Monday, August 29, 2011

Lying at the core

Just wait til you realize how clever that post title is!!

Joanna Russ, in her indispensable How to Suppress Women's Writing, has a tangent (and as always with Russ's tangents, it's so much more than just that) about Herman Melville and the silly things that can happen when critics fail--whether deliberately or by way of academic and/or privileged obtuseness--to consider social context:
I have read several pieces of criticism about "Bartleby" and although one of them compared Melville's position to Carlyle's Eternal No, not one of them began, "Did you ever work on an assembly line for ten years?" (Or in Woolworth's for six months or typing address labels for as little as one summer?) These questions are very much to the point... But then I worked as a secretary for three years and typed address labels for a mere six weeks--and that six weeks was enough to reveal Bartleby's situation to me as twenty years of reading literary criticism could not. (In a recent collection of Melville's stories, Harold Beaver sums up his remarks on "Bartleby" as follows: "Bartleby can never be wholly interpreted as either . . . Christ-figure, artist, or ascetic saint, nor is the story exhausted by such interpretations. At its root lies a theme more compelling than both: of the doppelganger . . . the figure of death . . . behind the green screen" of life. The actual nature of Bartleby's work--its isolation, its rote nature, its hideous boredom--and the social situation of employer-employee, as well as Bartleby's sitdown strike and the sentimental liberalism of his employer, are never mentioned.)
It was with considerable enjoyment that I recalled that passage while reading Adam J. Frisch's utterly pointless essay, "Language Fragmentation in Recent Science-Fiction Novels," in the utterly pointless book The Intersection of Science Fiction and Philosophy, edited by Robert E. Myers. Here's how Frisch begins his second paragraph:
Lying at the core of Joanna Russ's We Who Are About To... is an examination of language and meaning.
Oh, how I hope Russ happened upon this essay; I imagine she would have very much enjoyed savaging it. (Hint: if you're talking about what "lies at the core" of that novel, and you don't talk about patriarchy, capitalism, or at least the dark side of technological progress, you've pretty much missed the point.)

Frisch follows up his, shall we say, startling intro by giving a quick summary of the events of the book: "small group of travelers accidentally marooned on an isolated planet," violence, yadda. He makes me cringe again by saying that the "unnamed narrator becomes more and more disenchanted with her fellow travelers," because a) she starts out pretty much as disenchanted as you can be, and, more important, b) she has reasons for being so disenchanted, which aren't mentioned here*; but OK, maybe Frisch is gonna get around to it, now that the summary's taken care of.

*And also c) Frisch doesn't seem to realize that "fellow travelers" is an inappropriately meaningful phrase for his purposes here, especially since the novel deals heavily in Communism, dissent, and the totalitarian quashing of dissent.

He soon makes me a bit more nervous by quoting a passage in which the narrator quotes Emily Dickinson ("I'm Nobody, who are you? Are you Nobody, too?") without recognizing that it is a Dickinson quote, even though I'm fairly certain she doesn't have a more famous line. (In How to Suppress Women's Writing, incidentally, Russ spends quite a lot of pages talking about how the reality of a continuity of women's writing--of woman writers influencing one another and communicating with one another--has been systematically hidden, so that writers like, say, Emily Dickinson appear to have come out of nowhere and to have led nowhere; but I'm not sure why I'm bringing that up right now.) He then goes ahead and says this:
But the narrator's companions are incapable of change because they are incapable of listening. They have been nurtured in a culture that is almost devoid of the ability to discriminate sounds. The narrator finds their music mere noise that "goes deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle for half an hour and then it goes doodle just once, and you could die with excitement." Thus, when the males in the group, in an assumption of atavistic roles, decide the women must bear children immediately to insure "survival," she feels threatened and attempts to flee.
Let me take a deep breath and take this slowly. First of all, the narrator's "companions" (poor choice of word, there!) are most certainly not "incapable of listening"; they are, rather, very capable of listening to themselves, one another, and the dominant culture from which they came and of which they are desperate to think of themselves as still a part; they will listen to anyone and anything who does not stand against all of this--in the context of the novel, anyone and anything who is not the narrator (and even there, it doesn't apply to music--at least not the same way--as they do listen to her sing). Second, and here is where Frisch throws all credibility away by being utterly wrong about something that's not a matter of interpretation, the "deedle doodle" quote is dialogue spoken by a small girl--one of the other survivors--describing the serial music she loves and wants to compose, emphatically not the narrator dismissing popular music. This is not presented ambiguously in the text. It is impossible to mistake this even at the briefest of glances at the page: it is immediately preceded in this first person narration with "Then she added," and is immediately followed by "'Uh huh,' I said." (Also, distinguishing "doodle" from "deedle" and then dying with excitement is obviously not something that one does if one is "almost devoid of the ability to discriminate sounds.")

And then the paragraph takes what is to me a completely incomprehensible turn. If you can explain that "thus" to me, if you can explain how what comes after it follows from what comes before it, please, please do. Because for god's sake, the narrator doesn't "feel threatened and try to flee" because these people who want to force her to have a baby can't discriminate sounds; she feels threatened and tries to flee because she is in imminent danger of rape and forced pregnancy. Another way of saying this is that, no, the narrator does not feel threatened, she very concretely is threatened.

Clearly, Mr. Frisch, you've never typed address labels for six months, if you know what I mean. Nor have you ever, ahem, listened to anyone who has, even when one has been trying to tell you about it for 118 pages.

