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Inventing Morality: A Postmodernity of Religion, Choice, and Hope in Kurt Vonnegutís Slaughterhouse Five and Flannery OíConnorís Wise Blood
In his 1693 Discourses on Satire, John Dryden asserts that “the poet is bound, and that ex officio, to give his reader some one precept of moral virtue, and to caution him against some one particular vice or folly” (104). While many authors and critics undoubtedly disagree with his assertion, others would agree with him in one way or another. Few would argue that the writing of Flannery O’Connor does not make some attempt at a moral statement, but the verdict is still out as to whether Kurt Vonnegut makes any such claims. The satirical depth and apparent indifference of his writing makes it indeed difficult to determine whether he writes by any governing moral compass or hope for transcendence. That said, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and O’Connor’s Wise Blood both offer their own semblance of morality, criticizing the impact religion has in people’s lives, challenging the right of the individual to choosehis destiny, and suggesting a hope for morality in humanity’s future.
This is not to say that O’Connor and Vonnegut share the same system of social morals or strategies for embedding those morals into their writing. Raised Catholic in the South, O’Connor has “asserted more than once that modern fiction is characterized by a disappearance of the author, by which she meant the disappearance of an intrusive intelligence initiating and directing our social and ethical evaluations” (Kowalewski 100). It is true that her moral and religious motivations are not buried far beneath the surface; however, if it can be assumed that she accomplished her goal of disappearing from her writing, then it is possible that whatever ideas of morality her readers derive from her writing are not the result of her attempt at social and ethical direction. As for Vonnegut, he said:
[Preachers] don’t say anything to make anybody any happier, when there are all these neat lies you can tell. And everything is a lie, because our brains are two-bit computers, and we can’t get very high-grade truths out of them. But as far as improving the human condition goes, our minds are certainly up to that. That’s what they were designed to do. And we have the freedom to make up comforting lies. But we don’t do enough of it. (Wampeters 239)
Here, Vonnegut seethes the sarcasm his critics are used to hearing, stating that the only way for humanity to find happiness is by constructing fraudulent realities in which to live. His view of preachers and the religions they represent (even though his belief that the human brain was “designed to do” something, implying a designer) is not positive or hopeful, and Slaughterhouse-Five oozes this seemingly hopeless theme through its apathetic pores. Wise Blood is not much different. Regardless of her religious background and faithful loyalties, any confidence O’Connor holds in religion is distorted and masked beneath her hyperbolic and exaggerated characters and lyrically dark narrative.
O’Connor is clear about the religiosity of her writing, but many critics fail to note the lens of satire the narrator is looking through in order to tell the story. She said that “when you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures” (O’Connor xxi). The latter option, that her readers do not hold her same beliefs, would explain why Hazel Motes and Enoch Emery are painted with wide, grotesque brush strokes. Both of them are grotesques, exaggerated caricatures of the religious faithful, true believer or not. O’Connor said, “I have to distort the look of the thing in order to represent as I see them both the mystery and the fact” (xx). Few would argue that Wise Blood fails to distort its images and offer mystery, but whether O’Connor’s facts are clear enough to criticize or praise the efforts of religion and its morals is not so obvious.
From the beginning, O’Connor paints Hazel Motes as a wayward soul, religiously lost and blindly searching. Most images of him call to mind similarities with the biblical prophet Jonah, known for his rebellion against and flight from God’s plan for his life. During a conversation with an insistent taxi driver, Hazel does not want to believe that any similarities can be drawn between him and the blind street preacher, Asa Hawks. Frustrated, Hazel says, “Get this: I don’t believe in anything” (15). To which the driver replies, “That’s the trouble with you preachers, you’ve all got too good to believe in anything” (15). Because Hazel is not yet a preacher, the driver’s response might be better directed to all of humanity, who in O’Connor’s eyes has abandoned belief altogether. In conscious contradiction and rebellion to all things religious, Hazel then makes his Jonahic journey to Mrs. Watts’ house of whoredom. When Mrs. Watts sees Hazel, her smile that curves “sharp as the blade of a sickle” and her mention of his “Jesus-seeing hat” foreshadow the difficult faith journey that lies ahead (31).
