Personal Memory, Writing, and Mental Disorders: The Kurt Vonnegut Syndrome

The prelude to Slaughter House Five begins with Kurt Vonnegut, the author, making the following inscription: “This is a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore, where the flying saucers came from.” The novel itself is highly charged with references which build up the Dresden bombing by Allied forces during 13 February, 1945, which killed approximately 135,000, more than either Hiroshima or Nagasaki combined. Yet, as Vonnegut himself confesses, it has taken him twenty two years to write the book- twenty two years after the bombing, which he witnessed as a prisoner of war, has he been able to express himself on paper. So, by his own standards, the book is somewhat of a feat in the cyclical narrative it establishes, as it follows the fictitious protagonist Billy Pilgrim, through his realizations about imagination and reality, destruction and regeneration. It is rather easy to pinpoint to the whole book and suggest that it is reflective of a person suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or even call Vonnegut schizophrenic, by his own standards. However, the fact remains true: he doesn’t seem to be viewing himself as the “victim,” and has risen from the trauma of being able to relive and incident, to be able to retell it in a constructive and objective manner. Through this piece, I will explore how Vonnegut searches for meaning through the eyes of his main protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, and relate this search very superficially to studies done on schizophrenia and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (henceforth PTSD), in order to make the argument that the terminology used to define the syndromes does not befit the nuances of Vonnegut’s fiction.

Kurt_Vonnegut_at_CWRU

Kurt Vonnegut (Photo credit: david_terrar)

The first section of this entry reflects on the term schizophrenia, as it applies to Vonnegut’s fiction. The Oxford English Dictionary defines Schizophrenia as “A mental disorder occurring in various forms, all characterized by a breakdown in the relation between thoughts, feelings, and actions, usually with a withdrawal from social activity and the occurrence of delusions and hallucinations.” As this is applicable to Slaughter House Five, the story then becomes one which is based primarily on a dysfunctional means of expression, and yet it is rarely anything of this supposed premise, paying little homage to the disclaimer Vonnegut acknowledges about the story. Hence, what is it that he is trying to say about Billy Pilgrim, the main character, or even about the story? If Billy Pilgrim’s story is one of a schizophrenic, then his working memory should be in a deficit, according to Barch (2003). Yet, he seems to have no trouble grasping his own thought processes, feelings or actions, or even expounding on the beliefs he holds of extraterrestrials and the land of Tralfamadore. Rather, the narrative is aware of itself in a way which is cognizant of the Vonnegut’s intent to write in such a manner.

An interesting aspect of the writing in Slaughter House Five is Vonnegut, if seen as being conflated with his main protagonist, is reflecting on the “fictitious aspect of our own experiences” (Meeter 200). The transient nature of human life is thematically present in the book, where deaths plot the landscape and surrounds the character as an ephemeral reminder of the meaningless of life. Even though Vonnegut establishes distance from his protagonist Billy Pilgrim, the novel follows what has been termed “regressus in infinitum,” or the awareness of the author throughout the text as being present, rather than absent (Meeter 201). Hence, Vonnegut surprises the reader through references to himself as being a part of the story, intricately involved although he claims to have a distance from his characters, such as through the writer Kilgore Trout, who appears in his novel, or even more directly as when he says, “That was I. That was me. That was the writer of this book” (Vonnegut 125). The meaninglessness of the novel persists hence, through the symbolic appropriation of a cyclical narrative where the meaning of human existence is made meaningless, through speaking about it. i.e. the purpose of the novel is dead, but meaning is gleaned through adopting the form of the novel to discuss its own death.

Kurt Vonnegut Self-Portrait

Kurt Vonnegut Self-Portrait (Photo credit: cliff1066™)

The question in Vonnegut’s tale, which holds true for me, defies his own assertion about meaning being utterly worthless. He can perhaps, hence, be connoted to a victim of PTSD. By his own assertion, he feels, after having taken twenty two years to write the novel, that “people are not supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore” (Vonnegut 22). Trauma researchers in recent years have acknowledged that stress symptomology may not be the sole product of one precipitating event, but of multiple high war zone stressor exposure, rather than low war zone stressor exposures (King, King, Keane, Fairbank and Adams 1998). Through the narrative of Slaughter House Five, the theory seems to be false, since Vonnegut’s single obsession in the novel is the retelling of the Dresden bombing. If applied to his whole life, the traumatic death of his sister hours after her husband’s death could also be applied by means of the trauma. But such an address requires an entire other essay, and is beyond the scope of this one.

Hence, one must ask, what is it that Vonnegut needs to escape through writing his novel? There is the obvious telling of the uselessness of human existence. Apparently, a sign of the resilience-recovery factor for people suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is hardiness, or personality dispositions which have three components, such as a. the ability to cope with one’s life based on past experiences, b. commitment in terms of the meanings ascribed to one’s experiences, and c. an openness to viewing change as challenge (Kobasa 1979). If this is the case for all PTSD survivors, and Vonnegut is deemed as being one, then the point then becomes that he is aware of how fiction is limited by the complex interplay between the “inner space of imagination and the outer space of history” (Uphaus 166). For Vonnegut, then the struggle for expression, as a PTSD survivor, is to render this meaningless meaningful, while still maintaining that expression itself is meaningless. This is at once as vicious as it is cyclical, in that there is no amount of catharsis in the death of humans, which is why Vonnegut adopts the term  “So it goes,” to reflect on every death in the novel. For me, the ultimate struggle in trying to understand the novel lay in reflecting why Vonnegut says that one is not supposed to reflect, and then proceeds to do so through the writing of the fiction. Through the act of writing, he is contradicting his previous claim, rendering it somewhat facetious, because he needs to write, and needs to express the therapeutic aspects of his own writing, and hence while Vonnegut may render writing meaningless, it is the only means to his own salvation.

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2 thoughts on “Personal Memory, Writing, and Mental Disorders: The Kurt Vonnegut Syndrome

  1. You have sparked much thought for your readers with impressive informational material. I am so happy I came across your article and I share in your views written here. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

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