The modern human attitude is largely framed by the philosophy of science, in America. According to this philosophy the world is governed by the fixed laws of physics, through which humans find intellectual enlightenment. In this world of science, knowledge is power, and this power renders humans more able to shape their destiny. The American ideal of the self-made individual, (although usually vouched in the terms of religion), is structured upon this science based premise. But a contradiction lies at the heart of this blending of scientific philosophy and individual identity.
It is that a physically and scientifically determined universe does not allow for free will. The modern headlong march towards scientific utopia thus carries grave peril because a philosophy that denies the inexorable human desire for free will ultimately is not self-sustaining. It is as if people are surrendering to destiny at the price of believing that the will is empowered by science. It recalls Franklin Roosevelt’s memorable comment that “freedom cannot be bestowed; it must be achieved” (qtd. in Singh 143). This crucial issue is dealt with by Kurt Vonnegut in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five.
Although many readers view Vonnegut’s novel as advocating fatalism, the opposite is true. Billy Pilgrim, the novel’s protagonist, clearly advocates that humans must overcome fatalism in order to restore free will and sustain forward movement. Toni Morrison, in her novel Beloved, suggests that humans also should overcome the fixity of time. To move forward, both Sethe and Paul D must learn to redefine themselves by psychologically releasing themselves from the physical chains of their previous slavery. The central message of both authors is that there is no looking back. A vigorous free will must always look forward.
Sociological and psychological factors may be challenges, but they are not impediments to the free will. The only such barriers are those that exist within humans. The crucial factor is the orientation of people’s vision. Both texts stress the importance of escaping the grip of the past by focusing on the future, and thus are aimed at nourishing hope. The guiding motif in this analysis is thus time. The novels can also be read as reminders of the American ideal, and what it means to be a successful American in the modern era. The American outlook has always resisted historicity.
Its orientation is to leave the old world behind and focus on the forging of the new. But modern Americans are surrendering to historicity once more, and thereby squandering their freedom. By chasing synthetic and materialistic dreams (which is merely slavery to past success), we lose our moral orientation, and this is a failure of the American ideal. If we hope to recover from this decadence we must re-establish our freedom, which should be in the spirit of Emerson’s “nonconformism”. The novel Slaughterhouse-Five is intensely personal to Kurt Vonnegut, though Billy Pilgrim is not necessarily the alter ego of the author.
He draws on his experience of having fought in the Second World War, been taken prisoner, and surviving the blanket firebombing of Dresden. He survived by being trapped as a prisoner-of-war in an underground locker of a slaughterhouse, and emerged a few days later to apprehend the charred desolation. In the novel, Billy Pilgrim goes through the same experience which turns out to be the defining moment of his existence. He has become “unstuck in time” through his experience of this event, meaning that the flow of time does not effect him anymore, and that he can shift at will from one moment in time to another.
He experiences only episodes, in random order, and over and over again, but they always refer back to the Dresden massacre. He does not realize what is happening until much later, when he is abducted by alien creatures known as the Tralfamadorians. They reveal to him that free will is only an illusion, and because they exist in four dimensions – the fourth dimension being time – they observe past, present and future simultaneously, and the entire life as a unified whole. Time itself is indestructible, and, therefore, one lives one’s life over and over again.
One only has free will to the extent that one chooses to concentrate on the better moments in life. This is the way Tralfamadorian literature is written, as one of his captors reveals to him, “There isn’t any particular relationship between the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects.
What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time (Vonnegut 88). ” After this encounter, Billy is confirmed in his fatalism, and he is described as living the episodes of his life over and over again. Before his violent end in the year 1976, he reveals to the world the secret about the nature of time which he has learned from the Tralfamadorian. He does so with calm and collected purpose, because he knows beforehand that his message will be accepted.
