What can we learn from ‘The Parable of the Sower’ by Octavia Butler
A reading of the parable of the sower by Octavia Butler, Headline Publishing Group, London, 1993
The story begins in 2024, somewhere in California, in a disintegrating world, in a walled community hanging onto a Christian faith and patriarchal family structures, and beset by wild terrorists beyond the wall.
Eventually, as their village is invaded, and eventually burnt to the ground, our heroine is forced to leave, and begins to set in place her mission, her philosophy, gathering a primitive group around her as they wend their way north through a war-torn, violent and dangerous landscape.
To begin with I will outline a surface reading, an interpretation of what Octavia Butler’s novel appears to be saying, on the surface, as if self-evidently or obviously; and then I will provide a different, darker, interpretation.
To foreground this let me quickly summarise: first, the surface reading is of a feminist heroine about to rescue humanity from its self-destruction by founding or at least aspiring to found, a community, ‘Earthseed’, in the stars, with a philosophy of Truth or God is ‘Change’ and that human action will change that Truth for the better.
God is Power – Infinite, Irresistable, inexorable, indifferent, And, yet, God is pliable, Trickster, Teacher, Chaos, Clay. God exists to be shaped. God is Change.page 24
Then, second, we have a deeper reading: that of a charismatic cult leader, aloof from the rest of humanity because of apparent special hyper-empathic powers, who has a kind of second-sight, a vision of a humanity and brotherhood in the stars, who, alone, knows how this should be organised, and who gathers a group of followers/believers, in ways that, I suggest, are characteristic of early cults, religions, or fascism.
By fascism here I draw from Umberto Eco’s analysis, and mean a social structure that: a) has a glorified figurehead of some kind; b) with special powers and insight; c) a myth around that society’s origins; d) of a collective aspiration to restore that society’s former glories even at the expense of the individual; and e) in ways that are racist and demonise real or imagined threats outside of that society.
Some aspects of the story are reminscent of Kroptkin’s writings on anarchic communism, the dangers of the national State, and patriarchal authoritarian family structures. So, on one level, this novel is a story of an enforced new primitive settlement, an embryonic tribe or clan, with issues of governance, authority, trust, reciprocity, responsibility. generosity, and suspicion, being played out within the group.
Right from the start there are clues to an ongoing corporatised or State-like wider control, with the existence of increasingly disenfranchised, but still patriarchal and authoritarian communities:
This morning’s sermon was on the ten commandments with extra emphasis on ‘Honour thy father and they mother’page 88
In the story these communities are barely surviving behind increasingly fragile walls, protecting them from increasingly desperate ‘lumpen’, those no longer part of any distinct community structure but instead lawless, drugged, and terrorising wherever and however they can.
Following the eventual invasion and destruction of our heroine’s village our primitive group has come together by chance ; and they are making their way north to what they hope will be safer territory. This is how we might imagine the experiences of a family, even today, fleeing oppression and warfare, as refugees, making their way through a war-torn landscape full of bandits.
‘People get shot every day trying to get into Canada. Nobody wants Californian trash.’ ‘But people do leave. People are always moving north.’ ‘They try. They’re desperate and they have nothing to lose.’page 78
This primitive group, so far, is just one ‘family’ type of unit – but it is already developing its codes of conduct – such as a horror of killing – but also a need to defend itself by killing – where guns, blood and bleeding are frequently mentioned; possessions do seem to be mostly mutual and shared, so there is little sense of personal property here apart from the minimal essentials.
Our heroine, Lauren has hyperempathy delusion syndrome, as a kind of special power, or possibly disabling talent, with which she feels, both bodily and emotionally, the pains of others near her. On first reading this could indicate the political benefits of a kind of moral code, a kind of law, of inter-personal love, which is a Freudian kind of caring that is qualitatively fully sexual but aim-inhibited, this is love that tries, at least, to be caring in ways that do not cause harm to the other. In other words, to have a sense or awareness whenever one has caused pain to another would inhibit behaviours that harms others; but this is flawed and only part of the picture, as I discuss below, because it makes it impossible to have relationships with others because a) these always carry the certainty of even unintentional pain to the other which will rebound; and b) will make the hyper-empath vulnerable to others who would be able exploit this as a weakness.
