This is my third sentence tasting. Shall I write a book of them?
Kurt Vonnegut survived the cataclysmic firebombing of Dresden, at least one suicide attempt, and seventy years of smoking, and then fell down in his house and died from brain injuries. So it goes. He wrote fourteen novels, almost all of which I read when I was younger, and some large number of short stories, most of which I have not read. In his fiction he suggested numerous epitaphs for his various characters and for himself, perhaps the most famous of which was for Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five: “EVERYTHING WAS BEAUTIFUL, AND NOTHING HURT.” It was a lovely lie. Other people have that epitaph, thanks to him. They are also dead. So it goes. Many people think Vonnegut’s grave has that epitaph. But no one (except, I suppose, his family) knows where he is buried, so it’s probably not true.
Kurt Vonnegut’s most vaunted novel is Slaughterhouse-Five, which features an awkward man named Billy Pilgrim, who, like Kurt Vonnegut, survives the firebombing of Dresden in 1945, and, unlike Kurt Vonnegut, as far as I know, is later abducted by space aliens from Tralfamadore and spends some time in a zoo on their planet and learns that time is not a one-way trip. The book ends like this: “One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, ‘Poo-tee-weet?’” The bird says this because, as Vonnegut says early in the book, “Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. ¶ And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like ‘Poo-tee-weet?’” The bird says that because it is in Dresden just after Nazi Germany has surrendered, but also because it is a bird and that is what it says.
In Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut says the book “begins like this: ¶ Listen: ¶ Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” This is not true. I can say that it is not true because Kurt Vonnegut says that before the book says that, which means that the book says the book says that before the book says that, although in saying that it says that it also says that, which is like coming unstuck in time. But I can also say that because there is a whole chapter before the book says that, and almost a whole chapter before the book says that it says that. And that first chapter begins “All this happened, more or less.” It’s an introduction, not part of the story as such, but it’s there, and it’s chapter number one. And Kurt Vonnegut himself appears in cameos later in the novel, so it’s in-world.
There’s one other thing that the book says, which means Kurt Vonnegut says in the book, over and over again, and that one thing is the sentence I am looking at today, the sentence that is the title of this article: “So it goes.”
It’s a short sentence. But it’s a death sentence. I say that because in the book, Kurt Vonnegut says it every time he says someone died. He says it one hundred and six times. I didn’t count. I looked it up. But he doesn’t say it out of cynicism or even weary resignation. He says it because of something that Billy Pilgrim learns on Tralfamadore: “when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. . . . It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.” He explains that “when a Tralfamadorian see a corpse, 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.” And so they – and Billy Pilgrim, and Kurt Vonnegut the narrator – shrug and say, “So it goes.”
Since time isn’t a one-way line, from one perspective you could say “So it goes” is “So it comes” or “So it both goes and comes” or “So it neither goes nor comes.” But that’s not really what the goes means in this sentence. It’s just a way we have of speaking: an idiom.
So it goes is an idiomatic collocation. It has three words and each one means something, in fact each one means a lot of things, but when you put them together in this order it means a particular thing that you couldn’t guess just from putting the meanings of the words together. And if you put the words in another order, it doesn’t mean the same thing and it doesn’t sound right: It goes so. It so goes. Even in the idiomatic order, the meaning of these words together is hard to nail down. In one way, it doesn’t really mean anything. In another way, it means absolutely everything.
Kurt Vonnegut is not the first person to use these words in this order to mean what this phrase means. You might think that it has been used for several centuries, but it really only started showing up in published works in the 1800s and only became popular in the 1900s. That’s true of many common phrases of today, even ones that seem like they’ve been around forever. For most people, “timeless” just means it was already around when they were children, even if it was brand new to their parents.
Each of the three words in this sentence is very short and each has been in the English language for longer than there has been an English language for it to be in. They were in Old English when it became Old English, a descendant of Germanic, which is long dead. So it goes.
Go, which appears in this sentence in the third-person singular present indicative goes, has many definitions. Not including phrasal verbs like go around, go away, go down, go over, and so on, the verb go has forty definitions in Wiktionary, fifty in the Oxford English Dictionary, and thirty in Merriam-Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, and most of those have several sub-definitions. If you asked an ordinary English speaker, they would be able to use it and understand it in every one of those senses, but they would never be able to define it in that kind of detail, and if you got them to define it at all they would give a definition that you could find exceptions to, no matter what the definition was. It just keeps going. But in So it goes, you could say it means something like ‘happen’ or ‘exist’. It makes use of an idea of time moving in a direction. It may seem odd for the Tralfamadorians to use it, since they don’t see time moving in a direction, but dying is only dying as an event going from alive to dead, in one direction, so it makes sense.
