Thursday, April 11, 2013

"Banned" Together -- Slaughterhouse-Five

This novel by Kurt Vonnegut appears on the Modern Library's list of the greatest novels of the 20th century.  Often challenged for being irreverent and obscene, this novel is considered by many to be Vonnegut's most popular work. 


Anonymous said...

I thought that this book was excellent in a Historical and Literary sense. I had not heard about the POWs and bombing of Dresden before reading this and it fueled me to want to learn more about this part of WWII. I can see how some might see this as controversial, given that Vonnegut's "creative license" does not add up to what Historians claim happened there. Despite that, Breakfast of Champions is much more "racy" anyway!

Matthew said...

Hey Everybody! Matthew Levandoski writing here: Did you know that an American Judge banned Slaughterhouse-Five on the grounds that it was depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar, and anti-Christian.”? Well, it was. Most of the people who took issue with this book were objecting on behalf of their teenaged children and helped to have this book challenged or banned at least 18 times. Not a bad run, considering that with every challenge another thousand teenagers wanted to read it, and did.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a work of true 20th century genius. It spawned a whole generation of writers that wanted to write books like Vonnegut. Tom Robbins being the obvious example. Many people, in citing their favorite aspect of the book will inevitably talk about the Tralfamadorians and Billy Pilgrim's becoming "unstuck in time". But I like to think that the plain old world war two parts of the book were the real meat here. Yes, the anti war parts were convincing and sobering, but it was the parts of the story that made one think of the beauty of humanity, and being a part of it, that really make one think that war is a plague upon this wonderful people of ours. I will quote one line that chokes me up every time, it takes place in Dresden, shortly after the POWs arrive at the Slaughterhouse No. 5: "In the steam were about thirty teen-age girls with no clothes on. They were German refugees from Breslau, which had been tremendously bombed. They had just arrived in Dresden, too. Dresden was jammed with refugees. There those girls were with all their private parts bare, for anyone to see. And there in the doorway were Gluck and Derby and Pilgrim- the childish soldier and the poor old high school teacher and the clown in his toga and silver shoes- staring. The girls screamed. They covered themselves with their hands and turned their backs and so on, and made themselves utterly beautiful."

This is the sort of thing that makes this book great. The love and humor and beauty written for (and about) people.

This book should absolutely, never, ever, in a million, unimaginably long, desperate, miserable scores of centuries be banned. It is a work of art. If, someday, they ever hang books in museums, this will be an exhibition of prominence. Perhaps we will have developed Tralfamadorian skills of reading everything at once by then and we will rightly ingest this great work into our minds in the proper way.

If a teenager wants to read this book, let them. If you are afraid of them finding out the "horrors" of sex because of it, remember that they are in high school. You remember high school, right? That place where you learned all the wrong things about sex because you were learning it from a bunch of other people who knew just as little about it, or less, than you did? Yeah, I thought so. The segments about the "obscenity" of sex in this book are at least not riddled with misinformation, as well as wonderful. As for the other reasons that the book was challenged or banned, I can only say this: You might not like what it is says, but are you willing to give up the law that allows it to be written?

Sarah Bynum said...

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five gave a different view on war and the way to view life. This book has been banned in the past for using vulgar language, being obscene, and all the other violations the banned books seem to get. The one reason for banning this book that jumped out at me was for being unpatriotic. This was Vonnegut’s big story on the Dresden bombing, a huge event in history that many people do not know about, and people think it is unpatriotic? Granted, Vonnegut does not tell about the bombing in the conventional way, but he does talk about it and give an insight into what being a prisoner of war was like during World War II. It was a tragic event, but he talks about it truthfully. In the first chapter he is asking someone about writing a story on war and he says, “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?” Vonnegut goes on to explain that this man was meaning that there would always be wars and they are as easy to stop as a glacier. Throughout the story Vonnegut is telling it in glimpses as if it were a Tralfamadorian story. The Tralfamadorians are aliens who see in a fourth dimension and know all events in the past, present, and future. After meeting them, Billy Pilgrim can see all the events of his life and regularly jumps through time to experience them. By telling the story in an un-chronological way, Vonnegut is almost saying that war is just a much a part of life as getting married or having kids. This does not take away from war or make the sacrifices that people make insignificant. It makes war more acceptable, but still very patriotic. Vonnegut tells about gruesome events and horrifying circumstances where Americans were fighting for their country. I do not see how that is unpatriotic at all. I was very thankful after reading this story knowing what has been done for my freedom. Vonnegut did a great job of incorporating a historical even into such a fictional story.

