beyond human comprehension; God will mete out perfect distributive justice in the afterlife; humanity is “fallen” (it’s Eve’s darn fault for eating that blasted apple.)

As a devout deist, I also believe that God is beyond human comprehension. But unlike Christians, I refuse to anthropomorphize God in order to reduce the incomprehensible chasm between God and humanity. And I think it’s extremely unlikely that God gives a rat’s patootie about me or about anything else for that matter. (Caring about things is a function of possessing a physical body; I really can’t imagine that God has one. Besides, the universe was around for a long, long time before humans showed up, so existence obviously isn’t about us.)

So how do I face life each day despite all of the suffering and injustice in the world? By constantly reminding myself about everything that is good and beautiful in this world, especially Love.

Unfortunately, not all atheists are as well-adjusted as I am. And many atheists fall into the trap of hating God and religion because it’s so much easier than confronting the font of anger which dwells within their breasts.

Such God-hating atheists as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Wright, and Bill Maher come off as pathetic, bellowing fools.

The subtitle of a book Hitchens wrote about organized religion is How Religion Spoils Everything.  Everything?  Talk about your unsubstantiated sweeping generalizations.

Like Hitchens, Richard Wright is incapable of appreciating anything that is good or beautiful about organized religion. In his memoir Black Boy, Wright heaps scorn on the African American church, a great and lovely institution which, in addition to offering succor to so many in pain, has also been at the forefront of the heroic struggle for civil rights.

Wright is “disgusted” by the “snobbery, clannishness, gossip, intrigue, petty class rivalry, and conspicuous displays of cheap clothing” which he encounters in church. Of course, with the possible exception of “cheap clothing,” these phenomena are apparent in all human institutions. It is disheartening that Wright’s quest to slay all dragons prevents him from experiencing the virtuous aspects of organized Christianity. He is absolutely blind to the worldly fellowship, charity, comfort, hope, and spiritual fulfillment religion has to offer. And the immense beauty of religious art and music are completely lost on him. As Wright sees it, “(t)he naked will to power seemed always to walk in the wake of a hymn”.

Bill Maher called religion a “neurological disorder” Of course, Bill Maher also said that children are “assholes” (presumable because they disturb him on airplanes.) And Maher also said that women are liars because he once gave his date twenty dollars to pick up something at the store and she forgot to give him change. Critical thinking is obviously not Bill Maher’s strong suit. (Arianna Huffington suggested that her friend Bill Maher needs to start dating a better class of women.)


by Richard W. Bray

The Perils of Bardolatry: Harold Bloom’s Limited Perception of Hamlet

September 14, 2011

Harold Bloom

The Perils of Bardolatry: Harold Bloom’s Limited Perception of Hamlet

The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it.

Leo Tolstoy, What is Art? (178)

The essential function of art is moral. Not aesthetic, not decorative, not pastime and recreation. But moral.

D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (180)

When Kurt Vonnegut was working on Slaughterhouse-Five, he told movie-producer Harrison Starr that it was going to be an anti-war novel.

“Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?” Starr quipped.

Vonnegut found the comment amusing, agreeing that wars are “as easy to stop as glaciers.” This knowledge did not dissuade Vonnegut from completing his masterpiece because he realized that no work of art could ever rectify the human situation, and only the silliest sort of fool creates a work of art hoping somehow to fix the world. (This is what logicians refer to as assigning an irrelevant goal.)

But literature has its uses. And W. H. Auden notwithstanding, poetry makes all sorts of things happen. Great works of art render our world a lot more beautiful and slightly less confusing.

Harold Bloom, one of America’s most acclaimed literary critics, has released a curious collection of musings on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet entitled Poem Unlimited. According to Bloom, “of all poems” Hamlet is the “most unlimited,” and, as a “meditation upon human fragility in confrontation with death,” the play “competes only with the world’s great scriptures” (3).

Bloom has long been an idiosyncratic critic, cocksure about his own brilliance and emphatic about the singular authenticity of his opinions. His general predisposition towards even the most revered literary figures is often miserly in terms of handing out approbation. For example, Bloom dismisses Matthew Arnold’s oeuvre in one sentence: “Arnold, long admired both for his poetry and for his literary criticism, was not particularly good at either” (The Best Poems of the English Language 684).

