Kurt Vonnegut

There was a time, during my senior year in high school, when I listened to the Doors and Pink Floyd for the sake of their lyrics, and memorized modern poetry, and read Kurt Vonnegut. Now I listen to the Doors and Pink Floyd, occasionally, for the sake of nostalgia. Lines and stanzas from the modern poems still rattle around in my head, while most of Vonnegut has proved to be forgettable. Although his novels perfectly matched the spirit of my age, I’ve since quite literally forgotten nearly everything in them. One image has remained fresh, however, a scene of war as experienced in reverse, from Slaughterhouse-Five.

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.

Thank you, Kurt Vonnegut.

46 comments for “Kurt Vonnegut

  1. Yesterday, NPR played a recording of Vonnegut reading this excerpt, including the latter part about Adam and Eve. It was wonderful.

  2. I have always thought that this particular idea (the bombers flying backwards, etc) is a great case study in genius: it is so simple but it takes an incandescent mind to point it out. Thanks for posting this Jonathan.

  3. Wow. I’ve never read any Vonnegut and can’t guess the context for these paragraphs, but this is a spectacular image. No wonder you’ve found it so memorable.

  4. I grew up in Schenectady, New York (east of Palmyra and within sight of Joseph Smith’s and Brigham Young’s Vermont). There Kurt Vonnegut is remembered as a guy who worked in a General Electric Co. plant and wrote PR material rather than as the Amecian GI taken prisoner by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and the subsequent novelist. What a difference a few years make….

  5. Slaughterhouse-Five is a book I wish I had not read. If you’re thinking of joining the throngs who have pushed it back onto bestsellers lists this week, my recommendation is: Don’t.

  6. Chris–I haven’t read _Slaughterhouse Five_, but I’ve had a lot of students who LOVE Vonnegut. Why do you recommend not reading it? Most of what the students get (meaning what has been anthologized) is Harrison Bergeron.

  7. Ah Kurt Vonnegut. He’s one of the main influences of my becoming atheist. Breakfast of Champions is probably the most pornographic book I’ve ever read. Imagine my surprise when I quit atheism to become a mormon only to read his rather excellent endorsement of being a member of a church in his novel timequake .

    Thanks Kurt, for writing books that made me explore my soul and end up where I am today. I hope your journey continues well.

  8. Don’t read Slaughterhouse Five?! It is one of the most powerful and disturbing books I’ve read. The artistry of Vonnegut in getting you to laugh despite the dark pit in your stomach is amazing. The story of a man never recovering from the shock and horror of war, especially told by an author who was there, seems worthwhile. I highly recommend the book. Other Vonnegut is fun and interesting, but Slaughterhouse Five is a classic.

  9. I can’t reconcile books like Slaughterhouse-Five with For the Strength of Youth (and the Guidebook for Parents and Leaders of Youth says adults should live the standards contained therein themselves). Examples of Vonnegut’s vulgarity can’t even be posted here, because they’d violate Times & Seasons’ comment policies. One can learn plenty about war in general and World War II in particular without reading books like this.

  10. I’ve done this before to myself – recommended books that others have found vulgar and offensive, that I had no recollection of being so. Vonnegut is definitely shocking. Some of his other books I would not read again or recommend because I did find the vulgarity gratuitous. The overall experience of reading Slaughterhouse Five for me, however, was uplifting and soul expanding. The disturbing parts deepened the effect; instead of vulgar, to me they were tragic. However, I can understand someone having a different reaction. So I’d like to revise my recommendation above to simply state that I found it extraordinarily moving and insightful and you might too; however, as always read at your own risk.

  11. I read Slaughter House-Five while living in Dresden, the city which was fire bombed and the context for the above quoted paragraph. It was powerful to read it while I was there and seeing first hand the effects of the fire bombing, which were still felt, even in 1996 (I’m sure things are vastly differnt 11 years later–sheesh, am I that old?) I don’t remember being offended by the vulgarity, only disturbed by the war imagery that, as far as I know, is basically a first hand account of the event. Again, it has been 11 years, so perhaps I’m just forgetting or glossing over some things in favor of the things I was more interested and focused on at the time–namely, his description of Germany, and his description of Dresden after the firebombing in particular. My understanding is that the trial of the soldier who was found guilty and subsequently killed for stealing a teapot among the rubble of the city was a true event.

    Still, I will conceded that although I’m glad I read it, it is a bit of a bizarre book–doesn’t somebody get put on display for aliens at a zoo, or something like that?

