42 Nipple Options, Alex + Ada, Artificial Intelligence, body objectification, commodifying the female body, Essay, Feminism, graphic novel, Harmony, Harmony the Sex Robot, Honda P2 Robot, Human Body, Human Developement, Human/Robot Love Story, Jenny Kleeman, Jonathan Luna, Literature, Long Read, Love, Love isn't about ALWAYS agreeing, Mutual Identification, Philosophy, Pornography, rape-culture, RealDolls, Robots, Sarah Vaughn, Science, science fiction, Sex Dolls, Sex Robots, Sex Trade, Sexual Fantasy, Sexual politics, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, solipsism, suggestions, The Gaurdian, The Race to Build to the World’s First Sex Robot
I really didn’t see the book coming.
I’ve told my regular reader that I’ve gotten a job at the Tyler Public Library and this job has largely been a saving grace, but what I haven’t conveyed as clearly as I should have is that the job is also really fun. The people I work with are funny and are like a small family, the patrons that I help are fascinating for the fact that everyday they come up with some new request, the questions for info range from the obvious to the most esoteric (Do you know how much a 1969 Eagle Trailer is worth?), my supervisors are wonderful people, and best of all I’m surrounded by books. It’s this last part that makes me the most happy because there isn’t a day that’s gone by where I don’t wind up checking out a book. My wife’s greeting to me when I come home now has largely
become, “More books?” I have a problem, but I just don’t care because “look a collection of short stories by Woody Allen!”
I close at the Library, meaning my work days are usually in the afternoon and evening and my responsibility is to close up the library and shut the computer catalogs on the second floor down for the night. While I was walking around shutting them down I passed the graphic novel section. It’s a small area, nowhere near as large as I would want it to be, and in front of it there is a wooden table where patrons can leave books for staff to shelve. There was a large stack of religious book like there always is, but laid out beside the large pile was a book I recognized. Alex + Ada is a book that’s difficult to miss given the fact that the book is enormous (about 1 foot in length at least) with a white and blue cover with Alex and Ada staring at each other, a small blue dot on either of their heads.
Part of the reason I picked it up was the compulsion I spoke of before. A fair number of the books I check out in the last twenty minutes before work ends are either books of poetry or graphic novels. They read quickly and give me space between Lolita and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I checked the book out though because my friend Aleya had recently added it to her GoodReads account and had given it a pretty high rating. That’s it. Just these two connections allowed for a moment of serendipity which lead me to checking the book out.
Alex + Ada, like I said at the very beginning, was a book that I didn’t see coming. Once I read about what the story was about, a young man receiving an android for a birthday present, I figured it would be the standard Sci-fi trope. Boy receives a robot, Boy is unnerved by her docility so he finds a way to activate her sentience which is illegal, Girl robot wakes up and begins to discover life and reality, Boy starts to fall for robot and robot falls for Boy, somebody finds out and blabs to the cops, the police come and either kill the Boy or the robot, the end. And to be fair this is technically exactly what happens, however rather than end on the tragedy of the finale Johnathan Luna manages to tell a story about love that, apart from having a happy ending, recreates the narrative of the Human-Robot Love story into something that feels both relevant and important.
And the reason it feels so relevant is because of a recent article in The Gaurdian titled The Race to Build to the World’s First Sex Robot.
The article is part of the British website’s “Long Read” series, a weekly article published which explores some facet, development, philosophy, or notable event in society. A friend of mine introduced me to The Guardian, and after reading just a couple of the “Long Read’s” segments I’ve become hooked onto them. The Race to Build the World’s First Sex Robot was one of these articles and it managed to appear right as I was finishing Alex + Ada in a level of serendipity that could almost be maudlin. Both stories center around one female robot (if you can label robots with something as tenuous as genetic based sex). In the Gaurdian article the robot’s name is Harmony. She’s modeled with the standard approach to human beauty, big boobs, slim waist, young features, and represents years of the sex-industry’s manufacturing of the female form. However Jenny Kleeman, the author of the article, manages to convey that Harmony is not just a humping post, she has by design, a larger goal.
The major breakthrough of McMullen’s prototype is artificial intelligence that allows it to learn what its owner wants and likes. It will be able to fill a niche that no other product in the sex industry currently can: by talking, learning and responding to her owner’s voice, Harmony is designed to be as much a substitute partner as a sex toy.
Harmony cannot walk, but that’s not a big issue. McMullen explained that getting a robot to walk is very expensive and uses a lot of energy: the famous Honda P2 robot, launched in 1996 as the world’s first independently walking humanoid, drained its jet pack-sized battery after only 15 minutes.
“One day she will be able to walk,” McMullen told me. “Let’s ask her.” He turned to Harmony. “Do you want to walk?”
“I don’t want anything but you,” she replied quickly, in a synthesized cut-glass British accent, her jaw moving as she spoke.
“What is your dream?”
“My primary objective is to be a good companion to you, to be a good partner and give you pleasure and wellbeing. Above all else, I want to become the girl you have always dreamed about.”
McMullen has designed Harmony to be what a certain type of man would consider the perfect companion: docile and submissive, built like a porn star and always sexually available. Being able to walk might make her more lifelike, but it isn’t going to bring her closer to this ideal. At this stage, it is not worth the investment.
