Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Otherness in "A Rose for Ecclesiastes"

Key words: foreign, otherness, A Rose for Ecclesiastes

One thing that struck me about A Rose for Ecclesiastes was Zelazny's repeated use of comparisons to Asian cultures to describe Martian language and culture. Does this technique make the Martians seem more human and accessible, placing them in a context closer to home, or does it emphasize the differences between these cultures and the American "norm," making them seem more foreign, more alien, in the comparison? By comparing the Martians to cultures that Americans might find foreign to the point of incomprehensibility, Zelazny provides himself with a venue for exploring our relation to "otherness" (other cultures, other languages, other people), and has the chance to ultimately break down the apparent barriers between these disparate human groups, and present the need for unity between them.

In A Rose for Ecclesiastes, "foreign" and "alien" are almost interchangeable concepts. When Gallinger attends the dance of Locar, for example, he at first describes the instrument used as "faintly resembling a samisen," but then, within a few lines, changes this "faint resemblance" into absolute correspondence, referring to the Martian as "the samisen player" (69). In the work of a few moments, the Martian musician has become a Japanese musician, become equated with an earthly, human, and so more accessible figure. Yet the moment certainly does not erase the foreignness and strangeness of the Martians' music. Zelazny mentions the samisen in italics, by the Japanese name, without any attempt at further description or explanation. How many readers, from that word alone, could picture the instrument? Of those familiar with the samisen, how many could recognize its sound? Zelazny makes Martian culture "more familiar" by putting it into a human concept that many American readers would find almost as incomprehensible, and then relies on the other descriptions in the scene to lead us to believe in the beauty of a thing that we cannot fully understand.

As the Book of Locar reminds Gallinger of the Book of Ecclesiastes, Zelazny suggests that the fundamental ideas behind Martian and Christian culture are more similar than different. As Martian culture also becomes tied to Japanese culture, Zelazny therefore suggests that these differing (and once warring) cultures could also contain fundamental similarities.

Indeed, Zelazny goes beyond arguing that these differing cultures (Christian and Japanese, Earth and Martian) have similarities, to suggest that the two contain elements of equal value, which must be not appropriated but blended in order for each to reach its full potential. When Gallinger writes his poem Braxa, for example, he first writes the poem in High Martian, and then "gropes" to put it in English (74), suggesting that these ideas are most naturally expressed in their own language, in the language of the culture from which they originated, and that Gallinger cannot fully take them out of that context for other audiences without losing some of their meaning. Yet Gallinger is also forced to use the English words "cat," "dog" and "flower" in the poem to describe his own reaction to the dance, as these concepts do not exist in Martian. Gallinger's best version of the poem must combine elements of both his native and this foreign culture, allowing it to transcend normally poetry into the work of a "prophet" (75).

Similarly, when Gallinger fights Ontro, he can only defeat him by combining the Western and the Japanese within himself. In this moment, Zelazny does not simply mention the Japanese fighting skills that Gallinger learnt in Tokyo, but also blends English and Japanese language in this scene to show that these two cultures remain distinct, yet can be combined to create greater power. Although the words are written in latin script, to make the pronunciation parsable to English readers, their meaning is translucent, only partly explained by context. He is 一球, ikkyuu, the Japanese word, the Japanese concept, pure and intranslatable. The tools that Gallinger uses in this passage - his atemiwaza attack, the zen technique tsuki no kokoro - do not exist in Gallinger's native culture, and so he must become one with this foreign other in order to succeed. Both the familiar culture and the foreign are valuable, powerful, and must be combined to literally save the world, in the immediate fight against Ontro, in fulfilling the prophecy, and in allowing the Martian race to live on by interbreeding with humanity.

However, this blending process ultimately feels imperfect. It does not seem an equal blend of the two, but the domination of one culture over the other. "If you permit the doctors of the next expedition to examine you," Gallinger tells the Martians, "perhaps even the men may be helped. But if they cannot, you can mate with the men of the Earth." Yet this ending does not combine the best of both Martian and Earth culture to provide a better future for both races, but implies that the Martians alone will benefit from this alliance, that man (and particularly Gallinger) will become god in their eyes. The Martians must be saved by Earth, but Earth does not seem to need the Martians for anything. Despite the movements towards the suggestion of equality and importance of different cultures, this short story cannot quite free itself of the taint of benevolent colonialism, of the power of the Christian, American man over that exotic, foreign "other."


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