Wednesday, February 9, 2011

"A Rose for Ecclesiastes": A (Non)Traditional Colonization Romance

In “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” “civilized” humans discover other life forms on Mars. They study their habits and culture, which causes them to struggle with each other over who can take credit for the discoveries. They judge that culture as primitive and matriarchal (perhaps relatively less civilized than their own culture because it is matriarchal), even though the Martian culture predates that of human civilizations. When Gallinger is finally permitted to form a more intimate connection with the natives, which indicates that he has gained some of their trust, he falls in love with one of them. He slowly discovers that the Martians are a doomed civilization, and that he, the wise white man, is the only one who can save them, by forcing them to start thinking like humans (renounce part of their culture).
Does anyone think this looks familiar?
Pocahontas. Avatar.
Am I saying that Zelazny ripped off the story line? No. “A Rose For Ecclesiastes” was first published in 1963, long before Cameron filmed his legal LSD trip. But this “traditional” colonization fantasy of rescuing a doomed culture is difficult to ignore.
Zelazny’s motives for creating this story line can be analyzed in two extreme ways (or they could fall anywhere between these two interpretations): (1) He simply didn’t realize that the white man saving the doomed matriarchal race with his seed carries strong social/historical connotations. (2) He’s fully aware of the symbolism he’s evoking (and how offensive it can be).
I’m leaning towards the second motive. Gallinger is not a lovable hero; he deserves very little sympathy from his readers, despite his status as a great poet/literary figure of his time. Even after he falls in love and becomes slightly more bearable to the other human characters, he clearly doesn’t become more lovable to Braxa. As Ben points out, Gallinger feels that he saves the Martian race - that he’s rebelling against their foolish religion, forcing them to evolve just as he claims Christians evolved past the pessimistic Book of Ecclesiastes; that he’s bridging the gap between humans and Martians by replacing the impotency of the Martian men - but he’s really fulfilling a prophecy, and the matriarchs lured him into that prophecy with girl bait. So, although Gallinger fulfills a vital need for the Martians, he only does that because the Martians manipulated him into that role. Already, this seems to undermine the colonial fantasy. Zelazny adds to this by casting Gallinger as a hypocrite - after accusing the Martians of falling into the same trap that the Book of Ecclesiastes almost drew humans into. “[W]e [humans] did not lie down, despite plagues, wars, and famines. We did not die,” he tells them (97-98). After he succeeds in converting the Martians and saving them, he attempts to commit suicide. In this way, Zelazny refuses to allow the story to end on a heroic, triumphant note. He also reminds readers that although colonialization might ascribe to lofty aims - revitalizing a culture or helping it evolve to acceptable standards - it comes from the colonizers’ selfish motives.


Ayse Gursoy said...

I think you're really on to something with your point about the "romance" between Gallinger and Braxa. If we were to read Avatar as a romance film (and I'm pretty sure you definitely could), the point where the relationship seems untenable comes when Saldana's character realizes that Sully had had an ulterior motive for entering their civilization, and it constitutes a betrayal. In Rose for Ecclesiastes, the betrayal is on Braxa's part, as she knows exactly why Gallinger is there, but Gallinger thinks only that she loves him. So yes, definitely undermining.

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