So Much for History | Sandweiss on The Sirens of Titan

Eric Sandweiss


So much for history.

Humankind’s “outward push” to discover “what all creation was all about” ended, as we learn at the outset of The Sirens of Titan, a scant century before the narration of this tale of time-traveler Malachi Constant—a man who pushes way outward, from past to future, from Earth to Mercury to Titan, poking holes in the fabric of History until it’s left in shreds beside a garbage-strewn, extraterrestrial pool (1).

“Outward push,” of course, is the subject of the historian’s labor. The historical record sustains itself on people’s steady habit, in all places and times, of searching “ever outward”: for a better life, for money, for new worlds to conquer or new answers to the question of what all creation was all about. It’s “outward push” that triggers discoveries and sets off wars. Grows food and composes symphonies. What will be left for those of my kind to discuss, on that day when people cease pushing and instead pull inward through Vonnegut’s “fifty-three portals to the soul”? (1). For Sirens’s unidentified storyteller, that inward turn will mark nothing less than “the beginning of goodness and wisdom” (2).

For some of us, it also signals the end of History—a loss and not just a gain.

Fortunately for the earth- and time-bound historian, Malachi Constant’s interplanetary itinerary includes a few stopovers at definable terrestrial points (let’s leave, for the moment, the fact that Vonnegut, in a further slap at historical practice, describes such points—like “punctuality” more generally—not as contingent moments but merely as the surface eruptions of a deeper reality that always was and always will be). Constant’s father, Noel, is “a Yankee traveling salesman of copper-bottomed cookware” (69), hailing from New Bedford, Massachusetts, and himself descended from an anarchist New England millworker and, further back, some Napoleonic French roué. Malachi’s lineage is in some way responsible for his habit of behaving “aggressively, loudly, childishly, wastefully—making himself and mankind look bad” (24). He lives in Hollywood, California, and works in a prismatic glass skyscraper that rises—in true LA fashion—across the street from the “frumpish,” faux-Tudor hotel (with its picturesquely sagging roofline and its cocktail lounge, the Hear Ye Room) in which Noel Constant first made a killing in stocks (83–84).

Malachi’s handler-partner-nemesis, Winston Niles Rumfoord, and Rumfoord’s wife, Beatrice, come from altogether different—but equally historically specific—stock. Rumfoord, we learn, “was a member of the one true American class” (21). He is a natural aristocrat, blessed with “pure courage” (23) and bred from a long line of patrician families who valued “healthy, charming, wise children” (22), as he himself had surely been. Beatrice’s past is glimpsed in the oversized oil portrait that hangs on the wall of their mansion, depicting “a little girl”—clad entirely in white—“holding the reins of a pure white pony” (18). The Rumfoords reside in Newport, Rhode Island, in a marble mansion designed to resemble King James’s Banqueting House at Whitehall. Their conversations take place in “Skip’s Museum,” a send-up of the overstuffed cabinets and treasure chests of the great Enlightenment collectors who sought to validate their own place in history by surrounding themselves with its tangible remnants.

Vonnegut, in Sirens, uses such historical referents as he does characterological descriptions: the reader experiences them, at some points, as big, flashy signs that label at a glance the people and events that compose the novel; at others as handy, oversized boxes into which to toss otherwise problematic personalities and plot points without threatening the momentum of the narrative’s bouncy, supersonic trajectory across the solar system.

If there is a moment of the book that feels—to this historian, at least—true to our place and time, it may not appear until the closing pages, when Malachi follows his long, lonely idyll on Titan with a final return to Earth. Asked by his mechanical companion, Salo, where he would like to end his life, Constant insists on flying to “the first place in the United States of America where a white man was hanged for the murder of an Indian” (321): Indianapolis. Vonnegut refers us, obliquely, to the aftermath of the Fall Creek Massacre of 1824, which took place just northeast of the author’s hometown, and which comprised a small but well-known footnote in the boosterish state histories with which the author would have grown up. Tipping his cap to this historical moment of human decency (if a public execution can be considered such) as a fitting capstone to the novel’s moral lesson, Vonnegut nonetheless takes us on yet another historical sidestep, returning his hero not to the rustic nineteenth-century courtroom where the Fall Creek murderers met their fate, but instead to a place altogether less picturesque and, in my eyes, more believable: a “vacant lot on the south side of Indianapolis” beside “a two-story frame house with an open bedroom window” (323–24). Here, Malachi awaits the day’s first downtown bus in a pre-dawn snowstorm. By the time it arrives, he will be dead, frozen upon a bench.

This brief but, to me, vividly realized scene at the industrial edge of a postwar Rust Belt urban center almost redeems the novel from its more garish manipulations of broad-brushed historical signifiers: the Newport mansion, the LA streetscape, the radio evangelists, and the earnest but absurd historical chronicles (“a short history of Mars, a true history of the saints who died in order that the world might be united as the Brotherhood of Man” [184], a magazine article describing the burning of the Earth’s museums and archives following a one-million-year-long “period of readjustment” after the birth of Jesus [46], etc.) that are referenced throughout the book.

So much for history, the author seems to say: after all, look where all that outward pushing got our hero, Malachi Constant. This hapless citizen of the United States at the cusp of its “New Age of Space” (55) (the phrase, coined by a fictitious president in the book, resonated with the more familiar term “Space Age,” which began appearing in the American popular press just as Vonnegut was drafting Sirens in 1958 and 1959) is pushed around until nothing remains of him. Another passenger on life’s “roller coaster,” he has experienced “every dip and turn” without realizing that the track, built before his time, will not change according to his will (54). His final frozen moments on the ride won’t be wasted (as a historical thinker might wish) on understanding the good that he has inherited from his past or bequeathed to others in the future. He will instead be “hypnotized,” like so many others who fear the bottomless contingencies of historical change, into imagining himself ascending to Paradise, where “everybody’s happy . . . forever” (325–26) and none of this other stuff will have mattered a bit.