Parable of the Sower
The Symbolism of Water in Parable of the Sower
Water is the most abundant source of life on this planet. Not only did the first living beings emerge from its depths, but it also possesses the ability to keep every living thing alive. Powerful as it is, water takes on whole new meanings in Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower. In this novel, the journal entries of Lauren Olamina tell her story as she, literally and figuratively, navigates the world around her. The dystopian America Lauren lives in is practically void of a reliable source of water, especially in Lauren’s case as she lives in southern California, an area known for its long periods of drought. These circumstances highlight the symbolism of water in the novel. In Butler’s Parable of the Sower, water represents wealth, life, and safety.
There are many instances in this novel where water is a symbol for wealth. The setting of this story is one where a majority of the population is extremely impoverished. Due to this and the inflation of the failing economy, water has become an expensive necessity, and clean water a luxury. According to Lauren, “water now costs several times as much as gasoline” and “is as good as money” (Butler 18, 201). Only those who have money are able to drink water, and that water is not guaranteed to be safe unless it is from a commercial water station. As a consequence of this, people that have the ability to afford water are considered wealthy, and usually despised. Lauren explains that“[y]ou’re supposed to be dirty now. If you’re clean, you make a target of yourself” (18). To the poor and thirsty people around Lauren, if one has the option of cleaning themselves with water, they are trying to show off how much better and wealthier they are than the people around them.
Water is also a symbol for life. Heavy themes such as poverty, racism, and violence are all prevalent during this novel. However, there are certain times when lightheartedness and general liveliness can seep into the story, usually attached to scenes concerning water. For instance, when it begins to rain, after raining for six years, Lauren describes how she feels when the rain hits her skin: “It was so wonderful. How can [Cory] not understand that? It was so incredible and wonderful” (48). Lauren is characterized as a serious and intelligent girl, yet in this moment, seeing the water outside her house, she becomes a new person. Disregarding the consequences and disobeying her stepmother, Lauren stands outside until she is soaked in dirty rain water. These actions are not indicative of someone who is trying their best to be seen as an adult and to survive in a dangerous world, they are the actions of a teenager who wants to enjoy her life. A similar event occurs later in the novel when Lauren, Harry, and Zahra are at a beach. They are completely surrounded by potentially dangerous strangers in unknown territory, but this is the first time any of them had seen the ocean, so again Lauren disregards the consequences of her actions and actually lives her life. Her and Zahra, neither knowing how to swim, walk into the ocean and “threw water on each other…let the waves knock [them] around, and laughed like crazy people,” Lauren even claims it was the “best time [she’s] had since [they] left home” (206). Both these scenes are instances where characters that are usually burdened by countless tragedies and traumas are able to enjoy their life, surrounded by water.
In the novel, water additionally represents safety for the characters. Until the end of the story, the characters are never in a place completely void of danger. However, there are certain points where the characters are in places of temporary tranquility, places that are associated with water. The first place is the ocean. When the group arrives there, Lauren describes the scene:
…the narrow strip of sand was crowded with people, though they managed to stay out of each other’s way. They had spread themselves out and seemed far more tolerant of one another than they had during our night in the hills. I didn’t hear any shooting or fighting. There were no dogs, no obvious thefts, no rape. Perhaps the sea the cool breeze lulled them. (205)
This scene is a deep contrast to the night the group experienced on the hills, where there was shootings throughout the night and fighting constantly. But, at the ocean, there is an odd sense of understanding among the various groups, as if no one wants to disturb the peace the water created. Consequently, the characters feel safe here, safe enough for them to play in the ocean and enjoy themselves. The other place the characters experiences some safety was at the lake. Once they arrived at the lake, Lauren remarked that none of the people living there shot at them or bothered them at all as they made their way to a campsite (259). Additionally, the group was able to find a remote campsite where they could relax safely. Lauren even had the opportunity to spend all day “talking, writing, reading, and making love to Bankole” (268). Both the time spent at the ocean and the time spent at the lake are indicative about how being surrounded by water calms even the most barbaric people, creating a safer environment.
The symbol of water in Parable of the Sower represents a variety of positive and life-sustaining factors. Because of its high price, those that can afford the basic necessity of water are seen as wealthy. Moreover, the tranquility created by water allows for the characters to relax safely and enjoy themselves. Not only is water essential to survive, but to these characters, water is essential for doing anything more than surviving. Throughout the story, the water presents the characters with outlets to escape the severity of the world around them and just live.
Writing and Language in Parable of the Sower
Even before there were written words, people communicated through gestures and images in order to explain important things in their lives, attesting to the social importance of clear communication. Language helps us track human progress through history, as language evolves just as complexly and quickly as human culture and society does. Through changes in language, we can observe the way our world has grown and developed over time and learn new things about human behavior. We use language not only to teach and protect but to share feelings, express thoughts, and spread ideas from one person to another. In Octavia Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower, language is a crucially important element to the story. In a dystopian future wrecked by chaos and destruction, most people struggle to find basic necessities like food, water, and shelter. From inside a walled community, Lauren, a young woman, observes the disparity of her situation. Although she is safer than the average person, she has no prospects from inside the walls and finds herself positioned against her devout father when she no longer wants to follow his religion.
When Lauren is forced to venture out into the world, she begins to build a new religion, Earthseed, and harnesses the power of storytelling to create a set of ideals that other people can believe in as well. Lauren realizes that though the world is a harsh and unforgiving place, each person deserves the chance to have their voice heard as everyone has experienced things in a different way. In Parable of the Sower, Butler repeatedly uses the words “write” and “stories” and other allusions to writing and reading to convey the importance of the individual in telling their own story or perspective on life, and how the power of language can bring together people of varied and diverse backgrounds. Within a society where there is little government and barely any laws saying what people can and cannot do, power is incredibly sought-after. To live a comfortable life in the world of Parable of a Sower, characters must accumulate enough power to get the things that they desire.
Language is one form of power that people can harness. Those who can read and write have control over others, and because they are more educated they have more opportunities in life. According to Lauren Lacey, “To work with power rather than be controlled by it, Butler’s protagonists engage in a constant process of adapting and becoming.” Lauren knows that she has to adapt to her new world in order to gain power, and she does this through her grasp of language. By creating a new religion and writing scripture, she harnesses language in her favor and becomes a leader to many people. Her mastery of the written word proves that she is smart and capable, and because of this people trust her to make good decisions. She describes people by saying that “They have no power to improve their lives, but they have the power to make others even more miserable. And the only way to prove to yourself that you have power is to use it” (Butler 143). In a world where education and literature have become less important due to people’s focus on survival necessities like food and water, the ability to read and write has become less common. Harnessing that, Lauren gains immense power as she now stands out as an individual. Through Earthseed, she can now tell her story and help other people tell theirs, and they will know that their history will not just be lost in time because it will be written down and preserved forever.
In this case, Lauren acts as the hero of her own story, a concept that has slowly gotten lost as the world deteriorated. She states that “my grandmother left a whole bookcase of old science fiction novels. The company-city subgenre always seemed to stay a hero who outsmarted, overthrew, or escaped “the company”…And what should I be doing? What can I do?…To begin Earthseed, I’ll have to go outside…Next year when I’m 18, I’ll go. That means now I have to begin to plan how to handle it” (Butler 123-124). Lauren realizes that she has to take control of her story is she wants to accomplish her goals, and she does this by using her religion to tell her story and the stories of those she meets. The accessibility of the language is what enables Lauren to be successful in her endeavors, and without it she would likely never have made it past the walls.
