“Busy, busy, busy.” That’s what the adherents of Kurt Vonnegut’s made-up religion Bokonism say to themselves when they face an instance of life’s hidden complexity. Unseen powers are constantly doing things behind our backs, the Bokonist believes. These unbidden acts shift the plot line of our lives, often creating scenes too disorienting to understand. Example: A test reveals that some of your cells have been quietly breaking the speed limit on mitosis, blooming into a cancerous assault on your continued existence. “Busy, busy, busy,” you observe. It’s a way of taking things in stride.
Most students of history already know that the United States busily kept up the strategy of containment even after our last soldiers left Vietnam in 1975. Although we went quiet for a few years, our national security establishment came surging back during the Reagan presidency. Bob Woodward’s extraordinary book Veil: The CIA’s Secret Wars 1981-1987 reveals just how busy our covert warriors kept themselves under the Gipper.
No man makes history on his own. But Veil is a remarkable record of just how small a clique of elite powerbrokers can directly influence history under the right circumstances. The record of the CIA’s secret wars in the 1980s is largely a biography of the last eight years of William Casey’s life. Casey was appointed to run the CIA in 1981 and died in office in 1987. While he served, Casey planned and prosecuted unconventional wars in Libya and several countries in Central America. His cloak-and-dagger campaigns took forms just short of unconventional war in Algeria, Indonesia, Iran, the USSR, and several countries in South America.
Veil provides a meticulous documentation of Casey’s covert initiatives, but it is also much more. It paints a vivid picture of how Casey and his close cohorts did three remarkable things that left their imprint on national security thinking.
First, Veil shows how Casey raised the CIA’s status from an agency of drab, academic workadays to a club of mandarins who actually shaped policy. Much of this transformation was due to Casey’s overt efforts to lobby politicians to see particular threats his way, but some of his success was disarmingly institutional, almost invisible. Under Casey, the Presidential Daily Brief was designed to help set a long-term strategic agenda for the executive branch, not just highlight the going threats to national security. In this effort, Casey found his ideal audience in President Reagan, anti-communist ideologue who did no deep thinking. Reagan proved an empty vessel into which Casey poured his worldview.
Second, Casey almost singlehandedly returned the CIA to the buccaneering ways pioneered by its forerunner, the Office of Strategic Services, during World War Two. Chastized by the findings of the Church Committee in 1975, the CIA of the late 1970s placed significant restrictions on covert activities, emphasizing the analysis of foreign intelligence from Langley over the collecting of it in Moscow, Tehran and other hostile points on the globe. Casey changed this bookish organizational culture, cajoling and directing his spies to become more active and take more risks. In many ways, the history of Washington’s most dramatic foreign policy failures in the 1980s–drawing out the bloody insurgency in Nicaragua, needling Qadafi to the point where he ordered the bombing of Pan Am 103, sending the Marines to Lebanon without a mission, blindly supporting global jihadists in Afghanistan, and, of course, the Iran-Contra Affair–were the consequences of Casey’s success in emboldening his agency to do more.
Casey couldn’t have made the case for renewed CIA muscularity without strong political backers, and he had the strongest backer of all in the person of the president. Casey’s third major success as DCI was his promotion, through Reagan, of a Manichean worldview that dominated Washington’s national security decision-making throughout the 1980s and re-emerged under Bush Junior. The world was a dangerous, complicated place, yes, but Casey convinced Reagan that the dangers boiled down to a simple formula. In an internal memo, Casey expressed it thus:
The world was, he said, “plagued and beleaguered by subversion and a witch’s brew of destabilization, terrorism and insurgency . . . ” It was primarily fueled by Soviet arms, Cuban manpower and Libyan money . . . “
This reduction of the world’s roiling tableau of threats to a simple formula prefigured George W. Bush’s idea that the world presented an “axis of evil.” Political leaders oversimplify by nature; you can’t get constituents behind a policy that’s too complicated to understand. But Casey committed a cardinal sin of intelligence, I believe, by making, first Reagan’s and then W’s job too easy. The world of potential enemies is a busy, busy, place, and no one should claim to know where it is all going or even that there is a meaningful story behind it at all. It’s chaos out there.
In my thirties I made two changes. I started using profanity and expressing louche thoughts. It was liberating. But what was it liberating from?
