Rendering of trauma through humour in Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’

Il·lustració: Max Löffler

When I finally came home from the war I was upset about it because what we had seen cleaning out the shelters was as fancy as what we would have seen cleaning out the crematoria. How do you balance off Dresden against Auschwitz? Do you balance it off; or is it all so absurd it’s silly to talk about? (Kurt Vonnegut, Conversations. 1988, 34)


The German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno determined that it was barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz. Focusing on the issue of the literary rendering of trauma, this paper tries to refute Adorno’s dictum through the analysis of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and the use by the author of different strategies to get over the trauma of having survived the bombing of the German city of Dresden by the Allies. Through the reading of Slaughterhouse-Five this paper examines how the rendering of trauma in literature, especially through absurdism, black humour and the associated concept of “gallows” humour, can be a very effective way of dealing with traumatic experiences. After analysing the issue of trauma and the effect that it has on the human psyche, this paper also deals with the notion of literature, not only as personal catharsis but also as a tool to remind society about its own faults and responsibilities, and it is therefore considered not only the opposite to barbaric but as something essential for our collective mental health.

Keywords: Vonnegut, humour, trauma, Slaughterhouse-Five


El filòsof alemany Theodor W. Adorno va sentenciar que escriure poesia després d’Auschwitz era un acte de barbàrie. Centrant-nos en el tema de la representació literària del trauma, aquest treball intenta refutar la sentència d’Adorno a través de l’anàlisi de la novel·la de Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse-Five i de l’ús, per part de l’autor, de diferents estratègies alhora de superar el trauma d’haver sobreviscut al bombardeig de la ciutat alemanya de Dresden pels aliats. A través de la lectura d’Slaughterhouse-Five aquest treball examina com la representació literària del trauma, especialment a través de l’absurd, l’humor negre i el concepte associat d’humor “del patíbul”, pot ser una manera molt efectiva de superar les experiències traumàtiques. Un cop analitzats el trauma i l’efecte que aquest té en la ment humana, aquest treball també s’ocupa de la literatura, no només com a catarsi personal, sinó també com una eina per recordar a la societat els seus propis errors i responsabilitats i, com a tal, és considerada no només com el més oposat a la barbàrie, sinó com quelcom essencial per a la nostra salut mental col·lectiva.

Paraules clau: Vonnegut, humor, trauma, Slaughterhouse-Five

In the final months of World War II the German city of Dresden was heavily firebombed by the Allies. Although the city was far from being an strategic objective tons of bombs and incendiary devices were dropped, causing a firestorm that destroyed most of the city and killed thousands of people, mostly civilians. In the midst of all this death, chaos and destruction was a young American G.I. called Kurt Vonnegut who, along with other prisoners of war, was being held in a slaughterhouse. After the bombing the surviving prisoners were used by the Germans as forced labour removing the burnt corpses from basements and air-raid shelters. After the war Vonnegut returned to the United States with the intention of writing a book about the destruction of Dresden but his plan did not materialize as intended. In fact, twenty-three years passed before he could tackle the bombing and his own experience in the war in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five. That is, Vonnegut wrote five novels before he found the right tone to express his feelings on this particular subject. This brings up two important questions: Was he still coping with the trauma? Or it was just that he could not find the way to express it? I have found some answers in the field of Trauma Studies in the arts, which “explores the relation between psychic wounds and signification” (Hartman, 257), ie. analyses the effect that trauma has on the human psyche and how it is expressed through words. Consequently I will first focus my research on the issue of the rendering of trauma in literature, especially through humour. Next I will concentrate on the way the author comes to terms with his traumatic experience, which he does through a recreation of real wartime episodes combined with fantasy, science-fiction and also, and most especially, black humour. Hence I will also analyse instances of black humour, and the associated concept of “gallows” humour, in the novel in order to ascertain what is the effect of this coping strategy in the face of adversity, especially in relation to the story and the real events on which the novel is based.

The word “trauma”, from Ancient Greek τραῦμα (traûma: “wound, damage”), is considered by experts a “psychic wound” or, as Sigmund Freud describes it in his Studies on Hysteria, “a foreign body which long after its entry [in the psyche] must continue to be regarded as an agent that is still at work” (1957, 6). The issue of psychological trauma had been dealt with by scientists since the 19th century, however it was not until 1980 that the issue of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) when acute cases of PTSD appear amongst Vietnam Veterans and the need for psychological treatment arises. Cathy Caruth, in the introduction to Trauma: Explorations in Memory, a compilation of a series of special issues of American Imago, a psycho-analytical journal, devoted to “Psychoanalysis, Culture and Trauma”, helps us define psychological trauma through a general description of PTSD:

There is a response, sometimes delayed, to an overwhelming event or events, which takes the form of repeated, intrusive hallucinations, dreams, thoughts or behaviors stemming from the event, along with numbing that may have begun during or after the experience, and possibly also increased arousal to (and avoidance of) stimuli recalling the event. (1995, 4)