Language also has a considerable influence over how we react to catastrophic events. When terrible things happen humans find comfort in sharing their experiences with others, and through reassurances that life will go on and things are going to be okay. After tragedies, there is often an increase in the amount of art, literature, and music that gets produced. This is because our reaction to negative events is to share our feelings with the world, and we couldn’t do that without language. According to Jerry Phillips, “Lauren’s Books of the Living strongly assert the value of a transcendent consciousness, which sees hopeful possibility in the deadliest of seemingly arrested states….Nonetheless, in its indictment of existing barbarism, Parable of the Sower does offer a vague blueprint of what, ideally, ought to be.” Bad things are certainly happening in Lauren’s world, but she knows that she needs to respond to them in a positive way. She states that “The world is full of painful stories. Sometimes it seems as though there aren’t any other kind and yet I found myself thinking how beautiful that glint of water was through the trees” (Butler 263). Although her circumstances are not ideal, Lauren uses the power of storytelling to rebuild after the chaos. By creating Earthseed, she is providing herself and others with something to hold on to in a world that is often unpredictable. Only through language could Lauren turn the catastrophe of her world into a bright light and example of greatness for the future.
Community, as a value, is also very important to Lauren. When her home is destroyed and her family is killed, she feels that she has nowhere to go and no one to turn to. Venturing out with strangers, she is forced to forge new bonds with other survivors and find a new place where she can thrive. Having support from her newfound community is what allows Lauren to successfully create Earthseed, as she has people to talk and discuss with. She gets to see other people’s opinions and experiences as well as her own, and by bringing together the stories of all her community members she gains a more well-rounded perspective on what her religion should be. Mathias Nilges argues that “the ideal upon which Lauren founds a new, progressive community is the the conscious interdependence and agreement of its members, who must know, trust, and be able to work with each other.” While many of the people Lauren encounters throughout the book do not agree with her views about life and spirituality, they recognize that she is doing good work by engaging the community and giving people something to believe in. Lauren states that “I’m trying to speak-to write-the truth. I’m trying to be clear. I’m not interested in being fancy, or even original. Clarity and truth will be plenty, if I can only achieve them. If it happens that there are other people outside somewhere preaching my truth, I’ll join them. Otherwise, I’ll adapt where I must, take what opportunities I can find or make, hang on, gather students, and teach” (Butler 125). Without the ability to communicate through language, teaching would be nearly impossible. Lauren knows that through her teaching of Earthseed, she can connect with other people out in the world who are also struggling with their spirituality.
Through Earthseed and her storytelling capabilities, Lauren is able to easily connect with others and form a new community even after her old one is destroyed. People are willing to follow Lauren because they trust her; she offers something of value to them, and they can tell that she is an honest and good person because she is trying to spread her teachings to others in order to help them. Without a community, Lauren’s language would not be able to take her very far. But by using it to connect to others and build trust, she becomes more enlightened than ever. Besides the challenges that come from her environment, Lauren also faces other unique struggles due to her standing as a black women. In the novel, women are often taken advantage of for sex, and Lauren is wary of men who might be able to overpower her. She is also a racial minority, which makes it difficult for her to be taken seriously by many people. Others see her as weak not only because of her hyperempathy and her femininity but because of her blackness. Her father was a powerful religious figure and a black man, and although she disagreed with his religious views it seems like Lauren admired her father for his conviction and for his strong and influential presence in their society. Inspired by her father’s passion and his conviction to have his voice heard, Lauren often reminisces about her home and her family after they are killed. After going back to her old house and seeing the burned remains of her community, Lauren says that “I have to write. I don’t know what else to do….There’s nothing familiar left to me but the writing. God is change. I hate God. I have to write” (Butler 158). Through her writing, Lauren makes sure that her lineage and the story of her past and her ancestors will not disappear. Although the place they once lived is gone, she and her family can live on through Earthseed.
The idea of being able to create something special and unique to you is prominent in the novel, as Lauren is always searching for a religion that she can truly connect to. Madhu Dubey writes that “Parable of the Sower similarly exposes the hollowness and duplicity of recent American ideologies of urban development. The novel takes as its point of departure an uncannily credible future in which ideals of the American city as a consumption artifact have devolved into a precarious urban order founded on economic and racial inequality.” Lauren proves that although there is no longer an “urban order” as Dubey puts it, she can share her ideologies and help other minorities like Zahra and many more women and people of color that she encounters. In a future where men hold much of the power, Lauren’s conviction and belief in her own power are a big part of the reason why she is able to survive and build a new life for herself. Earthseed is her way of saying “this is who I am,” and people grow to respect her despite the fact that she would be socially unequal to them. All people use one form of language or another to communicate with those around them. Whether it be verbal, physical, textual or any other form, language is a key part of existing in today’s society. One way that language is most influential is how it allows us to relate to other people through the sharing of stories, both personal and impersonal.
In Parable of the Sower, Butler presents Lauren as a storyteller-turned-savior; she has the power to rescue and rehabilitate others through her use of written language and the creation of her religion, Earthseed. By showing others the importance of having their story told, she reminds those in dark times that their voices matter just as much as anyone else. In a world where people are fighting for the most basic of survival, knowing that you will make a lasting mark on the world gives people the hope that they desperately need. Through her building of power, use of community, and self-reliance and confidence given to her by language and writing, Lauren becomes a leader to many and an inspiration to those she meets.
“Earthseed”: Reinscribing the Body in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower
In an interview conducted by Marilyn Mehaffy and AnaLouise Keating, Octavia Butler was prompted to discuss the importance of bodily inscription in writing, to which she replies that the body is “all we really know that we have…all we really know that we have is the flesh.”(Mehaffy and Keating, 59) Butler’s concern in salvaging the “flesh” through writing is a persistent theme in her novel, Parable of the Sower. It chronicles protagonist Lauren Olamina, as she leads a community of individuals up the Pacific Coast while writing and teaching a religion based on the acceptance of change and difference as God. Lauren authors Earthseed: The Books of the Living, through short, philosophical passages that are dispersed throughout the novel; “I wrote, fleshing out my journal notes,”(Butler, 216) narrates Laura, as her writing encompasses both the female mind and body. Earthseed, the fictitious religion introduced by Butler, encapsulates a discourse that is innately female; this concept of “fleshing” and the epistolary style that Butler utilizes are simultaneously compatible with Helene Cixous’ manifesto for ecriture feminine, “The Laugh of the Medusa”, an exhortation to a “feminine mode” of writing. The narrative embodiments of Butler’s fiction advocate a spiritual reclamation of “flesh” as a primary site and signifier of knowledge and communication, both personal, as Lauren’s journals suggest, and collective, as her doctrine function to socially congregate her followers; both material and narrated. Butler acknowledges the exploitative narrative uses of what she labels, “body knowledge,” which does not necessarily or literally entail renouncing the flesh, but, rather, reinventing and reassembling it within an ethics for survival.Parable of the Sower is in essence an analogy drawn between the cultivation of Earthseed, which Lauren applies fastidiously to her experience, and the grand narratives of Christianity and Capitalism, which are rigorously applied to our own. Each is a manner of giving form and significance to existence in the same way as narrative itself tends towards a similar ‘fictitious’ ordering of experience. Butler positions herself in this analogy through the act of ‘writing’ herself into the SF literary economy and giving agency to the underrated female voice in that economy. Thus, Butler alludes to a conceivable reality but at the same time contests the validity of the forms we use to give shape to it.Helene Cixous aimed at rendering literal the figures of femininity in the theory of écriture and exploring the consequences of that lateralization. She did not simply privilege the “female” half of an existing binary opposition between “male” and “female”; like other theorists of écriture, she questioned the very adequacy of logics to name the complexity of cultural realities. Her essay opens didactically, as she instructs female writers to inscribe themselves into text:Woman must write herself: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies—for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement. (Cixous, 1942) The act of a woman “writing” herself is applicable in both a fictional sense and an authorial sense; while Butler utilizes her novel as a platform for female activity and empowerment, Lauren, in a metafictional sense, designates her own writing as a platform for her religious teaching. One of her doctrinal passages narrates: “We are Earthseed. We are flesh—self aware, questing, problem-solving flesh….We are Earthlife maturing, Earthlife preparing to fall away from the parent world.”