BREAD & WINE: love is the return of the gods

Reading DHALGREN I felt the need to branch out and read some of Delany’s criticism and his autobiographical works.

This is an endearing love story, well-told and an enjoyable read. Despite the sensational surface (famous black gay SF writer falls in love with unknown and dirty homeless man on New York streets) this graphic novel tells a typical love story.

The chance encounter of inhabitants of different worlds, the unexpected pairing of minds and bodies, the hesitations and enthusiasms, wariness and trust, the need to share, the mythic resonances and the banal homeliness. We can all identify with this, even if our circumstances are very different.

The title comes from the title of a poem by Holderlin, which is cited from the first page of the story and throughout the book. The poem tells us:

Bread is the fruit of the earth, yet it’s blessed also by light.
The pleasure of wine comes from the thundering god.
We remember the gods thereby, those who were once
With us, and who’ll return when the time is right.

The message seems to be, in both cases, that love lives by flashes of the union of earth and sky, of filth and cosmogenesis, flashes of the return of the gods in the pagan communion of “mismatched” lovers.

REALIST VERSUS FANTASTIC SF? From Peter Hamilton to Kim Stanley Robinson

I think this is an interesting topic, with Peter Hamilton at one end of the spectrum (on the fantastic side of space opera), Alaistair Reynolds in the middle (realistic space opera), and Kim Stanley Robinson near the other extreme (realistic SF). Is there really a difference, is “science fiction” composed of numerous subgenres, or is the “realism” of KSR merely a trope?

Some people dismiss Peter Hamilton’s works as mere playfulness, without the serious concerns of someone like Kim Stanley Robinson. Yet given the metaphorical dimension of SF there may be surprising resemblances.

For example, Hamilton’s Void Trilogy explores the theme of the price to pay for the big dream of people getting the life that they want, in this case the price is that the universe is being destroyed. In KSR’s AURORA this theme is approached in a more realistic way, and the idea is that we better take care of the Earth, as there is no replacement.

READING RAPUNZEL

The second episode of the “Reading, Short and Deep” podcast is devoted to a discussion of the Grimms’ version of the tale of Rapunzel. The reading proposed is very interesting, and demonstrates the explanatory power of a sociocultural Freudian approach. The discussion is illuminating and the tools proposed to analyse the fairy tale seem quite adapted. I do not wish to criticise this reading, nor to provide a full-blown alternative interpretation but merely to factor in some further considerations. I also would like to compare the tale of Rapunzel with the SF story by Ray Bradbury, “Zero Hour”, that was discussed in the first episode. So I will confine myself to a few brief remarks.

1) Pluralism: The language of the fairy tale is translated into the language of sexuality. The tower is a phallus, the roots of the rampion are phallic, letting down the hair is a sign of setting aside inhibitions, “happily ever after” means no more sexual turmoil, etc. This language is further coded in Oedipal terms. This is no dogmatic imposition: the fairy tale calls for such a reading. But other languages could be explored, in particular the language of individuation and transformation.

2) Individuation: On this reading we would be sensitive to situations of disindividuation or alientation and their transformation into more individuated states.

The matriarchal state at the beginning of the story is static and stifling, leading to the ardent wish for newness (a baby). However the mother craves satisfaction for her selfish caprice even more than the new possibility, and a matriarchal contract transfers ownership of the future baby to the sterile crone who intimidates with her magical power. The male element, the husband, is totally disindividuated, serving as a simple appendage to his wife’s desires. A possible interpretation of the witch’s words is that the rampion from her garden will serve to fecundate the mother. The newness is contained and neutralised, instaurating only a closed matriarchal dyad. This is well described in Anne Sexton’s poetic retelling of the tale.

