Sharon August 29th, 2008
Ok, I’m sorry, I’m sorry – I’m a bad blogger. It has been one of those weeks. And before I get into the book, one more delay – just in case you want to hear my interview yesterday it is here: http://www.publicbroadcasting.
Ok – today’s question. Should we try and breed docility into just men? Is that the only way (or any way) of avoiding the apocalypse? I admit, I’m sort of fascinated by the idea that you can completely reshape human behavior by working with only half of the human race (Tepper’s Margot does admit that they also sterilize women if they prove to be unfit breeders, but her own daughter, Myra, is allowed to give birth 3 times, so they aren’t very good at it.) Yes, the ram is half the herd and all that, and clearly those servitors are working pretty hard but ummm….
I’ve tried to read any number of Tepper novels over the years, ranging from _Grass_ which I read right after _The Gate to Women’s Country_ to a recent flirtation with _The Margarets_, and every time I read any of them, with the exception of this one, I find myself wondering how Tepper sells books. She’s smart, but such a tendentious, heavy, grotesque writer that I find it hard to explain how popular she obviously is.
This book is the exception for me – and it isn’t that isn’t troubling, or in some places awful. But it is at least critical, as Tepper’s other books don’t seem to be, of the gender politics she partly endorses. It does have Morgot admitting eventually that they do sterilize women too, that those who are breeding a new, non-violent future are damned, and it does allow Stavia to ask whether Myra’s limitations are partly because of the rigors of Women’s Country, whether she might have been different if she could have just danced, not because of her genetic limitations (although we eventually learn those trump everything, since her father was Chernon’s father).
Backed up against the narrative is “Iphigenia at Ilium” which is really a revised version of Euripedes amazing _The Trojan Women_ (btw, there’s an astoundingly good 1970s era version of this play with Katherine Hepburn and Genevieve Bujold – really worth seeing) – including some interesting toss-ins from Sartre’s version of Euripedes and some of Tepper’s. Quite honestly, without this, I think the book would not be worth the read. But the overlay of this history of women’s experience of apocalypse – the recognition that this is routine, historical, repeated, almost – not sufficiently – but almost – makes us respect the deep misandry that underlies the text, IMHO.
The problem for me is that the narrative rings fundamentally false. The violence of men towards women is described as inevitable, biological and innate, which can and must be bred out. The only alternate society is “The Holylanders” who make the Taliban look like rays of sunshine, and who enact that violence on a total and societal scale. They of course, prove that without this mechanism, violence against women is inevitable – they and the machinations of the warriors.
But the machinations of the warriors are always biological, not created by the bizarre configuration of their society, and in reality, we know that all women who obey the rather repressive rules are safe – that is, women are breeding out a trait they have successfully constrained anyway, repressing other women and killing men in order to prevent something they’ve successfully prevented (we learn in the story) for centuries. That is, women are learning that men kill and destroy women, we have the apocalypse in the background – and that justifies any action in the present, no matter how deferred or unrealistic the threat. There is a troublingly masturbatory quality to the Holylander scenes and the use of _The Trojan Women_ – that is, they are there to provide a big shiny pile of violence to justify the quieter, more discrete violence in the novel.
I wish I could say that Tepper is merely playing with an idea, but having read a bunch of her other novels, I think she really thinks this – that her vision of maleness and femaleness really is this stark. And that’s why I think of her as the logical parallel, in many ways, to someone like Kunstler – her world has as narrow and unthoughtful a view of men as his does of women.
Women’s Country looks like a pretty tolerable place to live after an apocalypse – the trains run on time, the ordinary details seem to work, there are sexually available servitors (or at least their sperm) content in their special place in society. But I admit, I don’t think I’ll be designing my own.
What about the rest of you?