The Kings of Infinite Space and The Sirens of Titan

by Wilson Taylor

“You will come first of all to the Sirens, who are enchanters
of all mankind and whoever comes their way; and that man
who unsuspecting approaches them, and listens to the Sirens
singing, has no prospect of coming home and delighting
his wife and little children as they stand about him in                    greeting,
but the Sirens by the melody of their singing enchant him.” 

 - Homer, The Odyssey, XII.39-44

John, I’m Only Dancing

When confronted with the absurdity of the human condition, Harrison Bergeron chooses to dance. Refusing any longer to bear the pain of existence, the weight of history, or Hamlet’s “whips and scorns of time,” Bergeron casts off his burdens and dances with revolutionary grace. Through art, Bergeron transcends life itself. As Nietzsche suggests in The Birth of Tragedy, “our highest dignity lies in our significance as works of art — for only as aesthetic phenomenon is existence and the world eternally justified.” Bergeron invests life with meaning through his actualized desire to “become a work of art.” Bergeron’s dance is a dance against history and against time. Bergeron’s dance is Sisyphus’ scorn — to quote Camus, all of his “silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him.” In his rejection of absurdity, Bergeron discovers his soul.  

Harrison Bergeron revolts against a totalitarian regime that demands, in the name of equity, all subjects to bear weighted handicaps and an implanted radio, the latter for the purpose of disrupting thought. “The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal.” Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 short story, “Harrison Bergeron,” resounds with echoes of ideas first explored in 1959 through Vonnegut’s second novel, The Sirens of Titan. Bergeron’s revolt into a transcendent, aesthetic realm transforms an absurd life and imbues it with sublimity. As Bergeron’s revolt suggests, meaning can only be sought within the existential self, and that meaning can only be realized through aesthetic engagement with the world. Bergeron, dancing with revolutionary grace, dies into freedom. Through art, Bergeron becomes timeless. Bergeron exits the cycle of history and his moment of transcendence is eternal. 

The Sirens of Titan is Vonnegut’s novelistic meditation on history and happiness. Like Malachi Constant, all are victims of fate; all are hostages on inevitable and inscrutable odysseys. True meaning can only be found through exiting the terror of history to find the eternal — to dance, like Bergeron, against the accidents of fate. In order to avoid Charybdis and Scylla, Hamlet’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” it is best to exit history and sing with the Sirens. 

Space Oddity

The Sirens of Titan opens with Vonnegut’s exposition on the narrative, in which he introduces this “true story from the Nightmare Ages” of postwar America. In the Nightmare Ages, no one “knew how to find the meaning of life within themselves.” To assuage this existential doubt, humankind “looked outward” in search of meaning, flinging themselves “like stones” through space. “These unhappy agents found what had already been found in abundance here on Earth — a nightmare of meaninglessness without end. The bounties of space, of infinite outwardness, were three: empty heroics, low comedy, and pointless death.” Meanwhile, “grimcrack religions were big business.” 

At the nightmarish intersection of the “empty heroics” of space travel and the “big business of grimcrack religion grins Winston Niles Rumfoord like a Cheshire Cat. Winston Niles Rumfoord “had run his ship right into the heart of an uncharted chrono-synclastic infundibulum,” which has radically transformed his being. Rumfoord now exists as a “wave phenomenon” — he no longer exists at discrete moments in time and space, but at all moments in all times and all spaces. Rumfoord is unmoored. Whereas Malachi Constant, American playboy and eventual hero of Sirens, exists “punctually,” Rumfoord “pulses in a distorted spiral with its origin in the Sun and its terminal in Betelgeuse.” Rumfoord “materializes” whenever an incidental planet intercepts the inevitablity of his cosmic being. 

The irony of Rumfoord’s character is that, though he is unconstrained by space or time, he is still subject to the cruel accidents of fate. Rumfoord flits everywhere but dwells nowhere, in mechanistic harmony with the determined intricacies of space-time, but devoid of any transcendent meaning. Rumfoord lacks any inwardness. And, whereas Vonnegut’s citation from A Child’s Cyclopedia of Wonders promises that traversing a “chrono-synclastic infundibulum” will allow one to “see all the different ways to be absolutely right” and offer new perspective on the cosmos, Rumfoord remains blind. Despite Rumfoord’s wisdom that “everything that ever was always will be, and everything that ever will be ever was,” he lacks insight or perception. As a “wave phenomenon,” Rumfoord offers a window into the meaningless exploration of space, the vagaries of time, and the arbitrariness of fate. Rumfoord embodies the paradox of the Nightmare Age — someone who, in a quest for meaning, discovers the “meaninglessness without end” of contemporary existence. 

