“Slaughterhouse-Five” and the power of allegories

“Slaughterhouse-Five” and the power of allegories September 3, 2014

books Allegories are powerful. By prodding readers toward specific conclusions without making the case for them explicitly, they allow readers to “discover” ideas for themselves. As a result, readers obtain a sense of ownership over the ideas that they might not have had if they felt like they were being told what to believe.

Few have leveraged the power of allegories better than authors of religious texts. Western readers are most likely to be familiar with Jesus’ parables, like those of the good Samaritan and the prodigal son. But other traditions, including Sufism, also make use of this literary device. Outside of the religious sphere, Plato’s nearly two-and-a-half millennia old allegory of the cave is still discussed in philosophy classes all over the world.

My favorite allegory, however, is a three-paragraph aside contained in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.

As a POW in Dresden, Germany during World War II, Vonnegut was a first-hand witness to its infamous firebombing. The experience left him deeply traumatized, and it took him twenty-four years to formulate his thoughts on it in Slaughterhouse-Five. Perhaps the best measure of this book’s literary influence is that it has been a constant subject to attempted bans in school libraries from its publication in 1969 until as recently as 2011.

The section I’m thinking about deserves particular attention because it may be the most direct line we will ever have to Vonnegut’s personal thoughts about war. For reasons that need not be explained here, the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is watching a movie about World War II backwards:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating day and night, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

Part of the power of allegories is that readers bring their own experiences and ideas into interpreting them. As a result, your takeaway may differ greatly from mine.

But what makes this passage so powerful to me is Vonnegut’s unique command of irony. The idea of bomber planes that fly backwards, extinguishing fires as they go, feels absurd. As does the image of munitions factory workers dismantling bombs and burying the materials out of reach forever. But if you hold that thought for a moment, you realize that it is the real world, not Vonnegut, that gets it wrong.

How much more appealing is a world in which such a tremendous logistical effort went toward putting out fires in faraway cities, rather than causing them?

Edit: The original post described Plato’s Republic as being two-and-a-half decade old. It is, of course, two and a half millennia old.

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