By now it's pretty clear that Frisch is never going to get around to mentioning what this story is about. Oh, but wait! Do I see the word "patriarchy" comin' round the bend?
Throughout the novel, the narrator is desperate to communicate [True! I wonder why? -E]. When her fellow survivors cannot or will not listen, she turns to her imagined future listener, the reader:
"Speaking" comes from a different place than "breathing." You must understand this. Those marks, "-", indicate speech. Communication. You must listen. You must understand that the patriarchy is coming back, has returned (in fact) in two days. By no design.
Although the narrator at first attributes her desire to communicate to the return of "the patriarchy" (that is, to the group's rapid reversion to male dominance), her repetition of the phrase "I must" suggests that the need for communication may arise from each individual's perception of death's inevitability. "I must speak" becomes "I must die."
[Moment of silence.]

OK, so just on a functional level: "at first" she mentions the patriarchy, then she repeats "I must"? In the passage I read, she repeats "you must," not "I must", and then, after the second repetition, she brings up the patriarchy. Hey, it's almost as if she wanted to really emphasize that, listen up, this mention of the patriarchy is really important, so don't try to dismiss it with scare quotes and that very dudely "Oh don't worry, she said patriarchy but really what she's talking about is Eternal Existential Verities for Men" nonsense.

Yes. One of the many things this book is about is death, the inevitability of death, the necessity of death, and how to go about dying. (It's not exactly hidden; the well-known completion of the title phrase is the word die, and "About to die" are the first three words of the novel; the third sentence is "We're all going to die.") However, it is about death in context, in the specific context of patriarchal, progress-oriented society, which denies, defies, mystifies, and fetishizes death; the context we pretty much all have to live and die in. (Also, how the fuck do you get from "repeating 'I must'" to "see, she's really talking about death here"? Again, when the book's title and opening words form the clause "We who are about to die," you don't have to go looking for cryptic clues and acrostics to figure out that death is on this book's mind.)

Similarly, yes, by god, We Who Are About To... is in large part about the difficulties of communication. But to talk about this like it's an end in itself is absurd. Like, oh, OK, it's a book about how it's hard to talk to people; no shit, now what? Why is communication a problem? What is the narrator so desperate to communicate? If you read this book and then feel the need to put quotation marks around "the patriarchy," you're not going to get very far in answering that question. In terms of Frisch's analysis, you'd think Russ would have been better off printing a book full of a random assortment of words in no particular order; that would have been the meaningless, apolitical representation of "language fragmentation" he's so desperate to shape the novel into.


Richard said...

Damn, what in the hell is taking Interlibrary Loan so long with We Who Are About To?? I need to read this book!

Regarding "Bartleby", I love her remarks. I remember reading that story, and wanting to write about it, but always in connection with my own sense of my own working life being deadening, and pointless. Then I read some literary interpretations of it, and though some of them were interesting and seemed relevant, all too often I couldn't relate. They had nothing to do with the story I'd read!

Nathan said...

Aside from Russ, you seem to be flogging yourself a good deal with lousy SF criticism. You ever checked out the Panshins' The World Beyond the Hill or Alexei Panshin's Heinlein criticism? There's also this one I read years ago with a dark blue cover and what looks like a black scribbled tornado that was published around '75 that I dug. And Athena Andreadis' blog.
Keep up the good work.

Ethan said...

Richard--after all this anticipation-building, I'll be so embarrassed if you don't like it...

I was going to reply to what you say about Bartleby, but I think I have a post in the works that's gonna cover that, so I'll wait.

Nathan--Thanks for calling it good work! And haha, yeah, I have been flogging myself a little. I almost titled this post "SF criticism bites," or something along those lines. But I'm hopefully heading somewhere with all this, so in a way I have to take the bad with the good.

Your suggestions are noted, with gratitude--I hadn't heard of The World Beyond the Hill, which looks intriguing; I've added it to my read-soon list. I've seen some praise for Panshin's work on Heinlein, but...well, I kind of can't stand Heinlein, blasphemous as that is to say. Do you think it would be worth reading anyway? If I come across a book with a scribbled tornado, I'll snap it up. And I'm unfamiliar with Athena Andreadis; from a quick scan of her blog it looks interesting, and I've added it to my blug-feed.

And I do have some other probably-good stuff coming up--on my from-the-library shelf now I have Samuel R. Delany's The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, which judging from the bits of it Russ has quoted in her various essays promises to be amazing. And Blish's The Issue at Hand and Knight's In Search of Wonder are coming soon, to fill in some of the classics--I anticipate having lots of problems with both, but most likely far more useful problems than I have with chumps like Adam J. Frisch and M. Keith Booker.

High Arka said...

First-printing copies of new, female protagonist, excellent sci-fi available, dirt cheap. Drop an e-mail.

Nathan said...

Yeah, worth it if you can't stand. Panshin was a big fan as an impressionable kid (as was I in junior high times), was freaked out when Starship Troopers dropped, saw his idol's clay feet and bloody pen or whatever and excoriated him, to Heinlein's hilariously disproportionate and eternally risible hissy-fitting. Something like that - he acknowledges the breakthroughs H made (I still dig the early shorts) but cuts no slack where none should be cut. Classic early SF crit wherever you stand on H. The Blish book sounds rad, never heard of that!

Anonymous said...

ah bartleby...ah lit crit!

"tartarus of maids" anyone?

Jeff said...

Panshin's Heinlein work is available online here: if anyone wants to check it out.

Ethan said...


(I love, by the way, that blogger still has yet to catch a single actual case of spam for me, but it caught your comment.)