Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Everything I need to know, I learned on Tralfamadore

Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

Listen: No, he hasn't.

I mean, Jesus Christ, how hard is this to understand?

I bring this up because whoever wrote the wikipedia entry about Slaughterhouse-Five seemed to think it was a book about time travel and aliens, even going to the length of editing out any mention of alternate interpretations.

I first encountered the book in high school, and read it and didn't see what the big deal was. Then I found it again as an adult and thought that it was the saddest thing I had ever read.

Here is this boy, shipped off to World War II. He sees horrors that he can't understand, but he survives and returns home and settles down and forgets about it. But he can't really forget, and when his wife dies, he simply goes very quietly insane, because that's the only way he can make sense of anything any more. He doesn't want to live in a world where his wife is dead, so he creates one.

Hemingway said: "The world breaks everyone, and afterwards many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break, it kills - it kills the very good, and the very gentle, and the very brave, impartially. If you are none of these, you can be sure it will kill you, too, but there will be no special hurry."

Vonnegut said: "The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever."

I was thinking of Issac Asimov and Kurt Vonnegut lately. We don't seem to have a lot of high profile atheists any more. We've got Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers and both are pretty awesome, but they don't shape a generation like their predecessors did. Meyers has a reputation for abrasiveness. I like his blog and I thought something he wrote was particularly illuminating:

Everybody seems to imagine that if Granny says "Bless you!" after I sneeze, I punch her in the nose, and they're all busy dichotomizing the skeptical community into the nice, helpful, sweet people who don't rock the boat and the awful, horrible, bastards in hobnailed boots who stomp on small children in Sunday school. It's just not right...There is a fair point being made, that there are multiple strategies that work to convince people to rethink bad ideas, and they don't all involve punching people in the face…and many of the best strategies do involve politely listening and criticizing. But I think the best ideas involve a combination of willingness to listen and politely engage, and a forthright core of assertiveness and confrontation — tactical dickishness, if you want to call it that.

We were talking about Mister Rogers in a previous post, and I can't think of a more unlikely pair than a mild-mannered Presbyterian minister, and a famously prickly atheist but you know, they're both saying the same thing here. If someone is telling a destructive lie, it is your responsibility to stand up and point that out.

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