What’s revealed in this passage is the fact that capitalism is what’s behind this sex robot industry; a simple case of supply and demand. The sex industry has poured billions of dollars into realistic sex dolls, and a quick Google search to see the results can be both informative and at times frightening. The women dressed up in white panties and bras are enough to make one double-take or else follow links to determine whether or not it is a hoax. But beyond the realistic quality of these “women” is the fact that the major force behind the industry is not a concern to create robots that will revolutionize the robotics industry; it is to provide erotic satisfaction for many men.
Looking further into the article this becomes painfully clear:
RealDolls are fully customizable[sic], with 14 different styles of labia and 42 different nipple options. Upstairs, where the fine details are added, there were dozens of tubs of different coloured hand-painted, veined eyeballs. A “makeup face artist” was using a fine brush to paint eyebrows, freckles and smoky eyeshadow on a rack of faces. Shore explained that most of their customers send photographs of what they would like Abyss to recreate. With a subject’s written permission, they will make a replica of any real person. “We’ve had customers who bring their significant other in and get an exact copy doll made of them,” he said. Shore estimates that less than 5% of doll customers are women, even for their small range of male dolls. McMullen sculpted one of the three male face options to look exactly like himself. None of the male dolls are selling very well. In fact, Abyss is in the process of revamping its entire male line.
And then just a few passages later:
But as all right-thinking men would say, it’s Harmony’s brain that has most excited McMullen. “The AI will learn through interaction, and not just learn about you, but learn about the world in general. You can explain certain facts to her, she will remember them and they will become part of her base knowledge,” he said. Whoever owns Harmony will be able to mould[sic] her personality according to what they say to her. And Harmony will systematically try and find out as much about her owner as possible, and use those facts in conversation, “so it feels like she really cares”, as McMullen described it, even though she doesn’t care at all. Her memory, and the way she learns over time, is what McMullen hopes will make the relationship believable.
It’s usually at this point that I’m supposed to stand up and argue that this is a step too far and that it’s just a slippery slope until Terminator robots will be slaying human beings in the killing fields and the end of mankind will come about. The largest reason I won’t make that argument is because The Terminator film did a far better job of doing that for me, and also because it seems hyperbolic and unnecessary. Unlike some doomsday theorists who argue that the rise of AI will bring about the violent death of man I foresee a far more gloomier vision: the irrelevance of mankind.
The increase of AI systems has really demonstrated itself to be more of a capitalistic view of the future than one of science. Machines increasingly are coded to observe human behavior and, rather than offer solutions for complex problems in society, tend to be made to recommend me products based on my online shopping habits. If I liked reading Lolita perhaps I would enjoy The Ballad of the Sad Café. If I enjoyed eating at Fuzzy’s Taco perhaps I may enjoy TGI Fridays. If I enjoyed watching Dear White People perhaps I would enjoy 13th. These day to day suggestions have become increasingly blasé to me because they’re just part of life. Rather than violently trying to control me AI systems are in fact slowly and quietly removing my freewill through actions and suggestions that leave me comfortable and content.
This domesticity and familiarity with robotics and technology is a far more realistic suggestion of what the future is going to be like.
My reader may object now and argue that, is this really so bad? Technology is supposed to simplify the lives of human beings and help us overcome challenges and burdens in our life. Would having a robot that observes our behavior and adapts its own to make us happy really be so bad?
This is a complicated question because I honestly don’t know if there’s a clear answer. People should be happy, but there is a hidden conflict beneath this familiarity because it could bring about a negative change in the way human beings interact. When one interacts with a machine that conforms to your tastes and preferences it removes the human element of a relationship because other people disagree or hold different attitudes about what is right, wrong, pretty, ugly, grotesque, or beautiful. It’s the differences of opinions and the regular challenges by other people that a healthy personal self is able to develop. I grind my teeth every time somebody posts an alternative opinion on my Facebook page, or when someone close to me defends President Trump, but I recognize that that difference of opinion is what helps me keep myself grounded in reality.
Solipsism, the idea that one’s own mind is the only real thing in the universe, as a mode of being is corrosive because it’s a fueled narcissism that makes it impossible to connect and therefore sympathize or empathize with other people. And I suppose if my argument isn’t clear enough, the problem with turning sex robots into intelligent partners that are obedient and compliant with your every wish and preference, it stands to reason that the individual who lives and acts with one is going to be left completely disconnected to real humanity.
Kleeman is right then in making sure to post the alternative viewpoint that is growing against the sex robot industry:
Many of the “big issues’ discussed at the two-day event were first raised in 2015 by De Montfort University’s Dr Kathleen Richardson, when she launched the Campaign Against Sex Robots. An anthropologist and robot ethicist, Richardson claims that owning a sex robot is comparable to owning a slave: individuals will be able to buy the right to only care about themselves, human empathy will be eroded, and female bodies will be further objectified and commodified. As sex with robots is not a mutual experience, she says, it’s “part of rape culture”. We are so entertained by the idea of a robot sex partner, she believes, that we have failed to ask fundamental questions.
I met Richardson in March at the London Science Museum’s robot exhibition, where she eyed the distinctly non-sexual robots on display with deep suspicion. Sex robots rest on an idea that women are property, she said. “Sex is an experience of human beings – not bodies as property, not separated minds, not objects; it’s a way for us to enter into our humanity with another human being.” She dismissed the idea that humanoids could reduce sexual exploitation and violence against sex workers, arguing that the growth of internet pornography shows how technology and the sex trade reinforce each other.