In America, you can still hear adults using corny, fake expletives such as “gosh darn it” or “bullcrap.” While these words sound deeply silly, I am mostly in favor of keeping up the decorum they help protect. Excessive or misplaced cursing almost always brings the tone down.
So, why, then, did I nonetheless come to embrace sentences like “Those fucking fucks, they don’t know what the fuck.” as appropriate, even stylish uses of English, and why did this change happen during the years when most folks button down rather than open up?
The plainest explanation for people’s restraint in cursing is sociological: we are raised that way. And, as I hinted, our upbringing serves a legitimate cultural purpose–it improves and facilitates discourse. So, why, given their solid credentials, do fake expletives sound as inane as they do? Ludwig Wittgenstein taught that the purpose of linguistic analysis was to unmask disguised nonsense. And it turns out there is profound and abundant nonsense lurking in our bans on profanity. But we have to dig below the level of culture to see it.
At a deeper level than culture, our reasons for avoiding profanity are metaphysical: we believe in an all-hearing sky god who wrathfully forbids the use of certain words having to do with reproduction or digestion. He also doesn’t like his name being trifled with. As a child, I learned (and earnestly believed) that I might be tortured eternally if I had even a fleeting thought that failed to praise God’s name and character in the highest. (Because the Bible told me so. See Matthew 12: 22-32 and Mark 3:22-30 for a short homily.)
At the age of 33 I could no longer pretend to believe in such a vain, vindictive god, or any other one for that matter. So as an expression of new-found freedom, I began to curse enthusiastically. It wasn’t that I suddeny felt free from god; I realized looking back that that belief had dissolved insensibly over the course of several years. But I was suddenly free from having to keep up appearances. So I cursed profusely and joyously, making up for lost time. Although I slowly restored my appreciation for the worthy function that polite restraint serves, I have never lost my taste for expert profanity. Call me a connoisseur.
And, yes, I do find fake profanity embarrassingly stupid, I suppose because it is jarringly hypocritical. In this nation that has so signally abandoned all the main principles of Christianity–love of peace, suspicion of riches, tolerance of others, bountiful mercy, unconditional love, and so forth–we cringingly persist in letting our language be policed by the very god we so blithely treat as dead when it comes to the big stuff. God forbids you to say “bullshit” but accepts your worship of celebrity, war and wealth? Give me a fucking break.
At the same time I lost my fear of word taboos, I also began to shed my restaints on sex talk. This was, I suppose, another act of rebellion against the old religious strictures I had abandoned. And again, bad metaphysics was at the bottom of the original conflict.
We Judeo-Christians are of two minds when it comes to sex. On the one hand, we have what Milan Kundera calls the “Genesis” view of creation: we pronounce it to be good. Now, you have to accept a lot of bumps in the road when you adopt this outlook, but it is, at the end of the day, a deeply affirming view of the human situation. Each generation, says Kundera, renews the optimistic claim that our world (in the philosophical sense) deserves to go on replicating itself. On this view, sex, which is possibly our raison d’etre, is a very good thing. Small wonder it is celebrated in song, story and casual conversation.
But on the other hand, sex is so weighty it can stir up deep trouble. The betrayed lover and the abandoned child are among the world’s most bereft and afflicted persons. The pain they experience is something like the loss of the whole world. Shouldn’t we calculate coldly before we give in to the hot passions that hazard such outcomes? But we can’t. We are not wired that way, and I’m not sure it would be much fun if we were. Our experience of sexual desire as something controllable by reason would not be recognizably human.
It is precisely our inability to control sexual desire that led to the other prominent mindset about sex–that it (sex) is fundamentally wrong. Ironically, this attitude is also rooted in the Genesis story, and I need not repeat its details here. It’s the part about original sin. Man is permanently fallen, and the thing that keeps him perpetually accursed is sexual reproduction. Try as you might, you can never become saintly enough to wash away the fact that you were brought into this world by fucking.
It didn’t have to be this way, of course, but somehow Saint Paul gained traction early on writing letters that said sex was fundamentally wicked. Anyone who grew up reading the Bible can recall Paul’s not-quite ringing endorsement of marriage: you would be better off staying celebate, but if you simply can’t, grit your teeth and get married. Better to marry than to burn with lust, he says.
