Everything was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt: Kurt Vonnegut’s Theology of Suffering

**Update** I recently changed the subtitle of this from “Kurt Vonnegut’s Critique of the Theology of Culture” to what you see now. Two notes on that: 1) I think stating what I see happening in Vonnegut’s work (particular Slaughterhouse-Five here) in the positive rather than the negative gives a better sense of what is at work theologically. “Theology of Culture” is sort of hard to pin down. 2) Vonnegut never developed a theology of anything–that should go without saying–but I think that what he is getting at in much of his work speaks to an idea of a theology of suffering that is far superior to much Christian thought on the subject.
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Below is my final paper for a seminar I took at Fuller last quarter called “Theology and Culture.” This was probably one of my most favorite papers to write because I feel like I was finally able to connect Vonnegut to theology in a meaningful way. The argument I put forth would certainly be contested by many current Vonnegut scholars, but I think this gets at the heart of what I see Vonnegut’s work doing. Even without the theological articulation, I think the argument still stands.
This is probably the longest piece I’ve posted here. Here’s a short abstract:
Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five critiques a social imaginary that acknowledges only the good life and not only ignores the tragic, but condemns it as a means of achieving the good life. Thus, it serves to critique a theology of culture that would see “God’s good purposes” in everything, including the tragic. While, the paper does not dive into lengthy explanations of theodicy, more classical models of God’s action in the world (Augustinian blue-print models, etc.) are what the novel is critiquing. In other words, when bad things happen, there is no necessity to explain such events in terms of God’s will or action. Sometimes horrible stuff just happens, and it’s not to achieve a greater good or make someone stronger or test someone. It’s simply because the world is broken. Much of Vonnegut’s work makes the case that to sweep tragedy under the rug, so to speak, by viewing the world through the “Everything was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt” lens is in fact a greater, more damaging tragedy.
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           Reflecting on the fifth anniversary of Kurt Vonnegut’s fall on the steps of his New York City brownstone, which ultimately led to his death four weeks later, Vonnegut scholar Robert Tally, Jr. writes that “[p]ointing out the absurdity of everyday life was perhaps Vonnegut’s greatest contribution to American literature.  Whereas Hannah Arendt had marveled at the banality of evil, Vonnegut duly recorded the banality of … well, everything.”[1] This certainly is an appropriate starting point for understanding Vonnegut’s work. Vonnegut’s prose is deceptively simple, almost childlike at moments, and yet it simultaneously reveals, with great accuracy and often to the great embarrassment of the reader, the most prominent vices of American culture. However, only in recent years has Vonnegut criticism turned to the redemptive quality of his work. Indeed, there is still resistance to such readings, as Tally himself demonstrates, concluding his reflection with, “Yet Vonnegut gets the last laugh, as both his detractors and his admirers are fooled into imagining, respectively, an overrated hack or a undervalued genius, whereas Vonnegut remains what he always was: a tragicomic performer, as willing to tell a story as he is to take a tumble, and always just for the hell of it.”[2] Many critics agree with Tally that Vonnegut cannot be dismissed as a hack writer, a blip on the screen in the grand scheme of American literature, nor can he be lauded as a writer with a profound message that transcends generations—that his genius and place in the history of American literature is as the author who defied all categories.[3]

I would resist this notion. While it is certainly problematic to place too much emphasis on the “morality” of Vonnegut’s novels (or the genius of them for that matter) because such a reading is in danger of ignoring the actual cynicism of the real-life Vonnegut, we must recognize that there is a redemptive quality that speaks both to theological anthropology as well as a theology of evil. In the midst of the tragedy of Vonnegut’s novels, particularly the middle and later works, emerges an understanding of humanness and culture that can fruitfully be put into conversation with theology. In this paper, I will be offering a close reading of Vonnegut’s sixth novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, in conjunction with an understanding of the relationship between theology and culture as presented by Kevin J. Vanhoozer and James K.A. Smith. The violence of Slaughterhouse-Five, presented to the reader through the technique of defamiliarization, serves to gesture toward itself as absurdity, to the point where the text becomes saturated with the absurd and the horror of war is equated to the death of bottled champagne. Juxtaposed to this violence is the recurring sentiment that life can and should be viewed in the totality of its most beautiful moments. Taken together, these two elements can operate as a critique of a theology of culture that would claim the world as wholly sacred, addressing any notion of the profane with violent hate or complete desensitization, resulting in the oppression and death of others in order to uphold the ideology of the world’s sanctification. The novel thus vacates God from a culture of totalizing beauty and places him as necessarily present in the profane-made-sacred.

