THE NEW MAN:  EUGENICS AND HUMAN ENGINEERING IN A “BRAVE NEW WORLD”

Welcome to a long delayed post on another classic dystopian novel.  Today I’ll be introducing you in a general way to Brave New World, and we’ll be examining the relationship, if any, between biology and destiny.  This post will also lay the foundation for a later post on the 1997 movie, Gattaca.     

 

Crossing the Frontier into Huxley’s Brave New World

Huxley            Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is, I think, a departure from most of the dystopian fiction we’ve encountered or are likely to encounter.  Huxley’s description of a dystopian society, for example, lacks the grime and poverty evident in 1984.  Instead of describing rundown apartments and outdated technology, Huxley depicts a society at that is technologically advanced, that possesses a range of commodities, and that can only be described as decadent.  This departure from Orwell’s grim vision of dystopian society can perhaps be understood when one realizes that the World State was modeled, in part, on Huxley’s perception of the United States.  As David Bradshaw points out in his introduction to Brave New World, the feelies (an advancement on Hollywood movies), the over consumption of goods, the references to Ford and the Model T, and the depiction of amoral men and women living life in the present were all meant to be caricatures of life in the United States in the early 20th century.

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Can We Believe Huxley’s Vision of America?

Great Gatsby

For those of us who might wish to protest that life in America in the ’30s couldn’t have resembled life in Huxley’s World State, it might be wise to reread F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which was published in 1925.  The characters of that novel, with their lavish parties and decadent lifestyles, would have undoubtedly felt just as at home in the World State.

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The difference between Orwell’s dystopic vision and Huxley’s extends, of course, beyond simply the physical descriptions of their respective societies.  More surprisingly, where Orwell describes a citizenry that wears an “expression of quiet optimism” because it fears Big Brother, Huxley presents a citizenry that at least thinks itself happy, even if that happiness is illusory (Orwell 5).  Indeed, Huxley’s World Controllers are also very different from Orwell’s Big Brother and Zamyatin’s Benefactor.   For one, we, the readers, can be sure that, unlike the other “leaders”, the World Controllers actually exist.  Their function is also different.  Where Big Brother acts as a deterrent for bad behavior by creating fear, the job of Mustapha Mond is, according to himself, “to serve happiness.  Other people’s — not mine” (209).  Unlike O’Brien in 1984, Mond clearly does not have to rely on torture to control his citizens.  By comparison to 1984 and We, the apparatus of governmental control in Brave New World is virtually invisible.  Huxley dispenses with the Thoughtpolice of 1984 and the Guardians of We.  Spies apparently are not necessary in this “utopian” dystopia.  Of course there are police, but far from using the violent methods described in 1984 and We, these police use the calming influence of drugs and soothing voices to quell a rioting mob (195-196).   The results of this mob control are quick and effective:

Two minutes later the Voice and the soma vapour had produced their effect.  In tears, the Deltas were kissing and hugging one another — half a dozen twins at a time in a comprehensive embrace.  Even Helmholtz and the Savage were almost crying.  A fresh supply of pill-boxes was brought in from the Bursary; a new distribution was hastily made and, to the sound of the Voice’s richly affectionate baritone valedictions, the twins dispersed, blubbering as though their hearts would break.  “Good-bye, my dearest, dearest friends, Ford keep you!  Good-bye, my dearest, dearest friends, Ford keep you.  Good-bye, my dearest, dearest …” (196-197).

This description of the rioters parting would be starkly out of place in either Zamyatin’s or Orwell’s novels.  Nothing here suggests the violence implied by the Guardians and the Thoughtpolice.

Perhaps more striking than the absences of a police apparatus and a totalitarian regime are the things that are present in Huxley’s society.  Sexual activity, far from being discouraged, like it is in Oceania, or being controlled, like it is in The One State, is permitted and, indeed, actively encouraged.  Where Winston and Julia have to slip away Brave New World namessurreptitiously for a rendezvous in the countryside, Lenina and Bernard can simply take his plane for a romantic weekend.  Where the young women of Oceania join the Junior Anti-Sex League, the children of the World State engage in erotic play, and Lenina gets scolded for being too monogamous.

Religion, absent from the two prior novels, is also present, but it appears to be a religion that lacks dogma or condemnation of any sort.  The religion of the World State combines the fetishization of Ford with religious elements from Christianity.  The following passage shows how the World State has mimicked the Eucharist in its Solidarity Services:

The President made another sign of the T and sat down.  The service had begun.  The dedicated soma tablets were placed in the centre of the dining table.  The loving cup of strawberry ice-cream soma was passed from hand to hand and, with the formula, “I drink to my annihilation,” twelve times quaffed.  (72)

 

The soma tablets at the center of the table are meant to stand for the wafers offered during communion, and the cup of strawberry ice-cream soma replaces the cup of wine traditionally passed around among Catholic celebrants.

