“The wise does not speak.  He who speaks is not wise." – Lao Tzu

The Tralfamadorian worldview of Slaughterhouse-Five fame surrenders to time's unrelenting waters, its central axiom being that “the moment simply is.” [1] Tralfamadorian physics lead us to question our perceptions of time.  If past, present, and future all happen in one moment, can anything start or stop existing?  If we die, what happens to our consciousness?  Is essence conserved like energy?

Lao Tzu describes the Tao as “complete and perfect as a wholeness” existing “everywhere and anywhere” as the “eternal law.” [2]  The Tao exists as one indivisible entity and flows like water: it “benefits all things and contends not with them."  Water, vital for life, is uncaring of anything that stands in its way.  The water in Taoism symbolizes the eternal "oneness" that encapsulates space and time.  In any competition held with respect to time, water wins in the end.  Following the Tao symbolizes embrace and submission to the water; it represents the art of doing without doing.  It represents just living your life.  

Tralfamadorians accept the nature of the Tao, the notion that time is one entity, as opposed to the supposed human “illusion that one moment follows another one like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.” [1]  For Tralfamadorians, the Tao is embodied by the concept of a moment.  We see this further exemplified when the Tralfamadorians explain death to Billy.  “When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse,” they explain, “all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments.” [3]  Tralfamadorian thanatology, it appears, aligns with the Tao.  The contrast between the Tralfamadorian metaphor for time, “a bug trapped in amber” [1] and the metaphor of water present throughout the Tao Te Ching presents a powerful juxtaposition. Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians possess a cynical but rational view of time, portraying the universe as "trapped" within its amber, while Taoists paradoxically experience it as an eternal flow with divine beauty.  Both agree, definitively, that time is inescapable and is unconcerned with the affairs of Creation.

Billy Pilgrim, the “unstuck in time” subject of Slaughterhouse-Five, exists in his own purgatory, crossed between Newtonian and Tralfamadorian spacetime.  He has lived his life time and time again, living memories ad hoc.  He remains stoic throughout Five, knowing the outcomes of any situation up to and including his death, so it goes. But Billy, with his life of wu-wei and Gump Luck, understands the Moment, the Tao, better than anyone else.  Whether he is a WWII prisoner of war or an exhibit in a Tralfamadorian zoo, Billy does not try to change the Moment: he lives it.


[1] Chapter 4, Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five.

[2] Chapters 2, 4, and 16, respectively, of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching.

[3] Chapter 2, Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five.