Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Midwich Cuckoos, or, A Confusion of Thoughts on Reproduction, Evolution, and Reading

I just finished reading a great science fiction book, John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos. Originally published in 1957, the novel was later adapted into the movie Village of the Damned (1960). It tells the story of how a small, sleepy village in England is "invaded" by unwanted "Children," beings who have an enormous capacity for learning and who are intent on dominating their bewildered hosts.

The Children are, we might say, forcibly born to the village's women -- the story begins with a mysterious "Dayout" in which the lives of Midwich's inhabitants are brought to a halt, an invisible forcefield is set up around the village, and the women become pregnant overnight. Wyndham was no feminist, but there are kernels of a radical critique of reproduction (heterosexual or otherwise) in the way he explores the community's reaction to the mass insemination. Mrs. Zellaby notes to her husband, "It's all very well for a man. He doesn't have to go through this sort of thing, and he knows he never will have to. How can he understand? He may mean as well as a saint, but he's always on the outside. He can never know what it's like, even in a normal way -- so what sort of an idea can he have of this? -- Of how it feels to lie awake at night with the humiliating knowledge that one is simply being used? -- As if one were not a person at all, but just a kind of mechanism, a sort of incubator..." (71-72). Mrs. Zellaby's pregnancy was forced upon her, to be sure, and yet the language here is slippery enough, I think, to suggest that she's touching on a more common sentiment, or malaise, or dread, that might be characteristic of "carrying child."

Once the Children are born, the villagers soon realize that they can't escape them -- that these beings exert a pull on them that doesn't allow them to leave Midwich. When people try to leave town by car or foot, there's a point at which they are compelled to turn around and come back to the Children. Even more sinister is the fact that any harm done to the Children, whether intentional or not, is redoubled and thrown back at those who committed the harm. Early in the story, one Mrs. Welt accidentally pricks her baby with a pin. Soon after, "the baby had just looked steadily at her with its golden eyes, and made her start jabbing the pin into herself" (83).

This deliciously sadistic pulsion defines the novel's narrative arc. It also helps explain Wyndham's choice of titles. In one of Mr. Zellaby's many discourses on the Children, he claims that they bear some resemblance to the apparently vicious nature of newly hatched cuckoo birds: "Now, the important thing about the cuckoo is not how the egg got into the nest, nor why that nest was chosen; the real matter for concern comes after it has been hatched -- what, in fact, it will attempt to do next. And that, whatever it may be, will be motivated by its instinct for survival, an instinct characterized chiefly by utter ruthlessness" (89). And indeed once the villagers accept their lot as trapped hosts for these Children, the question becomes, How to get rid of them? This question allows Wyndham to delve into matters of evolutionary theory: he's interested in imagining what humans might resort to when confronted with beings that are paradoxically more advanced (they are highly intelligent creatures) and less mature (they are nonetheless "children") than they are.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

I picked up this book from my hostel in Huaráz. I began reading it there and finished it here, a month later, in Lima. I'm writing about it in this blog to register some of the themes (reproduction, evolution) that piqued my interest as a reader. But just what kind of reader am I? Under what circumstances do I read? Why this book, in Peru, over the Easter weekend, and not another? Are the comments above of an academic nature, or are they things someone who reads The Midwich Cuckoos for "fun," while backpacking, might reflect on as well? Who "owned" this British edition of the book (a handsome trade paperback whose cover features the haunting stare of a baby set above the gray bar that signals it to be part of the Penguin Classics series) before leaving it at the Benkiwasi hostel? Did he or she retrieve it from some other traveler, from some other hostel or book exchange, in South America? Is English even the first language of this imaginary traveler? And what will happen to this book now? Who will read it next as I leave it somewhere in Lima, sometime next week, when I pack up my things and return to my "grad student" life back in the States?

Reading and experience, reproduction and evolution, dry British humor and quiet British terror. The other day, a fellow traveler from Seattle, Emily Jump, and I had a wonderful conversation over Mediterranean food about reading both within and outside academic contexts. We talked about the pleasures of reading for "fun" -- that is, reading for experience, reading as an exercise of the imagination, and not reading as a means of reducing literature to hyper-specialized academic prose. But Emily also took care to recognize that we possess the education and wherewithal ($) to "enjoy" literature of a certain type. Which is to say that even our leisurely enjoyment of literature is always already conditioned by a certain educational background and a certain privileged interest in reading as a practice. And so ultimately we, Emily and I, move between the desire to read beyond what we already know and the acknowledgment that our reading practices will always bear the trace of a certain privileged "appreciation" of what literature can do -- how reading books can take us beyond what we already know.

A classic double-bind? Not necessarily so. I, for one, have come to appreciate deeply the possibility of reading with an eye toward experience and understanding rather than as a means of confirming what I think I already know. Yes, Emily and I are both highly educated people. We enjoy good books. We read some books that academics read. But we resist (and here she's got a head start on me) processing what we read through a self-defined "intellectual" lens -- reducing what we read to a preconstituted "theory." We don't (like to) read as professionals, in other words. Or, at least in my case, being an academic isn't mutually exclusive (I hope!) with one's appreciation for experiential reading. The issue I have with the academy is that most professional literary critics will never admit to the inherent hermeticism of their profession (though they like to claim that all other professions are hyper-specialized).

So there's a profound difference, a valuable difference, between ways of reading among highly educated subjects. Where acknowledging one's position of privilege becomes important is precisely at the point where it's most tempting to judge the way "other people" read. These "others" could include educated people who critique academic professionalism, but they more often encompass the wide swath of readers who don't read books, or who read romances and crime fiction exclusively, or who (worst of all, in some circles) read "middlebrow" books usually associated with sentimental femininity and (therefore?) a complete lack of "taste." While attesting to her own tastes (for good books that a college graduate like her can appreciate), Emily took care to point out that her preferences didn't at all imply judgment of what other people read. People read for different reasons, and these reasons are conditioned by factors such as educational background, disposible income, access to literary resources, and so forth. Thus, to dismiss or even condemn (see certain critics' shrill responses to Oprah's Book Club) certain forms of reading on the grounds of taste confuses a personal "choice" for the divergent and variable social conditions of reading.

Small wonder that Emily has been my best dissertation-interlocutor (even considering the brevity of our conversation over late-lunch!) during my time in Peru. After giving her a layman's rundown of my topic, Emily basically said, "So you're arguing that black pulp fiction made (the practice of) reading a book interesting, worthwhile, and affordable for a community of traditionally overlooked readers." The ethical and political implication of which is: we bracket judging the content of these books in order to understand that their popularity suggests profound truths about racial and economic inequality in the United States.

Emily stated her interpretation of my "point" in such a clear and efficient way that I felt embarrassed revealing how long it's been taking me to finish writing my dissertation. What good reason did I have for taking so much time when the elements of my thinking were so easily communicated over kebabs that afternoon in Parque Kennedy? Was my block a matter of laziness, confusion, needing to read more, needing to research more, or simply being unable to write "academically" about books, people, and themes of the "street," those arguably at the furthest remove from the ivory tower?

One thing I do know is that my craving for new experiences, experiences beyond what I think I already know, is incentive enough for me to commit to finishing my doctoral degree by March of next year. The question remains whether and how I will manage to write the Experience of black pulp fiction in an academic dissertation.

No comments: