Living in Omelas: Thoughts on the Separation of Immigrant Families

In an earlier post I described how Ursula K. Le Guin confronts her readers with a moral dilemma:  is it justifiable for a society to benefit from the suffering of a single “innocent”?

Le Guin prefaces her story by quoting from William James’s “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”:

Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier’s and Bellamy’s and Morris’s utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far‑off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?

Although Le Guin does not tell us how we should respond to her nameless, faceless child locked in a basement, the inclusion of this passage signals to the reader the response we should feel – it would be a “hideous” thing to enjoy “the happiness so offered” at the expense of “a certain lost soul”.

I have taught this story numerous times, and have tried to make my students understand that Le Guin is not telling some abstract parable.  As Le Guin writes, this is “[the] dilemma of the American conscience”.  I tell my students that we live in a nation that has embraced the premise that in order for there to be winners, there must be losers.  In my early years teaching “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” I would remind my students that some opponents of same sex marriage argued that legalizing same sex marriages would be the end of straight marriages.    In essence, straight people like me were being told that for our families to be valid, the families of gays and lesbians had to be invalid.  In subsequent classes we undertook the task of putting a name and a face to Le Guin’s child.  The child stood for the LGBTQ community, for people of color, for immigrants, for workers in sweat-shops in far-flung countries making our Nikes, our iPhones, our clothes.

I don’t know to what extent this experiment in making Omelas “ours” and claiming the child has impacted those students.  I like to think they left my class with the other passage that Le Guin quoted from William James running through their minds:

All higher, more penetrating ideals are revolutionary. They present themselves far less in the guise of effects of past experience than in that of probable causes of future experience, factors to which the environment and the lessons it has so far taught us must learn to bend.

Most of my students, I’m sure, walked away from the story without it changing them.  They still couldn’t see the child.

But here’s the thing, in the past few months the child in the basement has become real, over and over again.  The children of immigrants are torn from their parents and locked away.  The official justification for this is that their parents have committed “the crime” of coming to the United States without documentation, and, as “criminals” they do not have a right to be with their children.

The cruel injustice of this policy cannot be overstated.  The “crime” these parents familiescommitted was that of wanting a better life for themselves and their children.  The impulse that drove these families across the hostile desert was the same impulse that led my forbearers to set sail across the stormy Atlantic in a small ship called the Mayflower. Who among us, faced with the reality that the lives of our family were endangered living in the country of our birth, would not make the same choice as these families?

As for the punishment – while the parents suffer in ways I cannot imagine, the harm done to the children must be even more immense.  We have known for some time that removing children from their biologic parents has deep and enduring consequences.  The trauma we inflict on these children will plant seeds of despair, resentment, anxiety, and fear, and we, as a nation, will reap the harvest we have sown.

At the end of my last post, I wrote:

“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” ends by presenting the reader with the two options apparently available to the people of Omelas: either stay in Omelas and accept the suffering of the child as the price of happiness, or leave Omelas and venture out into the great unknown.  But here’s the thing – Le Guin has invited us to be co-creators with her.  We don’t need to settle for the dichotomy she provides.  We can make other choices.  In our Omelases we can break into the basement and free the child.  We can say that no society that trades the well-being of an innocent soul for its prosperity and happiness deserves to be prosperous and happy.  We can end “the Festival of Summer.”  And what will we replace it with?  How will we rebuild Omelas?  In any way we want.  Perhaps the Festival of Summer will become the Festival of the Children in which everyone celebrates that suffering is an unavoidable human experience, but that we share the burden of suffering and make choices so that a fragile happiness can be shared by all.

We cannot walk away; we cannot abandon our country to the forces of fear and intolerance. But we also cannot simply accept this crime against humanity.  We must fight for those families as if they were ours.  As William James tells us, “All higher, more penetrating ideals are revolutionary.”  The time has come for us to be idealistic and revolutionary.

Le Guin closes her preface by focusing on what William James is saying, “Ideals as ‘the probable causes of future Experience’—that is a subtle and an exhilarating remark!”  Indeed.

For more on what you can do, click here.

 

 

 

 

“It’s Not Over, Little Zel. It’s Only Just Begun”: Nnedi Okorafor, Tomi Adeyemi and the Birth of West African Fantasy Fiction

Over the past few years I’ve been given the freedom to offer a British literature survey course, which I’ve subtitled, “Fantasy, Faith and Philosophy”.  Although the course includes traditional canonical British texts, its primary focus has been the works of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Philip Pullman.  Observant students skimming over the syllabus will immediately pick up on what is missing from all of the readings – texts by women and people of color.  In the past I’ve argued, with some justification, that the pioneers of fantasy fiction in the 19th and 20th century were Christian white men, and that white men continued to dominate the field well into the 20th century, even as female authors, like Naomi Mitchison, Ursula K. Le Guin, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Madeline L’Engle, were breaking through the barriers with innovative and, frequently, subversive, fantasy fiction.  Still, the roles of males as creators, consumers and protagonists of fantasy fiction were so entrenched that Ursula  K. Le Guin struggled to bring female characters alive in her Earthsea series, and J. K. Rowling was advised by her publisher to use her initials on her books so as to not reveal that the Harry Potter series was penned by a woman.  Additionally, the privileged status of white male fantasists in the genre was (and, frequently, is) perpetuated by teachers like me, who have not made room in their classrooms for female voices.

 

As I began to contemplate the absence of female writers in my fantasy class, an absence made more conspicuous because I include female authors in ALL of my other classes, I realized that the absence of writers of color was equally problematic.  More disturbingly, while I could name many white female fantasists, I could not name ANY writers of color in the genre.

 

This past year has remedied that problem, both because I discovered Octavia E. Butler, who identified her novel, Kindred, as fantasy (although many critics feel more comfortable labeling it speculative fiction), and because the twenty-first century has seen a small but growing number of authors of color, particularly women, enter the arena of fantasy fiction.  As Rachel Martin observed to me the other day, we are now in the fortunate position where we could teach a class that consists entirely of fantasy fiction by female authors of color.

NnediOkorafor
Nnedi Okorafor
Tomi Adeyemi
Tomi Adeyemi

 

Two of these authors, Nnedi Okorafor and Tomi Adeyemi have already received much deserved recognition for their novels.  Okorafor’s Who Fears Death has been picked up for a television series by HBO, and plans for a movie based on Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone are already underway.  These two novels are refreshingly subversive because of both authors have created worlds that are thoroughly infused with West African culture and have created strong, black, female protagonists who experience and triumph over intense hardship and suffering.  Furthermore, both books are perhaps more deserving of serious discussion than more traditional fantasy novels because Okorafor and Adeyemi have used their world-building as an opportunity to explore real societal problems.  Because of their commitment to creating a discussion around social justice, these novels belong to the tradition of black social protest novels, like Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

 

Who Fears DeathOkorafor’s Who Fears Death opens a dialogue at the intersection of misogyny, tribalism, and environmental degradation.    Borrowing from the Sudanese civil war, Okorafor builds a world where rape is a weapon of war, where women are dehumanized, where the dark-skinned Oke have come to accept suffering at the hands of the lighter-skinned Nuru as an inevitable consequence of what the Great Book says, and where resources are scarce.  At root, though, while a number of reviewers have labelled this novel a dystopia, it is in fact, if not utopian, at least optimistic, in part because it gives voice to the marginalized and dispossessed.  Indeed, storytelling is central to the resolution of the novel.  In the first pages of the novel, the protagonist, Onyesonwu, tells an unidentified listener, “Tonight, you want to know how I came to be what I am.  You want to know how I got here… It’s a long story. But I’ll tell you…  I’ll tell you. You’re a fool if you believe what others say about me. I tell you my story to avert all those lies” (Okorafor 5-6).   Through her life, and by telling her truth, Onyesonwu sparks a rewriting of the Great Book in the magic script of her people, Nsibidi.  This theme of speaking for one’s self, of controlling one’s identity, physically, intellectually and spiritually, is central to the novel.

 

 

Children of Blood and BoneLike Who Fears Death, Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone takes on ethnic and racial conflicts.  Where Okorafor draws from the Sudan, Adeymi seems to derive her inspiration from the Rwandan genocide.  Prior to the events depicted in Children of Blood and Bone, King Saran orders a great Raid in which the dark-skinned, white-haired adult maji are killed.  King Saran has also found a way to prevent the remaining maji from contacting the gods, who provide their magic. Subsequently the maji are forced into ghettos or labor camps, or are forced to fight each other for the entertainment of the lighter skinned Orishans. The term maggot, which is frequently applied to the dis-empowered maji, echoes the use of the word cockroaches to describe the Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide.

