Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale And The Gilead Nationwide

I’ve read Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale late; in fact, I’ve only just finished reading it–by way of preparing to watch the new television series currently being aired on Hulu–some twenty-five or so years it was first recommended to me by an ex-girlfriend (who was then an office bearer with the National Organization for Women in New Jersey.) I might have read it too late; the issues broached in Atwood’s dystopian classic of speculative fiction–the rise of a totalitarian theocracy in the US, the forcing of women into sexual and reproductive subjugation, the curtailing of women’s bodily freedoms under the guise of protecting ‘conventional’ morality, a harsh penal regime, and environmental degradation notable among them–have been at the forefront of a great deal of political and moral discourse in the intervening years. The issues Atwood philosophized about–using the literary vehicle of a novel–have had their many complexities articulated and analyzed and theorized threadbare; they are now exceedingly familiar to us. For all of that, they are not any less threatening, and it is small wonder that as the Trump Administration, aided and abetted by that cabal of nihilists, the Republican Party, continues its wrecking ball treatment of the American Republic, the novel (and its associated television series) continues to seem increasingly prescient and prophetic. Perhaps even a little too much so; at least two of my friends have informed me that they will not be reading the novel or watching the show any time soon, ‘at least as long as this administration is in office–it’s a little too real right now.’ Dystopian speculative fiction should not be too realistic, I suppose.

The problem, of course, is that Donald Trump is not the problem; the Republican Party is. The impeachment of Donald Trump would merely bring to the Oval Office Mike Pence, a drone-like creature best placed to emulate those folks who run the land of Gilead in Atwood’s novel. Moreover, Republican run state legislatures the nation over specialize in drafting and passing legislation that flirts with the codes operative in Gilead: their primary obsession has been, and will be for the foreseeable future, the control of women’s bodies, but attempts to control where and how they work and what they can read or write never seem too far behind. (To be fair, state level Republican Party leadership is always interested in controlling what everyone reads and writes.) Take a look at some of the pieces of work linked to here–a piece dating back to last year–and you’ll have a fair idea of the medievalist mindset, which would not be out of place in Gilead, that is par for the course among the Republicans of today. Matters have only worsened since the election of Donald Trump; while his antics provide a never-ending series of distractions that cause liberals to foam at the mouth and fantasize about impeachment, Republicans quietly proceed with shadow legislation–like the new version of the American Health Care Act, which is due to be voted on, apparently without being read by anyone in a position to stop it from being passed.

Gilead will not come with a bang, but with a whimper.

The Perennial Allure of Utopian Sex

In Margaret Atwood‘s cautionary, speculative tale of a genetic engineering run amuck, Oryx and Crake, the Snowman observes the Crakers are unusually and refreshingly sexually enlightened:

Off to the side, from what is probably a glade where the tents and trailers used to be set up, he can hear laughter and singing, and shouts of admiration and encouragement. There must be a mating going on, a rare-enough occasion among the people: Crake had worked out the numbers, and had decreed that once every three years per female was more than enough.

There’ll be the standard quintuplet, four men and the woman in heat. Her condition will be obvious to all from the bright-blue colour of her buttocks and abdomen….

Since it’s only the blue tissue and the pheromones released by it that stimulate the males, there’s no more unrequited love these days, no more thwarted lust; no more shadow between the desire and the act. Courtship begins at the first whiff, the first faint blush of azure, with the males presenting flowers to the females….From amongst the floral tributes the female chooses four flowers, and the sexual ardour of the unsuccessful candidates dissipates immediately, with no hard feelings left. Then, when the blue of her abdomen has reached its deepest shade, the female and her quartet find a secluded spot and go at it until the woman becomes pregnant and her blue colouring fades. And that is that.

No more No means yes anyway, thinks Snowman. No more prostitution, no sexual abuse of children, no haggling over the price, no pimps, no sex slaves. No more rape. The five of them will roister for hours, three of the men standing guard and doing the singing and shouting while the fourth one copulates, turn and turn about….It no longer matters who the father of the inevitable child may be, since there’s no more property to inherit, no father-son loyalty required for war. Sex is no longer a mysterious rite, viewed with ambivalence or downright loathing, conducted in the dark and inspiring suicides and murders. Now it’s more like an athletic demonstration, a free-spirited romp.