(Butler, 151) Lauren entitles her creed as “EARTHSEED: THE BOOKS OF THE LIVING”, which accentuates the corporality associated with the teachings of Earthseed. The passage encapsulates the “essence” of Earthseed; the pronoun, “we”, represents the communal aspect of a reinscription of the body into religious doctrine. When Butler’s passage is read in conjunction with Cixous’ proposition, similarities arise: firstly, Butler and Cixous are inherently concerned with community and collective thinking, secondly, both consider the oppressive context in which they are writing. Cixous acknowledges the patriarchal dominating force that has plagued her literary space, as she is “driven violently away from the body”; whereas, Lauren constitutes Earthseed as a deviation from the “parent world” that has ravaged her own community.The concept of écriture describes everything about writing that can neither be subsumed into an idea nor made to correspond exactly to empirical reality. It encompasses the “textuality” of all discourses, and Helene Cixous can be credited as responsible for discourse inherently unique to women. Cixous does not privilege the “female” half of an existing binary opposition between “male” and “female”; much like her contemporary theorists of ecriture, she questions the adequacy of said opposition to label the complexity of cultural realities. Cixous mitigates this opposition in the following excerpt:I maintain unequivocally that there is a such thing as marked writing: that, until now, far more extensively and repressively than is ever suspected or admitted, writing has been run by a libidinal and cultural and cultural—hence political, typically masculine—economy…(Cixous, 1945) It becomes evident that an inconsistency lies at the core of Cixous’ work: her insistence on the two incompatible logics within ecriture feminine. Primarily, Cixous claims that écriture feminine is characterized by the explicitly female body parts that had been repressed by traditional discourse, and must be expressed by the woman writer. However, she also promotes the use of ecriture feminine for both men and women. It is perhaps more appropriate to interpret Cixous’ “body”, as that of any transgressive or desiring individual; it is conceivably her interpretation of the body itself, that has been repressed. The “body” may not even be a physical body, but rather figurative bodies that possess power or cannot possess power. Traditionally, power, authority, and law have conjectured the male body; but, in consideration that no actual body is represented, both men and women would have access to comment on the body. By writing as if the female body could be asserted, Cixous’ ecriture feminine frees it from invisibility and, simultaneously, does not make it into a new model for the universal human being. The new opposition is not between male and female, but between a logic of the One and a logic of heterogeneity and multiplicity.Considering Cixous’ contemplation of “oneness” and “multiplicity”, Lauren’s Earthseed can be analyzed through this dichotomy. In regards to community, Lauren writes the narrative of Earthseed as follows: “Civilization is to groups what intelligence is to individuals. It is a means of combining the intelligence of many to achieve ongoing group adaptation.”(Butler, 101) Earthseed hinges on the necessity for collective support; communal participation, as in most doctrines, is necessary for the maintenance and survival of the discipline. Lauren, by inscribing corporeality into her dogma, enables the spiritual process to be applicable to any body. Her narrative explicates:Earthseed. I am Earthseed. Anyone can be. Someday. I think there will be a lot of us. And I think we’ll have to seed ourselves farther and farther from this dying place…I’ve never felt that it was anything other than real: discovery rather than invention, exploration rather than creation.(Butler, 78)Earthseed is inherently malleable, though not vulnerable to manipulation. Lauren is resistant to the patriarchy that prevails in her community, to which she refers as “ a dying place.” Lauren’s language is not demanding or didactic, rather, as Cixous theorizes, “Her, (women in general) language does not contain, it carries; it does not hold back, it makes possible.”(Cixous 1955) These ramifications on language resonate with Cixous, as Lauren characterizes her religious discourse as a means for “discovery rather than invention, exploration rather than creation.” Followers of Earthseed, according to Lauren, are already implicated as both agents and objects in the spiritual hierarchy that saturates her community.Regarding the function of religion in the secular literary space, Butler, in the interview, comments on the function of Earthseed: “Lauren uses religion as a tool. So I use that tool as something that she can use to help people who follow her…”(Mehaffy and Keating, 62) Butler utilizes, to her advantage, the metafictional conventions of SF; Butler situates Lauren as a vehicle to deliver the material of Earthseed, in order to showcase her own spiritual and literary agenda. Gregory Jerome Hampton, in his publication, Changing Bodies in the Fiction of Octavia Butler: Slaves, Aliens and Vampires, examines the significance of religious doctrine and the “body,” in Butler’s fiction, wherein he states: Religion is a tool intended to critique the real world in the unbounded laboratories of our imaginations…By mixing SF with religious themes, Butler’s fiction encourages readers to question social values that mark marginalized bodies. (Hampton, 84)In the context of Lauren’s religious writings, and by extension, Butler’s contribution to SF, it is apparent that the novel Lauren, as both the architect and advocate for Earthseed, must rhetorically advertise her doctrine in a way that persuades her follows of thinking beyond the “parent world”. The epistolary style that structures Butler’s novel enables the narrative to embody both Lauren’s thought processes and the doctrinal material, rendering them accessible only to the reader. It is assumed that minor characters are not given the same insight, which provokes such dialogues as the one that occurs between Lauren and Harry. Harry is skeptical of Lauren’s religious fabrication, but more significantly, of her own identity:Then let me read something. Let me know something about the you that hides. I feel as though…as though you’re a lie. I don’t know you. Show me something of you that’s real. (Butler, 195)Harry, in requesting to read Lauren’s journal, assumes that Lauren’s identity “hides”, or is encoded in her writing. Identity, or “truth” as Harry suggests through classifying Lauren as a “lie”, is revealed in the embodiment of writing; Cixous asserts this inscription of “truth” when she argues “by writing herself, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display.”(Cixous, 1946) Butler herself, in the interview, affirms the correlation between inscription, body, and perceivable identity:One’s body can only be known through language or some other medium of representation. The body, is a thing, in other words, which only language and narrative can bring to life and make known to ourselves or to others. (Mehaffy and Keating, 59)Essentially, literary composition alleviates the display of “strangeness, or uncanniness” that outsiders, such as Harry, perceive. Lauren’s physical body and presence cannot be properly or accurately comprehended as “real”, and sequentially, identity remains obscured; narrative embodies that which is “real”, and for Lauren, it is quintessential in preserving and advancing Earthseed. The “libidinal economy” that Cixous positions in opposition to female writing refers to the system of exchanges having to do with sexual desire, which it is predominantly characterized as inherently masculine, to the extent that it is active, not passive; consequently, only one desire can function at a time. This type of economy can be applied to various social systems, such as the literary economy in which Butler is writing, or the clerical economy that pervades Lauren’s gated community in Los Angeles. Cixous elucidates the privileging of masculinity in such economies:Sexual opposition, which has always worked for man’s profit to the point of reducing writing, too, to his laws, is only a historico-cultural limit. There is, there will be more and more rapidly pervasive now, a fiction that produces irreducible effects of femininity. (Cixous, 1949)Lauren operates under similar circumstances before departing north, as her community, particularly females, experience oppression under Richard Moss’ religious movement:Richard Moss has put together his own religion—a combination of the Old Testament and historical West African practices. He claims that God wants men to be patriarchs, rulers and protectors of women, and fathers of as many children as possible. (Butler, 36)Moss possesses authority in the “libidinal economy” precisely because he is a male; his religion is dependent on the “dying”, “parent world” concepts that Lauren innately opposes, and subsists in the “historico-cultural limit” of West African practices. Likewise, Lauren opposes conventional presidency that permeates her depleting society; she complains that, “Donner’s just a kind of human bannister…like a symbol of the past for us to hold onto as we’re pushed into the future. He’s nothing. No substance.”(Butler, 56) Male influence and agency, though unethical and socially unproductive, take precedence in the political systems that structure the novel. Lauren’s opposition is provoked in two ways; firstly, her religious discovery is futuristic, flexible and progressive, and secondly, because the masculine corporeality is absent. The male body does not require representation in a patriarchal space because it is innately superior, whereas, the female body relies on narrative embodiment for representation and tangible recognition.Earthseed, initially, features a “genderless” God; rather, a God that symbolizes change, discovery and self-reflexivity. Lauren claims “Earthseed deals with ongoing reality, not with supernatural authority figures.”(Butler, 219)Whether conscious or not, she disregards the gender construction that frequently accompanies religious figures and focuses on an applicable version of God that any follower can relate to. In conversing with fellow travellers, Zahra and Natividad, Lauren is disconcerted with the question regarding a “gendered” God: Zahra and Natividad got into an argument about whether I was talking about a male god or a female god. When I pointed out that Change had no sex at all and wasn’t a person, they were confused, but not dismissive. (Butler, 220)Lauren regards “Change” as sexless because it is dependent on a “body”, whether female or male, to flourish. Change is motivated by a concept Butler introduces as “body-knowledge”; the supposition that social and political relations can potentially undergo a de-hierarchization, or re-hierarchization based on genetics. Butler accounts for this conception in her interview:What’s made of genetics—body knowledge—is what’s important. What’s made of biology is what the people who are in power are going to figure out why this is a good reason for them to stay in power.(Mehaffy and Keating, 58)Butler theorizes on “body-knowledge” because it encapsulates the current status of social and political structures, both in the SF literary economy and the economy of the novel, and this realization enables female writers to speech. Butler also contends with “the science that makes sociological connections”; she questions: “Consider the fact that women are better with verbal skills: why isn’t the popular perception, then, that they would make better diplomats?”(Mehaffy and Keating, 58) The contention arises because “body-knowledge” is essentially a paradox; it oppresses the inferior gender, or population, while the realization of the oppression enables them to recognize their bodies and experience movement through the hierarchy. Hampton, in reference to the religious content of the novel, also comments on the necessity for corporeality:What’s made of genetics—body knowledge—is what’s important. What’s made of biology is what the people who are in power are going to figure out why this is a good reason for them to stay in power.(Mehaffy and Keating, 58)Lauren’s interpretation of God, possessing no shape and every shape, no gender and every gender, is not the rigid and strictly dogmatic God that authorizes other religions. God, for Lauren, is like “body-knowledge” for Butler; both give manner and form to an ordering of experience, particularly repressive experience. In the dystopian situation, every “body” is oppressed and seeks an instrument or tool for fermenting identity and agency; Earthseed and SF are the narratives by which Lauren and Butler render a legitimate “voice” in their corresponding “libidinal economies”.The narrative embodiments of Butler’s fiction sanction a spiritual reclamation of “flesh” as a fundamental site and signifier of knowledge and communication, both personal, as Lauren’s epistolary style suggests, and collective, as her doctrine function to socially congregate her followers; both material and narrated. Butler acknowledges the exploitative narrative uses of what she labels, “body knowledge,” which does not necessarily or literally entail renouncing the flesh, but, rather, reinventing and reassembling it within an ethics for survival. Earthseed, the fictional, theological verse that Lauren Olamina commits to writing over the course of Butler’s novel, is an appropriate candidate for the ideas that Cixous introduces in her essay. The theory is compatible with Earthseed in terms of intention and text content; Lauren is a woman who “fleshes” her emotions into her journal and into passages of Earthseed, producing a document that is innately “feminine” and engages in inherently female ideologies. Parable of the Sower is in essence, an analogy drawn between the cultivation of Earthseed, which Lauren applies fastidiously to her experience, and the grand narratives of Christianity and Capitalism, which are rigorously applied to our own. Each is a manner of giving form and significance to existence in the same way as narrative itself tends towards a similar ‘fictitious’ ordering of experience. Butler positions herself in this analogy through the act of ‘writing’ herself into the literary economy and giving agency to the underrated female voice in that economy. Thus, Butler alludes to a conceivable reality but at the same time contests the validity of the forms we use to give shape to it.Works CitedButler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. New York: Grand Central, 1993. Print.Butler, Octavia, Marilyn Mehaffy, and AnaLouise Keating. “”Radio Imagination”: Octavia Butler on the Poetics of Narrative Embodiment.” MELUS 26.1 (2001): 45-76. JSTOR. Web. 4 Apr. 2013.Cixous, Helene. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2010. 1942-959. Print.Hampton, Gregory Jerome. “Religious Science Fiction: Butler’s Changing God.”Changing Bodies in the Fiction of Octavia Butler: Slaves, Aliens, and Vampires. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2010. 83-98. Print.
What Will Love Need Tomorrow?
In the late 20th century, a push and pull existed within the black community, the likes of which had rarely been seen before. People were celebrating the successes of the civil rights movement and the end of Jim Crow, but oppression and racism still ran rampant throughout the country with no sign of subsiding any time soon. Faced with a present still discouragingly marred with oppression and suffering, many black luminaries of the time turned to the future through writing about prophesy. Prophesy’s function within black art and culture has been outlined perhaps best by Dr. Cornel West, an American theological philosopher and activist who also focuses on race and class. On the subject of prophesy, he writes “Prophetic modes of thought and action are dotted across the landscape of Afro-American history. these modes consist of protracted and principled struggles against forms of personal despair, intellectual dogmatism and socioeconomic oppression that foster communities of hope” (West 38). Using West’s definition, and keeping in mind the circumstances of the black community during the 1970’s, it becomes clearer why the black community turned to prophesy. The prophetic modes of thought West discusses are especially apparent in books and albums from late 20th century black luminaries such as Stevie Wonder, Toni Morrison, Marvin Gaye, and Octavia Butler, whose works carry on the African-American prophetic tradition in their implementation of hope, despair, God, love, and liberation.
Toni Morrison begins her 1977 novel Song of Solomon with a prophecy that not only sets the tone for the rest of the work, but succinctly communicates the work’s purpose. As the book opens, she writes “The North Carolina Mutual life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock” (Morrison 3). The opening lines are highly detailed, but wholly unhelpful as far as understanding the text is concerned as the reader does not know who the insurance agent is, where or what Mercy is, how the agent is flying, which direction over Lake Superior they are flying in, or even what day at three o’clock the agent intends to fly on, rendering the one concrete detail offered in the first sentence useless. The reader is given no other information to contextualize the novel’s opening lines and is instead forced to grapple with being thrown into the vivid world Morrison has begun to paint. However, the in medias res opening Morrison employs to begin the story firmly establishes it as a work of fiction that deals with prophesy and borders on magical realism, as the opening lines read as a literal prophecy. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a prophecy as “An instance of divinely inspired speech or writing; a revelation from God or a god; a prophetic text” (OED 1b) and also as “The interpretation and expounding of the Bible” (OED 5b). Morrison’s cold open satisfies both definitions, as only the omniscient 3rd person narrator knows what the first lines mean upon first encountering them, making them seem divinely inspired, and the opening lines necessitate the reader stopping to make an attempt at interpretation. Beginning the novel with a prophecy immediately immerses the reader into a world that is simultaneously clear and also impossible to fully grasp, which is an atmosphere Morrison carries throughout the rest of the novel, therefore making the lines both literally prophetic in terms of the events of the novel and tonally prophetic in terms of the direction the novel will take.
