Tuesday, August 19, 2014

reading Russ: "The Wise Man" (1955) and "Martyr" (1957)

reading Russ table of contents

The young Joanna Russ, it seems, felt Wagnerian certainties to be a force she needed to counter; and the second of her three Cornell Writer stories, "The Wise Man" (November 1955, later appearing in revised form in the October 1970 Cimarron Review, never collected or anthologized) begins much in the way that "Innocence" did before it — with some playful fiction-calling-attention-to-itself surrounding an invocation of the name Siegfried:

All characters are purely coincidental, and to prove it, her name was not Sigrid or Ingrid or even Siegfried, but very simply Jennifer (abominable, lacy name!) — Jennifer Valerian in Chicago, but that was not her real last name.
(I am quoting from the significantly cleaned-up Cimarron version.)

That "Innocence" was science fiction where "The Wise Man" is not is in part signaled, I think, by the fact that in the earlier story the character's name was not Siegfried but could remain "something like that," while here the non-Siegfried in question must have her name, or at least her first name, reduced to an abominable, lacy mundanity. Indeed both "The Wise Man" and the last of the early stories, "Martyr" (in the April 1957 Cornell Writer and, as far as I can tell, never reprinted in any form, anywhere) are much more what I expected from the teenage, Cornell-going Russ than was the surprising "Innocence": awkward attempts at entirely ordinary stories that earn the tendentious term some in sf circles use, "mundane fiction." Despite the unusual opening of "The Wise Man" (and the story settles down considerably as soon as that unsettled sentence has passed), these stories are pretty much exactly what you'd expect of a young white Jewish American woman writer in the latter half of the 1950s, beginning to chafe against most of those adjectives, the noun, and the time, but as yet knowing no alternative and so throwing herself into a received understanding of all of them.

"The Wise Man" is, in most technical terms, the "better" of the two stories, but for me is marginally the less interesting; it attempts to be a witty tale of a masculine-leaning "college girl" from a working-class ethnic-white background in frustrating but mutual love with an un-self-consciously effeminate college boy ("I keep telling him You have an Oedipus complex and he keeps saying So what" — rather startling and not particularly believable in 1955) but, though there are flashes of Russ's later wit and many precursors to the particular tics and techniques she would use to great effect later on (the parenthetical commentary in the opening sentence, the unpunctuated dialogue-in-dialogue of the sentence I just quoted), the story mostly succumbs to a kind of undifferentiated quirkiness, and at any rate is so firmly beholden to a form (the standardized American short story form, already well-established, about to be endorsed, promoted, and ossified by the CIA through the academic creative writing programs it would soon begin fostering) in which any given work can only distinguish itself by technical virtuosity — the skill with which the form is filled in — that this story, written by a woman who has not yet developed anything approaching viruosity, is ultimately forgettable even in its own terms.*

* "Innocence," though better-written by my lights, is also far from virtuosic, but both in its science-fictionality and in its own specific terms it does not need to be.

Perhaps a feminist scholar with a focus on this particular time, place, and milieu would be interested in the story. Certainly, a biographer looking for evidence of the young Russ's psychosexual development or sociopolitical awareness levels or whatever would find many passages ripe for underlining, but ultimately they reveal nothing Russ doesn't tell us herself in any number of essays (and in much of the later fiction). One point of minor interest for me is that, given the timing of the story's second appearance in 1970, it seems likely that Russ would have been doing the necessary revisions (substantial but not transformative) for that publication very shortly before beginning work on "When It Changed" and The Female Man; with this in mind, it is tempting to wonder if she came across her by then fifteen-year-old sentence, "She had often thought how pleasant the world would be if it consisted entirely of her and men," and felt the need to...revise it. But this is merely a curiosity. Even if we could say with certainty that yes, this is one of the roots of Whileaway,* I don't think it has much power to shed any light on the works set there that they don't already shed on themselves.

*And it could only be one of many, especially given the prevalence of women-only societies imagined in men's sf. Russ's own "Amor Vincit Foeminam: The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction" is the classic survey of such stories.

"Martyr" would no doubt possess similar mild scholarly or biographical interest to the right researcher. Its attempt to portray a woman stifled is palpably important to its writer, but as with "The Wise Man" it, and its main character, end up lapsing more into mere quirkiness. Part of the problem, I think, is that Russ has yet to figure out just what is being stifled. Of course this is itself a symptom of the problem she's trying to get at, but where "Innocence" and the soon-to-come "Nor Custom Stale" (not to mention much of her life's work!) would address themselves directly to these kinds of foundational difficulties (How is one to understand a problem from inside of it? How can one portray what was never allowed to exist? What am I doing, writing?), "Martyr" just as much as "The Wise Man" is so devoted to the merely-given form of the American short story as Russ found it in the 1950s that all she can do is try to "straightforwardly portray" even though she has no way of knowing what to portray.

But that she seems to come close to understanding these problems is what makes "Martyr" ever so slightly the more interesting of the two to me. Throughout the story, the viewpoint character Judith (another of Russ's many J-named woman protagonists) thinks about "the novel she was going to write," which sounds like a kind of Gothic, Gormenghastian kind of thing (he said, never having read Gormenghast), about "beautiful people" who "lived in a house on a marsh, lived there eternally and could never come out of that prison," people who, variously, have visions, live in the tower, have "eyes that could catch on fire" and suffer beautifully in their sexy-sensitive-youth sweaters, and so forth. "They were all trying to get out and they never would," we're told, in a line that would be far too on-the-nose, too much an amateurish attempt at self-awareness — in this story of a woman trapped by marriage, by academic "friends" and community, by being a woman in a world belonging to men — were it not for the fact that Judith does not know how to write her novel.

Did Russ realize this yet? Judith's unwritten novel, about a group of people trapped in a shared situation but each suffering individually, mirrors her own (naïve) sense of herself as individually different, individually stifled, underneath it all individually superior (particularly superior to other women, at whom she frequently lashes out in her mind) — a sense common to many women in many times who have understood that they live in a society that seeks to rob them of their life but who have been denied the resources and perspective to see that they are not the only one so dispossessed — sort of the women's counterpart to the Angry Young Man.

Is Judith's inability to write at all a sign of what's been suppressed in her, or is her inability to write that novel a sign that what has been suppressed is beginning to come to light? Or is it both? Is not-writing the antithesis of writing, or are they more closely linked than that? Is the absence of writing in itself a kind of writing (or vice versa)? In Russ herself we can see the act, even the fact of writing to be inextricable from these questions (even when, much later, she will come quite firmly to answer some of them), which indeed will contour the remarkable story of stasis and entropy that is soon to come. "Martyr" is ultimately not a particularly good story, nor a particularly interesting one. But that such questions can even be asked of it is, perhaps, a sign that the writer of "Nor Custom Stale" — the writer we know as Joanna Russ — is about to come into being.

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