Is Billy Pilgrim Crazy?

Slaughterhouse-five+by+Kurt+VonnegutA student of mine recently asked whether Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist (for lack of a better word) of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, has, within the context of the narrative (such as it is) really experienced a close encounter with aliens or simply lost his mind.

The question is certainly valid. When I first read the novel over twenty years ago, I took the story at face value. When Vonnegut informed me that Billy Pilgrim had become unstuck in time, I went along for the ride. Yet the more I thought about it, the less willing I was to suspend my disbelief. After all, how did the Tralfamadorians get around if their bodies were shaped like toilet plungers?

Eventually, however, I came to the realization that it doesn’t matter whether the aliens really visited Billy or he imagined them. What matters is that he believes he’s been visited by aliens, and that this belief – along with all of the knowledge they allegedly impart to him – provides the framework for Billy’s understanding of the world.

Throughout his oeuvre, Vonnegut echoes the Shakespearean sentiment that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” In Mother Night, for example, he writes, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” In Bluebeard, he adds,  “Belief is nearly the whole of the universe whether based on truth or not.” In Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut expresses this notion in financial terms: “Frames are where the money is.”

On a literal level, of course, Vonnegut’s reference to frames explains what Billy does for a living; he’s an optician, and most of his money comes from selling protective eye ware to employees of the General Forge and Foundry Company of Ilium, New York. Figuratively, however, Vonnegut is letting us know that context (i.e. how we frame information) is everything (or, more colloquially, “where the money is”).

The idea that stories shape our sense of reality saturates Slaughterhouse Five. Early on, Mary O’Hare is furious with the author because she suspects that the book he’s writing will glamorize war. Later in the novel, Roland Weary makes sense of his experiences behind enemy lines during World War Two by imagining himself as a member of his own version of the Three Musketeers. Later still, a dying colonel convinces himself that he’s a hero by adopting the nom de guerre “Wild Bob” and picturing a cookout he’ll never get to enjoy.

The list goes on and on, but the most imaginative and explicit example of the power of stories to frame reality in Slaughterhouse Five is a novel by the fictional science fiction writer Kilgore Trout titled The Gospel from Outer Space. In this novel, a visitor from outer space figures out that the reason Christians can be so cruel is “slipshod storytelling in the New Testament.”

The trouble with the New Testament, the alien realizes, is that its underlying message belies its intent. Whereas the message of the New Testament is to be kind and merciful, the Gospels actually taught this: “Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected.”

To rectify this problem, the alien writes a new Gospel in which Jesus is “a nobody” whose crucifixion is so repugnant that God adopts “the bum” and issues a warning to all of humanity: “From this moment on, He will punish horribly anyone who torments a bum who has no connections!

Needless to say, the underlying premise of The Gospel from Outer Space echoes the dominant theme of Slaughterhouse Five: stories shape reality, a notion borne out by life in the “real” world whenever anyone claims a monopoly on virtue by citing the foundational document of their choice, religious or otherwise. (If you have time, take a look at the Patton Oswalt video at the bottom of this post for a funny take on this phenomenon. Fair warning: It’s a little racy.)

In the context of the novel, then, Billy Pilgrim’s belief that he’s been visited by aliens is no different from anybody’s faith in God or, for that matter, faith that the framers of the Constitution had everything so perfectly worked out that there’s no room for interpreting the document in anything but the most literal fashion.

Moreover, the vast range of stories, big and small, that Vonnegut describes throughout Slaughterhouse Five serves as a warning to those of us whose skeptical tendencies might tempt us to feel superior to religious fundamentalists, strict constructionists, and other people who, like Billy, build their lives around such stories.  Sure, they’re crazy. But so are we – because no matter how sophisticated we imagine ourselves to be, we all invent or subscribe to narratives that allow us to make sense of the world.

In one way or another, we’re all Billy Pilgrim.

Monkeys vs. Humans

I’ve long believed that monkeys are smarter than humans, and now I can prove it. Over the weekend, I heard a report on Marketplace Money about Yale researchers who had trained a capuchin monkey named Nick Nack to use money in order to figure out how the world economy ended up in the toilet. Among other things, the report noted that the researchers had tried to teach the monkey about branding, with very limited success:

“They offered him two kinds of cereal, the same in every way except one came in a container with a picture of a clover on it and the other had a picture of a moon on it. The cereal was also the same price. And it turned out the branding didn’t matter much to Nick Nack. He went for each about the same number of times.” — Marketplace Money

In other words, Nick Nack, who is a monkey, didn’t care what the package looked like. As long as the cereal was the same, he was happy to fork over his hard-earned cash.