He even avoids bearing a grudge towards his own murderer, knowing that it is all fated, and that death itself is of no consequence. The vital clue that the novel as taking place frozen time is found in Vonnegut’s introduction, in which he says, “This is a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore, where the flying saucers come from” (Ibid, title page). The tales told on that distant planet take place in static time, and by pointing out this similarity the author is acknowledging the existence of dynamic time, which the Trafalmadorians deny.
Regarding this weird theory, there is ample evidence that what is told about the aliens is nothing more than a figment of Billy’s imagination, and that much of the novel is from the point of view of a severely disturbed mind. It is his own fixity in time which he tries to rationalize with his tales of the aliens. The description of the aliens as upside down toilet plungers is laughable, and this is a clue from the author that we are not supposed to believe in them and their outlandish concept of time.
Even though Billy is portrayed as a weakling, readers should not judge his fatalism as abnormal, or his ideas about time as merely the products of an unsettled imagination. Vonnegut is passing judgment on the ethos of the human age, and readers know this because the world accepts Billy’s revelations in the end, also, because the narrative is rooted in the Second World War. This is the event that finally shatters the notion of “progress” as in the eighteenth century Enlightenment.
The consequence of the two world wars is the paralysis of cultural will, and this is captured through Billy’s fantastic notion of time, also rooted in the Second World War. Billy’s particular circumstance, allied with his curious nature, allows him to come to vital understanding that he lives in an age of stagnancy. But even though the novel is mainly concerned with depicting the human age, there are also enough clues that point to the way out of this nightmare. For example, Vonnegut, in his own character in the novel, talks about its composition to his publisher in Chapter 1, and says, “People aren’t supposed to look back.
I’m certainly not going to do it anymore. I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun. This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt (28). ” Whatever deep secrets it conveys, the novel is declared to be a failure, and Vonnegut admits that he too is subject to frozen time in writing such a novel, describing himself as “a pillar of salt”. The reference in to Lot’s wife, who is described in Genesis as turning into a pillar of salt because she chose to look back with attachment to the incinerating city of Sodom. Looking back is made to be the most fatal destroyer of the will.
So he promises he will not do it again, and his subsequent novels will be situated in dynamic time. For Vonnegut, hope resides in leaving the past behind. Toni Morrison delivers the same message in a very different context. Slavery is an integral part of the birth of the American nation. It is now universally admitted to have been a cruel institution. But, as E H Carr puts it, history is only “the key to the understanding of the present” (14). It is very difficult for us to empathize with the motivations of the slave-owners, and any effort in this direction is bound to be controversial.
But in her novel Beloved, Morrison is not intent on giving the reader further history, or even a commentary of history. The advocacy is clear, that humans should leave history behind. Sethe is a former slave, now living out her freedom with her teenage daughter Denver, and recently having admitted another former slave Paul D as her partner. She is trying to suppress her horrific past, but the arrival of Paul D brings it back to her. Once, when fleeing from her sadistic owner, she had murdered her 2 year old daughter, thinking that capture was inevitable, and she did not want her children to suffer slavery.
Soon after the arrival of Paul D, the embodied spirit of her murdered daughter appears, calling herself Beloved. Her appearance brings new life into all that come in contact with her, because she infuses tension into their lives, by which they must react. She becomes a demanding presence in the household, and Sethe finds herself at her beck and call. The shy and retiring Denver find herself forced out of the household and in the process acquires maturity. Even Paul D learns to open up his “rusted tin tobacco box” of a heart in her presence. In the end she disappears just as suddenly, and all the tensions are at once relieved.
But she has touched lives in such a way that in her aftermath they are all restored to life and hope. Beloved clearly represents a horrible past, and one which must be dealt with finally. Even traces of the tale itself must not be left behind, and so the novel ends, “This is not a story to pass on” (Morrison 324). The past must be completely extinguished, and once this has been done, there is the possibility of shaping one’s destiny through the exercise of free will. These novels by Vonnegut and Morrison raise the issue of what it means to be successful in America today.
