Friday, 4 May 2012

Post-Apocalyptic, Post-Postmodern, Post-Traumatic! And Oryx and Crake

It was honestly a little difficult for me to read Katherine Snyder’s 2011 article (full reference below) on Oryx and Crake. Since academia is now my business, any hint of someone else doing exactly the same thing as oneself makes you quite nervous, and leaves you feeling like someone beat you to the punch – especially as I haven’t officially published anything yet in a journal or whatnot. Still, it was a useful exercise, so here follows my immediate thoughts:

Snyder discusses pre- and post-apocalypses, analepsis and prolepsis, Cathy Caruth’s trauma theory as applied on post-apocalyptic fiction, Freud’s uncanny, and even the uncertainty inherent in fantastic fiction as opposed to realistic fiction. In other words, the only thing she is missing is Bakhtin’s chronotope and she would already have pre-empted most of my thesis. Her definition of what I’ve termed ‘realistic science fiction’ but which I’ve come to realize most people (Atwood included) seem to term ‘speculative fiction’ is quite apt:

The novel teeters, and we teeter with it, on the unstable brink that separates real from imagined, now from later, an exercise that blurs the line between what is inside and outside the self, between what is already present in our world and what may be yet to come.                                                                                                                                                     
(Snyder 2011: 473)

But perhaps I shouldn’t feel threatened, but rather validated, by Snyder’s article. After all, everything that has been said and done has already been said and done (Adam One's comment on a limited moral keyboard springs to mind), and this just means I am not alone in my musings. What Snyder does do is talk about Caruth’s trauma theory in much more detail than I have, which was quite useful to me.

First of all, she wants to make a connection between the major traumatic event in the novel (the apocalypse) and Jimmy’s own personal apocalypses (the loss of his mother and pet Killer): “Losing one’s mother at a tender age is not the end of the world. It just feels that way.” (Snyder 2011: 473), in much the same way as readers of Shelley’s The Last Man have postulated that Shelley’s own trauma (the loss of her family) was made “commensurate with global history itself” (Elmer 2009: 356). Although I don’t fully agree with this idea (the only personal trauma that explicitly causes the apocalypse was Crake’s, and that discussion is not one Snyder takes up), Snyder does back her thoughts up through liberal examples taken from the text. She discusses the way the story itself is set up, from post-apocalyptic ‘present’ to analeptic ‘past’ scenes starting from Jimmy’s childhood and finally coalescing at the very end. Snyder also talks about the present of the post-apocalypse, of how the “present-tense narration of this new but compromised dawn hints at a traumatic past event yet withholds the context that would allow the reader to understand what has happened, or is still happening, or what it all means” (Snyder 2011: 477). So, in essence, the ‘ungrasped’ idea of trauma theory, that one is not consciously aware of the trauma despite it affecting your life constantly.’

The third part, where she talks about ‘traumatic witness’, was probably the part that intrigued me the most, since it actually had a discussion on how one can apply the idea of the traumatic witness (the all-important third part to my post-apocalyptic chronotope) to Oryx and Crake. It was also at this point when I realized exactly how powerful the idea of post-postmodern theory may be. Consider:

The pandemic—a singular traumatic event of global proportions, yet one that replays past private traumas for the protagonist—marks the moment at which these two registers of the narrative collide, or the moment at which they are revealed to have been one all along.
(Snyder 2011: 479)

In other words, read symbolically (deconstructively?) the whole narrative is more or less about Jimmy’s own childhood traumas becoming manifest in the most obvious way imaginable. “The trouble at home at once predetermines and is retrodetermined by the cataclysmic world events around which the narrative is structured” (Ibid). But yet, but still! There are the other plots, the other ideas, the bioengineering and the dystopia and all the rest. And then, from this, she goes on to wonderfully define post-apocalyptic fiction based on this idea of trauma theory:

It is this uncanny aspect of the protagonist’s experience, I contend, that is fundamental to the imaginative investments of the reader of post-apocalyptic fiction. Post-apocalyptic fiction serves as rehearsal or preview for its readers, an opportunity to witness in fantasy origins and endings that are fundamentally unwitnessable. We are horrified and yet thrilled to see ourselves and our world in the unthinkable plight portrayed here, and even more horrified and thrilled to see the origins of this plight in ourselves.                                                                                                                                                                            (Snyder 2011: 479)

Thus, she returns to the actual powerful message of the science fiction narrative: that it must in a way be read as ‘real’ (witnessable), that there must be that element of suspension of disbelief and so on for it not to simply collapse into the (still very valid and powerful) interpretation that the whole cataclysm is just an extension of Jimmy’s own trauma.

At this point, Snyder goes into more Freudian depths, something I think is a mistake. For one thing she brings up the Oedipus complex when trying to explain the (to me still quite intriguingly puzzling) deaths of Oryx and Crake. Although an acceptable enough explanation, she makes the (in my view wrong) assumption that Oryx is “fatally infected” (Snyder 2011: 481) and the actually patently false assertion that Crake would likewise be thus infected: we know perfectly well that Crake is immune to the ‘super bug’, having taken the same immunizing ‘cocktail’ as Jimmy did.

One interesting point she makes about trauma, a point I had not thought of myself, is the idea that although trauma by definition is the unconscious repetition of an event, Snyder claims the possibility of “repetition with a difference, repetition as reworking”, in other words that characters could actually deal with trauma in order to “remake their present relation to loss” (Snyder 2011: 485) – perhaps for the better. Again we return then to the dual meaning of apocalypse – the end of the world, or a revelation of a new, better one – perhaps even through reworked trauma! Her conclusion is, again, painfully close to my own (validation!):

Such fictions allow us imaginatively to rehearse the end, a rehearsal that itself stands as both traumatic symptom and potential cure, as acting out and working through, as repetition and repetition-with-a-difference. Our awareness that such apocalyptic visions of human futurity mirror our own inner fears and desires does not mean that all trauma, whether individual or collective, will be consigned to the past, but it does help us to confront our status as subjects of history by looking to the future.                                                                                                                                                                             (Snyder 2011: 486)

A perfectly viable theory, this one: that post-apocalyptic science fiction in essence is our own attempt at, through endless repetition, perhaps eventually rework some of our unrealized traumas. And this, dear friends, might very well fit nicely with some things Zizek (add upside-down ^’s on the Z’s please) had to say about catastrophes, dystopian zero points, and other such nice things. But – for a later post.

Elmer, Jonathan. 2009. “'Vaulted Over by the Present': Melancholy and Sovereignty in Mary Shelley's The Last Man.” In Novel: A Forum on Fiction; Summer2009, Vol. 42 Issue 2: 355-359.

Snyder, Katherine V. 2011. ” “Time to go: The Post-Apocalyptic and the Post-Traumatic in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake”. In Studies in the Novel; Winter2011, Vol. 43 Issue 4: 470-489.

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