The Body Constant | Phillips on The Sirens of Titan

Sarah Phillips



Anthropologists think a lot about bodies. Biological anthropologists are interested in the adaptation, variation, and evolutionary history of humans and their relatives, looking at the bodies of humans and our ancestors, living and extinct. Medical anthropologists investigate the human body from a range of perspectives, focusing on how perceptions and experiences of the body and of health, disease, illness, and treatment vary across cultures.

In socio-cultural anthropology too there is a robust tradition of the “anthropology of the body.” For more than a century anthropologists have recognized the body as “good to think with.” While it is tempting to think of the body as the ultimate “natural symbol,” anthropologists have investigated how ideologies and practices of the body are culturally determined (e.g., variation in customs of comportment, dress, body modification, etc.). There are also political uses of bodies—how (and whose) bodies are privileged and championed, and how (and whose) bodies are used up, manipulated, outcast—and to what (and whose) ends.

In the late 1980s, socio-cultural/medical anthropologists laid out a useful scheme for thinking critically and interpretatively about the body. They proposed “three perspectives from which the body may be viewed: (1) as a phenomenally experienced individual body-self; (2) as a social body, a natural symbol for thinking about relationships among nature, society, and culture; and (3) as a body politic, an artifact of social and political control.”1 When I teach medical anthropology classes, I introduce students to these “three bodies” to help them think critically about how bodies are understood, experienced, and manipulated across space and time.

What does any of this have to do with Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan? A lot, actually. The novel is littered with all kinds of bodies: living, dead, half-dead, mangled, distressed. Whether Earthling, Martian, or Tralfamadorian, these bodies are tired, hungover, exhausted, damaged, naked. They’ve been broken down and violated, hyped up on goofballs. Martian soldiers have had radio antennae implanted in their heads, rendering them controllable by commanding officers. What’s going on with all these wrecked bodies—what is Vonnegut trying to say?

Here’s what Vonnegut actually did say about the body, in his story “Unready to Wear”:

The mind is the only thing about human beings that’s worth anything. Why does it have to be tied to a bag of skin, blood, hair, meat, bones, and tubes? No wonder people can’t get anything done, stuck for life with a parasite that has to be stuffed with food and protected from weather and germs all the time. And the fool thing wears out anyway—no matter how much you stuff and protect it!

No wonder it’s all downhill from there, for the bodies in The Sirens of Titan. All the same, I don’t think Vonnegut is 100 percent committed to the idea of a mind/body “split”; nor does he see the body as just a worthless vessel. Take Unk, for instance. Unk’s body, and its capacity to feel and endure pain, may be his greatest asset. On Mars Unk’s memory has been wiped, so he relies on his mind/body connection to learn new things. When Unk has blips of memories, takes glimpses of something he’s “not supposed to see,” or asks “a really good question,” he feels terrible pain from his antenna (125). Unk relies on this pain to know when he should keep trying to remember, and keep asking questions. The pain tells him he’s getting somewhere. He uses his individual experience of his body to gather information, learn new things, and exercise agency.

Island fortress

The links between the individual and the social body are eerily illustrated by Bee (Unk’s “mate” and the mother of his child), a Martian instructress in the Schliemann Breathing School for Recruits (14953). Bee’s haunting poem (153) draws parallels between the sealed-off bodies of recruits (whom she must teach to “survive in a vacuum” without breathing)

Keep life within you pent . . . be careful not to speak . . . to soul and heart within you trapped add speech and atmosphere . . .

and the utter void of social relations between people (bodies) on Mars (and maybe not just on Mars?)

Every man’s an island: island fortress, island home (153).

The “noble common sense” ideals of Martian society make for “efficient citizens” but allow for zero social relations, even between “mates” (lovers) such as Unk and Bee. The sealed-off bodies of the Martians, who neither breathe nor emote, embody the social ills of the dystopia they inhabit.

Poof (spiral that)

Anthropologists look for meaning in transformations, and the bodies in The Sirens of Titan undergo dramatic transformations! Most striking in this regard is the evaporative body (or, in a nonpunctual way of speaking, the chrono-synclastic infundibulated body) of Winston Niles Rumfoord. Having driven his space ship into the heart of a chrono-synclastic infundibulum, a place where “all the different kinds of truths fit together,” Rumfoord now exists as a wave phenomenon, “pulsing in a distorted spiral” and scattered far and wide throughout both space and time (8-9). He materializes in Newport, Rhode Island, U.S.A., Earth, Solar System, Milky Way, every 59 days. He materializes on Mars every 111 days. He materializes elsewhere as well (e.g., on Mercury), but the details are sketchy. The only place Rumfoord can exist permanently in bodily form is on the planet Titan. But eventually he disappears (kinda sorta) from there, too.

My reading of Rumfoord and his bodily immateriality is as follows. Rumfoord, who exists everywhere and nowhere in all of time and space, is omnipresent and omniscient, and thus can foretell and design the future. He is both a God figure (though he adamantly denies it [244]) and the founder of a popular new religion (three billion adherents and counting!). He has orchestrated a war between Earthlings shipped to Mars and Earthlings on Earth to unite the peoples of Earth once and for all. The fate of Earth, and maybe the entire Milky Way, is in this guy’s hands. He’s in control, right? Wrong. We learn in the novel’s final chapters that Rumfoord himself likely has been controlled by the Tralfamadorians all along. Everything that’s ever happened—including the bloodshed of the Martian sacrifice—has been for the sole purpose of reuniting a Tralfamadorian machine (Salo) with a replacement part for his space ship so he can deliver a vacuous message (the underwhelming message is “Greetings”) to an unspecified destination. The omnipresent and omniscient Rumfoord actually has controlled nothing, not even his own material bodily presence. And this is where his religious sect is relevant—the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. Vonnegut’s message, via Rumfoord, is this: God is apathetic. God does not care. Luck is just that—luck. Free will does not exist. Rumfoord is the (dis)embodiment of the folly of free will.

