Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.
The Lost Child: Notes on Gwyneth Jones's White Queen
Originally published in Femspec 5.1 (2005)
1. This is a recurring dream. I am in a foreign city. I barely speak the language. I am out with my small son, who in this dream is only four or five years old. We stand at a busy intersection of several large boulevards, some corner behind the Paris Opera. The sun is shining, my boy is laughing, confident crowds of people walk by. I turn around. He is gone, nowhere to be seen. He can’t say a word in the language. I run frantically to a local store, and ask for help, but can’t make myself understood. With each stumble of my tongue he goes further away. Tongue-tied, I know that I will never find him. Parents have such dreams. We have misplaced our children. They’ve wandered off in a foreign city, they’ve been abducted, we watch them waste away or fall off the roof. We wake up, and they’re sound asleep in their beds; but in the dream they did not return, we could not revive them. Maybe we didn’t love them enough, we were powerless to protect them, we did something that cursed them. The grief of such dreams goes deeper than the moment. Surely we lose ourselves, our carelessness kills what we protected of ourselves. And the shame goes even deeper. For the children of the dream are more than the real ones. We owe their protection to others, the mate, the family, the world and the kind. In our helplessness we have lost the future, the treasure of the heart’s desire.
2. Parsifal IOn the stairs in the house in New Cross there was a picture that Johnny didn’t like. It was large and plain. It showed a kind of cot or cradle standing in an empty attic. The grain of the wooden floorboards were brutally clear, there was nothing else in the picture but a shaft of light. The name of the picture was Parsifal I, the artist someone called Anselm Kiefer. It was a copy. The original, he gathered, was fairly famous. To Johnny it always seemed that the baby in the cradle (the baby suggested by the cradle) had to be dead. He would avert his eyes, coming up the fine wide stairway: remembering Brae’s child who had died. Remembering Bella, the scar that hurt sometimes when he was tired. (White Queen, 169-70)
Dream grief lies just below the surface of fantasy, from George MacDonald, who often takes the perspective of the lost child (and to whom Jones alludes in White Queen), to post-WWII sf where the alien arrives when families are breaking down. The pods of Invasion of the Body Snatchers arrive in divorce-riven California; ET appears to a single-mother’s family; Klaatu befriends a fatherless boy; Roadside Picnic’s Red Schuhart is driven by rage and grief at the degeneration of his mutant daughter; Solaris’s Kris Kelvin dreams his dead wife into being; on and on. So it is with White Queen.
3. Johnny Guglioli’s reveries turn again and again to his young daughter, Bella, from whom he’s been torn by his exile and the QV virus. Not the usual masculine handyman-hero, Johnny feels his loss not mainly as a blocked artist, engineer, or lover, but as a bereft parent. His relationships with Clavel and Brae remind him of his “scar,” his broken link with Bella. His alienation from normal life is total. He cannot touch electronic machinery, he cannot even confidently touch other humans for fear of contaminating them with the virus. His estranged wife, Izzy, won’t let him keep in touch with his daughter. “There was no contact, none possible” (15).
Johnny makes sense of his evolving connection with Clavel – ostensibly a superior form of contact – in terms of his child. Early on, he dreams the Aleutians have abducted her (41), substituting the aliens for his estranged wife. Gradually, his fear is converted to the hope that Clavel will cure him of the virus and restore him to his family: “Hargood would make him a partner. He’d get in touch with Izzy, send money for fares. They’d live in the country, Bella would have a pony” (153). Because Johnny seems to enjoy wordless communication with Clavel, he imagines the Aleutians can read not only some of his thoughts, but his deepest desires. They must be angelic mediators free from the suffering caused by human error. In Clavel’s world “everyone was free to live exactly as they pleased; and yet tenderly protected” (70).
