Moral Equivalency, Sad Clowns, and World War II

In my last few years of college, when I knew I was headed toward graduate school but didn’t know what the experience would be like, I found myself groping, nearly blindly, for texts that would give me an edge over my future classmates. The best of these was a lengthy and oversized paperback by Frederick R. Karl called American Fictions 1940-1980, which I found in a used bookstore on a trip to Omaha. (The bookstore, if anyone is interested, was called the Antiquarium and was my absolute favorite bookseller anywhere in my very circumscribed world. It has since, I’m afraid, closed down and moved its treasures to another town, leaving only the almost equally terrific Jackson Street Books to hold down the literary fort. But the used bookstores of Eastern Nebraska are a topic for another article.)

What attracted me to Karl’s work—besides the price tag, which was $3.00 for the paperback version of a book whose hardcover now goes for a scant 75 cents on Half.com—was its sense of authority. Karl, it seemed to me at the time, had read every single book of note published by an American author for the forty years claimed by his title and had formulated vast sociological and artistic theories using these books as his raw materials. When he liked a book, I wanted to read it; when he disliked it, his reasoning made sense, even when the author he deprecated was one of my favorites. I tried to read the book on the plane on the way home from Omaha, got sixty pages in, and decided it was over my head. And yet American Fictions 1940-1980 has remained a specter over my academic and literary work ever since. “And why haven’t you,” the interrogating voice in the back of my head frequently asks, “read every major work of fiction from the past forty years? And where are your theories?”

All this is to say that when I read a book from the time period covered by Karl’s survey, I tend to head straight for his book to help me formulate some thoughts on what I’ve just read. Karl remains a sort of preliminary authority on nearly everything I read, and as such I’ve probably quoted him more than any literary blogger on the web, especially when I get to talking about “spatiality,” a concept that blew my mind when I was 21 and still mostly holds my interest seven years later.

Karl is nothing if not provocative; he objects to far more than he admires in American literature, and for a variety of different reasons. He dismisses Frederick Buechner’s early novels, for example, primarily on aesthetic grounds, calling his style “pseudo-James, a kind of religious version of Louis Auchincloss [that] does not lend itself to religious experience.” (He’s right. Buechner wouldn’t hit his novelistic stride until 1971’s Lion Country, which Karl apparently didn’t read. Mostly I’m impressed that he knows Buechner at all—his is the only such survey of American literature I’ve ever seen that engaged with him.)

Elsewhere, he will condemn authors for their political views, particularly if they are facile or if they fit neatly into the massive sweep of the popular opinion of the times. So while he defends Flannery O’Connor against charges of “ignoring all the larger issues—war and peace, science and technology, the financial and industrial world, even normal family life” on the grounds that “the breadth of her observations comes through her ordering of images,” not through her political point of view (whatever that is), he has rather harsh words for a countercultural classic like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest:

Inevitably, Kesey touches all the bases of what will be 1960s ideology, but he founders on one shoal after another. Despite brilliant episodes and some inventiveness of scene, the book lacks center because ideologically it is so soft, and in the case of its women, insidious and infantile. . . . The 1960s were, in fact, far more sophisticated and significant than Kesey’s view of the decade would make it appear.

He has a similar complaint—and I’m coming to the actual point here, I promise—about Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. The novel is famously “about” the 1945 Allied firebombing of Dresden, though a relatively small portion of the novel actually takes place during that horrific event. We see that world and many others through the eyes of the conspicuously named Billy Pilgrim, who discovers early on in his experience in the European theater that he does not experience time as a linear progression but as a collapsed heap of arbitrary moments.

It’s a brilliant formal strategy for Vonnegut, as it allows the reader to experience Billy’s life as simultaneously non-chronological and chronological; after all, we receive the collected moments of Billy’s life in the same non-chronological order that Billy chronologically experiences them. The time may be out of joint, as Hamlet puts it, but it’s not out of joint the way it is in, say, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. There, the dates and events are scrambled up, but the people whose lives we’re observing are aware of the proper dates. Billy is not—not anymore than us. Slaughterhouse-Five is thus structurally a continuation of the Modernist project of das unheimliche and a repudation of it, a return to straightforward nineteenth-century storytelling. Billy Pilgrim is Huck Finn—except that the river in this novel flows both north and south, and he can’t be sure which way it’s going to go at any given time.

Karl, for his part, agrees that this novel is technically daring and a success on aesthetic grounds. His problem is philosophical:

Billy Pilgrim’s experiences in the Dresden slaughterhouse during the Allied firebombing of the city embodies a multilevel effect: politics, humanity, personal experience, universal caring. Yet their significance in the novel remains diluted, for Vonnegut’s moral frame of reference, first of all, disallows distinctions; and he is eager to group the Dresden bombing with others, i.e., the napalming of Vietnam and the atomic destruction in Japan. Billy’s ability to rove into time past and future enables him to combine wars, as well as personal experiences.

