15 October 2006

interview : l. timmel duchamp : part two

Lance: In nearly every story in your collection, Love's Body, a kind of gendered political possibility space opens up that reminds me, sometimes to a greater extent, sometimes to a lesser, of the one called the city of Bellona in Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren—a place, in other words, where anything can and should be tried and thought. In my favorite fiction of yours, "The Heloise Archive," an alternate-history novella in which Heloise (1101-1162) leaves her lover-teacher Abelard and eventually gives birth to the second Christ, a female one, you critique doctrinal religion's hypocrisy, dangers, and biases ("If the mass madness of the Church is not prevented from developing, not only women, but diverse peoples throughout the world will perish from its excesses."). How did that story come into being?

Timmi: Bellona is a splendid fictional example of how moments of possibility open up in the very situations most people would prefer never to find themselves caught up in. I noticed, when I was studying history, the way such spaces do open up, without notice, creating a momentary possibility for truly radical change. Sometimes radical change would occur, but most often it did not. In any case, all of the internalized social and social-psychological baggage we all carry around with us would be important factors determining the outcome of such situations, even when a massive ideological, intellectual, or spiritual shift was sweeping over just about everyone. Usually, of course, that baggage would win out, since post-adolescent humans tend resist change fiercely. The historical Abelard and Heloise did not, to my knowledge, occupy such a space, though each of them was unquestionably endowed with the Right Stuff to have made much of one, had the potential existed. But I had been long aware that Western values and attitudes shifted regrettably in the late twelfth century, with especially deleterious effects for women and Jews in particular, and for tolerance and more egalitarian values generally. The early thirteenth-century Pope Innocent III, whose mastery of centralized bureaucratic imperialism made the papacy rich, did not invent anti-Semitism or misogyny, but the virulence of his intolerance stamped itself indelibly on the Church for centuries to come and made itself official policy with the infamous Fourth Lateran Council. And yet just a century before, Abelard and other philosophers and theologians—like the great Abbess Hildegard of Bingen—developed new, critical ways of thinking. And women like Heloise and Hildegard held positions of authority. And so, although the first half of the twelfth century was in no way a utopia, it always struck as a temporal space pregnant with possibility.

I became interested in the story of Abelard and Heloise back in the 1970s, when I was in graduate school. First, both Abelard’s “History of my Calamity” (as he titled his open letter/memoir) and Heloise’s letters struck me as remarkable for the degree of psychological insight and analysis they offered: and of course they are amazingly vivid. Second, by all accounts, Heloise was an exceptionally talented scholar and very, very smart. For the kind of graduate student I was, she was irresistible. Third, Heloise has long figured as an emblem of what women philosophers in particular and intellectuals in general are up against, particularly since their mentors and closest colleagues have usually been men with whom they have close (even if not necessarily erotic) ties. (For those interested, check out Michèle Le Dœuff’s Hipparchia’s Choice: An Essay Concerning Women, Philosophy, Etc.) It was in the summer of 1992, though, that I began to think about writing about Abelard and Heloise; I actually came very close to writing a history-based novel. After all, they were the most glamorous celebrities of their day—the most popular teacher in France and the writer of love songs sung all over Europe, Abelard was mobbed by fans wherever he went, and his love affair with Heloise was famous all over Europe. Let’s face it, their story is gold-plated Big Screen material; just to mention a few of the high points: it’s the story of hot, passionate, star-crossed lovers secretly marrying and having a child while openly refusing to sanctify their union; of Heloise’s enraged uncle having Abelard castrated because of their refusal to marry & Abelard then ordering Heloise to a nunnery; of Heloise becoming the leader of a group of nuns kicked out of their nunnery and made homeless when a powerful ecclesiastic decided he had a use for their nunnery; of Abelard being tried for heresy; of Abelard being assigned the position of abbot to a house of “barbaric” rebellious monks in Brittany who actively attempt to kill him when he asserts his authority… But really, I could just go on and on and on!

The documents are rich and suggestive, and yet they leave a lot of room for one’s imagination to have a field day. But by August, 1992, my immersion in the documents—in their style and language, in the suggestive intricacies of the story they tell—drove me to rewrite the story of their relationship in a science-fictional way. I imagine that most writers choosing to imagine an alternate version of their story would prefer to intervene before Abelard’s castration since that event was, after all, what killed his love (if that’s the correct word) for Heloise. Maybe, if I had been younger, undoing the castration would have appealed to me. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more and more interested in working with rather than imagining freedom from the parts of history (personal as well as collective) that are painful and intractable aspects of who one is (individually or collectively). As a result, I decided to place the story’s sf conceit, an intervention from the future, post-castration. And of course what could be more perfect for open-minded scholars like Abelard and Heloise than to be confronted with the texts of Gnostic gospels? And since I’ve always loved playing with footnotes in my fiction, I especially enjoyed alluding to the resulting alternate history through the explanatory notes of a graduate student in that world’s future, rather than offering a fuller frame-narrative, as I had originally intended to do.

Lance: Does science or speculative fiction allow you a set of tools others genres don't to explore what you want to? What in your mind is the relationship between SF, oppositional fiction, and innovative fiction?