In other words, also by Caruth (1996, 116), “trauma is described as the response to an unexpected or overwhelming violent event or events that are not fully grasped as they occur, but return later in repeated flashbacks, nightmares, and other repetitive phenomena”. So trauma, as a “foreign body” that remains unintegrated in the mind for lack of adequate mental defenses, must be integrated. Thus, in order to recover, the individual who suffers a traumatic disorder should be able to identify what are its causes in order to alleviate or eliminate them. According to Freud the symptoms of traumatic disorder disappear when the individual succeeds “in bringing clearly to light the memory of the event by which it was provoked and in arousing its accompanying affect, and when the patient had described that event in the greatest possible detail and had put the affect into words” (1957, 6). To put it another way, the “psychic wound” must be healed, and it must be done through language. The problem comes when words alone fall short of the mark, or as literary critic Geoffrey Hartman puts it, when there is “a radical inadequacy of what is heard or read, when the words searched for cannot address or redress other shocks, including visual images with a violent content”. When this happens, Hartman says, Literature can identify and counteract this inadequacy: “If there is a failure of language, resulting in silence or mutism, then no working through, no catharsis, is possible. Literary verbalization, however, still remains a basis for making the wound perceivable and the silence audible” (2003, 259). Furthermore, this verbalization, apart from the personal element, has also a social and collective one. As Caruth (1996, 24) argues “history like trauma, is never simply one’s own . . . history is precisely the way we are implicated in each other’s traumas”. So in the need to express one’s experience there is also a component of social responsibility, of acknowledging the faults of our society, reinforcing the well-known motto that “the personal is political”.

As we see, this view of literature as an outlet to vent unresolved mental conflicts and traumas, and also as a reminder of society’s own faults and responsibilities, negates the famous dictum by Theodor W. Adorno that “it is barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz”. In fact verbalizing our most deepest feelings, whether orally or in written form, it is not only the opposite to barbaric but something absolutely essential for our collective mental health. And not only poetry but also memoirs, songs, drama, tragedies and, last but not least, comedies. In fact, strange as it may seem, humour is as valid to tackle traumatic situations as any other device, as we will see next. According to Freud, what is at work is the ego, that resorts to humour in order to assert its invulnerability:

The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure. This last feature is a quite essential element of humour . . . Humour is not resigned, it is rebellious. It signifies not only the triumph of the ego but also of the pleasure principle, which is able here to assert itself against the unkindness of the real circumstances (1928, 163)

In his opinion, resorting to humour to deal with tragic, sad or dangerous situations is one of the series of techniques that the human mind has devised in order to avoid suffering. This laughing in the face of tragedy is what Freud calls Galgenhumor, or “gallows humour”. This “crudest case of humour”, Freud explains, is best exemplified in the example of a criminal who is led to the gallows to be executed on a Sunday morning and, instead of succumbing to despair, he says: “Well, the week’s beginning nicely”. This controversial kind of humour has also been called “black humour”, which was a term coined by the Surrealist André Breton to describe a type of comedy that deals with gloomy topics which are usually regarded as taboo in Western societies such as death, war, religion, violence and so on. One of the best examples would be “A modest proposal” (1729) by Jonathan Swift, the classic satirical essay in which he proposes a solution to poverty in Ireland, which involves no less that selling the starving children of impoverished Irish families as food for the rich. When the term was popularized in the United States as a result of the publication in 1969 of Bruce Jay Friedman’s Black Humor, an anthology of American writers that resorted to this type of humor, it did not take long for critics to include Kurt Vonnegut in this category (although he was not selected for inclusion in the book), perhaps due to the fact that Slaughterhouse-Five and Black Humour were published in the same year.

