Monday, July 7, 2014

reading Russ: "Innocence" (1955)

reading Russ table of contents

Though I can’t quite place where, I'm almost certain that I’ve seen not only people writing about Joanna Russ but Russ herself as well say that it didn’t occur to her, early on, that she could write science fiction — that she had always read it, but that it wasn’t until 1959’s "Nor Custom Stale" that she realized she could do it herself.* I know I’ve seen people, and I would have sworn her, saying that writing science fiction at Cornell seemed impossible. So imagine my surprise when I first read "Innocence" and discovered that her first published prose work — appearing originally in The Cornell Writer of May 1955 — is nothing if not science fiction. So much so, in fact, that it was republished in almost identical form** twenty years later in the February 1975 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

*That she was only twenty-two in 1959 should have suggested to me that this lateness is exaggerated at best, but somehow it didn’t.
**The later version has some minor changes in punctuation, one or two of which create mildly interesting changes in effect but most of which are insignificant; two definite articles are added where their previous absence was slightly awkward; and two sentences toward the end are excised, in what I suspect was an editorial decision whose sole purpose was to make it fit on the page; the story is better with these sentences but their loss does not make any large impact.

Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that the story could be reprinted twenty years later at all. February 1975 was the same month that The Female Man appeared; one assumes that the completion of We Who Are About To… had to have been somewhere around this same time. This was the period I might hesitantly call her "peak" — only in the sense that by then she had figured out what she needed to do in her writing, and illness and time constraints had not yet slowed that writing to a trickle (or stopped it entirely, as they eventually would). But had I not known that “Innocence” was where she started, had I just come across it in F&SF, I would have had no trouble believing that it belonged to this period. Which is not to say that it’s some lost (or at least never collected) masterpiece; it’s a quick, lightweight piece (this post is about four times its length), almost like a joke, though it does have a seriousness to it; it's very good, but minor. What surprises is that it has none of the awkwardness that permeates the poetry and the other two Cornell-years stories (which I will be covering in another post, if at all), and to my eyes at least none of the writing-to-received-notions-of-acceptability that destroys those two other stories; meanwhile, many of the concerns that the later Russ would devote much of her life to are already present here.

I must be the last one in the world, because nobody else understands. Siegfried, for instance — well, his name was something like that. He had learned nothing but facts from his cradle and that made him very proud. He was a big, fair man and he drove us from here to there among the stars.
Already in these opening lines of her first story the troubling of the authoritative status of the speaker — which I am accustomed to think of as a concern that grew over the course of Russ's writing life — is here, strong (as is the humor that for Russ always accompanies it: his name was "something like" Siegfried, indeed). The narrator never quite comes out and says what "nobody else understands," but it becomes clear that what is meant is storytelling: Siegfried, or whatever his name is, proud in his facts, listens to what for the narrator is "just a story for diversion," but cannot understand:
      "Did you get that out of a book?" I shook my head. "Then you must have been there."
      "No, of course not," I said.
      He came back again to hear more. Then he said "It must be in the past. I've never seen a place like that and I've been all over the galaxy, you know."
And so forth. And here we begin to see, intimately tied to the foregrounding of the act of telling, another of Russ's characteristic concerns, albeit less explicit here: the pedantic literalism, and obsesssion with a certain narrow kind of expertise, of men. The narrator's gender is never specified, and while the introductory blurb that accompanies the F&SF version casually refers to "a story-teller of the future and his audience," the difference in status between the two is so clear, and for me at least so clearly tied up with a subtext of sexual power imbalance and potential violence ("He told me how innocent I was and how I ought not to be let out alone") that it is difficult for me not to read the narrator as a woman. The story hints at other reasons for the power imbalance, as in the sentence immediately following the description of Siegfried, prototypically Aryan, as "big and fair": "I was a passenger — that's all — and dark as a mole, but he was polite and made nothing of it." This suggests both a class difference between passengers and pilots*, and a privileging at some unspecified level of formality of certain types of appearance over others.** This alone, though, does not for me account for the type of tension in the story; and when by the end the narrator is referring to Siegfried as "the stupid hero" it seems clear to me what is going on here, even if it was not necessarily yet clear to Russ herself.

*A notion that would be immediately familiar to the average sf reader of the time, though maybe not to the average Cornell Writer reader — which is perhaps why the F&SF version replaces the dashes setting off "that's all" with subtler commas.
**If I understand the racial and gendered language of the white American 50s, "dark as a mole," especially in contrast to "big and fair," more likely indicates a white woman or
possibly white man with brown hair and eyes than any man or woman of color.

It is intriguing, too, both in this story considered on its own and in the context of Russ's later work, that these two issues, the concerns with telling and with male stomping-about, are tied up with yet a third: the denial of death. As soon as he hears about this (totally made-up) place the narrator describes, with "Grassy hills around central fountains where jets of water shine," with "yellow flames that they used for beauty, to look transparent against stone," a place which "still exists," though it is "very old," Siegfried is obsessed with literally, physically finding it. At first it seems merely to be the way that men's curiosity can turn quickly into the demand for conquest — and it is this — but late in the story he confesses another, closely related reason:

"You know," he said in a low voice, "I think I might not die there. See, that's how I feel. That's what you've done."
Where the narrator is content that things — real and imagined — simply be what they are (or are not), Siegfried demands they be given him on his own terms; where the narrator is clear about what stories are and do (though still irresponsible with them, as I will discuss in a moment), for Siegfried these issues are, and must remain, mystifed. Both of these are illusory forms of mastery over the world — and both are necessary to Siegfried's effort to distance himself from death. Later this false mastery, in these three aspects (storytelling, male domination, denial of death) and others, will be one of Russ's central concerns — most explicitly in We Who Are About To..., but in many other works as well.