  12. FWIW, the Dresden casualty figures Vonnegut cites in Slaughterhouse-Five are now generally conceded to be too high by a factor of 4. Apparently, he got them from David Irving (who got out of Austrian prison a few months ago where he’d been locked up for Holocaust denial). I don’t know what (if any) other unreliable information Vonnegut got from Irving.

    A tribute to Vonnegut in Thursday’s Washington Post said: “We treasured Vonnegut’s books because they were cosmic and dark and strange and perverse and vulgar and infinitely irreverent.” If perversity and vulgarity are not things you treasure, but you want to learn about the firebombing of Dresden in particular or Germany in general, there are many new books you have to choose from, including The Fire by Joerg Friedrich, Among the Dead Cities by A.C. Grayling, Dresden by Frederick Taylor, Firestorm by Marshall De Bruhl, and Firestorm (different book, same title) by Paul Addison.

  13. Chris, even by a factor of 4 off Dresden was pretty bad. As were the firebombings of Tokyo and other Japanese cities that are often forgotten.

    I loved Slaughterhouse-Five the first couple of times I read it. I then read a few of his other novels and realized that he wasn’t being quite as tongue in cheek as I thought. I thought he was being very ironic only to discover he really was that cynical. I’ve never been able to read Vonnegut since.

  14. I have read Slaughterhouse-Five once. I thought it was well written and thought provoking.

    Chris, is your objection to the book that it includes profanity and vulgarity , that it was off in the number of casualties, or some other issue?

  15. Whoaaa you Slaughterhouse-Five naysayers. This is one fine piece of writing – and clever – and important.

    Some of you may enjoy his less offensive – but equally brilliant – short stories in _Welcome to the Monkey House_. Great, great stories – many of which first appeared in Saturday Evening Post – back before it took a strange turn.

    BTW – Salon has posted a fun five minute podcast of Vonnegut reading from Slaughterhouse-Five:


  16. OK – here’s proof that time in the Bloggernacle can change one’s viewpoint:

    I read the excerpt above from Vonnegut yesterday, was touched by how it reversed an image of war’s hate to show what loving repentance could feel like and emailed the link to this posting to quite a few folks I know. Today, as I drove by the Torrance, CA airport, I noticed a touring restored B-17 bomber available for a walk/crawl-through. As I stood in the cramped bomb bay, looking at the bombs stored neatly in racks, I allowed myself to think, “these are the steel cylinders they used to ship the explosive minerals back to the USA.”

    I suppose I was alone in that thought among the people going through the ‘plane, thanks to the ‘nacle..

  17. Re Clark’s #14: I realize Dresden was bad. (I probably lead T&S in comments on the German civilian toll of WWII.) My point was that if one reads Slaughterhouse-Five to learn how Dresden really was, some of what learns will be how Dresden really wasn’t. In addition to the books I cited earlier, a classic first-hand non-fictionalized account is Victor Klemperer’s I will Bear Witness.

    Re DavidH’s #15: My objection is to the perversity and vulgarity that the Washington Post writer says he and other Vonnegut fans treasure. Once again, my point in bringing up the inaccurate casualty figures is that they illustrate that the book isn’t exactly the best way to learn the truth about Dresden; that can be learned without dealing with Vonnegut’s bizarre sexual musings.

    Re Rex’s #16: Can you explain why it is important?

  18. I think Gina puts it well: Vonnegut was able to take you to the darkest part of the human experience — with all of its vulgarity and perversity — and still find some humanity. It’s not for everyone, but I have found some Vonnegut oddly uplifting.

  19. I’m a little mystified to why Chris has decided to attack an author’s use of number of deaths in a fictional book. Would the theme of the story and it’s impact been different if he’d said there were 100 or 100 million deaths? You obviously have something against Vonnegut, I’m just trying to figure out what it is. Also, If you’re concerned about books meeting the standard of FtSoY, are you also entering threads that mention Shakespeare and telling people what a horrible and vulgar playwrite he was?

  20. jjohnsen writes: “I’m a little mystified to why Chris has decided to attack an author’s use of number of deaths in a fictional book.

    I explained this in #18: Because people have used the book’s alleged verisimilitude as a reason for reading it.

    Would the theme of the story and it’s impact been different if he’d said there were 100 or 100 million deaths?

    Yes. A book about how the Allies killed 100 million people by bombing a single city would be quite a different book.