Methodology

I will begin with an overview of the theories of the theology of culture that I will employ in the paper. First, a word on the general project of reading cultural artifacts theologically. I concur with Vanhoozer and Smith that culture, in its broadest sense is a gesture toward the good life.[4] In this view, the products of culture are intended to move us closer to our own (or our broader society’s) notion of what the good life is. That is, we desire the good life, as Smith points out, and engage with the cultural products we believe will get us there. When we believe strongly enough that certain cultural artifacts will produce the good life, our engagement with them can quickly become ritualized. Smith uses the example of the mall. If desire is at the core of what it is to be human, then the mall as a cultural text has quite a bit to say to us. We can see that every store as well as the concept of “the mall” as a whole institution affects what we desire and who we should then be. Retailers want us to believe that their products will make us better people, will finally grant us the good life that we’ve sought after so desperately and that without their product, we run the risk of missing out on the good life.

I will not be discussing worldviews, then, as they relate to culture; rather, I will follow Smith when he writes, “In order to recognize the religious power and formative force of the mall, we need to adopt a paradigm of cultural critique and discernment that thinks even deeper than beliefs or worldviews and takes seriously the central role of formative practices.”[5] In relation to Vonnegut, my method will be to extrapolate the ways the novel speaks to the formative practices that have created the theology of culture described above in order to demonstrate how it offers a critique of both the practices and the theology they produce. Vanhoozer is helpful in this regard. It would be easy to restrict a reading of Vonnegut solely to “cultural hegemonies” particularly because the novel is so overtly against war, capitalism, and the American Dream as ideologies. While such a reading is important as a preliminary understanding of the way in which the novel itself engages with and is shaped by the culture of its time, it will also be valuable to put the novel in conversation with theology. Vanhoozer writes: “To understand a cultural text truly thus requires putting it into theodramatic context—reading it in light of the control-script; viewing it thrice over in terms of creation, fall, and redemption.”[6] Thus a situating of Vonnegut both within his cultural milieu as well as within this theodramatic framework will be necessary. That is not to say that other, similar texts of its time do not speak to us theologically—only that I see Vonnegut’s work, particularly Slaughterhouse-Five saying something different.

Vonnegut in the Context of Anti-War Fiction

            Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s most famous work, is an anti-war novel, and along with Cat’s Cradle, is usually compared with Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Historically, both Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse fall between the two, Catch-22 published in 1961, Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973, Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse in 1963 and 1969, respectively. One of the key characteristics of all four is that each narrative is massively fragmented in some way in order to explore the utter meaninglessness of the atrocities committed during war. Catch-22 is told from multiple perspectives and jumps back and forth in time. Cat’s Cradle is broken up into 127 chapters, though it is fewer than 300 pages. Slaughterhouse-Five relies even more heavily on time, incorporating the actual time travel of the main character, Billy Pilgrim, as the reader is left to try and piece together Billy’s life and more importantly, his experience in WWII and the firebombing of Dresden. Gravity’s Rainbow has close to four hundred named characters, and even though the reader primarily follows Tyrone Slothrop, Slothrop’s story is erratic, disjointed, and ultimately the validity of certain aspects becomes questionable in the reader’s mind. The novel is also broken up into four parts and 73 ‘episodes.’ By the end, it seems the only character story the reader can trust is that of the V-2 rocket, named 00000, as by the end, it is the only “character” left from the beginning.

Ultimately, this fragmentation points to the loss of meaning, just as Modernist texts do, but the novels go further to subvert any attempt to try and re-establish or recover meaning because they suggest that there is actually no meaning to be found and that such attempts are absurd.[7] In Pynchon’s and Heller’s work, the reader is confronted directly with a complete loss of meaning without any hope for discovering it. The arc of the V-2 rocket itself in Gravity’s Rainbow represents an utter hopelessness, an inevitability of meaningless violence. Yossarian of Catch-22 deserts at the end of the novel because he cannot cope with the meaninglessness of war. He says, “Let the bastards thrive since I can’t do a thing to stop them but embarrass them by running away.”[8] There is an acceptance of this loss, almost a reveling in it especially with Heller.

