Thursday, 16 July 2009

Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut & Feet

Below is a piece of writing as part of a creative writing portfolio assignment for my degree. This is a commentary on Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut. It was supposed to be 250 words but is over 300. It was supposed to focus on a particular writing technique of Vonnegut's but in facet this reads more like a piece of critical analysis illustrated with quotes from the anti-surrealist philosopher Georges Bataille's essay "The Big Toe".
This piece of writing can not begin to do justice to Vonnegut's book. It took him 23 years to write it and anyone who has read it will understand that such a densely woven, exquisitely constructed, deeply moving and thought-provoking work cannot possibly be explained or illuminated in this manner.

But... I can talk about feet.

Kurt Vonnegut used the image of feet in Slaughterhouse 5 to signify corporeality amidst the time travel, alien abduction and mundanity of conventional American life. A signal to the reader that there is an inescapable truth being offered: here is humanity; here is the reality of war.
This meta-fictional Pilgrim’s Progress must also have its own barefoot Billy Pilgrim.
The anti-surrealist philosopher Georges Batailles, writing in his 1929 essay “The Big Toe”, described the big toe as “hideously cadaverous”, and said:
“One can imagine that a toe, always more or less damaged and humiliating, is psychologically analogous to the brutal fall of man- in other words, to death.”
Early on in the book the first mention of feet comes at a point when Billy is writing to the press about the Tralfamadorians view of death and the phrase “So it goes”, which he says whenever he hears of someone’s death. Directly after this Vonnegut describes Billy’s feet:
“His bare feet were blue and ivory.”
This concrete image is repeated when Billy is back in World War Two, and captured by the Germans:
“Billy found the afternoon stingingly exciting. There was so much to see – dragon’s teeth, killing machines, corpses with bare feet that were blue and ivory. So it goes.” Immediately the reader is reminded of Billy’s feet being the same as the corpses, and of his being there and of his experiences, and the affect they had on him.
Before his initial capture Billy is close to death and hallucinating:
“He was wearing dry, warm, white sweatsocks, and he was skating on a ballroom floor.”His feet are covered –he is no longer confronted by his own mortality. In Bataille’s view: “Man’s secret horror of his foot is one of the explanations for the tendency to conceal its length and form as much as possible.”

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