Monday, February 22, 2016

Existential Paradox?

I've been taking a closer look at Lorrie Moore's Self-Help for my midterm essay, which is her collection of stories that includes "How." While re-reading through Moore’s collection and Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five this weekend, I realized how incredibly similar the time phrases within each of these books are.

In “How,” which we read for the first week of class, Moore transitions out of each scene with the phrase “a week, a month, a year.” For those who might not remember the story, it centers around a female second-person narrator who feels as if she is stuck in a relationship with a man who loves her much more than she loves him. The narrative moves chronologically, but as it does so, the narrator uses “a week, a month, a year” to mark the way life itself “come[s] and go[es]” (55) throughout the narrative.

The narrator falls in and out of love, meets other men, visits her mother, and even finds out her boyfriend is suffering from some type of kidney failure, all while maintaining the constant flow of “a week, a month, a year.” For the most part, she is unaffected. She is unmoved. She is indifferent.

The phrase itself is existential—the narrator is unable to change what has happened. Yes, she made the decision to enter into the relationship with the man, but she is constantly fighting it within her own head. By the end, it seems that she has recognized that, despite her constant struggling, she has no other choice than to leave the man. Once she leaves, the indifference settles. It would not have mattered either way and as Moore would say, “a week, a month, a year.”

Vonnegut’s “so it goes” functions in ways that mirror Moore’s phrase. It has the same existential impression and, because Slaughterhouse-Five covers much more ground than “How,” the phrase feels it is being constantly repeated.

Main character Billy Pilgrim uses “so it goes” after any kind of death within the novel. It’s as if he possesses the same unaffected, unmoved, and indifferent attitude as Moore’s narrator—or at least that’s what I initially thought.

I had a difficult time understanding the implications surrounding Vonnegut’s text as satire. Yes, he is using “so it goes” as alternative time (which is something I discuss more in relation to Self-Help in my midterm essay), but despite how he is using the phrase, the overall morale of how war is awful, yet supposedly inevitable, throws off the existentialism of “so it goes” that I want to believe in so badly.

Because Slaughterhouse-Five truly is satire, then doesn’t that make “so it goes” somewhat satirical, too? KevinBrown states that humor critics have argued that “satire is not possible any longer, largely due to the horrors of the twentieth century and the postmodern belief in the lack of objective truth, especially in relation to morality” (47). Despite his assertion, Brown believes that what Vonnegut is doing something different with Slaughterhouse-Five—that the separation between text and author is indeed a separation, but also a space for Vonnegut to insert his own commentary as a way to “establish his moral norm” through “showing the outcome of Billy Pilgrim’s philosophy” (49).

When Billy asks the Tralfamadorians how he ended up in their care, one of them responds:

It would take another earthling to explain it to you. Earthings are the great explainers, explaining why this event is structured as it is, telling how other events may be achieved or avoided. I am a Tralfamadorian, seeing all time as you might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. (109)

What the Tralfamadorian seems to be saying is that humans have a way of making sense of things. We use our words to deconstruct, recompose, and analyze the events that surround us, and through that process, we are able to determine our next move. Time is individualized. Despite being unable to see or touch time, we believe that we mold it and construct it into something outside of its abstraction.

But the Tralfamodorians do not see time in that way. Instead, they believe in universal time. “All time is all time” indicates that for the alien species, there is no differentiation between the multiplicity of time—how each person experiences time differently, thus believes time functions in a way to specific to the self.

I believe this distinction sheds a bit of understanding of Vonnegut’s use of “so it goes.” Because Billy adopts the Tralfamodorians’ philosophy, he no longer fits into the “Earthings” category. He does not think like the collective human “us,” believing that time is indeed individualized, but instead adopts the beliefs of the aliens. Thus, if Billy believes that time just exists without change or explanation, it explains why he would be tempted to use “so it goes” following deaths.

Yes— “so it goes” is existential, but not at the expense of Vonnegut’s moral philosophy. “So it goes” represents Billy and his adopted Tralfamodorians’ philosophy, but also functions as satire because despite Billy adopting this attitude, he is still an “Earthling.” Even though Billy believes in free will, he cannot change his species from human to Tralfamodorian—there is somewhat of a representation of pre-destination there. He can say “so it goes” all he want, but as a reader, the choice to accept or reject his “death happens and we move on attitude” is individualized, just like our own experiences with time.


  1. "So it goes" occurs at least 106 times in the novel; each time is after a death but not always after a new death. For example, numerous "so it goes" were used after Derby's name. I found the phrase more reflective of the inevitability of death; life goes on for the rest of us, so no need to cry over spilt milk (crass but realistic). Vonnegut used the phrase "and so on" at least twenty-five times in places to indicate that similar events take place but that there is no reason to describe them in any detail or as a transition between scenes to also imply that other events have taken place, but it is of no value to describe them. I think the Tralfamdorians represent the "and so on" more because that phrase implies that there could be an explanation, but it's not worth the time to explain it.

  2. I think the use of "so it goes" and "and so on" don't necessarily make the book a satire on war. I felt it was more the character of Billy Pilgrim himself. If we are to assume that he really was abducted by aliens and not just losing his mind (after all mental issues are known to happen after war), I feel the satire is simply the normal life Billy lives and the meaningless he exhibits throughout the war. He never kills, is never dressed as a soldier, and he isn't even trained for battle. Instead he is able to bumble his way through the war and survive on more luck and pity than any skill. The moments of his life that flash after are also satirical in the sense that outside checking into a mental hospital for a small period of time, he goes on to make a living for himself. He does it through a bland means as well. (No offense to any optometrist). It's one of those that Billy's character is everything you wouldn't expect in a novel about war that makes it the satire. His adopted philosophy is just another way of making Billy's character be the satire that he is.

  3. I wrote about something similar in my midterm essay. Perhaps the reason Billy adopts the Tralfamadorian notions of time and death is because Billy has seen his own death--something we are not allowed to do. Because he has been able to see all of his past, present, and future (and multiple times), his own death, as well as those of others seems less significant.

  4. Interesting comparison of Moore and Vonnegut's time-based phrasing. I read this online about the "so it goes" phrase once on some simple text summary site:

    The phrase “So it goes” follows every mention of death in the novel, equalizing all of them, whether they are natural, accidental, or intentional, and whether they occur on a massive scale or on a very personal one. The phrase reflects a kind of comfort in the Tralfamadorian idea that although a person may be dead in a particular moment, he or she is alive in all the other moments of his or her life, which coexist and can be visited over and over through time travel. At the same time, though, the repetition of the phrase keeps a tally of the cumulative force of death throughout the novel, thus pointing out the tragic inevitability of death.

    What strikes me as worth pondering is how "so it goes" functions differently from Atkinson's "darkness fell" phrase.

  5. I like your emphasis on time as individualized, as this seems what bugs Billy the most. He wishes to "prescribe[e] corrective lenses for Earthling souls" by sharing with the world the Tralfamadorian view of cyclical time (36). But if everyone became as indifferent to agency as he, would the world not suffer?