    If you’re concerned about books meeting the standard of FtSoY, are you also entering threads that mention Shakespeare and telling people what a horrible and vulgar playwrite he was?

    No, no, it’s the Old Testament you’re supposed to bring up when dismissing the Church leadership’s counsel on media.

  21. Whoa, Chris, careful with those big words. Most people understand that the point of books that include plunger-shaped extraterrestrial Tralfamadorians is not verisimilitude. Generally, when people live through something like the Dresden bombing, we cut them a little slack in how they portray it in novels. Referring to Irving in 1969, before Irving went off the deep end, is not the same thing as consorting with Nazi sympathizers. (And if you check the novel, you’ll see that Vonnegut keeps Irving and his numbers at arm’s distance in any case.)

    See, you’re playing to a tough crowd here. We have high standards when it comes to books so loathsome that we wish we’d never read them. So far, you’ve only demonstrated that Vonnegut’s novel is, well, fictional. I don’t remember anything all that perverse in it, but it’s been a while. Help me out here. If it’s as bad as you say, you certainly don’t have to quote it, but could you give us a couple clues? What parts did you find objectionable?

  22. “No, no, it’s the Old Testament you’re supposed to bring up when dismissing the Church leadership’s counsel on media.” Just for the record that’s pure obfuscation, not an answer to the question that was asked.

  23. Jonathan wrote: “Most people understand that the point of books that include plunger-shaped extraterrestrial Tralfamadorians is not verisimilitude.

    People who read Slaughterhouse-five to learn what war is like are (by definition) seeking verisimilitude in the book.

    Generally, when people live through something like the Dresden bombing, we cut them a little slack in how they portray it in novels.

    We do? Why?

    Referring to Irving in 1969, before Irving went off the deep end

    1969 was not before Irving went off the deep-end. As was demonstrated in Irving’s unsuccessful libel case against Deborah Lipstadt, Irving’s misrepresentations about Dresden (which predate 1969) are part and parcel of his revisionist enterprise. See, e.g, Chapter 5 of Richard Evans’ Lying about Hitler.

    I don’t remember anything all that perverse in it

    I imagine Peter Singer didn’t either. If that clue isn’t enough, you might try reading Slaughterhouse-Five over the phone to your mother. I’m sure she’ll be able to clue you in to what the Washington Post writer was talking about.

  24. On my way to work, I passed a firehouse today (Alplaus, NY) that thanked Kurt for his volunteer firefighting service. Apparently he was able to douse some fires.

  25. Chris, the “People who read Slaughterhouse-five to learn what war is like” appear to be straw men. Nobody, except you, has proposed that as a reason for reading the novel. On the other hand, Vonnegut was, you know, actually in a war, so reading what he has to say about his experience is not all that far out there.

    As for Peter Singer–wasn’t he, like, in a 70’s hair metal band, or something like that? Honestly, I have no idea what you’re talking about (and, please, why don’t we leave my mother out of this? She doesn’t enjoy audio books). Give me another hint. What do you find objectionable about Slaughterhouse-Five? Feel free to use medical and scientific terms to describe acts or organs whose colloquial designations would be inappropriate, but I simply don’t remember what someone might find perverse.

  26. The purpose of reading a novel like Slaughterhouse Five, or Catch-22, or similar is to take in one author’s *artistic impression* of a war, not to take in an *objective account* of a war. It’s a simple difference between the artist and the journalist… the newspaper piece from the piece of fiction.

    Art depicts a truth… it’s just that that truth is a subjective, not an objective one. But the same could be said for many non-fiction accounts of war as well.

    Without artistic liberties, there would be no art. Those who pick up and read a novel without realizing or accepting this fact, are likely to feel dissatisfied or deceived by the experience. But the problem in that case is with the reader not the novel. There is not much reason behind attacking a piece of art for not being what it never purported to be.

  27. Jonathan Green: “Chris, the “People who read Slaughterhouse-five to learn what war is like” appear to be straw men. Nobody, except you, has proposed that as a reason for reading the novel.

    That is simply false. People in this thread have done it, you do it yourself in your very next sentence, and you can find Vonnegut tributes all over the Internet that do it.

    As for Peter Singer

    If you are indeed one of the few intellectuals who haven’t heard of Peter Singer, you probably at least know how to use Wikipedia.

    please, why don’t we leave my mother out of this?

    I mentioned her as someone unlikely to be inured to vulgarity and perversity, if you yourself are. Feel free to make an appropriate substitution.