Meanwhile, in the world of humans, Coca Cola is facing criticism for changing the design of its holiday cans. According to the Wall Street Journal, the American public is in such an uproar over Coca Cola’s latest holiday can, which features silvery polar bears against a white backdrop, that the company is “switching back to its time-honored red” barely a month after making the change:

“While the company has frequently rung in the holiday with special can designs, this was the first time it put regular Coke in a white can. Some consumers complained that it looked confusingly similar to Diet Coke’s silver cans. Others felt that regular Coke tasted different in the white cans. Still others argued that messing with red bordered on sacrilege.” — Wall Street Journal

My main concern here is with the “others” who felt that regular Coke tasted different in the white cans. Needless to say, Nick Nack (who, again, is a monkey) would not have made the same mistake.

Of course, if Nick Nack had any taste whatsoever, he’d probably spit out the Coke after his first sip and save his money for a good Malbec, but given the details we have, two things are clear:

  • You can change the packaging of a product, and monkeys won’t care.
  • You can do the same thing to humans, and we’ll go apeshit.

Which makes me think I should probably hire a monkey to manage my money. But since I don’t actually have any money, I’ll just have to settle for waiting on the coming ape revolution* to end all of our financial woes…

*Side note: Some people believe in the coming zombie apocalypse. Personally, I’m more of an ape revolution kind of guy. I guess I’m just an old romantic at heart.

Strayer University: Seriously?

This evening, I came home to find a curious piece of mail addressed to my dog, Pete. It was a letter from Strayer University, a private for-profit institution of higher learning. The letter informed Pete that drive and ambition like his “can’t be taught” and that Strayer’s degree programs cover everything else. In case you think I’m making this up, here’s the envelope:*

And here’s the back of the envelope:

And here’s a picture of Pete:

On the surface, of course, I can see why Strayer University might have gotten confused when they sent this letter to my dog. Pete, as you’ll notice, is wearing glasses in this picture. Likewise, the gentleman pictured on the envelope is also wearing glasses. Additionally, and perhaps more to the point, Pete was, at one time, a stray. In this respect, it would make perfect sense for Strayer to seek him out.

Two factors, however, complicate this situation. First, as noted above and as the attached photograph makes clear, Pete is a dog. Second, and sadly, Pete has been in doggy heaven for a little over a year.

Just so I’m clear, let me explain what’s going on in plain English:  Strayer University is actively trying to woo a dead dog. Again: Strayer University wants my dead dog to apply to their degree program.

This turn of events certainly raises many questions, chief of which is whether Strayer will change its slogan from “ONLY THE DRIVEN” to “ONLY THE DRIVEN (AND DEAD ANIMALS).”

On a more serious note, this letter reveals the lie at the heart of Strayer’s latest push for more students. Clearly, the language of this correspondence is meant to suggest that Strayer has targeted individuals who have a track record of being ambitious. More significantly, the letter begins, “Dear Pete, As someone who has already earned a bachelor’s degree,** you understand how critical a quality education is to improving your career potential.”

The intended message is clear: Strayer wants potential applicants not only to feel special, but also to feel as if Strayer has done their homework. We’re getting in touch with you, the letter seems to say, because we’ve heard good things about you. You are special to us. You are the kind of student we want. There is, in fact, something about you that separates you from everyone else, and it’s the fact that you have ambition.

Needless to say, the fact that this letter was sent to a dead dog belies the basic message of the letter. Pete, after all, was never especially ambitious, even for a dog. Now that he’s no longer with us, his ambition, sadly, has dropped to zero — which means that Strayer either has a seriously skewed definition of words like “driven” and “ambition,” or they’ll take tuition money from anybody who has a pulse. Or doesn’t have a pulse. Or isn’t actually human.

All of this really makes me worry about the future of higher education. It also makes me worry about the lengths that institutions — especially the for-profit variety — will go to to fill their coffers. While I’m sure (which is to say I hope) that Pete wouldn’t get through the application process on account of the fact that he’s a) dead and b) a dog, I have to wonder how rigorous Strayer’s standards are if its admissions officers can’t distinguish between humans and dogs or the living and the dead.

I can only conclude that what matters in the end to such institutions is not education but the bottom line.

Caveat emptor.

*My best guess is that Strayer bought my dog’s “contact information” from a nonprofit organization. When we put Pete to sleep, our vet informed us that she had made a donation in his name to an animal shelter. Though I never thought of him as “Pete Schuster,” I suppose it’s not too big of a leap to assume that the donation was made with my last name attached to Pete’s. The shelter probably sold its list of donors so they could make ends meet, and Strayer probably got a hold of the list somewhere down the line. Again, this is only a guess.

** Pete did not earn a bachelor’s degree.