 

Although Adeyemi clearly models her story on the Rwandan conflict, the impetus for the novel comes, as she makes clear in her “Author’s Note”, in part from “seeing stories of unarmed black men, women, and children being shot by the police” (526). As Adyemi goes on to explain, the book is meant to bring recognition to the injustices committed against America’s black communities and to inspire readers to work for change.

 

Just as Tolkien rooted Middle-earth in the languages and mythologies of northern Europe, so too, these authors have rooted their stories in the fertile soil of West Africa.  The name of Okorafor’s protagonist, Onyesonwu, is Igbu for “Who Fears Death”, and magical texts are written in Nsibidi script, a very real script from southeastern Nigeria.  Onyesonwu’s mother is an Oke – the name of the people being derived from a male name in Igbu that Chinua Achebe makes use of in Things Fall Apart.  Onyesonwu’s biologic father, a sorcerer who raped her mother, belongs to the light-skinned Nuru people – an Egyptian name.  Because Onyesonwu is a mix of these two ethnic groups, she belongs to an outcast group called the Ewu – a name derived from a Nigerian city.

 

In Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, Yoruba is the language used to invoke the gods who gift magic to the Diviners.  The gods are based on the orisha, or divine spirits of the Yoruba faith.  The magical power that runs through the protagonist, Zelie, and other magi, is called ashe – a term from the Yoruba faith that means life force. The connection between Africa and Adeyemi’s Orisha is confirmed by place names like Lagos, Warri, Gombe and Benin City.

Oyisha map
Adeyemi, Children of Blood and Bone

Although both Who Fears Death and Children of Blood and Bone are very well written and, as I’ve demonstrated, unique in their creation of African fantasy world on par with Narnia and Middle-earth, there are weaknesses with both novels.  Structurally both novels follow very traditional, one might say clichéd, quest narratives.  As Caitlyn Paxson noted in her NPR review of Children of the Bone:

If I had to find something to criticize, it would be this: I read an awful lot of fantasy, and I love stories and characters that subvert my expectations. Children of Blood and Bone is a fairly straightforward quest narrative most of the way through, and I didn’t encounter a lot of surprises.

While Nnendi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death is also a quest story, she is more adept at subverting expectations.  Of course, the difference between the two authors might have less to do with their abilities and more to do with their intended audiences.  Okorafor is writing for adults, and does not shy away from graphic rape scenes, or depictions of female genital mutilation. It’s entirely appropriate that George R. R. Martin has been signed on as producer for the television show based on her novel.  By contrast, Adyemi is writing for a Young Adult audience, what Rachel refers to as the Harry Potter crowd.

 

In spite of minor weaknesses, both novels are significant additions to the fantasy genre.  Okorafor and Adeyemi are, like Tolkien and Lewis, pioneers in the fantasy genre.  It is to be hoped that more authors of color will join them in tearing down the borders of fairyland.

Adeyemi, Tomi.  Children of Blood and Bone.  Henry Holt and Company, 2018.

Okorafor, Nnedi.  Who Fears Death.  DAW books, 2010.

Re-Thinking Re-readings of “The Awakening”

Last class we discussed at length Edna Pontellier’s final act in The Awakening.  In particular the debate revolved around what options, if any, Edna had outside of suicide.  Was her suicide courageous or cowardly?  Could she have remained loyal to her sense of her awakening self and still be part of society?  Some of us argued that there were historical precedents of women, George Eliot, for example, violating social conventions and norms while living full lives.  Others of us suggested that, given Leonce Pontellier’s “ownership” of Edna, of their children and of all her property, freedom, outside of the freedom of death, was simply not an option.  I argued that ultimately Kate Chopin forecloses the notion of other options by not providing (much) evidence for them in the novel.  Edna chooses the only real option that Kate Chopin gives her.

While an author relinquishes control over the novel as soon as it is published, the reader’s interpretation of the motives and actions of a character are circumscribed by the words on the page.  A reader may be tempted to envision changes for a favorite story, and that’s the reader’s prerogative – and one of the joys of reading – but at that point the reader is creating fan-fiction.  The limitations created by the word on the page apply equally, it should be noted, to authors and readers.  J. K. Rowling may tell fans that Dumbledore is gay, but in the novels he is neither gay nor straight – he’s asexual.  Rowling (quite reasonably) decided to ignore the sexuality of all of her professors at Hogwarts.  Readers, and perhaps Rowling herself, forget that these characters do not magically exist outside the margins of the page.

That said, there is nothing wrong with fan-fiction, and a reader’s creative collaboration with the author’s world can enrich the reader’s appreciation for the text.  So permit me to invite you to speculate about how Edna’s death would be read by the surviving characters.  Like readers encountering a text for the first time, Leonce, Robert, Mademoiselle Reisz and Madame Ratignolle encounter Edna’s body (or, at very least, the fact of her death) for the first time, and must interpret it.   Several interpretations offer themselves:

  • Leonce, Robert and the other men who took satisfaction in “teaching” Edna to swim may feel that she did not learn well enough. In this reading, she goes for an innocent swim, and over-confident in her newly acquired skills, she goes too far, and without the “protective” male gaze, succumbs to the waves.
  • Leonce may see Edna’s death as a validation of his visit to see Doctor Mandalet. He might reason that her sexual proclivities AND her suicide are symptoms of her “mental illness”.
  • Robert, by contrast, might interpret Edna’s suicide as either the despairing act of a jilted woman or an attempt at exacting revenge on him. He might reasonably conclude that had he not broken off their relationship, Edna would still be alive.  Edna’s death thus becomes, not about her, but about him.
  • Mademoiselle Reisz might see Edna’s suicide as a sign of weakness. After all, she had warned Edna earlier, “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.” The “sad spectacle” of Edna’s drowning means that she was a “weakling,” unlike Mademoiselle Reisz.
  • By contrast, Madame Ratignolle, might view Edna’s suicide as a sign of strength.  “Think of the children, Edna. Oh think of the children! Remember them!” she told Edna.  Through her death, Edna preserves the reputation of her family for her children.

None of these explanations exist within the story itself.  After all, as far as the reader is concerned, once Edna dies, the other characters die, too.  We can envision what we like for the other characters – Madame Ratignolle might murder her children and husband and run-off with Mademoiselle Reisz; in a fit of guilt Leonce might commit suicide; Robert might renounce women and go on to become a priest.  All of these futures, and infinite others, are possibilities – but not possibilities in the pages of The Awakening.

Link to an amazing post on “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”

The late Le Guin’s “The  Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” has been a reliable staple in every Introduction to Literature class I’ve taught.  This short story manages, within a few pages, to illustrate the imaginative and moral power of a well-crafted work of fiction.  By moving between first-, second- and third-person narrator, Le Guin invites her readers to participate in the construction of Omelas.

Because we, in true reader-response fashion, contribute to the creation of “joyous” Omelas, we also find ourselves complicit in what follows – a miserable child is locked away, and the joy of the city, so we are told, is dependent on the child’s misery.  The child is unnamed and its sex is never revealed.  I imagine Le Guin writing, “You want the child to have a name?  By all means, name it.  Is the child a boy or a girl?  It’s as you wish.”  As a master writer, Le Guin writes none of this.  She doesn’t need to; we’re already there, projecting on to the blank face of the child the image of children we know.

The story ends by presenting the reader with the two options apparently available to the people of Omelas: either stay in Omelas and accept the suffering of the child as the price of happiness, or leave Omelas and venture out into the great unknown.  But here’s the thing – Le Guin has invited us to be co-creators with her.  We don’t need to settle for the dichotomy she provides.  We can make other choices.  In our Omelases we can break into the basement and free the child.  We can say that no society that trades the well-being of an innocent person for its prosperity and happiness deserves to be prosperous and happy.  We can end the Festival of Summer.  And what will we replace it with?  How will we rebuild Omelas?  In any way we want.  Perhaps the Festival of Summer will become the Festival of the Children in which everyone celebrates that suffering is an unavoidable human experience, but that we share the burden of suffering and make choices so that a fragile happiness can be shared by all.

And perhaps the people who walked away from Omelas will return again.

Anyhow, by all of this I merely meant to connect you to this post by Gabrielle Bellot.

A Rose by Any Other Name

This is Rachel – I still haven’t figured out how to post under my own name…that’s rather poignant within this topic. This is the second blog that I have started about The Dispossessed; however, the other post ended up being too much information for “just a blog” and will end up being a scholarly article on “Language, Masculine Discourse, and Sexual Assault in Le Guin’s Feminist Critique of Utopia.” This blog post is NOT that. But it does tie in with that overall theme. So… on to names.