And like the notoriously fussy Mikey from the Life Cereal advertisement of my youth, when Bloom finally comes across something that pleases him, he really likes it.

Hamlet remains our world’s most advanced drama, imitated but scarcely transcended by Ibsen, Chekhov, Pirandello, and Beckett. You cannot get beyond Hamlet, which establishes the limits of theatricality. (7).

Of course, Bloom is hardly the first critic to gush over Hamlet.

It is perhaps not necessary to emphasize the quality of the prose in Hamlet. Here are passages which represent the highest point Shakespeare ever reached in this medium….it is the excellence and the importance of the prose which separates Hamlet from, and in many ways above, all the other plays (George H. W. Rylands, Words and Poetry 159).

So Bloom, a devout secularist who considers “Bardolatry” to be “only another name for authentic response to Shakespeare,” is ecstatic about Hamlet (7). This play’s the thing for Bloom, and its eponymous hero is the pinnacle of literary achievement, eliciting rapturous bellows of praise from the usually cantankerous critic:

[Hamlet] himself is a frontier of consciousness yet to be passed (7);

Hamlet always has had nothing in common with his father, his mother and his uncle. He is a kind of changeling…fathered by himself (9);

Hamlet becomes the freest artist of himself in all literature (51);

We cannot play upon him: he is cleverer than we are, and more dangerous (54);

[T]he likes of] whom we have scarcely encountered before (82);

[H]e is more intelligent than you are, whoever you are (88);

[H]e is a mortal god in an immortal play (90);

Hamlet is the truth, insofar as any hero of consciousness can be (96).

Thus inebriated in adoration, Bloom almost completely ignores the enigma at the core of Hamlet’s personality which has confounded and infuriated critics for centuries: Yes, Hamlet is a devilishly clever young man, full of all sorts of wonderful words. But he is also cruel, capricious, and ditheringly indecisive. Indeed, the very expression “playing Hamlet” is a synonym for indecisiveness.

No one could seriously question Bloom’s assertion that Hamlet is a font of fabulous words. But if, as D. H. Lawrence argues, the moral function of art is paramount, then there is no escaping the fact that Hamlet is an abject failure as a man. If Hamlet had simply killed Claudius (the man who murdered Hamlet’s father), so much senseless death and mayhem could have been avoided. The Polonius family—who, whatever their faults, were decent, loyal and loving human beings—is utterly destroyed due to Hamlet’s vacillating stupidity.

Unlike Hamlet, Laertes has no need to navigate a sea of words in order to determine the right course of action. Hamlet himself speaks of Laertes as a “great gentleman,” and Hamlet admires the “bravery of his grief.” Furthermore, the similarity of their plight is not lost on Hamlet, who says of Laertes, “by the image of my cause, I see/The portraiture of his.”

Yet Harold Bloom will have none of it: “Laertes is too absurdly slight to be Hamlet’s ‘second self,’ as many critics aver (104).

Along with Laertes, the other heroic figure in Hamlet is Horatio. According to Hamlet, Horatio is

A man that fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta’en with equal thanks: and blest are those
Whose blood and judgement are so well commedled
That they are not a pipe for fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As i do thee.

Again, Bloom is unwilling to listen, not even to Hamlet:

Though critics have asserted that Hamlet finds qualities in Horatio that are absent from himself, they are plainly mistaken. Hamlet is so various that he contains every quality, while Horatio, totally colorless, has none to speak of (15).

Alan Lerner jested that “The French don’t care what they do actually/As long as they pronounce it properly.” Similarly, Harold Bloom doesn’t care what Hamlet does, actually—whom he berates, whom he stabs, whom he has murdered, whom he brutishly badgers to the point of suicide, how many ways he contradicts himself, how many people die for his indecisiveness—as long as Hamlet collocates his lovely words better than anyone else.

by Richard W. Bray

Some Thoughts on Slaughterhouse-Five

September 15, 2010

Some Thoughts on Slaughterhouse-Five

Like Billy Pilgrim, the hapless protagonist in his great anti-war novel Slaughterhous-Five, Kurt Vonnegut survived “the greatest massacre in European history” (101). Vonnegut and several other American prisoners of war were spared incineration during the Allied firebombing of Dresden because they were quartered in an underground slaughterhouse. When Vonnegut and his compatriots emerged after the night of pyrotechnics, they discovered a moonscapes containing the charred remains of “one hundred and thirty thousand people” (165). In the novel Billy Pilgrim tells actress Montana Wildhack that the “little logs” he saw “lying around” Dresden after the attack were actually “people who had been caught in the fire storm” (179).