It occurs to me that "Innocence" is in a way the inverse of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Quest of Iranon," one of his so-called "dream cycle" stories that reads, as many of them do, like a wordier, more sentimental version of a Kafka parable.* (Russ's story too, in addition to being sf, is clearly cast in the parable mold). In that story Iranon is a beautiful young man driven by vivid memories of the idyllic city Aira, which he is certain is his home, where he is a prince; in certain ways, though, his memory of Aira is vague, and he spends his life in search of it. His obsession with it, and his retention of its (uncomplicatedly sketched-in) poetic values in the face of the utilitarian values of the world he sees around him, keeps him young even as those around him age and die — until, eventually, he discovers that Aira never existed, that it was simply a story he made up when he was a child on the streets; realizing this, he becomes an old man and dies. Though "Iranon" has points of interest, and though at the time he wrote it Lovecraft seems to have viewed it as something of a breakthrough, he himself later recognized it, correctly, as being overly "mawkish".** The innocence of youth and the enchantment of story, though common themes in Lovecraft, are far more simplistic and idealized here than in most of his work; and though he is right to try to evoke a sense of loss in the face of adult (and modern) knowledge and disenchantment, the story is so certain of its values and so heavily rigged in their favor that it feels almost smug in its sentimentality. "Innocence", precisely by undoing this confidence in its own premises, seems almost a corrective to these problems.

*I am not an expert on Lovecraft's convoluted print history and have no idea if Russ could plausibly have known the story at this point, though we know definitively that later on at least she was interested in the dream cycle stories, and that she read some Lovecraft as a teenager. At any rate my interest is not in tracing influence per se so much as noting that even this early on her work is already in considerable sympathy with Lovecraft's — though, as would always be the case, pointing in quite a different direction.
**I take this information from S.T. Joshi's brief introduction to the story in its appearance in
The Complete Fiction. Whether "mawkish" is Lovecraft's word or Joshi's paraphrase is unclear.

The comparison with "Iranon" helps me to understand what Russ is getting at with her use of the word innocence, which at first I found bewildering. Not only is it the title of the story, not only does the narrator early on, as I have quoted before, tell us that Siegfried finds her (for convenience I will use the female pronouns) so innocent that she "ought not to be let out alone", but the concept of innocence returns at the very end of the story. After Siegfried tells the narrator that he thinks he "might not die" if he can live in the city she describes, and particularly in the face of the accusatory "That's what you've done" (which this next passage immediately follows), she finally realizes the seriousness of the issues at hand and tries to undo the damage by at last giving the true answer to Siegfried's repeated demands to know where this city is (brackets indicate portions not present in the F&SF version):

      [He looked so earnest and bewildered that I couldn't look anything but frightened.]
      "It isn't anywhere," I said. "I made it up out of my head, every bit of it. It doesn't even exist."
      [He turned very calm.]
      "You've forgotten," he said, "Because you're a fool, but I'm going to get a ship and travel around and back and forth until I find it. I'm no fool. I'm going to find it." Then he went steadily out of the room.
      He did that, too; the stupid hero is out there now, between Antares and Deneb or somewheres — nobody has any sense. I must be the last one because nobody but me understands. Innocents! The universe is full of them.
It is, I believe, to the innocence of Iranon and those like him that Russ refers: but unlike the Lovecraft story, Russ's understands that the belief that all things can be treated in rationalized, "factual" terms (which understanding in "Iranon" is precisely the loss of innocence) in the face of a universe that cannot be so constrained (as Blanchot has it, "putting a term on the interminable") is itself a mirror-reversed form of this innocence — which, "Iranon" and etymology notwithstanding, is painful, and which, far from meaning "not guilty" as the now-common sense of the word would have it, can all too easily coexist with guilt in the sense of moral culpability.

But the guilty innocence here does not belong solely to Siegfried. Though the narrator understands what story is, what telling is, she does not include this understanding in her story (the one she tells Siegfried, that is, not the one she is telling us) and thus shares in the culpability for the distortion of the world that such telling enables. She correctly ascribes innocence to Siegfried, the "stupid hero", but she is unable to recognize her own. When Siegfried, as quoted above, tells her that she is too innocent "to be let out alone," she is right to chafe against the paternalism, but the way in which she denies the charge is telling: "That's not fair," she tells us; "I'm just not interested, that's all." My first several times through the story I found this "not interested" perplexing; it is difficult to read it in any terms other than the sexual, though even then it's hard to know quite what to make of it. And I do still think that there is a heavily sexual element to this story, but conceptualizing it also as a sort of mirror image of "Iranon" allows me to understand "not interested" as a confession, though not a deliberate one, of the narrator's own guilt: that is to say, despite all the knowledge that should lead her to a sense of her responsibilities as a storyteller, she nevertheless somehow fails to understand them — and in her failure to understand, in her lack of interest, in her innocence, she abdicates these responsibilities (whether she has taken them up again by the time she tells us the story is another question; I'm not so sure I know the answer). The deeply-felt need not to so abdicate will be central to Russ's practice as a feminist and as a writer of fiction, and it is fascinating to see it present so strongly, in so multifaceted a fashion, in so small and so early a work.

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