Familiar with the Catholic sacrament of confession, with penance and the controversial indulgences, O’Connor confronts her readers with religion’s tendency of drowning its followers with guilt. During his initial encounter with Mrs. Watts, the guilt from his childhood voyeuristic trip to the carnival tent is replaced by a nameless unplaced guilt, and when he gets home, he fills his shoes with stones and takes a long, painful walk through the woods. Later, Enoch Emery, Hazel’s clueless sidekick, decides that the time he has waited so long for has finally come and he proceeds to paint his sink with a golden gilt to match the chintz of the curtains that keep the outside light from illuminating his room. Enoch does not consider himself “a foolhardy boy who took chances on the meanings of things,” but “this piece had always been the center of the room and the one that most connected him with what he didn’t know” (67). Not until he paints the inside of the washstand with gilt does he realize that the cabinet “was to be used FOR something” (69). This is Enoch’s realization of purpose. It is no coincidence that O’Connor has both Hazel and Enoch have to deal with g[u]ilt on their own terms, Hazel needing to be blinded like Paul in order to be able to see and Enoch scrubbing his house clean to the bone, leaving the gilt-laden sink to the very last, and then heading to the movie theater to go fulfill his purpose and feeling like Jonah in the belly of the great fish. Because these grotesque conversions are laden with guilt, one gets the sense that O’Connor herself is wary of this religious burden and has a difficult time not despising it.
In light of her suspicious thoughts toward religious guilt, O’Connor requires much less than perfection from her characters, debunking the myth that religious folk must have things all figured out. Both Hazel and Enoch function in a religious haze, Hazel plagued with thoughts of God the entire time and Enoch (in the Biblical narrative, Enoch walked with God and was taken up to heaven, essentially disappearing) never achieving much clarity about anything. Ben Satterfield speaks to their undeveloped faith in his essay, “Wise Blood, Artistic Anemia, and the Hemorrhaging of O’Connor Criticism”:
The opposition between content and style . . . prevents the reader sympathetic with O’Connor’s religious position from too easily taking Haze’s conversion as something conventionally good and desirable, and forces such a reader to confront the unattractiveness—even the frightfulness—of the “wild ragged figure” of Jesus who pursues Haze. At the same time, and from the opposite point of view, the emptiness and absurdity of the world Taulkinham give, by contrast, a certain seriousness and power to Haze’s religious commitment. (88-89)
Readers are forced to confront the unattractiveness of Hazel’s faith, if it can be called that. Desperately wanting to acquire the blind preacher’s address from Enoch so he can pursue a relationship with his daughter Sabbath, Hazel bludgeons Enoch with a rock, embodying the mentioned image of the wildly ragged Jesus (O’Connor 52). It is after this that Haze begins preaching his neo-Protestant Church Without Christ, a religion in which there exists no Fall, Redemption, or Judgment, in which bastard children such as Sabbath (the day set apart as holy) are welcomed along with anyone else, and in which Jesus is a liar. Hazel preaches that “there are all kinds of truth, your truth and somebody else’s, but behind all of them, there’s only one truth and that is that there’s no truth” (84). “Your conscience is a trick,” he says, and “you had best get it out in the open and hunt it down and kill it” (85). His actions and beliefs may be passionate, but O’Connor does not allow her readers much sympathy toward Hazel’s or Enoch’s pursuit of their own orthodoxy. O’Connor uses these overdrawn characters to highlight the harm that blind fanaticism can cause, to admonish people to approach religion with cautious criticism, ultimately considering the possibility that we may not be able to see the truths of religion until we blind ourselves to the world. Which might be too late.
Kurt Vonnegut’s religious criticism is not so overt as O’Connor’s, mainly because much of his narrative is spent in denigration of war. When Playboy Magazine asked him whether there is “any religion [he] consider[s] superior to any other,” Vonnegut replied:
Alcoholics Anonymous. Alcoholics Anonymous gives you an extended family that’s very close to a blood brotherhood, because everybody has endured the same catastrophe. And one of the enchanting aspects of Alcoholics Anonymous is that many people join who aren’t drunks, who pretend to be drunks because the social and spiritual benefits are so large. But they talk about real troubles, which aren’t spoken about in church, as a rule. (Wampeters 240-41)
Vonnegut’s problem with religion rests in its inability to talk about real troubles, to address the issues that men and women struggle daily to resolve. To this end, his novel is far from silent in its criticism of religious faith. What good is it to humanity if “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” as Bach and Luther’s hymn praises, if the Tralfamadorian aliens are correct in their claims that time’s events cannot be affected? The Tralfamadorians believe that history has already happened and is always happening, that the sequence of time is a structured set of events that is always happening much the way a pedestrian can walk alongside a sidewalk escalator and hop on at any point along the way, ride a while, then hope off again and go visit another point in time. In unchangeable view of time, God has no freedom to be a mighty fortress, unless of course the event was pre-structured for him to help. Pre-designed moments invalidate the point of prayer as a request for God to intercede in time. What good then is The Serenity Prayer, which shows up in a frame on Billy’s office wall and again on a heart pendant around the neck of his lover, Montana Wildhack? “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference.” The irony of this simple prayer is that it allows room for the Tralfamadorian worldview to be true. If they are correct, then events cannot be changed, and prayer is only valid to ask God for the help to realize that events are set and we must learn to deal with them.
