The Fast Reverse | Elmer on The Sirens of Titan

Jonathan Elmer



“Everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself.”

“Literature should not disappear up its own asshole.”

Taken together, these two sentences—the first is the opening line of The Sirens of Titan (1959); the second comes from an interview in 1977—capture a style of assertion, unique to Vonnegut, that veers wildly from pontification to a Bronx cheer.

We don’t know how to understand the first sentence—after all, it’s the first thing in the book. It seems rather grand at first, but suspicions crowd in rather quickly: The meaning of life? Within himself? Now? This all seems rather self-important, perhaps even an example of literature disappearing up its own asshole, if by that colorful metaphor Vonnegut means looking rather too far into oneself for answers.

There was a lot of pontificating in the 1950s, lots of puzzling out the meaning of life, the nature and destiny of mankind, and so forth. The war and its grotesque atrocities had seemed to require inquiries at this level of generality. Mark Greif recently published a book about this period called The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933–1973. (There is no mention of Vonnegut in the book.)

At one point, Greif invokes as an example of the “discourse of the crisis of man” William Faulkner’s speech accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950: “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance” (Greif 129). Greif reports that he first read these words as a teenager, found them laughably inflated, and then was gobsmacked when he discovered they were widely applauded at the time and reprinted everywhere.

It is fascinating (and puzzling; Greif does not know quite what to do with it) that only four years later Faulkner returns to his high theme, and in very nearly the same words. A Fable (1954) is an ambitious book, focused especially on man’s insatiable need to wage war. But here Faulkner’s noble Nobel words are in the mouth of a warmongering general, and what endures is not man’s soul or spirit, but his “folly”:

“Oh yes, [man] will survive it because he has that in him which will endure . . . because already the next star in the blue immensity of space will be already clamorous with the uproar of his debarkation, his puny and inexhaustible voice still talking, still planning . . . his voice, planning still to build something higher and faster and louder; more efficient and louder and faster than before, yet it too inherent with the same primordial fault. . . . I don’t fear man. I do better: I respect and admire him. And pride: I am ten times prouder of that immortality which he does possess than ever he of that heavenly delusion. Because man and his folly—”

“Will endure,” the corporal said.

“They will do more,” the old general said proudly. They will prevail.” (Greif 129)

Now, I like Faulkner as much as the next guy, but this sounds like literature “disappearing up its own asshole.” The syntactical reversals, the startling juxtapositions (“puny and inexhaustible”), the multisyllabic fireworks (“clamorous with the uproar of his debarkation”)—all of this announces, This is literature.

What has happened between the Nobel speech and A Fable? What does it mean that Faulkner has used the same forms and phrases but in one exalts the human spirit and in the other exposes the grandiosity of human folly? Is he engaging in self-parody? I suspect not: the change in the view of mankind is less important than the consistency of the literary voice. It’s as if Faulkner believes (unconsciously, probably) that what can keep man’s nobility and idiocy from canceling each other out to the point of meaninglessness is the literary voice, is literature.

This post is supposed to be about Vonnegut, not Faulkner. But I want to get at Vonnegut by suggesting how close he is to Faulkner (the Faulkner of A Fable)—and how very far, too. “Everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself” is a feint in the direction of the “crisis of man” discourse so prevalent in 1950s America. Vonnegut begins Sirens condemning the faster-bigger-higher attitude of humans who seek truth outside themselves, in gods or in space travel. This is what Faulkner was condemning as well. We might even say that Vonnegut has written a novel “clamorous with the uproar of debarkation”—think of Unk and Boaz banging into cave walls on Mercury. Vonnegut is also centrally concerned with the “heavenly delusions” and “folly” of humankind—think of the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, a religion without a god, the “delusion” outlasting the “heaven.”

But Vonnegut’s tone could not be further from Faulkner’s, and that comes from his radically different idea about how literature works, and what it is good for.

In the scene where the Space Wanderer is brought before the adoring crowds in Newport, Rumfoord makes this aside:

“They’d like it just as much the other way around, you know,” he said.

“The other way around?” said the Space Wanderer.