The theme of protection dominates the life-stories of both Johnny and Brae. When Johnny enjoyed youth, male privilege, and technical mastery, protection was his obligation and desire. He was his daughter’s caretaker, and since she “was the best thing that ever happened to” him (69), her care was a life-purpose. Why this connection is so important for Johnny is not immediately evident in WQ, since Bella never appears as an actor in the novel. It takes on dimension as Johnny finds himself in the position of a child himself, hoping to be protected and “saved” from his bereft state by Clavel, and indirectly by Brae. Clavel’s rape horrifies Johnny not only because he now understands that he has blindly projected his desires on the alien, but because he has been violated by a figure he had endowed with superior, indeed parental power. Johnny, who had earlier scrupulously resisted his desire to force sex on Brae and is aware of the perils of a male caretaker for a female child, finds he is betrayed by a being he had imagined to be his protector. He has been treated “like a woman” by the hermaphroditic adolescent alien, but he has also been treated like an abused child.
Brae understands Johnny’s identification with children as clearly Clavel misunderstands it. From one perspective, Clavel does not rape Johnny, since Clavel is completely mistaken about Johnny’s understanding of alien lust, as Johnny is about Clavel’s understanding of violation. It is a rape only as engineered by Brae, for Brae understands intimately how violation of family trust works. Brae has power over Johnny by willingly confusing maternal protection and sexual pleasure, the very things that Johnny wishes to distinguish in his relationship with his child and with Clavel. Brae uses Johnny’s single-minded desire to regain his child and family as the lever to set Johnny up.
Brae is dominated by a complementary grief. Late in the novel, the narrator informs us that Brae’s marriage and family were as violent and tragic as Johnny’s was idyllic. Caught in an addictively brutal masochistic relationship with her husband, Brae learned to fear all men, and to view everything in terms of sexual power. She has also learned that men are made temporarily submissive and compliant by sex. With Johnny she accordingly oscillates between sexual manipulation and abject physical fear of his male anger.
Below the surface lure is something much deeper than sexual power-play. Brae was infected by a form of AIDS by her now-dead husband, and the disease also killed her young son. The child, an indirect victim of her husband’s sexual violence, remains out of Brae’s consciousness – or at least the narrator’s – for most of the novel. In its place, we see Brae’s ceaseless transformation of Johnny into a boy-child whom she resents, manipulates, and wishes also to “thrill” and “treasure.” He is an “idiotic child,” a “good boy-baby,” a “good boy,” a “baby.” These are not terms of endearment. Her resentment is relieved only when she controls Johnny’s potential aggression through sex. Although Johnny appears to be easily satisfied, Brae gains sexual satisfaction only by identifying with her own manipulation. In a moment that strikingly evokes Molly’s past as a meat-puppet in Neuromancer, Brae becomes conscious of “the disorienting thrill of having entered, informed, the erotic puppet that was herself in his mind” (209). It is implied that her greatest sexual pleasure comes from semi-playfully re-enacting scenes of rape.
Brae, in effect, transfers her complex sexual pathology, in which wifehood and motherhood are toxically confused, most immediately onto Johnny, but more comprehensively onto the Aleutians. The aliens represent the solution to all her human problems, but they also affirm that these problems cannot be solved by humans. She is driven by competing identities: her colonized consciousness refuses to permit any new colonizers to dissolve the rules of her original oppression. They have everything that she could desire, their eyes “had opened upon Eden before the fall” (210). She is willing to destroy them violently to protect the cultural power-structure in which she has constructed a role for herself, with full awareness that she is violating what she most values. Her recognition that the Aleutians are simultaneously the embodiment of, and the obstacle to, completeness inspires her to hate them.
4. René Girard has named this process of self-confounding projection: triangulation. The triangulating subject desires an object not directly, but through the mediation of a third subject, whose behavior and imputed desires become the model for how and what one should desire. In its simplest form it appears in Don Quixote as chivalric passion, desire that the Don borrows from Amadis the Gaul, and which Sancho borrows from the Don. “Don Quixote and Sancho borrow their desires from the Other in a movement which is so fundamental that they completely confuse it with the will to be Oneself” (4). Girard detects in the development of triangulated desire in the Western novel a movement from external to internal mediation. In external mediation “the distance is sufficient to eliminate any contact between the two spheres of possibilities of which the mediator and the subject occupy the respective centers,” while in internal mediation “this same distance is sufficiently reduced to allow these two spheres to penetrate each other more or less profoundly” (9).
With external mediation – as in the case of Don Quixote – the subject tends to view the mediator’s desire as its own heart’s desire. One must learn from the higher, the greater, the better how one must love. One learns to irrigate the arid fields of human life with ideal water. The external mediator teaches, impresses, saves, and from it we learn to transcend our limitations. From the external one we receive gifts of self.