When Billy Pilgrim asserts that “people would be surprised if they knew how much in this world was due to prayers,” Rosewater replies that he never said a truer word (71). What exactly is the truth of this statement? Who is doing the praying? For what are they praying? The answer to these questions makes all the difference, hence the reason Rosewater says his statement is true. When people on both sides of war are praying for God’s help, God gets
blamed for the loss credited for the victory. In Pilgrim’s world, the politics of America are tainted enough that news tickers are used to remind people that the President has declared National Prayer Week and that everybody should pray. The government has strategically placed this week of prayer immediately after the stock market turned in a poor performance week, during which investors lost small fortunes. If every government were praying that God would bless their battles in war and stocks, which side should God take. Vonnegut would say that even God cannot make everyone win in war.
At one point, the narrator flips through the Gideon Bible and notes the tales of great destruction—Lot’s family and the fire and brimstone raining down on Sodom and Gomorrah and all the cities’ inhabitants. “I looked through the Gideon Bible in my motel room for tales of great destruction” (21), it reports. “For.” As in Enoch Emery’s statement, that word should not be so easily skipped over. The narrator is looking for tales of destruction, and of course, he finds them. It is difficult to find something when one is not looking for it. From that vantage point, the Tralfamadorian practice of focusing on the happy times and ignoring the painful moments of life becomes useful because it implies the ability of the individual and society to focus on whatever they want, to filter history through a certain lens, to dwell in the moments of their choosing, and in so doing alter history. Right? After all, would Christianity and its adherents have inflicted so much misery on the Earth if they had focused on other portions of their great book—the parts modeling great sacrifice and love for humanity, the loving of one’s neighbor, the going the extra mile, the taking care of the widows, orphans, poor, naked, thirsty, and hungry? Then again, one message the Bible gives its readers is that looking back is wrong. Remember Lot’s wife? Perhaps we should stop now.
In Kilgore (Kill + Gore) Trout’s novel, The Gospel from Outer Space, a Tralfamadorian visitor to Earth studies Christianity to learn “why Christians found it so easy to be cruel . . . He supposed that the intent of the Gospels was to teach people, among other things, to be merciful, even to the lowest of the low” (108). They teach that “before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected. So it goes,” that “there are right people to lynch,” and those people are the ones without connections (109). They are easy. Expendable. No one will notice. Except God. God is listening, watching, “and on Judgment Day he’s going to tell you all the things you said and did. If it turns out they’re bad things instead of good things, that’s too bad for you, because you’ll burn forever and ever” (172). That is religion’s promise. All of that, combined with Billy’s mother’s inability to ever decide on a church, despite how horribly her and Billy’s Christ died—the spear wound, the thorn wounds, the holes that were made by the iron spikes” (38), make a convincing case for Vonnegut’s text as a criticism of religion’s positive impact, or lack thereof, on people’s lives.
A big question throughout Wise Blood is: Which person is Mr. Motes going to be—Haze or Hazel? The names themselves suggest a difference of life in the present and of destiny in the future, the possibility of choice. “Are you going home?” the woman on the train asks him. “No, I ain’t,” he replies (O’Connor 5). Hazel makes a choice right from the beginning that he is going to Taulkinham instead of home. He continues by saying, “You might as well go one place as another,” a comment through which one could infer that 1) it is perfectly acceptable for an individual to choose any path for his life, or 2) that there are two possible destinations people will end up—heaven or hell—though the frivolity in Hazel’s language seems to put them on equal terms (5).
In conjunction with her criticism of the positive and negative impact of which religion is capable, O’Connor layers her settings with signs to show that her characters have the ability to choose their own destinies. Hazel’s sleeping berth on the train has light but no window, foreshadowing the kind of light Hazel’s choice is leading him into, a manmade, artificial light that is a mere forgery of the real light that can only be found outside. In his half-sleep he even thinks that he could be lying in a coffin, a thought which reminds him of his circuit preacher grandfather who would not have feverishly ridden the countryside if not for “Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger” (9). Hazel wants to believe his family and other religious folks who have helped form his beliefs, but he sees “the opportunity here to get rid of it without corruption, to be converted to nothing instead of to evil,” (11) an attribute he applies to Jesus-believers without much grounds to make such a statement. Despite doubting his heritage and desiring conversion to nothing, he keeps his mother’s glasses “in case his vision should ever become dim” and “the Bible because it had come from home” (12). Something in him believes that, though his mother obviously does not see clearly when it comes to religion, her glasses might help him see through the haze and, though “you might as well go one place as another,” he does not want to go anywhere without the Bible from home.