Ursula K. Le Guin died on Monday night. Coincidentally, we are reading and discussing The Dispossessed this week. I also always teach two of Le Guin’s short stories in my ENG111 each semester (and sometimes in my Women’s Lit and American Lit courses). I love the writings of Ursula K. Le Guin, and so do many of my friends. I received not one, not two, but four separate text messages from other lovers of Le Guin grieving SF’s and feminist literature’s loss. One of those texts simply said, “Ursula.” That name alone was all that the text needed to say. I knew exactly who it meant, I knew what it was about that name that my friend was saying, and I felt the same emotions that my friend felt, simply by reading the name “Ursula.”

This set me thinking about names and the meaning/importance of names and the act of naming (or unnaming). In my literature classes, I regularly tell students that the names of characters are important, that authors intentionally choose the names of people and places (as well as titles, but we’ll talk about that in class tomorrow). In the article, “Personal Names and Identity in Literary Context,” Benedicta Windt-Val notes the “close connection between a person’s given name and their feelings of identity and self. …[P]ersonal names and place names are some of the most important tools of the author in the creation of credible characters placed in a literary universe that gives the impression of being authentic.” This highlights the significance between a name and an identity, as well as a name and credibility and being authentic. In many of Le Guin’s writings we see the connection between name and identity, including The Dispossessed, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” and “She Unnames Them.” However, Le Guin isn’t simply naming or giving her characters names to signify their credibility or authenticity; rather she is leaving them nameless, “unnaming” them, or giving them computer generated, generic names, as a means to deconstruct and demonstrate the power in a name, challenging the naming power, challenging those who traditionally name.

Let’s look at The Dispossessed as our first example: the women and men of Anarres have non-gender specific names, given out by a computer, so that no two names are the same. Each name is a random assemblage of letters to create something uniquely unlike anyone else. This process is based on the teachings of Odo. In Le Guin’s precursor short story “The Day Before the Revolution” (1974), Odo says that the anarchist movement was “not strong on names. They had no flag. Slogans came and went as the need did. …But when it came to names they were indifferent, accepting and ignoring whatever they got called, afraid of being pinned down or penned in” (28). Out of this, the unimportance of names arises on Annares.

A name in many cultures, including many names in Latin based languages, implies gender, one aspect of identity. In the arena of gender, Annares’ computer generated names stand tall. On Urras, when discussing gender differences on Annares, the Urrasi physicists complain and/or comment on how Annaresti names are useless for telling gender, which they find troubling and a bit offensive: “‘Gvarab was a woman?’ Pae said in genuine surprise and laughed. Oiie looked unconvinced and offended, “Can’t tell from your names, of course,” he said coldly” (74). The idea of gender equality escapes the Urrasi people and the binary genders of men and women not only have distinctive, identifying names, but entirely separate spheres. The names of Annarestis deny Urrasis from easily dismissing a woman based upon her gender, as defined by her name. In this way, to this end of eliminating gender differences in names, the computer naming process on Urres works well. However, one’s name on Urres still ties closely to individual identity.

The computer generated name isn’t a name that carries with it tones or meaning from previous owners or of family heritage. The name doesn’t give the child something to live up to. For most on Annares, this naming process and their unique name appears freeing (at least that’s how Shevek seems to view it). However, we are shown that the name still ties deeply to the core of identity, as we see in the one instance, when Shevek meets someone with a too similar name. This other man insists on beating up Shevek (who tries to defend himself, but he’s still a scrawny boy). [Side bar: is it odd or coincidental that both of these characters with similar names both happen to be men? It strikes me as an odd coincidence and I believe Le Guin to be too crafty for this to merely be coincidence.] This instance demonstrates that there is ownership over the name and that ownership is worth fighting for. If their names were exactly alike, we could envision a society plagued with these sort of name squabbles. But even in this solitary instance, rather than unite people because they don’t have family ownership over the name or because the power isn’t in the hands of someone naming,  the name acts as an individualizing tool. Each name carries with it the burden of being distinctly unique and is easily threatened when it is reveled to not be so unique after all. This name, albeit randomly assigned, still carries with it the weight of identity, and here that is the identity of the individual (not the collective) and the needs of the individual seem to take precedent in this example. Le Guin enforces the notion of the “close connection between a person’s given name and their feelings of identity and self.” Even within a system where a computer randomly assigns a name, the name provides a person with a strong sense of identity.

Naming also plays a key role in Le Guin’s short story “She Unnames Them.” The title tells us as much. In this short story (read it here), an unnamed narrator goes around and unnames animals, or rather she convinces them to give their names back. “Most of them accepted namelessness with the perfect indifferences with which they had so long accepted and ignored their names.” Doesn’t this sound exactly like the words of Odo when discussing the anarchists? The unnamed narrator acknowledges that there is power in naming and in unnaming: “it was somewhat more powerful than I had anticipated.” However, she doesn’t want the power, but rather is handing the power back to the animals to decide on the names they do or do not want. She then does the same thing with her name; she gives it back. She “went to Adam, and said, “You and your father lent me this [name] – gave it to me actually. It’s been really useful, but it doesn’t exactly seem to fit me very well lately. But thanks very much! It’s really been very useful.” With the reference to Adam, the animals, the father, and a later comment about the garden, as a reader we know who the narrator is and our urge is to name her. Le Guin knows this. If I ask my students who have just read this, “who is the narrator?” they immediately tell me that it is Eve. But she isn’t. That was the name that Adam and God the father gave her. They defined her, pinned her down, and penned her in with naming her what they wanted. The narrator gives that name back; she helps the animals to give their names back. She frees herself and helps the animals free themselves as well. Her identity and the identity of the animals now resides in their own hands. They define themselves, they name themselves, they create themselves, and they now control and tell their own story. In Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (1989), Le Guin notes “[I]n its everyday uses in the service of justice and clarity, what I call the father tongue is immensely noble and indispensably useful. When it claims a privileged relationship to reality, it becomes dangerous and potentially destructive….The father tongue is spoken from above. It goes one way. No answer is expected, or heard” (Dancing 14849). For Le Guin, this “language of power” privileges particular ways of theorizing and understanding the world. It is gender-biased at its core. This father tongue, THE Father’s tongue named everything and everyone in the world. It not only “claims a privileged relationship to reality,” it IS reality. All of reality. This “father-tongue” is what the unnamed narrator in “She Unnames Them” is rejecting. It isn’t a forceful rejection, but a giving the gift back, a careful, deliberate unnaming, reclaiming of her self, of her identity.

Lastly, to note the importance of names in Le Guin’s work, I direct us to “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (read here). In this short story, our again unnamed narrator introduces us to Omelas. There isn’t a single singular name in the entire story. In this story, only “the people of Omelas” exist, with only one exception: the child who is not considered part of the people. “In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl.” This child is kept away from the people. This child MUST be kept separate from the people. No one can talk to the child. “The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.” All of their happiness depends upon the child being kept apart and dehumanized and all the people of Omelas know this: “They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” The unnamed, ungendered child is no longer human; even the pronoun “it” is used in reference. The child is without a name because it is without an identity, stripped of clothes, dignity, love, and name. The removal of the name here is used as a weapon against the child to dehumanize it, which is what needs to happen for the society to exist. The people of Omelas are also unnamed in the story though. This unnaming allows them to evade individual responsibility for the abominable misery of the child. As a whole, collective people, no one person holds any other one person responsible. No one is to blame. No name, no blame. The close link between a name and feelings of identity applies when all the people identify as one collective Omelas consciousness.

In many other of Le Guin’s works she plays with the notion of names and the naming process. She clearly links naming with power and names with identity. Logan Pearsall Smith said, “Our names are labels, plainly printed on the bottled essence of our past behavior.” Le Guin shows names as labels to past, present, and future behavior. Her name conveys an essence of brilliance from her past behaviors and her life of writing. May we always remember her name and the power therein.

Quick Thoughts on Zadie Smith’s On Beauty

Rachel and I elected to teach Howards End and On Beauty for self-evident reasons:  both

Zadie Smith
©
Dominique Nabokov (Source)

novels are exquisitely crafted in terms of plot, imagery, symbolism and character development, and, consequently, both novels are eminently readable and teachable.  Readers encounter in these novels sympathetic portraitures of humans struggling and often failing, in the words of Forster, to “only connect”.  The fact that all of us desire at times to connect and fail, like the characters, to do so, lends a universality to the themes of the novels that transcends the limitations of time and place (Edwardian England, the United States during the first decade of the 21st century).   Both novels move along a stylistic fault line where comedy and satire (Forster’s carefully crafted representation of middle class arrogance and folly, Smith’s accurate and barbed depictions of the inflated egos and meaningless chatter of academics and administrators) pushes against tragedy (the senseless death of Leonard Bast, the death of Carl Thomas’s poetic and scholastic aspirations) causing tremors and upheaval.

