It´s been a damn long time since I last addressed you. Tough times we are going through, right? I assume I am not the only one having much more time for oneself nowadays and nonetheless so little inspiration to write, to learn knitting, to do yoga every day, to move. Don´t get me wrong, I am quite content about the unburdening of social commitments, as any good introvert would be. However, it feels like we are holding our breaths, playing dead, unconsciously hoping to get over with it unnoticed. Would this strategy work at all? Guess many of us are starting to doubt it (Many? How many? Am I just projecting?). In any case, I got enough of playing dead today; I want to monologue to you a bit, to tell you about the last wonderful book I read: “The Female Man” by Joanna Russ.
Written in 1970 and published in 1975, the story introduces us to four women living in different time frames that somehow meet and get to know each other. We have the part-time library worker Jeannine, living in current time (well, 1975) and described as any-woman, alas: crushed under the social pressure of finding social validation through men and fitting into the gender stereotypes of the time.
We meet Janet, a dweller of a (possible) future Earth called Whileaway, a planet inhabited only by women due to a virus that erased men centuries ago. She is also described as any-woman in her society, dispensable. The thorough description of Whileaway civilization and landscape is the closest we will get to any Utopia in the book. Not quite, though.
From the beginning we also meet Joanna, the most slippery character from the four. We understand she belongs also to 1975 but she is rather the spirit-like character, the ghost that is and is not in some scenes, the omniscient narrator made an actual character, in and out of the story at the same time. Of course, Joanna (as Joanna Russ) is likely to be the alter ego of the author herself.
Last but not the least, we get to know Jael and the reason why the four of them have met. Jael comes from a possible other Earth in perpetual war between men and women or “haves” and “not-haves”. It is a place much advanced technologically, herself being a human with many devices (as claws and steel teeth) that make us think about a human-machine fusion. She is an assassin and she is fascinating:
“Murder is my one way out.
For every drop of blood shed there is restitution made; with every truthful reflection in the eyes of a dying man I get back a little of my soul; with every gasp of horrified comprehension I come a little more into the light. See? It’s me!
I am the force that is ripping out your guts; I, I, I, the hatred twisting your arm; I, I, I, the fury who has just put a bullet into your side. It is I who cause this pain, not you. It is I who am doing it to you, not you. It is I who will be alive tomorrow, not you. Do you know? Can you guess? Are you catching on? It is I, who you will not admit exists. Look! Do you see me?”
Jael has summoned them up (I won´t tell you why, won´t spoil it all!) and we find out they are actually living possibilities of the same being. They are one in four; the same in four different upbringings, social environments, time frames, etc. (I read in some reviews that this was something predictable, not such a surprise at that point of the book. God bless the bright and smart people out there). Thus, everything starts to make sense and the deeper reflection of the novel starts: circumstances mould us. We can become anything, we are not biologically determined; we are what we make out of the circumstances or vice versa. Now, just apply this to the gender determinism defining 1970 society (and ours) that Russ so much despises and so thoroughly describes in the novel.
This is one of the possible conclusions of the book and also the most obvious. However the novel goes further. It is also a bitter critic of the patriarchal society women had (have) to endure; it is a stream of consciousness filled with hatred and eagerness to destroy it all. Nonetheless, as any good science fiction book, it also offers us the possibility of imagining alternative realities. It sketches the possibility of hope, of change, of something else. These two motives (destruction and construction) struggle in the book to take the lead and as a reader I am not sure which one ends up winning.
In any case, I believe both are legitimate. Joanna Russ has been extensively criticize for her radical feminist statements and called “men hater” in many occasions. Some of her characters won´t deny it and I don´t know why they should. Maybe it was her impertinence the reason why she was/is ignored by many critics and doesn’t have nowadays the resonance of some other great sci-fic female writers like Ursula K LeGuin, contemporary and publishing books at the same time than Russ. No one I know would deny LeGuin is brilliant and a must-read, however her books look classic and mainstream while her feminism tastes mild after reading Joanna Russ. As a writer LeGuin was much more committed to the social accepted, constructive and edifying possibilities of science fiction than to its more obscure possibilities of criticism and restitution.
I believe that as a female rather than as a writer, Joanna Russ touched the taboo of expressing hate, of wanting to destroy it all; Half history-half mythology, women are the holders of life, the carers, the love givers, the ones that make the world go around with their selfless and infinite love. That idea is very much ingrained in our imagery. Even in nowadays mainstream feminism talking about violence against our oppressors, acting back, is disapproved. However, Russ dared to challenge this belief. Specifically, she dared to imagine destroying the source of our oppression: men (yeah ,ok, patriarchy). Of course, that was unforgivable by the literary circle of the time and by society in general. She paid for it with the banishment from our bookshelves.
Even though the book is difficult to understand at times because the reader doesn’t know for sure who is speaking what, I finally figured out that is the whole point of it. The writing style combines detailed descriptions with passages of stream of consciousness, dialogues, first and third person passages, etc. It gets confusing and frustrating, no use in denying it. However I believe the style is not accidental, it´s telling us something about the two opposite forces present in the novel, the confusion and disorientation that entails being born a woman in an environment that crushes your core and denies your completeness as a human being.
“In my sleep I had a dream and this dream was a dream of guilt. It was not human guilt but the kind of helpless, hopeless despair that would be felt by a small wooden box or a geometrical cube if such objects had consciousness; it was the guilt of sheer existence. It was the secret guilt of disease, of failure, of ugliness (much worse things than murder); it was an attribute of my being like the greenness of the grass. It was in me. It was on me. If it had been the result of anything I had done, I would have been less guilty.”
The particular character of Jael is the one that captures my attention the most. I don´t think she is a heroine to look up to, however she stimulates my imagination. And I wonder: How come aren’t more avenging heroines out there (in novels at least)? How come women are not even able to imagine the destruction of our enemies? What the fuck do women do with all the hatred resulting from living in an environment that denies our sheer existence? I guess in the answer there is also involved the Christian conception of hatred as something destructive and harmful as the preamble of violence. And no doubt we live in a world where the legitimate use of violence belongs exclusively to the security forces of the Holy State and its illegitimate use to all living men. Women are left with nothing from the share; it is not our domain (so they say). That is why science fiction is so important (and I guess so dangerous): it challenges this conceptions from the deepest of our being: the imagination. Once imagined, the possibilities are endless.
Let´s keep imagining.