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  • Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course Literature, and today were going to continue

  • our discussion of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.

  • So, Slaughterhouse Five is often called an anti-war novel. But that raises a question:

  • What does it mean for a novel to be against war?

  • Are novels in the business of passing judgment? Can they actually change the actual world?

  • Well, that’s some of what were going to talk about today. So like Kurt Vonnegut,

  • our protagonist Billy Pilgrim struggles to make sense of what he has witnessed during

  • the Allied firebombing of Dresden in World War II.

  • And there’s a tremendous tension between the desire to testify to that violence and

  • a need to repress the traumatic memories of it.

  • Along the way were going to talk about free will and well also probe Billy Pilgrim’s

  • stories of alien abduction. MFTP: Mr Green, Mr Green! Alien? Probe?

  • Boy, Me From the Past, if you think that’s funny, youre gonna love the show South

  • Park. It comes out in about two years. But anyway, we are going to get to some anatomical

  • humor. And I’m sure it will please you. [INTRO]

  • So Vonnegut published Slaughterhouse Five in 1969, before the termpost-traumatic

  • stress disorderhad entered the language. But Billy Pilgrim clearly exhibits symptoms

  • of this condition. I mean, first off, his experiences during

  • the war were definitely traumatic:

  • I mean, he gets lost behind enemy lines during the Battle of the Bulge. He is taken prisoner

  • by the Germans. He sees a fellow soldier die from gangrene while walking to a POW camp,

  • so it goes. He is crammed for days into a train with other POW’s. He survives the

  • bombing of Dresden and observes the aftermath of the firestorm, including, like, many charred

  • bodies. And then he witnesses a fellow POW being executed for stealing a teapot, so it

  • goes. So no wonder Pilgrim experiences flashbacks

  • to the war as if these incidents were happening in the present. It’s not surprising that

  • he suffers from hallucinations either. But what’s the deal with the toilet-plunger-shaped

  • aliens? So here’s an English-y way of looking at

  • it. Billy Pilgrim has a lot of blocked up stuff, right? Let’s call it excrement. Toilet

  • plungers are in the business of unblocking drains, right? So in other words, fantasies

  • involving the Tralfamadorian aliens help Pilgrim work out the shame and horror of his war experience.

  • I mean, look, the Germans made Pilgrim strip when he arrives at their camp, right? So do

  • the Tralfamadorians. The Germans refuse to answer why they beat one prisoner and not

  • another. The Tralfamadorians refuse to answer why theyve kidnapped Pilgrim. The Germans

  • confine Pilgrim to a slaughterhouse. The Tralfamadorians confine him to a zoo.

  • So obviously there are parallels between Pilgrim’s past and his fantasy life.

  • But in his fantasy world, Pilgrim can rewrite these painful events, right? Like, for example,

  • Pilgrim felt emasculated when he was a prisoner of war. He was stripped, forced to don a woman’s

  • coat, and ridiculed. But in Pilgrim’s fantasy of alien captivity, he discovers that he can

  • enjoy his body for the first time.” And he claims that the Tralfamadorians consider

  • him “a splendid specimen” (if only because theyhad no way of knowingotherwise).

  • And he describes himself, famously, as possessing, and here I am quoting, “a tremendous wang.”

  • He’s desired by a 20-year-old porn star, he’s incredibly virile, he’s able to sire

  • a child almost immediately. I mean, how is that for revisionism?

  • It’s the greatest POW experience of all time!

  • Now some would say this revisionism is a symptom of madness, but I would argue that it could

  • also be seen as a necessary step in the journey toward recovery.

  • And then there are the deeper, more philosophical aspects of Pilgrim’s fantasyparticularly

  • the Tralfamadorian concept of time and space. Tralfamadorians view past, present, and future

  • events all at once. Like one alien explains that these moments exist simultaneously and

  • can be viewed much as humansmight see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains.” And since

  • an individual can’t change past, present, or future events, the Tralfamadorian vision

  • of time and space denies the possibility of free will, right?

  • Many classical Greek plays support the idea that individuals are governed by their fate.

  • Like youll remember our old friend Oedipus, told by the oracle that he would kill his

  • father and sleep with his mother, despite his best efforts - he does. And it’s still

  • gross. So why are we talking about free will in the

  • context of reading Slaughterhouse Five? Well, let’s go to the Thought Bubble.

  • For one thing, the concept of free will is related to the concept of moral responsibility.

  • Like in the broadest terms: if one doesn’t have free will, one can’t be responsible

  • for one’s behavior. I mean, no matter how heinous the crime that you might commit, you

  • can be morally absolved because you had no choice.

  • In Slaughterhouse Five, Pilgrim makes some problematic life decisions. I mean, his choice

  • of a marriage partner, for one, is not particularly inspired: “Billy didn’t want to marry

  • ugly Valencia. She was one of the symptoms of his disease. He knew he was going crazy,

  • when he heard himself proposing marriage to her…”

  • Yet, his life choices aren’t particularly immoral. I mean he served as a chaplain’s

  • assistant in the war (a role in which he ispowerless to harm the enemy or help his

  • friends”). He works as an optometrist (a job in which he helps other people see better).

  • He supports his family (a role in which he is a provider). So why would Pilgrim want

  • to be absolved of moral responsibility? Well it’s obviously because Billy feels

  • guilt: Guilt for surviving the Dresden bombings. Guilt for being on the same side as the bombers.

  • Guilt for becomingwell-to-doafter the war. In adopting a worldview that denies

  • free will, Billy can’t blame himself for surviving, or for being complicit in mass

  • murder, or for benefiting financially at the war’s end.

  • But we also see this conversation about the relationship between free will and moral responsibility

  • reflected in the structure of Vonnegut’s novel.

  • Vonnegut framed Slaughterhouse Five with two chapters that at least seem to be narrated

  • in his own voice. And at times he even includes himself as a character in the main action.

  • (For example, the author appears among the prisoners of war, and again at the Dresden

  • corpse mines.) And these appearances help ground the narrative in a form of reality

  • that Billy Pilgrim can’t see, our reality. But Vonnegut mainly presents scenes from Pilgrim’s

  • perspective and as such, the narrative conflates historical events with fiction and that fiction

  • is conflating historical events with fantasies of alien abduction.

  • Thanks, Thought Bubble. So since Vonnegut also presents these events

  • in the order that Pilgrim experiences them, the narrative jumps back and forth in time

  • and space. And that means that in certain ways, Slaughterhouse

  • Five is kind of a work ofTralfamadorianfiction, right? Pilgrim quotes an alien as

  • defining Tralfamadorian fiction as follows:

  • “…each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent messagedescribing a situation, a scene.

  • We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any

  • particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully,

  • so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising

  • and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes,

  • no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen

  • all at one time.” Obviously back in 1969, Vonnegut had never

  • had the experience of scrolling through a Twitter feed, but I can’t help but notice

  • the similarity between his fantasy of Tralfamadorian literature and our reality of the feed-based

  • reading experience. Slaughterhouse Five - oh, it’s time for

  • the open letter! Oh, it’s my Twitter!

  • Dear Twitter, you really are all things at once, but I have to say, youre kind of

  • the worst possible version of Tralfamadorian literature.

  • Like I follow Walt Whitman on Twitter, and yes, I am aware that he’s deceased, and

  • so sometimes my Twitter feed will literally be, “I contain multitudes,” then followed

  • by, “Don’t miss the new season of Rich Kids of Beverly Hills!” I made that show

  • up, isn’t that a hilarious idea for a show? Oh my god, are you kidding me? That’s real?

  • So I love the idea of your asynchronicity and I love how you unmoor me from time, but

  • I’m not sure that you present an image of life that’s beautiful and surprising and

  • deep so much as you present distraction. Best wishes, John Green.

  • Anyway, Slaughterhouse Five is obviously like Tralfamadorian literature because: 1) it contains

  • a series of brief, urgent messages; 2) its scenes are presented out of order (creating

  • the effect that they take placeall at once’); and 3) Vonnegut has obviously chosen

  • each scene carefully. And yet, it’s not a work of alien fiction.

  • It’s a deeply human book that does contain a beginning and a middle and an end, and it

  • does depict causes and effects; and it does create suspense, just not in the usual way.

  • Billy Pilgrim longs to believe that he can access past moments though time travel. And

  • although that might seem misguided, it’s actually a deeply human response to loss.

  • I mean, I think weve all felt that way. Who isn’t familiar with wanting to go back

  • to a time of innocence? In its way, Slaughterhouse Five is an anti-bildungsroman,

  • it’s a novel about someone who wants to go back to a world before their education.

  • Because Billy Pilgrim’s education has taught him, as the Romans put it, thatman is

  • a wolf to man.” One of the most famous aspects of Slaughterhouse

  • Five is that Vonnegut repeats the Tralfamadorian mantraso it goeseach time he mentions

  • a death in the novel. It’s a brutal and radically unsentimental way of grappling with

  • death, and therein lies its power. I mean, how are we supposed to respond to

  • Billy Pilgrim’s mind being destroyed by wartime trauma; how is he supposed to respond

  • to it? So it goes. But I think it’s clear in Slaughterhouse

  • Five that Vonnegut doesn’t want readers just to accept traumatic events enabled by

  • weapons of mass destruction as a matter of course, as part of human life.

  • The novel is so intentionally unadorned and unsentimental that he’s aiming to shock

  • us out of our passive perspective. But I think Slaughterhouse Five isTralfamadorian

  • literature in one sense, at least. As the alien confesses: “What we love in our books

  • are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at once.”

  • The wordmarvelousis very interesting there, because, of course, we don’t marvel

  • just at the wonderful things, we also marvel at the horrible ones.

  • Vonnegut’s gift was to render it all fresh and new, both the great and the terrible,

  • and allow us to marvel at it. Because it’s funny and because it’s absurd

  • and unflinching, Vonnegut describes mass murder and torture and ordinary death in a way that

  • makes it feel real. There are two great modern human dangers.

  • First the danger of our proclivity towards mass violence and secondly, the danger of

  • us averting our gaze from it. We all know that humans have the ability to distract ourselves

  • and in doing so, to tacitly accept the intolerable. I mean frankly, were all doing that every

  • day, and those dangers are the depths that Vonnegut seeks to expose.

  • And in that sense at least, I truly believe that a novel can be against war. Thanks for

  • watching; I’ll see you next week. Crash Course is made with the help of these

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  • and as we say in my hometown, don’t forget to be awesome.

Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course Literature, and today were going to continue

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PTSDと外国人拉致-屠殺場-第二部:クラッシュコース文学213 (PTSD and Alien Abduction - Slaughterhouse-Five Part 2: Crash Course Literature 213)

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