In addition to sex and religion, the World State differs from Oceania and the One State in that it provides a range of leisure activities.  These activities include visits to the feelies, games and, of course, the use of the drug soma.  

Omelas and Brave New World            Given Huxley’s sharp departure from the model established by earlier dystopian authors, we might ask if this novel can fairly be characterized as dystopian.  Part of the ambiguity that readers experience when reading Brave New World is a consequence of Huxley’s own ambivalence about the society he had described.  While he seems to decry much of what he describes, Huxley actually had a much more complicated relationship to the themes discussed in his novel.  He was, at least up to the time of writing Brave New World, partially convinced that in order for humanity to be saved, a dictatorship might have to be imposed and eugenics (the act of selectively breeding humans for certain traits) might be necessary in order to save the European race (Bradshaw 1994).  For all of his implicit criticism of the United States and American technology, Huxley actually applied for American citizenship, and, although it was denied, lived for many years in America.  While Huxley’s description of the drug soma seems disturbing, Huxley actually used psychedelic drugs such as peyote, mescaline and LSD.  His experiences with the drug mescaline are described in his book The Doors of Perception.  All of this background information obscures any facile interpretation of Brave New World.    If the novel is dystopian, then it presents a complicated dystopia, more in line with the Ursula Le Guin’s Omelas than with Oceania or the One State.

 

Losing Human Freedom:  Predestinating and Conditioning

            If law enforcement seems remarkably absent in Huxley’s Brave New World, it is because the World State does not require force and violence to control its citizenry.  Clearly, the abdication of violent means took some time.  In describing the evolution of society to the students at the hatchery, Mond notes that in the early years, “[e]ight hundred Simple Lifers were mowed down by machine guns at Golders Green” and “[t]hen came the famous British Museum Massacre [where] [t]wo thousand culture fans [were] gassed with dichlorethyl sulphide” (44, 45).  It was only after these violent attempts to regulate the citizenry that the World Controllers came to realize that violence was a highly inefficient way of controlling the population (45).  In essence, the World Controllers recognized what John Locke, the British philosopher, had argued in the 17th century:  rulers only rule with the consent of the ruled.  The problem was that the World Controllers did not want their citizens to have any choice in giving their consent to the social structure.  Fortunately for the Controllers, science offered solutions to the nagging problem of free-will and individuality.  The solution that the Controllers would take was premised on the same ideas that would be developed by the American psychologist and writer, B. F. Skinner who, in his novel Walden II, argued that “man is determined by the state” (1957, 276).  For the Controllers, the means of determining the destiny of humanity resided in two areas:  1)  biology and 2)  conditioning.

The biologic aspect of control in the World State is premised on the assumption Picture5that biology is destiny.  If a person inherits certain genes, he or she will excel at certain activities and do poorly in other activities according to this theory.  While Huxley could not have foreseen the genetic manipulation that is available today, he was able to foresee the concept of “designer babies”.  All of the babies in the World State are, in fact, designer babies inasmuch as they are created to specifications determined by the state.  To begin, experts at the haterchery carefully screen genetic material.  The best genetic material is reserved for manufacturing upper caste members of society.  Less desirable material is reserved for the lower castes.  After the material is selected, it is carefully manipulated to produce or enhance specific characteristics.  The fetuses destined to be lower caste citizens are injected with alcohol to create brain damage, thus ensuring lower levels of intelligence.  As Mr. Forester explains to the students at the hatchery, “in Epsilons […] we don’t need human intelligence” (12).  Using this pragmatic approach, the World State only gives to its citizens what they will need to fulfill their predestined existences.  For example, citizens destined for a life in the tropics are acclimatized to hot conditions and are immunized against tropical diseases before they are even “decanted”. The state’s tampering with these humans/products effectively narrows the possibilities available to each of them.  Even if an Epsilon could possess the desire to be an engineer, for example, she would never possess the intelligence required for the job.

