The Existential Implications of “Unready to Wear”

Kurt Vonnegut

Now it is part of the Cartesian mode to think of consciousness as something peculiar to the head.  This is the organ originating consciousness.  It isn’t.  It’s an organ that inflects consciousness to a certain direction, a certain set of purposes, but there’s a whole consciousness here, in the body

Joseph Campbell from The Power of Myth (A PBS Documentary)

Sentience and consciousness are inseparable; thinking is a function of feeling.  The brain is not separate from the body; rather, the brain is part of the central nervous system, which runs throughout the body. In 1952 Kurt Vonnegut wrote a Science Fiction short story called “Unready to Wear” which pokes fun at the Cartesian notion of mind/body separation.

The unnamed narrator of “Unready to Wear” describes how people have become “amphibious” by liberating themselves from “parasite bodies” which “were a lot more trouble than they were worth.” The author notes that when an amphibian vacates the body, anger, greed, jealousy and vanity evaporate.

Although they are content to exist merely as souls, the amphibians maintain warehouses full of bodies which they reenter from time to time for reasons of nostalgia.  For example, the narrator’s wife Madge likes to occasionally visit her former house, so she

borrows a body once a month and dusts the place, though the only thing a house is good for now is keeping termites and mice from getting pneumonia.

As soon as an amphibious person enters body, however, “chemistry takes over” and the person become slave to his “glands”, rendering him

excitable or ready to fight or hungry or mad or affectionate, or—well, you never know what’s going to happen next.

Thus, reunited with a body, the amphibians are immediately overwhelmed by the body’s various appetites.  The narrator notes that he has never

met an amphibian yet who wasn’t easy to get along with, and cheerful and interesting –as long as he was outside a body. And I haven’t met one yet who didn’t turn a little sour when he got into one.

Our protagonist laments that

Nobody but a saint could be really sympathetic or intelligent for more than a few minutes at a time in a body–or happy, either, except in short spurts.

Unfortunately for humanity, our “bodies bring out the worst in us no matter how good our psyches are.” Of course, “Unready to Wear” is a silly story, but satire has its uses. Our narrator complains that “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, bones, and tubes?”  This question practically answer itself.  For human beings, the possibility of consciousness minus a physical body is an absurdity.  As the poet Theodore Roethke astutely explains, We think by feeling. And we have no alternative existential choice. We could never be happy or sad or angry or proud or anything else without the physical sensations that ignite thinking.* Whether we like it or not, human beings are animals.  However, we can take slight solace in the following observation from David Hume:

there is some benevolence, however small, infused into our bosom; some spark of friendship for human kind; some particle of dove kneaded into our frame, along with elements of the wolf and the serpent.

*I’m borrowing that term from Marc D. Hauser

by Richard W. Bray

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