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The Tralfamadorian Paradigm in Slaughterhouse Five

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The Tralfamadorian Paradigm in Slaughterhouse Five


Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, is a novel in which
the laws of physics are broken -- apparently. Billy Pilgrim, the
main character, is loose in time and is free, though not in
control, to experience any moment of his life, including the
moments before he was born and after he dies (experienced as hues
with sustained sounds). At random times in the main sequence of
his life he literally jumps to other times, something which he
is fully aware of. He can be on Tralfamadore one moment, back on
earth with his wife the next. This could be puzzling to the
cursory reader, but Vonnegut makes sure to spell out his reasons
why such events can be believed as realistic and perceived as
happening, to some extent, to everyone everywhere -- at all
times. The Tralfamadorians, who explain this nature of time and
existence to Billy, are shown as enlightened creatures while the
humans back on earth are seen as backwards -- to such an extent
that they believe in free will. Billy towards the end of his life
becomes a preacher of these virtues of existence taught to him by
his zookeepers on Tralfamadore, going around and speaking about
his experiences and his acquired knowledge. Much like Billy,
Vonnegut tries to preach his own view of the universe and of
existence, but through fiction. Billy's view is Vonnegut's view
and it is through Billy and his experiences that Vonnegut
explains its nature to us. But the point here is not purely
physical. Vonnegut applies it to everyday human life through the
events in the novel, and in a strange twist, this application
leads to a philosophy that Billy does not actually embolden.

Through Billy and the Tralfamadorians Vonnegut introduces
us to his ideas on the nature of time and physical existence.
When Billy travels to Tralfamadore for the first time -- after
having been unstuck in time for many years -- he is taught by the
tralfmadorians the nature of time. They tell him that the human
perception of time as linear and flowing with the possibility of
only one moment existing at 'once' is erroneous. The
Tralfamadorians exist in 4 dimensions and so have perspective on
time. They tell Billy that time does not flow, that all moments
exist concurrently and it is only an illusion if they appear to
have any linearity. This makes sense to Billy for he has been
traveling to odd places in time ever since his experiences in the
war. The Tralfamadorians also have a philosophy of life based on
their ability to have perspective on time. They tell Billy that
it is pointless to be concerned with the bad things always happen
to us in our lives. They say that it is wiser to only focus
one's attention on the good moments, for no moments are capable
of being changed -- they just are. Billy to some extent is
capable of applying this philosophy to his life for he is blessed
enough to be loose in time -- and know it. But Vonnegut may be
saying that we are all loose in time, for if the Tralfamadorians
are correct, all the moments in our lives exist 'simultaneously.'
And so whether or not we are aware of these other moments in
other moments is irrelevant to the fact that the moments all
function at the same 'time'. The universe, with all its moments,
is the same as when we 'were' babies as it 'is' now. By the end
of Billy's life we find him preaching this knowledge to various
adoring masses. Billy preaches the philosophy that was taught to
him by the Tralfamadorians.

Vonnegut seems to be aware, though, that none of us posses
the abilities that Billy Pilgrim possesses. We can't visit other
moments in our lives. We don't have the luxury of turning our
attention away from the present and looking at some other moment.
So as good as this philosophy of the Tralfamadorians sounds, it
doesn't seem to be reconcilable with our humanness. It is
possible that this philosophy was a reaction to the troubling
experiences that Billy and -- through the novel -- Vonnegut ha ve
had. Billy may have experienced more hardship than Vonnegut did,
and his apparent traversals through time and visits to
Tralfamadore may have all been illusory, may have acted as a sort
of coping mechanism. But Vonnegut did experience the War and the
fire bombing of Dresden. Vonnegut states in the beginning of the
novel that trying to stop a war is like trying to stop an iceberg
-- it cannot be done. If humans were gifted like the
Tralfamadorians are, then they would know for a fact the
parallels between war and icebergs because all moments past and
present are immutable. They would view all of existence like they
view the iceberg metaphor. Of course, humans don't have these
abilities anywhere near to the extent to which the
Tralfamadorians have them (Human artistic vision and other
faculties resemble the Tralfamadorian abilities, and we are
blessed to be aware of stretches of time, not just living solely
in the moment.) By the end of the novel it seems that Vonnegut
comes to terms with these limitations. The pendant that Montana
Wildhack, Billy's human zoo-mate on Tralfamadore, was wearing
sums it up nicely. It states: "God grant me the serenity to
accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things
I can and wisdom to tell the difference." The 'God' in this motto
could be anything, so when we view it in terms of Vonnegut we
don't have to ascribe any sort of religiosity. God, if you will,
could be time and all of its moments. And taken as such, this
motto becomes a simple wish expressing some of the limitations,
as Vonnegut sees it, of the human race, and of the human solution
to these limitations -- an aspiration to know one's limits and
abilities and will enough to act accordingly.

Whether or not Billy actually traveled to Tralfamadore, it
should not serve to bolster or denigrate the substance of his
message. If we understand what is meant by the Tralfamadorian
paradigm -- the philosophy of life based on the ability to have
time-breaching perspective in four dimensions -- and we see that
the facts of the physical universe as stated to Billy by the
Tralfamadorians -- time and all its moments being all-existent
and immutable, etc. -- are believable, we can understand our
limitations. To Billy wars are unstoppable but to the optimistic
human they aren't. Vonnegut realizes this, it seems, and as an
aside, it may have been what enabled him to ultimately come to
terms with his experiences -- especially the events surrounding
Dresden. The two philosophies are very complimentary, however.
Billy had the advantage. He was right to put on a passive
attitude most of the time if he wasn't insane; but the optimistic
philosophy derived later on doesn't try to discount the facts of
the physical universe propagated by the Tralfamadorians -- it
realizes how absurd it would be to try to grasp them as the
Tralfamadorians are able to and so makes cinders of its
philosophical import and constructs one of its own that fully
considers the human condition. It's sad to say, but Billy Pilgrim
probably was insane. I don't think I'd want to be like Billy,
jumping schizophrenically from time to time, but I wouldn't mind
giving a go at being Tralfamadorian.

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