  28. Re #25: I’m simply uninterested in debating whether the Apostles’ and Prophets’ counsel in For the Strength of Youth is misguided. That’s what I was signaling with the final comment in my #22. I’ve heard it all before, and I’ve seen little common ground for discussion between those who do want to take it seriously and those who don’t. My recommendation in #5 was for those who do.

  29. I see now that in his original post, Jonathan wrote: “I’ve since quite literally forgotten nearly everything in [Vonnegut’s novels].

    That explains a lot.

  30. Okay, I do know who Peter Singer is, but… huh? How did Peter Singer get dragged into this?

  31. I’ve heard it all before, and I’ve seen little common ground for discussion between those who do want to take it seriously and those who don’t.

    And so it goes.

  32. Chris, just a quick tip here: Notice how “a book about what war is like,” “one man’s account of his wartime experience,” and “an artistic depiction of a wartime experience, running backwards in time, along with plunger-shaped Tralfamadorians” are all phrases that use different words and, in fact, mean different things. Everyone else so far has been able to distinguish between them, and they really aren’t saying what you think the’re saying. Novels might not be your thing, and that’s OK. You don’t have to read or enjoy Vonnegut or any other novelist. But please be careful about suggesting that other commenters enjoy perversity, don’t take prophetic counsel seriously, or listen to audio books.

    So far, you’ve managed to get as far as stating that you find Slaughterhouse-Five vulgar and perverse. I mentioned earlier that you’re playing to a tough crowd, but most people are also prepared to respect your position. All you have to do is explain what it is you find offensive, and some people have helpfully posed that very question to you, indicating their desire to read more of your thoughts. Unfortunately, your reply to that question so far has been, “It’s too vulgar to type! Read the book again…to your mother! And read the oeuvre of Peter Singer too, while you’re at it!”

    Why don’t we try, as a new tactic, having you explain, briefly, what you found offensive in the book. I realize that when I wrote, “I’ve since quite literally forgotten,” it could have been taken to mean…well, something else, we’ll assume. But it does, as you note, explain a lot. It explains why I keep asking you to tell us what you found offensive, because I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. I would have a better chance at remembering if you’d supply a helpful hint or two.

  33. I was not at all happy to see that recommendation above to read A.C. Grayling, who has famously written:

    What underlies talk of virginity is a profound and often hidden moral angst about purity and pollution—and therefore also sentiments of temptation and desire. If our religions had decided that ears or wisdom teeth were spiritually significant, we should feel the same anxieties regarding them as with the hymen; and moral concern would be devoted to them instead.

    To think that any author who apparently holds religion in such low regard might have anything useful to say about the bombing of Dresden would be almost as silly as subscribing to the notion that a novelist who apparently got his facts and figures wrong might nonetheless be capable of tucking a few psychological truths into his fiction somewhere between his inaccuracies and vulgarities.

    On the other hand, to suggest that reading anything by Grayling could somehow be an act of high-mindedness seems so absurd as to make me wonder if the above criticism hasn’t all been just a cheeky bit of fun, a tribute perhaps to a lovely piece of fiction that begins All of this happened, more or less …

  34. Vonnegut seemed to me to be one of those who believed that “art” must push the edge and offend the middle class to be effective. Unfortunately for him, the “edge” became the middle class, and he seemed to be straining to stay on that edge and so be more “relevant.” In the end, at least in my perspective, he became less and less relevant more because of those efforts rather than in spite of them. Other examples of artists who shocked our parents and are now our darlings would probably include the Beatles and Dylan. I also remember when M*A*S*H seemed too racy for good Mormons to watch, and now it seems tame.

    And so it goes.

  35. Jonathan,

    There was an old saying (maybe even a quote) that the grass would never grow where Brigham Young spat when he thought about lawyers. I think that sentiment is a pretty good description of Chris’ apparent feelings about Vonnegut (and perhaps anyone who praises Vonnegut). I read Slaughterhouse Five. I do not recall the vulgarity to which Chris alludes, but it has been many years.

    My recollection is that I found the book disturbing and thought provoking, and one that I would have recommended (and did recommend to my children, a couple of whom have read it). Given Chris’ reaction, I should probably read it again to see if his view is correct and my recollection incorrect.

    I did like the humor excerpt by Vonnegut republished in the Atlantic this month. I do not think there was any vulgarity in it (but I suppose I better re-read it).