Vonnegut’s relationship to these authors is complicated. There are certainly shared elements, particularly the loss and satirizing of meaning in the face of unspeakable atrocity. However, with Vonnegut, as I shall demonstrate in this paper, there is also a gesture towards a solution—a redemption. This gesture does not come in the form of a modernist hero or glimmer of hope; rather, it comes through facing and accepting the profane for what it is, thus allowing oneself to find the sacred beyond the profane. Much of Vonnegut’s middle work supports this reading. Sacred and satire are held in tension together. The human attempt to create meaning often results in absurdity in Vonnegut’s work; however, the destruction of life is clearly a terrible thing to Vonnegut. The refusal to recognize the “constructedness” of reality and meaning is what becomes the primary target of satire. In the face of such a disturbing, absurd destruction of human life, what do we do? This is the question raised in Slaughterhouse-Five right from the beginning.

Absurdity

            At the beginning of Slaughterhouse-Five, the narrator describes Billy’s job as the chaplain’s assistant and says that he played a small organ and was in charge of a portable altar. The narrator then provides the reader with this seemingly unnecessary information: “The altar and the organ were made by a vacuum-cleaner company in Camden, New Jersey—and said so.”[9] The effect of this is a “profaning” of the sacred with the purpose of demonstrating that objects are made sacred and are not inherently sacred. This is a constant subject of concern for many of Vonnegut’s narrators, and the narrator of Slaughterhouse-Five is no different. Behind this concern for the construction of the sacred lies an even greater concern for Vonnegut: That everything is ultimately meaningless and uncontrollable. The narrator, toward the end of the narrative, writes of the novel itself, “There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless play things of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.”[10] There is an important affinity here, expressed well in this passage, between Vonnegut and the work of atheistic existentialists particularly the work of Albert Camus (namely, the concept of the absurd.) However, there is also a vital difference, which will be important for the theological case that will be made later.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus describes the conditions that constitute the absurd: “The world is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.”[11] Camus is pointing to the immensity of the universe and not only the inability of our narratives to account for it or contain it but the desire for them to do so. When one recognizes this immensity and sees the failure of our human constructs to explain it, one experiences the absurd.

Vonnegut’s treatment of death in Slaughterhouse constitutes a response to the absurd. Camus gives other practical examples: “At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman, and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outline of these trees at this very minute lose the illusory meaning with which we had clothed them. [. . .] A man is talking on the telephone behind a glass partition; you cannot hear him, but you see his incomprehensible dumb show: you wonder why he is alive.”[12] For Camus, both man and nature “secrete the inhuman”[13] at times. When one stands at the edge of Niagra Falls, for example, one may be taken by the immense beauty of nature but may also suddenly realize that this same nature could also utterly destroy the human body. This realization of human frailty in the face of the immense universe constitutes the absurd. Camus’ solution to experiencing the absurd is to invent meaning. The power of Sisyphus,[14] says Camus, lies in the fact that he would not succumb to death, but persevered though his situation was unbearable and maddening. In that way, he defeated the gods who sought to defeat him. In the same way, human beings must continually overcome the inhuman that becomes unveiled in the universe, especially in our own selves, by creating meaning and identity for ourselves. While the creation of meaning is positive for Camus, Slaughterhouse-Five wants to draw our attention to the problem of treating made meaning as inherent meaning. This isn’t to say that meaning creation is bad—only that it can be bad and often is. The primary mode of meaning creation satirized in Slaughterhouse certainly is, as we shall see.

Furthermore, for Camus (and others such as Jean-Paul Sartre) the creation of meaning is strictly a human affair for oneself. That is, Camus is interested in “Knowing whether or not one can live without appeal.[15] In other words, Camus is not interested in an exterior transcendent, but an interior one—man’s own transcendent self, his goals, etc.[16] There is a clear distinction on this point between Vonnegut and the atheistic existentialists that will be helpful as we turn to the theological significance of the novel. Man’s own transcendent self, for Vonnegut, is what gets in the way of creating the sacred because Vonnegut sees that quite often the creation of the sacred according to man’s own goals is precisely what constitutes the absurd. Recall the organ manufactured by the vacuum cleaner company or consider the monograph of Howard J. Campbell in which he describes what it is to be poor in America:

It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. [. . .] Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money.[17]

Here we have quite a negative view of a transcendent ideal (that to be rich is to be wise and to be poor is a crime) that humans place upon themselves. Vonnegut’s work does point to a transcendent “part” of human beings, but questions whether or not that transcendence is given by man to himself. In contrast to the above passage, consider this passage from Breakfast of Champions where artist Rabo Karabekian describes his most famous painting:

