Strange Wonder
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Strange Wonder

The Lessons of Malachi Constant: Kurt Vonnegut’s Therapy of Disillusion

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“I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.”

-Malachi Constant

“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

-Kurt Vonnegut, Sirens of Titan

The hero of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1959 novel, The Sirens of Titan, is named Malachi Constant, a Hebrew/English mash-up of a name which means “faithful messenger.”

Malachi has gained everything he has essentially by luck, but thinks “I guess somebody up there likes me.” He thinks he is in control of his life, and that he has a right to enjoy what belongs to him. What he yearns for is an explanation of life and a revelation of grand purpose for himself. To that end, he puts on his personal seal the motto, “the messenger awaits.”

Malachi is like us, but more so. In 1959 Malachi was probably a particular symbol of the American ego, but with the spreading of Western capitalism and its co-adaptive memeplexes of secular humanism and subconscious (or explicit) Christianity, Malachi seems to symbolize many a modern person with the luxury to step back and ask the kinds of questions Malachi asks.

If Malachi’s self-conception smacks of the post WW2 first-world self-conception, I would argue that it speaks beyond that today to those of us who are members of the New World Precariat. We may not feel we are God’s chosen ones, well deserving of the paradise our parents bequeathed to us, but I would argue we still suffer from Malachi’s maladies, which are likely widespread, at least among relatively privileged human beings. We think we are (or could be) in control, we think we deserve our advantages, and we think our life has a meaning and purpose we must discover.

The answers Malachi gets in the course of the book act like a kind of therapeutic drama for him, and vicariously for the reader- a kind of submersion in a Vonneguttian version of the Eleusinian mysteries.

Let’s take a walk through the subterranean tunnel- starlit and covered in frescoes from outer space as it may be. Although there will be spoilers, I will leave some of the books secrets intact in the hope you will read it if you haven’t yet.

Is There Anything Special Going On Or Is It All Just As Crazy As It Looked To Me?

Malachi Constant is the son of the wealthy investor Noel Constant, who leaves the above question in a letter for his son to find after his death. Noel got rich on the stock market knowing absurdly little about investing. Having hit rock bottom in his own life he began investing in companies on the basis of an acrostic he made out of the Gideon’s Bible he found in the hotel room.

It’s not that the word of God led Noel to riches, but just the opposite: it was by rendering the Bible completely meaningless, just random letters which the non-religious Noel organized with the most simple, even stupid code imaginable: he find companies whose initials begin with the same letters as the letters in the Bible taken as pairs. He just starts with I.N, T.H., E.B., E.G., I.N., N.I., N.G… and keeps going. In effect Noel’s success turns the implicit theology of American Christianity inside-out: Constant prospers not through following the word of God, but by stripping it of its claimed purpose and rendering it mere random jottings.

This play on the idea of meaning itself embodies one of the main themes of the novel: that people and their lives are determined by forces which ellude all human quests for meaning and purpose, and that we would be better off recognizing that. By the end of the novel it will be revealed that Malachi was manipulated by the aristocratic Winston Niles Rumfoord, who may represent the old school style top-dog of Europe, apparently more deserving of his power due to breeding and cultivation, but in reality just as much of an undeserving puppet as anyone else.

It turns out, we see, that Rumfoord was himself manipulated — along with the entire human race and all of human history — by an alien species from Trafalmadore (of Slaughterhouse-Five fame- the same aliens who kidnap Billy Pilgrim). This was part of a grand plan to manipulate human beings to develop technology and use it for a certain purpose- to help relay a message from one side of the universe to the other, to another planet of beings light years away from earth. When the message is finally revealed, it turns out to confer no meaning on human lives and history at all. It is a simple dot, which in their language means, “Greetings.”

This message isn’t any more complex than the vocalizations made by the Harmoniums, simple membranous creatures who live off of sound vibrations on the planet Mercury. All day the Harmoniums say only one thing to each other, “Here I am” to which others respond, “So glad you are.” This is not a sorry state of affairs in Vonnegut’s eyes, far from it. As he argues in his novel Galapagos, human brains generate an avalanche of complexity which may, in the end, do no one much good. In Galapagos Vonnegut has humans evolve beyond their current state into dolphin-like creatures with much simpler brains who are happier and less destructive than we are.

