Sunday, 28 April 2013

Indiana - Vonnegut's 'Slaughterhouse 5'

I was vaguely aware of the name 'Kurt Vonnegut' before I started researching for this blog post, however, I'm not sure if I'd ever have made it as far as reading one of his novels, which I have now done, having just finished Slaughterhouse 5 (1969), probably his most famous book and a seminal work of the post-war period.

A satirical novel about the bombing of Dresden?

Whilst a satirical novel about the bombing of Dresden might not sound like an easy read, actually, Slaughterhouse 5 is incredibly accessible, enjoyable and beautifully written.  I don't usually have a lot of patience for satirical or humorous novels, so I surprised myself by liking Vonnegut's book, as much as I did.  The title of the novel itself is satirical - when I first picked it up, I assumed there would be a climatic scene in a slaughterhouse where someone (possibly 5 people) would be murdered.  In fact, the slaughterhouse is a refuge for the main character of the novel and ensures he survives the bombing of Dresden when thousands of other people perish. 

Theme: Humour

Vonnegut uses humour to deal with a topic which is, actually, incredibly traumatic.  His position is ostensibly anti-war, having experienced the bombing of Dresden first-hand.  Vonnegut, like his main character, Billy Pilgrim, creates a parallel fantasy world where he can escape the real horror of war and look at it from a slightly skewed and sidelong point of view.  I guess there is nothing more ironic than an American of German descent witnessing the destruction of a German city from the viewpoint of an enemy combatant. 

Although we mostly associate laughter with the feeling of being happy, I'm sure most of you reading this blog post will also recognise the connection between fear and laughter.  Why do we laugh when we're afraid?  Well, I guess, it dispels some of the tension in a situation.  Being Irish, I'm also very conscious of our national tendency towards humour, historically a respite from the horrors of being a colonised nation. 

Theme: The unreliability of time

Dresden after the bombing by Deutsches Bundesarchiv
One of the most interesting themes of Slaughterhouse 5 is the unreliability of time.  Vonnegut very clearly weaves the narrative around events in Billy Pilgrim's life, as he comes unstuck in time and travels backwards and forwards to different periods of his life, as well as to his parallel life on a faraway planet called Tralfamadore.  Vonnegut connects the different time periods and parallel lives of Billy Pilgrim with some beautiful images and continuity in the elements of the narrative.

For example, when, as an older man, Billy Pilgrim survives a plane crash in Vermont, Vonnegut places some Austrian tourists in the vicinity, so Billy comes around to the sound of the German language, immediately transporting him back to the forest in Luxembourg where he was taken prisoner by the Germans in the Second World War. 

It's a real joy to join Billy Pilgrim on this narrative roller coaster backwards and forwards through time and across the universe!  It also reminded me a little bit of someone in their dotage, confusing one period of their life with another, each being equally real.  By breaking with the constraints of a time-logical narrative, Vonnegut somehow removes a fear of death that would otherwise dominate the story that he wants to tell.

Theme: Sexual (im)potency

I was quite interested in Vonnegut's portrayal of sexuality in Slaughterhouse 5.  When Billy is first captured by a young German soldier, he describes him as a 'heavenly Androgyne' and 'as beautiful as Eve'.  I think Vonnegut is expressing the feeling of being captured as akin to sexual passivity or impotency, ie. when you give up control to your captor - it's a strangely erotic experience.  Apparently, Slaughterhouse 5 was the first work of fiction which referred to the fact that 'fairies' (gay men) were sent to concentration camps by the Nazis. 

The old sex and death routine, so popular in the 19th century, also makes an appearance in Vonnegut's novel - Billy falls asleep on the train on the way to his father's funeral and wakes up with a massive erection!  His oedipus complex is certainly complex!  According to the novel, Billy is very well endowed, but his sex life on earth is unfulfilled.  By contrast, on Tralfamadore, Billy is a great lover and satisfies the fictional porn-star, Montana Wildhack, even if their love-making is arranged by the Tralfamadorians, who want to observe human reproduction. 

Theme: Illogical relationships with women

Billy's relationship with women in the novel is, at best, absurd.  When he returns from the war and has a nervous breakdown, he is admitted to a psychiatric ward.  His mother, 'a perfectly nice, standard-issue, brown-haired, white woman with a high-school education' comes to visit him and he describes her thus:

She upset Billy simply by being his mother.  She made him feel embarrassed and ungrateful and weak because she had gone to so much trouble to give him life, and to keep that life going, and Billy really didn't like life at all.

