Art Born from Fire

Before therapy became a more acceptable and mainstream way of dealing with trauma, many people dealt with their emotional turmoil with drugs, alcohol, or art. Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), one of the most famous American writers of the past century, used art. Vonnegut’s genius and how he used his art to work through his PTSD is the subject of Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, an absorbing and frequently inspired recent documentary.

As Vonnegut puts it early in Unstuck in Time, a lot of his stories have the same theme: people getting ejected from an idyllic Eden and cast into a violent, commercialized, and crazy world. In works like The Sirens of Titan (1959) or Breakfast of Champions (1973), there is irony and a stoic acceptance of tragedy. Vonnegut’s most famous reoccurring line is “and so it goes.” This is not nihilism or resignation as much as wisdom gained about the tragic aspect of life, the view of someone who has seen and was unable to stop the carpet bombing of an entire city in World War II. Vonnegut’s stories frequently center on science fiction themes of time travel and interplanetary species.

Born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana, Vonnegut was the youngest of four siblings. Surrounded by his extended family, it was a joyous life for a child. Vonnegut’s father was an architect and his cousins owned a lucrative chain of hardware stores. Vonnegut was especially close to his sister Alice, or Ally. There is a wonderful sequence in the film where director Robert B. Weide views vintage film of the Vonnegut children, and suddenly all the family observations about Ally being protective of Kurt and loving him dearly spring to life. There they are on the beach, Ally with a hand on Kurt’s chest to prevent him from going too close to the dangerous water. Or there they are in the backyard, laughing and playing. Later in the film, Vonnegut observes that sometimes writers are writing to an audience of one. His daughter Edith observes that, to her, that person has always been Ally.

As is always the case, Eden couldn’t last. Vonnegut’s father became unemployed during the Great Depression and the family had to move to a smaller house. As a teenager, Vonnegut wrote for his high-school newspaper, where he said he learned to “say a lot in just a few words.” In 1943, Vonnegut left Cornell University to enlist in the U.S. Army. Captured by the Germans during World War II, Vonnegut survived the firebombing of Dresden in February 1945. That experience would become the foundation of Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), which tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes “unstuck in time” and is able to enter his entire life at different points and travel to another world.

The bombing of Dresden was a pivotal event in Vonnegut’s life. He describes the city and its Baroque architecture before the raid as a magical fairy tale which he and his fellow prisoners experienced with a sense of awe and delight when their train drove past the buildings. Assigned by the Germans to make vitamin supplements, Vonnegut was working in an underground meat locker—slaughterhouse-five—when British and American warplanes started carpet bombing the city, creating a firestorm.

When Vonnegut opened the door, he recounts in Unstuck in Time, “there was nothing left.” Afterward, he and his fellow prisoners were assigned to remove the dead. “The corpses, most of them in ordinary cellars, were so numerous and represented such a health hazard that they were cremated on huge funeral pyres, or by flamethrowers whose nozzles were thrust into the cellars, without being counted or identified,” he wrote in his 1991 essay collection Fates Worse Than Death.

When the war ended, Vonnegut returned to the United States and married his high school sweetheart, Jane Marie Cox. They settled in Chicago in 1945 and had three children, Mark, Edith, and Nanette. Vonnegut worked at GE and began writing for popular magazines like Colliers and became a paperback novelist. His books were concerned with technology and the future. His first novel, Player Piano (1952), elaborates on those themes and depicted a mechanized and automated society. Vonnegut was always a fan of science fiction, and he wrote many stories in that genre even if he always wanted to write for a larger audience.

In 1958 Vonnegut’s sister, Alice, and her husband died within a day of each other, she of cancer and he in a train crash. Vonnegut brought Alice’s four children to live with his family. His relatively quiet life with his wife and three kids became a madhouse (in the best sense) of seven children. Interviewed in the documentary, all of his children marvel that Vonnegut took on the task of raising them. Yet part of Vonnegut’s willingness may have been the joy a big family brings as well as the responsibility. After all, Vonnegut sounds the happiest recalling the large extended family he had in Indiana.

Slaughterhouse-Five may be even more relevant at a time when we know so much more about trauma and and about how many people suffer from it.

Unstuck in Time is particularly absorbing when it treats Vonnegut’s most famous book. Like a lot of veterans, Vonnegut doesn’t talk about his experience in the war—or rather, he talks about it in elliptical and seemingly odd ways. “There is nothing intelligent to be said about a massacre,” he writes in the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five. Like Joseph Heller or Norman Mailer, he presents war and military life as both absurd and so large as to be impossible to stop. And yet, at a 1990 talk at the National Air and Space museum, Vonnegut said that “the war had been a great adventure for me, which I wouldn’t have missed for anything.” In his fascinating book The Writer’s Crusade: Kurt Vonnegut and the Many Lives of Slaughterhouse-Five, Tom Roston argues that war veterans, even those who strongly advocated for peace, still recall the primal thrill of combat. We should be okay with these contradictions, Roston writes.

Vonnegut’s daughter Edith notes that her father sometimes laughs at inappropriate times; not in the sense of being socially awkward (clips before live audiences show Vonnegut to be quite charming) but in a gentle way that sometimes seems out of rhythm with a sentence. When asked about Dresden, Vonnegut would laugh at a plain observation that wasn’t necessarily meant to be funny. A modern trauma specialist might recognize that as a way of putting distance been the traumatic event and the victim.

Vonnegut was also probably the last of a breed, the countercultural writer who was known and loved by an entire demographic of young people. As one critic noted, “in the 1960s and ’70s, dog-eared paperback copies of his books could be found in the back pockets of blue jeans and in dorm rooms on campuses throughout the United States.” It was in the 1970s that Unstuck in Time’s director Robert B. Weide came across Vonnegut, falling in love with Breakfast of Champions. Citing the humor, science fiction zaniness, and of course, all the bad words, Weide, says, “What kid wouldn’t love that?” He tore through Vonnegut’s other books. Here, as one critic put it, “were alternate universes, filled with topsy-turvy images and populated by races of his own creation, like the Tralfamadorians and the Mercurian Harmoniums. Weide was 23 in 1982 when he wrote a fan letter to Vonnegut inquiring about the possibility of making a documentary about his life. Vonnegut replied yes, and the two became close friends.

So in a certain sense, Unstuck in Time is a love letter to Vonnegut’s art. But the film doesn’t shy away from Vonnegut’s flaws. As his children explain, he could have very dark, dour moods where they didn’t want to approach him. After the fame of Slaughterhouse-Five, he left his first wife and married a photographer who had been assigned to shoot him for a glossy magazine. At the time, he let his fame go to his head, marveling that he had money “coming out of my ears.”

Still, despite the passing of more than fifty years, Vonnegut’s most famous achievement still stands. In fact, Slaughterhouse-Five may be even more relevant at a time when we know so much more about trauma and about how many people suffer from it. In The Writer’s Crusade: Kurt Vonnegut and the Many Lives of Slaughterhouse-Five, Tom Roston argues that it has taken more than half a century for our fragmented, technologically addicted, ironic and science fiction obsessed world to catch up to Kurt Vonnegut: “Slaughterhouse-Five is the rare, true war story—one that has been felt in the stomach by countless readers, and . . . in the decades since its publication, our views of its central themes—war, trauma and the delicate act of telling war stories—have finally caught up with Vonnegut’s accomplishment, allowing us to see it and the author more clearly.”