In previous editions of my critically-acclaimed (not a guarantee) Book; Counter-book series I've looked in depth at two specific texts seeking to draw parallels in style, mood or underlying theme. This time, I want to look at dystopian novels somewhat generally, but with a specific focus. That focus being the way that human sexuality is more often than not shown as the prime example of limited freedom or resistance to totalitarian ideology. I don't have all the texts at my disposal, but hopefully I can still do a serviceable job of discussing a few key texts and a couple of outside ones as I explore this intriguing aspect in this realm of literature.
Sexuality is, and ask anyone, an incredibly important part of individual development. We've all known people who identify themselves through sex, through these connections, or even just wanton hook-ups. Intimacy is one of the few things we hold great control over. It is something that defines us, and tangibly verifies our existence. While having thought and the ability to consider and make choices are valuable human traits, they do not cement us firmly in reality as sex does. We just don't possess intellectual property in the same way that we possess our bodies. Sex is the root action in some of the most enlightening moments in our lives, as well as some of the most terrifying. Whether used for good or evil, sex holds a substantial power over us. Look at the industries built entirely around it, all of which will thrive and manifest in new ways for the foreseeable future. And all of these things are obvious, I know, but often they are paved over by the puritanical ways we are taught to interact with sex in youth. It's worth noting that the most heinous of crimes are sex-based.
In dystopian literature, we see sex as an instrument of control by the state and as a form of non-violent protest. In 1984, the Junior Anti-Sex League is a government instrument renouncing intercourse. But, Winston, the protagonist, with Julia, take up a secret love-affair that is central to the rebellion against Big Brother. It is even in their most intimate time, in an antique shop, where everything in the book falls apart. Winston takes essentially no other action against the Party. He passively observes dissenting video and texts, and the majority of the book is spent inside his head as he considers the values and impacts of resistance. He does, though, take control of his world through his relationship with Julia (however short-lived and doomed) and finds his brief moments of happiness and strength in them. Battling sexual oppression through love is his only course of action, and even then, it is an individual one, one that redefines him to himself.
Similarly, in Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, D-503 comes to new awareness only after being seduced by I-330, the woman leading a small group against the mandates of the One State. For D-503, sex is an awakening to his humanity, and a sort of spell-breaking occurrence leading to his conflict with the world around him. And in the world of We sex is regulated by a Foucault-ian panoptic world of glass apartments. Physical connections can only be made by submitting a coupon that allows for the shades to be dropped and privacy to exist. Sadly, sex is both a liberator and a destroyer for D-503. It creates the potential in him to be human, rather than a logical robot, but it also creates such great conflict that he cannot recover and ultimately guides himself and the small group of rebels to their downfall.
The classic Vonnegut story "Welcome to the Monkey House," from the short story collection of same name, tells of a society with government-enforced euthanasia to prevent overpopulation, and controlled procreation. The "ethical suicide parlors" are staffed by beautiful, young virgin women, whose job it is to administer death (and make death seem more attractive). In a typically sardonic Vonnegut plot, Billy the Poet is the anti-hero who takes it upon himself to take the virginity of each of the young girls working for the government. While Billy considers his work to be the ultimate form of resistance against the government, circumventing their sexually oppressive laws, it is also very clearly an act of repeated rape. Vonnegut stops short of making anyone appear to be right or wrong, and just lets the story unfold. And when Billy leaves a bottle of birth control pills with Nancy after raping her we are left to the idea that sexuality may continue despite its oppression, though at a disturbing cost. What is clear, though, is that as I-330 and Julia used sex as a way to tap potential humanity within D-503 and Winston, respectively, Billy is attempting to do the same. There is a huge difference between seduction and rape, and clearly Vonnegut has that contrast in mind. What is clear, though, is that another dystopian society was conceived as one without sex. And sex itself, again, became a primary device in undermining that society.
But there are two interesting and notable contrasting examples. One comes from the well-known Brave New World, in which the World State encourages sexual activity from a young age, and it is no longer a means of reproduction, but simply a social pleasure. Aldous Huxley seems to be circumventing the standard dystopian meme, but it's notable that by encouraging and making unlimited the sexual act, it loses its value too. No one attains any sort of feeling of individualism from sex, or anything else for that matter. Huxley's pseudo-protagonist, John, comes from a world where sexuality is directly-related to individualism. John ties love and sex together, humanity and sex are one-to-one. And when (spoiler alert!) John commits suicide while in the society of the World State it is because his person-hood has been stolen from him. It is not merely his sexuality that is stolen, but the value of sex (relationship, love, and family, too) has been reduced to zero, and he is the only person who sees existence differently. Again, sex plays an instrumental role in the text, though instead of a resistance against oppression it is one of the principle instruments of oppression. When sex is reduced to mere animal action, it no longer confirms existence and becomes intangible.
Michel Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles is not entirely a dystopian novel. It is primarily the story of the struggles of two half-brothers against the troubles of modern society. One brother Michel feels infinitely detached from humanity, and cannot know love or even pleasure, while Bruno is plagued by his sexuality to the point of obsession. All of these struggles highlight the importance of sex as a defining aspect in humanity. Both men are wrought by it in different ways, but it is the central hub to an enjoyable life. Houellebecq's strange denouement, which turns fully dystopian, shows how Michel's genetic research has been twisted to create world where natural procreation is no longer necessary, and sex is merely action. The created people of the future even lose interest in sex entirely and are presented (in retrospective journalistic style) to be the highest form of the human animal. The irony, of course, is that despite Michel's detachment, he seems to genuinely wish he could love and lust. And Bruno, for whom sex is a plague of mind, finds true love through it, and loses his mind when that love is taken from him. Here again, sex is the key to humanity as we know it, and the disturbing society presented in the novel's final pages present a robotic society that is "free" only from passion.
Sex is clearly a surrogate for human passion, the drive that motivates us to create and want and desire and live fully. For any dystopian fascist regime to take hold, we must first let go of our passions completely. Even though passion can haunt us and cause us terrible pain, it is also where all art comes from, and the wellspring from which love rises. Each of the examples above utilized the control of human sexuality as a greater control of the population. Taking sex away takes away our most pure and intimate form of expression, regardless of the numerous problems it can create in an ordered world. And that it would arise as a common theme in this genre of political-philosophical texts is telling. The greatest form of oppression is the oppression of the body, which is in turn the oppression of desire, love and creativity. Living in our bodies is one of the simplest and purest pleasures we have the luxury to easily access, and the mandated-withholding of that pleasure is a step toward a frightening future.
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