REPRESENTATIONS OF THE DYSTOPIAN OTHER(NESS) IN MARGARET ATWOOD’S ORYX AND CRAKE

         Dwelling on the conundrum of identity has always been a perplexing topic for human beings. What defines the Self? Is there an Other or is it only a projection of the Self? Is the Rimbaudian “I is an other” veracious? The poetic and analytical implications of such enquiries are a complex journey into the abyssal depth of the human soul. If “to purge the other is to purge the self” (Hart 1), conceptualizing Otherness is a self-reflexive endeavour and its exploration requires sinking into the quintessential particles of selfhood. Since literature is “not only a mirror” but “also a map, a geography of the mind” (Atwood, Survival 12), representing and scrutinizing “the familiar and the strange” (Hart 28), the universe of the novel may provide answers for such complex ontological queries. Hart defines Otherness as “alterity, alternative and alienation” (1), and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake illustrates Otherness in a similarly alien and alienating setting, highlighting the destructive power of scientific excess. Furthermore, dystopian fiction operates with the concept of “defamiliarization” (Booker 19); indeed, the novel’s setting is appallingly eerie and reflects the general tone of the narrative discourse. Oscillating between the empyrean and abyssal visions, Margaret Atwood’s literary legacy is covered with endless descents into the doomed meadows of human existence.

         In the voyage towards the pantheon of Otherness, canvasing a critical background is essential in order to comprehend the implications of the concept. The critical frame of this article attempts to define the Other by employing the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas as a starting point. Later on, it will be argued that the Other(ness) has three manifestations in the novel: the first one is Jimmy’s metamorphoses into Snowman, a concrete process of dedublation; the second type of Other(ness) is reflected in the figure of Crake; and finally, the Children of Crake appear as digitalized versions of Otherness.

         Overall, Oryx and Crake illustrates a universal sinking into an absurd state where hope is devoured by desperation and the semantic ambiguity implies a renunciation of dialectical line of thought in favour of figurative interpretation.  Or, “…as a species we’re doomed by hope, then?” “You could call it hope. That, or desperation” (Atwood, Oryx 100). Crake’s utterance on hope conceptualizes the idea that mankind is fuelled by chasing unattainable illusionary abstractions. Adjacently, the cynical remark on hope denotes the clash between an idealistic and a pragmatic worldview.

         On a symbolic level, Oryx and Crake reiterates the postulation that humanity’s curse, hope, entails the quintessential particle that outlines the human species, purveying both an idealistic and derisive vision on the human existence. To define it as desperation would signify to transfer the semantic implications of a buoyant emotion into its apathetic concretization. In a more general sense, fiction, as an alternative dimension of substantiality, epitomizes both hope and desperation, limning imagination’s rendition of the cosmos. Identity and Being, in this context, are marked by either hope or desperation, and the Self is placed in a wheel of primitive forces, bound by the incapacity to transcend such limitations.

         In dystopian fiction, the human race is trapped in the maze of hope, oscillating between dichotomies, condemned by a sense of spiritual emptiness. Moreover, literary dystopias could be correlated with the failure of the attempt to attain the earthly ideal. Analogously, Oryx and Crake is a meditation on the human condition, placed under a degraded spectre. A visionary artist, Margaret Atwood sketches a brave new world, predicting civilization’s downfall and capturing the transition from hope to desperation.

         Human imaginativeness is a mark of superiority over other species; moreover, “civilization was not inevitable; it was an act of human creativity” (Perry 4). Artistic innovation, as primal force, lies at the core of genesis and it may be perceived as the begetter of human progress. Since the dawn of times, the act of creativity played a vital role in the lives of human beings. Arts may be ascertained as the apotheosis of this creative force and its most abstract manifestation. Crake’s obsession with deifying scientific creativity and obliterating artistic imagination has catastrophic reverberations. His ultimate failure is represented by the Crakers’ primitive artistic act: creating an idol and humming the incantation to conjure up Snowman.

         Literature, “a thing of beauty” which “is a joy for ever” (Keats 63), epitomizes art’s sublimity and its capacity to transcend the boundaries imposed by a rational perception on existence. Literature is both now and then, here and there; it “is what goes on all the time” (Stein 4). As not only an artistic, but a social phenomenon, literary creations encapsulate the different historical periods and enclose them in the style of the respective era.

         Each epoch had its own literary achievements. Even so, postmodernism marksidiosyncratic era in literature. In contemporary creations, the modern “obsession with the inexpressible, the ineffable, the unsaid” (Levinas 62) loses its primary Parnassian value and becomes a phantasmagoria of the past. The Kierkegaardian despair confronting a nihilistic corporeality is replaced with fear and trembling in front of the annihilating forces of technology and its derivatives. Consequently, dystopian creations arise as the new form of literary representation of a (de)humanized society, shaped by the fast technological growth that characterizes the new “Mechanical Age” (Carlyle 34). “God is dead!” and so is ontology; seemingly, Being is an empty concept in the horizons of meaning. The answer to “What is reality?”: “Bogus!” (Atwood 69) may be deemed as the manifesto of the dystopian Weltanschauung.[1]

         In modern philosophy, the “I” “is thrown out of its abode into an eternal exile, losing its mastery over itself, overwhelmed by its own being” (Levinas 47) since the objective foundation of existence has lost its primary significance in an alienating universe, without substance. In dystopian fiction, this exile is emphasized even more by the projection of an entropic future where the suspension of identity governs the literary topography. The “I” embodied in the dualistic figure of Snowman illustrates the postmodern Prometheus, incapable of redemption and self-transcendence—a conscious effigy of mortality and authenticity among the “digital clones” (Atwood 73). His existence lacks spiritual foundation and his inner agony, caused by the absence of other human beings and the desolate environment, can be transferred to the contemporary reader’s reality, since the concept of isolation has often been linked with the postmodern condition.[2] The chaotic future vision is fuelled by Crake’s “intellectual obsession” (Staines 24) and the desire to transcend the boundaries imposed by religious and moral code.

         Delanty explains that the modern errand for a sense of belonging and identity can be perceived as a form of actualization of the Self and the Other. Acting on the premise that the “I” implies a “You,” in (post)modern literature

[t]he self received its affirmation of identity only by reference to an unknowable other (…). Postmodernity, I would suggest, involves a deepening of this problematic, and in its most recent forms, it marks a shift in the priority of the Self over the Other. Much of postmodern literature today is an expression of the return not just of the banished subject, but of the Other. (3)

This return is enunciated in Oryx and Crake implementing an ‘ant trope’: “Can a single ant be said to be alive, in any meaningful sense of the word, or does it only have relevance in terms of its anthill?” (312). This rhetorical question evokes the clash between the individual and community, as well as the relevance of the Other to the articulation of the Self. Contiguously, Other(ness) is a key-concept in Jimmy/Snowman’s survival, and his path to self-knowledge is conditioned by the reference to an Other. The first representation of the Other is the portrayal of Snowman, Jimmy’s doppelganger. Jimmy becomes Snowman through a process of de-dublation, caused by the novel’s traumatic peripeteia: the outbreak of the fatal disease and the title characters’ death. Illness emerges as a symbolic biblical sin, a peril to the apparent perfection of the temple of the body: “Illness had an element of shame to it” (96). Speculatively, illness could be interpreted as another form of Otherness since the ill person is at odds with what is considered normal. Condemning illness is a symbolic denial of Otherness and it reflects the lack of self-transcendence of the superficial society. As a symptom of psychological illness, Jimmy’s consciousness is captured as it oscillates between a human and a monster ego: “Get me out! he hears himself thinking. But he isn’t locked up, he’s not in prison” (38). The split identity is a direct consequence of mankind’s obliteration, and the lack of stability manifests itself in the rupture between Jimmy and Snowman. The mirror, an old literary motif, reflects the suspension of identity: Snowman becomes the stranger as he contemplates himself in the reflection: “a stranger stares back at him” (194). This scene captures the clash between the former Self and the new, unknown personality of the character.

         In reference to Jimmy/Snowman, the Other appears as a concrete doppelganger and subverts the initial, unhinged “I.” But even his lusus naturae persona, Snowman, is queried: “Maybe he’s not the Abominable Snowman after all. (…) Maybe that’s the real him, the last Homo sapiens” (188). The semi-ironic tone expresses the uncertainty of perception and the perspective is limited/shadowed by the subjective intervention of the spectator. Snowman’s struggle to find a stable identity is cancelled by the flashbacks and the alienating environment that serves as a material representation of human desperation. Alice M. Palumbo considers that Atwood portrays “characters at wars with themselves and their environment”; and since the Self is “constructed from contradictory impulses” (21), Jimmy/Snowman becomes the archetypal image of this tendency. Alone and forgotten, lost and loveless, Jimmy’s psyche is collapsing into the abyss of mental breakdown as mankind fades away in the midst of a biological catastrophe. Words anchor the remaining humanity in the character and storytelling waxes as the authentication of the esse[3] of a human being: “hang on to the words” (Atwood 54). But words dissolve in the absence of the Other and become a simple reminder of mankind’s glorious past, an emblem of immortality left in Snowman’s hands. But will he be able to keep the sacred words alive or will they share similar fate with humanity?

