“How Permanent All the Moments” | Sandweiss on Slaughterhouse-Five

Greetings, Mr. and Mrs. America, from Earth to Titan and past to present, and all the ships in space. Let’s go to Dresden Slaughterhouse, Building Five.


Nice to see Kilgore Trout, Eliot Rosewater, Howard W. Campbell, Prof. Rumfoord (of the Rhode Island Rumfoords), and all of the others who’ve joined us from Kurt Vonnegut’s earlier stories. Here’s Kurt himself, a young man in infantry uniform, revealing himself for the first time as a guest at his own party. Show us your new company, Kurt—“Hi” to Billy, Montana, Valencia, and the rest—as well as some folks whom you will know about from your later years, as you enjoy “easy circumstances on Cape Cod.” Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., we recognize you. David Irving, you were harder to spot as an obscure military historian in 1969, but—thanks to the events leading up to the 2016 film Denial (which made you one of the few members of my profession ever to be the subject of a feature film)—you’re a familiar face to our twenty-first-century movie-going public.

And what’s this, piled up beside the carcasses? Hacked-up scraps of moments, familiar and strange: A late-night radio call-in show. An 18th-century wedding anniversary and a 13th-century Crusade. Bombs over Vietnam, bombs over Germany. A German corporal’s boots that, seen in the proper light, reveal every minute of time back to the Garden of Eden. It all appears to us, Tralfamodorian-style (or, we might say, “Walter Winchell-style”), as “brief clumps of symbols separated by stars,” to be “seen all at once,” suggesting “no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects” (111-12).

The mixed company reminds us, as Billy Pilgrim once tried to remind his Ilium, New York, neighbors, of “how permanent all the moments are” (34). Slaughterhouse-Five reveals Vonnegut the historian as a gossipy columnist, dispensing judgments and bons mots for us to pick up or put down at will, intertwining the disparate affairs of the sleeping drunkard, the Chinese dentist, and everyone in between.


Don’t act surprised, Mr. and Mrs. America; the people and events—real and fictional, past, present, and future—crowded into Vonnegut’s slaughterhouse should be familiar to those of us who’ve followed the writer down the zigzagging path to this, his sixth novel. History is bunk and history is everywhere. Causality is illusion and it’s overwhelming. Free will is absolute and a myth. Everything is coincidence, nothing is accidental. Having watched the writer make free with the conventions of historical thinking—taking a deep draught here, spitting it out there—across more than a decade of storytelling, the historians among you might be tempted to leave his latest mash-up in favor of a relaxing episode of Masterpiece Theatre. But something keeps us here.

Who can resist the spectacle of a man gone to pieces?


It’s not Billy Pilgrim that we’re talking about. It’s his creator, the lanky soldier in the corner. Let the truth be known, dear reader, that this is the novel Vonnegut has tried to write from the start, the one that he has never fully faced. “All I would have to do would be to report,” he once thought (2), before telling our sources how difficult that has turned out to be. The Dresden story simply would not tell itself, and no one other than Irving (soon to earn infamy as the History world’s best-credentialed Holocaust denier and as an unreliable source of Dresden casualty estimates) has yet told it. The price paid by Vonnegut for attempting to shoulder that responsibility has been, a reader realizes, precisely the sum cost of the five raucous novels that preceded this one. Perhaps those books were as fun to write as their blurbs (inevitably dotted with words like “madcap,” etc.) suggest we should find them to read. Perhaps that comfortable Cape Cod life, bought and paid for with growing acclaim and public affection, was something to savor. But each story, we can now report, was also a painful stillbirth, a deformed prefiguration of the equally misbegotten truth that has struggled, all the while, for delivery from its keeper’s private torments.

If the writer’s opening confession hadn’t made obvious the connection between fantasy and trauma, then certainly you’ve seen it by the time he has pointedly juxtaposed Billy, first, strapped into a flying saucer bound for the planet Tralfamadore and then, a moment later, huddled into the boxcar that carries him and his fellow prisoners to their uncertain fate (98). Of course! All these aliens, these forced transports to unknown planets, these characters acting catatonic one minute and babbling the next, all of these soldiers and spies, these explosions and invasions. Each suggests some fragment of the experience of a man who has come apart under the crushing weight of surviving a city’s overnight disappearance. In one book after another, he has gestured toward his story without ever quite telling it. He has accepted history as an inevitable burden and furiously refused to admit it. Celebrated and cursed survival. Marveled like a lamb who, freed from its date with the executioner, leaves the abattoir to discover that all humanity has been sacrificed in his place. Who wouldn’t welcome a chance to come unstuck, after getting stuck with that?


Go ahead and gawk at the slaughterhouse spectacle, Mr. and Mrs. America. It all makes for good popular literature. The historians among you owe some sympathy and understanding. For all of Vonnegut’s critique of our profession’s limited ability to account for human madness and cosmic coincidence, it is hard to imagine him believing anyone capable of thinking historically without becoming, themselves, unstuck in time. Are not all historians, indeed, unstuck? Do not they, too, find themselves transported to unknown lands—not by aliens or enemy soldiers but by diarists and census tabulators? Don’t they too know their stories backward before they tell them forward? Don’t they collect gossip as they drift from one moment to another, marking with mental asterisks the seams that separate them and only later stitching together the more conventional narratives that keep their work off of page six and prepare it instead for entombment in perfect-bound, unopened volumes destined for offsite storage? In their imaginations, at least, aren’t historians as likely to converse with their dead subjects, or their unborn readers, as they are with this semester’s students? It’s all true, but unlike fellow travelers Billy Pilgrim or Kurt Vonnegut, they see historical consciousness as a treatment, not an illness. It is a black bag, brimming with tools to ward off psychic fragmentation and dissociation—traits that have turned Billy into a walking cipher and his creator (at least, up until the writing of Slaughterhouse) into a relentlessly evasive wiseacre. Let us be glad not to have met either fate.


How permanent are all of your moments, Mr. and Mrs. America? Your reading knowledge now includes a half-dozen Kurt Vonnegut novels, but your options for answering that question are pretty much unchanged since the day that you took your 11th-grade English final:

Are you

-a) resigned to being among Gatsby’s children, huddled aboard one of those boats pointed against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past?

Or do you,

-b) still imagine that you, with Huck, will light out for the territory, never to look back?

Our host in the slaughterhouse has added “c,” “All of the above.” Follow him forward from here, if you wish, across a career that will extend for four more decades (and how many light years?). But be sure to bring along one of these black bags, prepared for you by your history teacher. Coming unstuck takes a toll on a body.