Rumfoord’s absurd exploration of space and time inhibits his interrogation of his own being. Again, Vonnegut insists that “goodness and wisdom” can only be found in the “terra incognita” of the “human soul,” not in the meaningless expanses of the cosmos. If truth exists, it exists within. Rumfoord is too haphazardly implicated in the fabric of space and time to examine and cultivate his own being. He is too tired to dance. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut wonders about the relationship between being and time. “I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, and how much was mine to keep.” Rumfoord, spread so thin as often to appear translucent, has very little time to keep. He is, instead, rushed through the rapids of time and “the monotonous clockwork of the Solar System,” unable to draw a breath. 

As Vonnegut hints, Rumfoord is unable to find the meaning of life within himself, so he searches for it externally. In his inability to discover meaning, Rumfoord fabricates it, inaugurating and evangelizing a new “grimcrack religion” and commercial enterprise, The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. Rumfoord’s church calls for the “Brotherhood of Man” through the systematic handicapping of believers and proselytizing for an apathetic demiurge. “I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all,” evangelizes Winston Niles Rumfoord. Despite this apparent insight, Rumfoord’s church is a manifestation of his hubristic and inflated sense of self. He cultivates grand visions of his own cosmic-historical import, but is unhinged when reminded of his own insignificance. Rumfoord exploits the lives of thousands in order to extort belief from a planet of skeptics, most notably manipulating the destiny of Malachi Constant so the beleaguered space wanderer can serve as a mouthpiece and scapegoat for his religion. More broadly, Rumfoord establishes a ramshackle colony on Mars from which to mount a doomed and bloody invasion of Earth. Only after the failed invasion can he believably spread his gospel of brotherhood. Ultimately, through bloodshed and brainwashing, Rumfoord manufactures an opiate for the masses of Earth. He sells The Meaning of Life alongside baubles and dolls, neglecting that, for him and for all, the meaning of life can only be found within. Only when the individual self searches for meaning within can that individual transcend the self and transcend time. Winston Niles Rumfoord is too deeply implicated in the accidental machinery of time to move beyond. He is inescapably bound to the absurd.

Life on Mars?

Malachi Constant, following “an opportunity to think about [his] native planet from a fresh and beautifully detached viewpoint,” follows two Martian recruiters to Mars. Winston Niles Rumfoord has established a “rented” and ramshackle colony on Mars from which to mount an invasion of Earth. Rumfoord designs the invasion of Earth to fail, but plans to exploit that failure to introduce the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. Only after a failed invasion of Earth, he believes, can he impel Earthlings to embrace the brotherhood of humankind. 

Constant is absorbed into the Martian war-machine. He, like thousands of other recruits, has his memory erased and a radio antenna implanted in his brain. The removal of memory, likened to “cleaning out a pumpkin,” and the antenna installation allow Rumfoord more completely to control the thoughts and actions of his subjects. Mars is totalitarian and “military-industrial” dystopia, an Orwellian nightmare. In the frightening opening scene to Vonnegut’s Martian narrative, Constant, who has since been renamed “Unk,” is forced, via mind control, to strangle brutally his best friend and mentor, Stony Stevenson. As Constant learns, he is “not only a victim of outrageous fortune, but one of outrageous fortune’s cruelest agents as well.” 

Unk’s sojourn into the military-industrial dystopia of Mars potentially opens an unsettling allegorical discussion of post-war American society. At one point, “Unk had the eerie feeling that he and Boaz were the only real people... that the rest were glass-eyed robots,” marching and thinking (and, eventually, murdering) according to a radio transmission in their heads. The automata of Mars have no imagination and no inwardness. These “glass-eyed robots” embody Vonnegut’s conception of the meaninglessness of the individual against the accidents of fate and the terror of history. Upon arriving to Mars, Unk is forced into Martian society, which has been brainwashed and filled with false hope, absorbed into a misleading narrative of progress and perpetual war. While Vonnegut’s Martian narrative is directly critical of the militarization of human bodies and beings, he is also mounting a more nuanced critique of American society. 

Much of Vonnegut’s fiction attempts to communicate the schizophrenia of the American experience, with World War II functioning as a point of rupture in his imagination. Like Constant, Vonnegut attempts to comprehend his disruptive experience of war. And like the eventual heroes of Sirens, Vonnegut attempts to escape the terror of history through art. The Sirens of Titan, like most of his narratives, is an aesthetic struggle of Vonnegut’s human soul to transcend the accidents of his own fate and his terror of history.  