         As a preliminary conclusion, it could be asserted that the Other, the doppelganger, appears as the unmediated reverberations of Atwood’s post-apocalyptic vision. But to scrutinize the complex meaning of Other(ness), an insight into contemporary philosophy is a necessary step to assimilate the reality of the novel. Since the term is widely used in different contexts, its sense will be narrowed down to Emmanuel Levinas’ interpretation. Levinas explores the kernel of the Other on an ethical facet and proposes a different approach, expanding the Husserlian phenomenology into a complex reasoning on ontology. In his conception, resembling Delanty’s approach to the question, “I” as the subject can only be validated through the Other’s presence, for whom “I” represents the Other(ness). The highly humanistic attitude transcends the Biblical kindness towards the Other or the socially imposed structures which demand an adequate behaviour. Levinas implements the concept of ethics to denominate this transcendence. For him, ethics, “concern for the being of the other-than-one-self, non-indifference towards the death of the other,” is materialized in the face of the other: “to be in relation with the other face to face-is to be unable to kill” (10). In this context, the face is the materialization of Being, thus, the face gains a sublime aura. The confrontation with the Other is dualistic, since the Face is a constant reminder of murder. The Face also has a philosophical connotation since it symbolizes appearance that does not coincide with essence.

         As a divine formula, language precedes the concrete confrontation between human beings: “Language (…) addresses and invokes the Other” (32). Thus, the linguistic patterns wear the mark of the Other and verbal communication equals a religious invocation (7). In the novel, language is vital for Jimmy/Snowman’s survival. In his case, the slow “dissolution of meaning, the entries on his cherished wordlists drifting off into space” (Atwood, Oryx 29), the loss of meaning and speech is caused by the absence of the human Other since the Crakers’ linguistic abilities are limited. Snowman’s incapacity to utter sentences may denote a language disorder, but also the character’s failure to gain an identity in the absence of the Other.

         Levinas’ argumentation on the question of the Other concludes with the identification of murder with the Other’s denial (10). In the novel, this negation is illustrated on a virtual scale through websites such as “hedsoff.com,” which exhibits live executions as cheap entertainment. This behaviour denotes lack of empathy and the complete absence of responsibility toward the Other(s). But to what extent does Levinas’ negation maintain its validity in a fictional apocalyptic scenery where survival precedes ethical responsibility and murder becomes a form of leisure?

         As hypothesized before, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake conceptualizes the subject and the Other in a future dominated by chaos and decadence, born from “intellectual obsession” which ultimately leads to “personal destruction” (Staines 24). The intellectual obsessive behaviour is a symptom of the postmodern human being’s malady, a sense of anguish in front of the alternatives provided by science. The metaphor “sandcastles in the wind” (Atwood, Oryx 38) captures the fragility of the universe and the human existence and may be an emblem for the futility of (re)creation, be it divine or human.

         As Scholes and Rabkin remarked, the faith in the scientific evolution is a crucial aspect of contemporary reality, and the dread of this unstoppable phenomenon takes shape in the reality of the dystopian visions (174). As mentioned in the introductory part, Booker considers that the main “technique of dystopian fiction is defamiliarization” (19). The dullness of the scenery deepens Snowman’s struggle to survive and the proto-landscape appears rather as an annihilating force.

         The novel’s chronotopic frame is correlated with Snowman’s fragmentary and decentered ego, and the unreliability of the narrated events springs from this discontinuous aspect of the character’s consciousness. The “anti-pastoral, post-Lapsarian nature” (Rabkin 4) replaces the modern consciousness and humanity descends into atavism. Figuratively, the novel is a literary representation of “Noah’s ark bearing the whole surviving life of a world struggling to keep afloat in a universal storm” (Frye 53). The deific aspect of the novel is reduced to Crake’s attempt to alter the divine creation. As “religions have lost their guiding role in modern consciousness” (Levinas 17), Atwood’s characters are trapped in a dystopian figment of the imagination, corrupted by the prospect of personal deification through science.[4] Immortality and the idea of perfection reside at the nucleus of the narrative discourse and they function as catalysts of the peripeteia. Crake considers that the “grief in the face of inevitable death (…) the wish to stop time. The human condition (…)” (247) justify this immortality. Nonetheless, immortality and mortality are not abstractions, but Crake identifies them with Being: “If you take ‘mortality’ as being, not death, but the foreknowledge of it and the fear of it, then ‘immortality’ is the absence of such fear” (258). To create absence, Crake replaces being with a new species, altering the human condition and artificializing the “I” and “You.” Ergo, Crake becomes the “god of machines,” a postmodern Hephaestus or “theoretical man,” a human being driven by the lust for pragmatic knowledge and an artificial unraveling of the mysteries of existence (Nietzsche 84). Consequently, the illustration of the “the future as nightmare” (Hillegas 3) is the ultimate failure of the “theoretical man.” Conjointly, Crake, the pragmatic and rational Other, emerges as Bulgakov’s Dr. Polyakov: Polyakov’s downfall and ultimate death are caused by the destructive powers of the morphine; similarly, Crake is eventually crushed by his thirst for dominion and blind faith in scientific creativity.

         Jimmy’s sense of estrangement springs from his incapacity to adapt to the system; in this case, ideology and greed are the roots of evil. Within the narrative frame, Jimmy/Snowman’s Self is doomed to alienation, but it’s not “creative alienation” (Frye 5), an encounter with the beautifying calmness of Nature, but a self-destructive isolation induced by the dystopian setting and by spiritual emptiness. If “man lost touch with the divine creation through his own sin and ‘fall’, and now lives in an alienating nature in consequence” (Frye 51), redemption may lie in self-transcendence and purification from the sinful state of being. Applying this assumption to the reality of the novel, Jimmy/Snowman’s symbolic fall is denying the Other by murdering Crake. The fall and the denial can both be connected to Crake if he is assumed to be an aspiring “hormone” (Atwood, Oryx 138) robot on his path to deification: “The encounter of God and man in creation seems to be rather like what some of the great poets of nuclear physics have described as the encounter of matter with anti-matter: each annihilates the other” (Frye 11). Furthermore, Frye connects the idea of redemption with the disruptive, nightmarish future projections: “this social vision of a future” as “a nightmare from which we are trying to awake, is really a vision of human redemption, though the redemptive power is not necessarily one outside ourselves” (14). The Self as the sole redemptive entity could be the implied meaning of Frye’s utterance. Nevertheless, for Jimmy, in the collapsing universe, Art is absolution and tenor of existence: “When any civilization is dust and ashes,” he said, “art is all that’s left over. Images, words, music. Imaginative structures. Meaning—human meaning, that is—is defined by them” (138). Once again, Art defines the essence of the Being and glorifies it. If for Crake history and imaginative patterns are “ossified shit” (138), Jimmy/Snowman recognizes that Art is the universal symbol for human consciousness.

         The outset of the novel renders an altered biblical scenery, a post-Lapsarian and atemporal setting, where “the Abominable Snowman – existing and not existing, flickering at the edges of blizzards, apelike man or manlike ape, stealthy, elusive, known only through rumours and through its backward-pointing footprints” (6) inhabits the damned Locus Amoenus.[5] The witty wordplay places Snowman into a tragi-comic sphere, and Atwood’s linguistic construction enriches the complexity of the novel while loosening the dramatic tension.

         Snowman’s marginal status is intensified by the lack of the Other, and the narratorial omnipotence befalls the exploration of his consciousness. The leitmotif of alienation- “I’m all alone” (88)—captures the consequence of replacing the religious deity with a lust for scientific ascendancy. The character’s desperation culminates in the conscious mental act of decreeing the eradicated humankind into animation: “He wills them into being” (186). Language is a delimiter of Snowman’s condition and a marker of his alienation. His prayer, “oh, talk to me, he prays. Say something. Say anything” (231), sets the parameters of his desperation and reveals a suspension of presence in favour of verbal utterance, since the prayer denominates an attempt to originate human speech. Language, as a form of remembrance, celebrates the glory of mankind: “It’s comforting to remember that Homo sapiens sapiens was once so ingenious with language, and not only with language” (82).