The production of humans is carried on along the same basis as a production line.  Indeed, Henry Ford’s automobile plant is clearly the inspiration for the assembly line at the hatchery.  Among the stages involved in this assembly line are quality control and the tailoring of each product to, as I’ve already indicated, fill specific social needs.  As Mond points out, the task of mass producing these humans is made infinitely easier by Bokanovsky’s Process, a process which allows for the creation of clones.  The result of the process is “[s]tandard men and women; in uniform batches [so that the] whole of a small factory [can be] staffed with the products of a single bokanovskified egg” (5).  Humans, then, become interchangeable cogs maintaining the social machinery.  Individual identity is sacrificed in favor of caste identity.  One of the consequence of this mass production is that citizens are also “plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about” (201).  These roles are abolished, both because they are unimportant to the continuation of the World State and because everyone is replaceable.  If a woman loses the man she was sleeping with, she can always get an identical product to replace that man.  In theory, at least, nothing distinguishes him from any of the men produced from the same bokanovskified egg.  Given that each caste member is also conditioned to have the same likes and dislikes, it is possible that the substitute product male would be identical to the original.  Who needs to worry about the concept of a boyfriend when you can date an identical individual whenever you want to?

Given the fact that the World State designs and produces its citizens, it is easy to understand why citizens like Lenina are willing to accept the hypnopaedic proverb, “Everyone belongs to everyone else”.  In the case of the World State, this is very nearly true.  This proverb echoes the law in Zamyatin’s One State: “Each number has a right to any other number, as to a sexual commodity” (Zamyatin 1972, 21).  In both societies, the individual is viewed as a product of the state.  However, where in the One State a law has to be made to the effect that each citizen has the legal right to any other citizen’s body, no such law is necessary in the World State.  After all, the World State doesn’t merely claim to own its citizens, it actually manufactures them.

Biologically predestinating individuals determines the likely future of each citizen; conditioning makes them happy with that lot.  As the Director of the hatchery explains, “All conditioning aims at that:  making people like their unescapable social destiny” (13).  This conditioning occurs through a number of different techniques.  There is both physical conditioning, as when Delta children are electrocuted to make them dislike and fear books, and verbal conditioning, as in hypnopaedia.  The point of hypnopaedia is to shape the mind of the child through repeated suggestions, until, according to the director at the hatchery,

at last the child’s mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child’s mind.  And not the child’s mind only.  The adult’s mind too — all his life long.  The mind that judges and desires and decides —- made up of these suggestions.  But all these suggestions are our suggestions!  [….] Suggestions from the State.  (25)

 

The director’s point is made even more cogently by Mond when he explains to John Savage the role of Epsilons in the World State:

Only an Epsilon can be expected to make Epsilon sacrifices, for the good reason that for him they aren’t sacrifices; they’re the line of least resistance.  His conditioning has laid down rails along which he’s got to run.  He can’t help himself; he foredoomed.  Even after decanting, he’s still inside a bottle — an invisible bottle of infantile and embryonic fixations.  Each one of us, of course […] goes through life inside a bottle. (203)

 

A very similar view of the power of conditioning is presented in B. F. Skinner’s Utopian novel, Walden II.  In Walden II, the spokesperson for the society, Frazier, explains to his guests:

Our members are practically always doing what they want to do—what they “choose” to do—but we see to it that they will want to do precisely the things which are best for themselves and the community.  Their behavior is determined, yet they’re free (Skinner 1976, 279).

Frazier’s assertion that citizens can be free even when their behavior is predetermined presents a paradox.  To a certain extent, the citizens of Huxley’s World State have a more accurate understanding of the limits of freedom and predestination.  Thus, when Lenina observes to Henry that perhaps Epsilons, whom she personally finds revolting, don’t mind being Epsilons, he responds, “Of course they don’t.  How can they?  They don’t know what it’s like being anything else.  We’d mind, of course.  But then we’ve been differently conditioned” (66).  Henry goes on to explain to Lenina, “if you were an Epsilon […] your conditioning would have made you no less thankful that you weren’t a Beta or an Alpha” (66).  Evidently Henry recognizes that he and Lenina aren’t in fact free; more disturbingly though, this lack of freedom doesn’t bother either of them.  To a certain extent, these two products of the World State are far closer to the machine-men envisioned in Zamyatin’s One State.  After all, Henry and Lenina can’t help but be happy.  The state has won, not because it has shaped reality to suit its citizens, but because it has shaped its citizens to suit its reality.  Unlike the rebels in Zamyatin’s One State and Orwell’s Oceania, far from rebelling, these citizens of the World State cannot even grasp the concept of rebellion.