Sarah Bynum said...

Over this past weekend I watched Slaughterhouse Five, the movie. I do not even know how to say what I think…
Honestly, I did not like it. I am no movie professional, but compared to the book, it was just not as good. The movie did not hold my attention, nor did it truly explain what was happening to Billy Pilgrim as he would travel through time. My mom happened to be in the room while I was watching and she was confused beyond my ability to explain even after I had read the book. The movie, honestly, confused me a little too. The scenes jumped back and forth, much like the book, but without any explanation as to what was happening. The scenes of war and how horrific the war was are about the only thing I liked. These scenes gave a visual to something I could not picture. They helped me grasp a very small portion of what a prisoner of war might have experienced.
I would not recommend this movie to someone wanting a movie to just watch for fun or to watch because they had read the book. I do not think I would recommend this movie to anyone no matter what they were looking for. I would suggest just reading the book.

Elizabeth Starr said...

I am responding to Matthew Levandoski's post about Slaughterhouse-Five.

Matthew wrote: "This book should absolutely, never, ever, in a million, unimaginably long, desperate, miserable scores of centuries be banned. It is a work of art. If, someday, they ever hang books in museums, this will be an exhibition of prominence. Perhaps we will have developed Tralfamadorian skills of reading everything at once by then and we will rightly ingest this great work into our minds in the proper way."

I really appreciate this connection here between the Tralfamadorian style of reading and book-banning.

I am struck by how often those who ban or challenge books confess to never having read the book they are challenging. Instead, they read in the OPPOSITE of the Tralfamadorian style, focusing on just one or more objectionable passages, out of context. If they could take in the whole thing at once, they might see how that "objectionable" passages fit the overall pattern that the Tralfamadorian author is trying to create with his arrangement of simultaneous moments. They might also be able to practice the Tralfamodorian view of life: "Well, that was a bad moment, but I prefer to focus on these good moments."

I like how the Tralfamadorians train us how to read for maximum appreciation and minimum focusing on isolated words and sentences out of context.

Thanks for the great connection!

John Ford said...

This comment is in response to Matthew’s post. I agree with you completely when you say that this book couldn’t be banned because it’s a work of art. I loved this book, simply stated. However, I do have to say, Matthew, I enjoyed the time- traveling alien science fiction parts a lot more than the war parts. The book is said to be about Dresden, and the bulk of it should be about the war because of it. I understand that. But once the idea of the Tralfamadorian concept of time was introduced, I was forced to view the war as just the one small piece of the greater picture. The war had a very large impact on Billy’s life, as well as essentially everyone else’s, but in regards to Billy, I’d say the space travel and science fiction aspects played a much bigger role. I mean, I probably have a soft spot for those kinds of things, since I’ve always been a sci-fi nerd and want to, one day, write science fiction of my own. By all that I mean that I definitely have a soft spot for sci-fi, so I can see why I attached to those parts a lot more. I guess for me it seemed like while the World War II parts were happening, there was always the underlying idea of Tralfamadorians. But in the sci-fi parts, you could forget about the war pretty easily. Maybe that was just how I took it, though. But I’m very glad that the 18 times it was challenged just made it more popular. I love hearing things like that. It just shows that true art will always find a way to surface.

Anonymous said...

I think it is interesting to note what we recall from this book when we reread it over our lifetimes. Honestly I have not read this since high school, when I managed to get it put on the AP English book list after it had formerly been banned. From my recollection it must have been the WWII depictions and other events in history that stood out as "special" to me, as it is what I remember to date. I am sure if I were to pick it up now, the science-fiction elements would stand out more and I would not have had to research "Tralfamadorians"!.