In 1961, President Eisenhower would warn against the encroachments of the “military-industrial complex,” the absorption of all facets of American society into an insatiable war machine. Vonnegut’s critique, from the iron wastelands of Mars, carries more ironic nuance. The war-machine is supported by a city, the industrial wasteland of Phoebe, inhabited by more “glass-eyed robots.” Constant, in order to assert and celebrate his humanity, deserts. He exits the dialectic of history in order to pursue the eternal.

Like the American President in Sirens, who moronically trumpets the supposed need for “progerse,” Vonnegut suggests that the false idea of “progress” — scientific, militaristic, historical, et cetera — is itself another “grimcrack religion.” To leap, unseen, into a supposed river of progress is to abandon oneself to “flinging stones” at meaning and purpose. Vonnegut conceives of the dialectic of history in accordance with Walter Benjamin’s “storm,” the catastrophe of history commonly referred to as “progress.” In the epigraph of Sirens, Vonnegut absurdly defines progress as the “forty-three thousand miles closer to Globular Cluster M13 in Hercules” the Solar System travels each year. This farcical epigraph, provided by the fictional “Ransom K. Fern,” is among several “official” voices from which Vonnegut ironically pulls to stitch together the postmodern odyssey of Sirens.Vonnegut assumes such a great variety of voices — scientific, political, religious, militaristic — in order to emphasize the overarching theme of the novel: that truth can only be found within the self and outside the bounds of history. Whereas history, in all of its absurd grandeur, continues to march with incidental inevitability, true redemption can only be found within the human self and outside the flow of historical time. In order to still the nightmare of history, the human must turn inward for meaning. History is a farce. Vonnegut’s hero is the deserter. Vonnegut’s hero is the transcendentalist. 

Oh! You Pretty Things (The Sirens of Titan)

History is absurd, Vonnegut suggests, and any attempt to mold transcendent meaning out of its heap of accidents is equally absurd. The conclusion of the novel is set on Siren, Saturn’s largest moon. It is here, not on Mars, where Constant is finally afforded the “beautifully detached” perspective on Earth, on humanity, and, ultimately, on himself. Rumfoord has been materializing on Siren periodically, where he has befriended a shipwrecked Tralfamadorian transversing the Universe. Salo has been stranded for over two hundred thousand years, awaiting repair for his vessel. In the long millennia of his layover, Salo has sculpted beautiful statues of Earthlings. Salo’s sculptures — which capture Earthlings in moments both pedestrian and sublime — evince a recurring desire in Vonnegut’s imagination to stop time, to exit history, and to capture the eternal in a moment. Salo sculpts where Bergeron dances. Among his statues are the eponymous and infamous Sirens of Titan, whose beauty had intensely drawn Constant.  

The necessary mechanical piece for Salo’s ship, in a beautiful frisson of absurdist fiction, is a metal shard carried in the pocket of Constant’s son, Chrono. This piece is the “culmination of all Earthling history.” Those searching for meaning in the hopeless abstractions of progress and history are thus both satisfied and chagrined — meaning exists, but the entire history of Earth has been for the intended benefit of a shipwrecked Tralfamadorian. The pain of this cosmic truth shatters Rumfoord. The purpose of human history is absurd — the eventual heroes of the novel must find a way to exist meaningfully outside of its meaningless telos.   

While on Mars, Unk uncovers a self-written letter in which he has written himself as the hero of his own postmodern odyssey. The letter contains 151 disparate pieces of wisdom he has been able to gather, despite the repeated erasure of his memory. Discovering this letter changes Unk’s conception of himself, transforming him from a “victim of a series of accidents” to a “secretly free” hero. Point 72 reads, “The more pain I train myself to stand, the more I learn. You are afraid of the pain now, Unk, but you won’t learn anything if you don’t invite the pain. And the more you learn, the gladder you will be to stand the pain.” Because of Constant’s nuanced appreciation of the painfulness of truth, he, unlike Rumfoord, is not shattered by the revelation of the absurdity of human history. Rather, Constant is one of several characters who achieve a higher form of wisdom through exiting the dialectic of history and seeking transcendence from within. Like Bergeron, and like Vonnegut himself, these characters all explore their beings through aesthetic engagement with the world. These eventual heroes of The Sirens of Titan embody Vonnegut’s sentiment of the highest good. 