Slaughterhouse-Five is a novel about time, space, fate, extraterrestrial creatures, irony, violence, verisimilitude, greed, revenge, and grace. But mostly it’s about war, “the incredible artificial weather that Earthlings sometimes create for other Earthlings when they don’t want those other Earthlings to inhabit Earth any more” (106).

War is always failure: A failure of imagination; a failure of compassion; a failure of communication; a failure of restraint. Kurt Vonnegut is repulsed when Americans celibrate the ugliest and stupidest thing human beings do by having parades and singing songs like “Glory, Glory Hallelujah.” He suggests a more fitting tribute:

“Perhaps, when we remember wars, we should take off our clothes and paint ourselves blue and go on all fours all day long and grunt like pigs. That would surely be more appropriate than noble oratory and shows of flags and well-oiled guns” (Cat’s Cradle).

Americans emerged from World War II with a hard-won sense of pride that our soldiers and citizens had endured many hardships in order to destroy great evil. This is true, of course, but life is never this simple. There is always much bad accompanying even the greatest good. For example, the defeat of Nazism would not have been possible without the immeasurable sacrifice of the people of the Soviet Union. So in order to destroy Hitler, America had to support Stalin’s equally putrid regime, which would continue to enslave much of the world for decades. We also found it necessary to incinerate hundreds of thousand of civilians in Dresden, Hamburg, Tokyo, Nagasaki and Hiroshima (not a complete list).

Determining the rightness of actions which caused so much death, suffering and despair is beyond the capabilities of any human, so I cannot say with certainty that WWII had to be fought. However, Kurt Vonnegut is willing to concede that America’s role in WWII was necessary, although it left us with some unfortunate legacies:

One of the great American tragedies is to have participated in a just war. It’s been possible for politicians and movie-makers to encourage us we’re always good guys. The Second World War absolutely had to be fought. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. But we never talk about the people we kill. This is never spoken of.

The “success” of the raid on Dresden is largely omitted from the official narrative of WWII (191). Even today, Americans are smugly self-congratulatory when we speak about WWII, as if the entire world should be perpetually thanking us. But as Vonnegut notes, it’s never right to feel good about war.

“I myself have seen the bodies of schoolgirls who were boiled alive in a water tower by my own countrymen, who were proud of fighting pure evil at the time” (116).

So what can we learn from a book about the ugliest and stupidest things that human beings do? Kurt Vonnegut doesn’t offer any easy answers. Slaughterhouse-Five “is short and jumbled and jangled” in content and narrative “because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre” (19).

The greatest wisdom in Slaughterhouse-Five is offered by the Tralfamadorians, a race of extraterrestrial beings who abduct Billy Pilgrim in order to study earthlings. The Tralfamadorians, who function in four dimensions, are able to see a person’s entire life span at once. From this perspective

All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber (86).

Slaughterhouse-Five is not the feel good Oprah Book of the Month. There is no Secret, and this is all the advice you get:

“one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones” (117).

When Kurt Vonnegut was writing Slaughterhouse-Five, he told movie producer Harrison Starr that he was working on an anti-war novel:

“Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?” Starr asked (3).

Vonnegut agreed with Starr on the futility of his project: “What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too” (3).

Since that time (1968), however, humanity has made considerable progress in the War on Glaciers. This thought might have aroused a chuckle from Vonnegut, but I doubt it would have heartened him much.

