Most people wouldn't expect to find Sun Ra and Billy Pilgrim in the same room, but Bob Nickas got the two of them together to talk about the end of the world and why some people are upset the apocalypse hasn't come.
Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy and Montana with their newborn
Part 1: Billy Pilgrim Meets Sun Ra
Bob: No one would expect to find the two of you together, but Sun Ra, your movie, Space Is the Place, and the film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's book, Slaughterhouse-Five, with Billy Pilgrim in the lead, were made in 1972, and central to each story is the fact that you were both abducted. The two of you have something rather special in common—intergalactic adventure and time travel.
Sun Ra: It's true. In my case, the future was held for ransom. Billy was taken to another planet for some prenatal fun and games.
Billy: They hooked me up with the girl of my dreams.
Sun Ra: And you two had a baby, of all things, so the Milky Way could be even whiter.
Bob: Don't forget that the full title of the book is Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death. Billy didn't really have a choice.
Sun Ra: He was only following… orders?
Bob: He became a willing captive in what turned out to be more of a biological experiment.
Billy: Sun Ra planned to take his chosen people away from the Earth, to save them.
Bob: From who?
Billy: From us. "Fear of a Black Planet" … in reverse. It was a brilliant and radical re-imagining of history. Marcus Garvey in a UFO.
Sun Ra: You went on your own pilgrimage, Billy, more than once.
Bob: In my favorite scene from Space Is the Place, you're dressed in Egyptian finery, flanked by a pair of attendants wearing gold masks. One of them is Horus, the falcon-headed God. It is a very tripped-out scene, even for the time. You walk into an Oakland youth center. On the wall are posters of various Black Panthers—Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver—there's a pool table and a jukebox. The kids who are hanging out stare wide-eyed in disbelief.
Sun Ra: They ask me, "Are you for real?"
Bob: And you gently lecture them: "I’m not real, I’m just like you. You don’t exist in this society. If you did your people wouldn’t be seeking equal rights. You’re not real. If you were you’d have some status among the nations of the world. So we are both myths. I do not come to you as a reality, I come to you as the myth because that is what black people are—myths. I came from a dream that the black man dreamed long ago. I’m actually a presence sent to you by your ancestors. I’m going to be here until I pick out some of you to take back with me."
Sun Ra, Space Is the Place / At the community center
Billy: You once said, "This planet is doomed."
Sun Ra: I didn't want or need to be right. But I was. When I think of you and your dream girl out there in space, romping naked under your geodesic dome, breathing purified air, sheltered from a world that cannot support human life, I see the couple in the cracked glass bubble in that Hieronymus Bosch painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights.
Bob: On your album, It's After the End of the World, you reproduced a detail from the central panel of that painting, which depicts the many pleasures of Heaven on Earth, or the carnal sins committed before Judgement Day—depending on your point-of-view.
Sun Ra: There are always angels and demons at play.
Billy: We're not moralistic, except where the taking of innocent lives is concerned.
Sun Ra: You'll notice that the woman in the bubble is as pale as a ghost, and the man is rather dark-skinned. This was painted in the 1500s. There is such a thing as being ahead of your time.
Bob: They appear as if Hieronymus Bosch painted an ultrasound image, and it's not the fetus but the parents who are revealed. In a womb with many hairline fractures, suggesting the fragility of life.
Sun Ra, It's After the End of the World
Billy: So why did you bring us together. Does it have something to do with that painting?
Bob: As far as how the imagery in the final panel represents the end of the world, well, yes, it does. I came to think about the two of you because this past December 21 was supposed to coincide with the world's extinction—12/21/12. But that day came and went and we're still here. The world didn't explode and for some it may have been disappointing. This got me thinking about why someone would be disappointed with the world not coming to an end. What are the reasons? Are they romantic, cultish, fatalistic? Has the end become a new chic concept? Or maybe it's a relief in the sense that we don't have to worry or bother about taking our own lives—a great, divine calamity will do it for us—and absolve us of the sin.
Billy: According to the Mayan calendar…
Sun Ra: What does anyone really know about reading the Mayan calendar? Or any calendar? And what's the use? It's all the same day. We exist outside the time zone. A day of total destruction? That isn't even numerology or pseudo-science. It's mumbo-jumbo from some folks who were hanging out on a beach in Cancun, soaking up some rays on a winter vacation. They fry their bodies and they fry their minds. They irresponsibly seek to enter the realm of super bronze.
Billy: How do we explain the ongoing fascination with the end of the world? Maybe its persistence can be attributed to a basic component of human nature, the need for one's beliefs to be true, coupled with the fear of death.
Bob: From Hieronymus Bosch to Hollywood, representations of catastrophic annihilation have resounded within the popular imagination.
Sun Ra: Too many people today are wrapped up in an image. It's a way to avoid reality and real connection. Fantasy may be an essential mediator in this life, but not when it allows for a continual deferment of tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow.
Bob: Although art historians have yet to agree on the ultimate meaning of The Garden of Earthly Delights, there is little doubt about whether it can be read as a cautionary tale. There are those whose faith compels them to embrace end times. Those who await a horrific war of Armageddon, the return of the Messiah. Those who believe that the "born again" amongst us will abandon earthly possessions, family and friends, and ascend into the Heavens.
Sun Ra: I saw the 12/21/12 website. It conveniently featured a real-time clock to mark the seconds ticking quickly away, and there were a few celebrity endorsements, the most prominent from Mel Gibson, the director of The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, who recently made a movie where he spoke through a stuffed teddy bear. And I'm supposed to be "out of this world."
Bob: The other day I saw a poster featuring a naked couple, although we only see them from the shoulders up. They are locked in an embrace with their eyes closed. Above them it says, "Happy End of the World." They wear surgical masks and matching headphones.
Happy End of the World
Sun Ra: I wonder what they're listening to. Maybe it's "21st Century Romance."
Billy: You know what they're afraid of? Love as a myth, and death as a reality.
Bob: The poster doesn't seem to advertise anything in particular, although I noticed a logo at the bottom. WeSC.
Billy: What's that mean?
Bob: We Are the Superlative Conspiracy.
[confused expressions from Sun Ra and Billy]
Bob: I looked it up online.
Billy: Who are they?
Bob: From what I can tell, a fashion/lifestyle company that shoots from the hip.
Sun Ra: I think conspiracy theories have gone out of fashion.
Bob: After I saw the poster, I did an image search for "end of the world." Quite a few of the images that came up were from the aerial firebombing of Germany, and that led me to Slaughterhouse-Five. Written by Kurt Vonnegut in 1969, it was based in part on his experiences in the army and as a POW in Dresden in 1945. After the horrific air raids on that city, which left tens of thousands dead, he and other prisoners were pressed into service to clear bodies from the buildings and streets, and then to stack them up to be burned. He said that survivors along the way spat and cursed and threw rocks at them.
Sun Ra:We would have done the same.
The statue of Goodness overlooks the city of Dresden, photo Walter Hahn
Bob: There were many tons of rubble on hand. With 90 percent of the city center destroyed, some described what was left as "a lunar landscape."
Billy: Did you look up the actor who played me in the movie? That was Michael Sacks. Quite a resemblance between him and Vonnegut as a young soldier.
Michael Sacks as Billy Pilgrim / Kurt Vonnegut as a young soldier
Sun Ra: I checked on the man. Turns out he wasn't in movies for very long. He had quite a second act, as they say. He studied social relations at Harvard College and computer science at Columbia. After he left the dream factory, he wound up working on Wall Street. He was head of global applications development at a company called MarketAxess.
Billy: Global applications development—are you jealous?
Sun Ra: Jealous? I owned Outer Spaceways Incorporated. I was the CEO. As for Mr. Sacks, he also worked for IBM, Salomon Brothers, and for ten years he was at Morgan Stanley.
Bob: Occupy Billy Pilgrim!
Sun Ra: I'm not saying he did anything wrong. Anyway, this was all many years ago. I think he's retired now, just as I am. We all have a past, which some of us would like to forget. We are not all as present as we might be, which is even more of an indictment. And the future? Forever shadowed by a question mark.
Billy: So why would people be disappointed that the world didn't come to an end?
Bob: If that was your prediction and it turned out to be a non-event, you'd seem rather foolish. And who would believe you the next time around?
Sun Ra: Some may not have looked forward to going back—to a job or a life they're tired of. That is, if they have a job or a life.
Billy: End of the world—the ultimate "get out of jail free" card?
Sun Ra: For me, World War II meant that I did not pass Go, and I proceeded directly to Jail.
Bob: When you received your draft notice, you identified yourself as a conscientious objector, and also claimed a physical disability. You were morally opposed to the taking of life and you had a chronic hernia. In terms of physical examinations by the military, it's my understanding that one doctor would look in your ear, and another would look up your ass, and you would only be deemed unfit for service if they saw each other. Your claim was rejected, and you made a point of the fact that the appeal board was comprised entirely of white men. When you refused your alternate service, you were locked up.
Sun Ra: All pacifists are prisoners of war.
Bob: Notions of the end of the world don't seem to be about fatalism, but about ego. The worst and most common misperception is that just because human life would end, the world will end. That's people believing that we are somehow the center of the universe. Which is simply ridiculous.