With internal mediation, by contrast, the mediator is riven, simultaneously the revealer of desire and in that moment also the obstacle to its attainment. It becomes the unbeatable competitor for the object of desire, with a perpetually irreducible advantage. The mediator is always already better, higher, more complete, the assumed possessor of what we lack.The impulse toward the object is ultimately an impulse toward the mediator; in internal mediation this impulse is checked by the mediator himself since he desires, or perhaps possesses, the object. Fascinated by his model, the disciple sees, in the mechanical obstacle which he puts in his way, proof of the ill will borne him. Far from declaring himself a faithful vassal, he thinks only of repudiating the bonds of mediation. But these bonds are stronger than ever, for the mediator’s apparent hostility does not diminish his prestige but instead augments it. The subject is convinced that the model considers himself too superior to accept him as a disciple. The subject is torn between two opposing feelings toward his model – the most submissive reverence and the most intense malice. This is the passion we call hatred. (10)Girard’s categories work well for observing the development of social passions in the Western novel, especially the increasing prominence of envy, jealousy, and ennui as driving forces. These characteristic vices of bourgeois consciousness remain purely social as long as they pertain only to humans, the vices of a species that no longer imagines ontological differences in class inequalities. They gather a different force, however, when they pertain not to social differences, but to the gap between human mortality and the consciousness of it, a consciousness inextricable from the desire not to be extinguished. As long as the external mediation of religion is widely affirmed, the gap between desire and death can be bridged, and death can be the transmuted into the means toward completeness. But once the external gives way to internal mediation, the promise of transcendence fades, leaving the subject suffering with the sense that it is trapped in the awareness of personal death.
This is the essence of Dostoyevskian triangulation; Girard calls it “metaphysical desire.” No longer able to believe in divine mediation, Dostoevsky’s protagonists fall back on human mediators, in whom they cannot believe without augmenting their suffering. In any case, both the divine and human mediators manifest themselves as immovable obstacles to the very thing they reveal. Their despair increases with their awareness, leading to the masochism and sadism so typical of Dostoevsky’s characters.
When the desiring subject perceives the abyss that has hollowed out beneath his feet, he voluntarily hurls himself into it, hoping against hope to discover in it what the less acute stages of metaphysical sickness have not brought him. (180)
The masochist is at once more lucid, and more blind than other victims of metaphysical desire. He is more lucid in that lucidity, increasingly prevalent in our time, which permits him alone among all desiring subjects to perceive the connection between internal mediation and the obstacle; he is more blind because, instead of following out the implications of this awareness to their necessary conclusions, instead of giving up misdirected transcendency, he tries paradoxically to satisfy his desire by rushing toward the obstacle, thus making his destiny one of misery and failure. (179)
Every victim of metaphysical desire, including the masochist, covets his mediator’s divinity, and for this divinity he will accept if necessary – and it is always necessary – or even seek out, shame, humiliation, and suffering. (182)
The sadist in this model is, just like the masochist, a victim of metaphysical desire, but the sadist attempts to overcome the obstacle by identifying with it, imitating its power to cause suffering and shame, all the while “never ceasing to identify with the victim, that is, persecuted innocence....” (187).
5. Aliens are culturally sanctioned mediators for our Euro-American romance. Whether they are rationalized angels, Men in Black, or careless travelers, they impinge on human existence and incite our longing either to be better than we are, or at least not worse. They are gods or demons brought down to earth, and precisely because of this domestication they can never be fully accommodated. Their greatest gifts always inspire suspicion; “To Serve Man” may always evoke to a cookbook. Similarly, because they are free agents (as aliens, unlike angels, must be) with their own interests (in order to properly mirror our own condition), they can never be entirely for us. They may give us their world-transforming technologies, but they will exact living brains in exchange; they may take us to the stars, but their sublime power may, as in Spielberg’s Close Encounters, draw our police cars over fatal precipices. They inspire us to imagine technologies of immortality, plenitude, social concord and enlightenment, but in inspiring us they make us aware that we are not enough. We will never be enough, and we will always know it.
Taking Girard into sf, the alien transposes the problems of the triangulation of desire from the human social sphere to the ontological. In an age of radical egalitarianism, individualism and materialism, the alien reveals human beings to be a single species. If it reveals sexual, racial, and other differences within the species, these are not trivial differences, but constitutive. We are a Species That is Not One. The alien emerges precisely when the metaphysical sickness described in Dostoevsky is shown to be incurable; renouncing “misdirected transcendancy” is not an option, the renunciation has no power against the gynocide, genocide, and general biocide that species-level metaphysical sickness incites. It is this condition that Jones takes as a given in WQ.
6. The Aleutians immediately attract our attention. Jones has described the complex inspirations and combinatorics of their invention in her essay “Aliens in the Fourth Dimension.” They were, apparently, creatures of an essentially comic idea:I planned to give my alien conquerors the characteristics, all the supposed deficiencies, that Europeans came to see in their subject races in darkest Africa and the mystic east – “animal” nature, irrationality, intuition; mechanical incompetence, indifference to time, helpless aversion to theory and measurement: and I planned to have them win the territorial battle this time. It was no coincidence, for my purposes, that the same list of qualities and deficiencies – a nature closer to the animal, intuitive communication skills and all the rest of it – were and still are routinely awarded to women, the defeated natives, supplanted rulers of men, in cultures north and south, west and east, white and non-white, the human world over. (110)
They had to be humanoid and they had to be sexless. I wanted a society that knew nothing of the great divide which allows half the human race to regard the other half as utterly, transcendently, different on the grounds of reproductive function. I wanted complex and interesting people who managed to live lives fully as strange, distressing, satisfying, absorbing, productive as ours, without having any access to that central “us and themness” of human life. I realise before long that this plan created some aliens who had a very shaky idea, if any, of the concept “alien,” especially as applied to another person. Which was a good joke...” (111)
Once she had these ideological parameters, Jones revved up her elaboration-engine and produced dense sociobiological detail, an alternate evolution that – like the quasi-Lamarckian one she envisions for her aliens – produced attributes to fit her conceptual environment.
Jones’s Aleutians are comic as they labor to fit themselves into the humans’ expectations of sci-fi aliens, while they in fact already fit in sf’s culture of aliens quite well. They are the novum, they are the stone thrown into the stagnant pool of human relations. In sf, the aliens impose on human consciousness at the point of the lack. They enter the world through passages that most human protagonists did not even know existed before their appearance. They embody what was only intimated. They may be the conscience of a morally obtuse species, like Micromégas. They may be the species future, like Wells’s Martians, or our unimagined past. They may be our reptile brains, our angelic overminds, our inner children, our outer shells. They may be, as Jones states explicitly, what we oppress and repress. They may appear only to point out our incompleteness, like Lem’s Solaris, the Visitors of Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic, or the Change Speakers in Watson’s The Embedding. They may represent our other halves, our heart’s desire, imaginary friends. The energy of the alien comes from human subjects’ constant desire for the meaning-giving supplement, some new thing that can be recognized and yet be free of the banality of human social existence. It’s a matter of indifference whether they inspire fear or love, just so long as they keep the portals of “the more” open.
Furthermore, aliens have been traditionally modeled on certain categories of otherness that fascinate the rulers of discourse: children, women, machines, non-western peoples, animals and “anomalous genders” – and, as the balance of power begins to shift, Europeans and males, as well. It is a rare alien that does not displace aspects from several of these categories, and sf writers usually strive to make beings that combine them in original ways. Jones’s Aleutians are exemplary of traditional sf practice. They are viewed as baboon-like (Brae calls Clavel a “baboon infanta”) with highly evolved communal grooming habits. Although they are not sexually differentiated, since they reproduce through a mysterious form of parthenogenesis (and so resemble machines and certain animals), they do enjoy quasi-sexual contact, and their hermaphroditic genitalia play a pivotal role in the trilogy. They are emphatically linked to non-western people. They are, in a sense, “obligate” Hindus or Lamaist Buddhists. Their genes are physically reincarnated and consequently they live in an unchanging system of social roles, as if certain Hindu-Buddhist beliefs were materially embodied. They are childlike in many ways – most importantly in carelessness about death (since their personalities are “immortal”), a condition that encourages playfulness in some, emotional abandon in others, and a general lack of concern for consequences and long-range planning.
