Friday, February 18, 2011

Revision of Earthseed and Change

Power and Lies
In the struggle for power, lies are often used as an essential tool to manipulate a people. Octavia Butler explores the dynamics of power relations in her novel Parable of the Sower through Lauren Olamina’s dedication to Earthseed, her own new religion. Lauren evolves Earthseed through the many verses and her encounters throughout the novel, and displays her determination to lay its own seeds so that it may grow. She wants to lead the new religion and guide her followers to be strong. Lauren does not recognize herself as a power hunter, but this is a role she gradually begins to take on throughout the novel. In her quest for leadership — a quest that must entail the acquisition of power — Lauren engages frequently in lies. As the main character, she her tendency to lie suggests that to lead, even when the path that leader takes is meant to end in peace for its people, lies are necessary to manipulate the people into following.

Lauren’s earlier verses often speak of Change. She believes that God is Change, and that the first step towards escaping the oppressive system by which the people of Oliver are surrounded is to accept that change and prepare for it.
We are Earthseed
The life that perceives itself
Changing. (Butler 126)
This verse demonstrates the peaceful intentions for Earthseed; it is passive and introduces itself a reawakening of perception. It is a religion that is meant to surpass the violence and oppression erupting in the world surrounding Lauren and her companions. Yet, even in its foundations a hierarchy exists, because Lauren is the self-proclaimed messiah of the Earthseed. She does not personify God, but she does assert her own knowledge of and connection to the religion, implying that she has a greater understanding of it than those around her. As Lauren J. Lacey discusses, there is “a deeply ingrained awareness of power relations [that] accompanies any movement toward positive change, both in terms of recognizing the dominant forced that must be confronted and in relation to finding ways of gaining power to effect change” (382). In the following paragraphs, I will explore how the status as a powerful messiah leads Lauren from peaceful intentions to an ability (and necessity) to manipulate those around her and form Earthseed as a religion that is essentially based on lies.

Lauren has been lying to her community since the day she was born; her Hyperempathy syndrome gave her no choice, lest she should risk the implications of the other children’s imaginations upon her weakness. She learned how to hide her physical experiences (pain and pleasure) by not only becoming physically strong, but by manipulating. It was a lesson for her that could become life or death. When her father led shooting classes, Lauren has to pay particular attention, because she knows that if she encounters danger, she must destroy her enemy swiftly and with the least possible pain for either of them. It was constantly ingrained in her to find ways to hide her condition, her weakness.

Lauren constantly fights denial because it is a form of lying to the self — she wants to always be able to see the truth of the reality rather than ever lie to herself about her present situation. She despises the denial of the people in the community about the danger lurking outside the walls. Yet Lauren, as a master of manipulation, knows that she cannot tell the people directly of their state. She is keenly aware that to be able to acquire more power, she must gradually try to move them in the direction of her path — she believes briefly that she can trust Joanne with the secrets of Earthseed, but when Joanne runs to her mother with Lauren’s tales, she realizes that religion must begin its manifestations in other ways before people can learn to accept it.

However, when Rev. Olamina — Lauren’s father — goes missing outside of the walls, her ability to reason is challenged and she must fight denial of his death. Yet she still lies to the community. She preaches a sermon that centers both on the “on-going search” and on the persistence of a widow, two contradicting concepts. She has given up herself on the hope that he will return, but she knows that the community depends on a leader to give them hope. And to Lauren, hope means lies. She presents herself as the leader of her community, stepping forward to give them an idea of hope, that they will survive the destruction if they persist. “I’m no good at denial and self-deception. That was Dad’s funeral that I was preaching—his and the community’s” (Butler 136). She does not believe in the hope that she herself preaches; she believes that the only hope lies in leaving California. She lies to do the duty her father taught her, to teach and guide rather than scare. Although Lauren is young, she is quick to jump into her father’s footsteps and guide them with her voice, though she knows it will not last very long.

“Kindness eases Change” (Butler 167). This verse comes directly after the destruction of the Oliver community, when the pyro-addicts burn the homes and the impoverished break through the walls to scavenge the remnants. I believe that this is a direct link to Lauren’s subtle awareness that is mastering manipulation. Zahra and Harry, both devastated by the loss of their families and the experience of rape, are weak and desperate. They are the ideal people for Lauren to use now to strengthen her Earthseed. Towards the end of this chapter, Lauren states in her journal with regards to “I want to trust these people...But I need more time to decide. It’s no small thing to commit yourself to other people” (Butler 158). She bonds them together while she continues to lie about her Hyperempathy, and teaches them about what supplies she has learned that they will need.

