- As Rachel and I have noted in the past, the title of a work of literature often serves as a key to understanding the work. Why might Le Guin have chosen The Dispossessed as the title? Where does she use the words “possessed” and/or “dispossessed”? Early editions of the novel had the subtitle An Ambiguous Utopia; the subtitle was dropped from later editions. How so we see this novel a utopian narrative? Why did Le Guin modify Utopia with “ambiguous”? How does dropping the subtitle change our experience of the novel?
- Walls are a recurring motif in the novel. How do walls come to mean different things at different points in the novel? How do walls affect consciousness?
- At one, Shevek tells Takver that he is going “to unbuild walls” (332). Why does Le Guin have Shevek employ the unusual verb “unbuild” instead of more common verbs like “tear down” (as in “Mr. Gorbachev – Tear down this wall”)? Are there any disadvantages to “unbuilding” walls? Takver cautions Shevek, “It may get pretty drafty” (333). Obviously Shevek’s determination to “unbuild” walls has consequences that extend to the people around him – the people on Anarres and Urras. How might his act be responsible or irresponsible?
- Finally, it is impossible to think about the wall in the novel without thinking about the “Make America Great Again” movement and its isolationist and nativist philosophy. What might the novel tell us about living in the age of Trump?
- In the novel we are introduced to two dominant languages – Iotic, which presumably evolved, and Pravic, which was artificially constructed. How do these languages shape the consciousness of the speakers? In particular, we should consider the evolving consciousness of Shevek, who is the only person who speaks both languages (Sabul can read Iotic, but doesn’t appear to be able to speak it). On page 344, while both communicating through their second language (Iotic), Terran ambassador Keng tells Shevek, “It’s as if you invented human speech! We can talk – at last we can talk together.” What are the ramifications of this “invention” of communication, of “human speech,” particularly if it reflects Shevek’s idiosyncratic consciousness?
- Sex, Sexuality, Gender and Family
- A common trope of utopian and dystopian literature is the re-imagining of familial structures. In Orwell’s 1984 sex is anathema, and as a consequence romance and families do not threaten the power of the state. In Huxley’s Brave New World promiscuous sex is encouraged, and sex is entirely separated from procreation, thus preventing families from undermining the state. How do partnerships, marriages, sexual relationships and familial ties on Anarres and Urras affirm or undermine social institutions and social cohesion?
- The Odonians use “brother” and “sister” to refer to each other, thus creating a fictionalized family, while, at the same time, the elimination of the personal pronoun in connection to biologic family members (i.e. “my mother”), along with the removal of family names or naming undercuts the traditional notion of family bonds. How is it, then, that family bonds, like the bond Shevek feels for Sadik, survive? To what extent has society on Anarres failed to escape old familial structures?
- Shevek, as Odonian, has been indoctrinated for his whole life into respecting the personhood of others. What factors, then, lead to his sexual assault on Vea? How does Shevek’s behavior prior to the assault establish his failure to recognize Vea as a full human? Why does Le Guin include the sexual assault in the novel and then not return to it after the fact?
- How tolerant are the Anarresti of queer sexuality? Does Bedap the only character who is explicitly identified as “pretty definitely homosexual” enjoy the same treatment as other characters (172)? What does the intercourse between Bedap and Shevek reveal about the function of sex in Anarresti society?
- How are the gender roles of men and women different on Anarres from the gender roles of men and women on Urras? How do economics and language create or encourage those differences?
- How does the conversation between Shevek and Ambassador Keng break the fourth wall and include us readers in the novel?
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
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.
Can We Believe Huxley’s Vision of America?
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.
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 surreptitiously 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.
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 that 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.
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. Perennial, 1998.
Skinner, B. F. Walden Two. MacMillan, 1976.
Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We. Penguin Books, 1972.
“Este es el viaje de la sangre mía:
apenas viaje, espuma de palabras.”
(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. 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. 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.
In examining the poetic works of Minnie Bruce Pratt, 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. 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. 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 has to suffer in order to exist. 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. 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. This definition was (still is) widely supported by the religious and social apparatus, because it gave a physical body to the notion of evil. 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. 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. 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)” (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.
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. “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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Controlling Sex, Controlling Citizens
When 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 labeled 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.