In Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim sees yet another person - a friend, an enemy, a person of no consequence - fall dead before him. “So it goes,” says Billy, suggesting that death is inevitable and worth commenting on only because of its contrast to our most precious commodity.
In fact, the phrase is repeated all throughout the novel, every time someone dies, driving home the matter-of-factness with which death occurs. As a more recent anti-hero might have put it, “Dread it. Run from it. Destiny still arrives.”
In the years since, Kurt Vonnegut’s signature phrase has become an idiom in its own regard:
Billy Joel uses it as a mea culpa: “And so it goes, and so it goes. And so will you I suppose.”
Taylor Swift, on the other hand, uses it to excuse a lover’s bad treatment of her, “Getting caught up in the moment, lipstick on your face, so it goes…”
And, then, of course there are any of the other dozen use cases listed on Wikipedia’s disambiguation page - all of them share a lack of cynicism. Instead, so it goes is almost stoic, an acceptance of change as the only constant in life’s ups and downs.
Mac Millar ended his final album with a song titled “So It Goes,” a lament against the stresses of fame and others’ expectations. From Genius.com:
Here, Mac wields the phrase to respond to the clinging of fame and the accumulation of wealth with the same fatalism Vonnegut intended, and like Vonnegut, the phrase repeats itself in a variety of manners both out of place and in-line with the narrative.
I read Slaughterhouse-5 in high school. My English teachers in my freshman and sophomore years, whether through accident or design, gave me a crash course in dystopian fatalism: Slaughterhouse-5 came on deck just after Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World and right before Animal Farm and All Quiet on the Western Front. It’s a hell of a list.
And that list is full of great quotes and cool phrasings, but very few of them have become full on idioms, like so it goes has done. So, why that phrasing? Why, so it goes? It’s not like we don’t have a plethora of similarly themed phrases in English; what is it about those three words in that order that grabs our attention so throughly?*
I’m only speculating and speaking for myself, but I think it’s a combination of the simplicity, the internal rhyme, and the rule of threes. Look at any reference on the great poems of the English language and you’ll find those annotations all over the place. (And, to be clear, I’m not suggesting Vonnegut originated the phrase because I don’t think he did. My sources all converge on “popularized,” meaning that it was a saying long before Vonnegut, but not one in common usage as an idiom until Slaughterhouse-5.)
I wonder how much of that was intentional on Vonnegut’s part. How much work did he put into that sentence. Did he revise it from “That’s how it goes.” Or, “tough breaks.” Or even one of the more common idioms, like “that’s life.” Maybe it just came to him, one of those unseeable, unknowable moments of inspiration that rain on us like solar radiation, perfectly benign until it radically alters your cell structure.
That answer might be out there, but I’m not going to look for it. I’d rather not know. After all, what good would come of my knowing? Better to speculate and to imagine than to remove the mystery and the magic. So it goes.
*Something that cropped up last week and this week - both this too shall pass and so it goes are very popular as word art and as tattoos. There are lots of examples, both good and bad out there if you’re thinking about getting some art or a tattoo…
“So It Goes”
I went back there with an old war buddy, Bernard V. O'Hare, and we made friends with a taxi driver, who took us to the slaughterhouse where we had been locked up at night as prisoner of war. His name was Gerhard Müller. He told us that he was a prisoner of the Americans for a while. We asked him how it was to live under Communism, and he said that it was terrible at first, because everybody had to work so hard, and because there wasn't much shelter or food or clothing. But things were much better now. He had a pleasant little apartment, and his daughter was getting an excellent education. His mother was incinerated in the Dresden fire-storm. So it goes.
Notable Events of the Year 1969
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Did someone say ‘dystopia?’
Speaking of dystopian science-fiction, a quick google is all that’s needed to tell you that people are feeling like times are headed that way:
For what it’s worth, my absolute favorite dystopian sf novel was, is, and will always be Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. (Art by Michael Whelan.)
Next Time: They don’t think it be like it is, but it do. That’s it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.