Sunday, April 18, 2010

It Walks in Beauty

I suspect many readers of this blog may not know who Chandler Davis is (though some may have guessed he's historian Natalie Zemon Davis's husband). I wrote about one of his stories, "It Walks in Beauty," in "Old Pictures: The Discursive Instability of Feminist SF" (The Grand Conversation, 2004), a story that was first published in 1958 and was reprinted by Ellen Datlow on SCIFCTION.COM in 2003. Chan published most of his science fiction stories in the 1950s, and one in Crank! in 1994. But the particulars of his situation are complicated.

Harvard awarded Chandler Davis a PhD in mathematics in 1950. Three years later, hes was served with a subpoena as a result of his having paid for the printing of a pamphlet critical of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and his subsequent ordeal included the loss of his job at the University of Michigan and a six-month imprisonment in 1960 for contempt of Congress. Blacklisted from full-time academic jobs in the US, he ultimately found employment in 1962 at the University of Toronto, where he is now an Emeritus Professor of Mathematics.

It Walks in Beauty collects several of Chan Davis's science fiction stories, which probe deeply into such social and political issues as nuclear escalation, gender roles, and eugenics, as well as a selection of his essays, originally published in venues ranging from The New York Review of Books to the Waging Peace Series of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and a speech he gave at the February 1995 meeting of AAAS. And, of course, the three meaty essays by Josh Lukin I mentioned in my last post.

Here's the Table of Contents:


History, Heresy, Hegemony:
On the Relevance of Chandler Davis—by Josh Lukin


Critique & Proposals 1949
. . . From an Exile
Two Open Letters: (1) “Violence and Civility” (2) “Imprisoned Mathematician: J.L.Massera”
The Selfish Genetics
From Science for Good or Ill
“The Untimely Rhetoric of Chandler Davis’s Essays”—by Josh Lukin


Last Year’s Grave Undug
Adrift on the Policy Level
It Walks in Beauty
The Statistomat Pitch
The Names of Yanils


“Shooting Rats in a Barrel”: Did the Red Hunt Win?


“Trying to Say Something True”: The Paradoxa Interview with Chandler Davis


"Alternatives to Reverence"—by Josh Lukin


You may well be wondering why Aqueduct Press, which focuses on feminist science fiction, has chosen to launch Heirloom Books with a title by two men. Here are a few snippets from Josh's "History, Heresy, Hegeony: On the Relevance of Chandler Davis," the essay that introduces It Walks in Beauty:
It Walks in Beauty: Selected prose of Chandler Davis is the first male-authored book to be published by Aqueduct; it includes three stories with all-male casts; and its articles most often focus on male victims of oppression. Its aptness for a feminist press is, then, not immediately apparent; so I hope to make a case for it on biographical, literary, political, and theoretical grounds. Davis’s feminist life and the strategies he developed in his battles with the Red Hunters could be of particular interest to feminist readers; a look at his work is also important to more general issues of ideological struggle and of recovering ideas and texts from progressives of the past –hence my emphasis on the fact that US Communism from 1935 – 1955 was a fruitful source of feminist thought, which provided a milieu that supported Davis’s values. The relevance of Davis’s work to several present-day political battlegrounds will also, I believe, become evident in the course of my argument.
Josh then considers the biographical, literary, political, and theoretical aspects of the relevance of Chandler Davis's work for Aqueduct Press readers. Under the literary rubric, Josh writes,
I have argued elsewhere that, in an era in which the grossest misogyny in life and literature passed unremarked or celebrated, even small anti-sexist gestures were worthy of notice. Chandler Davis was in the minority of SF writers who sought consistently to create female characters with competence, authority, and agency. In the stories for Astounding Science Fiction that first made his reputation, we see a female Congressional staffer whose competence and quick thinking helps avert nuclear holocaust (“To Still the Drums,” 1946), a revolutionary cell on Ganymede in which men and women have equal authority (“The Journey and the Goal,” 1947), a female leader of a revolt against a eugenicist autocrat (“The Aristocrat,” 1949), and a planetary research team in which men and women collaborate as scientific peers (“Share Our World,” 1953). But Davis’s most penetrating anti-sexist statements are his later works set in patriarchal societies –not only “It Walks in Beauty” but also the oft-reprinted “Adrift on the Policy Level.”

Jean Smith, in a tribute to Davis, characterized “Adrift on the Policy Level” as “about scientific advice getting shuffled aside in a corporation,” which suggests that the story’s theme is bureaucratic incompetence in the world of commerce. While broadly true, that characterization elides the story’s most innovative social, psychological, and political attributes. Politically, it matters that the setting is not “a corporation” but “The Corporation,” a quasi-governmental entity that not only runs on marketing but administrates large geographic regions; psychologically, the story’s satirical punch owes much to the way in which The Corporation has by the end imposed a blissful false consciousness on the protagonists; and socially, the story offers a novel depiction of how an oppressive society uses gender to further its ends.

