Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Language of Time

As an undergraduate, I presented research at an EIU student research symposium about Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild”—the title story to her collection of shorts entitled Bloodchild and Other Stories. Although I primarily focused on how gender and power operates between the Terrans and Tlics, I decided to revisit the text in comparison to Kindred, which was something I had never read before.

In “Bloodchild,” Butler writes of a strange world where Terrans, which are similar to humans, co-exist on a planet with the Tlics, which are a species of insect-alien hybrid host horrors unable to reproduce with their own kind. Instead, the Tlics rely on the Terrans to pass on their offspring by feeding the hosts with Tlic eggs (which function as a sedative) before slipping an ovipositor under the skin and planting eggs in the Terran host’s stomach. When the eggs hatch, they begin to consume the host’s flesh, so it is the Tlic’s job to help the Terran “birth” the eggs and welcome the new creepy-crawlies onto the planet.

“Bloodchild” functions in a way that is similar to Kindredcomplications and complexities influenced by the generations of the past, present, and future. Because of the species’ co-dependence on each other, the Tlics and the Terrans must create a forced multi-generational connection between them. Terrans mark their coming-of-age with the host process, thus ending their childhood through (supposedly) abandoning the past and marking a continuation of the future.

But things just aren’t that simple. Throughout the text, the language creates an echo, where Terrans long for a time where their bodies are not used for the gain of another species or another group of people. The concerns of the past correspond with the agency of the present, yet the reproductive cycle between the two species must continue to secure the future.

Although written several years prior to “Bloodchild,” this concern with past, present, and future within Kindred is just as valid. Dana and Rufus’s relationship functions in ways that mirror the co-dependency of the Terrans and the Tlics. Despite being enslaved and abused by Rufus, Dana has to preserve his life as a way to protect her own. What is starkly different about the two texts, however, is the presentation of time.

In Grosz’s The Nick of Time, she contends that for Darwin, “life is essentially linked to the movement of time.”  Grosz argues, “In [Darwin’s] writings, being is transformed into becoming, essence into existence, and the past and the present are rendered provisional in the light of the force of the future. . . that time, along with life itself, always moves forward, generates more rather than less complexity, produces divergences rather than convergences, variations rather than resemblances” (7).

Darwin’s work sheds some understanding on how time functions in a biological sense. As a species, we are always moving forward—biology prevents the earth from devolving, which in turn, places the past in binary opposition with the future. What Butler seems to be saying in Kindred, however, disregards this notion of the linearity of time. The past and present are not “rendered provisional” in regard to the future, but rather carefully considered, as Dana must navigate the space between the past and present in relation to the future. Dana realizes that the danger she is in extends beyond her family and the language she uses in this reflective moment even models rhetoric of time. Butler writes, “The danger to my family was past, yes. But the danger to me personally… the danger to me personally still walked and talked and sometimes sat with Alice in her cabin in the evening as she nursed Hagar… I was not free” (234). Even though she is able to return to the present (future), her past (present), and the danger to her own physical past, influences how she reacts during the moments in which she fades back in time. When she discusses how she and Kevin are removed from the past and are simply “observers watching a show” (98), she realizes how important it is for her to act, because the past and present have the power to entirely sculpt the future—even beyond her and Kevin.

The conversation between Dana and the moments of time also extends to her relationship with Rufus. Butler writes: “I had thought my feelings were complicated because he and I had such a strange relationship. But then, slavery of any kind fostered strange relationships” (230). Despite how awful Rufus is to Dana, she has to merge the time gaps and consider herself not as a woman put into the past, but as an extension of that very past she is navigating.

Butler writes: “I thought of Rufus and his father, of Rufus becoming his father. It would happen some day in at least one way. Someday Rufus would own the plantation. Someday, he would be the slaveholder, responsible in his own right for what happened to the people who lived in those half-hidden cabins. The boy was literally growing up as I watched—growing up because I watched and because I helped to keep him safe” (68). Dana seems to realize that despite her position in time (or for the reader, in the narrative), her actions are limited by the way time operates. Because Rufus’s fatherhood “would happen some day in at least one way,” Dana seems to understand that her interference, no matter how powerful, might not be able to carve out the future.

This is similar to when she claims, “Rufus’s time demanded things of me that had never been demanded before, and it could easily kill me if I did not meet its demands” (191). Once again, Dana’s language implies something more complex about time. It isn’t specifically Rufus’s time or demands that will kill her, but rather “it” and “its”. Dana is more concerned about the restrictions of time itself rather than her own position within it. She recognizes that other than the moments where she is able to bring herself back into the present, she cannot manipulate the events taking place within her historic past.

With “Bloodchild,” Butler seems more intent on describing the aftermath—an alternate reality that expands Kindred into a place of co-dependency where time operates as a way to measure the seasons of reproduction and death. Considering Darwin’s writing, one can assume that time does indeed always move forward, but when (past) time is moving forward at the same rates that present and future time are also moving forward, how is anyone able to manipulate the past?

1 comment:

  1. I really like the connections you draw between this novel and "Bloodchild." The idea that whites and blacks were/are codependent on each other to survive the way that they do just as the Terrans and Tlics must do is an idea that is heavily weighted throughout. It seems like this codependency is highlighted through Dana and Rufus' relationship. I particularly enjoyed this line: "The concerns of the past correspond with the agency of the present." Beautifully written, and oh-so true.