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I own a universe.

This universe is of my own creation. It exists only within me; when I die, it will disappear with me.

I decide what goes into my universe. My great task is to find the right things, the good things, the worthwhile things, to put into my universe.

I just finished reading Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. It has no place in my universe.

I’m trying, I really am trying, to make fiction a part of my universe. Slaughterhouse Five is short. That’s the last positive thing I’ll say about it.

On the surface, Slaughterhouse Five seems like the kind of story I might like. It’s anti-war. I’m anti-war. It’s a non-linear story. I appreciate and understand non-linear stories. The language is simple. I like simple language (despite what you might believe, Shakespeare’s language is overwhelmingly simple – try it and you’ll see that it’s true).

The problem with Slaughterhouse Five is that it lacks optimism. OK, that may sound like an utterly ignorant comment. The central event of Slaughterhouse Five is the bombing of Dresden, in which tens of thousands (the actual numbers are disputed, but that’s hardly the point) of German civilians were either blown to bits, incinerated, or suffocated by the firestorm purposely created by merciless Allied bombing. Nothing is positive about such evil and murderous carnage. The end does not justify the means.

And maybe in my sheltered, ridiculously peaceful and tranquil universe, I can’t possibly understand how observing this horrific event (as the author, his narrator, and the book’s protagonist all did) can change one’s outlook on life.

Fine. All fine. But here’s the thing. If the result of your experiences is to conclude that nothing matters, nothing changes anything, all is pre-decided anyway (“so it goes”), then you have nothing to offer me. Why should I even read your book, if all is pre-decided, if we’re just playing out our pre-determined fate? Even if this is true (and I don’t see how it possibly could be true), since we can’t possibly know what the future holds, we have to live as if the future is yet to be decided. Our actions have to matter.

Matter to what, you might ask? Matter to our universe, the universe we create.

My favorite Shakespeare play is Macbeth. When the title character gives his “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy, he is voicing the philosophy of Slaughterhouse Five. Life is a walking shadow, a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. So it goes.

If that’s what we take from Macbeth, we’ve misread it. Macbeth isn’t a simple morality play; the richness of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are endless. But it is clear that Macbeth’s conclusion about life is not Shakespeare’s, and it is certainly not mine. I let Macbeth into my universe not because I agree with the soliloquy, but rather because I see this nightmare vision as the sort of universe worth fighting against. Even if Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane, I will fight to the last. I will not yield.

Maybe the same is true of Slaughterhouse Five. But I don’t think so. Just one example; the Tralfamadorians know that their own actions (experimental fuel) will lead to the end of the universe – the ultimate evil, I think we have to agree. Yet these wise and powerful aliens do nothing, won’t even consider doing anything, to try to avoid this outcome. Maybe the Tralfamadorians, like the Weird Sisters in Macbeth, are not to be emulated. Yet Billy Pilgrim does emulate them, doing nothing to save his own life, the lives of dozens of innocents on a plane destined to crash, even his own wife coming to see him in the hospital. So it goes.

No! No, no, no, no no! We must not simply accept all evil. We must rage against the dying of the light.

Hemingway’s great short book The Old Man and the Sea tackles much the same idea as Slaughterhouse Five and Macbeth. In Hemingway’s story, Santiago realizes the meaningless of everything, too, and yet he fights against it. He realizes that he and the great fish are one, and yet he exercises his will, his incredible will, to affect the universe. Yes, all he accomplishes is to kill a fish and feed a lot of sharks. Yes, his efforts seem meaningless in the end. But Santiago experiences life, experiences the application of his experience, his knowledge, and his will to the brute fact of the world. His universe is fuller because of it. The means justifies the end.

David Deutsch quotes Karl Popper in The Beginning of Infinity:

“The possibilities that lie in the future are infinite. When I say ‘It is our duty to remain optimists,’ this includes not only the openness of the future but also that which all of us contribute to it by everything we do: we are responsible for what the future holds in store. Thus it is our duty, not to prophesy evil but, rather, to fight for a better world.”

Karl Popper, The Myth of the Framework (1994)

Yes, there are terrible things in the world. Yes, there is evil, cruelty, stupidity, ridiculous death, and waste. We, as universal constructors, universal explainers, actors with the will and the power (and the responsibility) to choose, must not decide that life is meaningless. For if we do, we make it so.

 

 

 

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My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
November 2017
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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