On Subjectivity: Wild Swans, Escher Girls, and Mansplaining

I heard something on Radio 4 this morning that set a fire in my brain. It connected with all kinds of things that have been bubbling beneath the surface for the last few weeks – a bunch of ideas and threads from internet culture and international politics that suddenly aligned themselves and allowed me to step back and see the central point around which they were revolving. I knew I needed to write something about it.

People sometimes throw around the term ‘subjectivity’ in internet discussions, but often it is not clearly defined, so I’d like to start by giving a bit of context to fill in what I mean. As you probably know, if you’ve been around here much, I have a not-so-secret identity as a philosopher. More particularly, I study scepticism, and the philosophy of mind. Philosophical scepticism is the doubt of some foundational aspect of our knowledge – such as that there is an external world, or that there are other minds. The kind of scepticism that interests me is what we call ‘solipsistic external world scepticism’ – the thesis that I might be the only thinking being and the whole of the rest of the world might be a figment of my imagination. Scepticism is something most of us have thought about idly from time to time, and some of us (like me) may have worried about intensely for brief periods, but none of us (it is generally accepted) seem to believe in our day-to-day lives. Yet it is notoriously difficult to disprove. Why is that? Well, it is because we are, all of us, stuck inside our own minds. It is because we find ourselves unable to reason from the subjective to the objective.

By ‘subjective’, in this context we mean that which is unique to our own perspective: the thoughts and experiences that make up our individual world views. Sometimes ‘subjective’ is used dismissively, as a way of discrediting an opinion or ending discussions that have become uncomfortable: ‘That’s very subjective!’ one might declare, intending to imply that the opinion has no real basis in fact; or: ‘Oh, it’s all very subjective, really,’ one might say, ‘I can see we aren’t going to decide this’ as a way of holding off any objections that are being made to one’s view. But to be subjective does not necessarily mean to be ‘merely a matter of opinion’. The dismissive tone is induced by the inaccessibility of mental states to the perusal of others. ‘That’s just not funny!’ is declared, and another responds: ‘Well, humour is all very subjective – just because you don’t find it funny doesn’t mean that it isn’t’. And maybe some things are subjective in this sense – some philosophers have argued that morality is subjective in this way – but it’s important to understand that merely being subjective does not entail that something is invalid, untrue, ephemeral, or to be dismissed.

For the subjective is as praised as it is derided. The history of modern analytic philosophy has been dominated by the Cartesian notion of certainty being grounded in the immediacy of thought. Experiences are untrustworthy – the senses are easily tricked – but thought is ‘directly’ revealed to the self. Although few would now except Cartesian infallibility for all thought (the rise of psychoanalysis has mostly put paid to that), the immediacy of thought and experience is persuasive, and most would hold at least certain types of thought or experience as clearly more certain than facts about the world, which can only be inferred through the veil of experience. Thus, as I can never experience your thoughts and your feelings directly, I can never know what it’s like to be you in the way that I know what it’s like to be me. The objective, here, may be more concrete, in that it is stable and accessible to all, but it is also less certainly known, only experienced through the filters shaped by ones own thoughts and experiences.

OK. Enough philosophy. What does this have to do with Radio 4? Well, as I walked to work this morning I tuned in to a discussion concerning Peng Liyuan, the wife of Xi Jinping. Xi Jinping was selected as the next president of China on 8th November 2012. Peng Liyuan is a celebrity in her own right, being a ‘folk’ singer*, and Professor Delia Davin and Ross Terrill had been invited on the Today programme to discuss her in relation to Chinese politics. It was an odd segment. According to the Today website the discussion was supposed to ‘examine what role [women can] hope to achieve in Chinese politics today’, yet for most of the segment they discussed Peng Liyuan’s relationship to Xi Jinping with some comparisons to Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. Ross Terrill has written a book on Jiang Qing, and the majority of the questions were directed towards him, instead of Professor Davin, who is described as ‘an expert on modern Chinese society with a special focus on gender’, who was asked what sort of music Peng Liyuan plays. Ross Terrill’s main comment on Peng Liyuan was that she would do best to keep herself entirely seperate from the politics of her husband. I’m not sure he even wondered just who this would be best for, and, to be honest, until I read the precis of the segment on the website, I thought it was a segment on how Peng Liyuan’s existing fame would impact on Xi Jinping’s career, instead of a discussion of women in Chinese politics. I wondered what Mr Terrill thought of Hilary Clinton’s involvement in politics – would he say she should have kept her nose well out of it and focused on doing what would be most complimentary to her husband’s career?

This was bizarre in itself, but then, towards the end of the segment, when the question of chinese feminism was finally raised, the question was directed to the biographer, and not to the woman who is an expert on gender issues in modern Chinese society. I was flabbergasted when Terrill confidently bemoaned the lack of feminism in Chinese society, only able to reference three historical figures who had gained some power through their husbands in the distant past. This, to him, was Chinese feminism. John Humphreys, the presenter, seemed to be expecting this answer – well, of course, the Chinese are sexist, aren’t they? Not like us in the liberated West (where we ignore the female expert when discussing the question of women and power in favour of the male biographer). He allowed Professor Davin a brief comment in what was clearly supposed to be a sentence before the programme closed and handed over to the news. To my relief, she expressed the same shock I did. Indeed, she said something to the effect of ‘Well, I’m glad you did [give me the chance to speak] I wanted to shreik at that comment!’. Because anyone who knows the slightest bit about Chinese history in the 19th and 20th centuries should know that what Terrill said was patently ridiculous and insultingly dismissive.