The quest for the primitive family grouping is a life of misery, under an apparently anti-religious ‘Earthseed’ theology, where ‘God is change’: amoral, uncaring, but with the potential to be shaped as well; and with an implied higher purpose of some kind, to be found in the stars.
So, now let me move on to a darker deeper reading: this is a complication of the previous surface reading of the story:
in summary, I think The Parable of the Sower teaches us how to be alert to the early signs of fascism, an important skill, now more than ever, as State Control, globally continues to shift and drift relentlessly towards a barbaric and, at least, proto-fascist political right.
Very briefly, to re-cap, in an apocalyptic and dystopian future world (in fact a world already present for too many in war torn lands full of refugees fleeing violence), there is a heroine, Lauren. Two things to note about Lauren: first, she has what Butler called hyper-empathy delusion syndrome; and second, Lauren sees herself as the holder of the knowledge required to save mankind by setting up a community: ‘Earthseed’, somewhere amongst the stars in outer space. I want to focus on two ideas: Hyperempathy, and the Guru or Leader.
My first argument is that ‘hyper-empathy‘ actually represents the end result of a fantasy already constructed for us, today, by capitalism and authoritarian states: state capitalism; and is one of the features of fascism. We will need to go back a couple of steps here to see these links.
The idea that ‘we’ (as obedient servants of the state; and also apparently fully self-conscious and free decision makers – a contradiction already) know what is best for the other, is an idea promoted by authoritarianism in the name of some abstract idea, be it ‘life’, ‘our great nation’, ‘our sacred way of life’, etc. Some ‘rule’ is decided as a good thing for all, for us citizens, often involving consumption and embodiment of some technology that restrains our freedoms in the name of making us safe from external, foreign, threat, be it disease, or immigrants or terrorists. This rule functions as an unconditional demand on us, unconditional because it applies to all and is not conditional on any individuality a person may have. Importantly this means that the rule assumes knowledge of what is best for the other, rather than allowing for the possibility that we can never know what the needs of the other actually are but can only ever try to, but always inevitably fail, to imagine them. This, in turn, means that it is no longer necessary, or even possible, to love the other – where to love is to care for the other without causing them harm, to care in a way that is not at the other’s expense. Now, to feel that an unconditional demand on the other is a good thing, and, at the same time to justify this demand, requires that we fantasise that we already always know what the other’s needs are and what the other is feeling. ‘I’ feel justified in telling ‘you’ what is good for you, because I know what you need and feel. This, I am arguing here is the contemporary hyperempathy delusion syndrome. In practice this means two things: first, for the care-giver the possibility of loving (caring in ways that are not at the expense of the other) is removed, and second, any harms caused may be technically ‘known’ about and measured etc. but are not valued as harms as such but instead as just so much inevitable and necessary collateral damage.
In the story Lauren’s hyperempathy delusion syndrome has become a kind of embodied reality for her so that she actually feels the pain of others (physical or emotional). In the story this is signified as some kind of special power, though it is never clear what advantage, if any, it bestows. This syndrome if it existed would have effects like the hyperempathy fantasy of today, and make inter-personal love impossible because it would involve too much suffering on the holder’s part. In this sense such a syndrome is powerfully anti-sexual. It would, I suggest, following Wilhelm Reich’s argument, in ‘The Mass Psychology of Fascism’, lead to pent up sexual energy that would be displaced into a perverse fanaticism and identification with authoritarian figureheads and their rules. It would make for the ideal breeding ground for cult followers and fascism.
So, I am suggesting that the hyper-empathy delusion syndrome actually exists today. Hyper-empathy, appears to be the most caring and compassionate behaviour, but is, instead, a sign of incipient proto-Fascism, and should be recognised, called out and resisted.