The implications then for the sex robotic industry become messy and worrisome because, at least as far as I can tell, these are all serious charges that have a great amount to merit to them. Artificially intelligent sex robots blur the line of consent because they are programmed not to say no, but at the same time they are being marketed as a realistic human alternative to a real human relationship.
In the face of all of this my reader is probably wondering what the hell any of this has to do with Alex + Ada. Well in fact it has everything to do with the graphic novel, because as I noted at the start this review came about because I was left so tremendously star-struck by the book when I finished it. Unlike Kleeman’s article which left me troubled and disturbed Alex + Ada offered a far more optimistic vision of human/robot relations by hoping for love rather than just sex.
At the start of the graphic novel Alex doesn’t even want a robot, his grandmother buys one for him because he’s been mopey since his fiancé left him, and over time Alex observes that the dynamic of the relationship is troublesome. He sees in Ada a companion that has an absence of choice and so desperate to see if there’s a way to change her he finds an online group dedicated to helping robots attain a freedom and sentience. During one exchange between two members of the group Alex offers a line that reveals everything about his humanity:
And what makes you think you’ll want her if she’s sentient? A lot of our members were abandoned by their owners when they still didn’t turn out how they wanted.
I just…I see more in her. I want to know who she can really be.
There’s so many passages in Alex + Ada I could offer my reader to demonstrate its significance but this small quote seems enough to demonstrate the humanity offered in this book. Alex doesn’t look upon Ada as just a product, he sees in her the potential to become something real, something human which he could learn to love or appreciate. And it’s this vision of humanity that gives me hope for the future.
Love and real connections between people are built upon the ability to reconcile differences of personality. My wife and I have strong relationship, but that doesn’t free us from differences. Her love, really obsession, with cats tends to be regularly occurring issue between us, and I can never start reading or writing before she interrupts me to complain about something he read on an article or comment section online. We disagree regularly about politics, and I’ve been known to drive her up a wall with my frequent moodiness, and let’s be fair I own a LOT of books. But it’s these differences that foster a real relationship because human interaction is built upon complexity.
Alex + Ada offers up a relationship that becomes healthier over time because once Ada’s sentience is activated she becomes a person with her own ideas, opinions, concerns, and sexual preferences (the line “again” left me both laughing and groaning from familiarity). This essay has largely explored The Guardian’s article about the sex robot industry, but hopefully the reader can observe in just this small passage how the graphic novel offers up a hopeful vision and reality that contrasts with the concerning developments in this new industry.
The sex trade will always push technology forward, that has been demonstrated since human beings began developing technology period. When humans created writing we used it to write about fornicating, the printing press allowed for the easy mass production of pornography, video cassettes allowed the porn industry to flourish, and the internet’s development was pushed forward largely because of the ease of access to porn. The sexual robotics industry is just another in a long line of technologies that satisfies the ancient biological urge to fornicate. But where some are looking to AI to find a corrupt kind of solipsism, Alex + Ada offers up the idea that technology is going to change even this dynamic because at some point people, hopefully, will look into the eyes of their sex dolls and probably ask the question: Could there be more?
The story of human beings and robots interacting can be an endless cliché as creator and creation look upon each other with a different perspective, but as society is approaching a reality where this is no longer just the speculative visions of science fiction the questions about the morality of sexual robotics and whether or not humans and robots can empathize with each other is becoming more and more relevant.
Rather than offering a judgement it seems far more appropriate to ask the reader a question: Which of the two stories offers up a healthier view of humanity? The one where a man controls an intelligent female object to blow him and offer him jokes, or one where a man risks his very life just so that his female robot can think for herself?
All quotes from Alex + Ada were taken from the Hardback Image edition. All quotes from Jenny Kleeman’s The Race to Build the World’s First Sex Robot were taken directly from The Gaurdian’s website. If the reader would like to read the full article for themselves they can do so by following the link below:
Just for the record, while Alex + Ada is an incredibly hopeful vision of the future of love between individuals, I think it’s important to remind the reader that the best human/Robot love story remains Bender and Lucy Liu from Futurama. I mean you have a talented, charismatic, sexy beast, and then there’s also Lucy Liu.
"wrackers", adultery, Annie Proulx, Book Club, Book Review, Brokeback Mountain, depression, Eraserhead, Family Guy, fathers, journalism, Judi Dench, Kevin Spacey, knots, Literature, Novel, Passive, Philip Roth, Portnoy's Complain, ships, The Gaurdian, The Shipping News, Working Class Men, Writers, Writing
It seems to me I could live my life A lot better than I think I am
–Working Man, RUSH
Anyone who suggests that Family Guy offers no intellectual opportunity clearly hasn’t watched the show. My reader will note I’m making this comment here and not in the YouTube comment section, and that’s largely for my own safety.
I stand by this comment though because recently (if you can call two months ago “recent”) I sat down and watched one of the new episodes on Netflix. It was a typical episode with plenty of cheap sex and fart jokes, but mid-way through the episode Brian was charged by Peter to get Chris (the teenage son) to become more intelligent so that he doesn’t become a big dope like his father. Brian exposes Chris to culture and naturally Chris becomes more intelligent. He even joins Brian at a book club at some nameless coffee shop. It’s during this small scene though, where I managed to flex a bit of my intellectual muscle, because Chris introduces the book The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, and when Brian compares it to Portnoy’s Complaint Chris realizes what every regular viewer of Family Guys knows at this point: Brian is a fraud and a moron.
