Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Patrica Russo's "The Oracle Opens One Eye"

In a couple of previous posts I tried to unpack some of the dynamics at play in two of the stories in the latest issue of Lone Star Stories -- Tim Pratt's "The Frozen One" and Ekaterina Sedia's "The Disemboweller". The third story in that issue is Patricia Russo's "The Oracle Opens One Eye", and it's also a neat little story, well worth a read and illustrating another facet of strange fiction. Where "The Disemboweller", I think, has this interesting interplay of subjunctivities that illustrates the overlap between "SF" and "Fantasy", and "The Frozen One", in its nested first-person/second-person narrative, is a good illustration of where strange fiction meets with (post)modernism, in "The Oracle Opens One Eye" we have a story that downplays the dissonance and shows how slim the distance might be between "genre" and "mainstream".

With the opening there is nothing to take this out of the subjunctivity of "could have happened". Instead we're offered a sentence describing events that could well have taken place, that have, in fact, probably taken place all too many times in humanity's history:

"For her sins, they stripped her of her shift and bound her hands to the post in front of the men’s house."

Somewhere, somewhen, it seems quite certain that such events have taken place -- a (nameless) girl judged by a (faceless) group of moralists, stripped and bound to a post before some seat of patriarchal power, ready to suffer a rough retribution for her transgression of society's mores. Over and above the context of (crude) corporal punishment required (which probably immediately dislocates it, for the majority of readers, to elsewhere or elsewhen), only the specificities and implicities of "the men's house" and "her shift" limit the potential application of this statement in the detail -- albeit sparse detail -- that they add. And with a tone stripped of sentiment, the narrative an act of observation without comment, this sentence, taken from its context in a work of fiction, might well be read as straight reportage, with a subjunctivity level of "did happen".

It is this very flatness that hooks the reader, confrontational precisely because it is impersonal. The actions we are shown require empathic and ethical judgements that are virtually absent from the narrative. We are left to decide for ourselves between a boulomaic modality (the modality of desire, wishes, emotional imperatives) of "should not have happened", attached by empathy to the nameless girl's suffering, and a deontic modality (the modality of duty, obligation, moral imperatives) of "should have happened", attached by ethics to the faceless crowd's judgement. We might read into the fronting of "For her sins", I think, a subtle emphasis that hints of ironic quotation, a highlighting of the inadequacy of justification represented by a cliche constructed from three tiny words. There is, I think, an unspoken challenge here that is implicated further with the following sentence:

"Jokla’s father and brothers watched as the priests laid fifty stripes on her bare back."

The abstract is now made specific, the impersonal made personal. The girl has a name, a family, an individual humanity. At the same time, though, she is denied the agency of humanity -- is twice removed from it, in fact, in a sentence where her kin (her male kin) are the subject, and the predicate is their passive observation of another agency (the "priests") acting upon an individual reduced to the status of object. Power is the point here -- the power abrogated by Jokla's male kin, the power exercised by a religious (and implicitly patriarchal) institution, and the power denied the victim of those circumstances. With little justification attached to the whipping as described, and with details of vulnerability seeded to elicit sympathy for the weak and defenceless (the lashing of "her bare back", the fact that she is "slight, with little flesh between skin and spine"), we are invited to see the action as little more than a reification of male privilege, to critique it as an exercise in dominance. This "should not be happening" we decide, boulomaic modality overruling deontic modality.

A human being should not be stripped of dignity and physically abused like this, should not be spared death only from pragmatism, because "the boy who tended the oracle had died just a few days before, and another caretaker was needed", should not be dragged to a new life of misery and servitude for scant reason. ("She had long since given up asking who had accused her, or what she was supposed to have done.") The injustice of it all is cemented in her sentencing having no set term, no hint of release.