Wild Swans - cover artI would never in a million years declare myself an expert on Chinese history or women in China, but then, I’ve never tried to write a book about it. What I have done is read a book about it. Wild Swans, to be precise. Wild Swans is written by Jung Chang, and tells the story of her grandmother, her mother, and herself. Her grandmother was born in 1909 and was of the last generation to experience foot binding, she was also a concubine to a warlord. Her mother grew up in an age of turmoil and invasion. Jung Chang recalls that her mother ‘made up her mind to choose her own husband’ having become ‘disenfranchised with the treatment of women and the system of concubinage (see p. 81). Both the Kuomintang and then the Communists offered ideologies that appealed to the liberation of women, and her mother and father joined the Communist party. One of the most moving passages is chapter seven ‘”Going through the Five Mountain Passages” My Mother’s Long March (1949-1950)’, in which Jung Chang’s mother miscarries her first child, having been forced to march in harsh conditions and all weathers despite her evident illness. The reason? Because the Communist Party believed that men and women were equal, and that a woman should therefore be able to march as well as a man, regardless of the conditions.

All of which is not to say that Chinese feminism is a paragon to be emulated. The tale of Jung Chang’s mother’s long march illustrates this with horrifying clarity. There are hard lessons to be learnt here, in that equality of rights can mean respecting that a pregnant woman has different needs to a strong young man – we should not forbid her any and all activities, but this does not mean ignoring her medical needs, or the strains pregnancy puts on a body. The point is that far from being limited to a tiny number of women who gained power through marriage in the distant past, what Chinese recent history offers is a rich and very complicated story of feminist struggle, in many ways more dramatic than that which the ‘West’ has gone through. There is a strong impression that the extreme oppression of women’s lives in the society of foot binding and concubines led to an equally extreme position in the rejection of old attitudes under the new Communist regime.

And this was a thing of which I had no idea until I read Wild Swans. In fact, almost all the Chinese history I know I got from reading Wild Swans. It’s a terrible thing to say, but that was my education. A little bit on the terracotta army, and then it’s Romans, Normans, Tudors and Stuarts. Entirely Eurocentric, and largely Anglocentric. What reading Wild Swans gave me was an insight into someone else’s subjectivity. And boy, did it have an impact. For the first time history came alive to me and I understood why it was important – the value it has in enabling us to understand each other, and where we have come from. Since then I have eaten up history where and when I can find it. It’s been a bit of a random enterprise – an audio course on Ancient Egypt here, a history of Russia there – but I now understand how little I know about the world outside of my own little sphere of time and space, and I’m seeking to correct that. I’m seeking to expand my understanding of other people’s subjectivity.

It’s for this reason that, should I ever make a definitive list of books that everyone should read, Wild Swans would be on it. Alongside, Hamlet, A Room of One’s Own, Meditations on First Philosophy, Last Chance to See, On Liberty, and Existentialism and Humanism, there would be Wild Swans. Because it is an important book in helping us to understand one another. And because no other work of non-fiction has ever made me cry like that.

And yet, a so-called expert on a programme about women and China apparently knew none of this – had no idea that there had been a feminist revolution in China, just as there had been a cultural one. Clearly had never read Wild Swans. And I remembered how I had read Wild Swans and thought that everyone should read it, and particularly that men, and ‘Western’ men should read it… and that there was a very good chance that Wild Swans would mostly be read by women.

Which is not to say that no men would seek the book out or would read it when it was recommended. I recommended it to my ex-boyfriend and he loved it and bought me Jung Chang’s biography of Mao for my birthday as a result. It’s that men are less likely to find it on their own, less likely to pick it up when it is recommended by women. In the same way that a male friend once laughed at me when I asked if he had caught an interesting segment that had been on Woman’s Hour. I forget the content, but it had been relevant to his interests. He laughed because of course he hadn’t heard it – of course: it was Woman’s Hour. And I have often thought, since then, that a lot of the content of Woman’s Hour is stuff that men should hear, and that most never will.

This is not to condemn men. I have a love-hate relationship with Woman’s Hour, as I think many women do. It is important that many of the issues raised on the programme are given time to be aired, and there’s a good chance many of them wouldn’t be if that time were not set aside for ‘women’s’ issues. And yet by labeling them as ‘women’s’ issues it is only natural than men should feel alienated from them. They are being told that this hour is not for them, even that it is composed of content that they will never really understand. It suggests that there is a special women’s subjectivity from which men can only ever be on the outside looking in.

And yet, I often feel alienated by the content and views expressed on Woman’s Hour. I don’t have a family and have no interest in having one, yet a very great deal of the content seems less ‘women’s’ issues than ‘parents’ issues, and it seems to me that by treating these issues as belonging to a special ‘women’s’ domain we reinforce the idea that raising a family is really a women’s business. And yet – and yet I’ve also come to realise that there is a value to my listening to experiences and troubles that are utterly alien to me. I’ll never understand motherhood from the inside – isn’t it important for me to take the time out, sometimes, and listen to what mothers have to say, to try to understand their points of view? Their issues? I think it is, and it is equally important that men do so, too, but these are views and issues that have been shoved into my domain in a way that they are not projected into most men’s. It’s a problem.

