Monday, March 2, 2009

Sex, Death, and the Sexes

I'm not sure why, of all the short stories, I first read James Tiptree's "Love Is the Plan, the Plan is Death."  Maybe I thought it would set up my blog trilogy on love.  Maybe that was the Plan.  Whatever the case, it was a wonderful place to start.  The prose was beautifully alien (reminding me of Robert Olen Butler's Severance, which collects the thoughts of legendary decapitated heads).  I also enjoyed speaking the names aloud, like Moggadeet, Lilliloo, Sesso (Italian sex, isn't that great?).  And, yes, the ending made me shiver.  Not that Moggadeet's fate came as much of a shock.  Throughout the story, in the back of my mind, was the black widow who had crawled across our hallway carpet a few months ago.  She had brought fear—a terrible bite, a mother who gorges on a father, a splash of red on the abdomen, a warning.  The horror...oh, the horror.  

If I had read the other stories first, with all those deaths and separations, Moggadeet's fate would have been, by that point, bland.  Just another lover separated by the jaws of an impossible communion (told you I was looking to write a trilogy).  Another Alan, another Anne.  Another Bud, another Dave, another Lorimer.  Another Ruth, another another Don.  At least Moggadeet and Lilliloo were allowed to enjoy a climax.

Lewis Call has written about people (perhaps like I'm starting to seem) who see a "battle of the sexes" in Tiptree's stories.  The battle-of-the-sexes approach points to two unavoidably negative themes: 1) humans are slaves to their biology 2) women are doomed to inequality (61).  Through Foucault, Call is able to find some hope, arguing that Tiptree's gender conflicts should be understood through the lens of power, especially as it concerns patriarchy.  In Foucault, every exchange of power carries with it the possibility of resistance, and with resistance the possibility of freedom.  Thus, Call is able help Tiptree transcend the battle, claiming instead that her texts propose a "consensual erotic power," one liberated from heteronormative conventions, one aware of the pain in its pleasure, which can subvert the warped sexuality of patriarchy (83).

(aside) For Call, this patriarchal, unethical sexual power is embodied in the ready-rapist figure like Bud, or in the guy-who-can't-let-women-go like Don; but Tiptree offers another permutation of this warped power: religion.  Whether it is Dave the subjugating messiah in "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" or the Vatican itself in "The Screwfly Solution," religion emerges as a side-effect of dystopic sexuality.  Alan says it best when interpreting Barney's note: "This murderous crackpot religion of McWhosis was a symptom, not a cause" (17).

As helpful as Call's proposal is, particularly in sifting from Triptree a form of liberation sexuality, there exists a gap.  It does not matter how many pseudonyms or pronouns one attributes to the author: her characters, at least those in the stories I have named, never break free of the warped sexual powers that be—at least, never as a couple.  Ruth and Althea, mother and daughter, escape like fugitives to an alien land only by leaving the men behind (the fruit of a one-night Mayan stand the only male baggage allowed onboard).  The women of "Houston" rescue the men only to kill them.  Even Alan and Anne, who have found a powerful alternative to patriarchal sex, cannot enjoy it for long.  We are told that "A miraculous inner portal of sensuality had slowly opened to them, a liberation into their own secret unsuspected heaven of fully physical bliss" (24).  Then, in the same passage, even in the very description of this liberation sexuality, comes a death, a separation, the stroke of Alan's knife.  From that moment on, after that brief manifestation of a healthy un-nomrmative sexual ethics, hope and love and union are rendered to pieces.  

There certainly is in Tiptree a creative merger of sex and death that is nothing less than a subversive reframing of power.  I agree with Call.  But simultaneously there is the subversion of the subversion.  Radical love is likewise destroyed.  It either falls in on itself ("Love is the Plan") or is destroyed by external forces ("Screwfly"—which, I have to say, is a brilliant reworking of the zombie genre).

Does this spell doom?  An eternal battle of the sexes?  Not necessarily.  However, to ignore this secondary subversion would be to ignore that which Tiptree seems intent on making us see.  Resistance is often misguided.  Ethical sex often implodes.  Beds are never shared for long.

1 comment:

  1. Secondary subversion? That is the most ridiculous hooey of which I have ever heard. Of all the unmitigated gall... (and I am an expert on gall, both of the mitigated and unmitigated varieties.)

    Actually, I think you are on to something - looking into the mixture/hybrid/concretion of Thanatos and ANYTHING... (sex, in this case.) But since your idea is so radical, I wanted some kind of denunciation to be on record, in case I needed a plausible deniability.