Several days ago I began re-reading an old favourite – a novel I’d read years ago, so long ago that I could but dimly remember the details of the plot and only a few of the names.
I hadn’t gotten far before I realized that I was reading about another world entirely, a world of greater innocence and cohesiveness than ours is today.
When I first read it, the plot seemed entirely plausible, and I was only a little more gullible than I am now. Today the same plot will stand no scrutiny: it just wouldn’t work anymore.
The book, The Midwich Cukoos, by John Wyndham, rests on one of his simple-but-elegant “what if…” premises. A sleepy English village is visited by some unknown thing – a ship or being: it is never made clear which and doesn’t matter, for the story is about the people. It makes them all lose consciousness for a couple of days and then suddenly it is gone. After some puzzlement, things resume their centuries-old routine. But there is one slight difference.
Within a couple of weeks, the town curate and town doctor are forced to confer: it seems that every female of childbearing age, married or not, has become pregnant. Thereby hangs the tale. The condition caused considerable consternation, and much embarrassment – at first. Yet the way the world was ordered then (about 1960 – not so long ago), both the women and the men adopted a let’s-wait-and-see attitude. A few of the women suddenly took to violent exercise, but that too subsided. Eventually some sixty children were born – slightly unusual ones…
Wyndham’s handling of the subject deserves new attention. In part, he is interested in what kind of beings these children were and the threats posed by their special abilities. But the observant storyteller in him is careful to record and present the human side, that is, the reactions of the sixty normal, unprepared English women of various ages, who had all, in effect, been raped.
Reading this today, one is aware suddenly of how enormous have been the changes in our world and in our attitudes to the hole business – pregnancy, the “wanted child” (a red herring), amniocentesis, birth-defect fears, ultrasound, and the rest. A completely new array of technologies and techniques has given the whole process new status as an art form, an aesthetic experience. And as for rape…Today that novel couldn’t be written because all the women would immediately get abortions. In short, the “normal” rational woman of twenty years ago no longer exists. Bear this in mind: that, twenty years, is less than one generation. That’s awfully quick for a change of this magnitude.
Are we now simply more prone to hysteria or panic, or to gratifying “instant” likes or dislikes? Surely it goes much deeper than that.
Of course, the individual reactions of the Midwich women varied considerably, with age, evidence, and personality. But they were largely variations on a common theme of concern and uncertainty. Here is a representative of one. She has just realized how she has become pregnant; her husband makes consoling and soothing sounds.
“My dear, my dear,” he said, stroking her hair gently. “It’s going to be all right. We’ll look after you.”
“Not to know,” she exclaimed. “To know there’s something growing there – and not to be sure how, or what…It’s so – abasing, Gordon. It makes me feel like an animal.”
He kissed her cheek softly and went on stroking her hair.
Precisely. Those same words could very well be uttered today by most of the abortionist’s customers, were they thoughtful enough or articulate enough. It really does seem to be a matter now of gut-reaction (all puns intended). That is, one of the real problems with becoming pregnant is that it thrusts reality upon once. Animal reality. Gut reality.
In other words, there is much more at stake than simple responsibility – that is just what appears at the surface. At stake is the mother’s (and father’s, if he’s around) senses of identity, of her world, of reality. Not that “what is real” or the manner of its reality is disturbed. Rather, everything suddenly threatens to become real, really there.
One of the side-effects of all technologies of communication is that they readjust our relation not only to each other but also to our surroundings, our world. The electric forms, in which we have increasingly wrapped our society for several generations, all reverse the pattern of mechanical technologies. Mechanical forms, on the other hand, give salience to outer experience and the “outer world” of hardware and consumer objects.
Instead, electric media emphasize inner experience and convert everything into information or software. Under these conditions, the normal mode of experience is fantasy – even if the body loses “hardware” reality and comes to be regarded as an incumbrance, an inefficient yet programmable aesthetic object.
Fantasy life is precarious. It is the antithesis of what the West calls identity. It is also ruthless. And – it is now the norm in our society. Pregnancy is a threat: it brings one into immediate contact with the body as real, with other people as real, with things, with one’s animal nature…and it dissipates the inner, purer world of fantasy life.
Small wonder that one’s first reaction to a pregnancy is often panic, one’s existence seems suddenly polluted by a parasite: Purge the pollution! Immediately! (This is not a rational process, any more than the plunge into darkness by a power failure is a rational process.) The cause of this pollution – of one’s existence – is must necessarily appear malign and diabolic, and the remover or purifying agent must necessarily appear heroic.
In other words, the issue of sovereignty over one’s body is complete red-herring. (It can’t be threatened in any case because it isn’t real.) Rational arguments to persuade otherwise are a waste of breath. The actual problem goes much deeper and is a matter of sensibility and of identity. Neither is the humanity of the foetus an issue subject to rational argument. Human or not, the electric body is no longer real, not really real. At best, it is now an aesthetic object – our little art form.
Just how electric media have produced this desperate new cult of the great within is worth separate treatment.