I feel that this points to the value of using science-fiction to discuss topics that would be otherwise horrifying or conversely a stark and straightforward narrative of a historical event or events. In the case of this book other historical events were mentioned as well; such as Vietnam, Civil Rights protests, etc...

Sci-fi did become as I grew older, a staple of my favorite books; 1984, WE, and Brave New World. I like to believe that Slaughterhouse-Five sparked this interest. As an adult now with some new perspective, I would rather my children read science-fiction novels that contain some literary and historical/political value than a narrative type work in their English classes.

An example would be this book instead of Elie Wiesel's Night, of which my Freshman in high school recently read. I had concerns that he would be horribly depressed by it, as I was, although he didn't seem to be as negatively affected by it. It may be possible that parents are afraid that certain books may cause a deep, emotional reaction and this is my Devil's Advocate approach to the discussion. I would never want to see Night banned, of course, but I think that there are ways for English teachers to weave in history and politics in more creative ways. I do feel science-fiction is a perfect vehicle for doing just that, since it appears that English teachers are currently using historically themed books in primary education more and more...

Matthew said...

Matthew here...

I am posting about the movie, Slaughterhouse-Five.

Some context: I love movies. I love them more than books, traditionally. I am a film maker and I study film nearly everyday of my life, or, at the very least, I try to. Old movies, new movies, color, black and white, silent and loud, 1920's, 30's, 40's, 50's, 60's, 70's, 80's, 90's and the oughts. I even love some of the movies made in the last 3 years.

So given that I love movies so much, my disappointment with the film version of Slaughterhouse-Five is particularly strong. It accomplished nothing that the book accomplished. Nothing. Yes, it had the same plot, the same character names, all of the key structural ideas were there, but none of them were done justice.

The book is saturated with emotion, humour, and moments of exquisite beauty that weren't even attempted in the movie. Not once. It missed the point entirely.

And it wasn't the very dated special effects, or the 1970's aesthetic that informed the cinematography. It was the unfeeling way in which everything was portrayed. It was like expecting the Eiffel Tower and getting a crepe. Both are French, but very, very different on fundamental levels.

It was simply a botch job on a great book. And I am not giving this film a bad review because I am such a rabid fan of the book that I think it is unfilmable. I don't think any book is unfilmable. But I do think that there are some books that, if they are adapted into movies, require a special touch and a true visionary director that has a REAL grasp of what the heart of the story is. George Roy Hill, though I love Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, is not that visionary. His direction could be likened to a overly proud father with a new Super 8 camera at his daughter's dance recital. The events were documented, but the story wasn't brought to life.

It's a damn shame. I wanted to like it.

Elizabeth Starr said...

I'm responding here to the reviews of the movie version of Slaughterhouse-Five from both Sarah and Matthew.

I think I might like the movie a little bit more than you both did, BUT I also agree (whole-heartedly) that the book is about a zillion times better....AND that if you are interested at all in Slaughterhouse-Five, the movie is the WRONG place to start. For one thing, the entire framing device--where we learn how and why Vonnegut came to write the book, and what its purpose is for him--is missing. Without that, the sci-fi story loses some of its ballast.

I agree with Sarah that it is helpful to see the war scenes to get a more visceral sense of what the war and the fire-bombing was like. This is where the imagery of film added something, I think. The images of the P.O.W.s marching through Dresden before the attack (Prague was the actual location used, I think) helps us "get" how much was lost and destroyed.

What I like least about the film version is the cheesy way we see Billy Pilgrim aging (not very convincingly) and the way the director chooses to depict him as a sort of zombie who only comes alive when looking at pornography. Billy in the book at least had some passion for carrying forward his Tralfamadorian insights, but that gets downplayed in the movie. In the film the character is just a crazy, dirty old man (or a young man in old man make-up).

Wish we could have all watched it together--it would have been fun! Thanks for posting! My take-away here is--the book rules!

Mark H. said...

I believe that our government is slowly but surely taking away our rights as individuals, soon our children will not even know what true freedom really is. And the way the media leads us on, Telling us what they think is good for us. Every since Edward Bernays ( Sigmund Freud's Nephew) came up with how to sway the masses into believing anything. If you get the Chance watch"The Century of the Self". This documentary will change the way you think of our Countries leaders.