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The Truth behind “So It Goes”: Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s Message

Updated on May 6, 2013

'So It Goes'

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. died in 2007 from the effects of a bad fall. So it goes. This motto emanating from Vonnegut’s personal favorite work, Slaughterhouse-Five or the Children’s Crusade: a Duty Dance with Death, represents a way of thinking other than blatant unconcern. “So it goes” follows all accounts of death in the book “whether it is the mass death following the bombing of Dresden or the death of the lice and bacteria on the soldier’s clothes as they are cleaned”(“Slaughterhouse-Five Book Notes Summary”). Summarizing the main point of the book, the phrase originates from Billy Pilgrim and recurs often. Billy Pilgrim learned the philosophy of life in the time he spent on Tralfamadore, a friendly planet inhabited by toilet plunger shaped aliens. “Armed with the Tralfamadore detachment” (Priest) Billy can travel through time and deal with his past traumas by using the expression “So it goes”:

When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself see someone dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes’. (Vonnegut 27)

This detached sentiment “so it goes” helps both Billy and Vonnegut, deal with war, its inevitability, its unbearability, and its delusions.

War, which progresses history, defines the start of civilization. (Campbell) War is the transference of power between leaders using violent methods in which death is a constant. Because war has shaped the present, many people believe that it will also shape the future (Campbell). Humans are born with the inbred desire for competition, the desire to win. This competitiveness is embodied in the need for war, and it is a “biological imperative, bred into our genes” (Campbell). War it the ultimate competition, which concludes with the repression of a culture or race only to gain power. Justification for this mindless competition of death became necessary as the world became more revolutionized and civilized; the term “just war” emerged to imply that war can be morally correct under certain terms (Obama).

Vonnegut denounces this reduction of war by basing his most famous work, Slaughterhouse-Five, on one single atrocity in a war that he personally experienced, the Dresden air raid during WWII (Greiner). The protagonist, Billy, serves as an extension of Vonnegut himself, as both undergo the great tragedy of Dresden. War cannot be avoided and periodically does or doesn’t occur according to Tralfamadorian teachings (Wolfe). This allows Billy and Vonnegut to accept the guilt and face their own experiences. Despite Vonnegut’s distaste for the advancement of civilization through war, he realizes that war is inevitable and impossible to win.

Everyone suffers during war, both the victorious and the victims (Aronson). War is impossible to win because it is part of human nature evolutionarily and also impossible realistically. The United States led the world in forming the United Nations to prevent war from occurring in the future (Obama), forming a guard between the victims and the victorious. Genocides and numerous war tragedies have occurred but the goal of the United Nations, to prevent future world wars, has mostly been successful (Obama). However, national wars between religions, ethnicities, and rulers had introduced a new method of war, terrorism (Obama). The current president even expressed during his Nobel Prize speech that, “We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.”

People will always find reasons to wage war and ways to harm one another. This realization is one that Vonnegut formally recognized but still disbelieved. In Slaughterhouse-Five, the inevitability of death expressed in the phrase “so it goes” expresses the inevitability of war. As a theme analysis resource, BookRags, says about a conversation by the narrator (a.k.a. Vonnegut), “The filmmaker told the narrator that he might as well write an anti-glacier book as an anti-war one, and the narrator, who has been in war and knows its terrible power, understands this to mean that wars are as impossible to stop as glaciers.” Even though the narrator expresses his dissent on the subject, he knows that even if wars did not occur, people would still die (Vonnegut 4), and death is still death no matter what.