Well, the cultural avatars in the Catholic Church were not quite satisfied with this way out of sin, because it was, well, a way out. They wanted people to be ashamed of sex all the time, even if they were married. To be fair, I am skipping over a whole–much more charitable–line of thought that says our Church-given sex taboos reflect socially useful norms about coupling and childrearing. Why beat up the Church for stepping in to enforce such “natural” rules that have buttressed the concept of the family and, more recently, advanced the idea that all parties to sex should be treated with dignity? All credit to the Church for the good work it (accidentally) accomplished, of course, but it remains an interesting story how one of its earliest saints, Augustine, took things way too far and pretty much ruined Western civilization.
The problem with sex, Augustine wrote, is that the actions of our sex organs lay outside our control. Augustine was mightily bothered by the fact that he had involuntary erections–and a host of emotions that went with them. To his credit, he set aside shame and examined his deepest beliefs on the problem. For humans to be proper candidates for God’s grace, he thought, they must be accountable for their actions. But the involuntary erection surpassed man’s control. How could he be accountable for its actions and consequences? Was the whole scheme of Christian sin and forgiveness shipwrecked on the involuntary aspect of sex?
I happen to have some plain-vanilla objections to Augustine’s way of framing of the problem. Our sense organs have “involuntary” experiences of the external world all the time, not just when we are being sexually aroused. Hard as it may be to tease apart our voluntary from involuntary responses to those experiences, we nonetheless remain morally accountable for our actions implicating them. I won’t bore you with the details.
The important part is that Augustine developed the idea of original sin as a way out of his sex problem. In Eden, he postulated, Adam could literally control his erections, but then Eve, the Snake and the Appled caused God to reverse this ability. The idea grew legs, and now something like a third of the world’s inhabitants believe (officially at least) what Augustine believed: that we are created sick and commanded to be well. If you are curious as to how Augstine reached this bizarre and masochistic conclusion, see Stephen Greenblatt’s excellent article in the New Yorker, “How St. Augustine Invented Sex.”
The changes I underwent in my 30s were pent up responses to two pieces of outrageous nonsense. One was the idea that dirty words made the sky god angry. I was ashamed for keeping this childish belief so long into adulthood. The other was the idea that sex was wrong. This one was trickier. Unlike mere words, sex involved real people and was admittedly a very serious thing. But the idea that it is so serious that it had to be treated as a topic of unremitting shame was intolerable. I could no longer take seriously the idea that the thing that brought us all into the world was essentially wicked. Kundera loomed over my attitude: if all this is good, how can we say it was born of evil?
Almost any time I feel like I have something worth saying, it was actually already said by Orwell. This time is no different. I have two things to say, and they are both from Orwell.
The first is that “harmless rebellions against virtue” are good for us. Cursing has a tonic effect, and it is almost always a victimless indulgence. But a binge brings more than a momentary release from overbearing solemnity. As Orwell argues, our saturnalias help puncture a deeply dishonest myth evident in the social conventions that protect our sense of self-importance. If you are a morally serious person (and I hope you are), you will admit you are a mixed bag of low and noble impulses:
There is one part of you that wishes to be a hero or a saint, but another part of you is a little fat man who sees very clearly the advantages of staying alive with a whole skin. He is your unofficial self, the voice of the belly protesting against the soul. His tastes lie toward safety, soft beds, no work, pots of beer, and women with voluptuous figures. He it is who punctures your fine attitudes and urges you to look after Number One. . . . Whether you allow yourself to be influenced by him is a different question. But it is simply a lie to say that he is not part of you, just as it is a lie to say that Don Quixote is not part of you either, though most of what is said and written consists of one lie or the other, usually the first.
Orwell goes on to say that there is a “worldwide conspiracy to pretend” that our Sancho Panza side does not exist or does not matter. Profanity and dirty stories are, I believe, part of a rebellion against this conspiracy. They are a way of standing up to the puritanical view of the world and saying to its partisans that they have never been honest with themselves or right about the metaphysics of the human person. We are not meant to think of ourselves as chronically failed saints.