Readers of sf are always on the lookout for major aliens, beings who are sufficiently strange to make us forget their human, social raw materials, and sufficiently earnest to appear to have bona fide extra-human agendas. The less they reflect our own concerns, the more variety or freedom or newness they offer us. The less we recognize in them, the more they represent the imagination’s freedom.
Are the Aleutians really such major aliens? They are highly comic constructions, not so distant from Aristophanes’s antsy protagonists in The Birds. Think of the possibilities: ET rewritten as Old Comedy. They arrive among gullible birdbrains and con their way into world-power. Both species become entangled in the sublime-ridiculous imitation and subversion of each other’s desires, each imagining the other to fit into their own reality picture. Classical comic themes abound: the game between cons and gulls, as the Aleutians, pretending to be a race of Klaatus, scam humanity out of valuable real-estate; Clavel as moonstruck teenage Romeo so ready for true love that he looks for it among the aliens; high-concept mistaken gender identities, with a grotesque bedroom seduction scene between a hunky guy and a gal who is not all that she appears to be; sex and toilet jokes, indeed incest jokes, as Clavel looks for her truedaddy; political farce, as the Aleutians mistake the World Council on Women’s Affairs for the world government; the very idea of only three million genetic possibilities, types described not through some major archetype-subjectivity, but as something learned, the howlingly comic paradox of having to learn through tapes and films who your essence is. Even their name is comical: the rationalization that they landed in the Aleutian Islands is eagerly believed by human characters and readers alike. (By now, maybe even their author believes it.) Nested in their name are the anagrams: Alien, ET, and “U.” Their name, like their role, is a trick and a joke.
7. Jones might have written a wildly ambitious comic sf novel, on the scale of Čapek or Bulgakov. Why then is WQ dark, frustrating, fragmented, and why are the Aleutians the center of interest, and yet somehow unsubstantial? The Aleutians cease to be comic as soon as we realize that they are not Aristophanic comedians, but supplements, constructed by the author, and indeed by the protagonists, to fill the lack, not of personal immortality, but of species immortality. Threatened with the annihilation of the future, the real suicide inspired by metaphysical suffering, human beings – in the novel and in reality – construct the mediator who will satisfy the personal desires of the species. Ironically, as ever, the desire is simultaneously our own, and alien. The Aleutians act as dreams that have been made material, like the cosmic turtles of George Orr’s “effective dreams” in Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven. Jones’s account of their generation can be read as a blueprint for humanity’s fantastic resolutions. Their concreteness is, with the singular exception of Clavel, a concreteness not for us, but only for themselves. And it is precisely this distance that is the dream. No matter what form they take – benefactors, leaders, exploiters, strangers – they fill the gaps in a world in which we are our own exploiters and aliens.
The Aleutians act as projections of humanity’s – in WQ, especially Johnny’s and Braemar’s – all-too-human sense of loss, specifically the loss of its own children. WQ is not only a sophisticated estrangement of gender-roles and biological determinism, but an intensely inward, psychodramatic shadow-play of human beings grieving for the loss of their families and faith in the possibility of a social order in which families can survive. Far from offering alternative utopian visions of gender-fluidity, as some contend, WQ shows its human readers a dystopia in which the consolations of family and collective communal life are no longer even imaginable. Far from offering some model solution to human problems, Jones depicts in us a species cursed by our own biology of difference and death, capable ultimately of nothing better than noble gestures in the face of our own impossible – and necessary – ideals.
8. If the Aleutians are at the outset comic creations, the humans – especially Brae and Johnny – are at first comic-book creations from neo-pulp sf, cyberpunk rotated through James Tiptree. Brae’s and Johnny’s story seems to have been imported straight from Neuromancer. Johnny Guglioli is a sensitive, appealing outtake of Gibson’s Case -- a loner, whose special telechtronic talent has been blocked by a nefarious government, obstructing access to his Net. He is trapped in his body by QV, a cyborg-disease that forces him into a quarantine, as Case is by the toxins implanted in his system. Because of their poisons, they are both in literal exile from their homes and their vocations. Both regain their skill through mental traveling (Peenemünde Buonarotti’s ftl /Case’s Kuang program), make a run (actually, two runs in both novels, the two Mothership journeys/the SenseNet and the Straylight runs); driven by hatred for their tormentors they invade the sanctuary of their enemies (the Mothership/Straylight), and release the mystery through their newly reclaimed technical talents (the images of the Mothership in WQ/ the secret word in Neuromancer). Like Case Johnny is inspired by terrific longing for his lost love (his daughter Bella, Case’s Linda Lee).