In all of this, there is nothing that is strange in terms of breaching our nomology, the reference to "the oracle", with no demonstration of prophetic power, only sketching in more cultural detail. We could still be in the real world, in ancient Greece or some contemporary analogue. Even as a touch of the uncanny enters with the introduction of that oracle, a note of dread drawn out by hints of hidden horror ("Within the cave, something stirred..." "shuffled slowly out...") and a lexicon of disgust ("stench", "hot breaths from a mouth dark with decay"), it is that wider form of the uncanny wherein the creepiness ratchets up our sense of wrongness from contingent assertion ("should not happen") to imperative insistence ("must not happen") to the edge of absolute denial ("could not happen") even if that denial is irrational, even if there is nothing actually at odds with our nomology.

Here then we find, in place of a shift in subjunctivity level, the ratcheting up of a negative boulomaic modality, tension built through a sentence-by-sentence progress towards the revelation of the oracle, that sense of denial manifested in an act of denial ("She flinched and shut her eyes"), acceptance coming step ("then forced herself to turn") by step ("and look"). Interestingly, the horror, when we finally confront it, invokes no shift of the subjunctivity level to "could not happen" as we come face to face with the supernatural. Instead we almost get the opposite -- a shift of the subjunctivity level to "did happen" (or at least the simulation of that shift) as the narrative up till now is re-presented to us as the past facts of history:

"That had been five years ago."

From here on in the story stays in a mode that sits on the edge of the strange but is driven more by the naturalist aesthetic of mimesis applied to the domestic, the socio-political, the impact of mores upon the disempowered individual. In the next scene, we see a supplicant arrive, seeking a reprieve for some crime that has made an exile of him. The oracle's answer doesn't quite read as a breach of nomology; when she says, no, he has another seven years of exile to suffer, we could rationalise the oracle's abilities as psychological insight rather than predictive foresight, a knowledge less of the future than of what needs to be said. It is, perhaps, a moral judgement in the guise of prophecy. Only in the oracle's interruption, answering the supplicant's question as Jokla is only just about to relate it to her, do we have the suggestion of a potential breach of nomology, and even here it is ambiguous. Are we entirely certain that the oracle has not simply overheard? Artifice or anomaly? Ultimately, I think, the story refuses to resolve so simply.

That refusal may well be part of the point. From this scene on, the story traces Jokla's desire for such an oracular judgement on her own part, the way that desire shades into an attempt to convince herself that it does apply, a hope that countermands suicidal fantasies:

"But seven years of anything can be endured, she would tell herself. People have endured worse than this. And she would step away from the edge."

To what extent, it seems we are being invited to ask, are these judgements artifices of desire? As the oracle grows sick and Jokla comes to simply answer supplicants with reports of her condition that are nevertheless taken as prophecy, that question becomes more pressing and more central.

"Surely the visitors to the cave would catch on; surely they would realize that the oracle was neither seeing nor speaking, and these brief reports that came booming and hollow out of the darkness were no true prophecies. But the people accepted them, bending their heads under the weight of the unhappy news, departing with their own groans and lamentations."

The willingness of supplicants to accept these false prophecies on faith, and the fact that Jokla herself can only carry on living through a similar act of self-persuasion even as she herself is participating in a sham that might lead her to question it, refers us back to the opening scene, to the passive acceptance her father and brother's display towards the judgement of the priests. We are being shown authority in action, the extent to which it is not just a brutal imposition and violation (as in the whipping), but also as often a subtly corrosive force, an abrogation of ethical judgement, a surrender to received wisdom. The sense of illegitimacy that attaches to this reinterprets everything we have seen with a deontic modality of "should not happen", subverts the mores of this society, challenges us with the implicity that they are unethical.

It would not be quite right, I think, to say that the imagery of decay and disease attached to the figure of the oracle represents this corruption, that the sickness of the oracle is crudely symbolic of the wrongness of the society as a whole. The oracle, after all, as an avatar of the Other, is in a situation of exile/imprisonment sufficiently analogous to that of Jokla that such a symbolism would tend to generate an emotional validation of Jokla's outcast status by association, our disgust at the oracle playing against our sympathy for Jokla. In the creepiness of the oracle we might attach the "wrongness" to the victim (the Other) rather than to the society that has victimised (Othered) them.

