Whenever aspiring writers ask me for advice on finding a publisher, the first thing I say is to read a wide range of books from a wide range of publishers to find the right “fit.” Of course, that can get expensive after a while, so here’s some good news. The good folks who published my first two novels, The Permanent Press, are offering one of their titles free of charge: The Double Life of Alfred Buber by David Schmahmann. (Click here for a review I posted a while back.) For information on this offer, visit the blog of Martin Shepard, a co-publisher of The Permanent Press: The Cockeyed Pessimist. Even if you’re not an aspiring writer, this is an offer that’s tough to beat — a good book from a press that has my deepest respect, and it’s free!
A while back, I posted some thoughts on whether or not Billy Pilgrim is hallucinating when he’s visited by aliens in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. I’m teaching the novel again this week, an my thoughts have turned to the issue of free will in the novel. The reason this came up is that a student asked whether Vonnegut believed in predestination. Here are my thoughts…
I don’t think Vonnegut personally believed in predestination. He was a humanist and an atheist. Since humanism asserts that people should work to benefit society, my guess is that he also believed that people had free will, since working to benefit society (as opposed to choosing not to do so) requires a decision.
Nonetheless, predestination is a major theme in Slaughterhouse Five. In fact, much of the novel reads like a debate over the legitimacy of free will over predestination. On the predestination side of the argument, there’s Harrison Starr’s theory that writing an anti-war novel is like writing an anti-glacier novel; i.e., war, like glaciers, is inevitable, so there’s no sense in trying to stop it (3). But on the “free will” side of the argument, we have the fact that Vonnegut ignored Harrison Starr’s advice and wrote an anti-war novel anyway.
Yet this act of free will — the decision to write a novel that might influence its readers to reject war — is itself haunted by doubt, as exemplified by the Tralfamadorians’ understanding of time and space. The Tralfamadorians, we learn, find free will to be a foreign concept because they see the past, present, and future all at once (86). At the same time, though, there’s something terrifyingly absurd about that vision: they know how the universe will end, and they don’t do anything to stop it. From their perspective, it had to be done.
Professor Rumfoord, the military historian, echoes this sentiment when he tells Billy that the bombing of Dresden “had to be done” (198). Of course, the fact that it’s Rumfoord telling us that it had to be done — and that Rumfoord is described as “a hateful old man–conceited and cruel” suggests that we’re not supposed to agree with him (193). That Billy stands up to Rumfoord by saying “I was there” suggests that he’s exercising some degree of free will, just as Edgar Derby exercises free will when he stands up to Howard Cambpell elsewhere in the novel.
I’d also argue that Vonnegut’s concerns over free will can be seen in the idea that Tralfamadorians see humans (and all creatures) as machines (154). I want to complicate this image a little bit by suggesting that we can replace “machines” with “computers” or “robots,” and that the actions of the kinds of machines we are (in Vonnegut’s view) are therefore dictated by software or a kind of code. In other words, while some things are hardwired into our physical makeup (e.g., instincts), something else is responsible for the decisions we never really think too much about. That “something else” is the set of cultural norms and assumptions into which we’re born (comprised of many things, like myths, religion, manners, attitudes, and unspoken rules).
This “software” (our assumptions) causes us to see the world in a certain way (or frames our perceptions). Building on the idea that Vonnegut is not in a position to judge his characters as good or evil (or as heroes or villains), he’s basically recognizing that each character’s definition of “good” or “true” hinges on the “software” that his or her culture has been installing since birth. Thus Billy doesn’t judge Rumfoord’s assessment that “It had to be done” because that assessment is “true” to Rumfoord based on everything he’s ever read or been taught to believe.
The challenge that Vonnegut poses to us, I think, is asking us to recognize that even if we are machines, we have the capability to reprogram our software. In other words, by writing a book like Slaughterhouse Five, he’s saying that once we recognize the cultural assumptions that dictate many of our actions, we can question and eventually change those assumptions in a way that will allow us to avoid the fate of the Tralfamadorians.
Here’s something I mentioned in one of my classes today… Just a theory I’m working on.
I’d argue that throughout any given literary movement (or, more generally, artistic movement), there’s an ongoing debate of many, many voices, each representing a slightly different approach to defining and realizing the ideals of that movement. The debate isn’t always formal. Indeed, rather than writing or speaking about what literature should do, writers engage in this debate through the works they create. It might be helpful to think of each piece of writing we read not just as a text in and of itself, but as a declaration of what “good” writing should look like. In other words, a writer is never just telling a story. Rather, a writer is both telling a story and making a statement about how a story should be told.
With this distinction in mind, we can think of all of literature (from The Epic of Gilgamesh right through Fifty Shades of Grey* and beyond) as an ongoing conversation about how to tell a story. Writers influence other writers who, in turn, influence other writers still. As the population of writers increases, disagreements over “best practices” are bound to occur, but these disagreements yield new kinds of writing, thus ensuring literature’s continued evolution. Within this context, there’s always a dominant, overarching theory of writing that more or less defines a given age, but there are always other theories and forms lurking beneath the surface, waiting for the right conditions to emerge and assert their own dominance… Only to gradually drift out of favor as time and circumstances dictate.
*I haven’t read it, but I understand that EL James wrote the series, initially, as Twilight fan fiction — so, essentially there’s some degree of conversation going on there, even if it’s limited.