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.

Deconstructing the High-Five

We used to say “Gimme five!” By “we,” of course, I mean people in general, and of a certain generation. At the time, it was understood that if you gave someone five, they’d give you five in return. If you weren’t sure that the five you’d given was coming back to you, you could say something like, “Don’t leave me hangin’!” But, more often than not, you could be pretty sure that if you gave someone five, they’d give it back. This was a good thing.

Then came the go-go eighties, with big hair, Reaganomics, car phones, and E.T. (among other things). Amidst all of this came the invention of the high-five. I remember reading about it in Weekly Reader. Apparently professional athletes had begun to tire of saying “Gimme five!” and had, instead, taken to giving each other a new form of greeting-cum-congratulatory gesture. This, I would argue, is where everything went to hell.

The problem with the high-five is that there’s no give-and-take, no real exchange. This represents a clear departure from the logic of the old “Gimme five!” which went something like this: You’re going to give me something, and I’m going to give you something in return. It was a very communal kind of gesture, and the variation “Gimme some skin!” points to the significance of the exchange; each party was giving of itself to the other—indeed, giving skin, of all things. Valuable body tissue.

The high-five, by way of contrast, is not about exchange. There’s no give and take. Instead, it’s a head-on collision of hands. Which, I suppose, is more of a hand-on collision. Of palms. But the point is that it cut the ritual in half. Instead of one gesture echoed by a second iteration, we got a single slap, high in the air. I wasn’t giving you anything, and you weren’t giving me anything in return. In the final analysis, we were just hitting each other. It was a lot more efficient, but a lot less personal.

And from the high-five evolved the fist-bump, itself a way of touching hands without actually touching hands, and then the atomic fist-bump, in which the bump is followed by a pantomime of the fists exploding like asteroids colliding in space. The idea here, it would seem, is to suggest power rather than intimacy, domination rather than friendship. Or, at best, mutually assured destruction—a far cry from the sense of trust and intimacy implied when we used to give each other five.