‘I now give you my word of honor [. . .] that the picture your city owns shows everything about life which truly matters, with nothing left out. It is a picture of the awareness of every animal. It is the immaterial core of every animal—the “I am” to which all messages are sent. It is all that is alive in any of us—in a mouse, in a deer, in a cocktail waitress. It is unwavering and pure, no matter what preposterous adventure may befall us. A sacred picture of Saint Anthony alone is one vertical, unwavering band of light. If a cockroach were near him, or a cocktail waitress, the picture would show two such bands of light. Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery.’[18]

One could argue that this awareness is exactly what Camus is talking about: our ability to recognize the absurdity of our situation and continue on in the face of it. However, Vonnegut’s work pushes against the notion of a self-dubbed sacred humanity and instead points to sanctification coming from the o/Other.

This also pushes against the idea that our response to horror should always be to make positive meaning out of it, a point explored at great length shortly. Ultimately, what matters to Vonnegut are the human beings who are caught in the “amber of the moment”[19] not the “why” that humans want to attach tragedy. “There is no why,”[20] I would argue, is an appropriate theological response to tragedy.

Defamiliarization

Before I begin an examination of the novel, I must first define one technical literary device that Vonnegut employs throughout the novel, which is vital to an understanding of the effect that the novel produces. Defamiliarization is a term coined in literary studies by the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky, in a 1925 essay entitled “Art as Technique.” There, Shklovsky writes, “as perception [of an object or concept] becomes habitual, it becomes automatic. [. . .] all of our habits retreat into the area of the unconsciously automatic. [. . .] In this process [. . .] things are replaced by symbols.”[21] In other words, we cease to see the meaning or implication of objects—they are reduced to their utility. Shklovsky continues: “By this ‘algebraic’ method of thought [referring to the unconsciously automatic transforming objects into symbols] we apprehend objects only as shapes with imprecise extensions; we do not see them in their entirety but rather recognize them by their main characteristics.”[22] Defamiliarization occurs when we are brought abruptly out of this mode and forced to see the object in a new light, reevaluating its details and gaining a new, more detailed understanding of it.[23] The effect typically forces us to see how objects were at one time assigned meaning or new meanings that the object perhaps did not have before.

In Vonnegut, we see this occur surrounding moments of death, particular because of the use of the phrase “So it goes” following most deaths in the novel. Death becomes defamiliarized particularly because the phrase follows and draws our attention toward not only natural deaths but “deaths” that turn to satire (i.e. the death of champagne or water.) Death is not only reduced to neutral phenomenon, but the process of defamiliarization seeks to reduce those who die to the level of neutral object, or as the narrator of Breakfast of Champions says, “machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide.”[24] This forces us to see those moments as terribly cold or callous, thus calling our attention to the ways in which we make death meaningful—which, in this case, turns out to be affirmed by the novel.

Vonnegut’s use of defamiliarization is often complex and thus difficult to understand. It is not enough to say simply that the intention behind the technique is to satirize that which is being viewed through defamiliarization. In some sense, the neutral response to death is an object of satire. Satire is often critical sometimes even polemical, and the equivocation of dead champagne to dead people is a clear example of this. However, satire also always contains a kernel of truth. That is, there is also a sense in which Vonnegut’s use of this technique reveals the way things actually are. While we may not respond to the “death of champagne” in any classifiable way, Vonnegut rightly points out that there is a certain ambivalence when it comes to the death of human beings, particularly when that death is on a horrific scale. When death is defamiliarized, our attention is drawn to the artifice of meaning; however, a response of non-meaning is also criticized. The two are held in tension together.

Theodrama. So it Goes.

Our task now is to examine the features I have described above within the context of the theodrama of creation, fall, and redemption as described by Vanhoozer. Slaughterhouse-Five presents the reader with a tangled, yet theologically appropriate vision of creation and fall. That is, the novel holds a dual vision of creation as valued yet also fallen and tragic. At the beginning of the third chapter, the narrator relates the following episode that illustrates this tension well:

His bandy legs were thrust into golden cavalry boots which he had taken from a dead Hungarian colonel on the Russian front. So it goes. [. . .] One time a recruit was watching him bone and wax those golden boots, and he held one up to the recruit and said, “If you look in there deeply enough, you’ll see Adam and Eve.”