Although upper caste members of society seem to lack choices just like their lower caste counterparts, they do, in fact, have some capacity for rejecting the conditioning that they have experienced.  Perhaps they require an element of rationale thought and free will to ensure that society continues to operate smoothly.  The possibility of bucking this system is revealed by the Director’s criticism of Bernard Marx, “Alphas are so conditioned that they do not have to be infantile in their emotional behavior.  But that is all the more reason for their making a special effort to conform.  It is their duty to be infantile, even against their inclination” (88).  As I shall show in my next post, the inclination to remain infantile is encouraged by promoting unconstrained consumption and instant gratification.

Works Cited

Huxley, Aldous.  Brave New World.  Perennial, 1998.

Skinner, B. F. Walden Two. MacMillan, 1976.

Zamyatin, Yevgeny.  We.  Penguin Books, 1972.

 

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.

THE NEW EVE: ALIENATED LABOR IN MARGARET ATWOOD’S “THE HANDMAID’S TALE”

Welcome to my second post on The Handmaid’s Tale.  In this post I will be covering the following topics:  Marx’s concept of alienated labor as exemplified by the women in the Republic of Gilead, the use of religion in manufacturing the consent of men and women, and, briefly, the meaning of the “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale”.

            Offred:  The Exploited Worker

Marx argued that, in a market economy, workers are alienated from their labor.  What does this mean?  On one level, Marx was concerned with the fact that the work a worker did was less valuable than the product being produced.  The example of a McDonald’s employee should illustrate the point.  Billy makes the cheeseburger, which sells at a dollar a burger.  Of course, for McDonalds to make a profit, the corporation has to cover the expenses of the raw materials (the bun, the cheese, the meat), the cost of transporting those products, the overhead of running the physical plant (water, sewage, taxes, electricity, rent, etc) and the cost of paying Billy’s salary.  For all of this to happen, the time it takes Billy to make one burger, deliver it to the customer and ring up the sale, has to be less valuable than the burger itself.  If Billy was hired and only worked long enough to make one burger before being fired, the amount of money he would get paid would not be enough to buy the burger he just made.

Not only is Billy’s work immediately worth less than the product it produces, as he works faster, his labor decreases in value.  Let’s assume that when Billy starts working, he makes twenty cheese burgers an hour and that he is paid an hourly wage of seven dollars.  Over the week, Billy’s productivity increases to forty cheese burgers an hour.  His pay, however, doesn’t go up simply because he is more productive, and, of course, the price of a cheese burger doesn’t go down either.  What does this mean for Billy?  In monetary terms, the value of his labor has decreased.  Who benefits from Billy’s devalued labor?  McDonalds.  As Marx explains,

The worker becomes poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and extent. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he produces. The devaluation of the human world grows in direct proportion to the increase in value of the world of things. Labor not only produces commodities; it also produces itself and the workers as a commodity and it does so in the same proportion in which it produces commodities in general.

(http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labor.htm)

So, why do workers, like Billy, work at a loss?  Few workers make this unfair exchange simply because they enjoy their work (university professors being one of the notable exceptions).  Instead, workers work so that they can pay for the commodities that they need and want and so that they can fulfil their obligations as family members and citizens.  In other words, they work unwillingly. Again, Marx explains this quite clearly:

[T]he worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working. His labor is, therefore, not voluntary but forced, it is forced labor. It is, therefore, not the satisfaction of a need but a mere means to satisfy needs outside itself. Its alien character is clearly demonstrated by the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, it is shunned like the plague.  (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labor.htm)

Put in other terms, if Billy could afford everything he wants without working for McDonalds, he would quit tomorrow.  On the other hand, a lucky few of us enjoy our work so much that even if we had the money to retire tomorrow, we would keep on working because our work is “the satisfaction of a need”.

Most workers, however, are alienated through labor on a number of levels.  On the one hand, they are generally not the owners of the products that they produce.  To the extent that they do enjoy the commodities produced, they do so through an uneven exchange of their time and labor for those commodities.  Furthermore, because they grudgingly have to pay through their labor, the time they spend working is no longer their own.  It belongs to someone else.  During the work day, the worker belongs to the corporation or boss that pays him or her.  While there are laws limiting the power of the boss or corporation, the worker is still disempowered.  This helps explain why waiters at some restaurants sing Happy Birthday to customers about whom they don’t know and don’t care.  Beyond that, however, the worker not only produces a commodity, he or she is a commodity.  Customers thus feel that they are not merely entitled to the services or goods for which they are paid, but also to certain form of behavior from the workers providing those services and products.  When businesses say that the customer is always right, they do not mean that the customer is always right in relation to the business but rather in relation to the worker serving the customer.  Of course, in America, every worker is also a consumer of the labor of others.  These daily experiences of consuming others unwilling labor divides workers from other workers.   From Marx’s perspective, all of these experiences create four different types of alienation:

The worker is alienated from his or her essential nature.  He or she works to live instead of living to work.  In other words, he or she begins to lose his or her essential humanity and become machinelike.

The worker is alienated from the product produced by his or her labor.  He or she does not own the product, in some cases can not afford to consume the product and frequently does not have a vested long-term interest in the product.  Usually the worker also does not have much if any personal input into the design of a product.

The worker is alienated from the means of production.  The corporation determines how the product or service will be produced, and the worker has little if any say in these decisions.  These decisions range from where one works to how long one works to even what types of clothing one may wear at work or when one can take a bathroom break.

The worker is alienated from his or her fellow workers.  The only reason why the worker spends any time with his or her coworkers is because they’re all paid to be their working.  Their encounters are artificial interactions brought about by the exchange of capital.  Furthermore, at the workplace, the social relationship that might naturally exist between these individuals is actively discouraged by the demands of production, and the workers find themselves in competition with each other.

By now you should be asking yourself, what does this have to do with Offred and the other handmaids.  You may have noted that in our last post I said that Offred could not be considered an employee of the Commander.  While this remains true—she isn’t an employee—she is very much an alienated laborer. For her and the other Handmaids, their labor consists of going into labor and thus producing the products—children.  These children, of course, are not theirs as becomes evident when the handmaid named Janine gives birth.  The child born by Janine is named by the Wives, because, “It’s the Wives who do the naming, around here” (163).  Indeed, the fact that Janine produces the child, but does not have any claim on the child is further indicated by Offred’s observation that Janine will “be transferred, to see if she can do it again, with someone else who needs a turn” (163).

What Janine’s experience illustrates is that Handmaids are neither lovers, nor mothers.  They are wombs charged with reproducing as many children as they can have.  As Offred explains, “We are for breeding purposes […].  We are two-legged wombs, that’s all:  sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices” (176).  Significantly, the language Offred uses suggests her role not as a laborer, but as a product.  She has become alienated from her essential humanity.  This transformation from person to product is predicted rather ruthlessly by Aunt Lydia, who is responsible for the indoctrination of the Handmaids.  She tells them, “A think is valued […]only if it is rare and hard to get.  We want you to valued, girls.  […] Think of yourselves as pearls” (145).  While Offred presumably does not see herself as a pearl, she has begun to see herself in utilitarian terms of purpose, instead of seeing herself as individual.  She rationalizes the removal of her identity, “My name isn’t Offred, I have another name which nobody uses now it’s forbidden.  I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter” (108).  Unfortunately for her, the process of becoming a product is not far enough advanced for her quite to believe what she tells us, and she withdraws her assertion as soon as she makes it.

Given the division of labor, and the fact that the Handmaids come to see themselves not simply as producers, but rather products, it is logical that the care of the children produced by these wombs belongs to somebody else.  Products cannot care, after all, for other products.  Someone else must consume the products.  This explains, in part, why Offred’s daughter from her marriage to Luke is taken away from her to be raised by somebody else.  Offred is estranged from the child she has produced.

Through this whole process, it should be noted that while the Handmaids suffer a deterioration from being humans to being product-machines, the infants they produce experience an amelioration from being products to being humans.  Offred’s daughter, placed with a new family, is perhaps viewed as a person in a way that Offred is not.  That said, because Offred’s daughter is a woman, she too will be consumed, either as a Wife, an Econowife, a Martha, or a Handmaid, or she will be disposed of as an Unwoman.

Like Marx’s envisioned workers, Offred is also alienated from the means of production.  Sex occurs when she is most fertile.  Because sex is work, it is not meant to be pleasurable.  Offred notes, “This is not recreation, even for the Commander.  This is serious business.  The Commander, too, is doing his duty” (122).  Indeed, in spite of the apparently “intimate” nature of the relationship between Offred, Serena Joy and the Commander, from very early on Serena Joy informs Offred, “As far as I’m concerned, this is like a business transaction”(21).  The fact that the Commander also sees these sexual encounters as business, not pleasure, is indicated by the fact that he prays for “a blessing, and for success in all our ventures” (117).  Sex is a venture, and from Offred’s description, one that both the Commander and she would prefer to successfully complete as quickly as possible.  For Offred, the possibility of impregnation signifies a brief respite from her work.  She will be well treated during the pregnancy and not be required to perform her duties during the few months following the birth before she is transferred.

