Time & Fatalism

in Slaughterhouse-Five

“Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.”

Time Travel Inside the Story

It is December 1944 when Billy Pilgrim first gets unstuck in time. Marching behind enemy lines together with soldier Roland Weary and two scouts, trying to avoid being shot by the Germans, Pilgrim suddenly finds himself being pushed by his father in the swimming pool of Ilium's Y.M.C.A. Billy is a child terrified of having to learn how to swim. With the blink of an eye he travels to 1965, where he is forty-one and visiting his mother at a hospice, then to 1958, where he is at a banquet of honor for a Little League team, and again to 1961, where he is drunk at a New Year's Eve party, before being shaken awake and back to the war.

When reading Slaughterhouse-Five we are not told what caused the protagonist of the novel to obtain the power to travel through time. It just happens, and from that first instance, the book follows a non-linear structure where a constant and unpredictable switch takes place. If Billy's visions are real or a product of his own imagination, perhaps due to post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the terror of the war, is also not addressed, but there is a sentence in the first chapter of Pilgrim's tale that indicates a difference between facts and dreams, which could lead us to believe that Billy is indeed experiencing time travel.

Billy was having a delightful hallucination. He was wearing dry, warm, white sweatsocks, and he was skating on a ballroom floor. Thousands cheered. This wasn’t time travel. It had never happened, never would happen. It was the craziness of a dying young man with his shoes full of snow.
This passage shows how time travel and a mental escape from unpleasant situations are indeed two distinct things. Billy’s movement through the different stages of his life involves events that have or will happen, while hallucinations derive from suffering and illness. At the same time, Billy only seems to travel with his mind and not with his body, by closing his eyes and falling in a trance-like state, leaving the reader to wonder how reality can be defined.

Time travel in Slaughterhouse-Five is presented as a tool to re-think about what free will is and how all events in one’s life are intertwined with one another. When Billy gets kidnapped by the aliens from the planet Trafalmadore he is immediately introduced to their philosophy:
“Welcome aboard Mr. Pilgrim” said the loudspeaker “Any questions?”
Billy licked his lips, thought a while, inquired at last: “Why me?”
“That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?”
” Yes.” […]
“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”
Billy accepts the Trafalmadorian view of life shortly after being transported to their planet, three hundred million miles from Earth. Even though his kidnapping and his ability to travel through time do not seem to be related, Pilgrim starts looking at time in the same way Trafalmadorians do: as non-linear and existing in its entirety at any moment. According to the Trafalmadorians every event, past or future, has already occurred and it is, therefore, pointless to investigate in causes and effects.

The relation between fate and time is not new in modern philosophy. In 1962 Professor Richard Taylor published an article in the journal Philosophical Review in which he argues that human actions have no influence over the future if we consider time as non-linear. According to Taylor, we all are fatalists in regards to the past and if we take for granted that time in itself is not “”efficacious”; that is, that the mere passage of time does not augment or diminish the capacities of anything and, in particular, does not enhance or decrease an agent’s powers or abilities”, then we should also be so in regards to the future. Taylor’s sophisticated thesis, assumes that “if one state of affairs ensures without logically entailing the occurrence of another, then the former cannot occur without the latter occurring” and therefore future conditions have as much power to affect the present as past events do, with humans not being able to exercise any control over them.