Unk’s companion Boaz assumes the mantle of Vonnegut’s first hero in Sirens. In Unk’s attempt to desert the Martian military and flee the planet, the two of them are whisked to Mercury for an indefinite sojourn on the first planet. Apart from the two wearied travelers, the only inhabitants of the planet are harmoniums, who live a life of aesthetic beauty and bliss in the subterranean caverns of Mercury. The creatures, which resemble kites, feed on planetary vibrations, and often “arrange themselves in striking patterns on the phosphorescent walls.” Because they feed on vibrations, the harmoniums are appreciators of music. The harmoniums inspire Boaz through their “love for music and their willingness to deploy themselves in the service of beauty.” And Boaz obliges them, devoting countless hours to aesthetic revelry with his multitudinous recordings. The first score he plays for them is Le Sacre du Printemps, or The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky’s own meditation on the overpowering force of art. As the harmoniums thrive on the power of art, Boaz’ soul is sustained as well. He creates new meaning in Mercury — he finds redemption and transcendence when allowed to explore the “terra incognita” of his own being. Boaz refuses to leave Mercury, content to exit history and live a life of deliberation and aesthetic engagement. “I found me a place where I can do good without doing any harm,” explains Boaz with a wisdom that informs the conclusion of Sirens, “and they love me... I found me a home.” 

Other heroes of Vonnegut’s odyssey experience similar epiphanies in the Elysian fields of Titan. Beatrice, Chrono, and Constant all emerge as unlikely heroes. They have explored space and time and found it lacking — “only inwardness remained to be explored.” Like Boaz, this small family retreats to the unexplored solitude of Titan in order to exit the continuum of history and seek the eternal. On Titan, they exit the terror of history and find redemption. On Titan they achieve transcendence. And, for Bergeron, Boaz, Salo, and Vonnegut himself, this transcendence is realized through aesthetic engagement with the world. Through art, these characters create meaning in their world. They live with deliberately, and with revolutionary grace. 

Whereas Rumfoord existed cosmically, at once everywhere and every time, Chrono, Beatrice and Constant characters exist punctually, at one place and in a limited time. In so doing, they actually achieve timelessness — they find eternity. While these characters were brought to Titan by another “series of accidents,” they find a way to subvert the inevitability of fate through a deliberate and intentional life outside of historical time. They live deeply, and in so living, achieve transcendence and purpose. 

Henry David Thoreau, articulating a dream that courses through the American imagination, describes his life in Walden that captures these wanderers purpose on Titan:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived... I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” 

Constant, Beatrice, and Chrono on Titan, like Boaz on Mercury, all pursue this dream of transcendence through simplicity and deliberation. They reduce life to its lowest terms in an attempt to determine what life is and what it means. And they all find purpose through aesthetic engagement with the world. Like Bergeron, they explore and justify their beings through “becoming a work of art.” 

Chrono, whose name means “time,” has fulfilled the mechanical and historical destiny of his life in helping to repair Salo’s ship. His life has fulfilled the purpose of humanity. In response, Chrono abdicates humanity, dropping out of human history to which he had been so instrumental. Chrono finds true harmony between himself and the world through becoming, in some sense, a Titanic bluebird. Of these heroes, Chrono’s transformation is the most total and the most radical. Whereas he had been a sullen and cynical boy, Chrono transcends himself by re-creating his being. “It was all so sad. But it was all so beautiful, too.” Chrono still “rages” against civilization, but lives a life of simple purpose and revolutionary grace. In a practice that strikes Constant as deeply beautiful, Chrono creates small religious shrines to Saturn, composing small models of the planetary system, in its rings and moons. Whereas Chrono had been the embodiment of human teleological time, now he is in harmony with a cosmic and mythical time, and creates a life far deeper and more profound. 

Of the three, Beatrice is the most resigned. She dwells inside of Rumfoord’s Titanic estate, modeled after the Taj Mahal. She devotes her time to writing a book, The True Purpose of Life in the Solar System. “It was a refutation of Rumfoord’s notion that the purpose of human life in the Solar System was to get a grounded message from Tralfamadore on his way again.” Beatrice reaffirms the importance of individual intention, of the deliberate cultivation of being and happiness and meaning, in living a purposeful life. Beatrice finds purpose through writing about purpose, through rendering it as a form of art. According to Beatrice, human life can have great meaning, even if the life is unintentionally serving Tralfamadore, if that life is lived in a “highly personalized way.” Beatrice subverts the apparent meaningless of life by investing it with paradoxical meaning. To live meaningfully is to live deliberately, to find the meaning of life within and cultivate it, far from the “whips and scorns” of time. 