As their trip begins, Lauren commits to the most obvious lie when she dresses as a man. She wants to perceived as stronger than she is, because strength implies power (at least the power to defend). Her androgyny is the epitome of her belief of lying as a necessity, and it is also the first time that she opens her companions to her lies while maintaining their commitment to her.

Lauren’s verses have continually become stronger as she has opened her religion to the group. But Lauren’s lies in her desire for power through leadership have developed with those. On page 257, the following verse appears,
The Self must create
Its own reasons for being.
To shape God,
Shape Self.
She is now able to lie to herself; Lauren does not only want to shape herself, she wants to shape the path of the group. Throughout the trip, as they meet the new people who join her companions, she quickly judges how useful they will be to both the group and to herself. When Harry points out that she began by fearing any strangers, yet she is the first to suggest welcoming more members to travel with them (when she invites a couple and their infant son to stay with them at the beach). But Lauren’s invitation is fundamentally selfish, because she is offering companionship while always planning for Earthseed’s functions. Her generosity seems genuine, but it is conditional generosity; she will have them come so that she can eventually convince them to join her project.

Lauren’s ultimate goal is to establish a community based upon Earthseed, and Bankole gives her this opportunity when he offers Lauren use of the land he owns in northern California. She did not think to consult the other members of the group before she herself decided that this would be the end of the voyage, but instead keeps it in her own mind until she can plot the best way to tell the group about it. Once again, she uses the tactics of manipulation when withholding the truth to ensure that she retains the respect she has been afforded. The truth eventually slips out that she plans to settle on Bankole’s land before she has the chance to properly tell her companions, but she nevertheless places it into the group’s plan. They do ultimately settle with her and follow her Earthseed teachings. Thus, Lauren was successful in her manipulation and becomes the powerful leader of the group; by the end of the novel she is able to convince the group to follow any one of her plans.

Luckily for the group, Lauren chooses to impart her wisdom upon them with the hope of peace and self-sustainability. She does not want to bring harm to the group. But if even Lauren’s religion, one that is meant to bring peace with the acceptance of change as a natural part of life, is based upon the manipulation of power, then what does the future hold besides more potential systems where the powerful dominate the weak? The lies that accompany power must always exist if change is to be induced.

Lacey, Lauren J. “Octavia E. Butler on Coping with Power in Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents and Fledgling,Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 49: 4, July 2008: 379 - 392.
Butler, Octavia. Parable of the Sower. New York: Warner Brooks Edition, 1993.


  1. Are you sure she doesn't recognize that she is seeking power? I'd argue that she downplays it, but knows it. That might be nitpicking, though.

    Another possibly minor point: Messiah has a particular, literal meaning. Does Lauren believe herself to actually be any kind of savior? You want to be careful with your terminology, especially loaded terminology like this.

    I thought your ongoing discussion of Lauren-as-liar was quite good. It's especially interesting because of the practicality, even the necessity, of at least some of these lies, and because many of them originate in her father - which is actually an aspect of the book which I think you could have given additional attention.

    You make a number of minor errors along the way (Oliver != Robledo, for instance), but the biggest issue I have is when you assert that Lauren is lying to herself about her motives, and is seeking power for selfish reasons. Either of these might be true, but I think you've set yourself up well to discuss some of the difficulty ethical problems the novel raises (when is a lie necessary? When is it legitimate to seek power? Where is the border between seeking power for oneself and for ones community?), and dismiss them. In other words, just because Lauren seeks power doesn't necessarily mean that she puts herself first, does it? You've done an excellent job detailing her lies - but her motives, especially given her hyperempathy syndrome, are a lot more problematic.

    You are setting up a powerful negative reading of Lauren's character in the last couple pargraphs. The approach isn't wrong, but I do think without engaging with hyperempathy syndrome (which you don't do) in depth, it isn't right, either.

    The question: "can it ever be legitimate to seek power by underhanded means" is vital here, and needs to be considered in relationship with hyperempathy syndrome.

  2. I would also assert that your basic understanding of Earthseed is wrong, it is not and was not ever intended to be a religion.Lauren intended it as a social movement, a new way of thought. It is/was a system of basic earthly truths that would need to be understood in order to move humanity forward. The misconceptions are understandable due to her use of the word God.