Hazel believes he has “a strong confidence in his power to resist evil” (11), a belief that would imply knowledge of his choice, but he wonders what, confidence or not, any sinner hopes to accomplish by remaining in sin? After all, “Jesus would have him in the end!” (8). To Hazel, the “Jesus who was reported to have been born at Bethlehem and crucified on Calvary for man’s sins . . . was too foul a notion for a sane person to carry in his head” (106). His confidence does not lie in the Bible at the bottom of his bag, but in himself. The religion of his family repulses him, and he quickly chooses to flee in the opposite direction. In her essay “Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood: The Negative Way,” Margaret Feeley discusses Haze’s choice of destiny in relation to his parents’:
Haze also sees human beings trapped in the terror of time: “You can’t go neither forwards nor backwards into your daddy’s time nor your children’s if you have them. . . . If there was any Fall, look there, if there was any Redemption, look there, and if you expect any Judgment, look there, because they all three will have to be in your time and your body and where in your time and your body can they be?” (112)
Hazel’s religion ignores his Bible and the power his family thought it had by living completely in the moment. By extrapolation back through time, Haze’s thoughts assert that any redemption made available at the time of Jesus’ death was only available then, not now, not to Hazel in his mire of doubt. It then makes sense for him to devote his time to the Church Without Christ, attempting to offer everyone a new jesus by which they can be saved now, one that suits their needs and fancies now, one that to Hazel would not ask so much as the Biblical one.
For what few good choices Wise Blood’s various preachers have, Slaughterhouse-Five’s Billy Pilgrim has fewer. As irony would have it, “Billy Pilgrim, will die, ha[s] died, and always will die on February thirteenth, 1976,” (Vonnegut 141) a date which happens to fall on a Friday, as Vonnegut would have it. Within the first few pages, the reader encounters the endless, cyclical song about Yon Yonson, one that Vonnegut uses to set a fairly hopeless tone for the narrative, and, with no natural quitting points, questions whether it will ever be safe to break away from the song. The refrain of the novel—“So it goes”—a phrase repeated more than 100 times throughout the narrative, illuminates the fact that death is inevitable. Everyone dies. No one has a choice about that. At one point when Billy wants to die, his comrade responds by saying, “He don’t want to live, but he’s gonna live anyway” (48), asserting that not only is Billy not able to choose whether he lives, but he is not able to choose to die either. However, the fact of death does not necessarily correlate to a lack of choice during life, regardless of the scientific beliefs of the Tralfamadorian people.
In her dissertation Absurd America in the Novels of Vonnegut, Pynchon, and Boyle, Miriam Hardin says:
In the world of Slaughterhouse-Five, no one has free will, but Billy Pilgrim is the only human being who knows it, and only because he “has become unstuck in time.” His unsticking causes him to move to various points of his life, in no particular order, from birth to death and all points in between, without his consent and outside of his control. Billy’s temporal travel reveals for him a version of time that is not linear. Instead, all events exist all at once, so there is no shaping one’s own destiny; every moment is structured to happen a certain way. Assigning blame is meaningless to this paradigm, since people only appear to cause events that are bound to occur. (Hardin 35)
This quote begs one to consider what exactly “one’s own destiny” is—a culmination of events or a matured state of mind? If a choice of destiny revolves around one’s ability to affect the resulting events of life, then Billy does not have that, as shown in his unbidden abduction by the Tralfamadorians. He is, as the Tralfamadorians would say, “trapped in the amber of the moment” (Vonnegut 77). Appalled at the carnage of World War II and still not understanding his lack of eventual choice, Billy finally breaks down and delivers a soaring lines: “Earthlings must be the terrors of the Universe! If other planets aren’t now in danger of Earth, they soon will be. So tell me the secret so I can take it back to Earth and save us all: How can a planet live at peace?” (116). The Tralfamadorians cover their eyes with their little hands, embarrassed that he did not know how the Universe ends.
