“Imprinting” and Slaughterhouse Five

“Imprinting” isn’t really the right analogy to use, but I remember back in the 80s sitting in Professor Lovell’s Psych 101 class and first hearing of this term.  As defined by Merriam-Webster, it refers to : “a rapid learning process that takes place early in the life of a social animal (as a goose) and establishes a behavior pattern (as recognition of and attraction to its own kind or a substitute).” I have to admit the photo image of Konrad Lorenz, who coined the term or defined the phenomenon, walking in his yard with a group of goslings waddling after him (they thought he was their ‘mama’ because he was the first image they saw) in his wake is hard to forget.  I do think, though, that many times authors may experience a ‘defining moment’ – or “learning process that takes place early” in their life, the echoes of which forever reverberate in their subsequent works.  I would suggest Kurt Vonnegut’s experience at Dresden would fall into this category.

Dresden (before):

and after:

I also like to think most of us humans are born with a certain faith in – or at least capacity to have faith in – an underlying “goodness” in humanity.  And of course most of us also have this faith shaken from time to time by events we witness or stories we hear.  (My recent reading of Peter Godwin’s The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe is a personal example of a reeling blow to one’s faith in humanity)  It’s as if our faith is a castle – or at least has ramparts – that these attacks bang up against from time to time.  Sometimes, however, our castle of faith is so overrun and brought to ruin that we can never fully recover its use.  I suggest this is something that happened to Vonnegut as a result of his being witness to the horrors of the firestorm and destruction at Dresden.  It was hard for Vonnegut to view humanity optimistically knowing what he knew about its capacity for horror and brutality.  “So it goes,” as he would say…

Once our castle of faith is overrun and left in ruins, though we may patch up our defenses and try to carry on, it has as a result become much easier to overrun in the future.  Think of Ancient Rome.  The Eternal City made it until 476 A.D. before it was finally sacked and pillaged by Alaric and his Visigoths.  After that, however, it was sacked many times by future invaders.  Once the walls are breached, subsequent breaches are achieved by much less mighty attacks.  For a person whose faith has been routed in this way, a common aftereffect is an adoption of cynicism and pessimism in dealing with or describing the world around him.  I think if one reads Vonnegut’s novels with this in mind, it may be a lot easier to “get” him and understand why he chose to write the way he did.

My participation in the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s book club has been enriching for me in many ways, but the way which I’m enjoying the most is that, for the first time, I’ve really focused on a single author over many of his books.  I find myself gaining appreciation as a reader having all that extra reading experience at my disposal when trying to figure out “what the heck he’s talking about” at times. 🙂

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6 Comments

  1. Melody said,

    May 19, 2011 at 11:52 am

    Nice post, Jay. I definitely get that feeling from his books–that he is making sense of what he’d like to believe about humanity (or did believe, in some fashion, in the past) and what he has to believe based on his experiences.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      May 20, 2011 at 7:38 pm

      Thanks Melody! I was happy to hear from one of my fellow KVMLBC members that – after I left the meeting a little early last month – they decided to continue discussing Slaughterhouse Five at the next meeting. Maybe I’ll read it again (for the 3rd time). 🙂

      Sometimes I find his writing depressingly pessimistic about our future, but I still feel he is someone that MUST be read….

      -Jay

      Like

  2. Dale Barthauer said,

    May 19, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    Awesome post, Jay! A shaken faith in humanity seems to be an underlying theme for many 20th-21st century writers. Perhaps it goes back further, though, too.

    Like

  3. Alex said,

    May 20, 2011 at 10:27 am

    You know what scene involving molasses and it’s description? I thought it was one of the most joyful things I’ve ever read, which is weird considering the type of book it is. Or maybe that’s exactly why it’s felt that way.

    PS: I’m ashame to confess that the the first thing that came to mind when reading “imprinting” was the Twilight series…

    Like

    • Jay said,

      May 20, 2011 at 7:51 pm

      Hi Alex,

      Yes, that IS weird that that would be the scene that sticks in your memory. 🙂

      I don’t remember the imprinting term in Twilight, but I only read the first book…

      -Jay

      Like


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