Film, Literature

The Trauma of Memory and the Shattering of Time in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse–Five and Chris Marker’s La Jetée

Journalist Jeffrey R. Di Leo once asked Kurt Vonnegut about the situation of the world at that time, the mid-eighties. His question was not long and difficult, but infused all the urgency of the time into one sentence: “Where’s it all headed, Mr. Vonnegut?” he asked. Vonnegut replied, “The world’s on the brink of a nuclear war and the only thing preventing it from happening is an alcoholic president staring down his last beer in an otherwise empty refrigerator.” This mix of humour combined with a deep sense of reality can be seen as typically Vonnegut. He did not seem too shocked at the state of the world, maybe because he went through it before, first as a young man during the second world war, and later from the sidelines. In the early 1960’s, for instance, when the threat of a nuclear holocaust was imminent. The space race was in full swing and the tensions caused by the Cuban Missile Crisis almost turned the earth in the bleak future that can be seen in Chris Marker’s 1962 sci-fi film La Jetée. This cinematic short has much in common with Vonnegut’s most critically acclaimed novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. Both works deal with the concept of time travel and memory, but do the similarities end there or do they have more in common and if so, why? First, the use of time travel as a plot device in Slaughterhouse-Five is discussed, followed by a closer look on the same subject with La Jetée? What can be the reasons behind the structural choices of the works?

Slaughterhouse-Five was published in the late 1960’s, a decade where the cold war was heating up fast and the race to outer space between the Soviet Union and the United States was reaching its climax. The threat of a nuclear holocaust had lessened somewhat, but instead of direct war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R, their power struggle was fought in Vietnam, where at time of writing Slaughterhouse-Five, hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers were fighting. The novel is very much a child of its time. The threat of World War Three shimmers through in the book. But the war that is most present is of course World War Two. The protagonist Billy Pilgrim shifts in and out of that conflict. He is so traumatised by his experiences that time has shattered into pieces.

Monica Loeb devoted an entire chapter to time in her book Vonnegut’s Duty-Dance with Death: Theme and Structure in Slaughterhouse-Five. Here she states that “time” is one of the most important subjects in modern literature. She gives several explanations for this phenomenon. First of all the increasing speed of changes in society can be the cause of the interest in the workings of time. Another explanation that can be given is that the progress in psychology, science and philosophy in the 20th century has contributed to a general loss of faith in religion. This shift in thinking also undermines other certainties, like how we view time. Examples of writers playing with time can be found in the modernist movement, for instance in the modernist 1927 novel To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Here time seems to be like the ocean. Sometimes the sea is calm, slowing down time to a near standstill. At other times, when the world is in turmoil, time can come in waves taking with it what it wants. But unlike in Slaughterhouse-Five, the characters are not a victim of time itself, but are stuck in the linear narrative that nature dictates.

Loeb explains further along in the chapter that there are three different kinds of time. First of all, there is cyclic time, or time based on the forces of nature. Before the 20th century, this type of time usually stood for the healing power of nature and giving birth. What Loeb fails to mention is that after the horrors of two world wars this perception of cyclic time changed into something less benign, namely the cyclic nature of tyranny. Jan Kott wrote an essay on this called ‘The Kings’ in his seminal work Shakespeare Our Contemporary. There he compares the tyrant Richard III to Hitler and Stalin, emphasising that, although the level of destruction that modern warfare brings may be new to us, the mechanics of the struggle for power behind it have not changed in the last 500 years. This view on the cyclic nature of time gives an extra dimension to Slaughterhouse-Five. Billy Pilgrim’s a time traveller. He calls himself ‘unstuck in time’. Because of his condition of time travelling Billy keeps coming back to Dresden to Slaughterhouse Five, where he is hiding from the violence unleashed by his countrymen on the city of Dresden. The horrors of his life keep coming back. The repetitiveness of the writing in the novel can be seen as a reference to cyclic time. For instance, every time something or someone dies, the phrase “So it goes” pops up.

The second type of time, according to Loeb, is historical time which is described as a linear continuum. This version of time can also be found throughout the novel, through historical references to the second world war to Vonnegut’s claim in the opening of the novel that “all this happened, more or less”. The last kind of time is called psychological time and is described by Loeb as the individual concept of time. To come back to the earlier example of To the Lighthouse, this is the type of time that Woolf experimented with. Time there is not a constant, but through the tool of internal monologue is slowed down. In Slaughterhouse-Five, psychological time works different. According to Loeb, Billy Pilgrim is using his imagination to “travel” back and forth in time. He is using his creativity to deal with the traumas of surviving the bombardment of Dresden. If Loeb is wrong and Billy Pilgrim’s claim that he is unstuck in time is true, then there is a fourth view on the concept of time, namely that of the alien life forms called the Tralfamadorians They see time as something that is always in the present. If someone is dead at a certain point in time, they do not mind, considering the fact that that person is perfectly alive in another point in his or her life. They view time as we humans would view a mountain ridge.

Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut himself described the narrative structure of the novel as telegraphic schizophrenic. This description brings the question about the relevance of mental illness to mind. Is Billy Pilgrim really experiencing time travel in the novel or is Loeb right in her assessment that Vonnegut is alluding to a mental illness? In the essay Diagnosing Billy Pilgrim: A Psychiatric Approach to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five by Susanne Vees-Gulani, the protagonist and the author of the book are analysed using the novel. Vees-Gulani argues that Vonnegut’s real life war experiences and particularly the bombing of Dresden had traumatised him to such an extent that it affected the rest of his life. Vonnegut tried to write about these events to get it out of his system, but it was very difficult to portray the horrors of what he had seen accurately. Finally he succeeded in 1969 with Slaughterhouse-Five. The structure of the novel, which is caused by Billy Pilgrim’s ailment, does resemble that of a mental illness, but not schizophrenia. She argues that schizophrenia is not caused by external events. Billy’s condition is clearly linked with his war experiences. Another argument against schizophrenia is the fact the Billy is able to lead a pretty conventional life. The symptoms do fit those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Vees-Gulani quotes Kleer, Figley and Gersons to describe PTSD. They say that it stems from an inadequate way of coping with extreme stress. The symptoms of PTSD are the reliving of the stressful moment time after time, reliving them vividly. This description would fit Billy Pilgrim’s condition to the tee. When Billy returns home from the war he does not get a chance to get over his traumatic experiences. Because of this, Billy keeps getting flashbacks of other times in his life. Vees-Gulani uses the following example from the book to explain:

“Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out of another in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between.
He says.
Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun.”

Being “spastic in time”, says Vees-Gulani, can be seen as a metaphor for reliving his traumatic moments, time after time. He is living in a continual present. These sensations of time travel do not come at random. People who have PTSD are triggered in reliving the traumatic past by external conditions. The same thing happens to Billy Pilgrim. The following example takes place in 1967 in the novel:

“A siren went off, scaring the hell out of him. He was expecting World War Three at any time. The siren was simply announcing high noon…Billy closed his eyes. When he opened them, he was back in World War Two again. His head was on the wounded rabbi’s shoulder.”

Vees-Gulani has several more examples to prove that the time travelling that Billy is experiencing is caused by external events and are actually symptoms of PTSD. Another symptom of PTSD that Billy is suffering from is his passive way of undergoing his existence. “So it goes” is his standard reaction to tragedy. This numbness was also present with the survivors of the atomic annihilation of Hiroshima. This phlegmatic response to death and tragedy can be seen as a defence mechanism, so that the survivors can lead a seemingly normal life.

Another defence mechanism, according to Vees-Gulani, is Billy’s explanation for his time travelling. He says that he was kidnapped by the aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. There he learns about their view on the concept of time. Because of this fantasy, as Loeb calls it, he can cope with all the crazy tricks that his mind is playing on him. Billy’s solution to his problems seems strange, but science at that time did not have a solution. The novel was published in 1969 and it would take another 11 years before PTSD was acknowledged as a mental illness after observing returning Vietnam veterans.

La Jetée title

The protagonist from Chris Marker’s La Jetée seems to be having the same symptoms as Billy Pilgrim. He is a survivor of World War Three and is forced to be part of a time travel experiment just like Billy Pilgrim. The protagonist cannot let go of a certain image of the past, namely that of the face of a young woman looking shocked. He does not know why she looks the way she does, but the image has haunted him his entire life. Precisely because of this memory he is chosen to participate in the experiment. The experiment is a success and the man is launched back in time and meets the woman of his memories. Later, he is sent to the future for supplies to save the human race from extinction. After saving the world, the people he spoke to in the future offer him a way out from his miserable existence. He declines to join them in the future and travels back in the past to reunite with the woman of his dreams. Unfortunately he is shot dead at the pier. The same time and place where he sees the woman for the first time. The traumatic experience that the protagonist keeps reliving is what seems to be his own death, seen to his own eyes as a young boy. Is this really the case or is the man in La Jetée suffering from PTSD?

Chris Marker

Marker is structuring his film in a way very similar to Slaughterhouse-Five. The protagonist is going in and out of different time zones. Just like Billy, he has no control concerning the time travelling but he is forced to do it by German scientists. Just like in Slaughterhouse-Five, the influence of World War Two echoes through the short film. By making the scientists speak German, Marker is referring to an allied action after World War Two called Operation Paperclip. This operation entailed that high-ranking Nazi scientists were offered jobs by the allies to work for them. Many of them took them up on the offer. Another aspect of World War Two that shines through is the level of destruction that shines through the stills of Paris in ruins. Those stills are actual photos from the destruction of World War Two. The influence of the Second World War is not surprising considering the fact that Marker, born with the name Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve, fought for the liberation of France in a French underground movement called the Maquis.