In the next phase the situation is even more matriarchal as the masculine element has become even more attenuated, absent at first and later present only as a sort of ambience, the phallic tower in which Rapunzel lives imprisoned, a sheltered life, ignorant of the outside world. Her long hair and her singing are her own magical relation to the outside, attracting and providing entry for a new element, this time more individuated: a grown man and not a baby girl. A patriarchal imbalance is created as Rapunzel prefers this “King’s son” to the witch, “old mother Gothel”, who at least has a name, and is more individuated.

In the third phase Rapunzel has to fend not only for herself but also her children in a wasteland, and the prince wanders in misery, alone and blind, living frugally.¬† Both have had their protective shelter, including their “puppy love”, removed. They meet again for a more mature, more individuated, union, and Rapunzel’s magic (her tears) restores her lover’s sight, instaurating a new vision, a new relation to the outside.Rapunzel’s magic individuates and makes whole, enchanting through love and healing, whereas Gothel’s is disindividuating, proceeding by fear and punishment, mutilating.

3) Overkill: Any interpretation is one-sided, and we may be tempted to force all the details to fit some preconceived scheme. Eric Rabkin and Jesse Willis pursuing their translation of the story into sexual language go too far in one case. They comment on an expression, “The King’s son wished to go in to her”, as being explicitly sexual in meaning. They ignore that the formulation is “in to ” and not “into”. They also ignore that the same expression is used a little later for the witch: “the witch climbed up by it and went in to her”. This is an artefact of the translation, as the German reads: “der K√∂nigssohn wollte zu ihr hinauf sreigen”, “the King’s son wanted to climb up to her”.

4) Comparison with “Zero Hour”: The fairy tale seems to be more complete than the short story.

In Rapunzel we have four ages of woman: girl-child, maiden, mother, crone. In Zero Hour Bradbury gets by with only the girl child and the mother. The initial situation is one of alienation, but this time the order is patriarchal: enforced peace, the balance of terror, all-pervasive technology (in the air, at the job and at home). The mother, Mary Morris, is alienated relying on machines like the “kitchen butler” and cut off from her imagination and her intuitions. The world is without surprises, impregnable, stabilised. It has almost eliminated all possibility of transformation. Yet children are a vector of change.

The little girl Mink is emprisoned, like all children under nine, by parental discipline (this corresponds to the tower in Rapunzel), and like Rapunzel she is open to newness through her imagination (Drill corresponds to the King’s son, but also to the witch, as his magic is negative, a false promise of freedom by punishment of adults and scoffers; the hammers and pipes correspond to Rapunzel’s hair).

Mink is living things in terms of a fairy tale matrix (“I might be queen”). However, here the fairy tale serves only to mystify, to manipulate, and to disindividuate the children. The mother is deaf, she has “shut her ears” to what is happening; the father is blind, he looks at the childrens’ game only to check that there is no electricity involved, and he sees no danger.

The alienation has gone too far, the polarisation is too extreme. Change will come, only explosively, by means of the phallic invader from another dimension, and no longer by the gentle ingress of a loving prince.

FROM FRANKENSTEIN TO ALGERNON: on Gary Wolfe’s How Great Science Fiction Works

This audio course is an interesting and enjoyable listen. It gives us a useful basic history of the field and overview of important themes. The treatment is synthetic and unified and much ground is covered. It made me discover new aspects of the past history of the genre and did a good job on recent and contemporary trends. The danger in this sort of survey is in getting bogged down in simply summarising a lot of material rather than analysing it. This is my only regret, that the proportion of analysis to summary was too low. However, given the ambitious scope of the course, this was perhaps inevitable. The 24 lectures amount to 12 hours of listening, and more analysis would have doubled the duration. It is a merit of the course that it leaves us eager for more.

Gary Wolfe sees in Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN as the precursor of modern science fiction in its abandon of all supernaturalism. This emphasis on naturalistic explanation is associated with another contemporary theme, that of the divorce between science and conscience. He ends with a discussion of FLOWERS OF ALGERNON as an example of how a work can unite both science fictional and literary worlds, both speculation and aethetics, and so open up new possibilities for thought and feeling.