Kurt Vonnegut’s Anti-War Novel Slaughterhouse-Five Banned at a Missouri High School
This past Monday, school board members in Republic, Missouri banned Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” because they considered it too sexually explicit. Naturally, only one of the four who voted in favor have read the book.
There are perhaps a handful of supremely important experiences in my life. Listening to the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” as the final piano notes hung in the aether as a 13 year old with my cousin, awed beyond belief. Or when my sophomore English teacher gave me his entire Pixies collection before I could even drive, which directly led me to Surrealism. And then reading Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” in my Junior year.
All of these moments pushed me, by degrees, in a certain direction—”Slaughterhouse-Five,” however, changed my life forever. One moment I was a kid who loved baseball (still do, still play), Stephen King (still do), the Pixies and My Bloody Valentine, and in the next instance, everything was suddenly unfolded before me and the illusion of authority’s power was broken.
It was a paradigm shift, and it led me to one of the greatest paradigm shifts of my life: reading Vonnegut’s “Sirens of Titans.” Whereas “Slaughterhouse-Five” opened my mind, “Sirens of Titans” shattered and reconstituted it with the subterranean harmoniums of Mercury; its quantum mechanics via the chrono-synclastic infundibulum, a wave phenomenon that scatters one of the main characters across space and time; the Tralfamadorian Salo, stranded on Saturn’s moon Titan, who is instrumental to human consciousness and existence; the idea of free will—does it exist at all; the absurdity of existence.
Indeed, my Vonnegut experience ultimately led me to Thomas Pynchon’s work such as “Gravity’s Rainbow,” “Against the Day” and “The Crying of Lot 49.” Vonnegut prepared me for the absolute anarchy of Pynchon’s fiction and ideas—his grasp of history, power structures and those who oppose it.
The sexual explicitness in “Slaughterhouse-Five” is elemental to the plot: it, along with the human death drive as illuminated in technicolor by warfare, is paralleled within Billy Pilgrim’s mind. It is not gratuitous nor transgressive for transgressive sake. Humans have several functions, but at the base level it would seem that we desire sex and war more than any other acts aside for the accumulation of things.
No one would expect the Republic School Board to know these sort of things because three of the four did not read the book in its totality as a piece of art.
And it seems that the Republic School Board hasn’t the faintest clue about paradigm shifts or the art of writing fiction; most likely because they deny the possibility of such a shift to themselves (and that it could even happen through a work of fiction—not the Bible, of course), so they desire to deny such an experience to the Republic High School students. They deny them a moment of crystallization, even if only to a few inquisitive students.
Never mind the fact that Vonnegut was a humanist. Never mind the fact that “Slaughterhouse-Five” is one of the greatest satires every written: an anti-war novel cloaked in science fiction (time travel). Never mind the fact that it challenges students’ minds with its non-linearity. Never mind the fact that it teaches students about the atrocity of the Dresden firebombing. Never mind the fact that my high school class was tickled to death by at least some of the scenes, such as when main character Billy Pilgrim is put in a glass room and watched by Tralfamadorians like an animal at a zoo. Thus, we might say it is also a sort of critique of animal rights and the sadness of zoos—something children instinctively understand anyway.
But, as Republic Superintendent Vern Minor told News-Leader, “I don’t think it has any place in high school.”
As I told a friend who is now a high school English teacher when he asked me for advice on getting his students to think outside the box with discussion of “Slaughterhouse-Five”:
Note that people tried to censor the novel. Ask them, “Why?” What is it about the novel that would cause people in power to want to censor it? See what their answers are. Make sure you lead them to the point, however, that it underlines the absurdity of war and civilization, in general, and it calls into question those most invested in the status quo (the established order). This is the very essence of being a teen! Trying to understand the world. Learning how to navigate the information presented to you and what people tell you. What are the alternatives to war in managing human disagreements?
It isn’t the explicit passages that offend the Republic School Board’s sensibilities—that’s only a cover. The Republic School Board wants to take away a book that would free these kids from indoctrination and the lifelong subservience to power.
The school board’s message to the kids? Respect power and trust in its ability to shepherd people.
I, on the other hand, believe that more high school students should read “Slaughterhouse-Five,” before their minds are calcified by the lies and distortion of certain adults.
Have a taste for subversive books? Read my first entry in the new Death and Taxes series “Cabinet of Subversive Books: Volume 1.”