La Jetée deals with the notion of time in a far more reflexive way towards its medium than Slaughterhouse-Five. Almost the entire film comprises of stills, reminding the viewer that the medium of film is nothing more than 24 stills running every second to emulate motion. When comparing time to film, Bruce Kawin says in his article Time and Stasis in La Jetée:

“For most of us, the projector runs only forward and is outside our control; for the time traveller in this story, whose consciousness can select which frame will be present, the sequencing of instants appears to be less deterministic, until one remembers that all the frames remain in place on the reel and that in the hero’s beginning is his end.”

The name of the film La Jetée serves the same purpose as Slaughterhouse-Five; both signal a memory as an anchor in time where everything revolves around. But according to Kawin La Jetée means more than just a “jetty” It is also:

“…a projectile, something thrown (from the verb ‘jeter’ to throw or cast) and its symbol is the jetty or concourse. Because time is often described in the film as a series of waves, it is significant that “la jetée” can also mean breakwater, something that extends or projects into the sea. To leap, to make a single weight change into or step while in the air is just what he can not do; that would be to escape from tome, to cheat destiny, to escape narration.”

Marker was not alone in his reflexive approach towards cinema. He was part of the Nouvelle Vague movement. A group interested in the workings of cinema, memory and time. They were a new generation of film makers and they, influenced by the new philosophies of Brecht, Sartre and Beckett, started to make films in a new revolutionary way. Thematically it also hit a nerve, being released months before the Cuban Missile Crisis; people saw the film as a warning of things to come instead of fantastic science fiction

The use of stills instead of film is not merely an artistic whim to alienate the audience in a Brechtian way, they also have a narrative purpose. Patrick Ffrench says in his article The Memory of the Image in Chris Marker’s La Jetée:

“The film is populated with statues and with stuffed animals, so as to underline the concern with still life, with time in so far as it is frozen and conserved in a mute gesture or gaze. The protagonist’s memory is likened to a museum… and this museum-effect is doubled by the stillness of the film whose images are withdrawn from the illusion of continuous motion.”

By using stills the audience is seeing the events unfold in a fractured way. They see time being broken just like what is happening in the film, the breaking of time like breaking the waves beating against a breakwater. Another reason for using the stills is that in the analogue age photographs were more unique than this present digital age. Then, film was scarce and the decision to take a picture was not taken lightly. It would be a waste of film if something uninteresting was captured. By looking at the film through these analogue eyes, it makes the situation far more poignant and gives the film an air of history that needs to be preserved.

Coming back to PTSD and the protagonist of La Jetée, is he really suffering from this illness? Just like Billy, the hero is suffering from being thrown back and forth in time. Just, like Billy he has a rational, yet unbelievable explanation for this situation. Just like with Billy, external factors are responsible for his time travelling. The difference with him is that it is purposely inflicted by German scientists. The fact that they are German could also mean that he is reliving part of the past. While it is impossible for a layman to diagnose Marker with a disease, these matters are better left in the hands of doctors, the similarities between the protagonists of La Jetée and Slaughterhouse-Five cannot be denied.

La Jetée

Did Vonnegut and Marker know what they were doing when they were creating their works of art or did they use their own experiences and emotions of coping with World War Two? It is hard to tell, but it can be concluded that the works have much in common. Both use time travel as a metaphor to cope with trauma. Both are created by people who fought in World War Two and are using their experiences to create and educate, as Vonnegut puts it, the next generation of generals and presidents so that in the future the horrors of the past can be avoided.

Works cited:

Di Leo, J.R. Rembering Kurt Vonnegut. American Book Review. Volume 28. Issue 5. 2007.

Ffrench, Patrick. The Memory of the Image in Chris Marker’s La Jetée. French studies. Vol. LIX. No. 1. p. 31-37.

Kawin, Bruce. Time and Stasis in La Jetée. Film Quarterly. Vol. 36. No. 1. autumn 1982.

Kott, Jan. Shakespeare our Contemporary. London. Norton. 1966.

Loeb, Monica. Vonnegut’s Duty-Dance with Death- Theme and Structure in Slaughterhouse Five. Umea Universitetsbibliothek, Sweden. 1979.

Marker, Chris. La Jetée. Argos film. 1962.

Vees-Gulani, Susanne. Diagnosing Billy Pilgrim: a Psychiatric Approach to Kurt Vonnegut’s   Slaughterhouse-Five. Critique. Winter. 2003. Vol. 44 . No.2.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York. Dell Publishing. 1991.