Vonnegut used to explain how, being the youngest member of his family, he had to learn from a very early age how to attract the attention of the older members, which he did with humour. It is not strange then that, in order to come to terms with the Dresden bombing, instead of writing a realistic and dramatic account of the massacre in the style of Primo Levi, he resorted to what was more natural to him: “Laughs are exactly as honorable as tears. Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion, to the futility of thinking and striving anymore. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward” (1994, 640). This is the approach that the author takes in Slaughterhouse-Five: to laugh at the absurdity of war. In the same way people sometimes react incongruously by laughing at a funeral, Vonnegut decided to write about the war in a sarcastic and humorous way in order to be able to face his own traumas. Using Caruth terminology, the bombing of Dresden would be the “unexpected or overwhelming violent event that is not fully grasped as it occurs” and Slaughterhouse-Five the response, the catharsis to counteract the inadequacy of the bombing’s memories in Vonnegut’s mind. But apart from the jokes, it is also an innovative and fragmentary book in which the author experiments with time and space, as he jumps from World War II to the future and also to outer-space. As the author himself declares in the first chapter of the novel it is a “short and jumbled and jangled” book because “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre” (16). However Slaughterhouse-Five is not just a personal catharsis but also a collective one. Published in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam war, it was an instant success perhaps because its unequivocal anti-war message captured the sentiment of the counterculture of the time with the precision of a scalpel. Although from the ranks of some critics the novel has been regarded as having an ambiguous message, possibly because of the resigned view of the universe that the aliens of the planet Tralfamadorians hold (they consider that everything is foreordained, so it is impossible to prevent any catastrophic event), Vonnegut is quite clear about his stance right from the first chapter. As it is said verbatim in the book, the author’s main intention is to undermine the notion that war can be an heroic and gentlemanly thing as the one “played in the movies by Frank Sinatra, John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving dirty old men” (12). According to his vision, the main character, Billy Pilgrim, is not a belligerent stud like the ones mentioned but a pathetic anti-hero who looks as “a filthy flamingo” and who is so pathetic “in his azure toga and silver shoes” that he ends up being laughable. Therefore all the novel revolves about the demystification of war and death (and honour, of course) through mockery or ridicule. One of the most recurrent devices that the author uses is the now famous expression “So it goes” every time a character dies (or any other thing, for that matter, such as champagne). This gimmick, which has been regarded by some critics also as a proof of Vonnegut’s vindication of passivity, is instead a witty comment on the fragility of life: “It was a clumsy way of saying . . . ‘death and suffering can’t matter nearly as much as I think they do. Since they are so common, my taking them so seriously must mean that I am insane. I must try to be saner’” (1994, 296). Jokes also play an important part in the book. Vonnegut admits that most of his books are “essentially mosaics, thousands and thousands of tiny little chips all glued together, and each chip is this thing I learned to do . . . which is a little joke” (1988, 69). As it has been already said most of the jokes are in the “gallows humour” category. One example of this is when the prisoners are carried to Dresden in a German’s boxcar. It is a cattle wagon and the conditions are terrible, a few prisoners die during the train ride. In contrast, there is a former hobo stuffed in the wagon with Billy Pilgrim that keeps telling everybody: “I been hungrier than this. I been in worse places than this. This ain’t so bad” (56, 65). Until he dies. Another good example could be when, once in the concentration camp, the prisoners go through the typical nazi procedure: they are forced to undress, taken to the showers and so on. Although the scene is dreadful, Vonnegut lightens the mood by focusing on something else: “Their penises were shriveled and their balls were retracted. Reproduction was not the main business of the evening” (69). There is also an undercurrent use of irony throughout the book, as it can be seen in Private Derby’s plight: he survives the war and the bombing of Dresden to end up being executed for having stolen a teapot. Sarcasm is also used extensively, as when it is said that sci-fi stories are “like advertising. You have to tell the truth in advertising or you get in trouble” (141).

Finally I would like also to highlight the use of detachment by part of the author. The act of judging mankind from a distance (as if the reader was seeing it from the eyes of an alien) is a very effective strategy. Both Billy Pilgrim and the Tralfamadorians use this aloofness when judging the acts of men, which is both comical and incisive: “Billy now leaned over that parapet, looked down at all the people moving hither and yon. They were jerky little scissors. They were a lot of fun” (164). This approach is clearly used by the author in order to emphasize the absurdity of modern society. All in all, different strategies are used in order to convey the tragicomic effect that is so typical of Vonnegut. The writer and Professor Wylie Sypher, in his classic and almost poetic essay “The Meanings of Comedy”, in which he analyses the issue of humour at length, explains how all the disasters of the twentieth century have taught us that “the direst calamities that befall human life at its depths are inherently absurd” and that, proving Vonnegut right more than ten years before Slaughterhouse-Five was written, “comedy can tell us many things about our situation even tragedy cannot” (193). In Sypher’s opinion, the confusion that seems to govern the lives of modern humans has increasingly led our society to rely on the comic and the absurd for answers. According to him, the modern hero (or antihero, such as Billy Pilgrim) can only be described through comedy, since tragedy needs a nobility that it is impossible to find in this day and age of wars, machines, neuroses, disorder and irrationalism. In short, Sypher seems to be describing exactly the approach that Kurt Vonnegut takes in Slaughterhouse-Five.

Taking everything into account, and to conclude, I think that the tone of the whole novel, mixing jokes, black humour, time-travels and aliens in the context of war successfully disables the tragic element while at the same time highlights the absurdity of the modern condition. I agree with Sypher in that, in these disconcerting times, the absurd and unheroic position is the most logic one to take. Especially if we consider that, apart from a handful of real achievements, progress (or more exactly technological progress, as it is exclusively considered nowadays) has only led to more destruction and chaos, and has reinforced the fact that, as Sypher remarks, “the absurd is more than ever inherent in human existence: that is, the irrational, the inexplicable, the surprising, the nonsensical -in other words, the comic-” (195). Vonnegut understood this very well and acted in consequence. In my opinion Slaughterhouse-Five is the only novel that he could write in order to try to make sense of World War II and the appalling events that resulted from it: Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Holocaust, Dresden and the over 60 million people killed. And probably it is a most absurd and nonsensical book. Just as the war itself was. (2.766 words)


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  • — — — — — — -. 1994. Welcome to the Monkey House/Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage. London: Vintage.



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