Billy Pilgrim had not heard this anecdote. But, lying on the black ice there, Billy stared into the patina of the corporal’s boots, saw Adam and Eve in the golden depths. They were naked. They were so innocent, so vulnerable, so eager to behave decently. Billy Pilgrim loved them.

Next to the golden boots were a pair of feet which were swaddled in rags. They were crisscroseed by canvas straps, were shod with hinged wooden clogs. Billy looked up at the face that went with the clogs. It was the face of a blond angel, of a fifteen-year-old boy.

The boy was as beautiful as Eve.[25]

The interplay of the perfect boots, where the boots came from, the innocence of Adam and Eve become quickly smashed together in the image of the teenage boy, feet wrapped in rags stuffed into wooden clogs, yet beautiful. Beautiful and broken at the same time. His location further compounds this. He is a teenage boy at war, most likely destined to die. His beauty becomes conflated with Ronald Weary’s “cruel trench knife” as the thieving corporal calls it “a pretty thing.”[26] The clear lines between innocence and violence that were being drawn at first are broken down so that the beautiful is no longer pure—it “secretes the inhuman.”[27]

There are many more examples throughout the novel where beauty and horror, humanity and inhumanity, sacred and profane become blurred. Theologically, this seems to be an accurate depiction of our condition as fallen human beings. In other words, our ability to produce or experience the beautiful or the sacred is always going to be mediated by our brokenness. We do not have the ability create or experience these things without the aid of God nor do we have the ability to experience or create them the way that God would without the transformative power of redemption. The picture that the episode above paints is one of broken beauty. Innocence that is slightly off-center. It is beauty that is in need of redemption.

However, our brokenness and, more specifically, the results of our brokenness cannot always be described theologically. That is, although brokenness and tragedy point to the necessity of redemption in the theodrama, the causes of and God’s action in specific moments of tragedy and brokenness do not need to be explained in terms of God’s theodrama apart from the more general sense of the Fall of creation—which brings us to the crux of the theological force of Slaughterhouse-Five. To do so is to create a naïve theology of culture in which all tragedy is ultimately positive and all victims are ultimately made objects of God’s plan rather than subjects acting in it.

This point will require further explanation. One of the most central moments in the novel occurs when Billy Pilgrim is struck with an epiphany as his wife is asking him about the war: “A crazy thought now occurred to Billy. The truth of it startled him. It would make a good epitaph for Billy Pilgrim—and for me, too. [. . .] “EVERYTHING WAS BEAUTIFUL AND NOTHING HURT.”[28] Why should this be “true” to Billy Pilgrim? Looking broadly over the entire novel, it should not be. The epitaph is true only for a dead Tralfamadorian—the extra-terrestrials who kidnap Billy Pilgrim to put him on display in their zoo. When Billy asks his zookeeper how it is their planet can always have peaceful days, the alien responds:

“Today we do. On other days we have wars as horrible as any you’ve ever seen or read about. There isn’t anything we can do about them, so we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments [. . .] That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.”[29]

The only response Billy can muster is “Um,” and it is completely appropriate. Although this Tralfamadorian worldview is what ultimately spawns Billy’s epiphany, this is not and can never be Billy’s experience. Like the Tralfamadorians, Billy is “unstuck” in time, traveling sporadically from one moment in his life to the next. However, unlike his alien hosts, he has no control over where he will go or what he will see. Instead, he is always reliving the most beautiful, horrific, and mediocre moments of his life. Thus, the thought that everything is beautiful and nothing hurt could not be an accurate description of Billy’s life. He has to instead take every moment as it comes again and again—as we all do.

The novel ultimately critiques this worldview through the defamiliarization and satirizing of a neutral response to death through the phrase “So it goes.” Like the epitaph, this phrase is also connected to the Tralfamadorian worldview. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator relates a letter to the local newspaper that Billy had written describing his inter-galactic friends and in particular, their views of time and death: “When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “So it goes.’ ”[30] We can see how this worldview, which Billy Pilgrim attempts to adopt, ends up becoming a critique of itself through the devices of defamiliarization and satire.