Vonnegut centers on the prisoners of war in his story instead of actual war events to capture the suffering and injustice of war (“Slaughterhouse-Five Theme of Suffering”). This theme of suffering extenuates the unbearibility of war through the same motto. This paper’s opening lines blared blatant unconcern and carelessness until the usage of the phrase “so it goes” was explained. If it had not been explained readers would be aghast at the lack of humanity and opposed to further reading. The same concept applies to the characters in Slaughterhouse-Five. They adjust to their experiences with death when life seems meaningless by saying “so it goes” (Wolfe). The cause of this personal devastation is war itself. The simple concept of war is horrifying; massacring the inhabitants of a nation in the largest possible numbers is crazy: “it makes no sense” (Campbell). But the facts of war, ugly description of how people die and the avidness in which others comply overwhelms the mind (Campbell). Both fighters and survivors witness atrocities in war that they are not able to stomach or accept (Campbell). War is horrifying.

Slaughterhouse-Five captures this horrifying feeling by expressing the “sheer helplessness, the total ineffectuality, of anyone caught up in such a massacre” (Kazin) that Vonnegut has experienced. In writing the novel, Vonnegut realized that he could not effectively write about an event that made no sense in a sensible fashion (Wolfe). By adapting the “so it goes” slogan, the characters try to use the Tralfamadorian concepts to view their experiences as moments “past, present and future,” as moments that, “always have existed, always will exists” (Vonnegut 27). They try to achieve this distance because they feel the need to prevent and avoid suffering, and they want to see anti-suffering needs accomplished (Heller). By “reinventing the horrors of war, our complex machines of destruction” (Klinkowitz) one can finally cope with war’s finality and the horror, suffering, and trauma that it involves.

Logically, traumatic events are routine in the war zone. They occur when a person senses that they may be severely injured or harmed or witness such occurrences befalling others ("War-Zone.”). Vonnegut crudely describes such an occurrence as “terrible weather showering down knives and needles and razorblades” (106). War trains soldiers to kill similar people, engage in deadly exercises, and control natural fight or flight instincts (Arella). This hyper-alertness and increased potential for traumatic events creates difficulties for returning veterans who often suffer from depression. Soldiers, unfortunately, are predestined to carry “emotional and psychological scars” (Campbell) from their experiences.

Vonnegut expresses this depression as finding “life meaningless” and his story follows Billy and his journey to find meaning in a war-torn world and in themselves (101). By adopting “so it goes”; taken from an alien race, the characters no longer need to find this meaning as the phrase draws all need from such an explanation. This phrase allows the characters to become numb from their traumas rather than accept and redefine themselves (Priest). Vonnegut curses war for creating indifference but he knows that there are only two ways to counteract this carelessness and find meaning: by learning to love or by creating illusions to help people live with one another (Olderman). Comparing his most traumatic experience to appearing like the moon, Vonnegut expresses his confusion about the situation (179). His experience is unbearable, but what delusion caused him this grief?

The delusion of war. War entrances soldiers with glory, it rewards them with “medals and honor and a sense of patriotic duty and loyalty to comrades” (Campbell) that snag the young with wild dreams. No one is a hero in war; viewed without temptations of glory “war is insanity” as Mark Twain famously coined in “The War Prayer” (gtd. in Campbell). Young recruits first have to be deceived by the creators of a war. Who would slaughter and harass an enemy that is replaceable with a puppy or kitten? No one. Fighters must be coerced into seeing the enemy as monsters, individuals without hearts, wives, or children (Campbell). Soon the enemy’s name is synonymous with derogatory words and its actions associated with ominous stories (Campbell). These impressions force the young to hate and impose “military madness” on the helpless (Priest). Howard Campbell, an American traitor of WWII featured in Vonnegut’s book, spread such nonsense about American soldiers to the Germans: “American enlisted men…the most self-pitying, least fraternal, and dirtiest of all PoW’s” (131). The goal of spreading such lies is to exaggerate the feelings of war and justify killing the enemy, while war slogans disguise political reasons for war (Campbell).

Vonnegut writes that he tells his sons to never feel happy when hearing of a massacre no matter the people and to never participate in making “massacre machinery” as it is equal to massacring with your own hands (19). He realized the capabilities of brainwashing nations into hatred which leads to war fought by children which leads to death which leads to sheared attachment: “so it goes”.