Brae has, unsurprisingly, some of Molly’s traits. Damaged by actively repressed sexual trauma in the past, both are cold tough mercenary cyborgs, who manipulate others with sex and technology. They both have literal implants, scoping devices that are also fetish clothes . They are spurred by a deeper hatred of their enemies than their male companions, whom they associate with their gender violation.
The Aleutians, moreover, function as a form of organic matrix – a contested paraspatial domain of rule and knowledge with mysterious culture and intentions. This is especially true in terms of Case and Brae’s “ftl travel” to the mothership, bodiless translation to a psychodramatic zone where one comes face to face with deep emotions in the midst of intense mental activity.
These parallels are undeniable, but we can’t stop there, since Jones’s protagonists don’t feel like typical cyberpunk characters. They are indeed also satirical critiques of c-punk archetypes. Case is a free-agent; if he has a sense of honor and decency, readers know about it only by implication. We know he is not good at the street hustle, that he is in the feminized position vis a vis his employers and Molly, his female but masculinized bodyguard. Johnny, for his part, first appears as a “feminine” male also, but in his case it is explicitly developed: he misses his daughter, for whom he was for years the primary nurturer. Like Case, he seeks a kind of salvation in his work, which gives him not only the thrill of “bodiless exultation,” but political commitment.
In Brae’s case the differences from Molly are even greater. Brae works through seduction, she’s passive aggressive, had children and a family, developed a masochistic consciousness, and throws herself completely into gender and cultural alienation. Indeed, Brae seems not a derivation from Molly’s template, but its inversion – the masochist to Molly’s sadist, the seducer to Molly’s street-tough, the fem to Molly’s Butch, the thinker to Molly’s fighter, the Tory to Molly’s fetish-girl.
Gibson’s characters fly through their world without any historical or family connections, one of the aspects that makes them comic-book like. But both Johnny and Braemar are given complex, ambiguous histories. Both have been parents, both have lost mates and children. Like all those cursed by mortality and heterosexual reproduction, they are individuals who need to meld with others. They inhabit cruelly romantic subjective worlds, in which the heart’s desire has been lost, where one makes do with fantastic compensations, corrupt compromises, and shame – shame that occupies the core of being. Their relationship to the Aleutians, unlike Molly’s and Case’s to Wintermute, is highly personal. The White Queen conspiracy – which might have stood originally for Wintermute’s plot against the T-A clan and the Turing Police – is almost irrelevant to the story (and the notion that Brae is a resistance leader is utterly implausible). It serves only to make plot-links between Brae and Peenemünde’s ftl device and Clem’s scientific infodumps. Case and Molly enter the Straylight caper as hired help, and Wintermute encourages them to make as much personal use of it as they can; Brae and Johnny, by contrast, actually construct the Aleutians out of their own desires. They try impossibly to fill in their own distinctively personal human lacks through Others’ mediation. If the matrix is a “consensual hallucination” of the technical world, the Aleutians are the consensual hallucination of the perplexed heart.
9. Next to Johnny’s motives, Brae’s seem, on the surface, artificial. Can a bona fide global political resistance grow up around such an effete coterie as the White Queen? Can a putative leader have such self-destructive motives? In any case Jones does not treat the conspiracy with conviction. It is one of several of Brae’s displacements of her deep-seated masochism, a masochism seated less in her own sense of pleasure at being shamed and humiliated by her husband, as by her powerlessness to protect her child.
Braemar dreamed that she was carrying a child to hospital. The warm, round bundle in her arms was covered with cuts and bruises and sores. She could feel that some of its bones were broken, she could feel the freight of blood weeping into the body’s cavities from internal injuries. Someone was trying to take the child from her and she kept crying leave me alone, we’ll be all right, leave me alone we’ll be all right.