If what I’ve written so far seems offensive to human pride, that’s surely the point. It’s meant to be a punch in the gut to the human ego. Although Vonnegut was an avowed Humanist, he in fact wants us to wake up from the trance of humanism and its parent, Christianity, and face the profound limitations, alone-ness, and ethically challenged nature of the human species. Vonnegut aims to disillusion, and if his target is primarily arrogant human notions of free agency, meaning, and purpose, he has sub-targets along the way: religion, capitalism, nationalism and war, among others.

Vonnegut is not propounding a worldview, but an antidote, as becomes clearer as one moves through this philosophically and narratively complex novel. When trying to summarize the plot, in fact, I’m struck by just how complex it is, and how simple it seems when you’re reading it written by Vonnegut himself- a credit to his formidable skills as a writer.

Rumfoord’s grand plan, it turns out, is to enlist an army of lost and unhappy humans to be shipped to Mars where they will have their memories erased and microchips implanted which control them by means of threatened pain. Malachi, after being manipulated into losing his fortune by Rumfoord, is a member of this army who Rumfoord also ensures survives to play a part I’ll leave only partially described here. The somnambulant army of Mars will attack earth en masse in a purposefully unwinnable war in which they will be slaughtered like lambs. Rumfoord does this so that humanity will be provoked into solidarity and then shame as they realize they have killed hundreds of thousands of humans including the old, women, and children.

At just this moment of collective trauma Rumfoord will appear with a new religion to soothe their psychic wounds, one with himself as prophet. Rumfoord will win their credence by his ability to predict the future, a result of an accident of space travel has left his body scattered throughout space and time. Rumfoord, like Billy Pilgrim of Slaughterhouse-Five, is “unstuck in time” and can see beyond the present moment.

Rumfoord then declares the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, whose main religious practice will be for people to self-hobble in order to neutralize nature’s unequal gifts to the human race. Strong people wear weights, beautiful people disfigure themselves with wigs and bad make-up. “There were literally billions of happily self-handicapped people on Earth. And what made them so happy was that no one took advantage of anybody anymore.” Rumfoord’s religion is — pointedly — opposite to the popular American Christianity the book takes aim at. In place of a God who plays favourites and dispenses blessings to his deserving children, we have a God who doesn’t care and a populace who willingly give up their unearned advantages.

As every religion needs a Satan, Rumfoord’s becomes Malachi himself, the symbol of arrogance, profiteering off mere luck, and wrong beliefs about God (“someone up there likes me”). Malachi dolls are hung in the houses of believers by a hangman’s noose.

In the end Malachi, stripped of his pretensions, wants only one thing- family and friendship. Vonnegut gives him neither of these easily, rewarding him instead with a woman who doesn’t care if he exists, and a child who doesn’t need or want him. Only after many years of unrewarded fidelity does Malachi become a true husband and father, and even then, though he gains peace and happiness, these things don’t come with a life anything like the form he might have wanted or expected.

If Sirens of Titan can be said to have one theme, a contender would be “salvific humiliation.” By the end of the book Malachi has been stripped of all illusion, and the reader along with him has been put through the ringer. What is left?

The Malachi that is left is in fact a beautiful thing- stripped down to himself and nature, he lives on as a self-sufficient wilderness dweller who has learned to accept life as it is and give the love he can in whatever form is possible. Meaning, purpose, God, and grand illusions have been left behind: even the fantasies of patriarchy have been demolished, and the dreams of nationalism, and even humanism have also been left behind.

In some ways Vonnegut’s great skill as a writer is to trick us into enjoying punching ourselves in the face. Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titans is what Leonard Cohen, when describing his own writing, called “a manual for living with defeat.” Threaded through it’s comical space adventure pretension is a series of linked messages about human life: you are not in control; grand narratives and purposes are just so much balderdash; no transcendent God guarantees love, destiny, justice or anything else for you; and you will be stripped of everything you value along the way except what is, perhaps, most essential: your living awareness and your ability to love.

The cumulative bomb Vonnegut drops with these morals of the story is to clear a space for something much simpler than what many humans involve themselves with from day to day. In place of grand missions, capacious appetites, and the pretensions of religion, race, nationality and class, Vonnegut proposes living humbly and contentedly and “loving whoever might be around to” with the awareness that at the end of the day one is simply a fool among fools- something which is no one’s fault.




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Matthew Gindin

Matthew Gindin

Trying to be both civic and civil. Freelancer available for hire.

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