Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Humanity through Martian lore: the discovery of the self through the other

Zelazny’s A Rose for Ecclesiastes addresses notions of alterity in an interesting and indirect way. Gallinger, the pompous but linguistically gifted poet that acts as the protagonist of the story, is granted access to the cultural history of the Mars after demonstrating his considerable mastery of their “Lower Tongue.” While immersing himself in translating alien works of history and scripture, he falls for a Martian dancer that he inadvertently impregnates. Unbeknownst to Gallinger, his ensuing challenge to the Martian Matriarchy in the name of his beloved Braxa would fulfill an ancient prophecy that predicts the arrival of a savior from the sky.

On the surface, the story appears to represent a simple, colonial fantasy where the educated white man (who also happens to possess some serious martial arts training) swoops in to save the beautiful, dancing women of another world – a work of “camp” or “pulp,” as noted by a few others. The narrative itself is saturated with constant name-dropping and literary allusion, not to mention the heavily religious undertones suggested by the title. I want to argue, however, that Zelazny’s vision is more complex than what is suggested above. The scholarly (albeit pretentious) referencing, in addition to the lack of overall detail provided about the Martians themselves, appears to unpack notions of humanity more so than illustrate the speculative facets of science fiction.

First, Gallinger’s constant invoking of literary figures and allusions properly reflect his identification as a “second rate poet with a case of hubris.” Furthermore, this narrative style also serves to emphasize Gallinger’s challenge to his father’s faith; instead of becoming a missionary, the prodigious younger Gallinger chose to rebel, seek a liberal arts education, and eventually become a well-respected poet living in Greenwich Village. Ironically, it is his interactions with a dying alien society that reawakens his biblical roots. By invoking Ecclesiastes, he is able to present a positive example of struggle in the face of prophetic hopelessness. However, this does not result in his endorsing of religion or faith: Gallinger makes a point to venerate “vanity”, “pride,” and the “hubris of rationalism.” He preaches, “It is our blasphemy which has made us great, and will sustain us, and which the gods secretly admire in us.”

Several discourses of alterity can be identified within the above analysis. Most overtly, Gallinger’s dissention from religious discourse provides an alternate and more flexible way to interpret historical literature. It also addresses the issue of separating history from scripture, two elements traditionally viewed to be indistinguishable in primitive societies. Gallinger essentially highlights critical thought and western academic discipline as the major catalysts to civil and philosophical development.

The above arguments, however, are complicated by the plot twist revealed at the end of the story. That is, Gallinger’s discovery that his passionate sermon had actually fulfilled the very Martian prophecy he thought he was debunking suggests that faith can play a major role in humanity. Moreover, the paradox Gallinger identifies – that the “great paradox which lies at the heart of all miracles” is that he “[never believed a word of his own gospel]” – emphasizes the irony that he had been only acting on his own individual passions despite becoming the Martian messiah. Of course, the ultimate irony is the Braxa never loved him back.

[NOTE: sorry about how late I posted this – I screwed up and thought the posts were due at midnight and not noon.]


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