The subtleties of the story’s approach to gender may not be immediately clear to a reader today, as the piece plays with three commonplaces that are rooted in the era of its creation, viz:
(1) The Fifties (and indeed the preceding and following decade) saw a huge expression of anxiety that managerial jobs were emasculating or feminizing men, both because they were not rugged individualist forms of self-assertion and because they entailed “emotional labor” and attention to the minutiae of pleasing others, tasks that were thought of as more appropriate to women.

(2) SF of the Fifties (and the Forties and the Sixties) had rigid conventions in which women were allowed authority. Luise White famously observed in 1975 that “ . . . active, vigorous women characters [in SF] invariably worked either directly for the state, or for some male-run institution that controlled so much power and revenue, it might as well be the state itself” (Delany 167); she noted that these women included the heroes –Kathy in The Space Merchants, Rydra Wong in Babel-17, and many others– as well as the monsters, such as Hedy in The Space Merchants and Olivia in The Stars My Destination.

(3) Mainstream literature was less ambivalent: women with authority in political or bureaucratic milieux were pretty consistently monsters along the lines of The Manchurian Candidate’s Eleanor Shaw, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s Big Nurse, The Ugly American’s Marie MacIntosh, and (from Humbert’s point of view) Lolita’s Miss Pratt. Such women, however, were unsexed or sexually grotesque. Historian Robert Dean points out that The Ugly American, for example, “warned [that] women could subvert the imperial project from two directions: from within, as indolent luxury-loving ‘Moms,’ and from without, as alien sexual temptresses” (29).
The Communist line on gender may also be relevant to an understanding of the story, as Communists regarded female empowerment within the constraints of capitalist institutions as no success at all, a goal of bourgeois feminism (today we would call it a Third Wave approach). An attentive Communist would also have been aware of (albeit not necessarily in agreement with) Popular Front era arguments about “sexual servility” like Rebecca Pitts’s, which is also relevant to “It Walks in Beauty”:
To get a husband (even lovers, even admirers), [woman under capitalism] must please the dominant male –“normally” an undeveloped egotist who regards her as a means to his own pleasure. It becomes her business, therefore, to arouse desire; to play by means of sex-allurement, dress, and personal charm upon male ego-sexuality. Instead of being a rounded, creative personality, she is warped and twisted . . . It is proof of a strong urge in woman that so many really do –in spite of this terrific pressure from bourgeois society –lead creative lives. (324)
Pitts does not use the word “business” casually; she is consciously in a tradition of criticizing the commodification of Sex Appeal. And while Chandler Davis seems loath to depict any woman as unconsciously “warped and twisted,” his work is remarkably aware of the sexist pressures that Pitts and other thoughtful Reds described.

So “Adrift on the Policy Level” is the work of an author whose stories have begun, perhaps thanks to the political persecutions or social changes he is observing, to grow more caustic and satirical; and it is the product of a creative mind that has already, in “The Aristocrat” and “Share Our World,” shown the ability to circumvent SF conventions concerning the position of empowered women. Unlike Davis’s earlier stories, “Adrift” cannot offer a character who is conscious of its society’s problems and points the way toward freedom. The premise of the satire –that The Corporation is a total institution, exercising all of its hegemonic powers to preserve the status quo– obviates the possibility of a liberating figure. Instead, the story does its political work by burlesquing the ideological norms of mid-century US society and fiction. If the emotional labor and inauthentic “other-directed” poses that the managerial world requires are “feminizing,” it asks, wouldn’t the perfect corporation have them done by women using the skills of “manufactured femininity”? If the tools of the sexual temptress are so powerful, wouldn’t female agents of authority use them, rather than being starchy and schoolmarmish termagants? Isn’t gender and the ability to perform it in the hope of manipulating one’s superiors something that men have also, such that Mr. Demarest’s style of masculinity can change “from Viking to Roman” as the occasion demands? And, pace SF traditions, how likely is it that a corporate-political functionary under capitalism can use her “active, vigorous” character and her suasive powers for anything other than being a Company Woman and maintaining the institution’s homeostasis?
And from the concluding section of Josh's intro:
Chandler Davis’s fiction is, like his accounts of Red Scare survival and his nonfictional broadsides against conservative views of human nature, a model of hopefulness. Demystifying the processes by which oppressive structures are naturalized and legitimized exposes those structures as contingent and reversible. If history has been purged by human beings, it can be recovered by human beings; if we have lost sight of the human origins of ideologies, we can regain it; if the forces of reaction create alluring new subject positions for people, so can the forces of liberation; and if subjection to ideology does not mean that people are stupid, they can change their minds.
Heirloom Books is about not only preserving past pleasures in danger of being lost, but also about recovering the history that matters to feminists. Canons are useful, but as we all know, they never tell the whole story.

1 comment:

Josh said...

Thanks, Timmi! I'm glad to see that you regard the passage you excerpted as a standout: your use of it does a good job of indicating how hard I've tried to provide context for Chan's work.

I would like to assure readers that the "three meaty essays" are perfectly suitable for vegetarians.