Billy cannot grasp how one can know the end result of something and not be able to change it. They insist that “[the Tralfamadorian test pilot] has always pressed [the starter button], and he always will. We always let him and we always will let him. The moment is structured that way” (117). What the Tralfamadorian view does not attempt to explain is how the moment got structured the way it is. Structure implies a structurer or a natural structuring system, does it not? Even Vonnegut, if one remembers, believed the brain was designed. I suppose random structure is a possibility as well, but the novel does not lean that direction. The novel’s only implication toward a structurer is God, or Jesus, who Billy Pilgrim makes a point to visit as Jesus hung on the cross and to place a stethoscope against Jesus’ chest to make sure he really died as his followers and the good book claim. If God and Jesus are then the structurers, readers are faced with another obvious question: Why did God structure things the way he did? Vonnegut offers no answers.
Another dichotomy can be seen in Billy’s interaction with the German soldiers. Billy is troubled with the question “Why?” in hopes of improving conditions, and the Germans simply tell them to “Surrender. Your situation is hopeless” (40). The Tralfamadorian solution is simply not to look at the bad moments, the evil deeds, since there is nothing to be done about them. “That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones” (117). In the later scene in which Billy’s wife tells him she is going on a diet, the narrator can see Billy putting this belief into practice. He tells her he is happy about the way she looks because he has already seen their marriage and knows that it is “going to be at least bearable all the way” (120). The Tralfamadorians would reject Billy’s attempts to change his actions, seeing his efforts as futile and ignorant. During one of his experiences in the zoo, Billy hears a Tralfamadorian say, “If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings, I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ . . . Only on Earth is there any talk of free will” (86). Ironically, it is behind the caged bars in the Tralfamadorian zoo that Billy begins to enjoy his body for the first time, exercising, showering, shaving, deodorizing, and making love to Montana Wildhack.
From the outset, the narrator, whom many equate with Vonnegut himself, makes it clear that choices are being made in the creation of this story. He decides to tell the story of Billy Pilgrim and the Dresden bombing, even though his motivation is largely so “that it would be a masterpiece or at least make [him] a lot of money” (2). Other writers appear throughout the narrative. After reading Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, Billy is left with the feeling that he does not “want to read about the same ups and downs over and over again” (87). The pain of their situations has lead him to one of two conclusions: that he will either 1) stop paying attention to the ups and downs, or 2) do something to stop the cycle. Billy Pilgrim (who, though not a writer, is in close connection with these writers), Eliot Rosewater, and even Kilgore Trout have found “life meaningless, partly because of what they had seen in war. ewater, for instance had shot a fourteen-year-old firefighter, mistaking him for a German soldier. So it goes. And Billy had seen the greatest massacre in European history, which was the fire-bombing of Dresden. So it goes. So they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe. Science fiction was a big help” (101). Rosewater and Trout feel their writing has some impact on the greater world, that readers will happen upon their true accounts, fictional narratives, or satirical outlooks on society and will be impacted toward action and change. Perhaps they, like the rest of humanity, are mistaken that their thoughts, words, and actions can alter the course of history, but either way, their presence leaves the reader with the idea that people have a say in their destiny via the choices they make and the legacy they leave behind, that the Tralfamadorian worldview is faulty and false.
Flannery O’Connor once said that “Wise Blood is a very hopeful book” (O’Connor xiv), though many dissenting critics would point to the wildly grotesque figures and arguably dismal ending in disagreement. O’Connor also added, “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it,” but because the majority of her readers do not “know what grace is and don’t recognize it when they see it, most people think these stories as hard, hopeless, brutal, etc” (Kowalewski 98). In the narrative, Enoch Emery defines the virtue of Hope as “two parts suspicion and one part lust” (O’Connor 98), but nothing much is done to explain this overtly. This strangely-diced virtue and claim of hope, viewed in conjunction with O’Connor’s earlier assertion that when your audience does not hold your belief system “you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures” (O’Connor xxi), allow us to see that Wise Blood was meant to draw graphic pictures of the dark side of religion while at the same time infusing some hope regarding faith, religion, and morality as it can only be found on the other side of healthy skepticism and wanton desire.
Ben Satterfield, one of her dissenting critics, attributes the various contradictory readings of Wise Blood to O’Connor’s “artistic failure,” not literary genius (Satterfield 35). Setting the argument surrounding her literary genius aside for the moment, let us examine whether she has failed artistically. The concept of home, a motif O’Connor has usually used to represent heaven, surfaces when, even though Hazel purposefully chooses to travel away from home, the need to have a home sticks with him, convincing him to purchase a rundown car. He says, “I wanted this car mostly to be a house for me,” a mobile home, one with no fixed roots or morality defined by anyone but the road he chooses to travel, however crookedly that may be (O’Connor 37). O’Connor draws her characters with great care and detail. For example, Hazel is described as having “a nose like a shrike’s bill and a long vertical crease on either side of his mouth” (4). In effect, this shrike image plays itself out as Hazel impales himself, an action Gerard Sweeney notes is what “the shrike does to its victims . . . it suggests that this character with a nose like a shrike’s bill is, in some truly mysterious way, destined to wrap a metal ‘crown of thorns’ around himself. It suggests, in short, that Hazel Motes cannot flee Christianity, that he cannot escape his destiny of becoming a true—albeit grotesque—type of Christ” (109). Whether or not Hazel is destined for this role, the text is not clear, but one cannot help but view Hazel as the sort of grotesque Christ figure Sweeney suggests. If God can use this ugly man, there might be hope for humanity yet.
The flood of animal imagery adds a touch of the carnal, the natural, and the common to the religiously-charged atmosphere. When Enoch leads Hazel to the zoo, Enoch comments that “[the animals] don’t do nothing but sit there all day and stink . . . A man comes and washes them cages out ever’ morning with a hose, and it stinks just as much as if he’d left it” (O’Connor 48). The one-eyed owl at the zoo catches Hazel’s attention, half-blind and half-seeing, yet cowering in the corner of its cage (49). At a gas station beside the highway, Haze peers into a cage where he finds a bear, one-eyed and coat spotted with lime, an image that resonates with Hazel’s blinding of himself. When Enoch first visits the theater after his conversion in hopes of further enlightenment and direction, the last show he views is called Lonnie Comes Home Again, a film which portrays a baboon named Lonnie who rescues attractive children from a burning orphanage. As a devout Catholic, O’Connor would have been familiar with James 1:27, the only verse that defines pure and faultless religion: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (TNIV). The fact that Lonnie the baboon can live out pure religion while Enoch Emery and Hazel Motes and Onnie Jay Holy scrabble to invent the best new Jesus is the highest form of religious irony. Further, this image of the baboon saving the orphans lies in stark contrast to the movie star posing as a gorilla who tells Enoch to go to hell in front of all the children standing in line to talk to him (93).
The clueless nature of the various preachers is O’Connor’s way of showing that blindness is attributed to sight. Asa Hawks blinded himself with lime juice to “justify his belief that Christ Jesus had redeemed him” (58), a move that results in hundreds being converted and people sensing that he sees more because he is physically blind. Hawks’ daughter Sabbath notes that she likes Hazel’s eyes, that “they don’t look like they see what he’s looking at but they keep on looking” (56). She senses that, deep down, Hazel is trying to see, but it is not till Hazel later blinds himself for the same reason as Hawks that he is finally able to see. Hawks, though he can smell the sin on Hazel’s breath, “wouldn’t be surprised if [Hazel] wasn’t a real wealthy man” (24), worldly or otherwise. The wealth of which Hawks speaks is not expounded on, but Hawks claims he can see more than Hazel because Hazel has “eyes and see[s] not, ears and hear[s] not, but [he]’ll have to see some time” (27). In light of this statement and Hazel’s desire “to see, if he could, behind [Hawks’] black glasses” (74) one can assume the blind man speaks of a wealth of wisdom instead of a monetary one.
If only O’Connor’s characters would notice, they would see that she has painted her environments with hope. The narrator notes, though Hazel is blind to it, that the long silver streaks in the black sky had a thousand star depth behind it, “as if they were about some vast construction work that involved the whole order of the universe and would take all time to complete.” The problem: “No one was paying any attention to the sky” (18). The narrator, who is closely if not inextricably tied to O’Connor, shows her belief in a hope for humanity through morality’s silver streaks pinned in the sky by someone, waiting for persons like Hazel to notice them and live by them. Even without noticing the sky, Hazel has “the feeling that everything he saw was a broken-off piece of some giant blank thing that he had forgotten had happened to him” (38). He senses the deep workings of something greater, something he hopes has nothing to do with the Bible he totes around in the bottom of his bag. Even Enoch, in all his religious distortion, recognizes that “there was something, in the center of the park, that he had discovered. It was a mystery, although it was right there in a glass case for everybody to see” (41). This word “something,” which Joyce Dyer so aptly notes is O’Connor’s attempt “to convey an essential sense of mystery,” suggests that Enoch senses the knowledge at the heart of the city but cannot specifically pin it down with his finger (5). There is “a terrible knowledge like a big nerve growing inside him,” a knowledge which, were he to pursue it, would likely change his life for the moral (5).
Hazel does not realize that his hat, as it blows off his head at the train station and he runs back to retrieve it, stands as a symbol of morality and the life of a preacher. He knows the choice will cause him to miss his train, but he goes back for his hat anyway. Later, after Haze pummels Enoch with a rock, Haze purchases a new hat with a look completely opposite to his previous one, a move which symbolizes his knowledge of the truth that he knows is drawing him and his rebellious retreat from what it would have him be and do, much the way Jonah of the Bible ran from God’s command to preach to the city of Nineveh and had to be swallowed by a great fish before he would submit to God’s call on his life (71). This switching of the hats lies in unity with Haze’s invocation to Enoch of the Old Testament capitalized usage of God’s name in reference to himself: “I AM clean” (47). O’Connor’s wordplay offers a couple of interpretations, a move which would undoubtedly irk Satterfield’s fancy. Haze unknowingly claims that he is as clean, holy, and eternal as God, though this reading might lie in contradiction to his subsequent statement that “if Jesus existed, I wouldn’t be clean” (47). Haze recognizes that he is only clean if Jesus does not exist, that the simple existence of God dooms him to uncleanliness and a need for redemption. This reading would align with the other potential interpretation that Haze’s statement is loaded with irony, that he will obviously never be clean and therefore only I AM, God himself, is clean and lasting. Not until Haze (the name was never more fitting) has blinded himself, continuing to walk around with rocks in his shoes and his chest strapped with barbed wire, does he confess that he is not clean and in need of something outside himself (116). Therein lies Hazel’s hope.
To Vonnegut, hope is not as hopeful. In a conversation with Slaughterhouse-Five’s narrator about his hopes to write an anti-war book, movie-maker Harrison Starr asks him why he does not write an anti-glacier book instead. This sarcastic gesture is meant to highlight the futility of protesting war because war will always exist. If it could be proven that wars are indeed immoral affairs, then Starr’s assertion would mean that no hope exists for morality. Still, the narrator hopes “this little book will make itself useful” toward that end (17), perhaps the way the works mentioned within the novel—Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds; Uncle Tom’s Cabin; The Execution of Private Slovik; The Brothers Karamazov; the Ilium News Reader; Words for the Wind; Céline and His Vision; Dresden, History, Stage and Gallery; The Review of Optometry; Cinderella; The Pirates of Penzance; The Bible; and The Official History of the Army Air Force in World War Two—have hoped to accomplish. These attempts at social effect are made more poignant by a detail late in the book about the state of television programming and how the powers-that-be do not allow peculiarly-opinionated shows to be aired early in the evening because those people were not supposed to be challenged to think (200).
It seems Vonnegut hopes the descriptions of war actions—Germans molding soap and candles out of the fat of dead Jews, American soldiers trying to murder their fellow soldiers so far from home, blue swastikas in circles of white, schoolgirls boiled, and so on—will convince the public to despise war enough to rally to stop it altogether. The narrator would hope that our new knowledge that the Dresden bombing (135,000) killed more people than either of the Hiroshima (71,379) or Nagasaki (83,793) nuclear attacks would change our hearts and minds, “that a lot of bleeding hearts might not think it was such a wonderful thing to do” (191). Even in the light of all that killing, “The Population Reference Bureau predicts that the world’s total population will double to 7,000,000,000 before the year 2000,” and as Billy confesses, “I suppose they will all want dignity” (212). The question is: Are humans even capable of offering them dignity if those acts are not in the Tralfamadorian structure of moments?
However, if all he is doing is “prescribing corrective lenses for Earthling souls . . . so many . . . lost and wretched,” then what is the point? Is a change of perspective worth anything at all if the horrors of the events cannot be altered? Does the choice to live in the good moments of life and forget the bad actually fix the situation? If readers are to believe the Tralfamadorians, Billy Pilgrim, and the birds, it seems morality is doomed to impotence, that a change of mind is the best that can be done to live with the situation that always has been and always will be. If Americans were to realize, as The Blue Fairy Godmother points out, that they are “weak, smelly, self-pitying—a pack of sniveling, dirty, thieving bastards,” there might be an opportunity for change, though he does not explain how to accomplish such change within the Tralfamadorian worldview. With as wealthy and powerful as America is, The Godmother points out the strides it could take if it were to stop indoctrinating its poor to blame themselves for their poverty, returning them their dignity and allowing them to love one another by first loving themselves.
At one point, a movie of time and America and the Second World War plays backward for Billy, an image that offers some hope for morality. In it, bullet-riddled planes take off and fly backwards over Germany, where cannons on the ground suck bullets from the planes and crew members; crashed planes fly up from the ground into formation; bombers fly over German cities and suck the groundfires into the bellies of their planes. Back at the bases, the bombs are removed from the planes’ bellies and shipped back to America where they are dismantled in factories, mostly by women, and separated into their various minerals to be shipped to the country’s remotest regions and cleverly buried, never be found again. Soldiers then turn in their uniforms and become high school kids; Hitler turns into a baby; and “all humanity, without exception, conspire biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve” (75). This backward vision of the war and the history of humanity offers a stunningly beautiful image of what things might look like if all humanity did actual conspire together to make something perfect. Things look so easy. Stop fighting. Help each other heal. Dismantle the weapons of war. Stop harvesting the raw materials used for the war machine. Become innocent once again. Unfortunately, Vonnegut does not make things so easy for his readers. If time is indeed set and unchangeable, then humans are nothing more than robots, living out the structured events of their lives, dropping bombs from airplanes, “no conscience, no circuits which would allow them to imagine what was happening to the people on the ground” (168). But that allows humanity to imagine, and the circle of argument spins and spins.
At another point, Billy is lying on his back on the ground and sees a vision in the boot of a German corporal—“Adam and Eve . . . naked . . . so innocent . . . vulnerable, eager to behave decently”—and Billy loved them (53). The reader gets this sense that the Garden of Eden might be possible once again if humanity would just remember from where it has come. When food supplies show up in the train of prisoners, the boxcar prisoners “[a]re quiet and trusting and beautiful. They share” (70). Scenes like this offer such stark contrasts to the bootless carnage of the rest of the novel that they beg a deeper look. Why do the prisoners share? What is it about these humans that has taken away their selfish compulsions and warring tendencies, their desire to get closer and closer to Kilgore Trout’s fictional money tree that ends up turning them all into fertilizer for the future?
In his article, “You Must Remember This’: Trauma and Memory in Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five,” Alberto Cacicedo spins this lack and hope into a moral and religious fabric:
In bringing the message of Tralfamadore to human beings, Billy is not urging a detached acceptance of death or of the horrors of war. On the contrary, he is re-presenting the gospel message of Christ to the disciples: remember that every person has duties and responsibilities, which spring from one’s time-bound engagement in the world and are to that extent determined for us. (365)
While his comparison of humanity to Christ’s disciples is unfounded within the text and a forced invocation of religion, his assertion that “every person has duties and responsibilities” flies in the face of the Tralfamadorian worldview, a view which the novel’s tone works hard to undermine. Cacicedo is in unity with Vonnegut when he says that death and the horrors of war can be fought against. What results such necessarily peaceful battles might yield is unclear and unexplored.
To Billy’s mind, the Tralfamadorian worldview is stifling, a beacon of laziness and hopelessness, but to Vonnegut’s readers, it comes across as pure lunacy, obviously fallacious and easily overcome. “Given Vonnegut’s distaste for social Darwinism, he provides a strong clue that the Tralfamadorian perspective is suspect: ‘The Earthling figure who is most engaging to the Tralfamadorian mind [ . . . ] is Charles Darwin—who taught that those who die are meant to die, that corpses are improvements.’ . . . Although Billy embraces this view, a careful reader will discern that Vonnegut does not recommend it” (Hardin 43). The hyperbole of their worldview leads Vonnegut’s readers to quickly imagine a world in which wars are ended, the poor are given back their dignity, and humans are allowed to love each other again, inching us closer to the utopian vision of a perfect Adam and Eve in the garden.
The first time we hear the Poo-tee-weet of Vonnegut’s birds, the message sounds empty of hope. Despite the travesties assailing humanity, all the birds can do is tweet. It is then interesting to note the change in tone and impact in the closing line of the novel. The final Poo-tee-weet carries with it the sense of hope that if the birds keep singing, then humanity can as well. So too does Hazel Motes’ blinding act of faith at the end and his fade into a pin point of light. If Hazel has the capability of transforming from raving heretic to a pin point of light, then so too does religion and all its adherents. Or perhaps, Vonnegut’s birds are in tune with the Tralfamadorian worldview and continue their singing because “Why not!” especially if time is fixed and impossible to change. Perhaps, O’Connor’s pin point of light is not a sign of Hazel’s heavenly homecoming but something much more skeptical and deceptive. After all, a pin point is small. While their criticism of religion and claims of individual choice, in conjunction with the mystery of their characters’ transcendent epiphanies, offer much to say about human morality, they do not supply any hard and fast answers. Nor do they claim to. They accomplish what any good work of literature hopes to do . . . ask the right questions.
Cacicedo, Alberto. “‘You Must Remember This’: Trauma and Memory in Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 46 (2005): 357-368.
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Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse Five. New York: Dell, 1969.
———. Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons. New York: Dell, 1965.
Wilt, Jonathan. “Wise Blood and the Irony of Redemption.” The Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 22 (1993-1994): 12-24.
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