Stevie Wonder begins Songs in the Key of Life in much the same way Toni Morrison begins Song of Solomon: setting the tone for the rest of the work by leading off with a prophecy. His lead-off track, “Love’s in Need of Love Today” opens with an acapella gospel choir, which conjures the feeling of being in church and establishes Wonder as a priest-like figure. The first lyrics of the song and the album read “Good morn or evening friends / here’s your friendly announcer / I’ve serious news to pass on to everybody. / What I’m about to say / could mean the world’s disaster / could change your joy and laughter / to tears and pain” (Wonder 1976). The song is already rooted in religion through the gospel choir, so the charismatic “friendly announcer” as well as the high-stakes of the news bringing the “world’s disaster” is highly reminiscent of a preacher reading from the biblical book of Revelations, an entire book which prophesizes the end times. It is also important to note that the opening lines of “Love’s in Need of Love Today” transcend time, as Wonder makes sure to wish the crowd a “good morn or evening” and much like Morrison’s first lines, he does not specify a day, so the song, and moreover the song’s prophetic message, exist outside of concrete time. It makes sense that both artists begin their works with literal and tonally prophetic messages with ambiguously positive and negative implications as they were both writing at the nexus of new black liberation and continued oppression that existed in the mid to late 1970’s. Laura Dubek notes the temporal importance of Song of Solomon’s publication date in writing “It is into this space—a crossroads in the freedom struggle—that Morrison’s Song of Solomon enters” (Dubek 91). While the opening lines of Song of Solomon appear to simply be predictive of a future where a man will potentially fly, they in fact describe the suicide of Robert Smith. The lines are do not inherently carry any negative implications, but they are eventually tainted by the tragedy that follows, just as the socio-political atmosphere of the time was simultaneously positively and negatively charged. Wonder’s opening lines depict a world on the brink of ruin, but his prophecy is conditional, as he makes it clear that is prophecy “could be the world’s disaster” implying it also might not be, and also includes the lines “Hate’s goin’ round / breaking many hearts / stop it please / before it’s gone too far,” suggesting that it is still possible to reverse the process of love dying (Wonder 1976). In both cases, the unsolidified implications of their opening lines draw several connections to the state of the black community at the time. While the civil rights movement of the 1960’s had enjoyed much success, progress towards equality and liberty was (and still is) desperately needed. The content of Song of Solomon and Songs in the Key of Life reflect Morrison and Wonder’s respective attempts to reconcile those optimistic feelings of forward momentum and progress with a society that was by no means socially aware when it came to issues of racial injustice. The reconciliation is significant because as both works begin, prophesy functions as a way to acknowledge the good and bad aspects of the time in order to continue to work towards continuing positive social change.
Using prophesy as a jumping off point, Wonder’s next song discusses the importance of recognizing a higher power being at work in the universe and submitting to it. In the chorus of “Have a Talk with God,” Wonder suggests to the listener, “When you feel your life’s too hard / just go have a talk with God” (Wonder 1976). Through the song, Wonder returns to the religiosity he conveyed in “Love’s in Need of Love Today” but rather than returning to a prophetic warning about the state of the world, he steers the listener towards the solution to the problem. As biographer James Perone points out, “The lyrics suggest that prayer to ‘the only free psychologist that’s known throughout the world’ can help one through any problem” (Perone 65). In asking the listener to turn to God to help them through their problems, Wonder encapsulates the optimism and realism of the time into a singular message: there are problems in the world, but everything is possible through the supernatural, and more specifically through God. It is imperative that Wonder establishes God as a force in the universe for his message relies on keeping faith to get to the other side of difficult times, which he implicitly posits is possible. The possibility of full belief and acceptance of prophesy is also predicated on the acceptance of some kind of supernatural power, so opening the listener’s mind to God inherently also opens the listener to Wonder’s messages and prophesies. Similarly, Morrison builds her argument that healing during difficult times is possible through prophesy and the supernatural, but she makes the opposite case from Wonder’s. Rather than suggesting that turning to God or the spiritual can help, Morrison contends that people are simply lost without their spiritual side. Though she does not admonish those who are not spiritual, she simply does not entertain any sort of atheist or aspiritual ideas. Morrison’s strongly held convictions are made clear in the scene when Milkman is talking to Freddie about how Freddie’s mother died. Milkman asks “’How’d she die?’ ‘Ghosts.’ ‘Ghosts?’ ‘You don’t believe in ghosts?’ ‘Well’—Milkman smiled—’I’m willing to, I guess.’ ‘You better believe, boy. They’re here’ (Morrison 109). Milkman laughs the encounter off, but given the elements of magical realism found throughout the rest of the novel, Morrison makes it clear that Milkman is foolish to ignore Freddie’s warning. By extension, Morrison communicates to the reader that prophesy, another supernatural force, both as a source of hope and as a precautionary device, is at the very least worth noting and should never be dismissed, even though it requires a leap of faith.
Faith is an important aspect of Cornel West’s outline of the function of prophesy within Afro-American art, but it is worth noting before continuing the discussion of faith that West believes faith is predicated upon the presence of love in one’s life. He leaves his definition of love open-ended, writing “Love—the foundation upon which faith and hope must be built. Love—as basic as the birth of a new day, yet as complex as the varied conditions under which we find God’s children living today” (West vii). The looseness of his definition is important as it allows for faith to be predicated on any form of love, be it familial, romantic, platonic, or spiritual. He implies that without love, even having faith in something as easily anticipated as a sunrise is impossible. To West’s point, in order to further illustrate prophesy’s importance within society, and specifically black culture, Morrison and Wonder both turn away from the spiritual in favor of showing prophesy’s role in love. In Song of Solomon, Morrison explores love through the parable of the snake that Macon tells Milkman with regards to Pilate. Macon tells Milkman there was once a man who “saw a baby snake, bleeding and hurt… The man felt sorry for it… and took it home. And he fed it and took care of it until it was big and strong… Then one day the snake turned on him and bit him.” He goes on to say that the man asked the snake why the snake bit him, to which the snake replies “But you knew I was a snake, didn’t you?” (Morrison 54-55). Macon Dead uses the parable in an attempt to convince Milkman that Pilate is a bad influence on him, not because of any particular action she might take or words she might say, but simply because it is in her very nature to betray (as far as his experience is concerned). The prophecy turns out to not apply to Pilate as Macon intended; however, several characters in the book do follow the course of the prophecy and “bite” those closest to them. Guitar ends up betraying Milkman because his ideals drive him to turn against a friend, and Milkman turns against Pilate in trying to get the gold. The parable delivered by Macon may not come to pass the way he envisioned it coming to pass, but it holds true nonetheless, indicating that prophesy transcends the will of man and functions as a pseudo-omniscient force within the novel and in life.
Stevie Wonder’s song, “Summer Soft,” tells the story of lovers who were not meant to be together and at different times betray each other, showing the transcendental nature of prophesy in a similar way to how Morrison shows prophesy through the snake story. In the lead-in to the first chorus, Wonder sings “And so you wait to see what she’ll do / is it sun or rain for you? / but it breaks your heart in two / when you find it’s October / and she’s gone” (Wonder 1976). Wonder’s use of the present tense throughout the line coupled with his knowledge of what will happen before it happens establishes his prediction as prophesy. The woman will inevitably not stay with the man, and he will be ruined. Though the man’s fate is still unclear to him, it is not unclear to Stevie Wonder. As the song continues, Wonder returns to the same line, but in the inverse. In the lead-up to the second chorus, Wonder sings “And so you’ll wait to see what he’ll do / is it sun or snow for you? / But it breaks your heart in two / ‘cause you’ve been fooled by April / and he’s gone” (Wonder 1976). The change in weather patterns from “rain” to “snow” and the temporal displacement between the two sections, with the latter taking place six-months later, as far away on the calendar as possible, indicates that even the force of time, which is typically depicted as being all-powerful particularly through its ability to heal all wounds, is no match for the power of prophesy. Much like the snake story, the inevitably of heartbreak that comes through Stevie Wonder’s prediction adds a certain amount of dread to the idea prophesy. While in earlier parts of the album, prophesy as been discussed in terms of healing love or healing through God, here the listener understands that it can have a destructive nature as well. The duality of prophesy’s powers (that it can have a constructive and destructive role in the world) is significant because it again shows Wonder reconciling the good and the bad to show both sides of the all-powerful, and moreover, both the good and the bad felt by the generation.