Vonnegut recognizes humanity’s cruelty and realizes that all wars are “hopeless ventures fought by deluded children” (Priest). Old men coordinate war, but the young are the ones who fight and die (Campbell), for the causes and are the ones that are forevermore scarred. The extended title of Slaughterhouse-Five is Slaughterhouse-Five or the Children’s Crusade: a Duty Dance with Death. This title reflects the concept that children fight wars without a direct reason. The historical Children’s Crusade occurred in 1212, when two different children amassed large crowds of followers that were also children to fight a crusade in God’s name in the Holy Land. Up to 60,000 children boarded ships and were never seen again. Many years later reports of surviving children from these ships were recorded as sunk or captured by pirates and sold into slavery (Trueman). Vonnegut arrived at the idea for the extended title from a friend’s wife who declared “You were just babies in the war- like the ones upstairs!” (14). Vonnegut wholeheartedly agrees with this notion: old-timers forget that babies fight and disappear. “My God! The Children’s Crusade!” Vonnegut exclaims as the young die for their pride (14). To avoid creating “gallant heroes” that might glorify war, he depicts the soldiers as they are, children (Wolfe). Soldiers are children in wars, and children do not survive them.

In his novels, Vonnegut aims to educate readers towards a greater understanding of the human condition (Priest). He imbues Slaughterhouse-Five with a moral about war: it dehumanizes and destroys everything in its path (Priest). Billy’s story helps to expresses the Tralfamadorian saying “so it goes” as a crude life philosophy, “shit happens” (Gordon). The most memorable part of the story, the phrase retains fame not for the expression behind the words but the lack of. These “world-weary words simultaneously accept and dismiss everything” (Gordon). Vonnegut’s experience in war helps him tell the story of the greatest trauma in his life, Dresden, in the only way he knows how. Slaughterhouse-Five skillfully epitomizes Tralfamadorian teachings, namely the motto “so it goes” to express antiwar beliefs. The story’s logical style and actual story line make little sense. Purposefully creating confusion in his book, Vonnegut kills the traditional narration to convey tragedy of war. So it goes. But his improvisation proved a success and his book, Slaughterhouse-Five, became legendary, as did his message of antiwar: “so it goes.” Life is not meaningless no matter the traumas that a person has witnessed. Vonnegut endeavored to instill this thought into future minds and he succeeded. “So it goes” will remain in the minds of readers throughout the future regardless of Vonnegut’s recent demise. Death is death as Vonnegut would admit. So it goes.

Clark, Alex. "Kurt Vonnegut: So It Goes | Books | The Observer." Latest News, Comment and Reviews from the Guardian | Guardian.co.uk. 15 Apr. 2007. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/apr/15/fiction.kurtvonnegut>.

Gordon, Scott. "15 Things Kurt Vonnegut Said Better Than Anyone Else Ever Has Or Will | Music | Inventory | The A.V. Club." The A.V. Club. 24 Apr. 2007. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. <http://www.avclub.com/articles/15-things-kurt-vonnegut-said-better-than-anyone-el,1858/>.

Kazin, Alfred. /Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer. Atlantic-Little. Brown, 1973. pp.86-90. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Carolyn Riley. Vol. 3. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1975. Print.

Priest, Karen. Critical Survey of Long Fiction. Ed. Carl E. Rollyson and Frank N. Magill. Vol. 7. Pasadena, CA: Salem, 2000. Print.

"Slaughterhouse-Five Book Notes Summary | Kurt Vonnegut | BookRags.com." BookRags.com | Study Guides, Lesson Plans, Book Summaries and More. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. <http://www.bookrags.com/notes/sl5/OBJ.htm>.

"Slaughterhouse-Five Book Notes Summary | Kurt Vonnegut | BookRags.com." BookRags.com | Study Guides, Lesson Plans, Book Summaries and More. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. <http://www.bookrags.com/notes/sl5/TOP1.html>.

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