Friday, February 27, 2009

Week 8: Sheldon/Tiptree

How very interesting this week! Why? Though readings in past weeks have held their own attractions, this week's readings on Tiptree were different in several respects:

> We read a half dozen short stories rather than a single novel

> As such, we got to read works that represent the body of an author's work over time

> By the same token, we read critiques of the author's entire body of work rather than a single work

> And because we were evaluating a body of work, details of the author's biography became important to the analysis

So this week my own comments are more directed to the panoply of criticism we read, because the differences in interpretations—and in interpretive approaches—was quite interesting.

(For example, most commentators say Lorimer was killed at the end of "Houston," but Lowry claims the drug given Lorimer was the antidote to the truth serum. And while most critiques of "The Women Men Don't See" assert that Parsons seeks escape through alien abduction, Lowry suggests Parsons is herself a stranded alien anxious to get home.)

To my mind, Pei asks the key question:

Are these cautionary tales, or is their goal to show that the human race is irremediably split by the barrier between male and female? Are these stories simply the extreme statement of what we should avoid, or is their purpose to prove that mankind [sic; this article was written in 1979] is ruled by drives . . . ? (p. 278)

Thus let me begin with Pei's article.

> Pei was, for my money, the most successful in drawing together a unifying theme in Tiptree's body of work:

This incompleteness [of male and female], a fundamental characteristic of humanity according to Tiptree, is clearly a two-sided quality. Mankind is made more beautiful and more human by being half of something; yet the race is doomed, and its history reduced to pointlessness by being half of something. This kind of paradoxical doubleness is found throughout the themes of Tiptree's work. To be human is to be half of something (p. 272).

And how does Pei resolve the question of whether Tiptree's stories are cautionary tales or affirmations of an irremediable split between male and female? Pei concludes that Tiptree's corpus is a duality so that the question is never resolved.

Is that a cop-out? No, I'm prepared to accept that Tiptree wrestled with an unresolvable duality. Being only half of something, don't we all?

> Barr offers an extended discussion of "Love is the Plan" as a way of pondering, as did Tiptree, "why the plots of many love stories are enhanced by the woman's death" and if the "destruction of women which sometimes results from their sexual connection to men [is] part of the biological plan of reproduction" (p. 47).

What a thought-provoking perspective, one which did not initially occur to me in my reading. But when I read Barr's observation, my immediate reaction was to note, "Yes, love stories are often enhanced by the woman's death. But war stories as just as often enhanced by the man's death. Is it significant that women die in love stories and men die in war stories?"

Though Barr recognizes that "men and women must live as two distinct and separate biological entities which come together to reproduce before breaking apart," she contends that "we must derive hope [for male-female coexistence] from Tiptree's true identity" (p. 47).

Yet this amounts to a claim that Tiptree/Sheldon's life shows us a move toward resolving the duality. Here I must disagree, side with Pei, and assert that Tiptree's writings and biography suggests the duality remained unresolved (and thus in productive tension) for the author.

> Steffen-Fluhr gives us an informative description of Tiptree/Sheldon's early life, providing a helpful biographical context for the observation, "There are few human women at all in most of Sheldon's early stories [but] there are metaphorical women everywhere" (p. 193).

But just to show how people can read the same words and draw different conclusions, Steffen-Fluhr offers a very different take on duality in Tiptree: "To 'come home' in Sheldon's fiction means to 'be at home' with all the many selves in one's self—to be complete, whole, at peace" (p. 194).

Again, this suggestion is far different than Pei's thesis that humans in Tiptree's work are incomplete and irremediably split in a duality that has no resolution.

Yet Steffen-Fluhr's extended discussion of "Love is the Plan" (pp. 199-202) is quite helpful. Her critique explores the themes of psychomachia (dialogue between various parts of the Self), biology and social behavior, love and devouring, love and possession/bondage, male egocentricity, death and orgasm, erotic and maternal love, change and adaptation.

An extended discussion of "Houston, Houston" (pp. 205-208) is similarly helpful and also introduces a larger exploration by Steff-Fluhr of how "the structure of suicide is the hidden subtext in a number of Sheldon's best stories." Later she notes how "suicide and survival are often link in Sheldon's fiction" as "characters frequently kill themselves in order to save themselves" (p. 208).

But how do we reconcile Steffen-Fluhr's earlier assertion that "coming home" and being at peace with one's self is a theme in Tiptree's work, with her assertion that the stories show how their author "especially feared the disorder that comes from within" (p. 208)?

Nevertheless, Steffen-Fluhr does a nice job of tracing the themes of disorder and death in Tiptree's later works.

> Two articles that focus on specific aspects of Tiptree/Sheldon's biography are offered by Elms and Galef.

The Elms piece is a fine example of bringing our a lesser-known phase of the author's life—namely her years as a psychologist—giving us a thick description of the phase, and then using it as a helpful new lens to illuminate aspects of Tiptree's writing.

The Galef piece brings to bear the literatures on postcolonialism and sociobiology as a lens to explore the tension in Tiptree between cultural relativism and biological determinism. As a child Tiptree/Sheldon was widely exposed to many cultures, but her later work as an experimental psychologist examined the link between biology and behavior.

> Finally, the Larbalestier biography of Tiptree/Sheldon is quite helpful in providing contexts for interpreting the body of the author's work.

In the end, I was also impressed by similarities between Sheldon's biography and mine. She and I spent important parts of our lives tied into the government and university scene around Washington DC. And (if I did my math correctly) she received her PhD at the same age I hope to receive mine.

Though our worldviews and politics are different, I was left with the impression of Sheldon as a writer and a person who struggled honestly with dualities we all face. As such, I've learned from her and from the critiques of her work, and gained some new perspectives.

In my own worldview I might call the root problem by another name (theologians call it "original sin" or "the Fall") but I too ponder the separation between peoples that, I believe, has resulted from the separation between the human and the divine. But new perspectives and insights other than one's own are always instructive, so that Sheldon's struggles with duality speak to me.

1 comment:

Elisa Kay Sparks said...

Glad you enjoyed the Tiptree-- I find her endlessly fascinating. I think the Lowry article you refer to is Lowry Pei's article, whihc when I last studied Tiptree, also impressed me as the best overview.