Stevie Wonder’s song “As” brings the listener to the climax of the album in an all-encompassing seven-minute jam that covers the inner-workings of the universe and leads into the very message of the album. He opens with a vow reminiscent of a wedding vow and in some ways seemingly more powerful, but still quite separate, as he sings “As around the sun the earth knows she’s revolving / And the rosebuds know to bloom in early May / Just as hate knows love’s the cure / You can rest your mind assure / That I’ll be loving you always” (Wonder 1976). The vow from Wonder captures the might of prophesy he discusses throughout the album through the imagery of universal forces like the planets’ pull on one another and the inevitability of springtime. It is at this point in the album that Wonder has truly found a compromise between the unstoppable and seemingly supernatural forces in the universe and the positive and negative forces at work therein. The unstoppable nature of time he points out with the line “the rosebuds know to bloom in early May” also carries with it the beautiful imagery of a flower. There has been a push and pull throughout the album over the devastating potential prophesy has as well as the extraordinary potential for good it carries, but the first section of “As” is the first time both forces are seen working together in harmony. As the song continues, Wonder delves into laws of nature that his love transcends, going even beyond comparing it to naturally occurring unstoppable forces. In reference to loving the person in the song, he sings, “Until we dream of life and life becomes a dream / Until the day is night and night becomes the day / Until the trees and seas just up and fly away / Until the day that 8x8x8=4 / Until the day that is the day that are no more” (Wonder 1976). At this point, rather than just falling in line with the already impressive laws of the universe, Wonder predicts that his love will now and for all time break boundary between dream and reality, day and night, and mathematical laws to boot. Towards the end of his climactic song “As” Wonder distills the album’s meaning to him as much as possible. He takes on a much deeper voice to set this new speaker apart from the lover he plays in the earlier part of the song and sings, “We all know sometimes life’s pains and troubles / can make you wish you were born in another time and space / but you can bet your life times that and twice its double / that God knew exactly where he wanted you to be placed” (Wonder 1976). By taking on the role of a different speaker with a raspier, seemingly aged voice, Wonder establishes with some dominance that the message he is conveying through the lines are worth being noted well. He invokes God for the first time since the second track on the album, which is particularly powerful to the listener as it becomes clear that the balanced and unstoppable ebb and flow of the universe that Wonder has been commenting on throughout his album is perhaps God. Wonder has purposefully not personified God until this moment so that the listener may understand his vision of who God is rather than letting their previous knowledge of God influence how they listen to the album. The line “God knew exactly where he wanted you to be placed” also brings the question of predestination into the fold, but in a way that suggests it is a positive force only meant to help those who feel lost. Within the scope of the entire album, bringing God back into the fold serves as a comment on the condition of the black community, specifically as a message to keep faith and know God has a plan.
Morrison likewise carries the theme of God’s plan, or predestination, through Song of Solomon in the form of the characters’ names and the impact their names have on their destinies. For instance, Milkman, whose nickname came about because he was being breastfed longer than people thought he should have been, struggles throughout the entire book with uncovering his family history in order to discover more about who he is. In other words, he feels malnourished and disconnected from those who came before him and struggles with identity, like a child weened too early. Milkman’s name also evokes the historically promiscuous archetypal image of the milkman, a situation described as “A woman cheats on her husband with the milkman, or some other man who visits her home on a regular basis… The image of the milkman was very popular in older works, and persists even though in many places milk has not been delivered to people’s homes in decades” (TV Tropes). Just like the archetypal image of the milkman, Milkman struggles with monogamy throughout the novel, and although Morrison never explicitly treats his name as a prophetic device, the course Milkman’s life takes seems too fitting for his name (bestowed on him very early in life) to have not influenced it or been prophetic in some way. It is no coincidence that Milkman’s name bears prophetic significance in his life, as Milkman is not the only character whose name has a prophetic function in the novel. Guitar’s nickname came from him always having wanted to play the guitar, but he never learned, showing the reader that his soul is lost, or that he never really found his true calling. Ruth, whose name is literally a synonym for mercy, is one of the few characters who is kind to Milkman during his early childhood, and Pilate, the most powerful female character in the novel, shares her name with Pontius Pilate, the man who infamously killed Jesus Christ. Negative connotations aside however, it would take a powerful man to kill the son of God, and strength Pilate shows through the novel aligns with the symbol of strength Pontius Pilate can be made out to be. With every main character in the novel, their name holds a special prophetic significance in their life, and through their prophetic names Morrison communicates the importance of identity and understanding one’s self in the present before one can hope to understand the future. However, while identity and the present are paramount as a foundation in prophesy, equally as important is the imaginative aspect of prophesy. The prophesy Morrison deals with in Song of Solomon is effective in understanding the present, but the present often leaves a great deal to be desired. This is especially true for the African-American community in the 1970’s, which had suffered a great deal already, and though it had enjoyed a few recent triumphs, it was still largely oppressed and in need of liberation.
On the subject of understanding the future through prophecy, scholar Michael McCormack writes “black artists and intellectuals have dared to imagine, and at times, “prophesy” alternative futures. Indeed, such work has been and remains of critical importance for African American and diasporic communities” (McCormack 10). McCormack’s point is crucial in understanding prophesy’s role in the African-American community, as oftentimes, unlike what was seen with Songs in the Key of Life and Song of Solomon prophesy can be used in an imaginative way, not necessarily for fixing the present or healing from the past, but inventing a better a future. As Cornel West continues his writing on the function of prophesy in black art and literature, he outlines a cycle which he believes encapsulates its progression through various works. West defines the cycle of black prophetic practices as “initial moralism, inescapable opportunism, and combative pessimism” (West 48).
If Song of Solomon and Songs in the Key of Life focused on God, love, and hope, then Marvin Gaye’s album What’s Going On and Octavia Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower complete the cycle West writes about by centering around the socioeconomic oppression, intellectual dogmatism, and despair West believes leads to combative pessimism. However, it is important to note that despite the shift in focus from hope to despair, from love to death, and from liberation to oppression, West maintains the works are equally valid, and praises both sides heartily. He writes “What’s Going On… set standards of Afro-American popular music that remain unequaled. Only Gaye’s marvelously talented pupil, Stevie Wonder, has attempted to exceed such standards by fusing the spiritual richness of Afro-American music, the sense of social engagement, and the love ethic of Jesus” (West 175), showing that despite their, at times, contradictory points of view, West puts them on equal footing because both works are rich in terms of their inclusion of and deep respect for the spiritual and prophetic.
Marvin Gaye leads off his seminal and critically-acclaimed 1971 album What’s Going On with the titular track, “What’s Going On?” Leading off with such an all-encompassing question is highly effective in dropping the listener into a world of confusion and disorientation. By shaking the listener’s sense of stability, Gaye forces the listener to immediately question their own futurity. After all, if the present is so turbulent and unknowable, what could the future look like, and will it even arrive at all? After establishing the present as a murky and opaque place, Gaye delivers a few words of clarity, singing “You know we’ve got to find a way / to bring some lovin’ here today” (Gaye 1971). Gaye’s simultaneous diagnosis of and prescription for the situation plaguing the nation is that the country has become loveless, and consequently, using Cornel West’s definition of faith, has become Godless as well, as love is the foundation of faith. Gaye goes on to sing “Talk to me / so you can see / what’s goin’ on” (Gaye 1971), establishing himself as a prophet who is not only able to see “what’s going on” but spread the message of the solution, which in this case is faith. His lead-off track is not only recognized as one of the greatest songs of all-time, but it is an extremely effective beginning to his concept album as he is able to succinctly communicate the problem and effectively establish himself as a prophetic figure all in a three-minute period.
Octavia Butler opens Parable of the Sower in a similarly effective way and also immediately establishes the speaker of her novel as a prophet. Before the actual text of the story begins, the reader is presented with the lines “All that you touch / You Change. / All that you Change / Changes you. / The only lasting truth / Is Change. / God / Is Change” (Butler 3). Redefining God within the first few lines of the story certainly stands out, and also instantly establishes the book as having elements of the prophetic as it has historically been the prophet’s job to not only interpret the word of God, but God Himself. The reader soon learns that Lauren, the protagonist of the novel, is the author of the inscriptions at the beginnings of chapters, and understands that Lauren is not only a prophet, but a powerful one capable of redefining the Judeo-Christian conception of God in only a few short lines. It is also significant that Lauren defines God as change. Change is oftentimes viewed with at least some degree of fear and trepidation because people tend to crave some semblance of stability, but the fact of the matter is change is neither good nor bad; it simply is. If change is neither good nor bad, and God is change, then according to Lauren’s opening assertion, God is neither good or bad. This conclusion draws a stark contrast to the classic refrain which summarizes western notions of God “God is good all the time; all the time, God is good” but firmly establishes the world Lauren lives in as being very different from the present and makes it clear to the reader that she is not bound by any tradition that has come before. She truly is a trailblazer and a prophet.
