Tuesday, March 8, 2011

It does not do to dwell on dreams, and forget to live

In The Book of Martha, Octavia Butler presents what she calls her "utopia story" (214). The only place utopia can occur, she suggests in the story and in her afterword, is "in everyone's private, individual dreams" (214). However, I was troubled by this "utopia," as it suggests that true happiness must come at the cost of reality. Martha decrees that everyone "would have their own personal best of all possible worlds during their dreams" (203), but if everyone has their "best possible world" handed to them in dreams, what can possibly motivate them to make a better world in reality? How can society progress, or even survive, when its inhabitants are wrapped up deep in their own imagination?

"Each person will have a private, personal utopia every night" (204), Martha suggests, but the words "private" and "personal" here suggest that this "utopia" is actually very isolating. Each person can play in their ideal fantasy world, but they cannot share it with others. They will make friends, fall in love, have adventures, but always alone, always with figments of their own imagination. God's comment, "Everything is real. It's just not as you see it" (208) and Martha's power to shape God and Heaven (or whatever we want to call the place in which she finds herself) to her own specifications suggests that this loneliness is intentional, that everything in life is both real and a dream, constructed by what a person "sees." "Reality" is formed by each person's perspective, and therefore is always to some extent a figment of their imagination, always a somewhat isolated experience, separate from the experiences of others. Is Martha's suggestion therefore little different from the "reality" that she already inhabits, improved to allow people to taste their own idea of happiness?

"If only I could wake up," Martha whispers, at the start of her story (189), but by the end, she only wants "to forget" (213). From one perspective, Martha therefore undergoes a great change during the course of the story, moving from a desire to experience truth, to the desire to escape it. However, a second perspective suggests that Martha is always filled with the desire to escape unwanted reality. When she whispers, "If only I could wake up," she is aware that her experience is real, but wishes it could be a dream so that she could escape it and return to her more-familiar life of before. Although the desire is framed differently each time, Butler therefore suggests that Martha is always eager to "forget" the unwanted, and turn to a more comforting experience of almost-reality.

Yet will Martha's solution even provide everyone their own private utopia? Her idea relies upon the idea that people know what they want, and will be happy when they get it. Indeed, one might consider Martha's own experience with God as her own dream; as an author, she finds herself able to play God, to shape the world to her liking, to allow people to experience their fantasies. Yet Martha finds that she hates this power in "reality," and ultimately wants to forget the experience. If we consider Martha's experience in this story as one of the dreams that she creates, experiencing "whatever people love to do most... whatever grabs their attention, whatever they desire" (204), it seems that having "whatever you desire" might ultimately be a negative experience, that too much power and influence, even within your own private world, is terrifying. Will Martha's "utopia," like many before it, therefore crumble into dystopia, even in people's dreams? Is total happiness impossible, even when it is lived as a figment of one's imagination? What happens when one's desires are not bounded by reality?


Post a Comment