  36. Ok, this all motivated me to reread Slaughterhouse Five yesterday. There are definitely plenty of instances of the f-bomb in the book, mainly coming from Lozzano, the rabid nasty soldier who loves revenge. A few cases of the s-word. Situations (although very briefly and not explicitly described) where Billy is drunk and cheats on his wife at a party and when he and Montana are in the zoo together and “mate”. Perhaps a few other small scenes one could find objectionable.

    I also reread the For the Strenght of Youth pamphlet on media. (Incidentally, I also read other sections and was really impressed with the content and tone. It made me feel good to read it and know these were the standards we set for our youth, and for all of us.) It states, “Do not attend, view, or participate in entertainment that is vulgar, immoral, violent, or pornographic in any way. Do not participate in entertainment that in any way presents immorality or violent behavior as acceptable.”

    Of course it is for each person to determine what is vulgar, immoral, violent, or pornographic. For myself I felt good reading the book. As I stated in a previous comment, what might seem vulgar in another context seemed tragic and necessary. Others might respond differently. In my opinion, the book *definitely* does not present any of these situations as acceptable; any immorality, etc is performed by very depressed, hopeless, desperate people who find no happiness in their behavior.

  37. Gina, thank you for the overview of what might be offensive in Slaughterhouse-Five. I have absolutely no recollection of Lozzano at all. Based on your description, though, I can see that some people are not going to enjoy the book much and would probably be better off reading something else. I found enough value in the book at the time to warrant reading more of Vonnegut, but just about everything that I still find valuable is in the original post. I’m sure there are equally good passages in other places, and in the last week a few people have published their own favorites.

  38. Lozzano was portrayed brilliantly in the film version.

    Vonnegut, by the way, was extremely pleased with the film.

  39. Gina (#39): Don’t forget Billy’s visit to the porn shop that comprises the second-to-last chapter. I thought being an English major had given me a little bit of a tough skin, but I was wrong in this case. (I’d elaborate, but I’m afraid that even a tactful allusion to Vonnegut’s content there isn’t something I’d want to read myself.)

    For the record, my jury’s still out on the book. I just finished it for the first time on Thursday, and up until about the last 20 pages, it was soon to top my list of all-time favorites. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of literature I’ve ever read; for me, a vast majority of the book was truly inspiring (yes, I understand that that’s a strange thing to be saying about plunger aliens and firebombed cities, but so be it). It’s tragic and humiliating and awe-inspiring, but most of all, it made me dig deeply into my preconceived notions about war and human nature and the reality of our agency. The book tangles with things we often consider to be “gospel topics” artistically and (for the most part) with a hands-off delicacy that, I believe, truly forces a reader to examine and reevaluate his own beliefs. I see it as an invaluable primer to Postmodern literature as a whole and to several of the issues our politicians are still tangling with today.

    However–and this is a big caveat–I don’t feel comfortable recommending the book. To anyone. Setting a sprinkling of sexual scenes aside, I can’t advocate a text that includes those “last 20 pages” I already made mention of. Chris, don’t feel wrong for making an opposition to the text, because as has been said, it certainly isn’t for everyone; in all actuality, I’m not convinced it’s for anyone. If I could somehow remove the section(s?) of the book that peddle such wanton, graphic pornography without destroying the artistic integrity of the novel (and I speak here of the moral dilemma of changing an author’s intended presentation, not from of any perceived merit of the material in question), I would feel comfortable giving Slaughterhouse-Five a cautious thumbs-up. As it stands, though, Billy’s nighttime adventures in downtown New York are too fresh in my mind to leave me comfortable. Even now I feel like I need to go wash out my brain.

    Of course, this is only my perspective. I’m sure that the parts of the book that bothered me so much wouldn’t be problematic for many readers. Coming adventures into Postmodern lit via some of my English classes (at BYU, no less) will probably serve to “toughen my skin,” such as it is. I’m just not sure that I want to be toughened.

  40. … what made being alive almost worthwhile for me, besides music, was alll the saints I had met, who could be anywhere. By saints I meant people who behaved decently in a strikingly indecent society.

    That’s Vonnegut. Sounds like a plea for decency, if not on the page, at least in the real world. I wonder if he felt like he needed to go “wash out [his] brain” after Dresden? You’d expect that retrieving charcoal corpses might “toughen [one’s] skin” beyond the capacity to feel, much less write “one of the most beautiful pieces of literature [you’ve] ever read” …

  41. Very, very true. Like I said, I’m torn.
    Hmm. I’d like to think and write about this a lot more, but it’s the middle of finals and my brain feels like pudding.

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