 No description of a utopia–even one gone wrong, as they usually do–is complete without its particular vision of how sex is reconfigured in its arrangements. A utopia wouldn’t be one if it retained this world’s insane sexual  jealousy, its violence, its terribly asymmetric, hypocritical, chauvinistic and gendered understanding of sexual roles, responsibilities, virtues and sins. Unsurprisingly utopian visions of sex often run close together; most seek to describe arrangements that ameliorate the devastating effects current sexual politics have on our psyches and bodies. The relief we seek in these imagined worlds is similar: freedom from the terrible burdens imposed on us by the expectations of masculinity and patriarchy, moral superegos, religious guilt, the discomfort our fantasies evoke in us.

Most of all, utopias seek to demote and demystify sex, to knock it off its pedestal; in so doing, ironically, they make intractable the mystery of why something so common, so necessary, so essential, becomes so mythical, so elusive.

Beauvoir, Morrison and Gordimer on Sex

Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote that a conceptual inversion of the sexual act was possible: perhaps woman was not merely ‘penetrated’ or ‘entered into’ by man, perhaps she ‘enveloped’ or ‘engulfed’ him instead. Sex was not an ‘invasion’ of the woman, it was an active seeking out instead. The change in perspective engendered by considering what could be a woman’s understanding of the act was radical indeed, and experienced as such by many of those who read The Second Sex. I understood this shift at one intellectual level and did not at yet another.

Till I read Toni Morrison‘s Sula (Knopf, New York, 1973). In it, when Sula has sex with Ajax, she “stood wide-legged against the wall and pulled from his track-lean hips all the pleasure her thighs could hold.” (pp. 125)  Now, I understood a little better. Here again, was woman active, possessing sexual agency, not the passive receiver of sexual attention but the active dispenser of it. She did not have something ‘put inside her’, she ‘pulled’ it to herself, the limits of that exchange only demarcated by her own desire and ability. It’s been some twenty-two years since I first read that line, and I have never forgotten it, so suddenly did it come on me as I read Sula, and so distinctive was the reconfiguration of sexual politics that it forced upon me.

Here is another literary take on the conceptual revision that Beauvoir suggested. In The Late Bourgeois World (Penguin, New York, 1966), Nadine Gordimer‘s narrator Liz Van Den Sandt ruminates over an interesting dimension of her sexual relationship with Graham:

Yet when he’s inside me–last night–there’s the strangest thing. He’s much better than someone my own age, he comes to me with a solid and majestic erection that will last as long as we choose. Sometimes he will be in me for an hour and I can put my hand on my belly and feel the blunt head, like a standard upheld, through my flesh. But while he fills me, while you’d think the last gap in me was closed for ever, while we lie there silent I get the feeling that I am the one who has drawn him up into my flesh, I am the one who holds him there, that I am the one who has him helpless. If I flex the muscles inside me, it’s as if I were throttling someone. He doesn’t speak; the suffering of pleasure shuts his eyes, the lids are tender without his glasses. And even when he brings about the climax for us–afterwards I am still holding him as if strangled; warm, thick, dead, inside. [pp. 37-38]

I suspect there are men who would find this description disconcerting–the more ‘sensitive’ among them might even be offended–and indeed, it was probably meant to be so. But hopefully, equally many men and women will find in this little passage echoes of the same species of altered perspective that Beauvoir urged us to adopt, and that Morrison so expertly captured and described.

Eagleton on Sex and Sexuality: Fun, and Not-So-Much (Respectively)

In yesterday’s post, I offered a couple of critical remarks in response to Stanley Fish‘s review of  Terry Eagleton‘s Reason, Faith and Revolution. Those remarks were directed at a pair of passages excerpted from Eagleton. Today’s  post features Eagleton too, but cast as reviewer, not reviewee, on everyone’s favorite topic: sex (and the considerably more serious business of sexuality).