It was a nightmare, not the truth. She refused to dream it. (276-7)
Whether this really was merely a dream or not, we cannot know. We do know that her link to Johnny also intimately connects protection and injury. Though she plays rape fantasy games with him before the real rape by Clavel, it is mainly the distorted mother we see in their relationship. The strange, seemingly throwaway inclusion of Kiefer’s painting in the narrative turns out to be noteworthy. Johnny cannot look at the picture, it raises too many painful memories. Yet Brae hangs it on her wall. The cradle in the painting, eerily isolated in a gigantic attic room, invites the viewer to imagine not the child inside (which Johnny believes is dead and lost), but the viewer’s own disturbing distance from it. In Kiefer’s painting, the solitary cradle is unapproachable, yet simultaneously beckoning and threatening.
10. The Aleutians are, for all intents and purposes, triangulated mediators for Johnny’s and Brae’s desires to supplement the loss of their children, the beings whom it was their obligation to protect, but could not, the only concretely physical justifications for the miserable biology of heterosexual reproduction and the sufferings of physical mortality. Few sf writers have given children such a pivotal role in their work as Jones. It is not a sentimental predilection; after all, Jones binds complexities of parent-child relationships closely with sexual desire and worldly power. While romantic love holds out the possibilities of the fusion of equals, parental care requires empathy and sacrifice for an other who is, for a while, completely dependent on our care. WQ is a peculiar dystopia, in that the world’s failure is measured by the inability of parents to stay in contact and protect children. Few contrasts between the aliens and the humans are as striking as this one.
For the Aleutians, children are not subject to the complex alienation of human parenting. Each child is already an adult with a long history, a respected member of the group. Each child always already has its “obligate” caretaker, and each inherited archetypal role reinforces all the others. All new children are products of a specific kind of parthenogenesis, i.e., emergence from an extremely limited and universal gene pool that is not varied by the new inputs of heterosexual gene-sharing. Further, their personalities do not perish. As a consequence, they are all integrated into the system of care even before they are born, and they do not carry the weight of perpetuating the parents’ identity. They are free to seek, like Clavel, their “trueparents,” those earlier, older versions of themselves from whom they have emerged and whom they elaborate. Because Aleutian biology provides so much unmediated inter-connection – through telepathy, the “wanderers,” parthenogenesis, and hermaphroditic genitalia – they have no sense of difference, and hence of solitude, alienation, or suffering from the tragic inadequacy of human resources to heal the fatal injuries they inevitably sustain.
Clavel, however, undergoes an ordeal that arguably justifies Brae’s and Johnny’s, and indeed the whole human species’, project of triangulation, by making the mediators responsive to the desires they are invested with without their knowledge. For Clavel is also, albeit for humans rather comically, himself a lost child searching for a “trueparent.” Clavel is so lost that he projects his desire on an alien who cannot return it in any conceivable way. His desire comes from his cosmic narcissism, the justified yearning to fuse with oneself in a universe conceived ultimately as One Self. Clavel breaks from his group by sheer force of desire – but while Johnny’s and Brae’s desire is conceived as compensatory, supplementary, an attempt to heal the injuries of alienation or to prevent that healing, Clavel’s is seen as the expansion of his already whole being.Self of my self, parent of my heart,
If I reach out in my mind’s world, you will feel that touch
wherever you may be.
“I lie down to embrace another, my kisses go straight to you.
“For no one can share pleasure, it belongs to the Self alone.
I can only come to you, I can only be with you, sleeping, waking,
living, dying, always. Your mouth is in my cup, my claw is in
your flesh...” (90)
Clavel’s lyric might easily be a piece of human bhakti; but in a poem by Kabir or Rumi, these would be metaphors of divinity, of the most successful form of external mediation. For Clavel, these are the spontaneous celebration of a species condition that cannot conceive of difference and separation.
Clavel is a lost child in only a trivial sense (at least from a human perspective) only in the early stages of the novel; before the rape, he gives no credence to the idea that humans are significantly different from him. His suspicions arise as he contemplates the peculiar human trait he calls “treasuring injury.” Contemplating the way their host, Mr Kaoru, preserves the memory of the cataclysmic collapse of his Japanese homeland into the sea, Clavel wonders “Did all of them on this planet treasure injury like Kaoru? It was a worrying thought” (129).