It’s a problem we also see reflected in the other big international politics event that has sent the news networks a flurry: the US presidential election. Some of you may have read my piece responding to the evidence that if only white men had voted, Romney would have won by a landslide. I echo a view that has been making a lot of noise since the election. It’s not simply that white men voted overwhelmingly for Romney, despite his terrifying gender and race politics, it’s that Romney supporters were genuinely shell-shocked that he didn’t win, as documented on whitepeoplemourningromney.tumblr.com. It never occurred to them because most Romney voters were part of a privileged world in which they had secluded themselves from dissenting views in the belief that dissent could only ever come from minorities. They had consistently ignored the views of feminists, black voters, hispanic voters, gay voters, transgender voters etc. etc. They even ignored the polls that told them these people were going to turn out in such numbers that Obama would have a clear victory. Why? Because they assumed they knew better about other people’s subjectivity, so they didn’t even stop to listen when people like Nate Silver told them they were wrong. Leading to the simply wonderful moment when Megyn Kelly asked Carl Rove, when he persisted in denying the truth: ‘Is that math you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better, or is it real?’

With this in mind, I have also been reflecting on the rise of sites like Escher Girls and Mansplaining: Academic Men Explain Things To Me, or the twitter account @everydaysexism and its associated project. Each of these is part of the rise of women using social media to systematically record their experiences and display them to the world.

Escher Girls records the sexism endemic in the depiction of women in comics, countering the oft repeated arguments that ‘male superheroes wear skin-tight clothing too’ and ‘It’s really just Rob Liefeld, and he draws men stupidly too’. The creator of Escher Girls has said that she had heard the latter point so often that she deliberately didn’t use any Rob Liefeld images until she had posted several hundred images by other artists. The point of Escher Girls is not that all of the poses are impossible (although most of them are) as that women drawn so routinely in such ridiculously sexualised manners that people have stopped noticing just how far much of the industry has departed from reality. And in the this centrally collected place distinctly sexist trends emerge that show that the poses of women in comics (in the vast majority) differ wildly from the poses of men. Check out the ‘Offenses‘ section of the tags to see what I mean – in particular ‘ridiculous fighting stances‘.

Academic Men Explain Things To Me is a much newer Tumblr, posting accounts from female academics who find themselves patronised by male colleagues in a way that clearly differs from how these men would treat a male colleague. This is the phenomenon that has been dubbed ‘mansplaining’. The idea came to prominence in 2008 with Rebecca Solnit’s article ‘Men Explain Things To Me‘, although I didn’t know that when I first heard it. In fact, it was a male friend who first introduced me to the term – we were having a discussion in the perilous depths of FanFicRants, and he was worried that he might be coming across as ‘mansplaining’ (he wasn’t, but I still appreciate that he asked). For those unfamiliar, FanFicRants is an odd place. A LiveJournal community so prone to volatility by the inflammatory nature of its subject matter that its denizens have become some of the most self-aware people I have known on the Internet. Not all, I hasten to add, not by a long stretch! But the fact that if you’re going to rant you should be able to take the flack has meant that it is populated by a bunch of outspoken people who will tell you when you’re wrong. I learnt a lot from them. The JournalFen community, FandomWank, has developed a similar culture.

@everydaysexism works similarly, but more broadly, retweeting the experiences of casual (and not so casual) sexism that women have to go through. The effect is a more thoroughly compelling impression of the cumulative grind of casual oppression that women endure much more powerfully than one woman could convey to a male companion by saying ‘But you don’t understand – it may seem like nothing to you, but I have to live with this every day!’

And yet I worry about these projects. I have the sense (I don’t know how one could possibly know for sure) that most of the followers of Escher Girls and Mansplaining are women. It’s not without value. There’s an intense relief in seeing woman after woman describe an experience so familiar to you and yet so rarely acknowledged until recently. ‘Here – here!’ I say to myself. ‘Here is proof – it’s NOT just me and it’s NOT just sometimes, this shit is everywhere‘. ‘Gaslighting‘ is a familiar experience for most women – we are taught to doubt our own judgements and our own experiences – our own subjectivity – because we are surrounded by men, often in positions of authority, telling us that our experiences are invalid – that we must be wrong, that they can judge what’s going on in our own minds better than we can. It’s really, really important to have resources like this to begin to unpick this ingrained psychological damage. I think one of the most valuable things the Internet has done has been to enable underprivileged people who would usually be silenced by the privileged to get together, grow in confidence via shared experience, and present that experience to a wider world. But it’s only half the story. Men need to listen to these accounts too.

Again, I am aware that some already do so – I am happy to know a great many decent men who keep themselves informed and go out of their way to challenge themselves. Alas, they are still not the majority. What we need to ensure is that these blogs – these collections of experiences – do not become like Woman’s Hour. That they do not alienate men by self-designating as female-only zones. I’m not entirely sure how we do that. I think some of the solution may evolve on its own. I really like the way the ‘redraws’ aspect of Escher Girls has developed to be a dominant theme. The blog no longer simply criticises sexist work; readers send in their attempts to redraw the artwork in a way that preserves the content of the action – even the sexiness of the woman – without the back-breaking sexist overtones. It’s no longer about simply saying ‘Look, this is wrong!’, it’s also about saying ‘Come on, let’s see what we can do together to make this right’.

