Mind Blown: Learning and Unlearning in The Sirens of Titan | Comentale on The Sirens of Titan

Ed Comentale



You might think it would be nice to go to a chrono-synclastic infundibulum and see all the different ways to be absolutely right, but it is a very dangerous thing to do. The poor man and his poor dog are scattered far and wide, not just through space, but through time, too. (9)

Every once in a while, one of our students will get caught in an infundibulum and get their mind blown. It’s fun to watch. Hooked on the brain-tingling drug of learning, they start to binge on their higher education. They enroll in too many courses, check out too many books, declare a second or a third major. Their whole training starts to spin out of control—too much info, too many truths. Fatigued and overcaffeinated, they start to imagine strange connections between courses, overlapping patterns in economics and philosophy, physics and classics. But each new conclusion proves just another tangent, the start of a whole new set of tantalizing conjectures, all of it spinning and spiraling out of control until—poof!—the whole edifice goes up in smoke.

Honestly, this is what we teach for here at Salo University. We love those sudden vertiginous insights that stop our students dead in the hall. We love when their papers trail off into a series of incoherent notes or they come to office hours because they’ve just ditched their long-standing career plans. They can’t move forward because, to borrow from David Foster Wallace, they’ve completely blown up their own map. I say gold stars all around. As the very best teachers know, a genuine intellectual trajectory always includes torturous moments of upheaval. New information is only really new when it upsets the system as a whole. Blindness follows insight, smarts leads to stupidity. The best learning is also a form of unlearning: it involves risk, defiance, shame, humility, and dumbstruck awe.

Everyone in The Sirens of Titan is trying to learn—rich and poor, parents and children, earthlings and aliens. Corporate servant Ransom K. Fern seeks a last message from his boss that casts “the vaguest light on what life might be about” (83). In turn, his boss, Noel Constant, leaves a letter that only describes his own futile search: “I kept my eyes open for some kind of signal that would tell me what it was all about but there wasn’t any signal” (89). In their confusion and frustration, all of the characters are forced to construct personal systems of meaning, provisional theses about life and its meaning that provide both clarity and care. Unk builds a personal philosophy out of his observations on Mars; Beatrice writes a poem and then a massive treatise on the purpose of life; Chrono builds a little shrine out of sticks and stones.

As readers, Vonnegut knows, we are engaged in a similar search, seeking signs and meanings on the pages of his bewildering text, but the very first page of the novel offers a dire warning in this regard. There are right ways and wrong ways of going about this search. The narrator urges us to seek inner rather than outer truths, personal meanings instead of far-flung “gimcrack religions” (1). Almost every character in the book goes wrong in this way. They’re each looking for a “message,” a “glorious moment of truth,” the “big moment” when they “find their beliefs amplified, clarified, and vivified by a factor of ten” (243). As readers, we seek authoritative meaning from a master “author,” the man in charge of the text. Similarly, for the characters in Sirens, knowledge—either spiritual or scientific—promises a certain authority and power. The search for meaning only thinly veils a more desperate search for mastery and control. For Vonnegut, learning in this way is not truly learning; it entails not only a potential submission, but also a potential deception.

A true bibliography of fake texts in The Sirens of Titan:

  • Canby, Sarah Horn – Unk and Boaz in the Caves of Mercury
  • Gomburg, Crowther – Primordial Scales
  • Hall, Cyril – A Child’s Cyclopedia of Wonders and Things to Do
  • Kittredge, Waltham – The American Philosopher Kings
  • Minot, Frank – Are Adults Harmoniums?
  • Rosenau, Maurice – Pan-Galactic Humbug or Three Billion Dupes
  • Rumfoord, Beatrice – The True Purpose of Life in the Universe
  • Rumfoord, Winston Niles – Pocket History of Mars
  • Rumfoord, Winston Niles – The Winston Niles Rumfoord Authorized Revised Bible
  • Sams, Howard W. – Winston Niles Rumfoord, Benjamin Franklin, and Leonardo da Vinci
  • Unknown – The Beatrice Rumfoord Galactic Cookbook
  • Waters, Lavina – Too Wild a Dream?

