Aliens, Time Travel, and Dresden -Slaughterhouse-Five Part I: Crash Course Literature 212

Hi, I’m John Green, this is
Crash Course Literature, and today we’re gonna talk about
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Mr. Green, Mr. Green! You mean, like the Motown
group that sings that song – glad all over! No singing, Me From the Past! And no, it is
not a Motown group! You’re thinking of the Dave Clark Five, and for the record, they
were not a Motown group, they were British. [Theme Song] So, Slaughterhouse Five, also known by its
underappreciated alternate title, The Children’s Crusade, is one of the most widely read antiwar
books of the late twentieth century. It was written by Kurt Vonnegut during the
height of the Vietnam War, but this novel is an attempt to chronicle the violence of
the World War II bombing of Dresden and modern warfare more broadly. But it’s important
to understand, again, those two historical contexts. The one in which the book was written
and the one the book is about. And the question at the heart of Slaughterhouse
Five is what role can literature, particularly works of literary fiction, play in addressing
large scale acts of violence? What is the role of literature in examining war?
But of course that makes Slaughterhouse Five sound very sad and serious, which it is, but
it’s also a surprisingly and very weirdly funny book. Let’s start with an outline
of the main events of Slaughterhouse Five. in the Thought Bubble. So,
Vonnegut’s protagonist is Billy Pilgrim. But rather than being on a linear journey
toward a holy place, as his name might suggest, Pilgrim has flashbacks (and fantasies) that
he believes are actual time travel. Pilgrim describes himself as being “unstuck in time.”
And rather than describing his life events in chronological order, he jumps between times
and places. The events that comprise Pilgrim’s disjointed
narrative actually have quite a logical progression. Like a rough outline of them looks like this:
Pilgrim fought in World War II. He was a prisoner of war in Germany. He was being held in Dresden
when that city was largely destroyed by Allied bombing toward the end of the war. And Pilgrim
survived because he and his fellow prisoners were held sixty feet underground in a former
slaughterhouse. After the firestorm, Pilgrim and his fellow detainees are put to work cleaning
up the charred remains of bodies. And then after the war, Billy Pilgrim has trouble returning
to civilian life, spends some time in a mental institution, but then eventually marries and
becomes an optometrist. A profession, it rather goes without saying,
that involves sight. Anyway, then Pilgrim has a breakdown while
listening to a barbershop quartet, whose expressions remind him of his guards at Dresden. He becomes
convinced that aliens (Tralfamadorians) abducted him and increasingly unmoored, Pilgrim publicly
professes the Tralfamadorian vision of time and space. Now Pilgrim’s narrative sounds a little crazy (especially since it’s delivered in such a nonlinear manner), but Vonnegut makes the logic of his
mental breakdown perfectly clear. As such, Vonnegut creates a novel that demonstrates how war trauma affects the individual psyche. Thanks, Thought Bubble. So, where did Vonnegut
get all of these insights? Well in part, they came from Vonnegut’s own experience in the
war, as he acknowledges in the book. It’s very interesting that the first and last chapters
of Slaughterhouse Five are written in first person from the perspective of Kurt Vonnegut.
In the very beginning of the novel and at the very end, he calls attention to the fact
that we are reading a novel. That’s an unusual and bold choice because
generally as readers we want to forget that we’re reading a story, right? And feel like
we’re living inside reality. But Vonnegut wants to unmoor us from our expectations of fiction,
just as Billy Pilgrim is unmoored from time. Kurt Vonnegut was born — Oh, it’s time
for the open letter! Hey there, Kurt Vonnegut. Dear Kurt Vonnegut, I actually met you once
at the University of Alabama. My primary memory of that evening is that someone came up to
you and said, “Sir, you can’t smoke in here.” And you replied, “Well, I can smoke
or I can leave!” You were and remain a great inspiration to
me as a writer and one thing that I always think about with you is that even though obviously
you had a pretty screwed-up life, I always felt like you had it figured out.
Long story short, I love you Kurt Vonnegut. Kurt Puppet: I love you too!
John: Aw, thank you Kurt! Best wishes, John Green. Anyway, Vonnegut was born in beautiful Indianapolis
in 1922, he spent some time at Cornell University before entering the United States army at
the age of twenty. Like Billy Pilgrim, he was shipped to Europe, had a very brief combat
experience, and then became a prisoner of war during the Battle of the Bulge, which
you’ll remember from Crash Course history. And then like Pilgrim, Vonnegut was sent to
Dresden, where he was interred at a former slaughterhouse. At the time, Dresden was considered
a relatively safe place to be. In Slaughterhouse Five, an English officer envies the American
prisoners who are sent to Dresden, he says: You needn’t worry about bombs […] Dresden
is an open city. It is undefended, and contains no war industries or troop concentrations
of any importance. But it turns out, of course, that in World
War II, such things were not prerequisites for getting bombed.
Between February 13th and 15th of 1945, British and American bombers dropped nearly 4,000
tons of bombs and incendiary devices on Dresden. This created a firestorm that destroyed an
enormous part of the city and cost tens of thousands of lives.
And then Dresden was subject to more air raids of this sort in March and April. Now by all accounts,
the suffering on the ground was tremendous. But writers, artists, and historians have found it difficult
