The Nothingness Ex Nihilo

We are “thrown” into existence, within a universe without evident logical, ontological, or axiological structure. Sartre’s Being and Nothingness opposes metaphysical conceptions—including religious doctrines and absolute morality—as these are self-deceptive approaches to ‘authenticity’. Hence, we are beings whom prior to existence were nothing and are destined to non-existence or nothingness. Although this thought undermines the existence of morals and meaning, or virtues and values, we are nonetheless “condemned to be free” to ask ultimate questions without resolute answers, or reach decisions without ethical certainty.

Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, written a few decades subsequent to these existential movements, and Einstein’s formulation of relativity, notably incorporates motifs on both the absurdity of human fortuitous life and the B-theory’s implications towards human deterministic living. This combination implicitly entails the contradictory nature of this irrational world, yet provides a solution that we can be “authentic” by “rebelling” this illogicality as both an idle and likeable resolution.

“As an earthling, I had to believe whatever clocks said—and calendars” conveys space-time as contingent upon our construction of our temporality. Although the idealist’s version of time is that “all time is time; all moments, past, present, and future, always have existed; it does not change; it does not lend itself to warnings; it simply is,” akin to a frozen river, yet we experience time as a flowing river. “[Weary] is in a constant state of stage fright, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next” is proof that our illusion of before, now, and after merely traps us in uncertainty, leading to absurdity, due to the simultaneous objective existence of timelessness and the subjective experience of temporality.

Thus, the concept of “why” is irrational, independent of our rationality. From the perspective of timeless beings on temporal beings, “Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber? …There is no why.” Accordingly, advocates of atemporality reduces human essence—including cognition and conation—to physicalism, suspended in non-causality. “We know how the universe ends—and earth has nothing do with it, except that it gets wiped out.” Not only humans and animals or chemicals are technically equivalent, this pessimistic yet apathetic theme and tone casually arouses the absurdist question of how can we live lively or rationally in an irrational world?

Vonnegut echoes Nietzsche’s urge to “live your life as a piece of art” within a nihilistic world, as “no art is possible without a dance with death” (Vonnegut 27). The limited intervals, in space and time, or between life and death, gives life meaning. There are infinite possibilities but finite potentialities—akin to producing or interpreting art. “Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones” is a sentience’s issue on conscience, as an artwork’s worthiness or worthlessness is arbitrarily up to us to judge.

The Fictioneers of Fiction

“The ends justify the means” is the universal axiom that every moral decision hinges upon. Cannon fodders dug into the trenches believing that they were justified, by mass destruction, to achieve a nation’s utopian dream. However, Vonnegut reveals that the brutal means occurred for delusional ends. A ‘perfect world’ is illusory, hence every battle to establish that fantasy is meaningless.

“If the death penalty is ever to be imposed for desertion, it should be… not as a punitive measure nor as retribution, but to maintain that discipline upon which alone an army can succeed against the enemy” exemplifies that to survive is to discipline one’s self to exterminate the opposition. Thus, the ends to survive is through the means of death, and both sides of war sustain this philosophy. Therefore, to survive is to die, yet a soldier is disciplined to think otherwise. Pilgrim describes his comrades as “woods creatures, living from moment to moment in useful terror, thinking brainlessly with their spinal cords.” The soldiers are disciplined not to think by their cerebral capacities, but to act by their corporeal capabilities. They are heteronomous to human warfare instead of autonomous to human welfare.

Indeed, a ‘perfect world’ requires humans to become non-humans (machines)! Android autonomy is acting without thinking, but consistently, reliably, and efficiently. The mass has to be systemized to formalize a permanent economic cycle, as seen in the dystopian-totalitarian regimes of 1984 or Brave New World.

“Tralfamadorians say that every creature in the universe is a machine,” because they “produce an image of life [with] no beginning, no middle, no end, no moral, no causes, no effects.” These alien concepts imply that war for a perfect world is an illusion, i.e. a changeless world of peace, power, and parity, since a perfect world eliminates the concept of vices and virtues. A perfect world is just “is,” because of its autonomic-monotonic consistency. Consistency undermines free will, akin to consistently operating machines without free will. Tralfamadorians discern no morality, but machinery.

“[Billy and Weary] had found life meaningless, partly of what they had seen in war.” Giorgio de Chirico, a surrealist artist, found that nationalism and patriotism are meaningless. Soldiers and leaders believe that the ends of war are superstructures of complete uniformity and harmony, through the means of war that involves fatality and barbarity. Hence, instability leads to stability—war is a distorted state of mind to achieve an ordered state of mass.

Yet, for Pilgrim, “science fiction was a big help [to] reinvent himself and his universe.” The fantasy of a perfect world is a fiction, not a reality. Until it is believed to be sane to believe in false truths of mythology where one can truly escape from actuality. This is Vonnegut’s revelation: “fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” The book itself is part fiction that reveals the truth that we imperfect humans have to live as if our humanly lives will be made perfect.