Sunday, 19 September 2010

Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake: The Terror of the Therapeutic

A few scribbled comments (amounting to more than 1000 words – oops!) to round Atwood off for now, this time an article written by Stephen Dunning in 2005.

I quite liked this article. He starts off by reminding the reader there are essentially two kinds of dystopias: the Orwellian and the Huxleyian. The boot stamping on your face forever, or the more subtle vision of Huxley's Brave New World, which emphasises the carrot rather than the stick, but is no less totalitarian. Dunning places Oryx and Crake into the Huxleyian tradition, and with good reason:

It finds our current vulnerability to unprecedented disaster arises not from dystopian societies with hostile political structures, underwritten by oppressive metanarratives, and established through threat of imprisonment, torture and death, but rather within the qualitative vacuum of a culture that has lost its "great" narratives.

(Dunning 2005: 86)

This loss of 'great narratives' is of course a post-modern concept, borrowed directly from Lyotard, although Dunning refuses the post-modern label and prefers “late modernity” (although this does force him to translate 'postmodern' into 'late modern' whenever he discusses it in the text, and then I have to translate it back in my head...anyway). This culture, Dunning goes on to argue, has lately, with the fall of the Soviet Union, lost even the political alternative to the old religious narratives, leaving only unfettered scientific progress behind. A pattern can be discerned, I would say. Dunning claims that the “sacred narrative” (Dunning 2005: 87) is being excised from the world and replaced with ideas stemming from “the laboratory and ledger” (science and capitalism).

Much like DiMarco's text on homo faber, Dunning also goes back to antiquity and then to the beginning of 'modernity', when science ousted the old traditions, without however truly offering an alternative. He speaks of 'orders of desire' (which I believe corresponds to the lower levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs):

Modernity can offer no convincing rationale for pursuing second-order desires, which require the suppression or deferment of first-order desires to achieve higher ethical (often communal) goals, precisely because, as both Huxley and Atwood recognize, modernity rejects the traditional cultural narratives that give such goals their authority.

(Dunning 2005: 87)

I should read more Lyotard, but I would assume such a traditional cultural narrative might be something like 'God', who, through the advance of science, has now become a mere “God of the gaps” (Dunning 2005: 88), only powerful wherever there has been no scientific explanation yet. Oryx and Crake is then a “darkly comic critique of our triumphant scientific modernity that is only now beginning to reveal its true shape, having finally exhausted the resources of the world it has systematically destroyed” (Dunning 2005: 88-89). Sounds a bit post-postmodern to me, I must say!

Dunning's article, as the title suggests, focuses on psychological, or therapeutic elements in the text (another postmodern concept, incidentally). Thus we see the relationship between Jimmy and Crake, and the relationship between the compounds and the outside world, as elements of a mentally ill world (or culture). One of the major elements is the lack of communication between people: when Jimmy entertains himself by having love affairs with bored compound wives, they are entertained by his way with words: “it is telling that they find his considerable linguistic skills appealing, suggesting that on some level, they recognize the nature of their deprivation, the cause of their extraordinary loneliness. Community, even a community of two, requires communication.“ (Dunning 2005: 91). Likewise, the image of Jimmy and Crake as adolescents sitting back to back with their computers seems to suggest that “they are not present to each other at all, or perhaps virtually not present” (Dunning 2005: 92). This, of course, is hogwash, brought on by Atwood's amazing inability to grasp what a video game is actually about (which is quite staggering, considering how central a role her 'Extinctathon' game plays), but Dunning nonetheless probably captured her authorial intent with the scene. In essence, the separation between mind and body is becoming more and more acute, which leads to a sort of split personality for those afflicted (where the body, for instance, is merely entertained by pornography, executions and violence). This is a typical Freudian concept, Freud also belonging to the modernist tradition (Dunning 2005: 94); the separation between the id, the ego and the superego.

Crake's solution to Freud's problem (that we all have base, often destructive needs, that have to be sublimated or expressed in some less destructive way for society to survive) is to entirely replace homo sapiens with his own species – the Crakers – through genetic manipulation (Dunning 2005: 95). As I already mentioned in some of my other article reviews, this kind of backfires, with Jimmy-Snowman teaching the Crakers in the post-apocalypse of Gods and Goddesses and giving them the beginnings of a mythical framework just like the one Crake attempted to eliminate. Atwood could probably not have made it more obvious through the Crakers' 'exodus' from 'Paradice (Dome)', after all. Dunning has an interesting insight into Crake's character here: why would he kill Oryx (who is important to the Crakers) in front of Jimmy, knowing full well this would make Jimmy kill him, while leaving the Crakers in Jimmy's (a “words” person) hands? Why not leave Oryx alive, or why not take care of the Crakers himself? Dunning suggests that Crake is, ultimately, only human, and that in killing Oryx he follows his own inner qualitative and unscientific first-order desire to own her in death, which would not be possible if either both Jimmy and Oryx survived, or Jimmy and Crake did (Dunning 2005: 96). Curious stuff.

The end result, however, is what we see in the post-apocalypse: new “sacred narratives” being constructed by the prophet Snowman and embraced by the Crakers who, despite Crake's intentions, remain at least “marginally human” (Dunning 2005: 98). “Thus, whatever solutions we may hope for must come at least partially by way of recovery, recovery of some form of great narrative that reestablishes culture firmly in the cultus from which science has torn it” (Dunning 2005: 98). In other words, “numbers people” 0, “words people” 1. Hooray!

Dunning, Stephen. 2005. “Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake: The Terror of the Therapeutic” In Canadian Literature; Fall2005, Issue 186: 86-101.


  1. I really enjoyed Neal Stephenson's "Anathem" wherein a technical civilization sustains an interplay of great narratives through several apocalypses separated by centuries. His explanation for the source of those narratives was surprising and enjoyable. I wonder what will happen to our narratives after a collapse, with or without a Perenno facility to assist in rebuilding.

  2. Hmm, interesting. I'll have to pick that one up - looks like a very fascinating book, from what little I read about it on Wikipedia :)