Zadie Smith acknowledges her indebtedness to E. M. Forster, and she pays homage to him by repurposing much of the structure of Howards End in On Beauty.  Her novel, however, is not a pastiche, or simple retreading of the path worn by E. M. Forster’s writing.  Although a reader familiar with Howards End will immediately recognize Smith’s indebtedness, On Beauty stands on its own.  One needn’t read Howards End (presumably many of Smith’s readers had not) to appreciate the merits of On Beauty.

Smith, to an even greater extent perhaps than Forster, dips into a vast reservoir of history, culture and academic theory.  Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps exemplify liberal and conservative positions in how they approach art, textuality, religion and even the question of affirmative action.  Karen Armstrong, a character who only appears in one brief section, provides the reader with a passionate, living examination of the Rembrandt paintings that is overlooked in Howard’s arid and pedantic theorizing.  In Smith’s writing, the paintings of Rembrandt and Haitian artists are vividly realized in ways that seem alien to her characters who make a living teaching about them.  There is also the liminality of the various characters – Howard, a white, British expatriate from a lower-class background who has married Kiki, a black American, and now works at Wellington College; Monty, a knighted, black, Caribbean-British intellectual who starts the novel in London, but moves with his family to Boston.  And then, of course, there are the young characters who struggle to define their identities – Levi, who embraces the cause of Haitians, even though he has really only learned about Haiti through a book, Carl, who shifts between hip-hop and classical music, the gritty streets of Boston and the refinement of Wellington, and Victoria, who moves from sexual relationship to sexual relationship in search of somebody who “sees” her as a person.  In all of this Smith moves seamlessly back and forth between geographic and ideological positions: London and Boston, Foucault and TuPac all find places in her world.

One of the cultural borrowings I have not addressed is Zadie Smith’s use of Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just.  I’ve included a link to it here for anyone who might want to skim it.

The Life and Times of E. M. Forster

Michael D. Amey

“My defence at any Last Judgement would be ‘I was trying to connect up and use all the fragments I was born with.’” E. M. Forster

“Tolerance is a very dull virtue. It is boring. Unlike love, it has always had a bad press. It is negative. It merely means putting up with people, being able to stand things.” E. M. Forster

1 January 1879 – Born to Alicia (aka Lilly) Clara Whichelo and Edward (aka Eddie) Morgan Llewellyn Forster.  Lilly’s father was an impoverished drawing master who died when Lilly was twelve.   Eddie’s father was a clergyman, and was connected to the Clapham sect – a strict, evangelical social reform group.  Their values had an ongoing influence on Forster, and his writing frequently reflects those values.  Eddie’s family had, in contrast to Lilly’s family, a significant amount of money, which would allow them to support Forster.  Eddie, Forster’s father, was an architect.

Lily and Forster
Forster, age 3, with his mother, Lily Source

30 October 1880 – Eddie Forster dies.  The death of Eddie means that Lily, and Forster’s aunts, will play a major role in raising Forster.  Forster will live with his mother most of the time until her death in 1945. Forster would later write to Bob Buckingham, “Although my mother has been intermittently tiresome for the last 30 years, cramped and warped my genius, hindered my career, blocked and buggered up my house, and boycotted my beloved, I have to admit she has provided a sort of rich subsoil where I have been able to rest and grow. That, rather than sex or wifiness, seems to be women’s special gift to men.”

1883 – 1893 – Forster and his mother live in a house in Hertfordshire that becomes the model for Howards End.

Outside_Rooks_Nest_1
E. M. Forster, as a child, at his home in Herfordshire. Source

 

1895 – Oscar Wilde is imprisoned for “sodomy and gross indecency”.

1897-1901 Forster enrolls at King’s College Cambridge and becomes involved with a discussion group, “the Apostles” where he meets people who will become part of the Bloomsbury Group in the early 20th century.

Bloomsbury
Members of the Bloomsbury Group.  Source

1901-1902 Forster travels through Greece and Italy with his mother.  Their stay in a pension in Italy provided inspiration for the setting of A Room with a View.

1903 Forster starts writing A Room with a View.

1905 Where Angels Fear to Tread.  Lionel Trilling, “Forster’s first novel appeared in 1905. The author was 26, not a remarkable age at which to have written a first novel unless the novel be, as Forster’s was, a whole and mature work dominated by a fresh and commanding intelligence.”

1906  Forster meets and falls in love with Syed Ross Masood, a young Indian man.

Syed
Syed Ross Masood and E. M. Forster.  Source

Masood “woke me up out of my suburban and academic life, showed me new horizons and a new civilization and helped me towards the understanding of a continent… There never was anyone like him and there never will be anyone like him” (Moffat 91).

 

1907 The Longest Journey.

1908 A Room with a View.

1909 “The Machine Stops”

1910 Howard’s End.

1912-1913 Forster visits India.

1913 Forster begins Maurice – a celebration of same-sex love.  He also starts writing A Passage to India.

28 July 1914 The Great War (World War I) begins.

1915 – 1919 Forster is a conscientious objector, who served out the First World War as a Red Cross volunteer in Egypt.

1921 Forster returns to India for a visit.

1924 A Passage to India.  This is Forster’s last novel.  He continues to write short stories, essays and non-fiction.

1927 Forster is elected a fellow at King’s College, Cambridge.  He delivers a series of lectures on novels that are later collected into Aspects of the Novel.

1930 Forster meets police officer Bob Buckingham.  Forster falls in love with Bob, and the two have a relationship that includes Bob’s wife, May, until Forster’s death.  Forster

Forster and Buckingham
E. M. Forster and Bob Buckingham, circa 1934.  Source

wrote, in response to Bob’s praise of Bob’s sexual satisfaction with May,

“I felt a bit sad at some of the things you said yesterday, not that you meant to make me sad, but you made me think of my limitations whereas generally you make me forget them.  I believe that you are right—that particular experiences which I can’t ever have might make the two people who share it feel they are in touch with the universe through each other.  What a pity all (normal) people don’t get it” (qtd. in Moffat 239).

1930s – 1940s Forster is a broadcaster for BBC

1 September 1939  World War II begins.

1943 Lionel Trilling’s E. M. Forster is published.  This along with the reprints of Forster’s novels leads to a “Forster revival”.

1945 Forster revisits India.  Lily, Forster’s mother, dies.

28 June 1969 The Stonewall Riots occur in New York City.

7 June 1970 Forster dies.

1971 Maurice is published.

Work Cited

Moffat, Wendy.  A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.

 

 

 

 

More resources for reading “The World’s Wife”

I  thought that those of you reading Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife for this semester’s free class might like to hear from her about why she wrote these poems.  In an interview you can read here, she explains:

What I wanted to do in the book was to look at all the stories—fairy tales, myths, stories from history, film and pop music or whatever, stories of heroes which had informed me as a writer, part of my cultural ancestry.  So I wanted to celebrate them, in a way, but also find a truth which hadn’t been amplified previously.  And the way I wanted to do that was to find a female perspective on the character, and I did that by finding a personal connection with the fairy tale, myth, piece of cinema, etc., so that although I’m wearing the mask of Queen Herod or Mrs Beast I’m not lost in my own place, my own life.  It might be that it is autobiographical in that it might be true to my imaginative life or my emotional life but not necessarily true to the actual details of my life.  Once I’d done that I typed out the poems in a sort of chronological movement.  So we start with “Little Red Cap” which is about a young girl becoming a poet and end with “Demeter” which is about a woman becoming a mother.  So that it follows the arc of my own life in some ways.

 

Cartography of The Lesbian Body: Erotic Discourse in Minnie Bruce Pratt’s Poetry

 

“Este es el viaje de la sangre mía:

apenas viaje, espuma de palabras.”[1]

(Apenas Viaje (1))

 

                                   ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

                                   ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean different things.’

                                   ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

Through the Looking-Glass (193))

 

As Humpty Dumpty pontificates, the power of language is based not in the possibilities of language to signify things, but in the ability of language to create a system of representation that is not directly linked to the objects represented.  Language is a system that in fact, needs no objects at all.  Language controls and determines the horizon of experiences of anyone using it.  There is nowhere to go, no place outside language.  Therefore, language establishes the norm. Language dictates normality, and consequently, morality, by restricting the areas where definitions can be acquired or transmuted.[2]   As noted by Michel Foucault in Les Mots et Les Choses, the linguistic path toward restriction of meaning is of a dialectical nature.  A pattern of signification is established by means of opposition: good versus bad, moral versus immoral, normal versus abnormal, heterosexual versus homosexual.