Sun Ra: I agree. If people were gone, the Earth and the sky would still be here, as would the mountains, oceans and rivers, trees and flowers. Even a scorched Earth would come back to life—maybe not exactly as it was—but life. Birds would return to sing, although the songs might have a different tone, and the stars would shine from up above. It's possible that humans may turn out to be the least adaptive species of all.
Billy: The most lethal and destructive, and conscious of the fact. Vonnegut saw this firsthand, he wrote about it, became famous for it, and if not plagued by guilt, guilt was certainly registered.
Bob: There's a later edition of Slaughterhouse-Five for which he wrote an introduction, and he admits: “The Dresden atrocity, tremendously expensive and meticulously planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person. I wrote this book, which earned a lot of money for me and made my reputation, such as it is. One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed. Some business I’m in.”
Billy: Two or three dollars for every person killed? That would be about $75,000.
Sun Ra: A pitiful amount.
Bob: Even in 1969 dollars.
Billy: You know, the bombs that were used to create the terrible firestorms over Germany were incendiary, filled with phosphorous and petroleum jelly—which became widely known in the 1960s as napalm. A recently published biography of Vonnegut claims that among his investments he owned stock in Dow Chemical, the major producer of napalm during the Vietnam War—a war he opposed. His son insists that it's untrue.
Bob: It is hard to believe, after what he went through.
Billy: You can't give someone the benefit of the doubt…
Bob: …without the doubt?
Sun Ra: There are many stars that shine darkly.
Part 2: On the Natural History of Destruction
British Lancaster over Hamburg
Billy: One of the things war enables us to do, maybe forces us to do, is compartmentalize our lives. Our actions and inaction, our complicity and complacency, our stupid mistakes, all can be stored away or even erased. I don't know, I can't remember, I forget.
Sun Ra: There is no single end of the world. The world is ending every day. It ends at different times, and in different ways, for all of us.
Bob: A never-ending "end of the world."
Sun Ra: Something along those lines.
Billy: You could say that the world comes to an end for the survivors, maybe even more horribly than for its victims. It ends for them, not with finality, but with an endlessly lingering effect.
Bob: I remember, after the execution of Timothy McVeigh for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, a woman whose young grandson had been killed—15 of the victims were in a day care center at the time—was asked if McVeigh's death had brought her any closure. She angrily snapped back: "I'll have closure when I'm six feet under the ground."
Billy: With the widespread destruction of cities in Germany near the end of the war, housing was obliterated and millions sought refuge wherever they could. There were those who ended up in cellars and caves, which at least offered some protection from the elements, but which also suggests a kind of self-burial.
Sun Ra: Many things are buried, not only bodies. The conscious act of forgetting is also a form of interment, to seal up the past.
Bob: All those war images sent me to a book by W. G. Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction, which is from 1999. It's based on two lectures in which he addressed the almost complete lack of serious post-war literature by German authors, and reliable firsthand narrative related to the Allied aerial bombing of the country, to what he calls the German catastrophe.
"History is written by the victors"
Sun Ra: Things which are unspeakable should not be left unsaid.
Bob: You would have thought that enough time had passed. This was more than a half century after the war, but the lectures and book were controversial.
Billy: As unbelievable as it may seem, bodies were still being unearthed in Dresden into the late 1980s. Of course the subject remains taboo because aggressors and murderers, even when represented primarily by civilians—by women and children, the elderly, and, in the case of Dresden, the wounded, hospital and relief workers, and huge numbers of refugees from the advancing Red Army—should not be too pitied.
Bob: Dresden was one of 131 German cities that were bombed, many of them completely flattened. The general consensus is that this did not bring the war to an end any sooner, or even break the will of the people, it merely wrought a vengeful death and destruction on a civilian population. Sebald reminds us of the book, The Body In Pain, when he quotes its author, Elaine Scarry. "The victims of war are not sacrifices made as the means to an end of any kind, but in the most precise sense are both the means and the end in themselves."
Sun Ra: Up until February of 1945, the city had not been bombed. Some mistakenly believed that this was because of its status as "the jewel" of Northern Europe, the great cultural center of art, music, and science. The center of the city was filled with grand baroque and rococo architecture, and great collections in its museums. Never having suffered an air attack, the people were lulled into a sense of security, and the city attracted tens of thousands of refugees.
Billy: Even so, in 1943, the children of the city had been evacuated to the safety of the surrounding countryside, as the children of London had been. In early 1945, in one of the war's most tragic cases of bad timing, with that overwhelming feeling that the city was safe…
Bob: And over the course of a long, emotional separation, with parents and children incredibly anxious to be reunited.
