There's a Little Green Alien in All of Us; Reflections on Humanity in Slaughterhouse Five
It’s probably safe to say that Kurt Vonnegut didn’t just throw Tralfamadore and its odd inhabitants into his war novel for fun. The Tralfamadorians in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” may be a coping mechanism for the story’s passive protagonist Billy Pilgrim; they do seem to be a useful means of escape from the psychological damage presumably inflicted on him by the war. There seems, though, to be something more: a broader and deeper meaning behind the Tralfamadorians’ prominent place in the story. I believe that Kurt Vonnegut uses them in order to make his readers look anew at the cultural attitude to which they subscribe. (I don’t think he refers to humankind one and all necessarily, but to most of us. To the developed nations and to “civilized” society, particularly in the United States). Vonnegut expertly employs a kind of defamiliarization – which is ultimately a fresh look at something we already know all too well – in an effort to make us really look at ourselves.
Defamiliarization is an aptly awkward name for Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky’s concept of re-introducing the known by presenting it in a surprising - and often disconcerting - way. The method, when it was introduced in Shlovsky’s essay “Art as Technique,” was used as a means of telling whether certain literature should be considered poetry; i.e. art. It holds that real art – or at least truly functional art – must be so complicated and unexpected that we cannot simply take it all in at once. We must pause and diligently employ our perceptive skills to work through such a thing. This slowing down of the process of receiving information creates a difficulty that is necessary to see the mundane anew. Why? Because no matter how marvelous something is, Shlovsky tells us, it can be rendered impotent through repetition and familiarity. Art serves to place an unfamiliar frame around something so that we are again able to experience the thing for what it truly is – to see it objectively and without so much context bearing down on it. It stands to reason that this concept of defamiliarizing to facilitate a renewed perspective can work not just for the beautiful, but for the grotesque as well – as in the case of “Slaughterhouse Five.”
We have become desensitized to violence and death –especially en masse – through repetition and overexposure. We are fed scenes of glorified violence through every media possible. Turn on the TV, open up a news website, play a video game. Day and night, horrific images are paraded in front of us in the name of entertainment. Just as we can become numb to beauty, we can become blind to our own ugliness. This affliction of unaffectedness is particularly easy to catch when looking at the world from an easy chair. The only way Kurt Vonnegut can get us to see our own flaws is to trick us into thinking that we are not actually looking at ourselves. I don’t even think it’s necessary to consider that I’m writing this paper several decades after the novel was written. Modern circumstances only heighten the relevance of what I think he was trying to say. Wars, as he foresaw in the book, have continued to go on with no foreseeable end to the cycle of violence.
Embedded journalists, when the concept was new, served as a defamiliarizing force. No civilians had seen the real images of battle before. People saw the oil paintings and bronze statues professing glory and righteousness – the kind of art that perpetuates the will of the majority. Art that affirms, never questions. Assures and does not disturb. Ghastly images are now par-for-the-course and as a result can no longer serve as a defamilarizing tactic. Vonnegut graduates beyond this kind of in-your-face commentary on death and humanity. He is entirely too witty and clever for this, anyway, and uses his skills as an author to create a fantastic alien race in which he embeds some disturbingly familiar characteristics.
The defamiliarizing “other” – the Tralfamadorians - here is very distinctly distinguished as being not us. There’s no question that Billy Pilgrim’s tiny green aliens are different from humans; they are shaped like toilet plungers and have eyes in the palm of hands that extend from atop their bodies. They couldn’t be any more different. We can’t even detect their planet from ours! We are allowed to scrutinize and judge their behavior because we can comfortably say that they definitely are not us and could have no possible relation to us.
How are the wacky Tralmafadorians like us, then? There are plenty of similarities to be found. There is the way in which they regard others, with a sort of condescending curiosity. They place Billy into a zoo, naked. They create a mediocre habitat somewhat resembling the real stuff of his home planet, and toss in a random mate – suitable because she is a good specimen from the opposite sex and the Tralfamadorians understand the basic facts of human reproduction. People certainly do this very thing with animals; in fact, humans haven’t been above doing it to other humans either at certain periods in history.