Traditionally, historicity had been part of the old world, and that which the new world tries to leave behind. But these novels suggest that historicity has certainly caught up with modern America, and is the root to modern decadence. But to review the exhortations of the greatest Americans of the past is only to confirm that the nation was established on the basis of freedom, and freedom necessarily entails the letting go of the past. In the early period of the Puritan fathers the message use to be couched in terms of religion, and which we may detect in the sermons of Jonathan Edwards.
In his speech “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” there is no reference to anything in the past. It is entirely aimed at striking terror in the heart of the sinners, by evoking the visions of the hell that awaits them, laced with such warnings as: “There is nothing that keeps wicked men, at any moment, out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God” (Edwards 90). Edwards relies on the immediacy of his message, and thereby strikes a particularly American note. The calm transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson may seem to be at a polar opposite, yet projects the same obligation to freedom.
In his essay “Nature” he says, “Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchers of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes” (Emerson 181). Writing in the middle of the 19th century, he warns that the true American spirit of freedom is being quickly eroded, and will not be recovered until we relearn how to apprehend nature with immediacy. “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist,” he says in his essay “Self Reliance” (Ibid 269).
Any sort of conformity is compromising to the freedom, and therefore is a betrayal of the American ethos. Mark Twain conveys the same message in his classic children’s adventure story Huckleberry Finn. Set in the context of slavery and emancipation, it is more truly about the slavery of the whites than that of the blacks. Huck is fleeing from his drunken father, but he also becomes wary of the pious and benevolent reach of society that tries to civilize him. He sets himself up on a floating raft, with an escaped slave, and only here he feels free and himself: “[T]here warn’t no home like a raft, after all.
Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft” (Twain123). Huck’s suspicion towards society and civilization is the central point of the novel, and this makes him a true American. Vonnegut and Morrison would say that modern American is a betrayal of the founding spirit of the nation, where conformity to a media constructed reality in the norm. It is a historicity of a different sort which America enslaves itself to. It is as if history is rewritten by Hollywood, and such false history tends to become the worldview of the average American.
The media projects crass materialism in every aspect, where fame is the highest criterion for judging worth. So, Americans not only follow the dress code of celebrity film stars, they also follow the history and sociology of celebrity historians and sociologists. This in conformity of the most enslaving form, and represents a total loss of freedom. The judgment must be that, without the recovery of the Emersonian spirit of nonconformism there is no way out of this predicament. Americans must strive once again to succeed as human beings, and must stop chasing the fame and fortune of film stars. The crucial necessity is to recover free will.
Both Vonnegut and Morrison bring the message that the barriers to the exercise of free will lie not in external conditions, but within each human being. If people believe that they lie with social, psychological or emotional factors, then they subscribe to the thinking of the Enlightenment, which believed that a scientific approach to understanding external conditions will result in their gradual removal, and generally in the direction of utopia. Vonnegut intends to explode this myth, and tells readers that such determinism renders the free will paralyzed, and he depicts the modern world as having met this unacceptable end.
Like Morrison does in her novel Beloved, Vonnegut advocates that humans must overcome the past if they hope to exercise control over their future. Morrison’s specific concern is the fixity of Black America in the past of slavery, but she is in fact addressing a wider malaise in America as a whole. The common message is that slavery to the past is destructive to the free will, and therefore disastrous to the American ideal. Works Cited Carr, E. H. What is History? New York: Penguin Books, 1967. Edwards, Jonathan. A Jonathan Edwards Reader. Eds.
John Edwin Smith, Harry S. Stout. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Eds. William H. Gilman, Charles Johnson. New York: Signet Classic, 2003. Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Vintage International, 2004. Singh, M. P. Quote Unquote. Twin Lakes, WI: Lotus Press, 2007. Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Signet Classic, 2002. Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-five, Or, the Children’s Crusade: A Duty-dance With Death. New York: Dell, 1969.