The article (of which Vonnegut could have been aware), after its publication, sparked a decades-long debate which ended up being contained in the volume Fate, Time and Language, a posthumously published critique on Taylor’s work by David Foster Wallace. In this collection of essays numerous philosophers try to debunk Taylor’s idea of fatalism, a concept that appears very closely related to the Trafalmadorian view of life in which nothing is dependent on human decisions (“All time is all time. It does not change”). One of the most effective solutions to the fatalist problem was written by Bruce Aune in his article “Fatalism and Professor Taylor”. In his paper Aune discusses how us, humans, conceptualize time as “passing” and not static, making the idea of time as an unchanging whole complicated to grasp because of the nature of time itself.
What is the mere passage of time? Could time possibly pass without something, somewhere, changing - without the tick of a clock, the movement of a planet, the twitch of a muscle or the sight of a flash? Apparently not: for not only is the chronometry of time determined by changes, but its very topology is defined by changes - by events, happenings, and the like. Surely it is no news that time implies change and change implies time: a timeless world is one in which everything has come to a stop, where even the dissenting thoughts of philosophers are arrested.
By viewing time under this light it can be argued that in Slaughterhouse-Five we are presented with at least three different approaches to the concept: humans view time as linear and believe that acting in the present moment can alter what will happen tomorrow; Trafalmadorians do not appear to believe in the concept of time at all: if all moments can be looked at in the same way "we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains", if we live like if we were trapped in amber, if there is no change, then there cannot be time as we know it; Billy Pilgrim endorses the Trafalmadorian fatalism and accepts that all events are pre-determined, but still experiences the passage of time, only in a different way. Pilgrim jumps from one life stage to the other (but does not experience multiple stages at the same time) and also feels that time runs at different speeds on Trafalmadore and on Earth.

To question reality through Slaughterhouse-Five is to choose whether there is such a thing as a universal truth or if it should be left to subjectivity to determine what exists and what doesn't. The book opens with the famous incipit "All this happened, more or less." and leaves us with no answers, but suggests that the relation between time and reality is perhaps not so strict. Billy Pilgrim switches between being a soldier, an optometrist, a preacher, a human specimen in an alien zoo in the span of a few minutes, reminding us that reality is not always what is visible in the present moment, but that the present moment is nothing more than a tiny fragment of a wider whole.

Time Travel Outside the Story

While the non-linearity of time is a central motif in Slaughterhouse-Five, the concept of time in relation to this book can be also analyzed on a meta level, by looking at stylistic choices and context in which it was published.

The first thing that appears in juxtaposition with the storyline is the structure of the novel. While the events that occur in Billy Pilgrim's life are narrated in no particular order, it is framed in an organized and linear manner: the story is broken into chapters that go from 1 to 10, and of these the first and the last one are first person narratives about the writing of Pilgrim's tale, highlighting the fact that this book is in fact a story within a story. In the introductory chapter an unnamed author and war veteran is visiting a friend in order to gain information and conclude his "Dresden book". The author remembers the old days in the battlefield, then as a student, then as he was starting to work on the novel that follows. The narrator here, just like Billy Pilgrim will do few pages later, constantly switches between realities, blurring the lines between what is simply memory and what is time travel.

Vonnegut published Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969, after years of struggle to complete this anti-war novel. According to his biographer, Charles J. Schields, there could not have been a better time for publication: just two weeks prior to the arrival of Slaughterhouse-Five in bookstores, the North Vietnamese attacked Saigon, killing approximately one-hundred Americans in the first fifteen hours. In the first weeks of March, America suffered the largest losses since the beginning of the year. All 10.000 available copies of Slaughterhouse-Five were sold immediately and the book received a positive review on the New York Times. Although the book was about World War II, it's publication during the Vietnam War transformed Slaughterhouse-Five into a political statement. This shows how even events that are apparently disconnected can have an influence on one another.
Works cited:
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five, or, The Children's Crusade: a Duty-Dance with Death. Dial Press, 2015.
Cahn, Steven M., et al. Fate, Time, and Language: an Essay on Free Will: David Foster Wallace. Columbia University Press, 2011.
Taylor, Richard. “Fatalism.” The Philosophical Review, vol. 71, no. 1, 1962, p. 56., doi:10.2307/2183681.
Aune, Bruce. “Fatalism and Professor Taylor.” The Philosophical Review, vol. 71, no. 4, 1962, p. 512., doi:10.2307/2183464.
Anders, Charlie Jane. “If Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five Had Come out a Few Years Later, We Might Never Have Heard of It.” io9, io9.Gizmodo.com, 28 Apr. 2011, io9.gizmodo.com/5796519/if-kurt-vonneguts-slaughterhouse-five-had-come-out-a-few-years-later-we-might-never-have-heard-of-it.