Bee humble

Rumfoord’s wife Beatrice also undergoes an amazing bodily transformation. We first encounter her as a “healthy and handsome, and talented” millionaire (6), standing tall, straight, and haughty in a white dressing gown at the top of a white spiral staircase (35). Rumfoord remarks, “Wouldn’t it be too bad if she fell into a mud puddle?” (18). And fall she does. By the end of the novel, Beatrice Rumfoord (also called Bee) has lost an eye and her two front teeth. Because of dietary mishaps during an Amazonian captivity adventure (good grief, Kurt, really?), her skin tone is permanently varnished the “color of golden oak” (237). Vonnegut says she looks like a “gypsy” (294). She’s a “damaged and roughly-used” old woman (314). We last see Beatrice Rumfoord surrounded by trash and old food tins, taking her last breaths sitting in an old recliner in Rumfoord’s ridiculous Taj Mahal–replica palace. She’s gone from aristocrat to untouchable.

Clearly Vonnegut is making a class critique—how far the high and mighty have fallen! But I’m also struck by the gradual dismemberment of Beatrice/Bee, and other bodies in this novel. (If Beatrice Rumfoord has lost a few parts, Salo the bizarre machine from Tralfamadore finds himself literally disassembled and scattered [307].) Their dismemberment reminds me of the Stalinist-era novels in the Soviet Union in which the hero—one archetype of the ideal Soviet man—gradually sacrifices his body in service of the state. One example is Ostrovskii’s How the Steel Was Tempered, whose protagonist Pavel Korchagin is the “perfect self-sacrificing subject,” elevated in the ranks of socialist heroism as his body is gradually dismembered and disabled until he becomes a “living mummy” with only one eye and one functioning limb.2

This is the point in the analysis where one would expect reference to critical theorists (i.e., Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben) and their notion of “biopower,” or the power over life—and bodies—exercised by powerful actors and institutions. The image of ten thousand Martian soldiers/bodies coming to attention all at once, marching in time in apparent silence to the same snare drum tune inside each of their brains, lends itself to such an analysis. But we don’t know who is controlling them (103). There are no direct orders to commanders, just “conversational tidbits” they act on (or not) (121). Korchagin and other socialist realist heroes sacrificed their bodies for socialist ideals, in the name of the socialist state. These Martian soldiers have no such ideals. Further, what is Bee’s bodily sacrifice for? She doesn’t choose it, doesn’t control it, doesn’t reflect on it. She knows she’s been used (317). But by whom, exactly, and for what? And Beatrice/Bee is one of the “lucky” survivors of the Martian invasion—“At the end of the war, every Martian had been killed, wounded, captured, or been found missing” (168). What powerful institutions or people were exercising this biopower, this power over life and death, over the entire Martian population? Vonnegut won’t tell us. Everything is senseless, and no one’s in charge. We don’t know whom or what to blame. Vonnegut stops critical theory in its tracks. Brilliant.

Algae, spineless kites, and feathers

Only a few of the bodies in The Sirens of Titan are what one might call beautiful, “healthy,” or even whole. What happens to those lucky enough to inhabit these fortunate bodies? What social or political critique does Vonnegut embed in these beauties?

Let’s start with the mesmeric Sirens of Titan themselves. During his first encounter with Malachi Constant, Rumfoord beguiles Constant with a live-action, Harry Potter–esque photograph depicting three “young ladies,” one white, one gold, and one brown, who “looked up at Constant, begging him to come to them, to make them whole with love” (33–4). Vonnegut foreshadows that when Constant reaches Titan he will consort with the sirens. By the time Constant encounters the sirens he is seventy-four years old, has been through the wringer, and has no interest in sex, or the sirens. For him they are just statues submerged under a “mucilaginous hump” of green algae in Rumfoord’s old palace pool (315–6). So much for the sirens’ “space-annihilating concupiscence” (53).

Boaz, with his “broad, brown, slab-muscled back” (213), has the most robust body in the book. Boaz can’t live with other people without doing harm to them. Stranded on Mercury, he thrives on caring for the wonderful kite-shaped creatures called harmoniums, and decides to live out his days on Mercury with them. The secret to bodily integrity is . . . stay away from other humans. Very far away.

Chrono, the son of Constant/Unk and Beatrice/Bee, seems healthy and athletic. Maybe Chrono will offer redemption from all the suffering? Alas, no. Chrono is a juvenile delinquent, a hopeless miscreant. As an adult on Titan he sprouts feathers and flies away with the Titanic bluebirds. Pfffffftttt.

I’m looking forward to seeing how Vonnegut treats bodies in subsequent novels. No doubt Slaughterhouse-Five will lend itself to a more traditional Foucauldian critique about the regulation, disciplining, and punishing of bodies. But I’m sure KV will add twists and turns. And Vonnegut’s treatment of the connections and disconnections between mind, body, and soul also needs tracking in his later novels.

Did I mention that I read most of The Sirens of Titan in the Emergency Room of the Indiana University Health Bloomington Hospital? Totally not why I will always associate this book with all kinds of bodies. . . .
a picture of Sirens of Titan and a wheelchair


1. Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Margaret Lock, “The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 1, no. 1 (1987): 6,

2. Lilya Kaganovsky, How the Soviet Man Was Unmade: Cultural Fantasy and Male Subjectivity under Stalin (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008), 36, 12.