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

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.

Robert Ebert: My old man

Trust me, click through and read the whole history.

9 great movies

Until the day he died, I always called him “Daddy.” He was Walter Harry Ebert, born in Urbana in 1902 of parents who had emmigrated from Germany. His father, Joseph, was a machinist working for the Peoria & Eastern Railway, known as the Big Four. Daddy would take me out to the Roundhouse on the north side of town to watch the big turntables turning steam engines around. In our kitchen, he always used a knife “your grandfather made from a single piece of steel.”

I never met my grandparents, and that knife is the only thing of theirs I own. Once when I was visiting my parents’ graves, I wandered over to my grandparents’ graves, where we’d often left flowers on Memorial Day. I realized consciously for the first time, although I must have been told, that my grandfather was named Joseph. My middle name.

What have I inherited from those Germans who came to the new land? A group of sayings, often repeated by my father: If the job is worth doing, it’s worth doing right. A good woodsman respects his tools. They spoke German at home until the United States entered World War One. Then they never spoke it again. Earlier than that, he was taken out of the Lutheran school and sent to public school, “to learn to speak American.” He spoke no German, apart from a few words.

[Click to continue reading My old man – Roger Ebert’s Journal]

Parenthetical note/confession, I never watched the Ebert and Siskel television show on a regular basis. When I lived at home in the early 1980s, I was always too busy doing whatever, and when I moved out, I didn’t own a television set. I actually got my first television when I was 30, and DVDs were the rage. I always watched a gazillion movies, but didn’t see a need for a television of my own until watching a film at home was comparable to watching a film on a big screen. Also, at least when I was in college in Austin, there were several films a night to choose from, ranging from art-house fare to blockbusters, for a nominal fee. I always watched dozens of films a week up until I moved to Chicago.

All that said, Roger Ebert’s film reviews are a guide to my Netflix viewing habits, especially his Great Movies archive.

This is all hijacking the thread, by the way, and can be safely ignored. Go read Mr. Ebert’s essay about his dad now.