The Tralfamadorian Philosophy in Slaughterhouse-five by Kurt Vonnegut
During the Second World War, Americans were sent into Germany to fight off Nazism, and when they came back home, it was hard for them to transition back to normal life. Vonnegut, the author of Slaughterhouse-Five was one of those soldiers, and in his book he creates a character named Billy who was so affected by war that he claims that he was kidnapped by an alien race who call themselves the Tralfamadorians. Billy is affected by the Tralfamadorian views and to some extent loses his mind by rejecting free will, fantasizing death, escaping war, and dreaming of seeing all points in time at once like the Tralfamadorians.
When Billy is first kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians, he feels as if he is trapped in his current situation. Billy is confused as to why he is the one that was captured instead of anyone else, and the Tralfamadorians respond with ‘there is no why’. The aliens tell Billy while he is captured that ‘only on Earth is there any talk of free will’ and it is silly to think that it exists. On their planet, the beings teach Billy that from the beginning to the end of his life, he will be trapped in every moment of his life. They go on to describe the feeling of being caught in a moment like being a bug trapped in amber. The moments will never stop or cease to exist unless a person dies.
After the Tralfamadorians explained this to Billy, he begins to realize that free will doesn’t exist just as they said. He understands that moments always exist, and humans are stuck in the current one. Life goes on without being able to stop it, and eventually, Billy becomes calm knowing this fact and doesn’t fight the way his life is moving or has moved. He claims to know when he will die and that he will be assassinated, but he doesn’t seem to care because that’s what he learned on Tralfamadore when he was there. To remind himself that everything that happens, happens for a reason Billy often repeats the phrase, ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change’. Another character, Montana Wildhack, has this displayed on a necklace she wears, so when Billy sees her, he is reminded of this phrase and the meaning he makes of it.
While Billy is a prisoner of war and aboard the Tralfamadorian spaceship, he thinks about free will in war and if humans did have free will, then conflict should not prevail. He thinks about all that the Tralfamadorians have taught him, and now he doesn’t agree with war or any other type of large scale conflict. After witnessing the firebombing in Dresden, he believes that there must be a way to prevent actions such as this. War is inhumane, and no human should willingly want to be used as a puppet for the act of war. In Slaughterhouse-Five, most of the characters are affected by the lack of free will and those that are not affected are often to be sadistic humans. Roland Weary, for example, believes that he is a tough fighter known for his torture techniques and ways of killing people. In reality, he was ditched by soldiers better than him, and he was forced to wander around a forest with Billy, so Weary often makes fun of him.
Weary eventually dies during the war and Billy just accepts it. Billy, again is used to Tralfamadorian way of thinking instead of sorrow and mourning for death on Earth. When a Tralfamadorian dies on their planet, they are still alive in all of their previous moments, so the Tralfamadorians don’t think about death as a noteworthy occasion. In addition to this Billy can also go forward and backward to various points in time like the Tralfamadorians can, and he knows how he will die and he’s not at all concerned. The Tralfamadorians changed his ideals to make him believe that death isn’t anything to be sad about, according to the Tralfamadorians. In fact, anytime someone dies, the Tralfamadorians just respond with ‘so it goes”. Billy’s speaks his ideals so that they are clear to readers when he says: “The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past… All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed and always will exist… It is an illusion we have on Earth that one moment followed another one like beads on a string, and once that moment is gone, it’s gone forever.” Even though moments pass by quickly, the aliens often advise Billy to focus on the more joyous parts of life and not to dwell on the more serious or sad moments. They go on saying look at only the more beautiful things of life, because life is mostly wondrous.
Though life may be beautiful and wondrous, there is still conflict and chaos that ensues. While on Tralfamadore, Billy relates to the aliens concerning wars on Earth, and what an extraordinary danger to all life the humans of his planet must be. The Tralfamadorians view his worries as incompetent because they know how the world ends and it is not because of humans. The Tralfamadorians eternal view is not that humans are preposterous and primitive to take part in war. It is that Billy is so simple-minded to expect such a consistent future, and he overestimates the significance of the human part in the Universe. Specifically, he exaggerates free will and neglects to perceive that war and extreme destruction happen, because that is the way it is supposed to happen.
In explaining all of this to Billy, they make him ‘dead to the world’ and take away his ability to live successfully, but Billy’s Tralfamadorian encounters enable him to deal with all the death he has seen, because death doesn’t mean anything to them. Billy’s Tralfamadorian dreams are an opiate that causes him adapt to injury, much like the morphine he was given subsequent to losing control in the German prisoner of war camp. Billy is continually dragged back to his wartime memories, because they have influenced him significantly, and he is unable to ignore them. The last thing that the Tralfamadorians teach Billy about is time. They tell him that it is not linear and has no limits or boundaries. Time is simply time. There is no escaping it or running away from it. Humans must exist and bear through each moment unlike the Tralfamadorians who can see all moments at once.
While in some ways the Tralfamadorian reasoning may appear to be more rational than humans perspectives of time and the Universe to Billy, they were written to appear almost comical in the fact that their bodies are shaped and colored strangely. What’s more, the Tralfamadorians sound suspiciously like the German guards while Billy was a prisoner of war. Specifically, like a German guard who severely beats an American prisoner and says, ‘Vy You? Vy Anybody?’ The Tralfamadorians also say, ‘Why You? Why Us For That Matter? Why Anything?’ when Billy inquires as to why they have picked him to take with them. There is no why in anything that happens. The Tralfamadorians even know about how the Universe ends but they don’t stop it. As opposed to acting in attempt to change the future, the Tralfamadorians reveal to Billy they just don’t even look at it. They explain to him and tell him that it’s better just to look at the happy times. For Billy, all time is fluid and runs together. Each moment passes quickly, but it doesn’t matter to him, because he can appear in any one of them whenever he wants to. Billy uses this ability to cope with the fact that he witnessed the event in Dresden all those years ago.
Billy in an attempt to see all points in time like the Tralfamadorians, he frequently becomes unstuck in time. He creates the Tralfamadorians and their philosophy to try to prevent losing his mind, but it doesn’t work. Billy cannot forget that he witnessed Dresden, and frequently sees visions of those memories pass through his mind over and over again. By the end of his life, Billy is ready to die because of all of the philosophy he learned on Tralfamadore. He completely gives up on having a single ounce of free will because he is taught that it doesn’t exist while he is there. Death affects him to the point that he doesn’t even recognize that it is there. The conflict around him becomes looked over so that the happier times are the ones that are the most remembered. Moments around him are passing without any chance of stopping and he has the ability to travel through them. The result of Billy being kidnapped and taken to Tralfamadore was that he was less of a functioning human being when he left.
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