Given these dialectical pairs, it is logical to infer that a homosexual discourse of the erotic is established against a heterosexual one and as structurally pertaining to a dialectical system of representation.[3]  The problem is that placing the homosexual erotic discourse — specifically in this case, the lesbian erotic discourse — as oppositional, implies a hierarchical system of distribution of legitimacy where homosexuality takes a subservient role, functioning as a response to a previous (and therefore more legitimate within its own tradition) heterosexual discourse.  It is often argued that this dialectical system serves the political purposes of both sides of the argument: the heterosexual side defining itself as original; and the homosexual one placing itself as the antithesis for the production of a synthesis where previous discourses (i.e. heterosexual ones) will be eliminated.[4]

In examining the poetic works of Minnie Bruce Pratt,[5] a different reading of the erotic discourse can be established.  It is no longer merely dialectical.  Pratt’s works establish her discourse beyond/outside the limits of heterosexuality, where language acts not as a divider but as a place where it is permissable to talk within the contradiction.[6]  This reading of her work is possible not as an act of will on the part of the reader but because Minnie Bruce Pratt opens the door to it: “…when I write and speak of my life as a lesbian, my poems have also been seen as outside the bounds of poetry.” (Rebellion (228)).

This makes Pratt’s political/poetic project quite different.  The spaces she claims as her own are not to be juxtaposed to heterosexual boundaries, but perceived within their own integrity.[7]  If anything, Pratt acknowledges that the possibility for the existence of her writing has a material base shaped by a lesbian community that opens a space of difference where she can express herself:

The only reason that I can now choose to piece together my… way of making a living is because many women… have made places within the economic system where I can do my work and be paid for it…. I do not have to leave the land of myself, my lesbian self, my woman self, in order to do my work. (182)

“When I began living as a lesbian, I had no place in that world of legislators and poets except as a criminal. I had to create a new reality… a vision and a dream of a place without domination, without injustice authorized by law. I can say because of that dream I have become a poet… one who offers possibility, threatening to some, desired by others, but possibility.” (229)

Her poetry can thus, be read as a dialogue between Pratt and her community, particularly because the distance between the persona in the poems and Minnie Bruce Pratt is almost non-existent. She crosses the line when commenting in her essays about her own writing, there are constant references to her own sons, her lovers, her history.  She also crosses the line when in the acknowledgements of her books she thanks “the many women who talked to me after poetry readings, for their conversation with me about this work” (We Say We Love Each Other (v)). Her poems can be read as autobiography where the self expands to express other selves, as a form of retribution, and as a form of continuation and recognition: “Unless I write explicitly of how I am a lesbian, I will be denied my identity, my reality.” (Rebellion (134))

It is because of this that Pratt does not establishes her erotic vocabulary from a literary vacuum, but from a mark of reference of those who have been there before her, and those who are there with her, both as fellow writers and audience: “And that is how I learned to be a lesbian poet: other lesbians taught me.” (132)  Her poetic language is an individual creation but it is also immersed in the language of the community for which it was created.  That is why it is not possible within Pratt’s poetical/political project to resignify heterosexual erotic language.  Such a movement would automatically establish her poetry within the boundaries of dialectics. Lesbian sexuality would be, under those circumstances, read as an imitation of heterosexual sexuality.  The movements, the gazes looking at the lesbian bodies would became, by means of dialectical functioning, a distorted reflection of heterosexuality.  In that reflection, a double motion would take place, one that would portray heterosexuality as the norm, and lesbian sexuality as the aberration. The difference would not be a signifier of otherness, rather, a mark of failure.

I can see the desire

The first strategy Pratt uses to create her erotic vocabulary is to go back to a place where –as Michel Foucault indicates in The Birth of The Clinic— the distinction between the objects being named and the words used to name those objects is nonexistent.  A place where there is no distinction between the act of seeing and the act of saying, and therefore a place where new layers of meaning can be added or mutated, and where the objects themselves can be transformed.  This area is created by fragmentation, spacing, and superimposition of meaning over the same word.

Both in We Say We Love Each Other, and Crime Against Nature texts are spaced and fragmented. Empty spaces surface between words or the words themselves stretch beyond a single line of verse.

like a dragon-

fly skims the pond, darns the water…

(We Say We Love Each Other (46))

 

Tonight it is raining ice, no thunder, no light-

ning, just the cold rain icing in the leaves. (65)

 

A grey day, drenched, humid, the sun-

flowers bowed with rain.  I walk aimless

to think about this poem. Clear water runs…

(Crime Against Nature (29))

These openings in the text fulfill a double function: they serve as a reference to Sappho, a recurrent gesture in the writing by lesbians which allows the poem to be recognized within a tradition –albeit fragmented and almost lost– and they point to the silence and the violence the text[8] has to suffer in order to exist.[9]  The meanings of the words are multiplied by their breaking.  The dragon escapes the dragonfly, the light escapes the lightning, and the sun the sunflowers.  All the escapees have a characteristic in common: they are larger than the linguistic prison that contained them.  They grow when they are free, when they are released.  It is a powerful metamorphosis that mutatis mutandis expands from dragonfly to dragon, from a tiny insect to a mythical creature; not just a bolt of lightning, but all the light; not just a flower following the motions of the sun, but the sun itself.

The title of her second book of poetry announces that her writing is a “crime against nature.”  By a heterosexual definition, the representation of lesbian desire is in itself an act of violence.  The violence consists not only in the public announcement that the text, the persona of the poems, and the writer herself are lesbians, but also that simultaneously, text, persona and writer are mothers, sisters, and daughters.  Defining herself as a lesbian is regarded as breaking the code of silence, but defining herself as a lesbian mother is breaking the order of the discourse.  A lesbian mother alters the social texture because it juxtaposes meanings that were held as incompatible.  A lesbian mother resignifies the notions ascribed to women.  Everything that a woman does is, by a sleight of hands, turned into something else.[10]  The hands that rocked the cradle, that caressed the sons, that fought the ex-husband, that closed into a fist, are the hands that now make love to another woman “my fingers sunk in you/ up to the knuckles and palm…” (We Say We Love Each Other (67)).  And those same hands are repeated in one of the sons:

He has my hands, wide palm, long fingers.

He has my big hands, which are my mother’s.

(Crime Against Nature (107))

What does this mean?  Does it mean that the son carries, somehow, the lesbian self of the mother?  There is an urge in the moralism of heterosexuality to restore the imbalance. This moralism has no problem accepting the mother as the author who dedicates the book to Ransom and Ben, but it is troubled by the nature of those poems.  It has no problem –almost– accepting the lesbian as the author who writes erotic lesbian poems, but it is troubled by the offering of those poems  to her sons.  The disruption is not present in any of the terms of the equation.  The equation itself is disruptive.  A mother? yes; a lesbian? yes; but not the two together in the same person.  In Crime Against Nature mothers and lesbians are one and the same woman; there is no sign to mark a distinction between them.  The disruption has been established.  Furthermore, this disruption is prolonged in the reading of the erotic, because now one of the favored tropes of lesbian sexuality is superimposed on the tropes of maternal affection.  If the lesbian/mother has the power to give her hands to her son, it follows that she has also the power to give birth to her lover, “flat on my back, thighs open, against the board” (We Say We Love Each Other (67)).  Now that differences have been erased, where is the instance distinguishing childbirth from love-making?  This question does not remain at the level of the text.  It moves into the realm of the iconic and the photographic representation that comes with the poems.  After all, the (apparently) naked Minnie Bruce Pratt on the cover of We Say We Love Each Other is the same Minnie Bruce Pratt who smiles to us, sitting between her sons, Ben and Ransom, from the back cover of Crime Against Nature.  Even more, the woman who took the pictures, Joan E. Biren, was Pratt’s lover at the time. Not only does Pratt present herself as the writer of the poems, but also as a mother and the object of desire of another woman.  “In your photographs… I can see the desire.” (We Say We Love Each Other (87)).  Because we look at the photographs Pratt’s lover took, we see through Joan E. Biren’s gaze, her lesbian gaze.  Does that make lesbians out of us?  How are we supposed to react if we are not part of her community of readers?  The mechanism of inclusion is not a given, as it would be in a heterosexual text, which always presumes the heterosexuality of the reader.  That is yet another disruption that the juxtaposition of words forces upon the reader.  The gaze of the lover and the gaze of the reader are, by action of the photographs, simultaneous.  Minnie Bruce Pratt was smiling at the camera, at the woman behind the camera, but now, she is smiling back at us.

