Thursday, April 12, 2007

So It Goes

Kurt Vonnegut has died, I read.

Like many who write in the blogosphere, I went through a period when I read a lot of Vonnegut. About the same time I was reading Tom Robbins and such, late college and through my Peace Corps years. (We passed a lot of books around.)

I remember especially reading Welcome to the Monkey House, a collection of short stories, and especially the short story "Welcome to the Monkey House." Basically, the story takes place in a period when overpopulation is widely recognized as deeply problematic, and the problem is approached from two angles: first, people are encouraged to commit suicide in special places, where their suicides are managed by a sort of super woman type (highly sexualized clothing, etc, but also supposed to be virginal, if I recall; a certain version of straight male fantasy land, for sure). Second, everyone takes pills to basically prevent sexual feeling by making them physically numb. (The title has to do with a guy who saw a monkey masturbating at a zoo, and decided that this sight was inappropriate for children, so figured out how to make monkeys numb. And then the numbness drug gets used on humans to reduce human sexual behavior.)

There are, of course, rebels, and one of the lead rebels disguises himself as an old man who wants to commit suicide, and kidnaps one of the women who assists suicides. The rebels hold her until the numbness medication wears off, start her on birth control, and then rape her. The idea is that they'll teach her to enjoy sex and prevent pregnancy with the pill. And, this being literature, it works. She joins the rebels, stays on the pill, looks forward to lots of sex, and the story ends.

I remember being disturbed by the story, even in my relative innocence, and without any feminist critical apparatus for talking about texts. I was torn: overpopulation is a serious problem, and so is denial of sexuality. But the thought that one might "solve" denial of sexuality through rape, well, no.

The conservative movement to "teach abstinence" isn't at all about overpopulation; these are the same folks who encourage married white women to breed like rabbits and who try to make choice in matters of abortion and birth control illegal. There's an interest in controlling sexuality, but the conservatives (especially, but not solely males) really don't want anyone controlling or limiting their sexual practices.

The sexualization of the suicide assisting women was disturbing, but also rings true to the ways our society has continued to develop; where men have power and want to be served, they get what they want. We have restaurant chains dedicated to the idea, a sort of slow suicide by bad food.

But the rape, as I recollect it, seems to feed male fantasy about controlling female sexuality, about hurting women to "help" us, and I'm still disturbed by that.

I guess what I'd like to say on Vonnegut's passing is a thank you for being thought provoking, for making me begin to think about the ways rape and women are represented.

Thank you for caring about overpopulation enough to work out ways to address the problem and test them out in literature. Thank you for testing out lots of ideas in literature, and getting people to think about things.

Thank you for this: *

I'm hesitant to go back and read some of the books I found challenging and exciting in my late teens and early 20s because I know I'll be far more irritated at the sexism. Sexism from people who've been alive within my lifetime irks me far more than sexism from Shakespeare. I think I'd be all the more irritated because those books seemed to herald change in some ways, but not in terms of gender hierarchies.

So, goodbye Kurt Vonnegut. Listen.


  1. I haven't read Welcome to the Monkey House in many years, but the theme that I recall about that story (and other stories in that collection) was the rebellion against forced values and regimentation of society. Truth and individuality are necessary.

  2. Yeah. I know I see sexism (though not normally that explicit) all over lit and music in the decades leading up to this one, and I still let them off the hook as not really knowing any better.


  3. You know, it's kind of similar to the way I felt about Heinlein. I was all over his books when I was a kid through my late teens/early 20's (I think I was 10 when I read "Starship Troopers"), but now they strike me as disturbingly sexist and well, often politically disturbing too (and he does such weird things with sex in some of them!).

  4. Christine, I agree, those are good things!

    Lydia, I get pretty nasty about early modern sexism, especially when modern culture reflects the same sad values.

    MWAK, OMG, Heinlein! I read one of his books because a guy told me it had great female characters, and I remember thinking that the female character was just a male character with an anatomical anomoly convenient to straight men. I should have figured out about the guy from his suggestion, eh? (I did learn, just a bit slowly.)