Billy: …the children were brought back to Dresden. And then the air raids came.
Father and child / Bicycle and rider
Bob: Where the bombs did not fall, curiously enough, is on Albertstadt, the section of the city which was exclusively comprised of a military installation. This fact should figure prominently in the ongoing debate about whether or not the city was a legitimate military target, and yet it somehow evades the discussion. Did they simply forget to drop bombs there? Did they miss their target? Neither seems likely.
Sun Ra: Sebald raises the notion of Divine retribution when he writes: "Quite a number of those affected by the air raids, despite their grim but impotent fury in the face of such obvious madness, regarded the great firestorms as a just punishment, even an act of retribution on the part of a higher power with which there could be no dispute."
Bob: It was not the RAF but God, or the RAF as God's messengers of death.
Billy: Winston Churchill and "Bomber" Harris would have agreed.
Bob: Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris, who commanded the RAF, was the leading advocate of saturation bombing. He didn't believe in attacking a city, but in wiping it from the face of the earth. He was sadistic. And for this he was awarded an OBE, an Order of the British Empire. In all fairness, if the Luftwaffe had the capability of leveling London, surely they would have done so.
Sun Ra: These people are really interested in wielding power. Yes, they are at war, and they want to win the war, but the conflict allows them to play God. The British and the Americans had built up an incredible arsenal of bombs by 1944, and as certain leading figures saw the war coming to its conclusion, they may have felt that this was their last chance to use them.
Billy: And not only. Sebald refers to a 1952 interview conducted by a German journalist with Brigadier General Frederick L. Anderson, of the U.S. Eighth Army Air Force. He refers to the bombs as "expensive items," and makes a comment all the more chilling for its claim to rationality. "In practice, they couldn't have been dropped over mountains or open country after so much labor had gone into making them at home."
Sun Ra: In other words, drop them on cities so you get your money's worth.
Billy: More bang for your buck.
Bob: You're right about the wielding of power. On this point, Sebald refers to Elias Canetti, who "linked the fascination of power in its purest form to the growing number of its accumulated victims." This fascination existed on all sides of the war, and not forgetting the Russians who had suffered terribly, and would have to be appeased.
Billy: There's no exact death toll for Dresden, but the estimate is that 25,000 to 40,000 people died there. Goebbels would immediately inflate that first number, simply adding a zero, so there were reports that as many as 250,000 had perished.
Sun Ra: As if 25,000 wasn't enough to be horrified, and the horror needed to register by a power of ten.
Billy: Goebbels was the Reich Minister of Propaganda, and he knew his job well. Casualty numbers were also inflated by the Allies, and were later more accurately revised.
Bob: In terms of that Godlike raining of death upon the world, the Allied attack on Hamburg in July 1943 was planned as total fire and brimstone—its code name was Operation Gomorrah. The tonnage of bombs dropped created a firestorm in which the temperature rose to an estimated 1800 degrees, with winds in excess of 150 miles an hour. Though many people were sucked up and sent airborne as living torches, most weren't killed from being burned, but because there was no oxygen to breathe. It had been consumed by the flames and the heat, and an area of more than eight square miles in and around the city center became a "lake of fire."
Sun Ra: A biblical reference to be sure.
John Martin, Sodom and Gomorrah, 1852
Billy: People who had frantically made their way to air raid shelters were forced out by the flames, and then sent back by successive waves of bombs. As the official German report confirmed, "Once inside, they were suffocated by carbon-monoxide poisoning and their bodies reduced to ashes as though they had been placed in a crematorium, which was indeed what each shelter proved to be." This is an irony which may not have been lost on the author of the report.
Sun Ra: To all those who attended "end of the world" parties, who liquified themselves, who celebrated what they thought was one last chance to self-obliterate, what can you say? There is no "Happy End of the World." This is not something that you would wish for someone. Ultimately, nothing prepares us for, or saves us from, madness. It's after the end of the world. They should know that by now.
Bob: In the most unforgettable, haunting part of Sebald's book, he quotes from a diary written in the summer of 1943 by a man named Friedrich Reck, who died in a concentration camp just before the war's end. Reck describes a scene so horrific that it has left an image permanently imprinted on my mind. He relates seeing about 50 shell-shocked refugees of an air raid who were "trying to force their way into a train station in Upper Bavaria. As they do, a cardboard suitcase 'falls on the platform, bursts open and spills its contents. Toys, a manicure case, singed underwear. And last of all, the roasted corpse of a child, shrunk like a mummy, which its half-deranged mother has been carrying about with her, the relic of a past that was still intact a few days ago.'"
Previously - Long May Neil Young