Theologically speaking, this is a worldview that would mold all aspects of culture to be a part of “God’s will.” Under this view, the statement “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt” entails, theologically, that God be present in all events, both beautiful and tragic, for the ultimate purpose of good. In other words, even the most horrific tragedies, the bombing of Dresden to put this in terms of the novel, are explainable ultimately in terms of God’s greater good. Such a view, however, is inconsistent with Vanhoozer’s notion of theodrama because it does not allow for a robust understanding of fall and redemption. If even the “most fallen” of human endeavors and events ultimately serve God’s good purposes,[31] then the act of redemption, though still present and necessary, is severely twisted since it suggests that God will use human fallenness in his act of redemption rather than ultimately transforming that fallenness.

We can also put this in conversation with the desire for the good life. The novel critiques this theological view in relation to the good life in a number of different ways. First, if this sort of theology of culture is adhered to as a means of achieving the good life, then it will have great difficulty engaging with and discerning between institutions as means to achieving the good life. A theology that sees everything as beautiful can hardly see anything as ultimately bad. Thus, when Smith discusses the ways in which particular institutions such as consumerism, patriotism, and education come to shape our identities, one could ultimately argue from the “Everything is Beautiful” position, that these institutions cannot negatively form our identities because God will ultimately use them for good. Returning to Howard Campbell’s monograph, we can see how works and ends up creating a narrative of oppression against the poor:

“Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. The inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times.”[32]

This belief among both the wealthy and the poor is what serves to create the immense oppression that Campbell describes in his monograph—and seeing things this way has formed a certain kind of person. Comparing the Tralfamadorian way of seeing things to the way that Smith talks about formative practices, we can examine the ways in which such a theology would shape our desires and our identity negatively in relation to Christ-like Christian practice.

The desire that drives the Tralfamadorians is the good life achieved by only existing in the good. The joke of this part of Vonnegut’s novel is that the Tralfamadorian social imaginary sounds so good—who wouldn’t want to live that way? Much like the promises of consumerism, which Smith describes, such an imaginary could never be realized, and Vonnegut makes it very easy for us to see that since the Tralfamadorians are nothing like us—they are time traveling aliens. That Billy Pilgrim believes he can adopt their social imaginary is a part of his tragic nature. The novel then calls us to question an imaginary among human beings that would attempt to ignore the bad and only see the good—or see the bad as good or neutral. It allows us to see how destructive that actually is. Vanhoozer summarizes this well when he writes that “theology and understanding alike are short-circuited if we are not able to discern (1) how our faith is affected by the world we live in and (2) how we are to embody our faith in shapes of everyday life.”[33] We are not living in the world if all tragedy is beautiful—if all bad can be explained in terms of God’s greater good. Rather, the brokenness of the world must be engaged on its own terms, apart from God’s action in order to arrive at the most robust understanding of God’s transformative redemption. We pass through the profane to arrive at the sacred.

Conclusion: Cross-Pressure in the Immanent Frame

I’ve suggested that the novel critiques a vision of the world that would see only the most beautiful moments, ignoring or attempting to destroy those that are not. Much of Vonnegut’s work struggles with this conflict between wanting to acknowledge the beautiful and not allowing the beautiful to dominate our vision. Another way of articulating the situation that Billy Pilgrim finds himself in over-against that of the Tralfamadorians is found in Charles Taylor’s notion of the immanent frame. For Taylor the secular distinction between the transcendent and the material is ultimately an immanent frame: “the different structures we live in: scientific, social, technological, and so on, constitute such a frame in that they are part of a ‘natural,’ or ‘this-worldly’ order which can be understood in its own terms, without reference to the ‘supernatural’ or ‘transcendent.’ ”[34] Billy’s desire to see everything as beautiful is in, many ways, an appeal to the transcendent. The Tralfamadorians have the ability to “transcend” time in that they can choose “when” they look at—they defy the metaphysics of presence, able to be present in any moment. Billy’s condition is misleading both for him and the reader in that he is still immanent despite his ability to travel through time. It really is no ability at all since he has no control over it, as discussed above. Thus, the tragedy that Billy must continually relive is simply a part of the structures he lives in. He cannot escape, and his attempt to ignore those moments is reflected in the objects of the more overt critiques the novel makes against American culture in general.

Taylor’s notion of cross-pressure in relation to how both believers and non-believers exist in the immanent frame together is also helpful in further understanding the dilemma that Slaughterhouse presents. Taylor writes that “those who want to opt for the ordered, impersonal universe, whether in its scientistic-materialist form, or in a more spiritualized variant, feel the imminent loss of a world of beauty, meaning, warmth, as well as of the perspective of self transformation beyond the everyday” and continues, arguing that on the opposite end are those “haunted by a sense that the universe might after all be as meaningless as the most reductive materialism describes. They feel that their vision has to struggle against this flat and empty world; they fear that their strong desire for God, or for eternity, might after all be the self-induced illusion that materialists claim it to be.”[35] Vonnegut situates his characters right in the middle of this tension.