So instead, I think, the boulomaic modality "should not happen" that we associate with the oracle's sickness and spite becomes an undercurrent which binds with and reinforces the sense of "should not happen" that we attach to Jokla's imprisonment. It adds to it in making Jokla's situation more horrible. It comments upon it in the parallel it offers in the oracle's imprisonment. There may even be some transference -- a growing sympathy for the oracle as prisoner, a growing horror at the degradation of Jokla -- but the two threads remain discrete even as they interweave, even as they fuse into a single, deeper sense of wrongness. The oracle's decay and disease is not a token of that wrongness; rather it is a dark mirroring of Jokla's dehumanisation, active spite in place of passive despair, physical weakness in place of psychological weakness.

Still, the othered states of Jokla and the oracle are comparable enough that as the oracle seems to near death, we might well begin to wonder if the story will play out the comparison as a direct parallel. A potential resolution may be predicted: Jokla's false prophecy is accepted by supplicants, ultimately, because the oracle's is also false; the oracle reveals this as she dies, telling Jokla that she was once, like Jokla, the servant to the oracle; we end with Jokla assuming the vacant role of oracle, gaining (limited) power but losing her freedom forever, the knowledge of this planting a seed of bitter despair that will, one day, sicken her as it did the oracle. Alternatively we might predict a subversion, where Jokla has this opportunity but refuses it, walks away into freedom upon the oracle's death. Either way the interwoven threads of their different types of Otherness are tied neatly together into a loop where Jokla is the oracle's past, the oracle Jokla's future (a future to be accepted or rejected).

It is an obvious resolution that emerges from the archetypal roles the characters map to -- "innocent maiden" and "uncanny crone" -- and a conventional transformation between them -- young becomes old, apprentice becomes master. There are hints of it in Jokla's growing hatred of the oracle, her loss of empathy for the oracle ("Any pity Jokla had ever felt for the old woman had been extinguished long ago.") and humanity in general ("She could feel no compassion for the supplicants... Ill-tidings were all she had to offer them.") suggesting an ultimate end-point of pure misanthropy. And the conventionality of the roles and the relationship written into them, the archetypal quality to this pattern, generates a sense of epistemic necessity (even if only just a sense). The logic of story-as-myth seems to tell us that this is what "will happen" even if we think it is only doing so in order to surprise us.

But neither resolution is to be. Jokla is not simply the "maiden" to the oracle's "crone". Reality does not follow the route of transformation written into these archetypes of anima. Such roles and relationships are, after all, essentially projections of the male psyche's constrained and constraining view of what women should be rather than what they are. From a feminist perspective the maiden/crone projection is as dubious as the virgin/whore projection, the process of binding women within these roles just another mechanism of patriarchy, the refusal of a woman's humanity in the act of rendering her a cipher. Given the critique of male power and female disempowerment carried within the story up till this point it is not surprising that it rejects a resolution that would ultimately reify and reinforce the transformation of women into ciphers. Even the rejection of this, in an ending where Jokla refuses to become another cipher, where she walks away, would be... unsubtle... simplistic.

So the archetypal pattern, the logic of story-as-myth, is refused, and instead we are given the logic of story-as-realist-narrative. The divergence from the obvious path comes with the introduction of another Other, another female victim of society's mores as mechanisms of male power, a physically-handicapped girl whose deformity fuses Jokla's weakness and the oracle's grotesqueness, and whose presence in the narrative instantly disrupts the simple duality and the narrative path it suggests.

The girl is brought by a group of supplicants, a man in front, leading his wife and (female, of course) slave, seeking a validation of his desire to rid himself of this "wretched creature... whose life is a misery to herself and a grief to all who must gaze upon her". The wife and slave, of course, have no say in this matter, but their opinions are not difficult to reconstruct. The slave winces at the father's cruelty. The wife expresses bitter hopelessness even in her silence:

"Slowly, the mourning woman raised her head; her face was a mask of despair, her eyes black pits of hatred."

