Billy Pilgrim, landscape bombing backwards

by paulroncken

 Dresden, Teilansicht des zerstörten Stadtzentrums über die Elbe nach der Neustadt. In der Bildmitte der Neumarkt und die Ruine der Frauenkirche.


Dresden, Teilansicht des zerstörten Stadtzentrums über die Elbe nach der Neustadt. In der Bildmitte der Neumarkt und die Ruine der Frauenkirche.

This excerpt is from a book by Kurt Vonnegut (1922 Indianapolis USA – 2007), an American writer who writes hilariously funny about modern or future American life. Most of his books are written from the perspective of the cast-out, such as individuals with exceptional skills or physical appearances, that render them an atmosphere of weirdness. The world experienced from their weirdness, enables to upgrade even the most bizarre aspects of everyday reality, to normality. ‘Hey ho’, as Kurt would write, ‘and so on’.

This book, ‘Slaughterhouse 5’ may be considered somewhat of an exception in his oeuvre. It is based on his own experiences as a prisoner of war, during the fire-bombing of Dresden. It is an exception in the sense that it is more autobiographical and more oriented on Europe than his other books. He writes as the first three sentences: ‘All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his.’

The landscapes that are described include, besides the devastating fire struck town of Dresden, the pre-attack town Dresden, his hometown in the USA, diverse European landscapes that are travelled on foot, and – this is the typical Vonnegut twist – those of the far away planet Tralfamadore. The main character Billy Pilgrim is reliving the traumatic events from Dresden as ‘episodic memories’. Sometimes vivid past experiences mix with current situations. This swapping between past and present is even enhanced at the moment he is abducted by the small green inhabitants of Tralfamadore. From this alien experience he gains the capacity to jump back and forth in time. He is generously welcomed on Tralfamadore to be displayed, naked in a zoo; excepted to mate, publicly with the other guest, the beautiful porn actress Montana Wildhack.

In this scene, an hour before he gets abducted by a flying saucer, Billy experiences one of the most bizar landscape experiences I have ever read about. He experiences the traumatic Dresden event backwards, by watching a movie backwards. Something magical happens by this turn around: the world is created instead of destroyed. The capacity to experience forward and backward in time is a typical landscape related experience. Such a portal landscape can be created by, for instance, experiencing a tree as something that is much older than any recollection you, as individual might have. The very old, multi layered landscape offers many incentives to such portal experiences.

PS an extra element to this post (a giveaway in blog wording): I will make available a download location to a pdf. It contains my first published book (Open Boek, 1999 published by Typography & Other Serious Matters, in Dutch only), about landscape experiences and landscape design. The book was inspired by this particular scene by Kurt Vonnegut. To view this, click here.

from: ‘Slaughterhouse 5’, Kurt Vonnegut, first published in 1970, second edition 1950, Panther Book. A copy is in ownership by me since October 1998.

p. 53 – 55
‘There was a full moon.
Billy got out of bed in the moonlight. He felt spooky and luminous, felt as though he were wrapped in cool fur that was full of static electricity. He looked down at his bare feet. They were ivory and blue.

Billy now shuffled down his upstairs hallway, knowing he was about to be kidnapped by a flying saucer. The hallway was zebra-striped with darkness and moonlight. The moonlight came into the hallway through doorways of the empty rooms of Billy’s two children, children no more. They were gone forever. Billy was guided by dread and the lack of dread. Dread told him when to stop. Lack of it told him when to move again. He stopped.
He went into his daughter’s room. Her drawers were dumped, her closed was empty. Heaped in the middle of the room were all the possessions she could not take on a honeymoon. She had a Princess telephone extension all her own, on her windowsill. Its tiny night light stared at Billy. And then it rang.
Billy answered. There was a drunk on the other end. Billy could almost smell his breath, mustard gas and roses. It was a wrong number. Billy hung up. There was a soft drink bottle on the windowsill. Its label boasted that it contained no nourishment whatsoever.

Billy Pilgrim padded downstairs on his blue and ivory feet. He went into the kitchen, where the moonlight called his attention to a half bottle of champagne on the kitchen table, all that was left from the reception in the tent. Somebody had stoppered it again. ‘Drink me’, it seemed to say.
So Billy uncorked it with his thumbs. It didn’t make a pop. The champagne was dead. So it goes.
Billy looked at the clock on the gas stove. He had an hour to kill before the saucer came. He went into the living room, swinging the bottle like a dinner bell, turned on the television. He came slightly unstuck in time, saw the late movie backwards, then forwards again. It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:
American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighters planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments forms some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.
The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn’t in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all of humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed.’