How to Suppress #94

Back in the day I wrote a chapter on postmodernism and science fiction for The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Space, as always, was tight, and as I recall, my focus was on the three key thinkers who characterise postmodern theory — for better or worse Jean Baudrillard, Fredric Jameson and Jean-François Lyotard. I certainly knew about Meaghan Morris’s The Pirate’s Fiancée: Feminism, Reading, Postmodernism (1988) and Donna Haraway’s “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” (1985) but it looks like neither get a mention. It might have been I assume one or other would be in a chapter on gender or feminism, but that’s no excuse.

More problematic — and I’m not going to go and check — is that all my fictional examples were by male authors.

The editors did not notice, but someone did:

Butler fails to mention even one science fiction text author by a woman or even one female literary theorist. How to suppress women’s writing? Butler’s article supplies an egregious answer. (Barr 153)

Yes, bang to rights.

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Wild Untutored Phoenixes… Phoenices… er…

At the start of Philip Pullman’s great His Dark Materials, Lyra is a wild child, a seeming orphan, playing in the grounds and on the roofs of an Oxford college, who needs to be chased away from the fruit trees. A sensitive reader might remember Eve from the Garden of Eden, at least in her unfallen state, and the connection is made explicit for us by The Amber Spyglass (2000):”The girl, then, is in the position of Eve, the wife of Adam, the mother of us all and the cause of all sin” (71). Having obtained the alethiometer, a sort of divining instrument, she is able to comprehend and use it, without any training.

As I wrote in “The Republic of Heaven: The Betrayal of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy”, Pullman allows Lyra to retreat from a character able to communicate with everyone and who has agency, to a much more subservient character. In fact, as soon as she meets Will Parry, she is very much more girly and cooks him breakfast, albeit badly, and then spends much of the final volume in a coma. At some point, she falls, in a sequence I think we have to read as sexual (but involves marzipan) and loses that innocence. By the end of the novel, she is destined to have a formal education of the kind she had scorned at the outset of Northern Lights and may at best hope for a bluestocking existence. She has to be taught to use the alethiometer.

Of course, this innocence/experience thing is drawing on William Blake (his Songs of Innocence and Experience, which feature a sleeping Lyca) and Heinrich von Kleist’s parable of “On the Marionette Theatre” (1810). Let me quote myself:

This story describes a brief encounter between the narrator and a dancer, Herr C., in the town of M. in 1801. The two see a performance of string puppets and Herr C. claims the marionettes have a grace that dancers could learn from. The puppets, being artificial, “would never be affected” because they are not self-conscious. Self-consciousness for humans is “inevitable because we have eaten of the tree of knowledge. And Paradise is bolted, with the cherub behind us; we must journey around the world and determine if perhaps at the end somewhere there is an opening to be discovered again.” The narrator responds with a story of a graceful young man who pulled a thorn out of his foot; seeing himself in a mirror, the young man recognised his likeness to a similarly-posed statue. Afterwards he became self-conscious and narcissistic. Herr C. then tells a further story, about how he fenced with a Russian family and then fought a tethered bear. Try as he might, Herr C. was unable to defeat the bear. The human’s self-conscious actions were unable to defeat the animal’s unconscious actions. Herr C. concludes that humanity’s grace can be eventually regained: “grace returns after knowledge has gone through the world of the infinite, in that it appears to best advantage in that human bodily structure that has no consciousness at all — or has infinite consciousness — that is, in the mechanical puppet, or in the God.” Grace can be regained by eating for a second time from the Tree of Knowledge.

Great things can be done unconsciously – or, rather, without consciousness – by those in a state of grace.

When I wrote both chapters, I’d clearly forgotten France Gray’s concept of the “Wild Untutored Phoenix”.* Gray discusses the various ways in which we deny that women are funny or have a sense of humour – they are too prudish or gossip too much or… It’s a variant on How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Gray suggests “When women are visible making people laugh, deny the existence of a conscious creative process” (8). It’s just an accident, it’s just chance.

But it was of the Wild Untutored Phoenix I thought when thinking about Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Obviously we all have our theories about who one of her parents is, but what is clear is that she can use the force without the, admittedly limited, training that Luke had, a training which when returned to is cut short. Do we read this as a real talent and skill, or do we end up with some essentialised wild girl, running around, having to be chased away from the fruit trees? At what point will discipline chop off her agency.

Pleasing although Finn is as a character, could he be the Will to her Lyra? Will she modify her needs in favour of his and will she – like Han, who was not a Jedi – be put into a sleep? Will she keep her agency? We have the example of Leia to look back to – canny and strong in the first (fourth) movie, slave in the third (sixth) (although she has a few weapons left to her). Can a woman be allowed to stay strong and her talents not get undermined?

We’ll see.

 

Note

 

* As far as I can see, this is a reference to an article on D. H. Lawrence by F. R. Leavis in Scrutiny. This is an odd – Lawrence would say queer, no doubt – linkage that I need to think through more.

Bibliography

  • Butler, Andrew M. “Bearly Conscious? Deconstructing Pullman’s Postmodern Marionettes”, Philip Pullman. Edited by Catherine Butler and Tommy Halsdorf, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014: 96-112.
  • Butler, Andrew M. “The Republic of Heaven: The Betrayal of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy.” Children’s Fantasy Fiction: Debates for the Twenty First Century. Edited by Nickianne Moody and Clare Horrocks. Liverpool: ARPF/Liverpool JMU, 2005: 285-298.
  • Gray, Frances. Women and Laughter. London: Macmillan, 1994.