- The Economy of Desire in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five
While Kurt Vonnegut's treatment of war and its attendant carnage in Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) still succeeds in triggering scholarly discussions, his systematic critique of the capitalist order in the novel has received scant scrutiny. Perhaps what draws critical attention all too quickly to the anti-war theme alone is the novel's opening chapter itself, which details the author's own efforts to fictionalize his experiences as an American infantry scout in World War II and later as a prisoner of war in Dresden during the 1945 air-raid. Moreover, the novel tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, a war veteran who fashions in his mind an elaborate alternative reality as he struggles to come to terms with the horrors of war he witnessed two decades ago. Embracing a deterministic worldview which, as Billy claims, belongs originally to aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, the protagonist now cherishes a time travel fantasy, a fatalistic view of humanity, and a wish for confinement in the happy moments of his life. Predictably, therefore, scholarly approaches to the novel revolve around Vonnegut's condemnation of war in general and the Dresden fire-storm in particular, and also around the question of an appropriate response to war and death.1 The purpose of my essay, however, is to shed some light on the novel's materialist qualities which effectively serve to unveil the repressive micropolitics underpinning not only the modern war machine but an entire social order as well.
In order to clearly perceive the politico-ethical stance Vonnegut takes in Slaughterhouse-Five, one has to resist the temptation to overvalue the protagonist Billy's phantasmal universe.2 At this juncture it seems perfectly logical to eschew the notion that the values the novel advances hinge solely [End Page 191] on a peculiar mindset the protagonist develops only later in life. Instead this essay views the fantasizing proclivity Billy displays in the novel's present as a construct that a repressive social mechanism forges in his psyche as part of an elaborate attempt to channel his unconscious energies into the capitalist productive dynamics. In so arguing, then, this essay seeks to show that what is ultimately at stake in Billy's Tralfamadorian worldview, and in Vonnegut's novel as a whole, is not just the issue of war but that of an entire social order of which the contemporary war machine is merely an extension.
Surely figments of Billy's troubled imagination, the aliens from Tralfamadore, who kidnap him to their planet and exhibit him there in a zoo, embody the escapist and deterministic outlook the protagonist has come to adopt lately. For a Tralfamadorian, who views time as an assemblage of simultaneously existing moments, events are not causally connected and, therefore, no one really enjoys choices in life: "I am a Tralfamadorian, seeing all time as you might see a sketch of the Rocky Mountains. All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings and explanations. It simply is" (Vonnegut 1991, 62). With their four-dimensional vision these extra-terrestrials are able to foresee how the universe itself will end as a result of a Tralfamadorian experiment with rocket fuels. Yet they make no attempt to forestall the catastrophe because for them the moment is always already structured that way and cannot be altered. Further from the Tralfamadorian perspective, death signifies only that "the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment" and "the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments" (20).3 No wonder this extremely deterministic outlook could foster only an escapist attitude toward life. Thus not only do these aliens repudiate the human tendency to explain how a particular event is formed and how "other events may be achieved or avoided" (62), they also advise Billy to "[i]gnore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones" (85). In the novel's present Billy experiences his own existence in the Tralfamadorian way, that is, as a time traveler drifting across random moments of life.
Billy's Tralfamadorian worldview is in reality nothing more than...