Vonnegut, in Slaughterhouse-Five, claims that time is relative. He claims that everything exists in different states across time. He does this narrating through the perspective of Billy Pilgrim, who is a soldier in the Second World War. Billy Pilgrim is captured by the Germans, and as his capture takes place, his first instance of bending time happens, and he sees and experiences his whole life in one sweep. Later, Billy is being shipped in a crowded German POW rail car. Once he arrives at the camp, he suffers a breakdown and gets a shot of morphine, which induces another round of time tripping. Billy and his fellow POWs move on to Dresden, which is a pristine city untouched by the war. One night, Dresden is carpet bombed by the Allies using incendiary “fire-bombs”, which obliterate the city and suck all the oxygen out of the air, which kills every living thing, but Billy and his fellow POWs are able to survive by shacking up in an airtight meat locker. To skip forward in the plot, Billy is kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, who explain to him the relativity of time, and with their help, Billy realizes that he exists throughout every time point of his life, and not just in what they perceive as “the present”. Through this realization, Billy makes a recording of the exact time and place and manner of his death, and the book ends on a positive note, with Billy saying that though he will experience the “violent hum” of human death, he will never truly die. He will just continue existing at a point in time where he is still alive.
It is at this point, that I take issue with Vonnegut’s idea of time. For me, Vonnegut ruins what could have been a perfectly good premise for hopeless optimism. Vonnegut’s idea of the perception time is more or less a happy one. What I gather from Slaughterhouse Five, is that Vonnegut claims that time is not flowing, rather it is stagnant and it is a human-made illusion that time flows. He claims that people can jump around and relive happy periods of their lives, as time is only what you perceive it to be.
A more interesting depiction of time, according to me, is in Ray Bradbury’s 1952 story called “A Sound of Thunder.” For those of you unfamiliar with this literary brilliancy, it is a short story which talks about a company called Time Safari Inc, which in the year 2055 allows people to go back in time to hunt exotic animals, especially dinosaurs. One of the main characters of this story, Eckels, goes back in time to kill a T-rex, where his guide explains to him that in order to prevent changes in the past altering the future, they make sure to leave no trace of their being in the past, and only kill animals that have been scouted before hand and are due to die within minutes of being hunted. Hunters who do not respect these rules are heftily fined. Eckels in his enthusiasm agrees to their conditions, but freezes up when the monstrous T-rex actually appears. Confusion ensues, and his guide Travis has to kill the T-rex for him. It seems like all is right and they haven’t disturbed the past, even though Travis is furious at Eckels and threatens to kill him. When they return to the year 2055, where to their horror they realize that people talk and behave differently, and there are horrible implications of the political changes, which implies in turn that they messed up and made some mistake in the past. Eckels inspects his boots, and notices a tiny butterfly that he accidentally crushed which set in motion a series of small changes that amplified exponentially. Travis is enraged and raises his gun at Eckels, and the novel ends with the titular “sound of thunder” which implies that he killed Eckels. It makes an interesting side note that Ray Bradbury wrote about the Butterfly effect before the term the Butterfly effect was even coined.
To me, Bradbury’s perception of time seems a lot less naïve and a lot more realistic than Vonnegut’s ridiculously happy-go-lucky, optimistic viewpoint. Bradbury insinuates that time lost is in fact, time lost, and mistakes made in the past cannot simply be ignored by going back to a state of existence that occurred before the mistake happened. Conclusively, I would have to agree with Bradbury on this topic: Mistakes can, with time, amplify, and the only way to correct them is by CORRECTING them, not skipping back to a more convenient time.
“The Scourge of ‘Relatability’” by Rebecca Mead takes aim at individuals’ laziness in reading. This short article proposes that our complaints about works of art not being “relatable” are nonsensical. Mead says it is a failure of our imagination when we do not easily relate to a text or a play, and that authors do not necessarily create their works so that we can mirror ourselves against them. In summation, Rebecca Mead argues that it is silly to complain that a work is not relatable because the author of the work did not create a story intended to emulate the reader’s life.