Shortly after the scene with his mother, Billy describes his relationship with his wife, Valencia:

Billy didn't want to marry ugly Valencia.  She was one of the symptoms of his disease.  He know he was going crazy when he heard himself proposing marriage to her . . .

To Billy, his relationship with his wife defies all logic and merely serves to confirm his insanity.

Theme: The annoyingly cheerful Englishmen

I was amused by Vonnegut's depiction of the annoyingly cheerful Englishmen that Billy meets when he arrives at the Prisoner of War camp in Germany.  Billy arrives with a ragtag bunch of American POWs, looking like a 'filthy flamingo'.  The English POWs welcome them with a very cheerful song, Hail, Hail, the Gang's all here! which was featured in that classic English musical, The Pirates of Penzance.  According to Billy 'they made the war look stylish and reasonable, and fun'. 

Knowing Vonnegut's anti-war sentiment, you can read between the lines and sense the resentment that the American POWs feel when confronted by this jolly bunch of Englishmen.  Sure enough, the cheery welcome soon turns to hostility, as the Englishmen look down their nose at the Americans and despise them for their ragged appearances and low spirits. 

The Englishmen seem to get on very well with their German captors, playing chess together and sharing a common disdain for the general appearance of the American POWs.  In a very subtle way, Vonnegut highlights the sense of separation between the Americans and the Europeans, not to mention the absurdity of American soldiers fighting in Europe, many miles away from home, with an 'ally' that seems to have more in common with the enemy!

Theme: The joy of human nature

One of the things I enjoyed most about Slaughterhouse 5 was the way human nature penetrated the absurd situations that Billy found himself in.  A reference is made to Lot's wife and how she couldn't help looking back, although warned not to - Vonnegut describes her looking back as a plain and simple 'human reaction' and there is a real sense of optimism in the idea that people will still behave like people, even in unnatural situations such as war. 

Another example of this is when the American POWs arrive at the camp in Germany, the German soldiers laugh with relief, as they realise how pathetic the enemy is.  Again laughter as a release for anxiety!

There is so much going on in this novel that I can't hope to do it justice in a short blog post, so why not order a copy and read it for yourself! 

Image credits:

The image of Dresden after the bombing has been released by the Deutsches Bundesarchiv under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.  You can see more information at the file description page on Wikimedia commons - Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1994-041-07 / CC-BY-SA [CC-BY-SA-3.0-de], via Wikimedia Commons

I've also embedded two videos from YouTube.

The first is the official trailer for the 1972 film directed by George Roy Hill.  I haven't yet seen this movie, but it's on my 'to do' list!

The second is a very clever recording of Hail, Hail, the Gang's all here uploaded by Dan Priest, which shows original footage from an WW2 entertainment show for Russian and US soldiers

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Indiana - Death, Kingdom Hall and the Jackson 5

Probably the state's most famous export, the Jacksons have gained global recognition in a way that might have seemed unimaginable for a family from Gary, Indiana.  No matter where I go in the world, when I say my name is 'Michael', most people immediately say 'Jackson', which shows how much of a global phenomenon Michael Jackson was, as he dominated the pop industry in the late 20th century and became an even much bigger star than his talented siblings in the Jackson 5.

Michael Jackson through his brother's eyes

It's a massive topic to undertake and there is so much information out there, that I thought it would be best to concentrate on the biography Michael: Through a Brother's Eyes (2011) by Jermaine Jackson.  There's something really beautiful when families sing together and, likewise, I wanted to hear about Michael Jackson from someone who knew him best in their early years, growing up in Indiana.

I must put my hand up at this point and say that I wasn't a massive fan of Michael's music - I enjoyed it, as most of the world did, but I never bought any of his albums and I wouldn't really be listening to his music now, if it wasn't for the fact that I've been researching for this blog.  A lot of his work and the music of the Jackson 5 is really familiar to me and, I must admit, it's been nice to take a trip down memory lane and rediscover some of their classic tracks. 

