Living Too Long: When the Story is Ended But Life Goes On

This semester in my composition 2 classes, we've been reading Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and Heller's Catch-22, looking at them from different angles, one of those angles being PTSD.

In order to supplement my instruction, I've been reading the recent biographies on both men, and one thing I've noticed is how weary these two men were in their later years.

They were bored, disappointed, sometimes bitter, sometimes despondent. They seemed to feel, or at least were portrayed as feeling, that they had outlived their usefulness.

Both Vonnegut and Heller were complicated men who were profoundly impacted by their war experiences, and it was those war experiences that led to their success as authors and their lasting impact on American literature. While Heller achieved success with his first novel, Vonnegut had been a published author for two decades before Slaughterhouse-Five made him famous.

Their fame came with the cost of trying to live up to their famous books. Both were sensitive to negative criticism. And in their later years, they both appear to have felt slighted that their contributions as writers weren't being lauded in the manner they wanted.

Vonnegut wrote for over five decades, but ran out of things to say, new things anyway.

Bored, disgusted, done, ready to go. Both Heller and Vonnegut seem to have spent their final years feeling this way.

I can't help but feel saddened that such keen intellects came to this point. I can understand how losing the stamina and vigor of youth would frustrate these men, especially Heller with his prodigious appetites, but I don't think it was the loss of youth alone that account for what teeters from apathy to despair and back again in these men.

I think that the loss of parents, the loss of their first wives, the recognition of their failures as spouses to women they never stopped loving, the lack of fit with their second wives, and the lasting impact of the war that made them into the men they became all combined into a sour, often bitter soup of recriminations.

Erikson posited that the last stage we go through is that of integrity vs. despair. As we enter our last years, we look back over our lives and take measure of our accomplishments and our regrets. What we conclude about ourselves determines how we face these final years.

Vonnegut, in the documentary So it Goes says, "We all see our lives as stories, it seems to me, and I am convinced that psychologists and sociologists and historians and so on would find it useful to acknowledge that. If a person survives an ordinary span of 60 years or more, there's every chance that his or her life as a shapely story has ended, and that all that remains to be experienced is epilogue. Life is not over, but the story is."

This acknowledgment by Vonnegut gets to the heart of the problem: feeling as if one has outlived one's own story. The rest is just waiting for the end, an end that both Vonnegut and Heller must have felt in a visceral way, should have and could have easily occurred in the war. Vonnegut's letter home in 1945 shows a survivor's guilt: "Many men died from shock in the showers after ten days of starvation, thirst and exposure. But I didn't." In a later paragraph, he continues: "Their planes (P-39's) strafed and bombed us, killing fourteen, but not me." (bold my emphasis)

Imagine at the tender age of 22-23 framing one's own life story in relation to survivor's guilt, in relation to what would almost certainly be diagnosed today as post traumatic stress disorder. And then coming home and being expected to reintegrate into civilian life with no outward sign that one had ever left. This is what our young men and women today are having to do when they come back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Even though we know better, we still want them to come back and fit back in without us needing to shift or alter our lives or our perceptions of them.

It doesn't work. And the stressors on these survivors and their families, friends, and coworkers can be and often are profound.

Vonnegut and Heller lived through horrendous experiences and then had to live through each succeeding decade watching our government send young men and young women into similar situations, having learned nothing from the horrors of WW2. They both learned that governments and bureaucracies are not to be trusted, and they grew increasingly disillusioned.

They saw our nation rise and fall in stature, saw our morality corrupted, our ideals tossed aside and they recognized their impotence to change that, even with novels that so brilliantly said what needed to be said.

No wonder Vonnegut felt he outlived his story. No wonder Heller grew bored and left as a final work a novel that so clearly showed the impotence he felt to affect a lasting change.

What will we learn from these men, not just from their novels, but from their final years? What do their final years and the mix of emotions they felt have to show us about the changes we need to make? Will we tolerate our youth growing into old men and women who feel that their sacrifices for this nation were for naught? Will we let them despair, not only now, but throughout their lives?

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