In reviewing Hal Gladfelder’s Fanny Hill in Bombay: The Making and Unmaking of John Cleland (‘Grub Street Snob‘, Londong Review of Books, 13 September 2012), Eagleton writes:

Sexuality is not to be confused with sex. Sex is what people do, whereas sexuality is largely the province of the intelligentsia. Sex can be fun, but sexuality can be serious stuff. Academic writing about it hardly ever captures its amusing, even farcical dimensions, whatever it is that makes it such a perennial subject of curiosity and intrigue. Hearing that two people can be sleeping together can often provoke a spontaneous grin, provided neither of them is your partner. Even so, sex and sexuality are hardly on different planets. Most of those who write on sexuality have sex lives themselves, and thus tend to practice what they preach. Studying sexuality is always at some level self-study, rather as writing about popular culture, for most of the students who do it these days, involves watching movies and TV shows they would have watched anyway. There is thus a convenient continuity between’s one’s academic and one’s actual life, as with a psychiatrist who is an expert on his own psychosis.

The contrast between sex and sexuality, between the doing and the writing about it, is of course quite acute, rather as there is one between jokes and humor and their academic analysis. In the case of sex and sexuality the problem is compounded by the fact that sex is a pretty undignified business. Rarely, if ever, as we have found out for ourselves, do its physical expressions ever match the highly stylized, graceful, in slow-motion, couplings of the screen–whether large or small-or the novel. Academic writing about sexuality has thus had to put a wrap on these rough edges and cloak itself in stately (or incomprehensible) prose. This leads to the scarcely believable situation of academic talks on sex that do not elicit as much as a single giggle from their audience. The titles of talks and papers on sexuality attempt to make up for this–Eagleton helpfully provides ‘Putting the Anus back in Coriolanus as an example and I can point to ‘Unzipping the Monster Dick: Deconstructing Ableist Penile Representations in Two Ethnic Homoerotic Magazines’–but they might be fighting a losing battle given the overwhelming likelihood that the prose on display will be turgid and uninspired. In part, this is just because this is academic writing, but here, I suspect the subject matter induces reticence even in those bold enough to venture into its precincts.

A smart academic would find a way to write racily about sexuality. I’m not about to start, but I wish someone would.

The Walking Dead Claim Another Victim

I have finally succumbed to The Walking Dead. As I had noted in a post earlier this week, I am ensconced in a friend’s apartment, house-sitting, with access to–among other things–an impressive collection of graphic novels. Included in them is the first compendium of The Walking Dead comic book series (Compendium One, May 6, 2009, issues 1-48), which I’ve worked through. I’ve also immersed myself in the AMC television series, watched the six episodes of the first season and am five episodes deep into the second; as you can see, I’ve been spending my time well. (I’m not a serious consumer of comic books so this represents a change in my reading habits and an investment in time. It has not been one I’ve regretted in the least.)

Obligatory show-comic comparison: the novel is starker, darker, more complex, but the show has its own strengths in creating and sustaining  moments of chilling horror and in the development of interesting characters and story-lines.

So, post-apocalyptic horror, eh? What is it good for? Well, the taglines at the back of the Compendium say it quite well:

How many hours are in a day when you don’t spend half of them watching television? When is the last time any of us REALLY worked to get something we wanted? How long has it been since any of us really NEEDED something that we wanted?

The world we knew is gone.

The world of comfort and frivolous necessity has been replaced by a world of survival and responsibility. An epidemic of apocalyptic proportions has swept the globe causing the dead to rise and feed on the living. In a matter of months society has crumbled, no government, no grocery stores, no mail delivery, no cable TV.

In a world ruled by the dead, we are forced to finally start living.

And living, really, when you get down to it, is a series of hard choices that need to be made. Portraying the making of those choices, in a world whose most distinctive characteristic is the corrosive proximity of death, disease,  and danger, is what gives both the comic books and the television series their gravity.  There is violence aplenty, but it is not what gives The Walking Dead its air of dread. That has been accomplished, quite well, by ensuring the world inhabited by Rick Grimes and his family is one whose relentless demands can produce in a parent the otherwise unthinkable thought that it might be better for an injured child to succumb  than to recover into a world made anew like this one. It’s  the visceral thought of a world like that is the fear that animates The Walking Dead.

For philosophy professors looking for pop culture material to illustrate reading lists: the show and the novel both bristle with segments that could be drawn into classroom discussions of states of nature, libertarian philosophy, ethical dilemmas, philosophy of technology, feminism, race relations and so on.

Note: I intend to write a follow-up post on the show’s treatment of sexuality.