This Cannot Be Real


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.

Guernica: Picasso thought something about war could not be real, even though it was

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.





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