But at the end of the day I think it still takes a little effort – we always have to go a little out of our way to expand our perspectives. You have to want to understand the subjectivity of the other. Wild Swans gave me a kick up the arse, and I’ve had a few more along the way. All I can say is that I don’t regret them. The only thing I regret is that I have not done more to understand other people. We have to keep on trying. I hope that the short, sharp, shock of the American election to the Republican party will give them the cause for reflection that I’ve seen people talking about on the news and the blogosphere. But I’m not holding my breath. Change doesn’t happen without action, and if you rely on other people to change around you things will either stay much the same as they have before, or you’ll be left behind.

* Professor Delia Davin suggested that her songs are too patriotic to be truly termed folk music.

[Edit: People asked me on Twitter to write a follow-up post linking this to the privilege issues in Geek Culture at the moment. I had originally intended to include something making the connections more explicit in this post, but I was pretty tired by the time I was finished, and the post was already pretty long. I did, however, make a comment following Escher Girls’s reply to Tony Harris’s intensely sexist rant about ‘Fake Geek Girls’ over at my Tumblr that makes these points explicit, so if you’re interested in my thoughts on the matter you can check them out there.]

Meditations on death

Spoiler Warning: some spoilers for The Dark Tower vols 1&2, Buffy, Season 6, and Fool’s Fate. I have tried to be restrained, but some things were unavoidable.

Good, all right, I’ll drown, he thought, listening to the roar of the sea. Let me drown.
– Roland in Stephen King (1989: 2), The Dark Tower, Volume 2: The Drawing of the Three

‘”Wherever I… was… I was happy. At peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. […] And I was warm… and I was loved… and I was finished. Complete […] I think I was in heaven. And now I’m not. Everything here is… hard, and bright, and violent […] this is hell. Just getting through the next moment, and the one after that…”‘
– Buffy in ‘After Life’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Espenson (2001)

‘”It was such a good dream. I dreamed that we both died here and it was all over. There was nothing more we could do, and everyone agreed that we had tried and it wasn’t really our fault. They spoke kindly of us.”‘
– The Fool in Robin Hobb (2003: 437), Fool’s Fate

‘O that this too too [solid] flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!’
– Hamlet in William Shakespeare (1996), Hamlet, Act I, Scene ii

‘The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.’
– King (1995), The Dark Tower, Volume 1: The Gunslinger

I went for a bath after my run today but was unable to find the book I had been reading. I searched half-heartedly for a bit, but my eye kept being drawn to my bookshelves – to books I had already read and reread. The favourite ones that spend their time waiting for me to decide that there has been just enough time passed that I might read them again without finding that I know every word by heart. And my gaze snagged on possibly my most dearly beloved of all the books – the one I ration to myself with the most treasured care: volume 2 of The Dark Tower, The Drawing of the Three.

Long-term readers of this blog will be aware of the deep and complex feelings I have for the Dark Tower series by Stephen King. Sometimes I feel like a small part of my mind will always be alternating between trying to puzzle out why it affected me so, or holding it at arm’s length, mentally swooning on a couch and crying with all melodrama: ‘It is too much! The wound is still too raw – ask me in another year!’ It’s a level of emotion that I feel uncomfortable expressing. Like someone who has left the ‘get a room’ line behind and is just full-out having sex on the couch whilst other people look on uncomfortably and wonder if it would be worse to say something now or let you get it out of your system and then pretend it never happened. But I’m kinda repressed in that stereotypically British way. I know other people feel fully confident and able to launch in unabashed squee about their most beloved artifacts of affection without fear that others will laugh in their faces. I want to be like that. But I’m not. So I end up putting these awkward caveats out there when I want to talk about The Dark Tower. It may seem to an outsider (i.e. one outside of my head) that I am being a bit over-zealous. If so, I apologise. I just don’t know how to talk about it in mixed company (i.e. Dark Tower converts and those who have yet to adore it/have never seen what all the fuss is about).

Anyway, as I was preparing for my bath my eye kept snagging on this particularly special book and I found myself thinking… ‘You know what? I think maybe it is time again’. And so I picked it up and I ran my bath and I settled down amongst the bubbles, and I read… Within a few short sentences I felt the old feelings beginning to stir again. I had recently finished The Wind Through the Key Hole – King’s supplementary volume ‘4.5’ of The Dark Tower, which I will review in full eventually, but for now will simply remark that it was not the equal of its litter-mates. Almost instantly my pulse quickened, the old excitement and recognition building, saying ‘Yes! Yes! It wasn’t mere hyperbole – this is a better book, the prose is as astonishingly tight and evocative as I remember – Oh! I have missed you!’ But more than this: I had not gone four paragraphs before I hit a sentence that opened up to me yet another layer of nuance, meaning, connections that I had not consciously seen before. For of anything, this is a book of connections, building meaning from references that pluck on our minds and our associations, our deep, shared, psychological rhythms and the cultural artifacts that draw the lines – the supporting beams of our psyches – between them.

