The second volume in Octavia E. Butler’s classic series on the Human Contradiction refers to coming-of-age. Everything about the series has been either nurturing or thought-provoking as I live an intervention within my family. Near the conclusion of the first book (Dawn), the human protagonist insists that the alien Oankali give her a taste (p. 226) of their expansive perception – what, she wants to know, is death to them?
It gave her . . . a new color. A totally alien, unique, nameless thing, half seen, half felt or . . . tasted. A blaze of something frightening, yet overwhelming, compelling.
A half known mystery beautiful and complex. A deep, impossibly sensuous promise.
I was asked a few times over the past week and a half if I had a plan. No, not more than hopeful intention seeking openings. “My perception isn’t what it will be eventually.” (p. 501)
Even if Humans lack the extraordinary multidimensional perception of the Oankali, I still believe we are more connected, more collective, than we usually acknowledge. I can align myself with “Akin…[who] had learned an important lesson: he would share any pain he caused. Best, then, to be careful and not cause pain . . . . he shifted his attention from the frustration of what he could not perceive to the fascination of what he could find.” (p. 257)
What are the things I find, the things I perceive? I yearn for Akin’s Oankali perception: “[Akin] investigated the DNA that made up the genes, the nucleotides of the DNA. There was something beyond the nucleotides that he could not perceive – a world of smaller particles that he could not cross into. He did not understand why he could not make this final crossing – if it were the final one….he came to think of it as a horizon, always receding when he approached it.” (p. 257) But I also know my own horizon in/within/of communication – the ways we talk with, to, and about each other; the words and phrases of daily interaction; the patterns of meaning we weave together, reinforcing them with regular repetition and resisting the unknown new relationships that change might bring.
I suppose it is fantastic to imagine that I sense the ways we co-create each other – how your actions toward or against me invoke my actions about/involving you. My intellect (such as it is) could be reducible to the years of marijuana-induced sensory thought bleeding over, somehow, into the regular firing of neurons in the cognitive structure of my mind. My personal hypothesis is that the pot-smoking era of my youth showed my brain another way to function, but it has taken years of intensive effort to develop the particular pathways that constitute my contemporary mode of thinking. I had to, first, gain a window of perception onto myself from the outside; second, evaluate myself through the juxtaposition of my internal sense-of-self with the projections other people give back to me about myself; third, recognize the elements that could be changed; fourth, learn more about so many things …. the coursework in Communication has provided me with the conceptual tools to understand the ramifications of different skill sets and ethical commitments.
There is an intimacy humans share that we tend not to acknowledge beyond a recognizable preference for similarity and the politics of identity. We – each “one” of us – are inextricably bound to groups. Even if we are not with the people who compose these groups – be it the family who raised us, the friends who embrace us, or the demographic groups we align with and/or are stereotyped into by others. Even hermits are defined as such by their (lack of) relationship with others. Despite an adolescent embrace of Simon and Garfunkel, none of us is irrevocably alone.
“…just for an instant, they showed him, brought him into that incredible unity. He could not even manage terror until the moment had ended.
How did they not lose themselves? How was it possible to break apart again? It was as though two containers of water had been poured together, then separated – each molecule was returned to its original container.” (p. 454)
Emotions are treasure; and they are supremely dangerous. Akin’s terror at group merger is dismissed: “The Akjai responded. Even at your stage of growth, Eka, you can perceive molecules. We perceive subatomic particles. Making and breaking this contact is no more difficult for us than clasping and releasing hands is for Humans.” (p. 454) What if we accept the evidence of chemistry, biology, and especially physics – shaking hands is not only a moment of skin-to-skin contact: it is an instance of literal interaction. So many people discouraged me from this endeavor. So much fear that “it won’t work” or that “things could get worse” – so easily do we accept awful situations, convincing ourselves that slow, inexorable dying is preferable to bursts of engaged life and presence.
Is this a competition? I dearly hope not. I have been un-whole for so long, bereft of those most-loved. I want my family to take part in calling me and each other into new being. Still, Butler’s incisive insight cautions, because everywhere one looks, there it is:
“The Human Contradiction again. The Contradiction, it was more often called among the Oankali. Intelligence and hierarchical behavior. It was fascinating, seductive, and lethal. It had brought Humans to their final war.” (p. 442)
“[The Oankali say] that you can’t grow out of it, can’t resolve it in favor of intelligence. That hierarchical behavior selects for hierarchical behavior, whether it should or not. That not even Mars will be enough of a challenge to change you.” He paused. “That to give you a new world and let you procreate again would . . . would be like breeding intelligent beings for the solve purpose of having them kill one another.”
“That wouldn’t be our purpose,” she protested.
He thought about that for a moment, wondered what he should say. The truth or nothing. The truth. “Yori, Human purpose isn’t what you say it is or what I say it is. It’s what your biology says it is – what your genes say it is.”
“Do you believe that?”
” . . . yes.”
“Then why – [help?]”
“Chance exists. Mutation. Unexpected effects of the new environment. Things no one has thought of.” (p. 501-502)