Kaoru responds to the colossal trauma of the death of his country by imagining that the Aleutians are descendants of a fraction of the Japanese population that escaped on a spaceship. In essence, he, too, constructs the Aleutians to be triangulated mediators of his desire for a restored homeland. (He, in turn, becomes aware of his own fantasies of mediation when he realizes that the Aleutians have no sense of fatality, and so cannot be Japanese. When Clavel tries to console him with the phrase “Everything will turn out right,” Kaoru caresses his cheek and calls him “Little American” (129).)
Clavel gradually comes to understand that his projection of desire onto Johnny (i.e., triangulating his desire for Johnny through the model of the cosmic One Self desiring Itself) has had the unforeseeable effect of turning Johnny into an enemy, the hostile Other – whereby he commits the original sin of the Aleutian trilogy. Jones could easily have resolved the situation mawkishly. Instead, she has Clavel go on a fact-finding journey through the human world, where he hears the humans’ hymn, “Where were you when they crucified out Lord?”:He did not catch all the words but the meaning flowed through him like water: shame and loss and never-ending sorrow. It was as if every story in the shrine of the singers had been mutilated in the same way, cut off at the nadir of misery and defeat. Clavel found himself weeping helplessly. But the tears were strangely sweet. He did not want to stop. He wanted to go on weeping forever. (188)
Like Le Guin’s Odonians, who begin from the premise that solidarity begins in shared pain, Clavel understands that “Sorrow was the missing link. That bottomless sorrow to which he had no clue held these people together. It stood for them in the place of living wanderers“(190). Clavel continues to the end to maintain some of his comic Aleutian autonomy. He responds to expressions of human suffering by savoring its “sweetness,” the treasuring of injury, the masochistic affection for shame. Arguably, in this he is not much different from Brae and Johnny, who effectively aestheticize their ambivalence toward the Aleutian mediators – their models and obstacles of desire – in an operatic finale in which Johnny goes to a heroic Liebestod, and Brae survives as both the sacrificed-for beloved and the canny rebel. None of these positions are very credible. Clavel is still an obligate narcissist, enjoying the mood of suffering, but not quite able to understand why humans cannot get past fatality and the desire for redemptive mediation. Brae and Johnny appear to be reconciled, in their beau geste, to recognizing their common, self-violating and mutually betraying humanity.
Brae never does disentangle the lover from the child in Johnny. The noble knight is indistinguishable from the good boy; her final posture after Johnny’s execution is that of a grieving woman holding her lover who is “like a sleeping child” (305). In his last moment, Johnny appears to have become reconciled to the loss of his daughter.He found himself thinking a great deal about Bella, not as a sore place in his memory, but as a living person. He remembered dancing with her in his arms: cavorting round the floor in that cluttered little partition to some schmaltzy country and western waltz. He looked down at the two-year old face, so lost in bliss. You won’t remember a moment of these years, he thought. It will be gone. I’ll be an aged geezer who never gives you anything but aggravation. But one day you’ll be dancing in someone’s arms: and you won’t know it but this is what you’ll be looking for. It takes love to make love, sweet baby. He decided there was not much to choose between the Aleutian and the earthly view, after all. (304)Perhaps. Fade country music. Johnny has discovered the romantic Aleutian principle of truechildren searching for truedaddies. In the human world, however, this means something other than in the Aleutian world. It is the tough and double-binding truth linking incest and the desire for protection – the parent’s protection of one’s self in one’s child, the conscious child’s desire for a trueparent in the lover, the desire of heterosexual sentient creatures to protect and preserve themselves in the other who is not alien.
11. The theme of the lost child continues to guide the narratives of the subsequent novels in the Aleutian trilogy, implying that the miseries of gender and power are not matters of sex alone, but of generation.
Girard, Rene. Deceit, Desire and the Novel. trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1965.
Jones, Gwyneth. “Aliens in the Fourth Dimension” in Deconstructing the Starships. Science, Fiction and Reality. Liverpool: U Liverpool P, 1999.
-----. White Queen. New York: Orb, 1991.