Here, Vonnegut references a deep tradition. The bible offers the Tree of Knowledge and the Tower of Babel as proof that the search for knowledge is also a struggle for power. Freud, too, famously associated the child’s desire to know (especially “sexual researches”) with a challenge to the authority of one’s own parents. In Sirens, the Reverend Bobby Denton warns his Love Crusade congregation, “Quit talking the language of science to each other! Nothing will be restrained from you which you have imagined to do, if you all keep on talking the language of science to each other, and I don’t want that! I, your Lord God on High want things restrained from you . . . !” (27). Knowledge in Sirens is always a source of struggle and something to be policed, and specialized knowledge serves primarily to protect systems of power. The novel is chock-full of references to fake academic texts, all of which are presented as definitive. These are the books that any serious student of the Martian wars must read, their reputation and authority trumping their actual contents. The narrator describes Rumfoord’s seventy-five-thousand-word history of the war between Earth and Mars, for example, as a “masterpiece,” but it later proves, to Rumfoord’s great shame, not to be the most authoritative version after all (167, 293). Indeed, Vonnegut is nowhere more tongue-in-cheek as when he is lecturing his readers on imaginary techniques and fake histories, but the joke is all in his smug, self-regarding tone, which is echoed everywhere by characters who hide their arrogance behind the seeming objectivity of their research. One of Salo’s best sculptures depicts a heroically disinterested scientist—“a perfect servant of nothing but truth”—whose studious demeanor is belied by a “shocking erection” (294).

According to Frank Minot’s “authoritative” account of the Martian wars, Are Adults Harmoniums?, all readers are attention-starved children craving the word of their parents, but Vonnegut’s novel offers an alternative model of learning that is by turns personal, secretive, rebellious, and ultimately heroic in an entirely different way. The reeducation of Unk on the planet Mars is one of his most satisfying and inspiring set pieces, and its brilliance lies mostly in its depiction of what it means to be a self-learner. Drafted into the army of Mars, Unk’s memory has been erased, and an antenna planted in his head effectively controls his actions, but not his thoughts. The scene begins with a short epigraph from a noted doctor, another authoritative scholar:

We can make the center of a man’s memory virtually as sterile as a scalpel fresh from the autoclave. But grains of new experience begin to accumulate on it at once. These grains in turn form themselves into patterns not necessarily favorable to military thinking. Unfortunately, this problem of recontamination seems insoluble. (105)

Vonnegut here adopts a cybernetic model of learning, one in which new sensations and perceptions form patterns that become metacognitions or ideas. Unk’s mind is essentially a blank slate, ready to be inscribed by such impressions, but given the rigidity of his military training and the well-timed shocks from his antenna, this process is unbearably difficult and painful for him. New observations are experienced as pain insofar as they run counter to deeply ingrained habits of thinking and thus threaten the authority of the status quo. Any new signals are experienced as such only in relation to the undifferentiated background noise of everyday knowing, so they will always challenge—“contaminate”—the authority of previous conditioning. Not surprisingly, all of the soldiers are afraid of picking up new knowledge “out of the general background noises of army life.” “A soldier’s knowledge wasn’t supposed to be round,” dryly claims the narrator (119–20).

And yet people always find ways to learn—they can’t even avoid learning—outside official systems of knowledge. Unk’s desire to know overrides his fear of pain, and, over time, he is able to piece together more and more about himself and his world. “Whenever I start to turn my head,” he writes, “and look at something, and the pain comes, I keep turning my head anyway, because I know I am going to see something I’m not supposed to see. . . . The more pain I train myself to stand, the more I learn” (125). Given such agony, learning for him becomes a form of personal heroism and ultimately pride. Unk develops not only a more “rounded” view of the world, but an entire university’s worth of knowledge, which he carefully organizes into disciplinary categories: gossip, history, astronomy, biology, theology, geography, psychology, medicine, and even creative writing (126-27). In this, Unk’s learning process becomes the source of intense emotions, which grow increasingly positive over time. As he reads his own letter and considers his own learning, his education is inflected by deep feelings of camaraderie, pride, admiration, love, fear, and courage. Learning proves to be an intensely human process, both messy and sincere, and it activates his entire being—physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual—in ways that make him a truly “rounded” character.