There has been so much negative publicity about Michael, that it was refreshing to read an account of his life that was written by someone who really loved him.  Of course, I understand that Jermaine's story is less likely to be objective but, in some ways that doesn't matter, as it balanced off all the negative publicity I've read about Michael over the years in the press.

Peter Pan or Paedophile?

That Michael Jackson loved children is very well-known and accusations of paedophilia overshadowed the latter part of his life.  On one hand, he could be seen as a Peter Pan-type character, who lost his childhood to the demands of celebrity and being in the public eye - he compensated in later life, by building a paradise for children at his ranch in Neverland and he literally became the boy who never grew up.  One the other hand, he violated expected standards of American society in relation to his conduct with children, especially children who came from vulnerable families and weren't related to him. 

Sharing a bed with a child who isn't your own child is definitely unacceptable in Western culture, although this might seem less unusual in other cultures around the world.  Like it or not, we now live in the shadow of a more innocent age, when adult/child contact was freer, but also abused by many sexually repressed adults, such as celibate priests.  If Michael Jackson's contact with children was innocent, then it still transcended the accepted norms of a society that views such contact with suspicion.

Guilty until proven innocent?

By coincidence, during the time I was researching this blog post, I saw a very interesting Danish film called Jagten (The Hunt) (2012), dir. Thomas Vinterberg.  The movie deals with a teaching assistant who is wrongly accused of sexually abusing a young girl who is in his care.  It highlights how quick we are to judge and what a nightmare it is to be wrongly accused of such a serious crime. 

It's almost too easy to believe that Michael Jackson behaved inappropriately with children - people judged him (or were prejudiced against him) because of his eccentric personality and odd behaviour - but what if he was innocent, then how wrong would that judgement/prejudice be?  My personal take on it is that he cleared his name in court and we should respect this judgement. 

Thriller, Kingdom Hall and the American obsession with death

There are so many aspects to the Michael Jackson story that I could write about but, in the interests of a succint and readable blog post, I want to concentrate on one other aspect of Michael Jackson's life that fascinated me.  Before I started my research, I didn't know that the Jacksons were raised in a fairly strict Jehovah's Witness household.  Religious beliefs had a really strong influence on the lives of Michael, Jermaine and the other Jackson siblings, whether they ultimately rejected their religious upbringing or not.

I had the pleasure of re-watching Thriller (1983) after so many years - I remember first seeing it on MTV when I was a child and, I think it's fair to say that this video changed the pop industry forever, as well as influencing the development of modern dance. 

It's shocking to realise that it's already 30 years since the video was released and amazing that it still feels incredibly 'fresh', despite the technological developments in video and film production that have happened since then.  I think it was the most expensive pop video ever produced at that time, costing half a million dollars and being directed by John Landis of American Werewolf in London fame.  If, like me, you haven't seen this video in years, then do yourself a favour and click on the embedded YouTube video!

The video displeased the elders at Kingdom Hall, so Michael put a disclaimer at the beginning to assure fans that he wasn't endorsing belief in the occult.  Like so many things in Michael's life though, you can't help wondering what his real motivation was.  He certainly seems to have been fascinated by the 'dark side' and troubled characters (eg. Billy Jean which was based on a stalker and Smooth Criminal which is believed to have been inspired by the gruesome murders of the 'Night Stalker', Richard Ramirez). 

We think of Michael and the Jackson 5 as being African-American performers and that's certainly how they were first 'sold' to the US public, however, their heritage is more complex than that and I was really interested to learn that the Jacksons also traced some ancestry back to the Choctaw and Blackfoot tribes.  It's a heritage they were proud of.  Jermaine describes how, during their camping trips to Wisconsin as children, they would walk along the Indian trails. 

The more I learn about the United States, the more I sense a national obsession with death.  As I watched the ghouls rising out of the graveyard in Thriller, I couldn't help but imagine the souls of millions of native Americans who were killed in the name of Manifest Destiny (see my previous blog post on this subject).  Perhaps Michael's treatment of the occult and death were guided by some sort of ancestral memory, which conflicted with the religion he inherited from his parents?

There is so much more that I could write about Michael and the Jackson 5, but I'll stop there for now and leave you with one last video from YouTube which shows Michael's first performance of 'the Robot dance' - a hint of what would come in later years, it shocked contemporary audiences, when he first performed this on the Carol Burnett show in 1974. 