Orwell sets this idea down in a passage in the essay “Reflections on Gandhi.” Gandhi clearly served a righteous political cause, Orwell writes, but the great man’s insistance on self-mortification was misguided. Orwell thought that many of life’s little vices, like smoking, drinking, and feasting were conducive to love and other excellent kinds of fellow feeling which seemed to repel Gandhi. While Orwell’s thoughts on the matter are nothing so crass as the eat-and-drink-today-for-tomorrow-we-die attitude, they are tied to the idea that mortal humans have only so much room for perfectibility and we should avoid waging a campaign to become angels:
In this yogi-ridden age, it is too readily assumed that “non-attachment” is not only better than a full acceptance of earthly life, but that the ordinary man only rejects it because it is too difficult: in other words, that the average human being is a failed saint.
For Orwell, the puritanical belief that one should suppress or transcend one’s appetites was not just doomed to end in shameful, recurrent failure; it was also philosophically insidious. It betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of what we humans are. I think there is much wisdom in Orwell’s final pronouncement on the saintly urge:
If one could follow it to its psychological roots, one would, I believe, find the main motive for “non-attachment” is a desire to escape from the pain of living, and above all from love, which, sexual or non-sexual, is hard work. But the point here is not to argue whether the other-worldly or the humanistic ideals is “higher.” The point is that they are incompatible. One must choose between God and Man, and all “radicals” and “progressives,” from the mildest Liberal to the most extreme anarchist, have in effect chosen Man.
There are natural limits on human virtue, and we ought to respct them rather than spin out sacred fantasies about demons from afar invading our lives and poisoning our souls. Those “demons” are us; they are just Sancho Panza side. Get over it. You might even admit you enjoy Sancho’s presence now and then.
I tend to go on too long. It’s a weakness. The other day I blogged 2,700 words about the arcane connection between war and magical realism. Too much, I know.
For a while now, I’ve wanted to write shorter, more useful book reviews–quick takes that might help you decide whether to read a book or not.
And so, without further ado, here’s one.
Democracy: An American Novel. This 1880 book by Henry Adams remains surprisingly relevent despite its age and musty, Jamesian style. It has a great setup. The heroine, Ms. Madeleine Lightfoot Lee, is a newly widowed New York socialite. She is rich and comfortable but bored and intellectually unsettled. To find new meaning in life, she decides to leave New York for Washington D.C. Why? Call it curiosity about what America means:
It was the feeling of a passenger on an ocean steamer whose mind will not give him rest until he has been in the engine-room and talked with the engineer. She wanted to see with her own eyes the action of primary forces; to touch with her own hand the massive machinery of society; to measure with her own mind the capacity of the motive power. She was bent upon getting to the heart of the great American mystery of democracy and government.
After this riveting scenesetter and Madeleine’s move to Washington, the action gets mighty dull for a while. Madeleine goes to stuffy parties and starts findng her feet among the powerbrokers of the surprisingly shabby national capital. This goes on for a long time.
Luckily the plot gets some traction about halfway through the book–where I honestly considered dropping it–as Madeleine warily falls in love with the ambitious senator Silas P. Ratcliffe. His name sort of tells you he will be a revolting character in the end, but we only get vague hints and signs early on. He is powerful, and power is what Madeleine wants to learn about.
Madeline almost marries Ratcliffe, who hopes to run for president, but she breaks it off after a cavalier young lawyer gives her secret evidence of Ratcliffe’s corruption.
The message of Democracy is that politics is fueled by and based in corruption even in a well developed liberal democracy like America’s. The best part of the novel is its denouement, in which Ratcliffe, to his philosophical credit, refuses to defend himself robustly against the accusation of corruption. He really did take money for a favor, he said, but it was necessary to keep a desireable, legitimate political project alive, and he passed on the funds to the party machine for further political work. It’s what you do to keep your agenda alive in Washington.
Burned by experience, Madeleine leaves Washington, and the reader understands why. That steamer engine room she wanted to see is a mess of unintelligible machinery with tubes turning back on themselves every which way. Plus, they are not even directly connected to the ship’s steerage.
The reader is left with one memorable lesson on American politics: the difference between flagrant, criminal political corruption and excusable, indispensable foible is one of degree, not kind. In for a penny, in for a pound. If you think your representative is clean, you are almost certainly wrong.
It’s the system that does it. Once you put a politician into a legislative process in which the writing of laws pivots on vote-trading over tangential measures secretively inserted into those laws; once you have imposed the need on a politician to be constantly telling half-truths and outright lies to the public; once you have accepted that politics is run by organized money, you are left with Hannah Arendt’s deeply pessimistic diagnosis that truth and politics are permanently at war with each other.