In a significant twist, Unk does not know that he himself has generated this knowledge. His mind has been repeatedly erased by the authorities who fear his growing awareness and power. Here, most literally, learning leads to unlearning, intelligence is followed by stupidity. And since Unk learns only through the letter he himself has written to himself, he comes across his knowledge as the knowledge of another man, the power of a god. He imagines, we’re told, “the writer as being a marvelous old man with a white beard and the build of a blacksmith” (132). But it’s really him, really Unk, and once he finds his signature at the end of the letter, his admiration for this divine authority becomes a form of self-love:

The signature was Unk’s.
Unk was the hero who had written the letter.
Unk had written the letter to himself before having his memory cleaned out. It was literature in its finest sense, since it made Unk courageous, watchful, and secretly free. It made him his own hero in very trying times. (132)

I’d just like to take a moment to say, sincerely, that I wish every one of my students recognized themselves in their work like this. I wish that instead of sacrificing themselves to the authorities of their teachers and texts, they could see themselves in their own work and feel wonderful for it, even if only secretly so. Unk here becomes his own parent, teaches himself about himself, and then accepts himself in his own work. This is the finest moment of “aristocratic” living as defined by Winston Niles Rumfoord. “Look forward,” says Rumfoord, “to behaving aristocratically without any outward proofs of your aristocracy. Look forward to having nothing but the dignity and intelligence and tenderness that God gave you—look forward to taking those materials and nothing else, and making something exquisite with them” (60). Unk has accomplished this as a learner.

Vonnegut consistently depicts learning as not only a confrontation with authority, but also a form of self-creation or self-parenting. With every insight, the thinker seems both to lose and find himself all over again, and this dynamic entails a certain humility as well as pride. “You’re not a bad sort, you know,” Rumfoord explains to Constant, “particularly when you forget who you are” (17). For Vonnegut, it seems, stupidity and smarts tumble hand in hand in often delirious and ironic ways. Your recognition of some previous blindness in your thinking might suggest a transcendent moment of insight, but now you’ll never shake the feeling that this new insight could also be just another profoundly humiliating moment of blindness. And then this further insight—about your own entwined insight and blindness—will only, in turn, become a further source of doubt. And so on. The fundamental question raised by the infundibulum—“What makes you think you’re going anywhere?”—both inspires and sabotages faith in intellectual and scientific progress (25). Similarly, Vonnegut’s plot viciously raises and routs any authoritative position of knowledge, any sense of one character seeming to know more than any other. At the height of his arrogance, Constant recognizes that he’s been cruelly used by another man, Rumfoord. But Rumfoord himself comes to the same humiliating conclusion, namely, that he’s been used by Salo. Ultimately, the novel advances a new religion—“The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent”—that authoritatively opposes any kind of authoritative knowledge. “I am not your father,” ironically preaches the Reverend C. Horner Redwine, as a way of reminding his flock to avoid any proud claims to knowing god’s will or that of any other authority (224).

But is knowledge without authority possible or even desirable? How does it function and what ends does it serve? Vonnegut quickly establishes a distinction between punctual knowing and infundibulated knowing, the former consisting of a linear progression toward one truth and the latter entailing an explosive synchronicity of all truths. As the narrator explains, everyone thinks his own Daddy is right and the other Daddies are wrong. “There are places in the Universe, though,” we’re told, “where each Daddy could finally catch on to what the other Daddy was talking about. These places are where all the different kinds of truths fit together as nicely as the parts in your Daddy’s solar watch. We call these places chrono-synclastic infundibula” (9). Clearly, Vonnegut has a pomo hankering for such relativity, but he’s also aware of its dangers. Infundibulated thinking, in doing away with any single authoritative truth or ultimate knowledge, threatens to destroy the thinker’s own coherence and makes action quite difficult. Rumfoord’s time in the infundibulum seems to rob him of the will to act (52), and his presence literally grows fainter and fainter throughout the novel. He and his dog are “spread all the way from the Sun to Betelgeuse” (181), and this “larger view of things,” like the view of the overeager liberal arts major, becomes too difficult for him to manage in the end (278).

Indeed, on several occasions, Vonnegut’s novel seems to lament the overwhelming amount of information in the world. There is too much data, too many records, too many museums and archives, “crowding the living right off the earth,” and the narrator warns that one day “there would be a tremendous house-cleaning” (46). More to the point, the conclusion of the novel reasserts a certain gathering of truth and the need for some authoritative positioning. The wise Salo defies the most basic teaching of the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent by wishing Constant good luck and then allowing him to imagine both paradise and a beneficent creator. In the end, I’m left wondering how all of those struggling liberal arts majors are able to make their vast knowledge cohere into an effective model of truth, one that can help move them through the world with confidence. More to the point, I’m wondering what happens to all of those exquisitely confused students when they become authorities in their own right—when they become, you know, teachers. I’m curious and sympathetic, but not worried. If there is anything they know how to do well, it’s both how to learn and unlearn. And like them, I’m happy to step back into the infundibulum all over again.