With the collapse of time comes a collapse of values. This is a problem because there may be a substantial philosophical difference between World War II (especially in Europe) and the Vietnam War, and attempts to collapse them, according to Karl, “make sense at political rallies but doom fiction.” So Karl can agree with him that the napalm bombings of Vietnam were dehumanizing for both bomber and bombed but object to such descriptions in a novel about the presumably more noble World War II:

The Dresden firebombing, however, no matter how grotesque, was part of a different war and moral pattern. Arguments may be for or against the bombing, but the act was itself quite distinct from napalm bombing of Vietnam, whose civil war was not threatening America, whereas Germany had become a threat to the very idea of humanity.

The distinction, of course, is the old Christian one between just and unjust war, and I think it’s a legitimate one—even though I hold that Christians should have little to do with all but the most just of just wars. To ignore this distinction, as Karl claims that Vonnegut does, is to turn “human behavior and history into molasses.”

Of course, Slaughterhouse-Five became the underground favorite that it is precisely because it collapses those distinctions. It was published in 1969, near the height of the Vietnam War, and joined any number of other works of art that subtly or not-so-subtly protested our involvement in that war. It was, I have no doubt, given a large part of its resonance from that war that it’s about while not being about it. If collapsing the distinction between Vietnam and World War II melts the novel into an ethical molasses, not doing so robs it of its energy and power to shock and move us.

In this, it reminds me of a much uglier book, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Heller’s novel was published in November 1961, nearly a year before the United States had any troops to speak of in South Vietnam and a full 33 months before the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution signaled our country’s full-scale involvement in that unfortunate war/non-war. The book sold modestly when it was first published but became a cultural force only after the public attitude toward Vietnam had shifted; it thus has the bizarre status of an anti-Vietnam book written before the Vietnam War was much more than a vague idea. The film version, released in 1970, flopped mostly because of its clear similarity and inferiority to another Vietnam/non-Vietnam film, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H. Still, the book remains a classic of the counterculture, and few students make it through high school and college without reading it.

One of the best bodies belonged to the oldest American by far, a high school teacher from Indianapolis. His name was Edgar Derby. He hadn’t been in Billy’s boxcar. He’d been in Roland Weary’s car, had cradled Weary’s head while he died. So it goes. Derby was forty-four years old. He was so old he had a son who was a marine in the Pacific theater of war. . . .

Derby’s son would survive the war. Derby wouldn’t. That good body of his would be filled with holes by a firing squad in sixty-eight days. So it goes.

Heller’s characters, like Vonnegut’s, are engaged in the European theatre during World War II, though his famously operate from the sky and not from the ground. The two authors’ tones are radically different. Vonnegut’s strange time structure allows us to view the action from a distance—I haven’t even mentioned Billy Pilgrim’s strange sojourn in a human zoo on the Planet Trafalmadore—and with a sense of resignation. For this reason, the book’s mantra, repeated 116 times, is “So it goes.” Here is a typical usage:

Those three words express ultimate resignation, a sadness and pain that is beyond the human capacity to express; they are what a person must say, presumably, when he watches nearly everyone he knows die throughout the course of a 275-page novel. The humor in them is gallows humor—if Vonnegut means us to laugh when he repeats the phrase literally ad nauseum, it is a laugh born from our humanism, from our sense that human beings do not deserve to die unremembered as they do in this novel, in this war.

Vonnegut’s tragicomic humanism compares favorably with the humor in Catch-22, which is singularly nasty and grim, without the undercurrent of love that flows always beneath Slaughterhouse-Five. The jokes here are at humanity’s expense, and the only way to escape Heller’s scorn is to be like his protagonist, Yossarian—which is to say, to be coldly self-interested at the price of all social values: “Yossarian was a lead bombadier who had been demoted because he no longer gave a damn whether he missed or not. He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive.” As such, Yossarian collapses all values except what is most personal. “It doesn’t make a damned bit of difference who wins the war,” he tells a fellow soldier, “to someone who’s dead.”

This is, it’s true, a similar point to the one that Vonnegut makes in Slaughterhouse-Five, and yet the reader feels for Billy Pilgrim in a way that it is simply not possible to feel for Yossarian, who is incredibly selfish in his disavowal of responsibility for his actions:

“Am I supposed to get my ass shot off just because the colonel wants to be a general?” [he asked]

“What about the men on the mainland?” Clevinger demanded with just as much emotion. “Are they supposed to get their asses shot off just because you don’t want to go? Those men are entitled to air support!”

“But not necessarily by me. Look, they don’t care who knocks out those ammunition dumps.”