The romance drives the plot nicely, and it is fun to watch Madeleine reject Ratcliffe. Read Democracy if you have four spare hours and want a stylish reminder of how long we have known that the ruling class is corrupt.
Oskar Matzerath, the hero of Günter Grass’s post-World War Two novel The Tin Drum, decides not to grow any more after the age of three. And so he does not. He remains three feet tall. Life goes on around him. The Red Army occupies Oskar’s homeland, the formerly German region south of Danzig (Gdansk), now part of Poland. Germans are expelled, thousands of women are raped. Oskar goes to school for one day, drops out, works as a grave digger’s apprentice, then a musician. Among many other exploits, he seduces his ex-nanny.
Oskar is a magical character. In addition to being a voluntary little person, he can also “sing-shatter” glass, throwing his inaudibly high voice very precisely at things like church windows, destroying them from far away.
When I was young, I wouldn’t have gone in for a novel like The Tin Drum, with its elements of magical realism. By instinct, I was a puritanical realist; I liked my genres to stay put. A huge Star Wars fan, I refused for the longest time to go see Close Encounters of the Third Kind because I did not like the idea of space fantasy getting mixed up with human drama.
But then life went on around me, and as the years went by I became less uptight about others’ ideas about storytelling, even when they struck me as fanciful, delusional or messy. As the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould points out, deriding others’ unusal mindsets as “delusions” often belies a failure to appreciate the intelligible reasons behind them. And so I eventually came to stop scorning transgressive novelists. If they crossed the venerable boundaries of “reality” or “objectivity,” they must have their reasons.
Gabriel Garcia Marqez was famously seized by a sudden, unquenchable compulsion to write down a whole book of fantastic signs and wonders; the fever caused him to u-turn a family vacation, lock himself in a room with 20 cartons of cigarettes and bang out One Hundred Years of Solitude, perhaps the magically realistic novel par excellence of the 20th century. What was this fire inside him that brought the illogical to life in the form of Columbian folk myths, schlocky religious miracles and other magical thoughts? Whatever it was, it pressed on him urgently. Now it presses on me, too. I must read his book someday.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein made the following observation about Medieval monks: when you consider their fanatical isolation, their round-the-clock devotions, and their obsessive disputation over things like the Trinity or the Incarnation, you can either dismiss them as silly, or you can ask–what caused them to behave so strangely?–It must have been a serious problem to engage them body and soul like that.
Similarly for novelists, I believe: if an author puts things in a shocking way, it rewards us to ask why. He may be gripped by a serious problem, not just trying to bamboozle us with loopy feats of imagination.
So much for generalities. My specific topic is this: why does the experience of war in particular provoke magical realism? The Tin Drum is widely regarded as a work in just this vein. Grass, speaking as the German people’s postwar conscience, uses magical devices to articulate a disorienting grief so deep it cannot be put literally: Germany is confessing its fundamental unworthiness to re-inhabit the wreck of the civilization it just immolated. Oskar Matzerath is the stunted version of the “new” German man as Grass sees him. The new German can never be a full person. By moral rights he should only recoil in horror at the sight of Europe’s burnt-out hulk–the death camp ovens burned at full heat just a year ago!–but political reality says he must quiet the 20-odd million cries for justice impinging on his soul and placidly re-join the family of nations. It is an outrageous proposition, but it is one that actually happened.
I recently read Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte. Based on a series of war reports, it is ostensibly a record of things that actually happened, most of them east of the Bug River. The Bug River, as Timothy Snyder notes in Bloodlands, is a line that divided Europe’s wartime atrocities in the mid-20th century between the merely horrific run of expulsions and exterminations on the west and the unimaginably wholesale rape, slaughter, execution, and deliberate starvation on the east. The problem for the east was, most of it was first ruled by Stalin, then Hitler, then Stalin again. We’ve known for along time that both men specialized in mass murder, but Snyder’s history book draws out the synergy they achieved east of the Bug. Malaparte’s book, which defies categorization, is an up-close view of the fascist occupiers, usually at their ease, in this deeply unlucky region.