Malachi Constant is an unlikely hero. Whereas Odysseus travelled across the sea for ten years, hoping to return home to Ithaca, Constant, in his own, postmodern odyssey, is whisked around the Solar System by the inevitability of fate. What he finds, like Boaz, is that home is a state of being and a state of love, not of place. He finally falls in love with Beatrice. Constant reaffirms the purpose of human life, “to love whoever is around to be loved.” In his dwelling on Titan, Constant lives a life of Thoreauvian harmony through solitude. He “lives sturdily and Spartan-like,” devoting his hours to reconstructing Salo, the Tralfamadorian, and harvesting berries, daisy-milk, other natural bounties of Titan. Constant closely resembles this Thoreauvian ideal, or perhaps Thoreau’s “Homeric or Paphlagonian man,” the Canadian lumberjack who wanders through Walden. Constant is drawn to Titan by the presence of three beautiful women, the Sirens of Titan, that Rumfoord describes to him. And although these Sirens are only three of Salo’s statues, Constant still finds a live of harmony and beauty on Saturn's largest moon. 

In Homer’s The Odyssey, Circe warns Odysseus about the Sirens, suggesting that if he yield to the aesthetic enchantment of the Sirens’ song he will never return home. “They sit in their meadow, but the beach before it is piled with bone heaps of men now rotted away.” Odysseus must plug his oarsmen’s ears with wax and bind himself to the mast of his ship so he can safely pass by the Sirens while enjoying their art. He cannot be distracted from his historical purpose. The Sirens of Titan is, in some ways, Vonnegut’s revision of the Homeric legend. Constant indulges his desire to commune with the Sirens, and in so doing, discovers a life of aesthetic enchantment and harmony. The men whose bones litter the Siren’s beach should not be pitied, suggests Vonnegut, for they lived and died awash in aesthetic beauty. There is no “home” to which Constant can return — he, like Boaz, creates a home as a state of being and a state of love. The teleology of history has been shattered.

When Odysseus sails past the Sirens, they call to him. “Over all the generous earth we know everything that happens.” According to Adorno and Horkheimer, whose Dialectic of Enlightenment traces the Odysseus myth as a foundation of human history and the human ego, the Sirens enchantment is the promise of “losing oneself in the past.” The progress of human history depends on the refusal of aesthetic beauty and the temptation of the past. The Sirens represent a “primeval myth,” their promise of transcending history through abdication. This promise of joy is a threat against the “patriarchal order,” against civilization, and against history itself. The Sirens represent a primeval thread of myth and eternity running parallel to historical time. Their offer is to exit history and rejoice in aesthetic abandon. Odysseus rejects the lure of myth and eternity, instead choosing to continue existing as a historically bound being. 

Vonnegut suggests otherwise. Like Odysseus (and like Vonnegut himself), Constant reckons with the trauma of warfare. But his choice is not Odysseus’ choice. Constant chooses to leave the tyrannical continuum of historical time in hopes of finding something eternal within himself. Indeed, he does. Constant, like Bergeron, Boaz, Beatrice, Chrono, and Thoreau, exits history in search of eternal transcendence. He dies, awash in aesthetic enchantment and beauty, in harmony with the world and seduced by the promise of the Sirens. History and progress are meaningless constructions, and amount to the absurdity of trivialities. The Sirens threat is that of never returning home. Vonnegut's counter is that home is with the Sirens, in a state of harmony, beauty, and love. The human, Vonnegut suggests, must find meaning outside from history and inside the existential self. 

Hamlet, raging against the cruelties of fate and the “whips and scorns of time,” seeks a similar retreat into himself for freedom’s sake. In Act II, he laments — “O God — I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Hamlet’s nightmares are Vonnegut’s nightmares — the terror of history, the absurdity of existence, the arbitrariness of fate. Hamlet is unable to turn fully inward, he is unable to exit the dialectic of history. But Hamlet's desire — to shrink life down to its elemental determinants, to exit history and turn inward, and, paradoxically, to count himself “a king of infinite space” — is Constant’s desire and Vonnegut’s hope. For, in Vonnegut’s imagination, to live simply is to transcend, to live truly is to love, to seek aesthetic enchantment is to transform the self, and to remove oneself from history is to seek eternal life.