Gen.2,20./ The one who tells the tale, gets to name the monster

By the end of the nineteenth century, medical science in Europe –with particular emphasis in Germany– had already started to clinically name the homosexual as the deviant and the pervert.[11]  This definition was (still is) widely supported by the religious and social apparatus, because it gave a physical body to the notion of evil.[12]  The lesbian becomes a monster because her instincts are loose.  No longer restrained by reproduction, the sexuality of the lesbian is explicitly an act of pleasure and desire, without other purpose than its own expression.  The homosexual does not re/produce in herself the surrounding ideology because she does not re/produce herself biologically when making love to another woman.[13]  What makes a monster and a pervert out of a lesbian is specifically this ability to redirect her sexual desire without hiding its nature.

The action of naming is more than simply ascribing a sound to an object, and it goes beyond the Saussurean notions of signifier and signified.  A name establishes a place within the universe, and reinforces the hierarchical boundaries of that universe by subordination.  The judeo-christian tradition has always been very clear about this.  Adam, the first man, is master of all living creatures because he gives them a name.  It is this ability that makes him human.  Given the fact that it is language that fixes the limits of perception establishing the boundaries within which each individual will be able to recognize her own identity, it becomes necessary for the lesbian author to take over those names given to the monster and the pervert and invert their meaning.[14]  And this is precisely what Minnie Bruce Pratt does when she resorts to both the obscene/monstrous and the medical/legal vocabularies to articulate lesbian desire and to place it into a different geography of the erotic language.

The figure of the lesbian as a monster is a recurrent one throughout Pratt’s poetry.  Lesbians are “monsters,” “beasts”  with “tentacles” and “delicate knifeblade tongues.”  They are “Godzilla Satans” with “basilisk eyes, scorching phosphorescent skin.”  The linguistic space of the word woman is already completely taken.  The Webster’s Third New International Dictionary lists under woman: “one possessing in high degree the qualities considered distinctive of womanhood (as gentleness, affection, and domesticity or on the other hand fickleness, superficiality, and folly)[15]” (2629).  Out of necessity, the lesbian discourse of desire takes over the monster.  Because of its mythological nature, the figure of the monster is blurred, and lacks definition.  It is within those holes in the signifying structure of the word monster that new meanings can be added to the term.  The monster becomes the lesbian, but the lesbian is not a monstrous being.  In this open area, Pratt is able to signify, describe and regulate, the behaviors of the monster/woman/lesbian. These monsters are now loving ones.  They take great care of each other, they are tender and loving.  They no longer terrorize –they never did– but rather “explain/ the future by scrawling lines of exquisite pleasure/ on the walls of my vagina.” (We Say We Love Each Other (77)).  Pleasure and knowledge are intertwined and give power to those who are, as if by nature, rejected by the social morality.  It is interesting that monsters, witches, and giants are part of the cosmology of fairy tales, and that according to Bruno Betelheim in The Uses of Enchantment, these figures work, many times, as devices by which the children listening to the story can acquire some of the characteristics of the adults without losing their own.  The same movement is performed by Pratt, who as a lesbian writer reclaims her woman self through the monstrous.

But lesbians are not only defined as monsters, they are also defined as obscene and vulgar: queer, dyke, butch, inhuman, crooked, slut.  And this is still another area that lesbian authors have to claim in order to define themselves.  The tactic is similar to that applied to the monstrous.  It consists in an affirmation and validation of the insulting term in order to claim it as property to be altered and changed.

You some kind of dyke?

Sweating, damned if I’d give them the last say,

hissing into the mouth of the nearest face, Yesss,…

…[my] mouth like a conjuring trick, a black hole

that swallows their story and turns it inside out.

(Crime Against Nature (112))

 

I’ve never gotten used to being their evil,…

No explanation except:    the one who tells the tale

gets to name the monster. In my version, I walk

to where I want to live. (115)

The evil one, the monster, the sweating dyke who hisses back are all the same figure: a woman reclaiming her place.  The story needs to be rewritten in a way that makes possible the existence of the woman/lesbian/mother; in a way that creates a location to live in.[16]

In Pratt’s poetry, the monstrous and the indecent are contested in the same movement, not because there is a certain didacticism on the side of the author, a need to simplify in order to make the information more accessible, but because the discourse of aggression erases the limits between Godzilla and the queer.

…You some kind of dyke?” (112) where “some kind” points precisely at that space of the undefined, which is also a space of recognition.  Establishing the unknowability of the other –in this case, a lesbian– opens up the possibility that such an other could be someone alike.  And that is what makes this appropriation so disruptive to the social order.  It turns things inside out, because it enables the perverts to become human beings without having to define their selves as the opposite dialectical end of the equation where heterosexuality establishes both intention and meaning.  It turns things inside out, because now the monster gives herself a name she likes, and the one who told the tale, has lost his voice.  The monster does not need him any more.  If she now chooses to stay where she is, it is out of her own will, it is because she does not reject the other because of his difference.  Monsters, as redefined, are loving creatures.  The one who told the tale, has become himself, truly heinous.  The hatred that the monsters/lesbians would not take, is of a heterosexual nature.

Obviously, what applies to the lesbian applies to her body, which becomes fragmented, a “disreputable cunt,” a “filthy vulva.” But what has been aimed towards lesbians as a means of aggression becomes, through Pratt’s poetry, a place of recognition: “Her cunt…/ …The shape and color/ mine exactly. We could be sisters by the resemblance.” (We Say We Love Each Other (31)) and a place of strength:

as I advance in the scandalous ancient way of women:

our assault on enemies, walking forward, skirts lifted,

to show the silent mouth, the terrible power, our secret.

(Crime Against Nature (120))

This strength is born out of openness, out of presenting in public what was kept in secret.  The motion that lifts the skirts uncovers a vertical mouth which utters a discourse that goes beyond the gesture of the words, because it silently exposes itself.

Or criminally unnatural

Any classification implies a moral judgement, and when this judgment is negative, it forces a transformation of the discourse into the legal arena.  A deviant behavior is not only linguistically censored, it is legally penalized.[17]  “To be a poet who is a lesbian is to be a potential felon in half the states of this country and the District of Columbia, where I live.” (Rebellion (228)).

As with the vocabulary of monsters, medical and legal terminology are a constant presence in Pratt’s poetry, particularly in Crime Against Nature where the title itself establishes this recurrence.  Clitoris, shoulderblades, vulvas, vaginas, tendons “tense as wire,” woman’s genitals, orgasms, androgen, lesbians, coexist with bestial, custody, depraved, deviant, pervert, per anum, per os.  This collision of terms is also an exercise of appropriation.  Because there is no established language to express erotic tension and sexual desire, Pratt resorts to the vocabulary imposed upon her, resignifying it.  Both medical and legal terms are given new layers of meaning through the context in which they are immersed.  The bestial snake-like tongue is not poisonous, but pleasant: “and tongue like a snake (bestial is in the statute)/ winding through salty walls…” (Crime Against Nature (116)). The genitals are fruits awaiting “in the bed where we devoured each other…” (We Say We Love Each Other (78)), they bring “…a rush of pleasure…” (Crime Against Nature (114)).  Because of her status as a lesbian writer, Minnie Bruce Pratt faces two levels of silence.  Socially, as a woman, she is not expected to talk about sexuality, much less, about sexual pleasure.  As a lesbian, she is not supposed even to exist.  As a writer, when Pratt talks about her sexuality and her pleasure, she is shattering the silence and pushing the limits of the medical/legal definitions: “The law when I read it/ didn’t mention teeth. I’m sure it will some day if/ one of us gets caught with the other, nipping.” (117)

The last section of the book, from which Crime Against Nature gets its title, forces this push beyond the text itself because it portrays her actions not only as an occurrence of the past and the present, but also as an announcement of the future, and as an announcement of “crimes” such as “nipping” still not contemplated under the current regulations.  It acts as a gesture of defiance and also as a foundational gesture.  Pratt claims for herself –and therefore for her lesbian community– a sexual act (past, present, and future) that has not been announced first by the heterosexual erotic discourse.  It is the basis for an independent vocabulary, that coexists with the heterosexual, without being subservient to it.

A place not marked yet in any map

Pratt’s erotic discourse and vocabulary is still evolving and it is already mature.  It is already established and it is yet to come.  It is already established because it allows other women to recognize themselves within its patterns of representation.  It is yet to come because it defines its presence as a pulsion towards the future.  Its announcement has not been made.  As expressed in the last poem of the collection, the mouths are open, but they are still silent.  They are ready to tell all they know, but they have not started to talk.  They have disclosed the existence of a secret, but they have not revealed its nature.

This space of uncertainty is where Minnie Bruce Pratt’s erotic discourse is rooted. The area of the undefined is the location of Pratt’s political/poetic project, and the erotic vocabulary is an essential element.  It appears as an individual expression, but it is presented out of a dialogical communal experience.  It is a practice that consists of the creation of geographies: “our thighs clearing/ a wider and wider space on the cold slippery floor.” (We Say We Love Each Other (98), but these geographies acknowledge their own temporal nature.  The erotic expression functions as an horizon of possibility: “A dream, a place I’ve never come to, though I’ve travelled/ miles.” (95)  It is in the nature of horizons not to be reached.  The distance between the traveller and the end of the visible landscape remains unchanged. The paradox is that the horizon is inscribed within the body.  What is at stake is the design of a glance able to see the object of desire without the historical elements of oppression that constrain both desire and its object. But it must also sustain the consciousness that reminds the eye of the historical struggles that made possible a free glance.

Postscriptum

I asked myself several times what is the purpose of this paper.  More accurately, what is my purpose on the paper.  Why lesbian desire, why Minnie Bruce Pratt as subjects?  I can justify my options on the methodological and theoretical level by mentioning the necessity of exploring lesbian/feminist writing and theory in order to have a better understanding of my main area of interest, namely: lesbian, gay and bisexual texts/discourses in the Americas.  But what does it mean to me, as a gay/bisexual man, to write about erotic lesbian discourse?  I believe there are two main reasons for me to do so.  The first one, is that I have a strongest suspicion that my mother was, once, in love with another woman.  The paper becomes a means to understand my mother and her silences.  The second one, is that confronted with the possibility of publicly acknowledging my homo/bisexuality, my mother threatened suicide, pushing me back to geographies of silence.  The paper becomes a means to recover something of the voice I have lost, even though it is now in a language that twists my tongue, in a language that my mother does not understand.  The paper entitles me to speak, even to speak loudly, but also entitles me to be coward, and not to face myself with my mother’s suicide on my name. It would seem that after all, I see some guilt in my desires. I had to travel six thousand miles in order to lovingly embrace a man and still feel safe.  Maybe that is a third reason for the paper: a sort of exorcism to discover the inhabitants of all my desert islands.

 

Bibliography

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1974.

Deleuze, Gilles. Nietzsche. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1965.

——, Nietzsche et la Philosophie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1967.

Derrida, Jacques. Eperons. Les Styles de Nietzsche. Paris: Flammarion, 1978.

Foucault, Michel. The Birth of The Clinic. An Archeology of Medical Perception. New York: Pantheon Books, 1973.

——, Histoire de la Sexualité (Tome 1, 2, 3). Paris: Gallimard, 1984.

——, El Discurso del Poder. México: Folios Ediciones, 1983.

Jung, Carl Gustav. Nietzsche’s Zatathustra. Notes of the Seminar Given in 1934-1939. (Volume 2), Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Mohin, Lilian, ed. Beautiful Barbarians. lesbian feminist poetry. London: Onlywomen Press, 1986.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Prelude to a Philosophy     of the Future,  New York: Russell & Russell, 1964.

——, The Genealogy of Morals. A Polemic, New York: Russell & Russell, 1964.

——,  The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, New York: Vintage Books, 1967.

——, Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ. London: Penguin Books, 1968.

——, Human, All Too Human. A Book for Free Spirits. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Plant, Richard. The Pink Triangle. New York: An Owl Book, 1986.

Pratt, Minnie Bruce. We Say We Love Each Other. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1985.

——, Crime Against Nature. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Press, 1990.

——, Rebellion.  Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Press, 1991.

Sappho. Works. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1965.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Apuntes para un estudio de la linguística. Buenos Aires: Paidós, 1974.

Walsh, María Elena. Apenas Viaje. Argentina, Buenos Aires: El Balcón de Madera, 1948.

 

1 “This is the journey of my blood/ barely a journey, a spume of words.”

2 One of the most obvious examples of this is George Orwell’s 1984.

3 This system of representation goes beyond the dialectical discourse of Hegel and Marx, and its roots can be traced at the core of “the Western civilization” and it is grounded in an essencializing reading of its (acquired/appropriated) sacred text: The Bible, and its oppositional system of good and evil, Heaven and Hell.

4 Obviously, this is not the only political possibility to challenge the social structure, but it is one that does not challenge the existence of such as structure, nor it claims for its disappearance.

5 For the purposes of this paper, I will focus on We Say We Love Each Other, and Crime Against Nature.

6 For a perspective on anti-dialecticism I am following Nietzsche’s theories particularly as they are expressed in Beyond Good and Evil. Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, sections 1, 3, 4, 9, 21, 24, 36, 44, 153, 161, 169, 198, and 219.

7 As Nietzsche puts it: “How could anything originate out of its opposite?… Such genesis is impossible; whoever dreams of it is a fool, nay, worse than a fool. (Beyond Good and Evil (6)).

8 And the writer, and the reader.

9 This becomes evident particularly when looking at different editions of the works of Sappho. In most instances, the translator/editor is force to interpret the language, to fill the blanks with hypothesis, and to guess what has been lost.

10 Not casually, the word “hand/s” is the most common noun in the two volumes of poetry, appearing sixty-seven times in We Say We Love Each Other, and fifty-one times in Crime Against Nature, not to mention synonyms and related words such as fingers, palms, fingertips, etc.

11 Both Lillian Faderman’s Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers and Richard Plant’s The Pink Triangle, provide a good source of information and bibliography on the subject.

12 Through the ages different groups have been given the role of evil: women, jews, pagans, blacks, homosexuals, etc. depending on the cultural context, and the levels of discrimination socially permitted, but only women have been a constant presence in each and every one of these groups.

13 Needless to say, homosexuals (both men and women) do have sons and daughters, far more often than presumed, as it is the case of Minnie Bruce Pratt.

14 For the concept of language as the location where to establish and determine human behavior I am following Michel Foucault’s theories, as expressed in Les Mots et les Choses.

15 Interestingly enough, the concept of gender and womanhood are not linked by the definition.  A woman is therefore one who possesses the qualities of a woman, not one who merely has female genitalia.

16 This urge for the constitution of a lesbian geography is evident in the novels of many contemporary authors, such as Monique Wittig, Jewelle Gomez, Rebecca Brown, Patricia Ealkins, etc.

17 A recent example of this being “Amendment 2” by which voters tried to amend Colorado’s constitution to prohibit lesbian and gay rights laws.

FORNICATING FOR FREEDOM:  SEXUAL SUBVERSION IN THE TOTALITARIAN STATE

Michael D. Amey

I’m back with yet another post on 1984.  In this post I’m focussing on a major recurring theme in dystopian fiction:  the power of sexual acts to liberate and enslave individuals. This theme is also evident, of course, in We, Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale.

bar

Controlling Sex, Controlling Citizens

1984 coverWhen we think of sex, many of us envision an activity that occurs fairly much the same way among people everywhere.  We generally do not imagine, unless we’re thinking very carefully about sex, that sex is somehow a culturally mediated activity.  Put more simply, we often think that sex is natural—stripped of culture and simply a response to biologic urges and hormones.  As various scholars have shown, however, this is a misconception.  In her essay, “The Traffic in Women:  Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex”, Gayle Rubin uses an analogy to question the idea that sex is devoid of cultural content:

Hunger is hunger, but what counts as food is culturally determined and obtained.  Every society has some form of organized economic activity.  Sex is sex, but what counts as sex is equally culturally determined and obtained.  Every society also has a sex/gender system – a set of arrangements by which the biological raw material of human sex and procreation is shaped by human, social intervention and satisfied in a conventional manner, no matter how bizarre some of the conventions may be. (538)

The point that Rubin is making is absolutely relevant to the depictions of sex that we have seen in 1984 and in We.  The sexual activities in both of these novels are sharply delineated into licit and illicit behavior, acceptable relationships and unacceptable relationships.  These divisions undoubtedly seem alien to many of you, and this partially because behind these divisions are not grounded on a simple distinction between the natural and the unnatural, but rather upon the will of society determining what citizens should “accept” as natural or unnatural.  In the case of these novels, the will of society is, in many respects, distinct from the will(s) of our own society.

But why, we might ask, do Zamyatin and Orwell spend time discussing sexual relationships, and why do the States in both of their novels place such a premium on controlling sexual behavior?  Part of the answer to this question can be found in another of Gayle Rubin’s essays, “Thinking Sex:  Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality”.  She argues in the introduction to this essay that:

The time has come to think about sex.  To some, sexuality may seem to be an unimportant topic, a frivolous diversion from the more critical problems of poverty, war, disease, racism, famine or nuclear annihilation.  But it is precisely at times such as these, when we live with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, that people are likely to become dangerously crazy about sexuality.  Contemporary conflicts over sexual values and erotic conduct have much in common with the religious disputes of earlier centuries.  They acquire immense symbolic weight.  Disputes over sexual behavior often become the vehicles for displacing social anxieties, and discharging their attendant emotional intensity.  Consequently, sexuality should be treated with special respect in times of great social stress.

