sâmbătă, 21 mai 2016

"so the past is still present in the future"

     31 years have passed since the publication of Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale (1985) and we are still living in a pre-Gilead world. We know what follows, what awaits us; we know that we are on the verge of destruction. Yet, we go on with our petty lives, ignoring all the signs around us: when our professors laugh at us because we are feminists, the black eye of the woman sitting in front of us in the tram, our fathers' control over our mothers, and so on. 
     The Handmaid's Tale is a warning. One not only about the future, but, most importantly, about the past since we have created the book through our long history as oppressors. In an article for The Guardian (2012), Margaret Atwood confesses that she made a rule for herself 
not [to] include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist. I did not wish to be accused of dark, twisted inventions, or of misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable behaviour. The group-activated hangings, the tearing apart of human beings, the clothing specific to castes and classes, the forced childbearing and the appropriation of the results, the children stolen by regimes and placed for upbringing with high-ranking officials, the forbidding of literacy, the denial of property rights: all had precedents, and many were to be found not in other cultures and religions, but within western society, and within the 'Christian' tradition, itself.
     The novel can be disturbing, but we should keep in mind that we are in it, the Aunts and the Commanders, and that the book is the fruit of our oppressive and scornful lives. The book is more about ourselves and our mistakes than we would like to admit, and, as an example, the Romanian audience shamefully finds itself cited in the novel: "Rumania, for instance, had anticipated Gilead in the eighties by banning all forms of birth control, imposing compulsory pregnancy tests on the female population, and linking promotion and wage-increases to fertility".
     Gilead is a very strictly structured society and every single individual has a well established role, according to his/her gender and class. Men can be Commanders of the Faithful, Eyes (the secret police), Angels (soldiers) or Guardians (soldiers used for more domestic and less important functions; can be promoted to Angels). The Commanders represent the ruling class and enjoy the most liberties. They can read, have cars and own a household with a Wife, Handmaids and Marthas. Women are Wives, Daughters, Aunts, Handmaids, Marthas and Econowives. The Wives, being married to the Commanders, are highly regarded in the Gilead society and have power over all the other women. The Wives wear blue, while the Daughters wear white until marriage. Marthas (green) are old, infertile women used for their domestic skills, and Econowives are the wives of poorer men. They have to do all the work in the household, and thus wear multicoloured clothes (blue, red and green).
     Very important for the society, though highly disconsidered, are the Handmaids. They are national resources and their sole purpose is to procreate. After being trained and re-educated by Aunts (brown), who in fact brainwash women into killing their previous identities and becoming proud Handmaids, they are sent to a household to bear children for the Wives. If they become pregnant, they are sent to another household immediately after giving birth. After a considerable amount of time, if they fail to become pregnant, they are sent to the Colonies. They wear red dresses with white wings around their heads to prevent them from seeing and being seen.
     Everything is strictly controlled. There is no room for other than the prescribed roles, clothes, actions and even words: " 'Blessed be the fruit', she says to me, the accepted greeting among us. 'May the Lord open.' " There is no room for memories and feelings, the only freedom they can get is at night: "The night is mine, my own time, to do with as I will, as long as I am quiet. As long as I don't move." They can't even commit suicide, everything being sealed and permanently controlled.
      The Handmaids are, as noted above, natural resources. Hence, they are not seen as women with feelings, thoughts and aspirations. They are not allowed to read, to have pastime activities or to exist outside their prescribed roles. The Ceremony, the moment of the sexual intercourse between the Commander and his Handmaid, is strictly orchestrated. There is no room for passion, sexual desire, kissing or romance:
Above me, towards the head of the bed, Serena Joy [the Commander's Wife] is arranged, outspread. Her legs are apart, I lie between them, my head on her stomach, her pubic bone under the base of my skull, her thigh on either side of me. She too is fully clothed, my arms are raised: she hold my hands, each of mine in each of hers. This is supposed to signify that we are one flesh, one being. What it really means is that she is in control, of the process and thus of the product. If any. The rings of her left hand cut into my fingers. It may or may not be revenge.
My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he's doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it. 
      Most Handmaids really become what they are destined to be: "two legged wombs". They erase all memories, the essence of their beings; "they force you to kill, within yourself". Others fail to adapt and are killed. Offred, the protagonist and narrator, struggles not to forget who she was. For her, memory is identity and she thus continues to exist as long as she remembers; her mother, Luke, her friend Moira, her child, her self: "Today's bread, freshly baked, is cooling on its rack. The kitchen smells of yeast, a nostalgic smell. It reminds me of other kitchens, kitchens that were mine. It smells of mothers." This is her freedom. This and, later on, her telling the story:
I'm sorry there is so much pain in this story. I'm sorry it's in fragments, like a body caught in crossfire or pulled apart by force. But there is nothing I can do to change it. I've tried to put some of the good things in as well. Flowers, for instance, because where would we be without them? [...] By telling you anything at all I'm at least believing in you, I believe you're there, I believe you into being. Because I'm telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are. 
          The ending is particularly interesting and as powerful as a slap in the face. We never learn what happened to Offred; if she escaped or not, and that is excruciating. All we know is that her story, lacking an ending, has reached an audience. And then comes another ending which shows us how fools we were in trying to find out what happened to the protagonist. Her life is not important. History is more important. Context, society and life at large are far more important than poor old Offred. Individual lives are completely unimportant. Merely casualties in the face of humanity's bigger aims. Unfortunately, this is, always has been and always will be the way society functions. We are merely numbers. Numbers to be discussed in academic writings and presented at conferences, where everybody constantly and eagerly looks at their watches, looking forward to the cocktail party afterwards.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum./Don't let the bastards grind you down. 
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum./Don't let the bastards grind you down. 
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum./Don't let the bastards grind you down. 



marți, 3 mai 2016

the (f)utility of life II

The following line comes as a continuation of the post on the (f)utility of life:
"You know, Rosa, I think we come here - to Earth, I mean - to see if we can love in spite of everything." (Alma Luz Villanueva, The Ultraviolet Sky