“If the big reward came first, and then the great suffering,” said Rumfoord. “It’s the contrast they like. The order of events doesn’t make any difference to them. It’s the thrill of the fast reverse—.” (251–52)

We’d be justified in not trusting Rumfoord about anything. Dr. Maurice Rosenau, author of Pan-Galactic Humbug or Three Billion Dupes, refers to him as “the interstellar Pharisee, Tartufe, and Cagliostro” (244), a litany of impostors running from biblical days to the “humbug” of nineteenth-century America (think P. T. Barnum). And this seems pretty fair, all things considered. It is all massively rigged, of course. Rumfoord gives the people what they want, which is to be whipsawed with the “fast reverse.”

But Rumfoord’s unreliability should not keep us from looking carefully at the idea of the “fast reverse.” At one level, the “fast reverse” is what Aristotle called peripeteia—a sudden change of fortune. Oedipus discovering his wife is his mother—fast reverse. Rumfoord’s larger point is that it is the change itself that gives pleasure, not the direction of the change. A good joke has something of the fast reverse to it: you were thinking this was going one way, and then it went another; even if where it went appalls you (and good punch lines often appall), the sudden change has given its yield of pleasure. Vonnegut likes jokes—and some really work!

In a hilarious talk, viewable here, Vonnegut explains “the simple shape of stories.” Like Rumfoord, he emphasizes that the shape—up and down, like a sine wave—matters more than the direction of movement. In Sirens, Vonnegut explores this idea on a cosmic scale. The “fast reverse” is a matter of plotting, and so Rumfoord’s time traveling, which teaches him the truth that “everything that ever has been will always be, and everything that ever will be has always been” (20), makes him quite adept at it. He can always see the reversibility of any narrative. Tragedy, comedy—it’s all the same, really, just a matter (indifferent in itself) of the order of events. This makes Rumfoord not only a kind of Barnum but also a kind of author—he is one who plots. And because Vonnegut avails himself of time traveling in his plots, Rumfoord is a version of Vonnegut. Rumfoord’s glee at concocting his little shows—such as the doomed Martian invasion—might lead us to ask uneasy questions about how Vonnegut gets his jollies.

The reversibility disclosed by the fast reverse is not just a matter of words (jokes), or narratives (peripeteia), or genres (tragedy, comedy). Artists and audiences are also reversible. In a sense, all humankind is like Rumfoord, getting up shows for an imagined cosmic audience:

The Earthlings behaved at all times as though there were a big eye in the sky—as though that big eye were ravenous for entertainment.

The big eye was a glutton for great theater. The big eye was indifferent as to whether the Earthling shows were comedy, tragedy, farce, satire, athletics, or vaudeville. Its demand, which Earthlings apparently found as irresistible as gravity, was that the shows be great. (281)

Now, this mention of gravity is interesting, since in the universe of The Sirens of Titan, with its chrono-synclastic infundibulum, gravity is not so irresistible after all. Physics after relativity and quantum mechanics leads physicists to posit the existence of “wormholes,” a kind of shortcut through space-time. Ultimately, maybe the fast reverse is a cosmic phenomenon. (Do wormholes, or the chrono-synclastic infundibulum, with their “impossible” contortions of space-time, show the universe itself disappearing up its own asshole? I merely ask.) I’ll leave it to Rick to describe what it means that Rumfoord and Kazak exist “as wave phenomena.” What interests me, finally, is how Vonnegut lets his play with science get all over his play with meaning. You get the sense that in Faulkner’s universe, even when it is utterly indifferent, what he calls man’s “primordial fault” still has some relevance. In Vonnegut’s universe, not so much. Vonnegut’s universe—or at least the universe of Sirens—is radically relativistic, in both the physicist’s and the moralist’s senses: the chrono-synclastic infundibulum is “where all the different kinds of truths fit together” (9).

The universe can contain mutually exclusive truths—such as that man is both noble and full of folly. Literature cannot—though it can put you on a roller coaster with lots of fast reverses, a wild ride that gets you close to such cosmic fullness.

The reversibility of the serious and the stupid, the true and the untrue, the random and the determined, the tragic and the comic—this seems as close to a Vonnegut poetics as we are likely to get.