Also like us humans, they are never really revealed as being entirely wise or good – nor are they found out to be particularly evil or malicious. They just kind of sit back and let things happen. They are arrogant and aloof. Billy Pilgrim seems to think that the Tralfamadorians and their detached “so it goes” philosophy on death is the most evolved way of thinking. This mentality is, for me, the most significant aspect of their presence in the novel. This is where we are being shown the most unfortunate parts of ourselves. Most of us probably think it’s absurd for them to have such an unaffected attitude toward lives lost. This philosophy seems to be quite the opposite of the popular beliefs of our times – beliefs deeply steeped in religious doctrine. The religion usually justifies all of the violence because somehow it all must make sense in God’s Great Plan, which must not be questioned too deeply. However, when looked at from a different angle (which is what this is all about), it could still be considered a veritable throwing up of one’s arms. Like saying, “Oh well.” Or, “so it goes.” It’s really not that much different than the Tralfamadorian take on life and death. It’s all up to the fates and so it makes no sense to fuss much over anything that happens.
Billy’s Tralfamadorians are uncannily similar to the creatures in Kilgore Trout’s novels. I surmise that the actions of Billy’s aliens and Kilgore’s characters are one in the same (and I also believe an entire other paper could be written exploring the reasons why Vonnegut might have added this additional layer of separation). In one of Trout’s stories, his aliens demonstrate how alike the two moral codes are (ours and theirs) when one of them visits Earth and decides to change some specific details about the Christian savior story. Of course, the use of this particular story carries a great deal of relevance. It’s a well-told tale that is the very foundation of righteousness and destiny for so many people. Interestingly enough, the outcome of either version is the same: people are punished for having treated an individual so badly. What is the vital difference? I don’t think there is much of one. This makes me think of how we tend to get caught up in semantics, something Vonnegut pokes at throughout the novel. He does it again when he describes the robot in another of Kilgore Trout’s books. The robot is forgiven for dropping jellied gasoline on people but ostracized for his bad breath. It’s not really so different for us. We get caught up in the details - the unforgivable cases of halitosis, and ignore massacres. That’s another quality we share with the Tralfamadorians: the ability to gloss over things that are unpleasant. We glorify, justify, and make light of serious and terrible things. We humans seem to have a knack for sugar-coating the truly vulgar and then taking offense at the inconsequential. The opposite of how we’d like to think of ourselves.
So, what is the overall moral of the story if the Tralfamadorians are just a defamiliarized version of humanity; a dose of our own medicine poured from a different bottle? If indeed the Tralfamadorians exist to show us the strangeness of our own views on things like life, death, war, and free will then does Vonnegut show us this in order to incite some desire for change? Is he trying to compel us to take some kind of action? Is he as cynical as he sometimes sounds when he speaks in his authorial “I” voice? Does he propose no solution? No people’s revolution or hope for change? Just “so it goes” and “Poo Tee Weet?” Does Vonnegut mean to say that he has written this entire work and wrenched our guts and hearts just to say, “well, nothing really matters because you can’t make a difference anyway?” I’d like to think not.
I think that Vonnegut may be warning us that history is destined to repeat itself over and over again if we do not take a long and somewhat objective look at ourselves. Just like the Tralfamadorians watching their own test pilot accidentally blow up the universe over and over again, “so it goes” will only lead us back to the beginning again and again. “My name is Yon Yonson, I live in Wisconsin…” If you just keep repeating yourself for no other reason than because that is just how it goes, then the future really is fixed and unchangeable.
Through the Tralfamadorians – and their Troutian equivalents - Vonnegut turns the pages of Slaughterhouse 5 into a mirror of sorts. What one sees upon looking is, interestingly enough, dependent upon individual perspective. .