Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Symptoms of the Modernist Disease

The Evening, the Morning and the Night

As a black woman writing science fiction Octavia Butler admits to constantly dealing with the question, "What good is science fiction to Black people?" Her response was, "At its best, science fiction stimulates
imagination and creativity. It gets reader and writer off the beaten track, off the narrow, narrow footpath of what "everyone" is saying, doing, thinking- whoever "everyone" happens to be this year. And what good is all this to Black people?" (page 134-135). I would argue that it is as important as any other literature to readers, especially Black people. Thus by her own admission science fiction is a way to look again at what we are doing as a society. Science fiction brings with it a hint of stereotype as is inherent in genre by way of focusing on topical issues and enlarging them to occupy a space of cosmic importance.

It is in this light that the short story "The Evening and the Morning and the Night" functions as an examination of the modernist condition of people, black or white, in the world. Lynn expresses a real dread of failing to meet the challenges before her. "For long, irrational minutes, I was convinced that somehow if I turned, I would see myself standing there, gray and old, growing small in the distance, vanishing" (page 68). In this quote she displays an extreme fear of fading away and not accomplishing anything in her lifetime. One of the questions I still haven't found an answer to is how much of this is due to her disease and how much is related to her position as a person in society?

Butler examines several issues of all people through the lense of a specific group of people subject to a degenerative disease known as Duryea-Gode disease (DGD). DGD is influenced by three real world diseases: Huntington's disease, phenylketonuria (PKU), and Lesch-Nyhan. The specific symptoms of which relate to the dominance of the disease in all offspring, the necessity of dietary restrictions, and a desire to self-harm leading to eventual mental impairment.

The long-run symptoms are not pertinent to this discussion, as the Butler chose to focus the story on a woman still in her twenties looking to establish herself in a world which she is slightly askance of by virtue of her genetics. This feeling of otherness works on a number of levels as a metaphor for displaced youth, black people in society, women's role in society, and especially black women in society. Sufferers of DGD are prone to a number of immediate symptoms including burning out faster than most other people, a drive to leave a mark before their premature deaths by the disease, alienation from others, and a feeling of being trapped in their body.

Pablo Picasso displays Modernism in action
Many of these symptoms seem pretty typical to people in Modernist literature. A shorter-lifespan gives them a different perspective on human accomplishment than others, and is most likely the cause of their great breakthroughs in the scientific fields. Their alienation from others is not a direct effect of the disease, but rather a result of outside perception on their dominant disorder. Finally, their feeling of being trapped in their bodies is a deliberate reference to eastern religions. As Butler described it, the DGDs feels "imprisoned within their own flesh, and that the flesh is somehow not truly part of them" (page 70). This belief isn't necessarily tied to the disease, as many different religions including Buddhism hold that the body is a trap for the spirit and that only through accomplishments can we seek a higher vessel in our next trip through the world.

Their shorter-lifespans may exacerbate the problems facing all people for those suffering from DGD, yet that doesn't make them any different from any historically mistreated or distrusted group. Through this genetic disorder Butler is able to take on issues of social Darwinism, racial superiority, and other divides in society by way of discussing a very real genetic distinction between the in-group and the out-group. Lynn seeks to justify this in a dialogue resisting the genetic. She claims that the reason DGDs were good at the sciences was "terror and a kind of driving hopelessness" (page 37). She denies that this drive towards the sciences is anything but a indirect result of the disease, choosing to believe that it stems from their shorter lifespan rather than a genetic predisposition. Lynn adds dismissively, "healthy people have all the time in the world for stupid generalizations and short attention spans" (page 39). The implication is there though.

Beatrice relates the story of the man who constructed the locks in Dilg as "nobody in particular... But sometime in his life he read a science-fiction story in which palmprint locks were a given. He went that story one better by creating one that responded to voice or palm" (page 65). This ties back to the underlying implication that science fiction holds some of the answers, whether they be as metaphors for current societal ills or as inspiration for steps forward in the fields of technology, genetics, and especially how society would best cope with these changes.


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