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Deserted by God: Todd Gitlin, Kurt Vonnegut and The Children's Crusade
"Existentialism started from the premise of meaninglessness, and then executed a brilliant judo move; it declared that precisely because humanity is deserted by God and values are not inscribed in the natural order of things, human beings are responsible for making their own meanings."
Todd Gitlin, The Sixties; Years of Hope, Days of Rage
Kurt Vonnegut's novel, Slaughterhouse Five, starts and ends with the same premise described by Gitlin as existentialism. The fire-bombing of Dresden at the close of World War II is a metaphor for the subtitle of the book, The Children's Crusade. The metaphor is a simple one, noted aptly by Robert Scholes, that the "cruelest deeds are done in the best causes." The problem for Billy Pilgrim, Todd Gitlin and Vonnegut as well, is how to live in a world rich with absurdity and deserted by God. Vonnegut, Billy, Gitlin and the existentialists have but one solution. Morality must be autogenous, an act of will and not a blind or deluded observance of cultural facades and overwhelming forces designed to impose upon independent action. If the reading of Slaughterhouse Five is disturbing, it is not because it raises more questions then it answers, but because it does so by design.
The search for purpose and meaning, summed up in the word why, is at the heart of the journey of Billy Pilgrim. Vonnegut forgoes a traditional, linear narrative for a style "somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the Planet Tralfamadore." The point of using this style is to release the reader from the linear question of why, which is a pointless question to the Tralfamadorians who view time as circular. It is this view, that time is not extinguished the moment it passes but always existing with all other times, that allows Billy to traverse his life in the search for peace in a world gone mad and deserted by God.
Vonnegut, with his whimsical use of time, strings together events from Billy's experiences to create a montage of life. In one of the most powerful scenes, Billy runs a late-night movie about bomber pilots (probably Twelve O'clock High) in the second World War backwards and the effect is stunning. A city burning up until the planes fly over and sucks up all the fire and encases them in large canisters; fighters sucking bullets from the bodies of fallen bombers and crew members; the planes unloading and their cargo returning to the United States where women carefully extract their dangerous mix of compounds and then sending them to be buried deep within the earth where they couldn't hurt anyone. Vonnegut uses his imagination to turn history on its head as Billy comes to understand the appeal of circular time.
The cyclical idea of time is played out in a different way in the 1938 film The Dawn Patrol. John Mark Saunder's story about an English squadron in France in 1915 is replete with the cycle of birth and death. Every morning replacement pilots show up to replace those lost the previous day. The replacement pilots are inevitably young and inexperienced, and more likely then not, will be replaced by younger and even more inexperienced pilots the next day. The Errol Flynn character, Captain Courtney, confides to one of these pilots that war is a "great big noisy rather stupid game that doesn't make any sense at all. None of us know what its all about or why." The young pilot dies the next day, and his replacement arrives the day after that, a perpetual "duty dance with death" Courtney is promoted to base commander and must make the orders to send men to their deaths. His final act, existential in nature, is to fly the one-way mission deep behind enemy lines - a mission designated for his best friend. He doesn't do this for glory or honor but because he is simply incapable of accepting his role as a messenger of death in a world abandoned by God.
One of the more straightforward aspects of Slaughterhouse Five is the telling of the story of being in Dresden during and after the fire-bombing. Vonnegut has little to add factually to the official accounts. What he does bring are the eerie visions of a thriving city of 135,000 turned into a moonscape, devoid of all life and filled with burnt corpses that look like smoldering logs. The contrast of the "corpse mines" with the execution of Edgar Derby for the "plundering" of a teapot brings absurdity full circle. In the autobiographical first chapter, Vonnegut entreats his children to never participate in a massacre, take no joy from any massacre and refuse work on the implements of a massacre. Unlike the aide Phipps in The Dawn Patrol, who counsels the original squadron commander that sending men to their deaths is "a rotten job but you mustn't let it get to you," Vonnegut tells us that for loves sake we must let it get to us.
The existential philosopher Jean-Paul Satre says that man "is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only in so far as he realizes himself, he is therefore nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is." I think what Vonnegut delivers in Slaughterhouse Five is not the factual truth of his life or the bombing as much as an organic accounting of "what his life is." What Vonnegut may have been imploring against was what Gitlin found in the decline of New Left. "The premium the movement put on the glories and agonies of the pure existential will ill equipped many of us to slog away in the coalitions in a society crisscrossed by divisions, a society not cleanly polarized along a single moral axis, a society not poised on the edge of radical change." Existential philosophy says that man has no excuses, that because existence precedes essence all responsibility for humanity rests with every individual. What Vonnegut and Gitlin are driving at is that the problem was never with "society" or "institutions" but with ourselves and life in a world deserted by God.
Slaughterhouse Five begins and ends with the absurd. "Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck from time. It ends like this. Poo-tee-weet?" As does The Children's Crusade that began in the summer of 1212 when nearly fifty thousand children joined a movement to reconquer the Holy Land from the Muslims using love instead of war and who fell victim to traders seeking slaves for North Africa. The Dawn Patrol epitomized the idea that war created death from life and nothing else. And the demise of the New Left and the "revolution" to its own excesses and lack of program inherent in its genus and created, as Marx pointed out about capitalism, its own grave-diggers.
So what remained? For Billy Pilgrim fear became a thing of the "past" in the Tralfamadorian sense of the word. For Captain Courtney, the life of his best friend. For Gitlin and Satre, the individual, autogenous in every sense of the word and the birth of "pre-figurative" politics - the idea that we must be what we want and lead by living example. The questions raised by Slaughterhouse Five are many because their answers are as individual as each reader. As Satre points out, all of life is decisions and the only decision you can't make is no decision at all. And so it goes in a world deserted by God.