Dresden and the Destruction of Vonnegut's Dream

Dresden and the Destruction of Vonnegut's Dream

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Dresden and the Destruction of Vonnegut's Dream


The little dream Vonnegut took with him to war was not
founded on the rubble of insanity, absurdity, and irrationality
that he experienced in WWII. His dream was founded on order,
stability, and justice. It was founded on what Dresden
symbolized. And when Dresden evaporated so too did Vonnegut's
dream. (Klinkowitz 223)

Vonnegut's views on death, war, technology and human nature
were all affected by his experience in Dresden and these themes
become evident in his novels. The common thread between all of
Vonnegut's themes is war.The bombing of Dresden had a profound
impact on the life and writing of Kurt Vonnegut. "Rarely has
a single incident so dominated the work of a writer" (Goldsmith
IX). World War II shaped many of Kurt Vonnegut's philosophies
that appear in his novels, especially Slaughterhouse Five. "With
Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut was able to deal directly with his
war time nightmare" (Klinkowitz 225). In Slaughterhouse Five we
witness a moment of balance in Vonnegut's life when he finds
himself capable of dealing with the intense pain of his Dresden
experience and ready to go on with the business of living. "If
the war becomes a general metaphor for Vonnegut's vision of human
condition, Dresden becomes the symbol, the quintessence" (Reed
186). What made the Dresden bombing even more horrible to
Vonnegut was that as a prisoner, he was ironically protected from
the bombs and fire. Planes from his country did the bombing, and
he was perpetrator, observer and target all at the same time
(Goldsmith ix).

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was born on November 11, 1922 in
Indianapolis, Indiana. He later served in the US Army Infantry.
He was captured after the Battle of the Bulge and sent to Dresden
to work in a factory. After being awarded the Purple Heart in
1967, he received the Guggenheim Fellowship to research
Slaughterhouse Five.

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Slaughterhouse Five took Vonnegut twenty
years to write. He was torn for years between a desire to forget
Dresden, and a passion to reconcile what he saw there. Vonnegut
says of Slaughterhouse Five: "I hate to tell you what this lousy
little book cost me in money and anxiety and time. When I got
home from WWII twenty-three years ago, I thought it would be easy
for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all
I would have to do is report what I have seen" (Vonnegut 2). He
also says, "It is so short and jangled because there is nothing
intelligent to say about the massacre" (Boyce 7015). From
Dresden, he developed his existential philosophy and his ideas
about the evils of technology. Dresden shows up in each of his
novels. Slaughterhouse Five ultimately led to Dresden and the
disturbing and unanswerable question for him of why man destroys
and kills (Schatt 89). Death comes up frequently in his works. It
is Vonnegut's belief that death is too important to ignore, yet
is nothing to fear. "To fear either life or death, to be
immobilized by fright or horror or grief means to give up living
and become a pillar of salt" (Vonnegut 33). Vonnegut advocates
acceptance of the unchangeable course of life and of death
itself, not looking back, enjoying the dance and the good moments
life brings. As he says, "We aren't supposed to look back"
(Vonnegut 19). Vonnegut states "Once you're dead, you're dead" as
the moral of his novel Mother Night (Vonnegut vii). Vonnegut's
view of death becomes clear in the final chapter of
Slaughterhouse Five in which he describes not his visit to
Dresden in 1968, but Billy Pilgrim's efforts to dig up the bodies
buried beneath the rubble of the fire bombed city. When Billy is
released from captivity, Vonnegut describes the scene as a world
full of life and death. It is spring time, but there are no
leaves left. There is no traffic save an abandoned wagon pulled
by two horses. The wagon is green and coffin shaped. One bird
sings. Though it is spring, the coffin shaped wagon serves as
a reminder of the death around him.

Slaughterhouse Five is proof that Vonnegut kept his promise
to write a war novel that does not glorify or glamorize killing.
Vonnegut relates all modern warfare to the original Children's
Crusade of 1213. In this crusade, thirty thousand children
volunteered to go to Palestine but half of them drowned in
shipwrecks, and the other half were sold into slavery. He
concluded that all wars are fought by the young, usually for
causes they can't understand. (Schatt 82). Vonnegut says: "We had
been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood"
(Vonnegut 182). The innocence of those who fight in wars is
depicted in the character Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse Five.
Billy, as his name suggests becomes the innocent pilgrim through
a cruel and absurd world (Reed 81). Young of face, gawky of
stature and childishly perplexed, Billy Pilgrim, who, like the
crusader starts out on a hot mission as a chaplain's assistant.
He makes the perfect representational figure for this conception
of war (Reed 183). Billy, as the Adam figure, falls into the
terrible wisdom of the 20th century (Reed 181). Kurt Vonnegut was
Billy Pilgrim. Billy's being moonishly bemused, utterly helpless,
even ridiculous, fits him for the role of the babe born to die
(Reed 185). In this sense, Billy also becomes the Christ figure
of the novel. An innocent man in a cruel world, in a provoking
scene in a train car, Billy hangs himself from a cross bar,
symbolic of Christ's crucifiction. Vonnegut is reminded once
again of Christ as Billy sleeps at the end of the novel. Vonnegut
says "It reminds me of that Christian song, Away in a Manger"
(Vonnegut 143). The character of Billy gives Slaughterhouse Five
a point of focus, particle for the emotion generated by the wide
ranging action of the story (Reed 186). After Billy sees the
Americans shaved and cleaned, he realized for the first time how
young they are and is shocked. "My God, its the Children's
Crusade!" (Vonnegut 91). He seems most concerned to show war as
a terrifying unleashing of monstrous forces which upsweep the
innocent children and men to destroy and enslave them (Reed 184).