Although Offred only benefits in limited terms from any pregnancy, like most workers she has partially consented to the ideology under which she suffers.  She notes to the reader that she is not being raped because “nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed-up for.  There wasn’t a lot of choice, but there was some, and this is what I chose” (121).  She has also bought into the ideology of the Republic of Gilead in as much as she has come to see herself as others see her.  Offred informs us that, “Every month I watch for blood, fearfully, for when it comes it means failure.  I have failed once again to fulfill the expectations of others, which have become my own”  (95).  The sense of failure she expresses, of course, has nothing to do with her own goals and desires.  There is nothing to suggest that she wishes to have a child at this time in her life.  Her life has become not an end of its own, but rather a means to an end, which is precisely how Marx defined the alienating effect of labor.

There is, however, an ironic twist in Offred’s role as “an ambulatory womb”.  Offred’s mother earlier made use of her father in much the same way that Offred is used by the Commander.  Offred remembers her mother saying, “A man is just a woman’s strategy for making other women.  Not that your father wasn’t a nice guy and all, but he wasn’t up to fatherhood.  Not that I expected it of him.  Just do the job, then you can bugger off, I said […]”  (155).  The difference between the position of Offred’s unnamed father and herself is perhaps only that he has more options that she does, and agrees to do “the job” because it is something he wants to do.  Like Offred though, he is not expected to be invested in the baby-product that is born as a consequence of his “work”.  If Offred is an ambulatory womb, then her father was, at least from her mother’s point of view, merely an ambulatory penis.  In both cases, the “worker” is alienated on several levels from the process of (re)production.

Continue reading “THE NEW EVE: ALIENATED LABOR IN MARGARET ATWOOD’S “THE HANDMAID’S TALE””

Life Under the Bell Jar: Surveillance and the New World Order in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” II

From a distance we are instruments
Marching in a common band
Playing songs of home, playing songs of peace
They’re the songs of every man
God is watching us, God is watching us
God is watching us from a distance

– “From a Distance” as sung by Bette Midler

Welcome to my third post on dystopian literature.  In this post, we’re going to begin by examining the religious imagery in We.  A casual reader of Zamyatin’s We, might at first conclude that religious imagery and religious themes play a limited and insignificant role in the novel.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Indeed, while Zamyatin’s novel is set in a secular, post-revolutionary, rationalist society, much like the one envisioned by Soviet communists, religion remains a significant, apparently indestructible frame of reference for D-503 and the other citizens of the One State.  The survival of religious imagery in a state officially dedicated to reason and the elimination of the imagination is surprising, and can perhaps only be explained by either assuming that humans are endowed with an inherent sense of religious awe (the religion gene, if you will) or that the One State fosters a secular form of religion because faith in the state is necessary to the continuation of the state.

A Historical Case for the Existence of Secular Religions

We need to ask, is a secular religion even feasible?  While the term secular religion seems, at first glance, an oxymoron, further consideration of the history of communism as it was practiced in the Soviet Union suggests that there are a number of shared features between communism and traditional Christianity.  While Christians seek salvation from sin, Communists seek salvation from class warfare and social injustice.  Both Christians and Communists believe that history will eventually end.  Christians envision this end to history occurring when Christ comes to reclaim the earth and establish his kingdom.  Communists, following the writings of Marx, argue that after an intense class struggle, a new classless society will be formed.  Because class conflict, which Marxists consider the engine of history, will have stopped, history will also cease.  Christian and Communist leaders alike have frequently made the case that sacrifices and suffering now are necessary to the attainment of either the Kingdom of Heaven or the workers’ paradise.  Christians often speak of the unity of Christians, and Christian leaders frequently exhort their followers to act like brothers in Christ.  Communists believe in the unity of the workers, and of course, Karl Marx famously ended his Communist Manifesto with the phrase “Workers of the world unite”.  Just as some Christians venerate saints and decorate their homes with icons and statures, so, too, Soviet Communists venerated Lenin and Stalin and decorated their own homes with the pictures and statues of revolutionary heroes.  Pilgrims from both faiths frequently make visits to the tombs of their fallen leaders.  Both Christians and Communists have texts that they refer to for guidance and which they believe provides insight into future events:  the Bible for Christians and Das Kapital for Communists.  Communism, of course, is not the only secular movement to adapt and assimilate religious imagery.  Nazism, with its pomp and circumstance also contained major religious motifs.   For an example of this religious imagery in action, examine the picture of Hitler to the left.