Billy Pilgrim is thrust into solipsism; Yossarian chooses it voluntarily, which makes him more of a piece with Kesey’s Randle McMurphy but less attractive to those of us who have seen the ugly fall-out from self-righteous ‘60s “rebellion.” For this reason, Catch-22 starts off riotously funny, but over the course of 463 pages and 42 chapters, sours in one’s mouth. I’m hard-pressed to remember more than a general tone from the novel—a tone of derisive mockery of things that civilization held sacred for millennia: self-sacrifice, courage, and intelligence that reaches beyond the confines of the individual skull.

Heller does, in other words, exactly what Karl accuses Vonnegut of doing: He engages in an act of radical moral equivalency in which the actions of the Americans attempting to stop the Nazis are just as bad as the actions of the Nazis themselves and in which the only righteous figure is Heller’s smart-alec, absurdist stand-in. Catch-22 is an immoral book of the highest order, a swirling black whirlpool of nothingness that can’t mask its nihilism in comedy for very long.

Incredibly, however, Karl lavishes effusive praise on Catch-22; he has hardly a bad thing to say about it and even goes so far as to praise Heller’s moral vision:

At the center of the tragedy is Heller’s awareness of a passing era, an era that perhaps never existed but one that might have if people and situations had measured up. . . . Heller’s is the nostalgia of the idealist: such a writer’s style is usually jazzed up, satirical, somehow surrealistic; the idealist who can never accept that moral values have become insignificant or meaningless in human conduct.

This is an old—and tiresome—defense of the sort of ugly cynicism that Heller displays in Catch-22. “All cynics are really just broken idealists,” we’re often told, usually by cynics who don’t want to feel bad about the black paint they spray over all human interactions. But Heller doesn’t mourn the loss of “moral values”; he revels in it, because it allows him and his stand-in to act completely in self-interest.

Karl is right that true comedy exists in tandem with true tragedy—because true comedy is the overcoming of true tragedy. But Catch-22 is neither. The reason that, as he notes, “Those who have felt the tragic overtones of the novel often find it difficult to place its tragic center” is that the tragic center exists outside of the novel itself, in the reader’s mind—if, that is, the reader is capable of noting that the ugliness of Catch-22’s vision of the world. Tragedy requires nobility, a character who is better than the audience, someone whose fall from grace we truly feel. Failing that Aristotelian requirement, it at least needs someone we don’t look down on. Catch-22 offers us no such person.

On the other hand, Slaughterhouse-Five’s Billy Pilgrim is imminently identifiable. He is the existential tragic hero, thrown into a world he can neither control nor understand (Vonnegut makes excellent use of Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer,” before noting wryly that “Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.”), and so we can understand his retreat into solipsism and abstraction. It is at least a solipsism that does not rely upon the sacrifice of others.

I have tried to avoid, thus far, speaking directly to the philosophical issue at the heart of Karl’s rejection of Vonnegut’s ethics: Is it right to equate the firebombing of Dresden with the napalming of Vietnam? I don’t have an answer for this question except to say that a true pacifist must, in the end, answer in the affirmative. Whether or not Vonnegut and those who have treated Slaughterhouse-Five as an ethics manual of sorts would really like to live with the implications of that sort of radical passifism is another question I cannot answer.

I would like to point out, quickly and contra Karl, that Vonnegut’s purpose in writing Slaughterhouse-Five seems to have been less to make a grandiose statement about this war or all wars than it was to show the very specific effects of that very specific firebombing on one very specific human being. Vonnegut can claim a certain authority on the subject; after all, he says, “I was there, too.” If we read Slaughterhouse-Five with this (supposed) purpose in mind, we have something quite different than a Vietnam protest book or even an all-purpose countercultural text; we have a study of shellshock par excellence, a heartbreaking novel about a young man who is haunted by the effects of his wartime experience throughout the rest of his life. In this case, the (non-) chronological order of the book becomes a sad joke, an escape into fantasy on the behalf of a very sick man.

This would make the book technically less daring but ethically more palatable. Vonnegut could escape Karl’s charges of moral equivalency, and Slaughterhouse-Five would become not a political novel but an existential one—to the degree, of course, that those two categorizations are separable.

I’d suggest, though, that however you read it, it’s leaps and bounds above Catch-22.

2 thoughts on “Moral Equivalency, Sad Clowns, and World War II

  1. Very good article! I would simply like to say that just wars are very, very few and very far between.

    But the other thing I wanted to point out is the moral whirlwind in which citizens find themselves when it comes to war. My father, a veteran of WWII, went into the early 60’s doubting the legitimacy of Vietnam, even moving to the edge of pacifism, arriving at the conclusion that a Christian could not fight in war. He even became an opponent of capital punishment.

    However, when the radical element of the left began to protest the war and everything else he was swayed by his love for his country back into the “necessary war” mode. But I am glad to be able to say that when Walter Cronkite voiced his opposition to staying in Vietnam my father did not argue.

  2. Thank you, John.

    I can identify with your father–whenever I take outlying positions, I’m usually pushed back to the center by my fear of being identified with radicals on either side.

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