Slaughterhouse-Five - Kurt Vonnegut [Extended version available at: Infinite Tasks of Philosophy: Slaughterhouse-Five and the Philosophy of War.]

There is so much to admire in this book that Vonnegut calls, in his first chapter, a "failure," since it is precisely in its failures that its greatness consists. It has no narrative arc, and the planned climax - the execution of Edgar Derby - is a mere sentence, disjoined like everything else from the circumstances or from any possible logic that could tie it to a greater meaning.

Vonnegut refuses to tell a story that can make meaning out of war, or out of death. It is pure chance, chaos, and randomness, and even the Trafalmadorians, able to see all moments in time, do not attempt to sum up the moral or political significance of anything. Everything is, precisely as it is, in its surfaces.

I will be teaching this book in Spring 2011, in a very large course (70 students), co-taught with a Politics Professor and called "The Philosophy & Politics of Peace and War." It isn't entirely clear to me what made me feel so strongly about including it on the syllabus (which also includes works by Barbara Ehrenreich, Carolyn Nordstrom, Jurgen Habermas & Jacques Derrida, Mike Davis, and others), except that it affected me profoundly when I first read it, at a college age (perhaps 20).

The jarring transitions that Billy Pilgrim undergoes, the fact that not all of the circumstances he faces are ones of misery, that moments of happiness and peace co-exist inscrutably with the most horrible human-made disasters all at the same time (there is no time) - these all seem to me just about right on target in conveying the absurdity of human reality. It is, explicitly, an anti-war book. But it is not the usual sort, or the kind of political or humanitarian analysis that one finds in periodicals or books or radio shows of the "usual suspects." All that Vonnegut can really put forward is this:

"I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee. I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that."

After all my own investigations these many years, into politics, philosophy, history, religion, I doubt that I have much more to contribute than that. When the course begins, I will be thinking more about the relationship between War and Time in Slaughterhouse-Five, and perhaps the more interesting bits of this will show up on my blog.