I agree and disagree with Mead’s attack on the concept of “relatability.” I will first explain how I disagree and then proceed to explain why I agree. I disagree that it is unfair for a reader “to demand that a work be ‘relatable’.” It is perfectly justified for a reader to want to read a novel or watch a play in which the reader can relate to a character or an experience of one of the actors. Along the lines of what Sigmund Freud said, we seek to identify ourselves through imitation of another figure in works of art. Thus, the reader is justified in demanding that a work be relatable.
On the other hand, I agree with Mead that the rejection of a work due to a lack of reflection with a character is “our own failure.” We cannot give up on books, plays, or movies! There is a character in each of these forms of art with whom we can identify, and it is our job to find that character. Like Mead says, if we reject a work because we cannot identify with a character, then we are not stretching our imagination to its full potential. When we give up on a work of art, we are not willing to try hard enough. We assume a story will be cut out just for us. But if this were the case, there would need to be an infinite number of stories worldwide. I agree with Mead that we need to take a step back, realize that stories are not custom made, and then delve back in and let our creative juices flow in an effort to identify with a character.
I will now back up my agreement and disagreement to Mead’s claims with references to “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Gilman’s text depicts a mentally insane woman who is stuck in a room decorated by yellow wallpaper. The woman is babied by her husband John, and she thinks there are women crawling in the walls, aching to be released from behind the yellow wallpaper. By the end of the story, the woman has stripped all the walls of the yellow wallpaper and has fully lost her sanity.
First, I will utilize Gilman’s story to explain the reasons I disagree with Mead’s notion that readers should not complain when they cannot identify with a character in a work of art. It is fair for a reader to want to identify with a character in a work of art because that is what we do. We find someone who lives similarly to the way we live because that excites us. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator and main character is a woman who has a mental illness and is confined in a room. Not many people can identify with this. The narrator is cared for by her husband and a woman named Jane. She is in a room of yellow wallpaper and she thinks women are crawling in this paper. Only a handful of individuals can identify with this situation. In order to be able to identify with it one must have a mental infirmity. The woman in this story goes insane over yellow wallpaper and I don’t know how many people go crazy over something this trivial. Thus, it is justified for a reader to complain that “The Yellow Wallpaper” is lacking a character which the reader can relate to. The story will not be intriguing to someone who has never felt what the narrator is feeling.
Now I will discuss why I agree with Mead that a reader is a quitter if he or she rejects a work because he or she cannot find a character to identify with. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the reader can identify with the narrator on a broad level. Though the narrator is mentally deranged and stuck in a room of yellow wallpaper (something which does not occur in many people’s lives), the wider scope of the story is that the narrator is trapped and driven insane by something trivial. We can all identify with this, and therefore the reader needs to work harder to identify with broad themes in a work of art. While very few of us have mental illness and are trapped in a yellow room, we all have something tiny that ruffles our feathers and this is what the reader can relate to. I agree with Mead that the reader ought to work hard, stretch his or her imagination, and find at least a theme to identify with in a story before giving in. Again, a character who we perfectly identify with will not be handed to us on a silver platter. We must search for this character or what this character is going through in order to relate to a work of art.
Rebecca Mead, staff writer for The New Yorker, writes the article, “The Scourge of Relatability.” The purpose of Mead’s article is to analyze overtime the term “relatability” and to question “[w]hat are the qualities that make a work ‘relatable,’ and why have these qualities come to be so highly valued?” She remarks:
“Since Freud theorize[s] the process of identification – as a means whereby an individual develops his or her personality through idealizing and imitating a parent or other figure – the concept has fruitfully been applied to the appreciation of the arts. Identification with a character is one of the pleasures of reading, or watching movies, or of seeing plays, though if it is where one’s engagement with the work begins, it should be where critical thought ends.”