Which is lovely, and all, but I’d just settled down for a bath with a favourite book, and now my mind was racing down the connections, seeing new webs and maps of shared themes, mentally composing a blog post I could not sit down to write until after I had washed my hair. I laid down the book, did what I needed to do as quickly as possible, and climbed out of the bath to beginning chasing down quotes.

The line that tripped off this frustrated wave of mental activity was this: ‘Good, all right, I’ll drown, he thought, listening to the roar of the sea. Let me drown.‘. It’s an odd line for the first page of your book – a melancholy line, a line of endings – and odder still for a force of nature like Roland of Gilead to think. Odd or masterful. Roland is dreaming as he lies on the beach at the ‘point of pointless ending’ (King, 1989: 2). He has just sacrificed his symbolic son and symbol of hope in quest of the Dark Tower, having passed through an underworld of tunnels under the mountains that might be likened to Hades, or Hell, or Moria*. A change of landscape can mark emotional transition, and he had come out on the other side of the mountain tunnels, following the night that lasts ten years, to lie here, as water (always symbolic of emotion) roils around him, washing ever closer towards his precious gunbelts – dealers of death, but also his way of life. And here he lies on the edge of consciousness, dreaming that it is not Jake who has ‘drowned’ (the man in black had read the gunslinger his fortune before apparently dying himself, and the card of the Sailor had symbolised Jake ‘He drowns, gunslinger… and no one throws him a line‘) but himself. And he thinks of this: ‘Good, all right, I’ll drown‘.

It’s an opening thick with death metaphor and potential of rebirth, but the rebirth is not presented as a gift. No, here, death is suggested as the release. It is seductive, appealing, absolving. Death is forgiveness from transgression and freedom from responsibility. In his dream, Roland can take the sacrifice upon himself and absolve himself of Jake’s death, but he can also shirk the responsibility of his all-consuming quest for the Tower. It’s a peculiarly selfish dream, given that he has already sacrificed Jake, and therefore the burden of responsibility has been added to by the price of making that death worth it.

So much great fiction – so many truly great moments in literature – has centred around this thought. It’s what makes Buffy’s description of what she calls heaven so achingly powerful: death to her was freedom from pain and responsibility. It was knowing that everyone else was alright, and she didn’t have to protect them anymore. So it is also conceived of in the Fool’s dream from Fool’s Fate. The Fool and Fitz are struggling to survive in the ice-tunnels in a glacier that once housed a city and now forms the living tomb to a dragon whose ‘rebirth’ would enable a whole species to be revived. The symbolism of location and themes is strikingly similar to the underground station in The Dark Tower, only here the metaphor is overladen with ice where the gunslinger’s world is one of dry, dusty, radioactive deserts and barren beaches. Ice is a killer, and it is killing the Fool, who is tempted by the lethargy induced by his slowing metabolism, but it is also a preserver, lowering the metabolism of the dragon so that it has survived in a fantasy equivalent of cryogenic stasis. Moreover, prophecy hangs over this scene, too: the ‘Fool’s Fate’ of the title is the Fool’s own prediction of his death in such a place. It is a death he thinks is necessary, but also fears. The death he dreams of is a different one – not the one he has predicted, one where he simply sits down and gives up; a kinder death, but one he knows he should fight against because he believes that dying in the correct way will bring about a better world. A terrible sort of responsibility, and in the face of that, it does seem like just sitting down and dying might be a good dream, if only: ‘There was nothing more we could do, and everyone agreed that we had tried and it wasn’t really our fault’.

This theme of death as a release from the anguish of responsibility is central to Hamlet, as well. Interestingly, the quotation as I have taken it above is disputed. Some argue that it should read ‘Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh should melt’ (Shakespeare, Act I, Scene ii). I have always held with ‘solid’ because it more accurately reflected the emotion of desiring to dissolve one’s physical self and melt away, emphasising the ‘solid’ implacable impossibility of such a wish, and thus how bitter the emotion is that such release is impossible. It also makes sense from the point of view that Hamlet has not really ‘sinned’ at this point. He might accuse Gertrude of being ‘sullied’ (whether you think he is right to do so or not, that emotion is clearly present) and when he speaks of ‘things rank and gross in nature'(ibid.) possessing the ‘garden’ in which he must persist, one feels he is accusing Claudius of corruption and a pollution of Denmark in contrast to the purity of Hamlet’s own father. But at this stage he has no cause to cast doubt upon his own actions. In fact, he is rather self-righteous in professing that he alone seems to be adequately grieving for his father. On the other hand, the wish to cleanse oneself with self-destruction certainly fits a theme. Tellingly, in his most famous soliloquy, which more consummately concerns suicide and the release of death he remarks:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep –
No more, and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to; ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep –
To sleep: perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause; there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make,
With a bare bodkin; who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards [of us all]
– Shakespeare (1997), Hamlet, Act III, Scene i

‘And thus conscience doth make cowards of us all’. It’s an odd twist on the emotion we’ve seen so strongly evinced in the other texts mentioned above: conscience is what makes Buffy continue to fight despite her despair at being torn from heaven; conscience is what makes the Fool and Fitz press on, even though the Fool believes he walks to a much more terrible death than what the ice alone could offer; conscience is what spurs the gunslinger to wakefulness to fight to save his life and his bullets from the waves and from the lobstrosity that is crawling up the beach towards him. Surely it is conscience that makes a man bear the whips and scorns of time, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? Ah, but, Hamlet speculates, would we not all give ourselves into that good night (as Dylan Thomas would say), that ‘sleep of death’ if we did not fear what might come after? If ‘the Everlasting [God] had not fixed/His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter’ (Shakespeare, Act I, Scene ii)?

