Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Allusion and Identity in "A Rose for Ecclesiastes"

Forgot to mention: the keywords are the tags. So, allusion, identity, otherness, reference, translation

I'd like to address a topic that both Rhiannon and Alexandra brought up: the referential language in "A Rose for Ecclesiastes". Under the heading of "referential language" I'd like to lump in metaphor, allusion, and non-English words. Each of these has a superficial reason for working within the text, but taken together they reveal a somewhat disconcerting theme about identity and otherness.

The text functions as a sort of hard-boiled sci-fi (as pointed out by Conor), taking on the stylistic trappings of 1940s detective fiction. The two most conspicuous elements of hard-boiled fiction in "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" are heavy use of metaphor (currently distinct from "referential language") the detached narrative voice that at once describes and experiences. These two elements are actually quite closely related, as the heavy use of metaphor aids in establishing a witty, detached narrator. This narrator has time to think even when things are happening all around them, time to reminisce and explain.

My memory was a fogged window, suddenly exposed to fresh air.  Things cleared.  I looked back six years.
This detached narrator, however, seems sometimes too detached. In the moment above (95), the action pauses for half a page while Gallinger narrates a memory. Gallinger's aloofness does not exist only between the text and the reader, but between him and the other characters: Morton says, "I think he's spoken two dozen words to me since I met him" (73). Because he speaks through metaphor when he does speak at all, it is incredibly difficult to pin down Gallinger's identity.

Additionally, he expresses himself through the words of others, even as he is known as a great poet. The story is full of allusions, direct and indirect, to a canon of literature and religious texts. I could try to list all of them, but Alexandra pointed out most of them. (The biggies: Hamlet, the Odyssey/Iliad, the Bible, the Modernist poets, Sartre.) Instead of an attempt to show off his knowledge, these allusions rather emphasize the lack of a distinct voice. Gallinger is a poet, sure, but the only direct view of his poetry yields a disappointing poem (not disappointing because it's particularly bad, but it's not particularly good either). Aside from this single view, Gallinger always defines himself through association.
(If I were particularly playful, and I might just be, I'd say that Gallinger's identity is as fragmented as the narrator of "The Waste Land", with all "these fragments I have shored against my ruins".)

The non-English languages offer a key to the puzzle of identity. Gallinger opens the story, "I was busy translating" (58). Gallinger's function throughout the plot is to translate High Martian lore into English, to translate Martian culture into American (Earth) culture. When he can translate no more, he requests to "copy" (75), and introduces technology to assist him. But this technology merely puts off the task of translation, merely makes it easier to do so at a more convenient time. Gallinger is the translator, never the thing to be translated, even though the story sets him up as such (a great modern poet). In line with this, Gallinger's allusions encompass languages from German to Ancient Greek, from Hindi to Hebrew. The fragmented, refracted voice that defines through association is not unique to one culture, but takes its pick from all the cultures out there. It appropriates at will. It, however, always returns to its foundations: Gallinger, as much as he ties together the Koran and Japanese martial arts, always takes them as alien to his Word, his Bible, his Iliad, his Odyssey.

And here, we have the puzzle in its entirety. The identity, formed through appropriating the Other's, always appropriates but never assimilates. It defines itself through "not-being", and requires an Other to know itself. Gallinger, detached from his surroundings, coalesces fragments of other people's words and languages, and only really exists in translation. It doesn't matter that this story is set on Mars, only that it is somewhere totally alien and acceptably so. Martian culture appears composed of all the non-Western Terran cultures, amalgamated into this huge, yet non-threatening Other that requires saving. In saving it, Gallinger finds his identity (that is actually just another huge allusion; I guess there's nothing new under the sun after all).


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