Mead concludes that artists do not need to target or connect with their audience; however, it is the responsibility of the audience to reflect and think critically of the artist’s work. I both agree and disagree with her points. That said, I disagree with her first point. I think artists/writers/actors/TV and radio hosts etc. should think about their message and their intended target audience so that their delivery comes across powerfully, successfully, and genuinely. It is a disservice, in my opinion, for an artist/writer/actor/ TV and radio hosts etc. to simply write without any attempt to connect to someone. Ignoring the audience does not result in a win-win situation. For me, regardless of the forum used, the message is critical; the message should not be spoon fed to me but should make me think, reflect, and to challenge my personal views. Otherwise, why write? Moving on, I agree with the second point. It is important for the viewer/listener/reader to connect with what the person is trying to convey. The audience does not need to relate to the character but should attempt to walk in that person’s shoes. In other words, the audience should attempt to venture outside of the box. The process of stepping out of the box and into another person’s shoes enables someone to open their eyes more clearly and broadly and to think more freely and tolerantly. Gaining a new perspective by looking beyond relatability stimulates personal growth.
This new, perspective experience – looking beyond the relatability of the character(s) – happened to me after reading Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. First off, I am not the intended target audience, a white northern woman during the time of slavery in the United States. Despite the fact that I’m not the intended audience, I am still able to relate to Jacob’s poignant themes and messages about abandonment, suffering, and freedom. It is a combination of these themes and messages as well as Jacob’s determination and her relentless desire for hope that surpasses the lack of relatability of her character, Linda Brent. Jacobs teaches universal truths about will power and self-belief as well as spurs political activism. From her writings about the harsh and the brutal conditions of slaves, I am able to connect more clearly with the abuses of others. The Life of a Slave Girl encourages me to question the morality and humanity of what is going on around me. Sadly, Ira Glass declaring “Shakespeare sucks” because “Shakespeare is not relatable, unemotional” misses the poignant point of reading/studying/watching Shakespeare and learning from it. In my opinion, it is not important to relate to Richard III per say but to identify right from wrong and freewill from fate as well as identifying and relating to the other themes and messages of justice, power, and manipulation. These concepts are not only pertinent today but also are relatable today. Again, similar to Richard III, it is not critical for me to see myself in the same mirror as the characters in the “Twelfth Night;” however, what is important is the concept that things are not what they seem.
It is hard for me to imagine that many people can personally relate to a person that lived over 500 years ago. However, their experiences, feelings, hopes, purpose, and legacies should be shared regardless of a personal connectivity. It is their message that is purposeful not their relatability.
Conveniently the blog post is illuminating the theme of time and religion, something I could not help but wonder about while reading Slaughterhouse Five. I am a Protestant Christian, Episcopalian to be exact. But what does that mean for my understanding of time? As a Christian I think about time linearly. I live this life, time goes on, I die, and then hopefully I am rewarded with heaven, whatever that means I can’t tell you. What reading Slaughterhouse Five made me think about was time in a circle. Over and over living your same life. Your choices are concrete and exist in time independent of your “will”. So where does this concept leave me with respect to my religion. If time is circular what incentive is there to act a certain way? Why be a good person? But then again ever moment is already dictated so if you are a bad person its who you always were and its who you always will be. Then where does that leave prayer? Prayer, the act of asking a higher being for some type of change or blessing would seem pointless. Whatever the future is cannot be changed, it is what it is, there can be no higher power changing your future.
Slaughterhouse Five impacted me immensely. Much more than I expected. It is now one of my favorite books, but with that said it scares me. Do I have no choice in the direction of my life? My chest is tightening even thinking about that. But why should it? Shouldn’t the knowledge that I have no control over my fate provide me with a sense of relief? A sense that I can let go of all anxiety regarding the future and just live. Be who I am. I think the finality of time as its described in Slaughterhouse Five is what I struggle with.
I believe as humans, we crave control. We crave the knowledge that whoever I am today, I can be a new person tomorrow. But Slaughterhouse Five refutes that. Who you are is who you are, who you were, and who you always will be. So then I suppose you have to ask yourself are you ok with that? Are you trusting enough of yourself to come to the realization you are this moment is all you have? In a strange way Slaughterhouse Five is really about coming to terms with who you are, where you have been, and where you are going. Without the ability to choose a slice of time to live in, or go back and change mistakes you must live and relive every single moment of your life. Every mistake, every success, is always going to be there.