The answer seems to be ‘no’ – or at least, many of us would not. Our heroes do not. Roland’s beliefs about the after life seem jaded at best. Buffy explicitly states that: ‘I don’t understand about theology or dimensions, or … any of it, really … but I think I was in heaven’. It is her friends’ fear that she might have gone to ‘an untold Hell dimension‘ (Xander in ‘Once More with Feeling’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon 2001) that pulled her back to life. Buffy sacrificed herself not knowing what would come next, and it was that sacrifice that was honoured and rewarded with ‘heaven’. Truly, it is not death that she fears, she fears life. Her heroic act in Season 6 is to go on living. The Fool is not typically heroic. He fears death, but he would accept a good death, freed from responsibility.

One of the interesting things about science fiction and fantasy is that these genres allow us to explore our emotions on the other side of death – to attempt a mapping of the undiscovered country. Buffy comes back from a death knowing that death, for her, was easier than life. Roland and the Fool are provided with prophecies concerning death, and Fitz has experienced a sort of death and resurrection. The unique experiences of the Fool and Fitz allow Fitz to comment: ‘”See how pleasant it can be, to have died? Once you’ve died, no one expects you to be a king. Or a prophet.”‘ (Hobb, 2003: 647) and for the Fool to respond: ‘”Years later, when I came to see you at your cottage, I thought, ‘surely he will be healed by now. Surely he will have recovered.’ […] But you had not. You had just… stopped. In some ways. Oh, you were older and wiser, I suppose. But you had not made any move on your own to reach out to life again.”‘ Admittedly this latter is not literally a comment on Fitz’ death and ressurrection, but rather that his magic-enabled actions to remove the worst pains from his memories, and his willful turning away from the responsibilities of life, have been damaging.

There is a wrestling, here – in Hamlet, in Buffy, in Fool’s Fate, in The Dark Tower – with the death wish, and a sort of romance of death, as well as the fear of it. It is a consummation devoutly to be wished, but also to be fought against. There is honour in facing your struggles, but again and again the question is raised as to whether this ‘honour’ is worth the sacrifice of living the pains of life. There’s something darkly humourous in how The Gunslinger‘s famous first line encapsulates this:

‘The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.’
– King (1995: 1)

The man in black is frequently identified with death or presented as an omen of death. His attire resembles that of a priest, and Jake describes how the man in black was the last thing he saw before dying for the first time, and how Walter used Jake’s death as a gateway over to Roland’s world, like the ferryman over the river Styx, taking the dead to the underworld. Yet the gunslinger is himself a purveyor of death. This dealer of death actively pursues the personification of death across a dead landscape and death flees before him. It marks an ironic comment on how all of us are racing towards our graves in a battle we can never win. Every step taken in the struggle for survival brings us closer to the grave. Roland may (or may not) be fighting to save the world, but ultimately the tower that is his goal is dark in the same way that Walter, the man he pursues in the first volume, is darkly clothed. His quest to save the worlds leaves a wave of destruction in its wake. Roland suffers under the weight of the death he deals as well as his responsibility. They are intertwined. Every life he takes in the name of his goal is a promise that the goal will be worth it and it will be reached. And at the start of The Drawing of the Three, where my thoughts on this matter began, he has come to a point of pointless ending. The point where the world seems to drop away and you might step into the waves, you might lie back down and let the lobstrosity do its work, you might accept the sleep of death. And the story of this book is Roland’s tortured climb back out of the metaphorical Moria – the black chasm, or ‘black hole’ as depression is sometimes called for its apparent inescapability.

Roland is emotionally deadened at the start of The Gunslinger, but Jake reawakened a rusty paternal affection. In allowing him to die those flutters of emotions have been crushed. In order to return to his quest, Roland must find a way to revive these reawakened feelings without allowing them to destroy him. Within two pages his potency as a dealer of death, as a quester for The Dark Tower, is dramatically reduced. His bullets and guns are wetted – many of the bullets will never fire again. And, shockingly, he loses two fingers and most of a toe to a lobstrosity. When I first read this it was my first encounter with such shocking and permanent injury to a protagonist. I kept expecting him to get his fingers back. It’s powerful. Moreover, the lobstrosity is possessed of a powerful poison, which is already working in his blood stream by the time he reaches the first door to our world via which he will draw his ‘three’. The rest of the book is the story of an emotionally and physically damaged man learning to lean upon and help other people at least as emotionally and physically damaged as himself: Eddie, the heroin addict; Odetta Holmes/Detta Walker/Susannah Dean, the black lady in a wheelchair with multiple personality disorder; and even Jake himself, in a way.

Not that Roland ever becomes a ‘soft’ man. There’s a grim and delightful humour in one character’s likening him to the Terminator, as an unemotional dealer of death. But pulling yourself out of the mines of Moria doesn’t mean a complete personality overhaul. It’s a fascinating journey through different kinds of recovery, bringing drops of water to the stark desert of Roland’s life. Above all it underlines the difficulty and pain involved in turning away from death and ‘choosing life’ (the opening monologue from Trainspotting, ‘Choose Life’ (John Hodge, 1996), can be seen as setting a frame for exploring this, also).