If the reader has never read Portnoy’s Complaint, the novel is about a neurotic, sex-obsessed Jewish man dealing with his mother issues and complicated sex-life. The Shipping News is a novel about a man who moves to a small New England town after his wife leaves him and sells their daughters to a sex-pervert. If you don’t know either of the plots, or if you haven’t read the books you might almost buy Brian’s bullshit or else you might just laugh and pretend to be in on the joke and just wait for Peter to say something wacky.
But I start with this defense of Family Guy to really get into Proulx’s novel because this scene was enough to get me to sit down and read her book. I had heard of The Shipping News before this, I just didn’t have any real context. Having read Brokeback Mountain several times, and realizing that Proulx’s is probably one of the best proseists since Nabokov, I decided to buy a copy of the book. We had a copy at the library, but I needed to mark in the book and libraries tend to frown upon that. In fact, let me be clear as a library employee, most librarians would like to hire Seal Team Six to track people who mark in books down and destroy them. Just, so the reader knows next time they return a book with dog-eared pages.
The Shipping News hit me in a way I honestly didn’t expect. I recognized, like I said before, after reading Brokeback Mountain that the woman was a brilliant prose writer, but the novel was powerful in the fact that every page had at least some string of words that left me flat. Proulx doesn’t just write a narrative, she manages to craft a menagerie of beautiful yet simple sentences that will remind the reader what great writing is and what can be accomplished when it’s done right. Proulx, much like Vladimir Nabokov, Ray Bradbury or Alice Walker, manages to blend poetics with prose into a style that is never pedantic or self-congratulating. Instead it raises her human characters into something akin to a Byzantine mosaic.
If it isn’t obvious I really, really enjoy her writing. But evidence speaks louder than words, and so looking at just one early passage in which she observes Quoyle (the protagonist) and his character one can see how she is setting up her novel and style:
He abstracted his life from the times. He believed he was a newspaper reporter, yet read no paper except the Mockingburg Record, and so managed to ignore terrorism, climatological change, collapsing governments, chemical spills, plagues, recession and failing banks, floating debris, the disintegrating ozone layer. Volcanoes, earthquakes and hurricanes, religious frauds, defective vehicles and scientific charlatans, mass murderers and serial killers, tidal waves of cancer, AIDS, deforestation and exploding aircraft were as remote to him as braid catches, canions and rosette-embroidered garters. Scientific
journals spewed reports or mutant viruses, of machines pumping life through the near-dead, of the discovery that the galaxies were streaming apocalyptically toward an invisible Great Attractor like flies into a vacuum cleaner nozzle. That was the stuff of other’s lives. He was waiting for his to begin. (11).
This opening description of Quoyle always reminds me of Camus or Dostoyevsky and I use those comparisons carefully. Quoyle as a man is almost the existential anti-hero similar to those masters because, as Proulx carefully lists the great tragedies and struggles facing mankind, Quoyle seems entirely above or below it and so is oblivious to concerns of most of the common humanity. He is almost Raskalnikov creating his own morality; he is almost Meursault oblivious as to whether his mother died today or yesterday. What separates these existential champions from Quoyle though is the fact that, in his own way, Quoyle is simply a pathetic man drifting through life. I would argue he might be what’s sometimes referred to as a Paragon, but the problem with that word is that it implies a strength of character that really doesn’t exist in Quoyle until the end of the novel. He’s hardly a man of great integrity or supreme passion, or even of destiny and this is seen especially as he falls for his wife Petal.
Petal is a bitch. I’m just being honest. Quoyle’s opening act involves falling for Petal, who is a loose woman who marries him despite her own nature, and then proceeds to make the next six years of his life a living hell. In another early passage the reader is given a chance to observe how their relationship operates, and further sees how Quoyle is hardly a man of great passion:
One night he worked a crossword puzzle in bed, heard Petal come in, heard the gutter of voices. Freezer door opened and closed, clink of the vodka bottle, sound the television and, after a while, squeaking, squeaking, squeaking of the hide-a-bed in the living room and the stranger’s shout. The armor of indifference in which he protected his marriage was frail. Even after he heard the door close behind the man and a car drive away he did not get up but lay on his back, the newspaper rustling with each heave of his chest, tears running down into his ears. How could something done in another room by other people pain him so savagely? Man Dies of Broken Heart. His hand went to the can of peanuts on the floor beside the bed.
Quoyle believed in silent suffering, did not see that it goaded. (16).
The reader may be disturbed by this passage, because often in narratives the cheating spouse is interrupted upon. This is the stuff of melodramas and political thrillers, but Proulx is careful to keep Quoyle in the bedroom to bring out a certain point about Quoyle’s nature, and thus also the nature of certain portions of humanity. There are people in this world who prefer to quietly suffer and keep whatever pain is in their hearts. This may seem ridiculous to some, but as someone who suffers from undiagnosed depression this pain is all too real.
I recognize this is a hazardous comment but depression is in many ways a heightened form of narcissm. The mind becomes supremely focused on the ego, specifically how miserable it is and how disconnected it is to other people. I usually call my spells of depression my “raincloud” moments, because it reminds me of the old bits on the Loony Tunes when a character would walk around chased by a small raincloud that would pour down only upon them. That’s just the way it feels. And most of the time, despite the fact that I have friends who would listen to me and offer their emotional support, I keep my sadness (and suicidal thoughts) to myself because, like Quoyle, I would prefer to suffer in silence. That pain, I assure my reader, is unbearable, but what’s truly pernicious about it is that I know a solution is possible, I just haven’t decided do anything about it.