Hitler as MessiahIn particular, note the “heavenly light” surrounding Hitler and the bird, possibly a dove or eagle, above him.  The bird is a common motif in Christian artwork, where it symbolizes the descent of the Holy Spirit.

Lest you should think that I only see how religious iconography is co-opted by anti-religious states to foster a secular state religion, let me share some personal examples of how religious imagery is used for better or worse to develop our American identity.

A couple of years ago I told my then Spanish flat-mate about “The Pledge of Allegiance”.  His eyes grew large as I described children in schools across America, hands on their hearts, facing the flag each morning, chanting in unison.  When I finished, he said, “So it’s like you have an entire army of small children.”  I explained to him that the function of “The Pledge of Allegiance” was not to turn little children into a miniature militia or “uber patriots”.  My response rings hollow even now.  What precisely did we mean when we said:

I pledge allegiance to the Flag

Of the United States of America

And to the Republic, for which it stands,

One nation, under God,

With liberty and justice for all.

Amen?

What exactly is entailed by this oath of “allegiance”?  In other words, what are we agreeing to?  More specifically, what are we promising about our attitudes and our behavior  in relationship to the flag and the nation?  Does such an oath bind us to support every war that our country engages in, even if we question the morality of that war?  What about that “one nation, under God” bit?  How can we be sure that our nation is under God?  Does this statement presume that we and our nation are more important to God than other people and other nations?  If so, why us instead of them?  Does our assertion that we belong to one nation mean that we’re going to all give up our differences, and act as one?  Are atheists, who don’t believe in God, part of this one nation?  Is an oath identifying a God they don’t believe in any way binding for atheists?  It has to be noted here that the phrase “one nation, under God” was added during the Cold War specifically to differentiate “God-fearing” Americans from the “ungodly” Communists.  What are we to make of the final ringing “With liberty and justice for all”?  Are we to assume that that “One nation, under God”, actually does provide “liberty and justice for all”?  It seems hardly likely in a nation where more black men are in prison than at college, and where competent women still hold substantially fewer powerful positions in society, and are paid less than their male counterparts.  What limits our ideal goal of liberty and justice for all?  Should we take an oath swearing to support a nation that is supposed to provide “liberty and justice for all”, but will never be able to achieve that Utopian ideal?  But of course, the Oath of Allegiance is not meant to be analyzed, any more that the unanimous elections held in the One State are meant to be analyzed.  Both are symbolic gestures that speak to our (unanalyzed) position as members of the community.  Both gestures indicate that the state is dependent upon, and yet more important than the individual.

An earlier memory from my childhood comes to mind.  My father, brother and I are in our car traveling across the US, listening to a Christian song.  The song begins by telling of a statue in New York harbor that represents freedom to the world.  The singer’s voice swells to proclaim, “I’m so proud to be called an American.  To be named with the brave and the free….”  The theme changes slightly.  There is a cross on a hill called Calvary.  The singer is proud to be known as a Christian, to be named with the redeemed.  What could be better, I ask you, than this fortunate combination of church and state?  Who could not be proud of being both an American and a Christian?  I was fifteen at the time and was uncritical of this particular equation of being Christian and American.

My identification with Christianity may have even been stronger than my identification with my nation, though they were so closely intertwined that it is difficult to separate them.  I remember quite clearly as a child singing and marching to a song that went:

I’m too young to

march in the infantry

ride in the cavalry

Shoot the artillery

I’m too young to

Fly over the enemy,

But I’m in the Lord’s army.

Yes, Sir!…

This song presents faith, one could argue, both in terms of a modern military and in terms of an unquestioning patriotism.  Similarly, this combination of faith, militarism and patriotism is evident in an email I received on the eve of the war with Iraq:

Subject: PRAY BEFORE IT STARTS A torch has been lit today to be passed along to your e-mail friends…asking them to pass it along….and along….and along. We can do something about the threat of war; both in Iraq and with terrorists. In the Old Testament, God’s armies were always led by the priests. When the waters parted in the Jordan, it was the priests’ feet which first hit the turbulent river. In the New Testament, Christians are also referred to as priests…all Christians. We must, therefore, go in first. As the possibility of war approaches with Hussein and Iraq, we are asking the priests to step in first…..ahead of our military. Let us be setting up camp for our soldiers’ entrance into the conflict. How? By prayer. Let us be sending in “prayer missiles,” “cruise and scud prayers” to target enemy plans. “Patriot prayers” to shoot down incoming threats. We should be praying for two things: (1) that the enemy leaders become confused, disoriented, and distrustful of each other; that their entire system of attack fall apart, and (2) that in God’s wildest ways, these enemies would become aware of His deep love for them and the war Jesus has already fought for them, personally, on the cross. God had Gideon reduce his army from 32,000 to 300 men. He then equipped them with nothing but trumpets, pitchers, and torches. What an odd combination to fight off well-armed soldiers. When Gideon gave the command, the Bible says the enemy fled crying and turned on each other…all because God messed with enemy plans. Prayers were started for this about a month ago. On CNN last weekend a report came out that although Hussein has nothing to lose, his generals do. Is confusion beginning to develop? Please pray for God to set the stage for defeat of all those who intend to do harm. When our men and women of uniform arrive on the scene, may they be surprised at how God had camp set up before they ever got there. Would you please do two things? (1) pray, and (2) pass this along to those you know will pray. May we build an e-mail army of over a million in force…beginning with you.