One final thought from Robert Browning

In one year they sent a million fighters forth
South and North,
And they built their gods a brazen pillar high
As the sky,
Yet reserved a thousand chariots in full force–
Gold, of course.
Oh heart! oh blood that freezes, blood that burns!
Earth’s returns
For whole centuries of folly, noise and sin!
Shut them in,
With their triumphs and their glories and the rest!
Love is best.

by Richard W. Bray

My Top Ten Booklist (In no particular order)

March 23, 2010

Franz De Waal

My Top Ten Booklist (In no particular order)

#1 Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America by Theodora Kroeber

…so far as any record shows or any story relates, no member of the United States Army ever shot a single Yana Indian, whose multiple murder remained a home and civilian and strictly extralegal operation. (62) There’s a line in the song Sun City by Steven Van Zandt reminding us that Apartheid “ain’t that far away.” Episodes in Extermination, the fourth chapter of Ishi, written in a beautifully plain and sober tone, makes our own proximity to the horrors of genocide painfully clear.

#2 Primates and Philosophers by Franz De Waal

Chimpanzees think by feeling, just like we do:

In my own experience, chimpanzees pursue power as relentlessly as some in Washington and keep track of given and received services in a marketplace of exchange. Their feelings may range from gratitude for political support to outrage if one of them violates a social rule. All of this goes far beyond mere fear, pain, and anger: the emotional life of these animals is much closer to ours than once held possible. (76)

#3 War is a Force that Gives us Meaning by Chris Hedges

This indispensable book, which came out when our society was still very sick with war fever, tells us that war

Is peddled by mythmakers–historians, war correspondents, filmmakers, novelists and the state–all of whom endow it with qualities it often does possess: excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our small stations in life, and a bizarre and fantastic universe that has grotesque and dark beauty. It dominates culture, distorts memory, corrupts language, and infects everything around it, even humor, which becomes preoccupied with the grim perversities of smut and death. Fundamental questions about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of our place on the planet are laid bare when we watch those around us sink to the lowest depths. War exposes the capacity for evil that lurks not far below the surface within all of us. And this is why for many war is so hard to discuss once it’s over (3)


#4 United States: Essays 1952-1992 by Gore Vidal

This collection of essays proves that in addition to being a damn fine novelist, Vidal is simply our finest living essayist. From his essay Theodore Roosevelt: An American Sissy:

Give a sissy a gun and he will shoot everything in sight….There is something strangely infantile in this obsession with dice-loaded physical courage when the only courage that matters in political or even “real” life is moral. Although TR was often reckless and always domineering in politics, he never showed much real courage, and despite some trust-busting, he never took on the great ring of corruption that ruled and rules in this republic. But then, he was born part of it. (733)

#5 Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

A much underappreciated masterpiece. An earlier post demonstrated that Erdrich is a master of the simile. Some more examples:

Then the vest plunged down against her, so slick and plush that it was like being rubbed by an enormous tongue. (5)

My mother held out a heavy tin one (spoon) from the drawer and screwed her lips up like a coin purse to kiss me. (12)

On the much traveled, evil Sister Leopolda: Perhaps she was just sent around to test her Sisters’ faith, like a spot checker in a factory.(45)

She thought of everything so hard that her mind felt warped and sodden as a door that swells up in spring. (107)

Dot was a diligent producer of milk, however. Her breasts, like overfilled inner tubes, strained at her nylon blouses. (210)

#6 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

The greatest and most important American novel published during the second half of the twentieth century. So it goes.

#7 The Quiet American by Graham Greene

Here’s Greene on innocence, which, as Arnold Rampersad wryly noted, is a famed American virtue:

Innocence always calls mutely for protection when it would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.(29)

#8 The Collected Poems of W. H Auden

The only artists who have made a comparable impression on my consciousness are Vonnegut, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. And I shall continue to revere Auden until the day when I surrender my smidge of nitrogen to the World Fund. (690) (btw, the collected poems are not the complete poems because Auden left out many with which he later became unsatisfied. A notable omission is September 1, 1939 which was excised because Auden eventually decided that the line We must love one another or die constitutes a false alternative.)

#9 The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

Perhaps foolishly, in the spirit of Ernest Hemingway’s notoriously silly aspiration to knock Mr. Shakespeare on his ass, I would argue that Dickinson is the first, and quite possibly the only, American poet capable of going toe-to-toe with the Bard.

#10 The Complete Poems of Dorothy Parker

I recoil somewhat at the realization that there exists a profound kindred empathy in the deepest recesses of my psyche for this sad, sad, angry, witty woman.


by Richard W. Bray