         Crake’s children, concrete embodiments of the human ideal, are an artificial representation of the Other, apparently soulless anthropoid figures who satirize the post-human ideal. Their linguistic limitedness, the scent marking ritual, the reproduction system and their narrow mental capacity reduce them to the status of “digital clones” (73). Without self-consciousness, the Crakers would be the remainders of the fallen human race, and their superficial perfection would mirror the failure of “the theoretical man.” But these man-made beings are not completely lacking self-consciousness: the “scarecrowlike effigy” (264) representing Snowman, designed to bring him back, is a testimony to their sapiential condition.

         Seemingly, their peculiarity as Others lies in their lack of symbolic and imaginative thinking. Since “symbolic thinking of any kind would signal downfall” (304), Art should remain an empty concept for the Crakers. Nevertheless, music is present in their lives and it generates a sense of artistic resonance. Music, as redemptive force, functions as a bond within the community: “they’re singing, less to him than to one another” (6). Their singing equals Snowman’s storytelling and possesses concrete and automatic healing properties. The instinctual musical sounds they generate could be interpreted as a satirized form of “imaginative structure,” but they are also markers of the Other(ness). The ritualistic reconstitution of Snowman and the presence of the idolized version of him functions as proof of Crake’s failure to create beings that completely lack artistic thinking.

         Snowman perceives the Other(ness) of the Crakers as a threat to his self-perception: “compared to them he is just too weird; they make him feel deformed” (34). But since Crakers are the only articulating being and an eidetic memory of Oryx, his anima, he considers himself responsible for their welfare. His emotional devotion to Crake’s children is embodied in his apprehension about the other humans perceiving the Crakers “as freakish, or savage, or non-human and a threat” (311). Snowman’s self-redemption resides at the end of the novel: will he deny the human Others by killing them at the end of the novel to protect the Crakers? The decision is buried in the realm of the Reader.

         “Once upon a time” returns the character to the main character’s ego preceding the downfall. Jimmy’s reclusiveness that leads to his gradual estrangement and denial of the Other can be traced back to his childhood. His family is captured in the semantic area of “thinking” that takes forms under a repetitive utterance: “daddy is thinking” (17). The paternal model exhibits a different form of intellectual obsession, while his mother functions as human conscience, recognizing and admitting the potential dangers residing in the absolute credence in science: “It’s wrong, the whole organization is wrong, it’s a moral cesspool and you know it…you’re interfering with the building blocks of life. It’s immoral. It’s (…) sacrilegious” (45). Shakespeare’s Fool is reimagined in her figure since her raison d’étre in the narrative is to voice verity. Her escape is a temporary moral triumph over the dominance of CorpSeCorps men and implicitly, the system. The institutions that constitute the higher standards of life, such as the OrganInc Farms, epitomize the ridicule of the scientists who pursue to alter Life and its natural cycles by remoulding the processes and the human material. As in Julian Barnes’ England, England, the reproduction substitutes the original and similarly, the ending is calamitous.

         A dystopian magnum opus, Oryx and Crake encompasses the possible outcome of the excessive faith in scientific progress, focusing on Snowman’s consciousness. Being loses its primary sense and is gradually reduced to a hybrid manifestation of humanity, embodied in the character of Snowman. In a post-humanistic environment, the absence of the Other functions as a burden, while the final confrontation between Snowman and mankind is an immanent questioning of the Being. Otherness, which is a crucial concept in narrative discourse, is embodied in the figures of Snowman as the doppelganger, Crake as the denied Other, and the Crakers as digitalized embodiments of Otherness. Atwood’s magnificent story is a symphony of Beauty “in the big red-velvet amphitheatre of the beating human heart” (154). After breathing and grieving with Snowman, the reader may still feel perplexed by many unanswered questions. For instance, when science becomes both the metaphorical and concrete grave of the mind and soul, one may ask oneself: “How much is too much, how far is too far?” (174)

Monika Kosa
Babeș-Bolyai University
NOTES

1. According to Oxford Dictionaries, Weltanschauung has as a primary meaning “a particular philosophy or view of life.”

2. See Miller 3 for a deeper insight into the alienated condition of the postmodern man.

3. As defined in the Oxford Dictionaries, esse signifies “essential nature or essence.”

4. Faith and religion are tackled in the last two parts of the MaddAddam trilogy: The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam.

5. According to Jeffrey Burton Russell, the Locus Amoenus is an idyllic place, “a land of music, dancing, sunny meadows, flowers, fountains, and sweet refreshment and repose in shady groves, a land in which death and decease have no dominion and no one lacks anything” (21).

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