These days we preach an ethic of “never-again” about recent atrocities. This ethic is understood to demand realistic, unflinching decriptions of what really happened. Thus we have horrible, funereal masterpieces such as Elie Wiesel’s Night and hardboiled war stories like Tim O-Brien’s The Things They Carried. But Malaparte took a different path, or maybe I should say, he was differently affected by the violence of war. He was an Italian Fascist who, if you believe his books, began to lose his political faith precisely as he was gathering the material on the Eastern Front that would become Kaputt. Most of his book offers lyrical reflections on what Fascism wrought among its victims and, more importantly, how it warped the minds of its faithful servants. In one scene Nazi officials in Poland discuss plans to provide cheap soap to the local jewish scum so they can wash themselve for a change. The soap is made from human shit. One Nazi official in a fit of drunken hilarity claims he has tried this soap and used it to very good, sudsy effect, but it has only one drawback–it retains precisely the odor and color you would expect it to.
In another scene Malaparte sits down to interview a Croatian Fascist who has what appears to be a basket of oysters on his desk. No, it turns out, they are not oysters:
Casertano looked at me and winked, “Wouldn’t you like a good oyster stew?”
“Are they Dalmatian oysters?” I asked the Poglavnik. Ante Pavelic removed the lid from the basket and revealed the mussels, that slimy and jelly-like mass, and he said smiling, with that tired good-natured smile of his, “It is a present from my loyal Ustashis. Forty pounds of human eyes.
The impression Malaparte makes in Kaputt is that he got too close to the pure-evil, blinding nuclear core of Fascism, and, although his artistry survived, his sanity did not. Contrary to the strict realism demanded by today’s ethic of never-again, Malaparte is rendered unable to give a literal account of the things that happened. And so he creates the horrible spectacles of fanatsy that litter the text of Kaputt–things that cannot quite be true but which seem appropriate to the time.
“All this happened, more or less.” So opens Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece, Slaughterhouse Five. It is also about war, specifically how the violence of war bends the human mind in ways it cannot tolerate. We quickly discover, though, that so much of the book did not happen, and not just the coloring details as in Malaparte’s Kaputt. The framing storyline itself is a rank, childish fantasy. Why? Vonnegut’s decision to frame his war story with nonsense goes to the heart of why war causes some writers to adopt magical realism, I believe.
In some ways I got lucky when it came to the evolution of my literary tastes. Had I read Slaughterhouse Five in my 20s, I probably would have dropped it after a couple of chapters or just scribbled sanctimonious notes in its margins about Vonnegut’s failure to understand war as history. Ostensibly a novel about the bombing of Dresden in 1945, it pivots on the hero’s–Billy Pilgrim’s–involvement in alien abduction, time travel and frequent states of dadaistic fugue. But can this possibly be a useful literary framework for thinking about war? Or isn’t it just the product of its time–the 1960s–an American-gonzo debasement of events held solemn by the establishment? I’ll come back to that.
Now, in my fifties, I do not think of war primarily as history; I think of it primarily as something that happens to individuals. In many cases, this something is unbearable violence, or at least the fear, grief, guilt or horror that attends its memory.
There is a simple metaphysical story you can tell yourself to describe the world. I happen to find it true, and it goes like this: we are all destined to die and suffer loss along the way. It would be reasonable under such circumstances to exert ourselves entirely in the service of mercy, compassion and mutual understanding. At a bare minimum, we might politely stay out of one another’s way and make sure everyone has enough money for painkillers at the end. But instead we heap up wealth in the service of organized homicide and, worse, cruelty. As Dostoevsky famously put it in The Brothers Karamazov, the lower animals just kill to eat, but man is artistically cruel. As recently as 1994, Europeans were (once again) scooping out one other’s eyes with spoons.
We accept cruelty as one of the fixed costs of being human. But should we? Shouldn’t our wholesale failure to take ourselves morally seriously make us psychotic instead? Here is how Vonnegut recapitulates my just-so picture of the world based on the certainty of loss. A movie producer asks Vonnegut if his upcoming book on Dresden will be anti-war:
“Yes,” I said. “I guess.”
“You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”
“No. What do you say . . . ?”
“I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?'”
What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, and that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.
And even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.
Slaughterhouse Five proceeds on this premise: there is always plain old death. Why, for the love of all that is holy, do we compound our misery with the artistic cruelty of war? But we do. And so it goes.
I pause here to pay homage to this famous phrase, the book’s tagline. Actually one of the reasons I did not read Vonnegut as a young man was because I thought this trite-sounding line was a throwaway, a mere nod to the unplugged mental life of the hippie. How good could a book based on a cheap slogan be? It turns out I should have taken the Prophet Mohammed’s excellent advice–read!