Billy himself is flat, without an identity,[36] and the novel ends with a question, “Poo-tee-weet?”  which signals the absurdity of attempting to draw meaning from something as horrific as the bombing of Dresden. The theologically minded reader feels the burden of the tension. Such a reader senses that Billy Pilgrim is in the first position, but Billy has already lost the world of beauty despite his desire to be Tralfamadorian. Furthermore, such a reader will identify with the second position in the face of the atrocity that the bombing of Dresden presents particularly when the response of both characters and narrator is one of indifference. If, however, we read those moments of indifference as satirizing such a response to atrocity, then the novel points us to a theological position where our response to tragedy is to understand it on its own terms and situate ourselves in the hope of God’s redemption.

by Joel Harrison

Bibliography

Camus, Albert, The Myth of Sisyphus, Trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage   International, 1955, 1991).

Heller, Joseph, Catch-22 (New York: Random House, 1961).

Smith, James K.A., Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation             (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2009)

Tally, Robert T. “Kurt Vonnegut’s Last Laugh,” Continuum Literary Studies         http://continuumliterarystudies.typepad.com/continuum-literary-studie/2012/03/kurt-   vonneguts-last-laugh-guest-post-by-robert-t-tally-jr.html> 15 March 2012.

Taylor, Charles, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2007).

Vanhoozer, Kevin J., Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends          (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2007).

Vonnegut, Kurt, Breakfast of Champions (New York: Random House, 1973).

—, Slaughterhouse-Five ((New York: Random House, 1969).


            [1]. Robert T. Tally, “Kurt Vonnegut’s Last Laugh,” Continuum Literary Studies http://continuumliterarystudies.typepad.com/continuum-literary-studie/2012/03/kurt-vonneguts-last-laugh-guest-post-by-robert-t-tally-jr.html> 15 March 2012.

            [2]. Ibid.

            [3]. The fashion among Vonnegut critics has often been to see him as one of his own tragi-comic characters, either Pilgrim or Kilgore Trout or another, who are always depicted in a “me versus the world” sort of way.

            [4]. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2007) 45.

            [5]. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2009) 24.

            [6]. Vanhoozer, Everyday Theology, 41.

            [7]. A term to be defined and discussed at length later.

            [8]. Heller, Joseph, Catch-22 (New York: Random House, 1961) 462.

            [9]. Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (New York: Random House, 1969) 31.

            [10]. Ibid., 164.

            [11]. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, Trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage International, 1955, 1991) p. 21

            [12]. Ibid., 14-5.

            [13]. Ibid,. 14.

            [14]. In this myth, King Sisyphus is punished for his trickery against the gods by being made to roll an immense boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down again.

            [15]. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 60.

            [16]. See Jean-Paul Sartre Existentialism is a Humanism.

            [17]. Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 129.

            [18]. Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions (New York: Random House, 1973) 226.

            [19]. Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 77.

            [20]. Ibid.

            [21]. V. Shklovsky, ‘Art as Technique,’ J. Rivkin and M. Ryan (ed), Literary Theory: An Anthology (Blackwell Publishing: Massachusetts, 1998) p. 15

            [22]. Ibid.

            [23]. Jamie Smith uses this technique when describing the mall at the beginning of Desiring the Kingdom, 19-22.

            [24]. Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions, 225.

            [25]. Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 53.

            [26]. Ibid., 54.

            [27]. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 14.

            [28]. Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 121-2.

            [29]. Ibid., 117.

            [30]. Ibid., 27.

            [31]. This is, of course, also ignoring any complex discussions of theodicy.

            [32]. Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 129.

            [33]. Vanhoozer, Everyday Theology, 16.

            [34]. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2007) 594.

            [35]. Taylor, A Secular Age, 592-3.

            [36]. This is because identity is formed through the achievement of goals over time. Billy is unable to do this given his “unstuckness.”

One thought on “Everything was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt: Kurt Vonnegut’s Theology of Suffering

  1. Andrea says:

    God I hate Vonnegut.I read that book in high school and I was dpsreesed for the next 4 years. Yah, I know – the mark of a good writer – he made an impact.Well – I never read Vonnegut since – so it was quite an impact…

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