Anyway, the Tralfamadorians don’t speak English. It’s a translation. A translation is like killing the original language and then getting a new language to put on its boots and try to do its job. So it goes.
It, as many of us know, is Monty Python’s Flying Circus. That is a joke, of course, but it also makes a point. It is a pronoun, meant to refer to a single non-human entity that is neither the speaker nor the hearer, but it can also mean nothing at all. Since English verbs need subjects when they’re conjugated, it sometimes steps in and stands there as the subject when there is no subject but we need a verb to express something: “It’s raining.” “It’s about time.” “It figures.” Other times, we use there: “There’s nothing to do about it.” Many languages don’t do this. They just use a verb by itself. But in English you have to pretend there is something there. When it is doing this, serving as a filler, it’s called an expletive, which means ‘filler-out’. Usually we use the word expletive in English to refer to vulgar words used to add an emotional tone to a sentence. But those aren’t actually empty: as I just said, they add an emotional tone. It, when it’s empty, is as empty as a stone house after a firestorm. It’s as empty as the hope and expectation that the Allies would not attack Dresden because it was of no military importance. It’s just there so that goes goes.
So, in this sentence, is an adverb. That means that it modifies the action of a verb, although it can also mean that it modifies an adjective. Adverbs are very slippery. They can go in many different places, though they don’t all go in all the same places, and they can’t all be used in the same ways. So is even slipperier, because it can also be used as an adjective, a conjunction, or an interjection. It has almost as many definitions as go – or more, depending on how you count. You could say that in So it goes it means ‘that way’, as in “It goes that way.” That doesn’t say which way, but you’re supposed to know that from context. In this sentence you could say it means ‘It happens in that order’ or ‘That is the state it is’. Either way, it is pointing to a thing and saying that the thing it is pointing to is the thing it is pointing to. It tells you that what you are seeing is what you are seeing. It is, in other words, completely empty, except that it reassures you that your perception is accurate. Yes, that person is dead at that time. There’s nothing to do about it. In this way, assuring you that what you see is there, it declares that the real world is real, and so it means everything.
If you put a comma in the sentence – So, it goes – you change the meaning of so. It becomes a conjunction, and the sentence means ‘therefore, it goes’ or ‘consequently, it goes’. It now also means that there was something before this sentence that it’s connecting to. It means that the sentence can no longer stand alone. Without the comma there, so can mean this, too, but it doesn’t have to. When you are speaking, you can’t say a comma, so you make the distinction with how you say it. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which sense a person means. Then you can ask “What do you mean?” and the person has to say it another way: “It therefore is going,” maybe, or “That’s the way it is,” or “There’s nothing to do about it,” or “It’s OK.”
Kurt Vonnegut could have written “That’s the way it is” one hundred and six times, or “There’s nothing to do about it,” or “It’s OK.” But Kurt Vonnegut had an excellent ear for the music of language: the shapes of the sounds. You can hear it in other important sentences in Slaughterhouse-Five.
Listen: “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” The five stressed vowels are /ɪ ɪ ʌ ʌ aɪ/: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. The two /ɪ/ sounds also both have /l/ right after. The vowels move in a sort of circle route in your mouth. Say it and feel how your tongue moves. The rhythm is da-da da-da da dum da-dum da-dum. You could dance to it. It keeps a nice time, one that comes unstuck in the middle.
Listen: “One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, ‘Poo-tee-weet?’” Here are the stressed vowels: /ʌ ɚ ɛ ɪ ɪ u i i/. The first part moves slowly up from “uh” to the front of the mouth using only vowels that we think of as “short.” The second part, which is what the bird says, bounces from back to front at the top of the mouth using only vowels we think of as “long.” The rhythm is dum dum dum da da-da da-da dum dum dum. The sentence begins and ends with a set of three stressed beats, which is called a molossus. It’s better suited to a dirge than to a dance.