There is a ‘romance’ of the western, and it is a romance of death. But this romance, this fascination, is not limited to any one genre. It has a strong and complex hold on all our lives. Which is why it can hit so deep when a truly powerful piece of art hits out with something that seems to encapsulate the complexities and contradictions of our emotions on the subject. Strange that I both saw, and didn’t see this in The Dark Tower before. But, for me, that is the mark of truly great art: its rich complexities work on your emotions to powerful effect without your even having to know how such feelings were brought about.

*Random note prompted by the Wikipedia article on Moria linked to above, because it gave me chills. Wiki notes that: ‘Moria (Sindarin for “Black Chasm”) was the name given by the Eldar to an enormous underground complex in north-western Middle-earth, comprising a vast network of tunnels, chambers, mines and huge halls or ‘mansions’, that ran under and ultimately through the Misty Mountains… It has been suggested that Tolkien — an ardent Catholic — may have used this name as a reference to the mountains of Moriah, where (according to the book of Genesis) Abraham was to sacrifice his son, Isaac. However, Tolkien categorically denied such derivations.’ Anyway, ‘north-western’ initially caught my eye because I thought that the mega electronics and robotics coporation in The Dark Tower was called ‘North Western Positronics’ – it’s not, it’s called North Central Positronics; I am a bad fangirl. However, although no map ever appears in The Dark Tower books, there are indications that the great station and the tunnels than lead there are located in the north-west of Mid World. The second, and more interesting, thing that caught my attention was the biblical reference. Although Tolkein may have denied it, I don’t think King could have been unaware, given that this is the scene for Roland’s sacrifice of Jake. I have suggested elsewhere that these mountains referenced Moria; I think this evidence makes the reference pretty clear.

Espenson, Jane (2001) ‘After Life’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3
Hobb, Robin (2003), Fool’s Fate, London: Harper Collins
Hodge, John (1996), Trainspotting
King, Stephen (1995), The Dark Tower, Volume 1: The Gunslinger, London: Warner Books
King, Stephen (1989), The Dark Tower, Volume 2: The Drawing of the Three, London: Sphere
Shakespeare, William, (1997) Hamlet, in The Riverside Shakespeare, Second Edition, G Blakemore Evans et al (eds), Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Company
Thomas, Dylan (1996), ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ (pp. 1465-6), The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Fourth Edition, Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stalwarthy (eds), London: W. W. Norton & Company

Reviewing through the Time Machine: Remembering Margaret Cavendish

Earlier today something came across my tumblr that perpetuated a common myth. Which is to say that ‘Mary Shelley invented science fiction’. Now, if you want to say that ‘Mary Shelley was the mother of science fiction’… OK, there’s probably a case for that. I don’t want to diss Mary Shelley and her achievement, but it’s important not to let Frankenstein eclipse an earlier work by a woman who was at least as revolutionary: The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish.

Artwork used as part of the British Library’s ‘Out of this World: Science Fiction but not as you know it’ exhibition, quote from the The Blazing World; although painting was originally from a Rondo Veneziano album cover.

Written in 1666, and republished in 1668 alongside her Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (AKA ‘science’ before there was such a term),The Blazing World was inspired by a visit to the Royal Society (Cavendish was the very first woman to do so). She looked down a microscope and it blew her mind to the possibilities of different forms of life.

The Blazing World is about a woman who journeys to a parallel world before we had a vocabulary for talking about parallel worlds, and before we had even imagined space travel. This ‘twin’ of the Earth was connected at the North Pole. Cavendish’s heroine’s ship is caught in a storm, driven off course, and washed up on this new world. There she encounters strange and wonderful people (before anyone envisioned aliens – although non-human sentient creatures were common in mythology and theology, these are the first I’m aware of whose different physiology is premised on their living in a different physical world). These people elect this strange woman to be their Empress and present to her many scientific marvels (including a submarine). Cavendish uses this set up to satirise her own society and explore a world where a woman was allowed power far beyond what Cavendish herself could hope to attain (even as a duchess with an unusually permissive husband and rare education).

This looks like a pretty clear case of science fiction to me. It not only has the science fiction tropes of soft SF (aliens, parallel worlds, advanced technology), I’d make a case for it being hard SF. The story seems fantastic to the modern eye, and the idea of another world just stuck on top of the Earth just seems bizarre. It’s likely that although Cavendish was permitted to enter the Royal Society and had an understanding of science beyond most people of the time (and certainly most women), she was still merely peeking into a world that she was largely barred from due to her gender. Yet she came away from her experience having gained a new perspective on the world based on scientific evidence and extrapolated a non-actual but plausible (based on the evidence available to her) premise upon which to base a work of fiction designed to transport readers to another world and use that world to make them reflect on this one. Definitions vary, but that sounds like science fiction to me.

Hence: Margaret Cavendish wrote the first work of science fiction, not Mary Shelley*.