            The realm of sexuality also has its own internal politics, inequities, and modes of oppression.  As with other aspects of human behavior, the concrete institutional forms of sexuality at any given time and place are products of human activity.  They are imbued with conflicts of interest and political maneuvering, both deliberate and incidental.  In that sense, sex is always political.  But there are also historical periods in which sexuality is more sharply contested and more overtly politicized.  In such periods, the domain of erotic life is, in effect, renegotiated. (4-5)

Dystopian fiction, by nature of its fundamental character, tends to depict historical periods when sexuality is contested and sexual codes are redrawn to enhance the state’s control over individuals.  The amount of control that the One State exercises in We, for example, is evidenced by the Lex Sexualis: “Each number has a right to any other number, as to a sexual commodity” (Zamyatin 1972, 21).  This law functions on a two-fold level:  first, it serves as an express reminder to the citizens that they are commodities to be consumed both by each other and by the state, and secondly, it serves to remind them that in this absolute Communist society, the state owns everything, including bodies, reproduction and sexual enjoyment.

Lest we be too quick to criticize this control of sexuality in the One State, it might be wise to consider the control of sexuality in our own society.  First, while, in most states in the United States the traffic in sex is illegal, “sexiness” is a hot commodity that both sells all manner of goods and is itself sold in a wide array of forms.  The fact that sexuality and sexiness are marketed and consumed in our society is evidenced by pornography’s status as one of the largest online industries.  Perhaps the primary difference between us and the numbers of the One State is that while we and the citizens of the One State both agree, for the most part, that sex is a desirable commodity, the citizens of the One State, in accordance with their standards of equality, are unable to profit from the exchange of sexual favors.  By contrast, many Americans make a great deal of money from sexual activity.  What is interesting, however, is the fact that while many of the states legalize the sale of sexuality and sexiness in the form of pornography, most states have outlawed prostitution, thus denying, as it were, many women and some men the right to earn money by using and selling what is theirs—their bodies.  In a sense then, our government has determined who can profit from sex, perhaps to the detriment of the majority of sex workers, who work illegally.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, another effect of the Lex Sexualis is to end marriage and families.  This is desirable because it allows the state to create absolute bonds of loyalty with its citizenry.  No longer does a woman think about her husband, or a man think about his wife.  Instead they focus on the relationship with the state.  This substitution of the state for a loved one occurs in both We and 1984.  For example, as I noted in the previous post, the woman who works next to Winston is involved in “tracking down and deleting from the press the names of people who had been vaporized and were therefore never considered to have existed.  There was a certain fitness in this, since her own husband had been vaporized a couple of years ago” (42).  She can do this both because she has developed the capacity for doublethink and because her relationship to Oceania takes precedence over her relationship to her husband or any other individual.

The fact that the woman working next to Winston is single best suits the needs of the Party.  Her loyalty, however, is suspect because she may not have willingly chosen to be single.  By contrast, Comrade Ogilvy, represents the untainted devotion desired by the state because he “had taken a vow of celibacy, believing marriage and the care of a family to be incompatible with a twenty-four-hour-a-day devotion to duty” (47).  Yet surpassing even Ogilvy in his loyalty, is Winston’s estranged wife, Katharine, who has sex with Winston, but only as part of “our duty to the Party” (67).  Katharine, perhaps as a consequence of conditioning, perhaps through the will of doublethink, has invested the symbolism of sex, not with lust, certainly not with love, but with patriotism.  Her reconstruction of the meaning of sex is evidenced by how she experiences it:  “She would lie there with shut eyes, neither resisting nor co-operating, but submitting” (67).  This description of how she experiences sex significantly aligns, as we shall see, with the experiences of Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale.

In addition to having sex with Katharine, Winston also has sex with an older prole prostitute and with Julia.  These sexual encounters are distinctly different in nature.  For Winston, the prostitute represents nothing more than simple sexual release—I choose not to use the word “satisfaction” because it scarcely seems satisfactory.  This encounter is not particularly dangerous either, for, as Orwell explains,

Tacitly the Party was even inclined to encourage prostitution, as an outlet for instincts which could not be altogether suppressed.  Mere debauchery did not matter very much, so long as it was furtive and joyless, and only involved the women of a submerged and despised class.  (65)

Furthermore, while the act of sleeping with a prostitute is certainly punishable in Oceania, it is generally not a capital offense.

Significantly, while debauchery is tolerated when it involves Proles, debauchery with Party members is punished much more severely.  Orwell goes on to clarify why the Party opposes relationships within the Party:

The aim of the Party was not merely to prevent men and women from forming loyalties which it might not be able to control.  Its real, undeclared purpose was to remove all pleasure from the sexual act.  Not love so much as eroticism was the enemy, inside marriage as well as outside it.…  The only recognized purpose of marriage was to beget children for the service of the Party.  Sexual intercourse was to be looked on as a slightly disgusting minor operation, like having an enema.…  The Party was trying to kill the sex instinct, or, if it could not be killed, then to distort it and dirty it.  (65-66)

Later Orwell, notes that the “sex impulse was dangerous to the Party, and the Party had turned it to account” (133). The Party’s success in distorting sex is evidenced both in Katharine’s submission during sex and in Winston’s revulsion with the sexual experience he has with the prostitute.  This revulsion prevents Winston from regularly frequenting prostitutes.  As a consequence, his own sexual desires remain constantly thwarted.  This sexual repression is “turned… to account” by creating “sexual privation [that] induced hysteria, which was desirable because it could be transformed into war fever and leader worship” (133).  Orwell illustrates the relationship between frustrated sexuality and the attitudes of citizens by describing a Party rally in sexual terms:  the mob’s mood is like a “great orgasm […] quivering to its climax” (180).

While Winston’s sexual liaisons with the prostitute cannot be counted an act of rebellion—after all “the Party was even inclined to encourage prostitution”—his relationship with Julia is, in his and her minds, an entirely different matter.  A number of differences seem to exist between the relationship Winston has with the prostitute and the one he has with Julia.  Unlike Winston’s low risk encounter with the prostitute, Julia’s and Winston’s liaison risks their freedom and their very lives.  This risk severs any ties they have to the Party and creates a situation where their loyalties, by necessity, are redirected towards each other.  For a comparable modern example, we might consider the relationships of homosexuals during much of the 19th and 20th centuries.  Because homosexuality was illegal in America and most European countries, homosexuals found themselves, by the very nature of their desires and activities, outside the law and, to a certain extent, alienated from society. Given these facts, we should expect that homosexuals, like Winston and Julia, would formulate ties that largely ignored the claims of their societies.  That social commentators are aware of the subversive nature of sexuality becomes apparent when one examines modern conservative commentators, like Maggie Gallagher, who argue that homosexuality threatens society by undermining the institution of marriage.  Marriage (and having children), in other words, becomes a “duty to society” in a way that is not dissimilar to Katharine’s conception of sex as doing one’s duty for the Party.  This permits those in power to cast the offenders as sexual traitors.

Winston’s relationship with Julia also differs from this relationship with the prostitute in that it permits them together to create a reality separate from the Party.  As Orwell explains, “the sex instinct created a world of its own which was outside the Party’s control” (133).  By contrast, Winston’s furtive, and unsatisfactory sexual involvement with the prostitute merely confirms the control that the Party exercises over all aspects of life.

Winston’s sexual encounter with the prostitute also acts to dehumanize and degrade both the prostitute and Winston.  She, after all, is a shoddy, forbidden commodity for which he pays two dollars.  He is a desperate man who pays for something that has been Winston and Julialabeled perverted by his society.  By contrast, Orwell emphasizes the fact that Julia and Winston freely engage in sex.  To ensure that this is not a transaction, Winston specifically asks Julia if she enjoys sex, to which she responds, “I adore it” (126).  Her response stands in contrast to Katharine’s philosophy of sex as social duty and the prostitute’s philosophy of sex as commodity.  Julia is having sex in part simply because she enjoys sex.  This free exchange of sex helps humanize Julia and Winston and perhaps even ennobles them.

While their sexual encounter is a free one, it is not an uncontaminated one.  After all, as Orwell points out “you could not have pure love or pure lust nowadays.  No emotion was pure, because everything was mixed up with fear and hatred” (126)  Beyond being about desire, then, their sexual activity becomes a denial of the Party’s power.  Winston’s revels in her sexuality because, “the animal instinct, the simple undifferentiated desire:  …was the force that would tear the Party to pieces” (126).  As Orwell explains, “Their embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory.  It was a blow struck against the Party.  It was a political act”  (126).  In light of the Party’s determined effort at either wiping out or subverting the sexuality of the citizens of Oceania, it is indeed difficult to interpret this act as anything other than an assault on the Party’s control.