In light of these examples, it is possible to argue that religious imagery plays an important part in shoring up every social structure, even those (perhaps especially those) which claim to be secular.

Perhaps the function of religion in the One State is to establish faith in the absolute truth of the governing ideology.  The success of this imagery is evidenced by D-503’s refusal to question the ideology of the One State.  Even when he admits his own rather innocent crimes, he does so without any hint that the One State might be to blame.  Instead, when he envisions the possibility that O-90 might betray him, he decides that,

In my last moment I shall piously and gratefully kiss the punishing hand of the Benefactor.  Suffering punishment is my right in relation to the One State, and I will not yield this right.  We, the numbers of our State, should not, must not give up this right—the only, and therefore the most precious, right that we possess. (Zamyatin 1972, 114-115).

This right—which D-503 a little further recognizes does not exist, numbers can have no rights—is premised on the proposition that the One State is always right and the offending number always wrong.  The religious nature of the punishment is made clear earlier, when D-503, watching an execution notes:

According to the descriptions that have come down to us, something similar was experienced by the ancients during their “religious services”.  But they worshiped their own irrational, unknown God; we serve our rational and precisely know one.  Their God gave them nothing except eternal tormenting searching; their God had not been able to think of anything more sensible than offering himself as sacrifice for some incomprehensible reason.  We, on the other hand, offer a sacrifice to our God, the One State—a calm, reasoned, sensible sacrifice.  Yes, this was our solemn liturgy to the One State, a remembrance of the awesome time of trial, of the Two Hundred Years’ War, a grandiose celebration of the victory of all over one, of the sum over the individual.  (Zamyatin 1972, 45-46).

The function of these public executions is not merely to intimidate citizens; the executions also serve to bind the individual citizens into a community.  The citizens become accomplices to the State terror, and naturally they must justify their actions and inactions by agreeing to the fiction that the State is always right.

On another level, a state religion / ideology is an extremely powerful tool for defining “Truth”.  As the philosopher Michel Foucault has noted,

Truth is a thing of this world:  it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint.  And it induces regular effects of power.  Each society has its régime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth:  that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish between true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.  (1980b, 131)

In the One State, these highly publicized state religious performances are among the mechanisms used to distinguish between true and false statements, ideas and practices.

Along with using religious imagery as an instrument of control in his fictitious society, Zamyatin also seems to be using the novel as a religious allegory.  D-503—enclosed in the safety of the Green Wall, watched over by the Guardians, whom he compares to archangels, obedient to the Table of Hours, watched and judged by the Benefactor—is a type of Adam.  Like Adam, D-503 is seduced by a woman, I-330, who introduces him both to illicit sexual activity and to critical thought.  The destruction of the Green Wall invites comparison to Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden.  Even the name of the rebels, the Mephi, is a reference to Mephistopheles, a demon who offers knowledge and power to the legendary Dr. Faust. What Zamyatin is providing then is a parable of the fall of man.  Unlike the author of the Genesis account, however, Zamyatin’s sympathies lie with the rebels.  For him, God / the Benefactor, is a tyrant who deprives people of their freedom and individuality.  So important is this idea of freedom that Zamyatin has I-330 explain that revolutions against authority must be infinite (1972, 174-177).  In other word, each time a revolution has succeeded and established itself as an omniscient authority, the citizens must once again revolt.  This call to constant revolution on the part of Zamyatin is echoed in his essays.  Indeed, in his essay “Tomorrow”, he notes,

“The world is kept alive only by heretics: the heretic Christ, the heretic Copernicus, the heretic Tolstoy. Our symbol of faith is heresy…”.  We is Zamyatin’s contribution to this “heresy”.

Continue reading “Life Under the Bell Jar: Surveillance and the New World Order in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” II”