Empathy and ethics, boulomaic and deontic modalities, combine now in direct opposition to the mechanisms of moral authority. And a conflict that has been emerging with the very notion of epistemic necessity, in the potential prophecy has to falsely validate moral authority, is brought to a crisis point. In this world of priests and oracles, a judgement of epistemic necessity (an oracular judgement) is being called for that would go against everything we think "should happen" and that could overrule it with a wrongful assertion that it "must happen".

Pointedly, there is no sense of horror attached to the child in the description. While the father dehumanises her in his speech, representing her as a "creature", the narrative renders her as a "child" or "young woman", a "her" rather than an "it". In the conflict between these two representations, and in the way other characters relate to the girl, the narrative becomes a depiction of dehumanisation, of Othering. The father dehumanises the girl. The slave and the mother do not. Jokla does not directly express empathy, but her own position is ambiguous. On the one hand she is by now so unsympathetic to the supplicants in general that she seems entirely ready to validate murder:

"She tried to think of what to say. The oracle gushes forth tears like a waterfall? Would that suffice, would the young woman’s father take those words as permission to drown her?"

On the other hand, an indirect empathy is established via an association of the expression on the face of the girl's mother with that shown by the one sympathetic member of Jokla's own family when she was in the situation of judgement that opened the story:

"So her second-eldest brother had looked when the priests had dragged her before the men’s house to be whipped, his expression one of raging helplessness, while her father turned his head and her other brothers stared at the ground."

If Jokla is only associating herself indirectly with the girl, for the reader that link is nevertheless compelling, highlighted by the reference back to a cardinal scene of the narrative. The narrative coheres towards resolution, this textual binding making the girl's role in the narrative integral, restating the core conflict (authority versus the individual), concreting the theme that runs through the entire narrative.

The outcome is a rejection of epistemic necessity in favour of contingency, a rejection of authority in favour of humanity, the oracle falsely prophecying a great future for the child -- " I see great deeds in her future..." -- but doing so with a caveat of uncertainty -- "but my vision is clouded now by age. The gods are leaving me." -- which makes this ultimately a stalling tactic -- "You must return, when the next oracle is chosen, to learn more." So judgement is postponed for an indefinite period.

This postponement of judgement, as much as it saves the child, becomes a bleak three-fold rejection of any artificial hope on Jokla's part. Denial following denial following denial, the tale strips away any patterning the logic of story-as-myth has imbued it with. Jokla asks if the oracle knows when she will die. The negation refuses us one predicted ending with Jokla liberated by the oracle's death. She asks if she knows who the next oracle will be. The negation refuses us the alternative ending with Jokla as the new oracle. Stripped of these easy and self-deluding myths, there is only the crucial question left, the reality to be faced. And so Jokla asks if the oracle knows when she will be set free. This final act of negation is a hammer-blow to both Jokla and the reader.

If the element of prophecy throughout the story in any way constitutes an element of strangeness, if it situates the story in a liminal zone where we're not quite sure of the subjunctivity level -- "could have happened" or "could not have happened" -- this ending solidly positions the story in a realistic idiom. It spurns all the desire-born delusions of the fantasy story as a story-of-fantasy. It drags us back to, and abandons us in, a reality barren of mythic patterns and magical empowerments of the disempowered, the reality of social politics, cruelty and empathy, played out on an entirely domestic level.

Is this a "fantasy" narrative, then, or is it simply a "realist" narrative played out against an exotic backdrop, one that might as easily be an elsewhen or elsewhere of our own world as any invented secondary world? Ultimately, that question is, I think, a tangential taxonomic issue, the degree to which the fiction can be labelled strange in direct proportion to the degree of strangeness within the text. In this story that strangeness is slight, a single breach of the subjunctivity level that we are, in fact, quite capable of reading as not a breach at all. In terms of publication though, even to play with strangeness in this way is sufficient to render the story publishable within a market like Lone Star Stories -- which says much for the range and diversity of the field. And in terms of critique, it is also sufficient to make the story of interest as an example of where and how fiction becomes strange, or where and how it might border on strangeness, why it might ultimately refuse to cross over.

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