The first time the phrase turns up, Vonnegut has returned to Dresden after the war with an Army buddy and is getting to know Gerhard Müller, a cab driver:
He told us that he was a prisoner of the Americans for a while. We asked him how it was to live under Communism, and he said that it was terrible at first, because everybody had to work so hard, and because there wasn’t much shelter or food or clothing. But things were much better now. He had a pleasant little apartment, and his daughter was getting an excellent education. His mother was incinerated in the Dresden fire-storm. So it goes.
After the war, Vonnegut recounts working in Chicago as a reporter on the police beat. One day he is told to cover a freak accident in which a man (a veteran actually, who had survived the war), is crushed by an elevator after his ring catches in the door. So it goes.
Soon enough Vonnegut is exploring the same exquisite cruelties that so bedeviled Dostoevsky, the unfathomable human desire to torture other humans. In a running tragic-comic gag of some 40 pages that easily qualifies as an essential piece of American literature in and of itself, Billy Pilgrim is paired by fate with Roland Weary, a bona fide sadist from Pennsylvania. The two are buffoonishly trying to evade capture by the Germans after the Battle of the Bulge. Weary is evil because other people have always abandoned him. Or maybe it is the other way around. In any case, he gloms on to Billy, who is weak, ungainly and naive:
It made Weary sick to be ditched. When Weary was ditched, he would find someone even more unpopular than himself, and he would horse around with that person for a while, pretending to be friendly. And then he would find some pretext for beating the shit out of him.
It was a pattern.
Weary’s father, we learn, was a plumber who collected torture devices and sometimes gave them as gifts to his wife. Never, I believe, has any writer depicted the banality of pure evil with such comic genius as Vonnegut, probably because none dared. One time, Weary’s father gave his wife a model of the “Iron Maiden of Nuremberg.” Vonnegut enlarges:
The real Iron Maiden was a medieval torture instrument, a sort of boiler which was shaped like a woman on the outside–and lined with spikes. The front of the woman was composed of two hinged doors. The idea was to put a criminal inside and then close the doors slowly. There were two special spikes where his eyes would be. There was a drain in the bottom to let out all the blood.
So it goes.
An offhand mention of organized mass killing, a meaningless freak accident, then artful torture: Vonnegut is beginning to lay out a system of coordinates for plotting all the possible ways the loss of human life can induce pain. He is also setting the reader up to ask questions about whether the plane need be so large. With plain old death at its center, must we expand it through callousness and invention?
Halfway through Slaughterhouse Five Vonnegut divulges the backstory of his recurrent quip. Far from being a world-weary nod to anomie, “so it goes” is actually a deeply religious reflex that casts human life as sacred, something that can only be regarded sub specie aeternitatis. The aliens (from Planet Tralfamadore), who abduct Billy and activate his ability to travel through time, conceive of a person’s total experience as existing outside linear time. Vonnegut is, of course, able to describe this unusual capacity without making it sound like New Age mumbo-jumbo:
When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfmadorians say about dead people, which is “So it goes.”
This kind of thinking probably works like a religious Rorschach test; we can all see our own religious intuitions reflected in it if we squint. I do not believe in eternal life or reincarnation, but I can understand how the partisans of those ideas could see them in the Tralfamadorian benediction. My own attitude is a Stoic one: weigh up the good parts of your life, in which you were dignified and happy; add the assumption that they will end some day, and see whether you can honestly complain about the balance of your experiences. A good Stoic will also conclude, “So it goes.”
War certainly provides Billy plenty of opportunities to enjoin the spirit of the Talfamdorians and wish peace on the passage of the dead. But in real life war also robs many that it touches of the dignity of being able to weigh up their own lives and pronounce their own judgment on how it all went. Yes, Slaughterhouse Five is an anti-war book, and it says somethinig about the cruelty of war in a way so ingenious it may go unmatched for a long time, although we will continue to need anti-war books. Something about the whole enterprise of organizing and maximizing homicide cannot be real; it offends the coneption of what it means to be human, provoking a kind of gut-level immune response. Tragically, this response will likely never stop happening. But Vonnegut gives it an inimitable voice, and I hope he convinces one or two people that plain old death is enough.