As What’s Going On continues, Gaye further cements himself as a prophetic figure, but distinguishes himself from traditional prophets as well. The second song on the album, “What’s Happenin’, Brother?” tells the story of a veteran of the Vietnam war returning home only to find most of the familiar elements in the life he once knew have been stripped away and the quality of life in general in the states is either just as bad as or worse than how he left it, leading him to question why the war was worth it in the first place. In one of the song’s opening lines, Gaye sings “I’m just getting back, but you knew I would” (Gaye 1971). Underneath the line’s machismo (inherent anytime one presents their return from war as inevitable) is the idea that Gaye knew all along his fate was to return from Vietnam. Furthermore, his return conjures images of the prodigal son, but in the inverse. Rather than leaving of his own volition and being pleasantly surprised upon returning that he is still welcome, he was likely drafted and forced to leave, and upon returning he is shocked to find that America is still a far from ideal place. However, where Stevie Wonder offers a solution (i.e. having a talk with God, focusing on love) Marvin Gaye is a total loss, as the song’s title “What’s Happenin’, Brother?” suggests. It is not a mere greeting; Gaye literally does not know what is going on. The combination of his lack of solution and reversed biblical role despite already having been established as a prophet leads the listener to question their own futurity, falling in-line with the combative pessimism Cornel West talks about in his prophetic cycle.
Butler similarly takes away the reader’s sense of security and forces them to come face to face with the reality of the situation through the observations of a prophetic character without that character necessarily offering a solution. At one point in the book, while contemplating a nearby city that has become privatized, Lauren thinks “Maybe Olivar is the future – one face of it. Cities controlled by companies are old hat in science fiction. My grandmother left a whole bookcase of old science fiction novels…In real life, that’s the way it will be” (Butler 124). Through this passage, Butler instills a sense of despair in the reader by invoking cyclical time. She allows the reader to believe that cities like Olivar are only possible in science fiction, when in actuality coal-mining cities that function in similar ways to Olivar were present in the US over one-hundred years ago. Even though the concept is presented as a dystopian future, in reality America has already gone through it. In presenting an aspect of the past as science fiction, Butler shatters the illusion of the novel and takes away the sense of security that that comes with reading science fiction. Because Lauren has already been established as a prophetic character, the reader feels a certain degree of despair knowing that the situation has come to pass before and will likely come to pass again. Butler uses Lauren’s prophetic status to alert the reader of the danger that lies ahead should society not change its course.
Marvin Gaye furthers the sense of despair he established through the first two songs on the album by prophesizing the inevitability of pain with “Flying High in the Friendly Skies”. He writes about the ultimate futility of using drugs as a means of escape, singing “Flyin’ high in the friendly skies / without ever leaving the ground. / Rest of the folks are tired and weary / and have laid their bodies down. / I go to the place where danger awaits me / and it’s bound to forsake me” (Gaye 1971). Gaye’s stance on escaping danger is pessimistic to say the least, and contrary to Morrison and Wonder’s focus on the cessation of suffering, Gaye predicts it as natural law. He even compares it to the inevitability of day turning to night through the lines “In the morning I’ll be alright, my friend / but soon the night will bring the pain” (Gaye 1971). Gaye is again much less focused on a solution, and more focused on spreading word of their being a problem. His focus is equally as valid as Morrison’s or Wonder’s; it simply fulfills the last step of West’s prophetic cycle.
Although Parable of the Sower and What’s Going On? focus more on the negative aspects of the present and future through their prophetic messages, it is important to note that change is possible rather than precluded through their apparent negativity. Earthseed as a text stems from a post-apocalyptic landscape and is rooted mostly in Lauren’s observations, so the ideas in Earthseed would in theory be rather dire. However, in discussing the negativity around her, Lauren writes that it “won’t let me alone, won’t let me forget it, won’t let me go… And in time, I’ll have to do something about it… In spite of the poisonous rottenness outside the way where I might be exiled, I’ll have to do something about it. That reality scares me to death” (Butler 26). Even though Lauren is acutely aware of her awful circumstances, and is perhaps too aware given her hyperempathy syndrome, it is through this awareness that she predicts that she will be able to create tangible and positive societal change. In creating a character who generates change through awareness, Butler is able to further her own beliefs about humanity’s direction and point out the importance of spreading awareness. As scholar Marlene Allen posits that “Butler connects Lauren to the long line of black heroes and heroines in African American literature beginning with the earliest slave narrators and simultaneously advocates for the enlightenment and insight that science fiction can provide as a prophetic tool for change” (Allen 1354-1355).
Despite the fact that Parable of the Sower paints a hopeless picture for the direction of the nation, it does not paint a hopeless picture for the future of the nation, and prophesizes that from the ashes of the old, something new and conceptually better can rise, specifically through the phoenix metaphor surrounding Earthseed, as Lauren’s original community was literally burned down by pyros, but as tragic as it was, it was the only way Earthseed could have ever come to fruition. What’s Going On?, despite the harsh picture of reality it conveys, has also been lauded for raising awareness in an attempt to create a better future. Gaye’s song “Mercy Mercy Me” outlines catastrophic environmental issues years before they were even popularized in the scientific community, including massive fish die-offs, smog, birth defects, and landfills. At one point in the song, Gaye sings “How much more abuse from man / can she stand?” (Gaye 1971). Again, he does not necessarily offer a solution to the problem, but the foresight required to raise such issues years before they became issues is prophetic in and of itself. Even though Gaye does not present a solution to the problem, going through the trouble of writing and recording an album about the state of the world and the necessity of change itself reflects going back to the beginning of West’s prophetic cycle, initial moralism. Gaye finishes his album with his most all-encompassing and dire warning yet in an attempt to again generate change through the power of prophesy. In the final track of his album, “Save the Children,” Gaye sings, “When I look at the world / it fills me with sorrow. / Little children today / really gonna suffer tomorrow. / Oh, what a shame. / Such a bad way to live. / Who is to blame / when we can’t stop livin’?” (Gaye 1971). The lines read as the combative pessimism Cornel West writes about, and while they do prophesize about the future, the prophecy does little more than to bemoan what Gaye perceives as humanity’s fate. However, he later follows these lines with “There’ll come a time / when the world won’t be singin’ / flowers won’t grow / bells won’t be ringin’ / who really cares? / Who’s willing to try? / To save a world / that’s destined to die?” (Gaye 1971). The lines are presented as an almost defeatist prophecy about the path the world is on. In a combination of his warnings through the rest of the album, Gaye predicts the ecosystem will fail and society will become loveless and in-turn, faithless. However, rather than the lines being a defeatist prophecy, they can just as easily be read as a form of Socratic prompting. Through his prophecy, Gaye is asking the listener “who is willing to try” not rhetorically, but Socratically, hoping to prompt the listener to say that they are willing to try. By presenting saving the world as a challenge worth taking up rather than an inevitability, Gaye returns to the first part of West’s prophetic cycle and opens the door for prophesy to not only effect the present, but to potentially save the world.
In what are now considered to be some of the greatest works of literature and music of the 20th century, Toni Morrison, Stevie Wonder, Octavia Butler, and Marvin Gaye demonstrate how prophesy can be used to overcome despair, dogmatism, and even oppression of the mind and body in order to imagine a better tomorrow. They effectively communicate prophesy’s function within the African-American community by illustrating its power over and impact on religion, love, identity, the environment, and society’s concept of the future. Furthermore, they illustrate the prophetic cycle outlined by Dr. West and in doing so collectively prophesize that if anything is assured about the future, it is that people will always be looking ahead and speculating their own futurity, as well as mankind’s. Together they posit that prophesy is not only inevitable, but necessary in order to properly chart a course to a destination that may not ever be known, but will continually be an improvement over the last.
