In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamador. The Tralfamadorians ask him if he has any questions and Billy says, Why me? The aliens reply by saying, “There is no why.”
Which to me, is a lot like opening a door that leads to nowhere, not even a closet.
Vonnegut published this novel in 1969. We will continue asking why. Like, “Why write novels at ALL?“
This is the title to Hallberg’s NYT article that looks at the living writer all other writers are jealous of: Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Zadie Smith, and David Foster Wallace, and surmises from major threads in their work that the the reason we write novels is so we don’t feel alone. Gauld concludes that if art is to endure this isn’t enough.
Asking why write fiction is like asking why play cricket or baseball?
I say, because it’s fun.
But fun isn’t a lasting art form that transcends time. Or as Hallberg might say, “If art is to endure, fun isn’t quite enough.”
I’m not attempting to answer why we write and why we read. But I can’t help but argue that something which comes from nothing, like a story, is a magical reality with a larger purpose than no purpose as the Tralfamadorians might say. It’s also larger than just for enjoyment, entertainment, or fun. It’s also more than not feeling alone, which Hallberg understands.
“Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?”
“Yes.” Billy, in fact, had a paperweight in his office which was a blob of polished amber with three ladybugs embedded in it.
“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”
The moments, time essentially, are all equal points on the horizon. This is the philosophical view of eternalism. It agrees with Einstein’s theory of general relativity, and what is called “block time,” that time is like inches on a ruler, but struggles to answer why we experience time as linear.
Vonnegut’s novel moves through blocks of time, to moments trapped in amber with no why. Eternalism implies that we will live forever and continue after death. So moments, to me, whether experienced in a linear progression or like inches in space (moments that hop back and forth to Billy Pilgrim), are sacred, and to tell of those moments–or to create a story from nothing that tells of moments–then carries a sacred duty.
This is all very subtle, I understand. I’m assuming too much. Not all of you are creatives and not all creatives believe in the mysterious power of words and stories and moments. Not all believe we live forever, or that time, the 4th dimension, could be like the other three. And not all even take it so seriously. Like Heath Ledger’s Joker asks, “Why so serious?” Because there is such a thing as play, which might be the greatest moments of all. Where duty and sacredness and mysterious-God-like-darknesses aren’t factors of writing or reading a damn story.
And even Vonnegut understands this play-thing. The novel is described as satirical, which means he’s having some cheeky fun with a story that has no purpose.
But the funny thing about stories is that regardless of what the writer wants, the story contains a power of its own. Which is why atheist writers like J.M. Coetzee in Diary of a Bad Year or even Ian McEwan in Atonement write beautiful stories empowered with an overwhelming sense of the divine.
Fortunately, a writer cannot escape this burden if he’s dedicated to his craft. So regardless of Vonnegut’s philosophical argument, we can say with aplomb that the story is worthy of high-regard and reaches into the mysterious darkness where the Holy Spirit broods.
To create is to partake in communion with the Holy Spirit, to co-create from tohu vavohu.
The story might say there is no why. But the story proclaims there is a why.