Timmi: To answer the first question, yes, I think that it does. Delany explains this probably better than I could: “Science fictional discourse,” he wrote back in 1975, vis-à-vis the sf novel’s important differences from the modern and postmodern literary novel, “redistributes the fictive attention between character and landscape (i.e., between subject and object) in a manner different from mundane fiction… To work within this reorganized fictive frame gives us, first of all, a basically better matrix in which to deal with the recomplications of modern ‘sign’ language. And I can think of no better place than science fiction in which to avoid ‘certain conventions of fiction’ that make so much fiction such a political disaster.”

Let me expand on this a bit by citing a clear example of this “redistribution of fiction attention”, viz., a story by Alan de Niro titled “Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead” (which appears in de Niro’s short fiction collection of the same name, published a few months ago by Small Beer Press). I remember that as I was reading the opening pages of the story, I became conscious that my keen interest in the story’s world, which the narrative reveals one tantalizing detail at a time, was driving me forward, rather than engagement with the ordinary geeky adolescent who’s the viewpoint character or interest in the plot. That is to say, my curiosity and pleasure in discovering the logic and parameters of the story’s world and mentally constructing it one image at a time was far keener than my interest in the more ordinary aspects of the character’s thoughts and feelings. This is not a complaint about characterization, but a recognition that first, as with many good sf stories, the characters of this story, being of a piece with their world, cannot be fully appreciated outside the context of the landscape of that world—outside its matrix of “signs,” as Delany calls them, meaning its social relations and politics and technology and economics and so on; and that second, the construction of an unfamiliar landscape or “matrix” is a deeply pleasurable aspect of reading good sf. Which is to say, science fiction stories place the objective register of the text on a par with its subjective register (i.e., the interiorized individuality of its characters).

Thus, writing science fiction, I can refuse the distorted image of the human as an almost entirely self-determined, self-sufficient individual for whom the world is a mere backdrop, an image that has resulted from the pernicious myth of individualism pervading US culture and is nearly de rigueur for Realist fiction, and I can insist, through my own fiction, that human beings can’t be meaningfully extracted from the complicated matrix that constitutes the reality in which they live. I do this by creating new matrices, or depicting changes in the matrix (which is always shifting and changing, regardless of whether anyone notices that it is). My matrices typically include economic conditions, ethical and moral values, social relations and mores, as well as concepts, patterns of language, aesthetic principles, and indeed, anything at all that occurs to me to take into account. Science fiction not only allows but even demands it! And that’s something that’s almost impossible to do when writing “Realist” fiction. Science fiction is not only open to any question, issue, or idea that one can think of, but also gives one permission to carry one’s speculations beyond the limits of what is likely or even possible. Plausibility means something entirely different for realist fiction than it does for science fiction.

Your second question is a tough one. I think the relationship between oppositional fiction, SF, and innovative fiction is fluid. A lot of SF is neither oppositional nor innovative; and obviously a work does not need to be SF to be oppositional and innovative. Nor is innovative work necessarily oppositional, or oppositional work necessarily innovative. In producing innovative work, the writer is forced to balance between the Scylla of unintelligibility that results when the reader is unable to make meaning out of unfamiliar concepts or points of reference and the Charybdis of triteness that characterizes utter transparency of meaning. (For an interesting discussion of this, see Rob Halpern’s “Committing the Fault (Notes Towards a Faulty Narrative Practice),” which can be found in Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative, ed Burger, Glück, Roy, and Scott, Coach House Books, 2004.) In producing oppositional work, the writer is forced to balance between the Scylla of a clarity that will strike ideological opponents as irksomely didactic and the Charybdis of being subtle to the point of obscurity—while also having to negotiate the difficulties of necessarily speaking one’s opposition in the language and terms of the very things one is opposing. Innovative or oppositional science fiction shares these same problems, but in my view generously provide opportunities for circumventing them. Because science fictional discourse values the objective register as much as it does the subjective, readers are primed from the first sentence to try to figure out what’s going on in the text. That is to say, the lack of determined (dare I say dogmatic?) naiveté of the devotee of Realist fiction. And I suppose that is why, when a work of SF is either innovative, oppositional, or both, it feels right to me that it is, precisely because the emphasis on the objective register invites innovation and provides marvelous opportunities for instigating critical thinking. Since I distrust attempts to make hard and fast definitions of SF (which are usually used to exclude work that one contingent or another finds an affront to own identifications), I would say simply that SF is fiction that places a high value on the objective register and is in conversation with other texts of fiction called SF.


Joe Amato said...

I loved this interview. The discussion of scifi's relationship to the subjective/objective, to the innovative/oppositional, and esp. to the aims of feminism, has given me much to ponder.

Many thanks, Timmi and Lance! --



Timmi Duchamp said...

Thanks, Joe. I was really pleased to get that question from Lance because it made me stop & do some pondering myself. Necessary as labels seem to be, the mere act of identification often serves to deflect our attention from not only similiarities but also the most interesting differences. Identification is a sort of coating, like a non-stick or Teflon surface, right? It deflects the attention... (& it's not as though we all have a lot of empty time on our hands!)