Given all the above, where do I stand in relation to God? We Christians are constantly told we are not finished products, we have the power to change, to become better, to take control of our future. But do you? Or do you simply enjoy the illusion you can alter your fate? If time is what the tralfmadorians say it is, the answer is the latter. Is it possible though that you might not have control over your actions but you have control over your soul or intention? You do what you do, but you can do so gracefully or barbarically. You can live with joy in your heart or you can live with hatred. Fear or optimism. That’s how I rationalize my religion with tralfmadorian time. Yes, maybe my fate is decided, but my soul is my own and that allows me to become who I chose.
1. Explain at least one idea about time offered by Slaughterhouse-Five. Compare that to the way time works in another piece of fiction (book, movie, etc.) or within a particular philosophical, scientific, or religious system. What do you learn from the comparison?
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five details the experiences of Billy Pilgrim, a man “unstuck in time,” continuously traveling back and forth through time, experiencing his life in non-chronological order. While the topic itself is unique, time-travel is used heavily throughout popular culture, appearing everywhere from movies, such as Back To The Future, to TV shows, like LOST and Doctor Who. Despite its occurrences in all of these forms of media, time travel is never the same, with each appearance having its own set of rules and features. The four occasions above follow at least one of the following rules: 1. The person, themself, travels through time (Marty McFly in B.T.T.F., The Doctor in Doctor Who, The main characters in LOST), 2. The person’s consciousness travels through time (Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, Desmond Hume in LOST), 3. Time can be rewritten (B.T.T.F., Doctor Who, LOST), and 4. Time is immutable (Slaughterhouse-Five, LOST (contains both)). Kurt Vonnegut’s usage of Billy’s consciousness traveling and having an unchangeable timeline creates a future that is set in stone, creating a non-paradoxical world, unlike the other above-mentioned usages.
When introducing a world where time travel both exists and can affect the timeline, problems and paradoxes present themselves. In Back To The Future, Marty McFly travels back to 1955, a time where he had never existed prior, and meets his mom who begins to fall in love with him, thus disrupting the timeline. While this is a fantastic plot for a Sci-Fi Comedy movie, it creates an unexplainable, circular paradox: If Marty travels back in time and disrupts the meeting of his parents, he will never be born, which means there will be no Marty to travel back in time to disrupt the meeting of his parents.
Doctor Who prevents paradoxes by describing certain time periods as “fixed points in time.” Some moments in time can be changed if they don’t affect the future greatly, such as the death of an insignificant character. Fixed points, however, include the death of The Doctor, or the destruction of the universe. The Doctor simply cannot travel back in time and change those, as the universe would create a paradox far worse than the occurrence.
LOST explains it as “course correction” and that “Whatever happened, happened.” Despite the efforts of all of the main characters when they travel back in time, they cannot change the timeline, and were always destined to reach the island. The only character that can change his or her own timeline is Desmond Hume, for reasons unknown, other than him being “special.” Rather than time traveling as a person, Desmond’s consciousness moves in time. His mind goes to where his body already exists, allowing him to experience events over, rather than for the first time. Desmond’s ability, however, only allows him to change how something happens, rather than something occurring in general. He decides to buy the ring for his girlfriend after not doing so originally, but his girlfriend still leaves him due to the universe “course correcting” itself.
Slaughterhouse-Five prevents the above problems by creating time traveling more as a “life flashing before your eyes” experience for Billy, rather than actually traveling through time and space. Billy can only react to his life as if he were watching a movie of it; he has no power to affect what happens in the slightest sense. Billy’s time traveling is akin to Desmond’s in the sense that it is his consciousness doing the traveling, and not his body; in essence, he never travels to a time where he didn’t exist. This also creates a paradox-free world where he never has to worry about running into himself in a location, as he is inside of the sole body that existed at the time. No incidents occur in this world that can occur in the worlds of Back To The Future, Doctor Who, or LOST.
In his novel Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut cleverly creates a world where the protagonist can drift freely in a non-chronological world without suffering the paradoxical consequences that come with most time-traveling stories.
