Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Human Anxieties, Alien Lands

Themes: anxiety, manipulation of memory/identity, violation of the sanctity of the human body, definition of humanity, future of the human race

There are few moments in Paul Verhoeven’s  Total Recall (1990) that cannot be described as rather “heavy-handed.” Lying on the floor, tiny chests rising and falling rapidly in growing panic, Cohaagen’s dying fish – compared as they are through an immediate cut to the suffocating inhabitants of Mars’ Venus district – are certainly no exception to the rule (01:28:00).

But heavy-handed though it may be, the fish-out-of-water metaphor seems a rather apt way of capturing the source of many of the deep-seated human anxieties explored in the Mars-focused pieces of this week – anxieties raised by the consideration of moving beyond the known ‘boundaries’ of human civilization. Whether it’s apprehension about the violation of the sanctity of the human body, or concern about the instability of the definition of humanity itself, such anxieties are projected onto the landscape of Mars – both as the actual setting of the story/film or as a locale that is highly significant to the narrative – in the works Total Recall, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” and “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”.

A whole industry of gore-based horror films has sprung up around the anxiety of the violation of the human body. In Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”, the anxiety manifests itself in two ways. The first is obviously the basic premise of the piece – the violation of the human mind (whether willingly or unwillingly) in order to manipulate and alter our very memories - a core part of what makes us who we very are. The second instance taps into a more basic version of the anxiety through its physicality – the living plasma implanted inside Quail’s brain that allows Interplan to read his thoughts. The visceral repulsion associated with this violation is perhaps best captured by Dick himself – “He shuddered with self-aversion. The thing lived inside him, within his own brain, feeding, listening, feeding” (116).

In Total Recall, the anxiety about the violation of the human body and mind is carried over in the form of the memory manipulation plot device to a certain extent. Yet simultaneously, in a film filled with such bloody violence, where bodies are regularly torn limb from limb and mangled in increasingly creative ways, the sanctity of the human body is violated continuously – to the point where the instability of the human body itself transforms this bodily anxiety into a new anxiety about the nature of humanity itself. Up until the point when humans walked on the moon, humanity has always been defined in terms of its relationship to Earth. What does it mean to be human on a different planet? The anxiety associated with the unknown answers to this question is itself manifested in the prominent role of the mutants throughout the film – most emphatically through the body rebel leader, Kuato (01:15:50). 

But anxieties do not always have to be manifested in so violent a fashion – in Roger Zelazny’s “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” anxiety about how the definition of humanity might be thrown into flux may be seen in a less agitated portrayal.  Although the narrative itself focuses on Gallinger’s own love story and broken heart, his unborn child must not be forgotten. After all, when he looks back at Mars as his spacecraft returns to Earth, he describes the red planet as “a swollen belly” (100), the symbol of pregnancy, of possibility and potential. Had he been merely broken-hearted, the redness of the planet might have leant itself to a number of other similes – a broken heart for example. But he chooses to compare the planet to a pregnant belly – and as such, the entire planet comes to stand for the possibilities that pregnancy stands for – possibilities that can be both good or bad (consider for example, a “pregnant pause” and the possibility of meaning, either good or bad, it may hold). In some ways, then, it is the possibilities of the child that Gallinger sees when he looks back at Mars, the child he will never see, but that means so much not only to the Martians, but to the human race as well.

I have run out of room, and so I will have to simply end by posing the following questions: why is it that we require Mars to explore such anxieties about humanity? Did such anxieties exist before the possibility of man going into space? What is gained and lost in using Mars as the tool to explore issues that go to core of what is important to us as humans, humans who very much are still defined by our presence on the planet Earth?

(I may have been overly ambitious in this first blog entry – as a result, many of my points were probably  not addressed as thoroughly as they should have been – sorry about that! I will try to bite off a smaller chunk next time, but if you need clarification, please comment or email me - skurwa@)


Post a Comment