So it goes is just three beats in total. If you want to name the kind of rhythm it is, you could call it a cretic or an amphimacer because it has long, short, long. It’s the same rhythm you might hear in “toodle-oo” or “fiddlesticks” or, sometimes, “la-de-da.” All three of those expressions have two other things in common with so it goes. One thing is that they are all, in their way, dismissive. Did you notice the other thing? It is that each one has the same vowel on the last syllable as on the first, with something different unstressed in between. The stressed vowel in so it goes, “o,” is a “long” vowel, which actually means it’s a diphthong, which is a movement of the tongue from one vowel sound to another, although no one calls it a “vowel movement.” Which diphthong it is depends on which variety of English you speak. But it nearly always ends in a round sound, with your mouth shaped a bit like o. It is often thought of as a “hollow” or “deep” or “dark” sound, but don’t load too much onto that: the famously jolly and bright Santa Claus says “Ho ho ho.” Aren’t you happy he doesn’t say “Ha ha ha” or “Hee hee hee”?
Along with all the other details of sound and rhythm, So it goes is short. That’s a plus if you’re going to say something one hundred and six times in the same book.
Slaughterhouse-Five isn’t the only novel in which Kurt Vonnegut used a refrain, by which I mean a repeated phrase. In Slapstick, his refrain was “Hi-ho.” That’s even shorter. In the context, it means about the same thing.
Kurt Vonnegut, when he was studying chemistry at Cornell before the war, before he went to Germany and survived the firebombing of Dresden, before he wrote his books, before he tried to kill himself and failed, before he slipped and fell and then died, was on the staff of the Cornell student newspaper, the Cornell Daily Sun. Another person who had been on the staff there, some years before, was a man whose prose stylings Vonnegut much admired: E.B. White. White wrote several books you may have read, including Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web. He also took the teachings of one of his Cornell professors, William Strunk Jr., and turned them into a small book that you have probably had pointed at you at some time: The Elements of Style. One of the dicta of The Elements of Style is “Omit needless words.”
Vonnegut had advice of his own for authors, and it was consistent with Strunk’s and White’s. One thing he wrote, and if you have read his books you will not be surprised, is “Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred.” If you have a copy of the 1981 paperback edition of his book Palm Sunday, which is not a novel but is about his own life and thoughts, you will find that on page 78. A bit farther down on the same page, you will find this: “Never include a sentence which does not either remark on character or advance the action.”
So it goes is brief and simple and may seem to omit needless words. After all, it is not “Life in its multifarious ways is inevitably ever thus.” But as it is a verbal shrug, it could perhaps be replaced by “Huh” or “Oh well.” But as it merely affirms that what is there is there, is it needed at all? In what way does it remark on character or advance the action?
Kurt Vonnegut was good at writing. This does not mean that he was as good at knowing why he was good at writing, let alone how someone else can be good at writing. Someone whose judgment I trust on this subject once wrote, “People who can do something well don’t necessarily know why and how they do it well. Those who can do often can’t teach.” In fact, I wrote that.
In the case of So it goes, a person could construct some involved argument about how it remarks on character (but it’s the same remark over and over again) or how it advances the action. But in any given instance of its use after the first, it can as easily be said to give no new information on character or action. And yet it is a valuable part of the book, precisely because it is said over and over. It is a recurring theme. It is a thing for the reader to remember. Repetition adds strength.
E.B. White, in his 1971 introduction to The Elements of Style, tells us that William Strunk Jr. would, having omitted so many needless words that he risked running out of things to say, utter every sentence three times. “When he delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned forward over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and, in a husky, conspiratorial voice, said, ‘Rule Thirteen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!’” You knew that these words were not needless because he not only did not omit them, he repeated them. And likewise, if Kurt Vonnegut is omitting needless words, then the fact that he says “So it goes” one hundred and six times tells us that it must be very needful indeed.
But also, if you have come unstuck in time like Billy Pilgrim, or if you see all times in one view like a mountain range, you do not see one hundred and six times. You see the same phrase in one hundred and six places, but it is all the same phrase, just as Billy Pilgrim is the same person at all his different times, and you can say that it’s really only there once, but your view of the text is strung out so that you have the impression of seeing it over and over again. Once you have finished the book, and it is all in a picture in your head that you can flip backwards and forwards in at will, it all has this one sentence over it, like sunlight reflecting in many windows, or like many fires that have become one firestorm, incinerating a city but sparing the author:
So it goes.
This is as beautiful, mindful and inspiring as a note on the margin of a book can get. Keep it going so that it goes so.
I’ve searched high and low for what my tattered memory insists is a quote from García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (I no longer have a copy). I believe it’s a homage or follow-on or parody of Vonnegut’s quote. It’s repeated several times throughout by an older woman, who says, “but not so much,” in response to a character saying “so it goes.”
Is this a fig newton of my brain, or is it actually in the book??