Hello there! My name is Walla, from planet XI-95! I’ll be traveling to the “number one superpower” on Earth tomorrow. I’ve only had one way of gaining some sort of insight into this place, and that’s been through listening to a radio podcast. And to be honest, my emotions are a little mixed about this “land of opportunity.”
Let me start off by saying that “Uh-mari-cans” seem quite funny and love to tell stories! All your stories are very intriguing; come to think of it, my days don’t seem half as interesting as all of yours do. My days also seem to go by very slowly compared to yours. I mean, I would have thought it nearly impossible to squeeze in 20 stories in just an hour, but you all managed to do it! I just can’t imagine how quickly your daily lives must be whizzing by!
On listening to the podcast, I must say that one characteristic of Americans which struck me was their privacy; it seems as if their fast-paced lives results in people being secretive when they do not have to be. They also seem to be, forgive me, slightly self-absorbed in the whirlwind of activities that comes their way every day. For example, in Act 2 of the podcast, the narrator in the story wants to tell a woman (who has played an important role in his life) that he loves her, but he doesn’t, despite having gone through all the mental turmoil and emotional strain associated with the act of telling her; he does not express his feelings to her because he thinks it would be “weird.” He is left to suffer in silence, and no one will ever know how he really felt. This makes me think that society is a little judgmental about the decisions that one makes. In Act 3, I wonder how it is possible to just contact a person for the items they are selling with no information other than a phone number. The narrator of that story rightly states, “The attitude is, your business is your business.” Act 4 was personally insulting, to be quite frank. How can you mistake an old woman who is flailing her arms in open waters as a signal for “I’m surfing with a young man?” Either one would have had to been really clueless, or one would have had to been so self-absorbed in their own world that they wouldn’t give a second thought to what the flailing arms could have meant. On my planet, there would have been no reason to think of any other scenario other than to help the women: we have been taught to look after our elders.
Act 12 gave me a little insight into the reason why people in your land seem to “keep to themselves” (however, this may be a wrong generalization on my part): not only does a young boy not tell the full story of his incident of tripping to his friend, but he also doesn’t tell his mother. Act 13 made me feel uncomfortable: if I am to look after your kids in your home under your permission, am I not allowed to help myself to some food? Did you not think that I might feel hungry? Does my snacking have to be private, too? This story made me think that hospitality works in a very different way in your land than it does in mine. Here, if anyone were to come over to my home, the first thing I would do would be to offer them some snacks and drinks. That is our custom, and we consider it a polite and warm gesture. Acts 14 and 16 saddened me: in both stories, it seemed as if one individual was invisible to everyone else, and it took some time for others to realize that this individual is someone who they actually encountered quite frequently, or was a person who was an integral part of their work life. Again, I may be stretching myself a bit too much, but is this also the result of everyone leading fast-paced, private lives?
I must say though, people in America have great humility (personally, I do not). Acts 1 and 15 showcased this to me: in Act 1, the actor seemed judgmental of the boy with the camera; he felt sorry for him and decided to be in a picture with his date so that the couple may be happy. But it was the plot twist which amused me: the boy had no idea who the actor was, and was just expecting him to take a picture of his date and himself together! In Act 15, it was hilarious to see the judgements passed by the narrator backfire every time he passed a comment: he first thought that the internet would be a flop, and then thought that Madonna was not a great artist… He made some mistakes there, didn’t he?
I don’t have much else to comment on… the last act which shocked me was Act 11, where the man used his phone on the toilet! Is your society that addicted to technology, that people cannot use the restroom and then make a phone call? That story had a nice contrast in itself, where the narrator compares the simplicity of kids opening a jar in the kitchen to the ridiculous ways in which technology winds itself into simple habits such as bowel movements.
On a final note, it seems that your people and my people share some things in common: our love for dogs! Act 8 was so innocent yet heart-warming. Act 9 was very amusing; I think I have seen that happen here, too. Both our societies also seem to have a few eccentric people: Act 5 with the scallops clapping and Act 17 with the man’s ability to imitate a swamp… I wasn’t quite sure what to make of these stories, but they definitely made me laugh!