Acting as if you know what the other’s needs are, that is, what you know is best for the other, is to make an unconditional demand upon the other to obey you. So, in effect you are controlling the other. This may occur at a ‘mass’ population based levels with a population-based programme of some kind (such as the kind of cancer screening programmes that I have studied), or even more insidiously at the apparently inter-personal level where a therapist becomes ovberly or hyper-empathic seeking to fully understand the other, and acting as if the therapist him or herself already has a full self-awareness or understanding, regardless of social structures. This is dangerous territory because it gives the therapist too much self-aggrandisement, too great a sense of entitlement, and too much power.
Adam Philips and Leo Bersani, psychoanalysts, talk about the concept of ‘impersonal narcissism‘ (see the book ‘intimacies’ The University of Chicago press, Ltd., London, 2008, Bersani, L, and Phillips, A.) in which there is a recognition of the impossibility of full self-awareness, and of the impossibility of ever knowing the needs of the other. This recognition is not completely nihilistic however because it is still possible to disrupt the other’s sense of self so that they can make choices and change direction. An interesting development of this idea is that one should be wary of relying on one’s sense of self as a moral guide ot behaviour, this is because one’s conscience (or super-ego to use Freud’s term) may cause one to feel guilty about a path of action, such as refusing to countenance continued exposure to an abusing other, but is actually only producing guilt because one has been conditioned to desire the approval of, to be oppressed by and to provide for the needs of the abusing other.
The second idea is that of the Guru, who knows, the cult leader with a myth to sell.
‘We were Baptists … My father was the minister, I kept quiet and began to understand Earthseed.’ ‘Began to invent Earthseed’ he said, ‘Began to discover and understand it ‘, I said. ‘I mean to guide and shape Earthseed into what it should be.’page 247
This is a myth that may hold contradictory ideas to be true simultaneously (what Umberto Eco refers to as syncretism, see here for an excellent essay on ur-fascism by Eco), and that promises the existence of some kind of primeval Truth, in the story this myth takes the idea of ‘Earthseed’ (The Nazi’s myth was one of ‘Blood and Earth’); and Truth as Change.
We are Earthseed. We are flesh – self-aware, questing, problem solving flesh. We are that aspdect of Earthlife best able to shape God knowingly. WE are Earythlife maturing, Earthlife preparing to fall away froom the parent world. We are Earthlife preparing to take root in new ground, Earthlife fulfilling its purpose, its promise, its Destinypage 141
The heroine, Lauren, claims most persistently that humans, through action, can change the world (by Godshaping), for, it is implied, the better. This narrative makes a nod to, but does not really allow for, the human who can never be fully self-conscious and whose (political) consciousness (what he or she believes to be good or bad) is, in fact, shaped by social structures and norms. Lauren’s idea of Truth is Change, and God is Change, and that humans by actions can cause Change, mixes up three flawed ideas: Truth is Change omits the idea of cause; God as Change is the idea of a universal purposive original truth as creator, and human action in charge of Change creates a myth of all powerful humanity with the correct guidance, Lauren’s. This confusion itself is a marker for what Eco calls ur-fascism. Action is ‘Godshaping’, action to change God, Destiny, that is purposeful, as if progressive and a kind of social Darwinism.
How is it that we had never establsihed an outside meeting place – somewhere the famiily could re-unite after disaster. (Poor Godshaping. Lack of forethought)
We should be wary of the charismatic leader, the other who seems to be able to care too much, who is talking in terms of knowing any kind of truth as if it exists ‘out there’ somewhere, or origin myth, or of some kind of mythic original unity of human consciousness and nature that can be restored, as if to its full glory. We need to be wary of those, pragmatists, whose opinions are treated as if they are empirical truths, and who promote ‘action’ at all costs, regardless of collateral harms. These kinds of mysticism abound in religions and cults and are markers for a dangerous fascism, at more inter-personal or more societal levels, that can degenerate into the abuse and genocides humanity has experienced, and a manufactured hatred of the other who is not one of us, or who does not obey ‘our way of life’.