I only occasionally write essays. Doing art in these plague years, in wartimes, in the face of soul-stunning media assaults is a mighty challenge. I usually save my writing energy for plays and novels. But I make an exception for Octavia Butler. She writes fiction that disturbs as it entertains. Reading her novels and short stories, all page-turners, she makes you enjoy thinking about issues you might want to avoid. In “The Evening And The Morning And The Night,” Butler takes on individuality and community in these plague years. Reading this story, I find that I question myself and consider a radical restructuring of society. Her work is about nightmares and dreams.
The hallmark of our democratic experiment is that we have choice, freedom. In a democratic society, we are not destined or fated to fixed social categories; no longer restrained by history, we can supposedly invent our lives with the power of our imaginations and the vigor of our efforts. Choice, however, has become how many things we can buy, how many brand names fill our minds or are stamped on our butts, how many products we can display. Freedom is not choosing what kind of world we wish to inhabit, but being able to shop until will drop. Co-opting the notion of freedom is at the center of commodity culture. Butler points to the illusions of choice that constrain our social reality. She critiques the hidden fascism of late model capitalism that assaults the possibility of democracy and represses creative diversity but offers the illusion of choice—all those different cigarettes, gas guzzling SUVs, trophy homes, and celebrity knock offs.
Motherhood has been articulated as a locus of women’s oppression. Women have been denied the role of “rugged individualist” who follows his private dreams, claiming a place in the stars without regard to the needs of his community. PR’s earliest coup was to co-opt the notion of women’s liberation and make it about smoking a cigarette. In the co-opted vision of liberation, “rugged individualist” is what women should aspire to—the Marlboro man.
Liberation could be about getting what the men have, what white people have, what rich people have, or it could be a radical redefinition of what everybody gets. Butler knows that we are usually unwilling to give up a chance at the lottery—a chance to hit the elite jackpot, even for a promise of the commonwealth. In “The Evening And The Morning And The Night” she gets us to work on what we can’t yet imagine.
Historians and storytellers call up the lore that makes people into communities; they recount and rework a commonwealth of images in which we find our immediate and transcendent identity. In Butler’s fiction, history is always unfinished business; reality is regularly revised; agency is always possible. A democratic society is a dynamic enterprise between nature and culture, demanding the intervention of a current generation with the wisdom of the ages as support.
Butler writes about a redefinition of community, about beings who do not glory in living only for themselves—perhaps this is why she is called a utopianist by some critics—but contemplating this impulse in “The Evening And The Morning And The Night” got me to pause from maniacal, artistic flurry to write an essay.