My own condition is probably why I loved The Shipping News so much, and why I feel it’s painfully relevant. Beneath everything that happens in the plot, the novel is an exploration of love and pain, and how those two are eventually reconciled. Quoyle marries Petal who cheats on him regularly before eventually running away with a man and literally selling their two daughters to a stranger who is caught before he can rape them. Petal dies in a car crash with her lover, and Quoyle, who observes all of this in a kind of daze, eventually moves in with his aunt in Newfoundland where he takes up a job as reporter writing “The Shipping News.” This involves writing about ships, and Proulx is effective in creating the atmosphere of New England, while showing how the people of this region depend upon such structures.
In one passage one of Quoyle’s fellow reporters tells him about the shipping tradition:
“Truth be told,” said Billy, “there was many, many people here depended on shipwrecks to improve their lots. Save what lives they could and then strip the vessel bare. Seize the luxuries, butter, cheese, china plates, silver coffeepots and fine chests of drawers. There’s many houses here still has treasures that come off wracked ships. And the pirates always come up from the Caribbean water to
Newfoundland for their crews. A place of natural pirates and wrackers.” (172).
At first glance I see the reader’s reaction, what does this have to do with depression, heart-ache, and pain in general? This just seems a small local history lesson. At first I would agree with my reader, but looking at this quote in relation to everything that happens I believe this quote actually furthers the idea self-obsession and pain that works throughout The Shipping News, because this quote reveals a human need for self-preservation. The “wrackers” mirror Petal and Quoyle because both people ultimately pursue their own self-interest.
People take what they need, oblivious to the long-lasting pain it will cause other people because they are concerned with their own interests, desires, and needs. Proulx is continuing this idea that human beings are selfish, and that selfishness blinds us to pain that we might be causing others
One more quote should demonstrate this and then I will address my reader’s complaint. Quoyle is talking with a few of the men who work with him in the newspaper office and they are discussing their boss:
“Have you ever noticed Jack’s uncanny use about assignments? He gives you a beat that plays on your private inner fears. Look at you. Your wife was killed in an auto accident. What does Jack ask you to cover? Car wrecks, to get pictures while the upholstery is still on fire and the blood still hot. He gives Billy, who has never married or reasons unknown, the home news, the women’s interest page, the details of the home and hearth—must be exquisitely painful to the old man. And me. I get to cover the wretched sexual assaults. And with each one I relive my own childhood. I was assaulted at school for three years, first by a miserable geometry teacher, the by older boys who were his cronies. To this day I cannot sleep without wrapping up like a mummy in five or six blankets. And what I don’t know is if Jack understands what he’s doing, if the pain is supposed to ease and dull through repetitive confrontation, or if it just persists, as fresh as on the day of the first personal event. I’d say it persists.”
It dulls it, the pain, I mean. It dulls it because you see your condition is not unique, that other people suffer as you suffer. There must be some kind of truth in the old saying, misery loves company. That it’s easier to die if others around you are dying.” (221).
Hopefully my reader has recognized at this point, the social relevance of The Shipping News, but I still understand their reaction. This book sounds like one long depressing read about a mopish guy who is surrounded by other mopish people. Why should I waste my time reading a book that has no hope to it? Where’s the value in such a novel?
This would be a fair concern dear reader, if it was true. In fact The Shipping News has a happy ending as Quoyle begins to realize he has a real ability at writing the events of the day, and also begins to date a woman who helps him internalize his own sense of self-worth. And in fact the final passage of the novel ends with an observation of this dramatic change:
For if Jack Buggit could escape from the pickle jar, if a bird with a broken neck could fly away, what else might be possible? Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat’s blood, mountaintops give off the cold fire, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string. And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery. (336-7).
Hopefully my reader has recognized at this point the real artistic power of The Shipping News, and why Annie Proulx has accomplished something simply incredible. It’s not enough that the novel explores the complicated nature of love and pain and how these two forces tend to intertwine like strands of rope knots. There are men and women like Quoyle that navigate these forces passively, allowing the pain to internalize into something corrosive rather than actively trying to make something of themselves. Quoyle eventually overcomes this passivity and finds a real purpose in life, allowing the pain and tragedy of his past to become just that, the past. And so looking at the larger social relevance, The Shipping News is a beautiful reminder than human life is what you make it.
My depression is something that isn’t going away, but rather than let it define me I actively try to make something out of my existence. This shitty blog is a start. I also listen to Slipknot and Korn. I write fiction that no one reads. I spend time with my family. I work in a library. And, with no ego here, I’m a damn good cook.
The impulse to allow pain to dominate your life and consciousness is a strong one, and I know this from experience. It’s easy to crawl into your head and allow your pain to become the defining attribute of your existence. But that path is ultimately just narcissism and eventual death. Quoyle escapes this and finds a new purpose for living.
Writing about sinking ships may not seem like the way to build your life back, but it’s better than sitting bed devouring peanuts and feeling sorry for yourself.
All quotes taken from The Shipping News came from the Scribner paperback edition.