All of the videos are taken from YouTube.

The first is one of my favourite Jackson 5 songs, Can you feel it?  It's so upbeat and optimistic and I also loved the 1998 remix by the Italian dance group Tamperer featuring Maya, which reminds me of driving from Omagh and Derry.

Black or White (1991) is one of my favourite Michael Jackson songs, with another great video from John Landis. 

The third video is Thriller (1983) and the fourth is a recording of Dancing Machine from the Carol Burnett show in 1974. 

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Indiana - the Crossroads of America

Indiana is the third place in the United States that I have decided to blog about.  I really enjoy learning about the United States, especially as I have yet to visit this country, which has had such an influence on 'modern' culture, both in Western societies and around the globe.  I learned a lot during my previous blogging experiences about Oklahoma and Wisconsin and I'm sure that Indiana will be no exception.

Not to mention the fact that around 40% of people who visit this blog are from the United States - it's to be expected that an English-language blog would get the majority of its visitors from the biggest English-speaking country on Earth, nevertheless, I'm grateful for the interest US readers have shown in my writing and I hope they have found my blog posts interesting and informative!

Entering White County by J Stephen Conn
Before I started researching for this blog, I only knew one thing about Indiana, which was that it has some great universities that offer comprehensive language courses.  I had a Tajik colleague in Samarkand who spent some time teaching Uzbek in Indianapolis and this sums up my 'personal experience' with the state of Indiana. 

Of course, now that I've starting researching, I've found out a lot more about the state and I look forward to continuing my research on topic areas such as The Jackson Five, Kinsey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the writings of Kurt Vonnegut

I've also learned that Indiana was originally designated as an 'Indian territory', hence the name, and lay on the border between French and British influence in the 18th century.  Like Oklahoma, Indiana was designated as a place where Native American Indians would live, until the Europeans later changed their minds and did everything they could to claim the land back and make Indiana the 19th US state (just after Louisiana and a year before Mississippi joined the Union). 

The United Methodist church in Caley
Indianapolis was specifically designed as the capital of the new state and lies almost exactly in the geographical heart of Indiana.  Indiana had two former capitals, Corydon and Vincennes, which have since played much smaller roles in the state's destiny.  The other major cities in Indiana are Fort Wayne, near the border with Ohio and Evansville, which is in the south near Kentucky. 

The small city of Gary, where the Jackson Five grew up, is practically in the suburbs of Chicago and, indeed, the 'suburb' of East Chicago is in Indiana.  This is one the US's biggest steel-producing regions and attracted a lot of African American workers, who decamped from the southern states, in search of better opportunities in the north.  I first became aware of this demographic trend when I was blogging about Oprah Winfrey and Wisconsin. 

Indiana is also known as 'the Crossroads of America' - Indianapolis is a hub for many of the interstate highways and Indiana finds itself slap bang in the middle of the US and the heart of the Mid West!  This might not seem significant until you realise how convenient Indianapolis is as a convention centre - whether it's the Gen Con gaming convention, or Star Trek meetings, the city promotes itself as a central location for nation-wide meetings. 

Monon, White County by J Stephen Conn
Indiana's nickname got me thinking about the significance of 'crossroads' in different cultures around the world - whether it's the 'comely maidens' dancing on the crossroads of Ireland, as imagined by our first President, US-born, Eamon DeValera, or the grim English tradition of executing and burying criminals under crossroads (such as Tyburn in London), the place where roads meet has interesting cultural associations.  It's a magical place of voodoo, or a meeting place with the Devil - somewhere beyond the rules of civilised society, an area between settlements, at once sacred and out of human control. 

And of course, there are less scary Crossroads in Western culture - I'm thinking of the famous soap opera that I watched as a child on British television, or the French supermarket chain, Carrefour, where I have spent many a hard-earned euro! 

So join me on this virtual journey to the crossroads of the United States - let's find out together what Indiana is all about!

Image credits:

For this blog post, I wanted to highlight the work of semi-retired clergyman, J Stephen Conn, who is an avid traveller and seems to have methodically documented many counties in each of the United States.  I thought it would be interesting to randomly choose one of the Indiana counties, White county and show you the pictures Mr Conn has taken there.  I think it's an interesting slice of 'everyday life' in the United States.

You can see more of Mr Conn's work on his photostream