Allen, Marlene D. “Octavia Butler’s Parable Novels and the ‘Boomerang’ of African American History.” Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters, vol. 32, no. 4, 2009, pp. 1353-1365. Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993. Casey, Jeanette L. “The Sound of Stevie Wonder: His Words and Music.” Notes, vol. 64, no. 1, Sept. 2007, pp. 81-83. Dantley, Michael. “Critical Spirituality: Enhancing Transformative Leadership through Critical Theory and African American Prophetic Spirituality.” International Journal of Leadership in Education, vol. 6, no. 1, Jan. 2003. Dubek, Laura. “‘Pass It On!’: Legacy and the Freedom Struggle in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.” The Southern Quarterly, vol. 52, no. 2, 2015, pp. 90-109. Fletcher, Judith. “Signifying Circe in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.” Classical World, vol. 99, no. 4, 2006, pp. 405-418. Gaye, Marvin. What’s Going On. Motown Records. 1971. Keizer, Garret. “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone.” Virginia Quarterly Review, vol. 89, no. 4, Fall 2013, pp. 44-59. Kenan, Randall. “An Interview with Octavia E. Butler.” Callaloo: A Journal of African American and African Arts and Letters, vol. 14, no. 2, 1991, pp. 495-504. Lieb, Michael. The Visionary Mode: Biblical Prophecy, Hermeneutics, and Cultural Change. Cornell UP, 1991. Mazama, Ama. “Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves and Demons of Marvin Gaye.” African American Review, vol. 40, no. 2, Summer2006, pp. 378-379. McCormack, Michael Brandon. ““Your God Is a Racist, Sexist, Homophobic, and a Misogynist … Our God Is Change”: Ishmael Reed, Octavia Butler and Afrofuturist Critiques of (Black) American Religion.” Black Theology: An International Journal, vol. 14, no. 1, Apr. 2016, pp. 6-27 Middleton, Joyce Irene. “Orality, Literacy, and Memory in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.” College English, vol. 55, no. 1, Jan. 1993, pp. 64-75. Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. Vintage Books, 2016. Morrison, Toni. “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation.” 1983. Rpt. in Toni Morrison: What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction. Ed. Carolyn C. Denard. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2008. Neal, Mark Anthony. “Trouble Man: The Art and Politics of Marvin Gaye.” Western Journal of Black Studies, vol. 22, no. 4, 1998, pp. 252-259. Perone, James E. The Sound of Stevie Wonder: His Words and Music. Praeger, 2006. Phillips, Jerry. “The Intuition of the Future: Utopia and Catastrophe in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 35, no. 2/3, Spring/Summer2002, pp. 299-311. Pramuk, Christopher. “‘The Street Is for Celebration’: Racial Consciousness and the Eclipse of Childhood in America’s Cities.” Merton Annual: Studies in Culture, Spirituality and Social Concerns, vol. 25, 2012, pp. 91-103. “Prophecy” Oxford English Dictionary. TV Tropes. “Cheating with the Milkman.” TV Tropes Visvis, Vikki. “Alternatives to the ‘Talking Cure’: Black Music as Traumatic Testimony in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.” African American Review, vol. 42, no. 2, 2008, pp. 255- 268. Werner, Craig. A Change Is Gonna Come Music, Race and the Soul of America. Canongate, 2002. West, Cornel. Prophetic Fragments: Illuminations of the Crisis in American Religion and Culture. W.B. Eerdmans, 1993. Wilentz, Gay. “Civilizations Underneath: African Heritage as Cultural Discourse in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.” Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon: A Casebook, Jan (ed. and introd.) Furman, Oxford UP, 2003, pp. 137-163. Casebooks in Criticism (CCF). Wonder, Stevie. Songs in the Key of Life. Motown Records. 1976.
The Representation of Religion in Dystopian Fiction: ‘Parable of the Sower’ and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
Dystopian novels often focus on expanding certain fears of society to the extreme. Many times, at the top of these fears, is religion and the exploitation of it. It is often the case that dystopian writers will represent religion as a being that controls everyone and used as a tool to justify cruel punishments, but this is not always the case. Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower utilized religion to become a hopeful tool in a time of distress, while the dystopian classic, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood uses religion in the more traditional sense.
The Parable of the Sower changed many parts of the dystopian fiction world. It was the first dystopian novel to be written by an African American woman and featured a young, African American female protagonist. The novel is set in 2024, post-apocalyptic America making it unique in that it is set in the recent future. All of these characteristics make the novel unique in the dystopian fiction world, but one characteristic that is especially unique is the fact that religion in the novel is not seen with a controlling or dividing nature, but instead religion gives hope and represents equality. The protagonist, Lauren Olamina, lives in a Baptist community, that her father runs, when she becomes compelled to begin her own religion; one that relates to their time, instead of one that gives false hope and security. This new religion is called Earthseed and it revolved around the concept of change, stating, “All that you touch You Change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth Is Change. God Is Change”.(2) This idea is revolutionary in the world of religion because many religions in today’s world religions believe that the only thing that doesn’t change is God. Along with this central theme, there is another that is equally as revolutionary. It is the idea that, “We do not worship God. We perceive and attend God. We learn from God.”(20) This makes everyone following Earthseed equal, where as in most other religions there are hierarchies and God is seen as the greatest being.
The Earthseed religion is always portrayed as one that is inherently good through the idea that “All that you touch, You Change. All that you Change Changes you”.(103) This concept makes it so that the idea of cause and effect is at the forefront of its followers thoughts persuading them to make better decisions, adding to it’s idea of inherent goodness. The other action it takes is to seek goodness out, instead of waiting or praying for it to come to you. Instead of the religion becoming one that uses it’s themes to cover up actions, Earthseed uses their themes to seek out action, saying to seek change out because “Any Change may bear seeds of benefit.” (138) Lastly, the religion build community instead of dividing. Lauren’s hope for the community is to be a place “where people look out for each other and don’t have to take being pushed around”.(292) The Earthseed religion is portrayed as on that is inherently good, supports equality of all things and seeks out good actions, all of which conflict with the normal portrayal of religion in dystopian fiction.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is very much the classic portrayal of religion in dystopian fiction. One of the first things the reader understands about the religion that is controlling Gilead is that it is dividing. When the narrator first describes her walking partner Ofglen she is worried about what she says because “she may be a real believer, a Handmaid in more than name. I can’t take the risk”.(31) Even between people of the same status there are divides. She is worried that Ofglen will report her to the government for her own gain and leave her fellow Handmaid to be punished. Not only is there the worry that someone you know will report you, but there are undercover spies, called Eyes that can punish you if seen doing something wrong. Offred, the protagonist, describes it as “the Eyes of God run all over the earth”.(298) There is no safety anywhere, people are always alert and paranoid. Offred herself says multiple times that she’s scared she’ll be caught doing something when she hasn’t done anything wrong. As the Eye’s and ever-present religion suggests, there is obvious distortment of what the religion is supposed to do.=
It is now common in Gilead for Eyes to capture and punish people harshly in the name of the bible. Offred accounts a public hanging down when the speaker says that, “The penalty for rape, as you know, is death. Deuteronomy 22:23-29.”(427) It is the citing on the bible that makes this punishment so wrong. The bible justifies the extreme measures the government takes to keep their people in line. Much like the disregard for people’s privacy by having Eye’s everywhere the government also often raids people’s homes who are suspected of being either against the government or a different religion. It’s forcefulness is put on display when Offred account when she saw a raiding of a Jewish person’s house. She says that “secret hoards of jewish things being dragged out from under beds torahs talliths mogen divides. And the owners of them, sullen-faced, unrepentant, pushed by the Eyes against the walls of their bedrooms”.(308) The extremes that the religion in The Handmaid’s Tale shows the stark difference between how religion is portrayed in dystopian fiction.
Both extreme portrayals of religion show how different people’s fears can be exploited. On one hand, Earthseed is seen as this perfect, all inclusive religion while the government in Gilead is seen as forceful and distorted. It is interesting to see the contrast of these religions because they both harbor fears people have surrounding religion.