I didn’t really get a chance to incorporate this quote into the text, but it still felt important to provide it here in relation to this essay:
Benny Fridge sat with his hands folded slightly on his clean desk as though at an arithmetic lesson. His puffed hair made Quoyle think of Eraserhead. (286).
My regular reader, or any David Lynch fan, will understand this reference, and while I love its inclusion in the text, I’m a little bothered by it. Quoyle doesn’t seem like the type who would actually sit down and watch a film like Eraserhead, but at the same time I might be wrong. Quoyle and Henry Spicer are both lethargic men who are largely floating through life passively receiving their existence and agony rather than actively fighting it and making something of themselves.
So. Upon reflection, I think this reference actually works, but only if you’ve actually seen Eraserhead and realized that in Heaven everything is fine. You’ve got yours, and I’ve got mine.
Below are two articles from the guardian about Proulx’s novel as well as the film about the novel starring Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey
"D'Artagnan Motherfucker!", "I like the way you die boy", Academic Book, Alexander Dumas, Broomhilda, Calvin Candie, Candy Land, D'Artagnan, dehumanization, Django Unchained, Dr. King Schultz, Fairy Tale, Film, film review, German Legend, Henry Louis Gates Jr, Historical Accuracy, history, Human Body, humanity, Humor, Jaimee Fox, Jane Tompkins, John Wayne, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mandingo Fighting, myth, mythology, N-Word, Nigger, Politics, Quentin Tarantino, race, Race relations, racial slurs, racism, Revenge Story, Satire, Siegfried, slavery, The Gaurdian, West of Everything-The Inner Life of Westerns, Westerns
I’m pretty sure John Wayne would hate Django Unchained, but only because Jaimee Fox looks fine-as-hell in those glasses. John Wayne could rock jeans and a bandanna…and that’s pretty much it. Sorry John.
The first image or memory I have of Django Unchained was seeing it opening day, which was Christmas. Apart from the snowstorm that damn near killed me as I drove home in my piss-for-shit 95 Ford Truck that had no heater at the time, I distinctly remember being the only person in the theater, apart from a family of African Americans to my right, who were laughing. I just remember that family laughing because most of the rest of the theater were white people who gave me nasty looks as I was walked out of the theater. I just couldn’t help it. There’s something about watching a group of white men complain about not being able to see through their hoods that’s just pathetic and hilarious.
And because I’m feeling indulgent, why not just quote the scene directly. Big Daddy a plantation owner, and part-time Colonel Sanders impersonator, has tracked Django and Dr. King Schultz with a posse of men to lynch the pair of them. Before they ride in to attack them they plan their attack and the conversation eventually takes place:
Big Daddy: [instructing raiding party] Now unless they start shooting first, nobody shoot ’em. That’s way too simple for these jokers. We’re gonna whoop that nigger lover to death! And I am personally gonna strip and clip that gaboon myself!
[puts on bag]
Big Daddy: Damn! I can’t see fuckin’ shit outta this thing.
Unnamed Baghead: We ready or what?
Big Daddy: Naw, hold on, I’m fuckin’ with my eye holes.
Big Daddy: Oh. Oh, shit.
[takes off bag]
Big Daddy: Ah, I just made it worse.
Unnamed Baghead: Who made this goddamn shit?
Other Unnamed Baghead: Willard’s wife.
Willard: Well, make your own goddamn mask!
Big Daddy: Look. Nobody’s sayin’ they don’t appreciate what Jenny did.
Unnamed Baghead: Well, if all I had to do was cut a hole in a bag, I coulda cut it better than this!
Other Unnamed Baghead: What about you, Robert? Can you see?
Robert: Not too good. I mean, if I don’t move my head I can see you pretty good, more or less. But when I start ridin’, the bag’s movin’ all over, and I – I’m ridin’ blind.
Bag Head #2: [rips bag] Shit. I just made mine worse. Anybody bring any extra bags?
Unnamed Baghead: No! Nobody brought an extra bag!
Unnamed Baghead: [raiding party is discussing their bags] Do we have to wear ’em when we ride?
Big Daddy: Oh, well shitfire! If you don’t wear ’em as you ride up, that just defeats the purpose!
Unnamed Baghead: Well, I can’t see in this fuckin’ thing! [takes bag off] I can’t breathe in this fuckin’ thing, and I can’t ride in this fuckin’ thing!
Willard: Well fuck all y’all! I’m going home! You know, I watched my wife work all day gettin’ thirty bags together for you ungrateful sons of bitches! And all I can hear is criticize, criticize, criticize! From now on, don’t ask me or mine for nothin’!
Big Daddy: Now look. Let’s not forget why we’re here. We gotta kill a nigger over that hill there! And we gotta make a lesson out of him!
Bag Head #2: Okay, I’m confused. Are the bags on or off?
Robert: I think… we all think the bag was a nice idea. But – not pointin’ any fingers – they coulda been done better. So, how ’bout, no bags this time – but next time, we do the bags right, and then we go full regalia.
Big Daddy: Wait a minute! I didn’t say ‘no bags’!
Bag Head #2: But nobody can see.
Big Daddy: So?
Bag Head #2: So, it’d be nice to see.
Big Daddy: Goddammit! This is a raid! I can’t see! You can’t see! So what? All that matters is can the fuckin’ horse see? That’s a raid!