Another philosophy that was created from Vonnegut's
experience in the war was a caution against unchecked science and
technology. As World War II ended, the people of the world saw
some of the most terrifying effects that science could have. For
the first time in history, possibly since Ancient Greece, the
value of science was being questioned. People were not so sure
anymore that science was always such a good thing, and Vonnegut
is one of the leading questioners. He states "I am the enemy of
all technological progress that threatens mankind" (Nuwer 39).
A humanist at heart, he repeatedly demonstrates the human
aptitude for cruelty, and shows how technology magnifies this
cruelty beyond control (Beetz 3398). Vonnegut is not content to
excuse the bombing of Dresden or Vietnam. He told his sons "they
are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and
that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with
satisfaction or glee", and they should not work for "companies
that make massacre machinery" (Schatt 17). This statement
illustrates Vonnegut's views on the potential evil impact that
can be brought on by the union of man and machine.

Vonnegut's views on human nature were also greatly affected
by the war. In Slaughterhouse Five, there is no idealism -- only
shock and outrage over the havoc and destruction that man is
capable of wreaking in the name of what he labels a worthy cause
(Schatt 84). The essential battle Vonnegut addresses in
Slaughterhouse Five is man against the violent bent in himself
(Giannone 87). Sentimentality, egotism, blind patriotism,
materialism: these are the enemy and for Vonnegut they symbolize
American life (Giannone 87). These imprinted things must be
overcome in order to avoid the devastating things that man can
do. He believes that there is much room for change. "And I asked
myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, and
how much was mine to keep" (Vanderwrken 414). This shows how much
potential there is in the present. Billy Pilgrim's motto is "God
grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the
difference" (Vonnegut 52). However, the "things that Billy could
not change were the past, the present and the future" (Vonnegut
52). A humanist at heart, Vonnegut believes man in inherently
good and can overcome the violent and cruel streak inside.

Slaughterhouse Five is an integration of all Vonnegut has
been saying about the human condition and society, and relating
these broad commentaries to the central traumatic, revelatory and
symbolic moment of the destruction of Dresden (Reed 172). "The
novel concerns itself not just with Dresden or the war, but with
a much broader depiction of a human condition which these events
emblematic (Reed 181). Robert Scholes sums up the theme of
Slaughterhouse Five in the New York Times Book Review writing:
"Be kind. Don't hurt. Death is coming for all of us anyway, and
it is better to be Lot's wife looking back through salty eyes
than the deity that destroyed those cities of the plain in order
to save them" (VonnegutWeb 1). Other implications of the novel
might be that "war and hate and various form of cruelty are
bad"(Reed 199). As we follow the narrator-witness through
post-war American life, we loose and sense that this country won
World War II (Giannone 87). Vonnegut's purpose for writing this
book, along with personal closure, was challenging the reader to
question the same issues that Vonnegut himself was forced to
ponder at the young age of 22: questions regarding death, the
futility of war, the evils of technology, and the inherit
goodness of man.

The popularity of Slaughterhouse Five is due, in part to its
timelessness. It deals with many issues vital to the late 60's
when it was published. The novel is filled with allusions to
Vietnam, assassinations of Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.
and riots in the American ghettos. Slaughterhouse Five made
Vonnegut a cult counterculture hero among American students who
by reading the book were challenged to question the jingoistic
view that they held (Harris 404). All of Vonnegut's war affected
philosophies add up to his view of life as a "duty dance with
death," An inevitable course leading to an inevitable end.

Works Cited:

Beetz,David. The Novels of Kurt Vonnegut,Jr. New York: Warner
Books, 1973

Giannone, Richard. Vonnegut. Port Washington: Kennikat Press,
1977.

Goldsmith, David. Kurt Vonnegut: Fantasist of Fire and Ice.
Bowling Green: Bowling Green Press,1972.

Harris, Richard. "Kurt Vonnegut." Survey of Contemporary
Literature. vol.10. Salem: Salem Press,1972.

Huber,Chris. VonnegutWeb. 21 March 1999

Klinkowitz,Jerome. The Vonnegut Statement. New York: Delacorte
Press, 1973.

Nuwer, Richard. "Kurt Vonnegut and WWII". Contemporary Literary
Critism. vol.60. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1990.

Reed,Peter. Kurt Vonnegut,Jr. New York: Warner Books, 1972.

Schatt,Stanley. Kurt Vonnegut,Jr. Boston: G.K.Hall, 1976.

Vanderwerken,Joseph. "Slaughterhouse Five." Beacham's
Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction. vol.5. Washington: Beacham
Press,1996.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse Five. New York: Seymore Lawrence,
1969.
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