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What Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” Tells Us Now

Salman Rushdie writes about Kurt Vonnegut and Slaughterhouse-Five:

Salman Rushdie writes about Kurt Vonnegut and Slaughterhouse-Five:

As a prisoner of war, age twenty-two, which is to say three years younger than I was when I read his story, Vonnegut was in the famously beautiful city of Dresden, locked up with other Americans in Schlachthof-Fünf, where pigs had been slaughtered before the war, and was therefore an accidental witness to one of the greatest slaughters of human beings in history, the firebombing of Dresden, in February of 1945, which flattened the whole city and killed almost everyone in it.

So it goes.

I had not remembered, until I reread “Slaughterhouse-Five,” that that famous phrase “So it goes” is used only and always as a comment on death. Sometimes a phrase from a novel or a play or a film can catch the imagination so powerfully—even when misquoted—that it lifts off from the page and acquires an independent life of its own. “Come up and see me sometime” and “Play it again, Sam” are misquotations of this type. Something of this sort has also happened to the phrase “So it goes.” The trouble is that when this kind of liftoff happens to a phrase its original context is lost. I suspect that many people who have not read Vonnegut are familiar with the phrase, but they, and also, I suspect, many people who have read Vonnegut, think of it as a kind of resigned commentary on life. Life rarely turns out in the way the living hope for, and “So it goes” has become one of the ways in which we verbally shrug our shoulders and accept what life gives us. But that is not its purpose in “Slaughterhouse-Five.” “So it goes” is not a way of accepting life but, rather, of facing death. It occurs in the text almost every single time someone dies, and only when death is evoked.

It is also deeply ironic. Beneath the apparent resignation is a sadness for which there are no words. This is the manner of the entire novel, and it has led to the novel being, in many cases, misunderstood. I am not suggesting that “Slaughterhouse-Five” has been poorly treated. Its reception was largely positive, it has sold an enormous number of copies, the Modern Library ranked it eighteenth on its list of the hundred best English-language novels of the twentieth century, and it is also on a similar list issued by Time magazine. However, there are those who have accused it of the sin of “quietism,” of a resigned acceptance, even, according to Anthony Burgess, an “evasion” of the worst things in the world. One of the reasons for this is the phrase “So it goes,” and it is clear to me from these critiques that the British novelist Julian Barnes was right when he wrote in his book “A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters” that “Irony may be defined as what people miss.”

Kurt Vonnegut is a deeply ironic writer who has sometimes been read as if he were not.

(click here to continue reading What Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” Tells Us Now | The New Yorker.)

I read all of Kurt Vonnegut’s books prior to writing an 11th grade honors English term paper. My teacher, the wonderful Mrs. Elaine Hettenhausen, had not read any of Vonnegut’s books so was reluctant to assign him to me. I ended up having to go to the University of Texas library to find some additional biographical information, and I admit that since I knew Mrs. Hett (as we affectionally called her) didn’t know anything about Vonnegut, I fudged some of the details. I remember using Vonnegut’s fictionalized mother-eating Drano to commit suicide story as real (and remember she marked my paper in red, “that’s horrible!”).  She liked my finished paper though, I got an A.

Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut

And so it goes.

After reading Salman Rushdie’s essay, I want to re-read Vonnegut. It has been a long time since high school.

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