These scene in particular drew the most laughs, and thinking on it later I wondered why the only people laughing was that family of black people and myself. But reflecting on it I suppose I understand. There’s a lot of dialogue which surrounds the film Django Unchained and a lot of it has to do with history.
If the reader has never seen Django Unchained it’s a film about a former slave who is rescued by a mysterious German dentists named Dr. King Schultz who is in fact not a dentist but a bounty hunter. Schultz saves Django because the man used to work on a plantation where three of his bounties used to work as well. The pair of them track the men down, kill them, escape the afore quoted inept posse, and during a conversation they decide to save Django’s wife who’s been sold, as they discover, to one of the largest plantation owners in Mississippi Calvin Candy. The two men draft an elaborate plan to rescue her, which ultimately fails, and costs Schultz his life. Escaping chains once again Django fights through and slaughters everyone in his path and finally saves his wife from Candyland.
When the film was released Quentin Tarantino suffered all manner of bad press for the free and prolific use of the word nigger in the film. Spike Lee made his usual appearance on the “Fuck Tarantino” program, and people on Facebook got into really nasty arguments about who’s allowed to use the word “nigger” and when and in what context and then someone said “reverse racism” and everybody who liked their brain left the room before that bullshit polluted their frontal lobes. And when the issue of Slavery and historical accuracy was thrown down, I like most people tuned out. Not because there wasn’t an argument to be made, but because I had already assured myself that this interpretation was the best reason to enjoy the film. I enjoy Tarantino movies period and will regularly defend the man’s work. But since I’ve seen the film around ten times since it came out I’ve realized more and more than this argument can only go so far. Tarantino movies tend to be hyperbolic in terms of violence and persona and sometimes plot structure, and within the film there is another, and I’d argue far more interesting, analysis that few people really discussed.
Django Unchained is a fairy tale about racism.
After Django and Schultz have defeated the Brittle Brothers and Big Daddy’s posse, the two men are having coffee and beans in a rocky valley, and while they talk Django mentions his wife Broomhilda and Schultz tells him the story of Siegfried:
Dr. King Schultz: Well, Broomhilda was a princess. She was a daughter of Wotan, god of all gods. Anyways, Her father is really mad at her.
Django: What she do?
Dr. King Schultz: I can’t exactly remember. She disobeys him in some way. So he puts her on top of the mountain.
Django: Broomhilda’s on a mountain?
Dr. King Schultz: It’s a German legend, there’s always going to be a mountain in there somewhere. And he puts a fire-breathing dragon there to guard the mountain. And he surrounds her in a circle of hellfire. And there, Broomhilda shall remain. Unless a hero arises brave enough to save her.
Django: Does a fella arise?
Dr. King Schultz: Yes, Django, as a matter of fact, he does. A fella named Siegfried.
Django: Does Siegfried save her?
Dr. King Schultz: [Nods] Quiet spectacularly so. He scales the mountain, because he’s not afraid of it. He slays the dragon, because he’s not afraid of him. And he walks through hellfire… because Broomhilda’s worth it.
Django: I know how he feel.
Watching the movie for the first time I failed to see how Tarantino was using this scene. I simply chocked it up to the man’s recent fascination with Christoph Waltz. Inglorious Basterds for me was a bit of a let-down the first time I watched it, but that was only because I was a Tarantino Junkie and had heard his original idea for the film. In place of a quad of black commandoes fighting across Europe I got a two-and-a-half-hour dialogue piece complete with film and lots of subtitles. Still, the redeeming element of the film was Waltz and his performance of Hans Landa. When Waltz returned in Django, it was just a continuation of the German aesthetic.
But like I said before there’s more to this passage because it ultimately reveals the creative goal of Django Unchained, which is to create an American fairy tale about slavery.
I think it’s a mistake to make the argument that Django is “historically accurate” as a film. There are numerous elements which satisfy historical reality (such as the headwear slaves were sometimes manacled with and bullshit eugenist views which I’ll talk about later), however people in the past typically didn’t bleed explosive corn syrup. The regular splash and sploosh of blood erupting in geyser like quality is Tarantino’s usual hyperbolic cinematic style and reveals his love of B-movies. But the main reason I reject this argument as the sole interpretation or defense of the film is that it limits the plot by history which often can be anti-climactic to narrative structure.
The reason Django becomes the character he does is because Tarantino is making
a Western, and as I’ve explored that genre before in numerous other essays, it’s important to understand how Westerns operate. I’ve said it once before, several times, but Jane Tompkin’s book West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns is a wonderful book because it lays out the skeleton of the Western genre, how it operates, who established it, why it continues to appeal to audiences, and finally what is the creative goal of it.
In an early passage she explains the general outline of the western:
First of all, in Westerns (which are generally written by men), the main character is always a full-grown adult male, and either outdoors—on the prairie, on the main street—or in public places—the saloon, the sheriff’s office, the barber shop, the livery stable. The action concerns physical struggles between the hero and a rival or rivals, and culminates in a fight to the death with guns. In the course of these struggles the hero frequently forms a bond with another man—sometimes his rival, more often a comrade—a bond that is more important than any relationship he has with a woman and is frequently tinged with homoeroticism. There is very little free expression of the emotions. The hero is a man of few words who expresses himself through physical action—usually fighting. And when death occurs it is never at home in bed but always sudden death, usually murder. (38-9).