The reason I think it is important to remember Margaret Cavendish’s ground-breaking work for the piece of genuinely original, genre-creating art that it is, is that there are reasons we remember Shelley, rather than Cavendish. It wasn’t easy to be a female writer when Shelley wrote, but it was next to impossible when Cavendish did. Writing was principally the preserve of wealthy and educated men. As Virginia Woolf so cleverly observed, it’s very difficult to write if you have no money of your own and no space and time to devote to writing (AKA A Room of One’s Own and £500 a year). You either had to be exceptionally wealthy and well-educated (in which case it would have been scandalous for you to engage in such an activity as a woman) or have a rich patron (which would have been exceptionally rare for a woman to obtain – the only one I can think of is Aemilia Lanyer, who had a female patron). Margaret Cavendish was the former: she was the Duchess of Newcastle, and she was generally judged to be mad. Samuel Peypes called her ‘mad, conceited and ridiculous’, according to Wikipedia (they don’t provide a direct reference for this, but the article does cite an extensive list of academic sources at the end). And I recall a lecture in which it was described how theatre-goers would go to the theatre to watch Margaret Cavendish at the theatre, for she was known for bizarre fashions, including going out in public topless.

Whether she was mad or not is unclear. Anyone reporting on her at the time is likely to have viewed her through the customs of the time. She must have been a real force of personality to achieve all she did, as well as having a very open-minded husband, and it’s clear that in certain ways she was pretty eccentric. But I think it’d take a real force-of-nature-style eccentricity for a woman to be published in the way she was at the time.

On the other hand, I’ve read some of her plays, and they’re pretty bad, it must be said. The Blazing World itself is intellectually exciting, but artistically a bit of a slog. In her defence, it was early long-form prose fiction, so she’d have had little by way of reference points to guide her style, and the idea is as blazing as the title suggests. It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s equal to most equivalent works of the time.

Margaret Cavendish was a woman writing with few peers who was ridiculed for writing at all. That is why we have forgotten her. She would never have had the size of audience that was available to Shelley due to the advances in printing, and her writing was hardly likely to have been championed for inclusion in a gentleman’s literary education. She was seen as a curiosity at best. Virginia Woolf speculated of what life would have been like for a sister of Shakespeare, equal to him in talent and determination, but bereft of the opportunities he would have had simply by being male. She imagines an imaginative woman torn apart by passion and despair, shunned by society for rejecting the norms that confine her, ultimately killing herself. I can’t help but feel, reading this fictional account, that there goes Margaret Cavendish, but for her fortune and sympathetic husband. If she was mad (although I suspect she was not), we should not be surprised; and if she was forgotten, we should not be surprised, either. If they couldn’t silence her in life, they were unlikely to remember her in death.

So, I feel it’s important to say: ‘Yes, Mary Shelley was awesome and we should celebrate her epoch defining achievement; but also, no, she did not invent science fiction. Margaret Cavendish did, and more people should know that.’

*Obviously this comes with the caveat ‘that I am aware of’, but I suspect it’s fair. It’s really difficult to distinguish science from philosophy prior to the 17th Century, when Cavendish was writing. The Royal Society for improving Natural Knowledge was founded in 1660. Early modern thinking about natural philosophy is usually dated to have been sparked by Galileo’s work published in his controversial The Assayer (1623), which challenged the idea that the Church was the ultimate source of knowledge**, and birthed a movement towards observational investigation as an approach to finding things out about the world that became what we now call science. I suppose some might want to argue for Utopia, but I don’t see any science fiction elements in it, myself. It’s more of an extended ‘counterfactual’ as we would say in philosophy – or fantastic hypothetical used to explore a philosophical idea. It’s really a discussion of a possibility suggested by political philosophy rather than an extrapolation from empirical observation to non-actual, but physically possible, worlds, peoples, societies, and technologies (which is the definition I would lean towards if we’re discussing works that predate the term ‘science’).

** Wooyay – footnotes within footnotes, very 17th Century. Anyway: it should be noted that observational empirical philosophy of a sort can be dated back to Aristotle. The trouble is, Aristotle’s philosophy and observations became so dominant as to become stagnant dogma, assimilated into Church doctrine and taught in the Schools***.

*** Caveat on a caveat on a caveat: all of this is very euro-centric. I can only apologise for that. My knowledge of Margaret Cavendish comes from my studies for my BA, which even though it was supposed to be ‘English and Related Literatures’, was mostly English or American literature. My knowledge of the development of science and early modern philosophy come from teaching and studying early modern philosophy, but I must confess that English philosophy is still dominated by the analytic tradition, with a side bar on ‘Continental’ (i.e. continental Europe) philosophy, and with the European cannon of philosophy that leads up to the analytic/continental ‘split’. I’ve never been taught any world philosophy and have barely dabbled in it on my own time. I know even less on the relationship between science and philosophy in non-euro-centric cultures. Any comments on the origins of science fiction should thus be seen as comments on a largely european and american tradition.

Part II of my article on the end of The Dark Tower

So, things are somewhat less than 100% serene in Wombledonia at the moment, but one awesome thing that happened yesterday is that the second part of my article on the end of the Dark Tower came out in Hub. I’m still really proud of this and really grateful to the good people of Hub for getting it out.

In part II I get all epic on that seven volume colossus: Homer, Virgil, and Tolkien. I really hope people enjoy it, and would be really interested in any opinions you might have about my theories, or The Dark Tower in general.

Please go read it here!
You can find Part I, which concerns the modernists, and things of that nature, here.