to adequately convey the horrors that took place. Vonnegut approaches the need to testify to
these events in Slaughterhouse Five by using a fictional narrative that seeks to both understand
and evade the past. Like although his narrator was in Dresden
during the bombing and firestorm, he learns what took place by eavesdropping on whispering
guards. And that’s a way of diminishing the immediacy
of violence to rumor. Like Pilgrim reports the guards’ conversation as follows:
There was a fire-storm out there. Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything
organic, everything that would burn. This conversation of whispers, transmitted
in a foreign language, and translated by the author is remembered many years after the
fact. And as readers, we have plenty of reason to question it.
I mean, just look at the vague nature of the language used. Consider the repetition of
“everything” (“…everything organic, everything that would burn”).
Well, “everything” is a pretty broad concept. And in this context, it allows the narrator
not to imagine the specific, horrible details. Like here, vague language provides a stand-in
for detailed testimony. But there’s also something horrific and
visceral about that idea generally. The idea of “everything organic” burning.
It implies the loss of not just our lives but all life.
Slaughterhouse Five also uses figures of speech as a means of evasion.
The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals.
I mean, just as you can’t look directly at the sun, Billy Pilgrim can’t look directly
at the destruction of Dresden. He has to tell us what it’s like because what
it is is unspeakable. And this sort of evasion is very common in eyewitness reports of violence.
In fact, Sebald chronicled how often eyewitness reports of the bombing of German cities
contained “stereotypical phrases.” These clichés, he explains, “cover up and neutralize experiences beyond our ability to comprehend.” The quote “unreal effect” that they produce is a very real depiction of how the human mind reacts to extreme suffering. Here’s another example of trying to see the horror of war by not looking directly at it. Vonnegut describes the post-bombing Dresden as a mute reflection in the contorted faces of prison guards, and he creates a shocking and memorable image:
The guards drew together instinctively, rolled their eyes. They experimented with one expression
and then another, said nothing, though their mouths were often open. They looked like a
silent film of a barbershop quartet. So what does this say about the guards? What
are we to make of the silence in this scene? Why is it that the guards say nothing? Finally,
why might Vonnegut use this goofy metaphor of a barbershop quartet in a silent film at
this particular moment? Are we supposed to laugh at absurd moments like this or the repetition
of the phrase “so it goes” whenever someone dies?
And if we do feel that instinct to laugh, are we then meant to cringe at ourselves for
having had that impulse? Regardless, that image doesn’t go where
we expect it to and so it’s designed to make us uncomfortable. And that’s its power.
That’s its beauty. And it’s worth remembering that Vonnegut
describes himself as often feeling speechless when thinking about the bombing of Dresden.
Like in the first chapter of Slaughterhouse Five, he writes:
I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden since all
I would have to do would be to report what I had seen. And I thought too it would be
a masterpiece, or at least make me a lot of money since the subject was so big. But not
many words about Dresden came from my mind then… and not many words come now, either.
And it’s clear that Vonnegut has a pretty complicated relationship with the words that
eventually do, in fact, come. Like his novel, famously, opens with the following lines:
All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.
Pretty much true? That’s another phrase that’s designed to make us uncomfortable.
And as Vonnegut hints at in that passage I just read, what does it mean for Vonnegut to
gain acclaim and wealth for what he has written? In an introduction to the 1976 edition
of Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut expresses some guilt at having benefited from its publication:
The Dresden atrocity, tremendously expensive and meticulously planned, was so meaningless,
finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that
person. I wrote this book, which earned a lot of money for me and made my reputation,
such as it is. One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed.
Some business I’m in. Now that’s a classic example of Vonnegut’s
self-deprecating humor, but the “business” of providing testimony does remain important
work, I would argue — even if it is through the flawed vehicle of narrative fiction.
Precisely because it struggles to look directly at the firebombing of Dresden, Slaughterhouse
Five provides ways of thinking about how we live and love and fight and heal.
And it makes us think about how we frame the stories that we tell ourselves about the past.
And Billy Pilgrim’s unstuckness in time reminds us that, as the great William Faulkner
wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.”
Next week, we’ll talk about Billy Pilgrim’s alternate universe filled with toilet-plunger
aliens who offer a new perspective on the violence of mankind. And we’ll discuss the
philosophy of Tralfamadorians (a philosophy summed up by the phrase, “and so it goes”).
And, finally, we will consider what, if anything, an “anti-war” can do about war, or really
about anything else. Thanks for watching, I’ll see you next week.
Crash Course is made with the help of all of these nice people, and it exists because
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You can also get great perks like signed posters, so if you want to support Crash Course, please
check it out. Thank you for watching, and as we say in my hometown, don’t forget to
be awesome.

100 Replies to “Aliens, Time Travel, and Dresden -Slaughterhouse-Five Part I: Crash Course Literature 212

  1. John Green, thank you for the wonderful video. It inspired me to read the novel again. My father was a WWII veteran. As a boy, I never thought of my father and Kurt Vonnegut as contemporaries, since Vonnegut struck me as more of a hippy. However, they were both more similar than I imagined as a boy. Today we describe Post Traumatic Stress Disease, but I believe both men suffered the same way. To witness death and destruction on that level was truly horrible. To hear my father talk about battlefields of dead and to see Munich as city so leveled by bombs, he could see from one end of the city to the other.
    Unlike my father, Vonnegut could talk about his experience nearly immediately after the war.

  2. Who cares about Dresden? The inhabitants were Nazis- they got what they deserved. Just like they had no pity on my people in the Death Camps, they should get no pity from the Allies. Eye for an eye. Vonnegut is an Anti-Semite; He thinks Nazi lives are worth anything. The Bombers of Dresden were heroes. They are G-d's righteous vengeance on the Nazis.

  3. I think this was the weirdest book I read in high school. The book I loved the most in high school was The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, but the WEIRDEST book was definitely this one. It was fascinating, but really strange.

  4. Seriously? This is probably the 100th or so episode of CC I’ve watched on one subject or another and I can’t look at John Green the same now because I’m fan-hurling over here. Didn’t know her wrote TFIOS! Now I feel somewhat validated about studying broadly and for recreation.

  5. If you ever decide to get Slaughterhouse Five on audiobook, get the one narrated by James Franco. His voice adds greatly to the experience.

  6. im actaully so happy and greatful that you guys do crash course vids honestly i dont think id have an A in english or history or chem without these videos thak you sooo much

  7. "War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over." Don't forget for a moment what the Nazis have done, were doing,and would of done if the Allies did not stop them.

  8. More than once in this video Pilgrim's experience with the aliens is described as a fantasy, as if it's really not happening to him. What if anything in the novel suggests that he's not actually been abducted by aliens? Especially considering that Vonnegut readers know the aliens to be "real" from Sirens of Titan.

    I have always considered this book to be Sci-fi… Just curious if there's anything in the writing that suggests they are in fact a fantasy.

  9. I guess I'm a huge idiot, because I never realized that this John Green, was The Fault in our stars, John green! Awesome.

  10. That was extremely insightful. I always appreciate delving into the minds of writers, because it's just so fascinating the way their brains must function when writing. The part in the video where you mention how Vonnegut uses metaphors and analogies to block out the reality of Dresden's devastation was powerful and evoked goosebumps from me. I read his book over the summer, but the thought of that part of his writing never occurred to me. It really just goes to show how much thought is put into the language, structure, form, and just everything within a novel.

  11. If you were to ask me to name my five favorite authors, the list would probably change from day to day depending on my mood, which books I’d been lately reading, the weather, and what I had for breakfast. There are two authors who would always top my list however: Charles Dickens and Kurt Vonnegut.

  12. Is it just a coincidence that the number of the episode is the same number in the name of one of Kilgore Trout's planets, Zircon-212?

  13. The agenda of the all lies was to bomb civilians. Over 300 000 was murdered in Dresden. Survivors where even strafed by planes.

  14. This book is amazing and one which I share personal links with, or my family do. My grandma is German and grew up in a small village that is now part of Poland. But, she was actually there for the bombing at Dresden, as a child refugee.

    She obviously survived because I wouldn’t have been born but she still has scars from today. It’s so weird especially considering this was a random book I picked off the shelf at my local library.

  15. I read this book twice when I was younger. I have been deployed twice now. Maybe it's time for a revisit. So it goes… Thank you

  16. US public ed English Lit standards lack reading such books like this unless the teacher makes it happen..

  17. I thought billy was in a plane crash which gave him brain damage then he was insane? (It's been a while since I've read this book so I'm probably wrong I never really understood it anyway)

  18. I think the greatest tragedy of the millennial generation is that we have the technology and wealth to make violent conflict a thing of the past, yet many people continue to choose isolation over international cooperation. My perception may be skewed under the Trump presidency, but more things seem to be getting worse in 2018 than better.

  19. I’m sorry but I got confused because of the quick changes. I enjoyed Kindred by Octavia E. Butler better.

  20. very disappointing commentary … it has been a long time since I read S5- and I intend to re-read in spite of the misdirected comments … which i came to get some support nice job CC

  21. while Slaughterhouse-Five is far more relevant to an educational channel on literature I've always wondered why cat's cradle never gets covered or even mentioned anywhere by anyone. 85% is of course slaughterhouse but the rest always goes to sirens or god bless you mr rosewater etc , why no love for cats cradle?

  22. Well, Dresden was a major railway junction with thousands of troops crossing each day, with the bombing certainly helping the soviets on the eastern front. Additionally, factories where located in the greater Dresden area. Of course, it was a horrible event but the part of it being an unjustifiable target is not completely true.

  23. Had to make a presentation for school about this book. I was too busy to read it so this saved my life. Thanks!

  24. Tralfamadore (and by extension tralfamadorians) are real in the fiction of Slaughter House Five and are referenced in other Vonnegut books such as The Sirens Of Titan. Come on man, research isn’t hard, the aliens are meant to be an allegory of PTSD not a representation of it.

  25. I’m writing a paper on this book. Specifically fate, fatalism, and what that means for an anti-war book. This book is so complex I think I’m going to lose my mind. So it goes.

  26. Slaughter five does describe in detail what happened it wasn’t just rumors this guys didn’t read ten book

  27. And of course in your predictably, almost stereotypical, modern Amerikan liberal(tm) view the bombing of Dresden was 'universally' recognized as an unnecessary "atrocity". That view is comfortable as a denialist's shield against reality.
    The realities of war are much more complex, and include the nationwide transportation nexus at Dresden, the estimated 100+ war materiel factories, and the population heavily employed in those factories.

  28. I bought David Irving's The Destruction Of Dresden mentioned by Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse 5. When I went to read it, it seems to have disappeared in the clutter of my house. So it goes.

  29. It didn’t happen towards the end of the war, the bombing happened after the war. That’s what made it so dreadful.

  30. I think that the question of whether or not Billy Pilgrim actually became on stocking time is a contentious one. You could make the argument that he got the idea from the Kilgore Trout books he began reading towards the end of the novel but then again there are no real hints to affirm either viewpoint.

  31. I was there down in this town in 1990. The locals still remembered how the skies had appeared being light in nighttime. WHY did America commit that? It did non bear any sense as Russians were just in 10 km. The US wanted to threat RUS, how would they go in case of the War against each other.

  32. I very much like your videos but… I'm sorry I always have to stop watching because I get stressed! couldn't you just slow your speech down?

  33. I'm a student with no income,and would support this channel on patreon if I could.
    Thank you to all those that do!!!!

  34. When I was seven, I went to my great grandmothers funeral. I vividly remember having an overwhelming urge to laugh. Then I had a recurring dream about her for months. I was ashamed of her funeral until I learned about hysteria.

  35. Just finished reading this book while on standby at my construction job in Utah. I'm 19, and Vonnegut has now become my favorite author. Thank you Crash Course for becoming an instrumental part in my young adult life and for reminding me of the freedoms associated with education.

  36. Wish I had known about this video in my senior year when we were reading this and I was confused as all hell.

  37. Pilgrim HAS become stuck in time! I think that discounting the absurdist trope as a ‘just inside a character’s head’ stylistic device undermines not just the anti-war themes in Slaughterhouse 5 but also robs the reader of a willing suspension of disbelief while enjoying the text. Why not have the Aliens be real? Does it make the story any more or less valid? The aliens themselves come up in pretty much every single novel by Vonnegut.

  38. Some people use this book as a source for saying Dresden was an "Unjustifiable" target. Dresden was a very justifiable target, thousands of troops everyday went through Dresden, it wasn't untouched, it was bombed before, and 300,000 people didnt die, 25,000 did. This book is science fiction, do not use it as a source

  39. idiot book for idiots. want an ant-war book. 'goodbye to all that' with a dozen others. 'all quiet on the western front' is not a cowardly cop out like slaughter house five.

  40. I just started reading this one, and I just wanted to thank Crash Course Literature for making me want to read it! I’ve already read the first chapter, and I think I’m already beginning to enjoy Kurt Vonnegut’s writing style. (Especially since the last book I just finished reading was the ridiculously long War and Peace, which probably deserves an episode or two of its own.)

  41. One of my dads coworkers in making American precision bombs watched Dresden burn as a child. That man died in the 90s.

  42. I think the determinism and camus-esque absurdism of the trafalmadorians is one of the best parts of the book. And so it goes

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