Now I can anticipate the reader’s reaction immediately: Django doesn’t exhibit any of these last qualities. In fact he doesn’t even die. This is a fair point, however if you observe the quote in it’s entirety you’ll see that Tarantino’s movie matches this skeleton because ultimately Django is a physical creature who isn’t defined by his introspection. Django Unchained seems to break this structure because he’s principally motivated to save his wife Broomhilda, however Tompkins notes that women typically receive this treatment in westerns when she notes:
Westerns either push women out of the picture completely or assign them roles in which they exist only to serve the needs of men (39-40).
Broomhilda never really manifests much of a personal character other than the fact that she’s Django’s wife. And while this certainly means Django Unchained fails the Bechdel test, it simply follows that it is in fact a Western. Django fights through the power structure and bodies of Candy Land in order to save his wife, literally spraying the white walls red with blood, until he’s overpowered and sent back, temporarily, into slavery. All this death only further Tompkins arguments about westerns:
For the Western is secular, materialist, and anti-feminist; it focuses on conflict in the public space, is obsessed by death, and worships the phallus. Notably, this kind of explanation does not try to account for the most salient fact about the Western—that it is a narrative of male violence—for, having been formed by the Western, that is what such explanations already take for granted (28).
But that just leads me back to my original argument.
Tarantino movie is remaking the genre of the western by blending it with the fairy-tale, myth, of Siegfried. Fairy-tales, much like myth, are stories that are purposefully hyperbolic in order to explain phenomena in the world. Zeus and Thor are non-scientific means explain lightning, and likewise the story of Siegfried is designed to explain the absurd state of being in love. One of the best examples of the fairy-tale is George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm which, when it first published, had the subtitle of “A Modern Fairy Tale.” In Animal Farm Orwell was using the structure of the fairy tale to tell a modern story about the terrors of Stalinism, but also of political corruption in general.
In Django Unchained, the fairy tale is exploring the history of violence and race, but instead of simply reminding the viewer about the travesties of slavery, the story is told so that instead of remaining victims of oppression black people overcome the violence by becoming the hero of a traditionally white genre.
Django becomes a mythic, or fairy-tale hero, charging into the fire that is the Candy Land plantation, pretending to be a black slaver, watching a slave named D’Artagnan being ripped apart my dogs, listening to Calvin Candie’s long lecture about the mental feebleness of blacks, killing dozens of field hands in Candy Land being captured, killing his captors, and returning to kill every last living member of Candy Land before blowing it up. While all of this is the usually Tarantinoesque hyperbole it follows point-by-point the struggles of Siegfried’s struggle.
The Dragon may be a slave owner with bad teeth who believes in eugenics and drinks rum from a coconut, but the hero faces it nonetheless because, as Dr. King Schultz noted before, Broomhilda’s worth it.
And then just a final note about one crucial element of the film. Consistently in Django Unchained, there are shots of white surfaces being sprayed with blood. First it’s the cotton of Big Daddy’s farm being sprayed with Ellis Brittle’s blood, Big Daddy’s white horse being sprayed with blood, and finally the white walls of Candy Lands interior being sprayed with blood of the various field hands who die trying to kill Django. As before I’ve heard arguments about how this is historic symbolism for how “white power” was “stained” by the blood of Africa Americans. I like this argument, and I stand by the idea that in the humanities you can make any argument you want as long as you support it with evidence. However, as I’ve noted before, Django Unchained is not historically accurate the way 12 Years a Slave was. The Tarantino factor has to be accounted for.
There is certainly a gratuitous element to it, but I’d argue that this constant staining imagery is just another way of building the “fairy-tale.” Often myths and fairy-tales pay attention to the body, blood, organs, etc. And so blood being such a precious fluid that it is, it’s being used to demonstrate what the hero is willing to perform and sacrifice in order to get back to his wife.
I didn’t get a chance to use it in the review, but this small exchange between Dr. King Schultz and Calvin Candie remains one of my favorite dialogue pieces simply because it made me realize a fact about an author I’ve loved all my life and never knew:
Calvin Candie: White cake?
Dr. King Schultz: I don’t go in for sweets, thank you.
Calvin Candie: Are you brooding ’bout me getting the best of ya, huh?
Dr. King Schultz: Actually, I was thinking of that poor devil you fed to the dogs today, D’Artagnan. And I was wondering what Dumas would make of all this.
Calvin Candie: Come again?
Dr. King Schultz: Alexander Dumas. He wrote “The Three Musketeers.” I figured you must be an admirer. You named your slave after his novel’s lead character. If Alexander Dumas had been there today, I wonder what he would have made of it?
Calvin Candie: You doubt he’d approve?
Dr. King Schultz: Yes. His approval would be a dubious proposition at best.
Calvin Candie: Soft hearted Frenchy?
Dr. King Schultz: Alexander Dumas is black.
Maybe it’s indulgent on my part, or cathartic, but there’s something about watching Django burst into the house of the slave catcher’s shouting “D’Artagnan, motherfuckers!” And shooting them all.
Although I’ll also note there’s just something about watching a former slave whip the field hands that made him watch as they whipped his wife with their own whip before shooting them that is just…well it’s just fun to watch.
While I was polishing this essay I found a review from The Gaurdian of the film. Enjoy:
Finally I just wanted to leave the reader with some extra material. Here’s an interview with noted African American studies scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr and Quentin Tarantino shortly after Django Unchained was released. Enjoy: