Purpose and Direction
At first glance the great humanist poet Walt Whitman, Herbert Marcuse the political theorist, and Octavia E. Butler the African American science fiction writer have absolutely nothing in common. But upon a closer study of three of their greatest works, Song of Myself, One-dimensional Man, and Parable of the Sower, respectively, there is a theme of change and what it means to society through all of them. In this paper I will be making the claim that all three writers, of very different time periods, styles, and backgrounds, have the same view on change and its function in society. Although none are by any means modern, their ideas are applicable and arguably even helpful to today’s society.
Comparing these three works raises several very interesting questions; what is change, how is change brought about, and how change is a function of society. Each of the authors have different answers to these questions, but what makes them different also brings them together into one cohesive argument. They discuss three important points affecting change, religion, sexuality, and politics; the framework for society is, by no surprise, also the foundation for change.
Butler’s Parable of the Sower is easily the most religion-based of the three works. The main character Lauren Olamina, creates an entirely new religion based solely on change. Earthseed is the name of her religion, and like the bible, she writes “verses” of the ideology behind it throughout the book. One of the most influential begins chapter eleven; it says, “Any Change may bear seeds of benefit. Seek them out. Any Change may bear seeds of harm. Beware. God is infinitely malleable. God is Change.” (Butler 116) Not only is change important to the fictional society in this book, but change literally IS God. At the same time that Earthseed supports and endorses change, it also warns believers to the harm change can bring. The moral and underlying pillar of this religion is to accept and create change, and reap the consequences, good or bad. Butler showcases many of the background characters as having an attitude very similar to that of today’s society, apathetic to change, and unwilling to create change for themselves. In this way Butler critiques society very similar to the way Marcuse does in his book, but instead of a subversive critical book, she uses a fictional story to carry the message of change to her readers. Marcuse would categorize these apathetic characters as having false needs; they worry about money, and refuse to accept that their world has/is changing. Instead of accepting the change, like Lauren and some of the other main characters, they choose to hold on to their “safe” idea of society as long as they can. When it is taken away from them, few survive, and they are forced to either accept the change and make the best of it, or wallow in self-pity and become another casualty of change. Lauren takes charge and makes the change to be the catalyst to her own destiny, going through life accepting and even willingly creating change to shape her future. This book also brings up the very important question of human evolution. Is our society so far gone that only a biological change can bring us back? The hyperempathy syndrome profiled in the book forces the
Herbert Marcuse has a very strong opinion on change and its effect on society. Although he does not feel that all change is positive, as Butler does, Marcuse still feels that a major change needs to be made for society to continue in a positive direction. He rejects all forms of industrialization and consumerism, basing it on the fact that these things create “false needs” that create unnecessary waste. Instead of a change in the forward direction, Marcuse wants to see the world change in a backward direction. The way Marcuse feels is best characterized in a quote from the beginning of his book, “The prevalence of repressive needs is an accomplished fact, accepted in ignorance and defeat, but a fact that must be undone in the interest of the happy individual as well as all those whose misery is the price of his satisfaction.” (Marcuse 5) The repressive needs he talks about in this quote are the needs created by consumerism, and when he discusses the need for them to be undone, that is tha change he wishes to be made in society. In his eyes the only change that can be made to fix western society is to go back to only fulfilling a human’s basic needs. The false freedom he talks about in his book is created by the choice given to consumers in the free market. We are allowed to choose what to purchase to make us happy, but this forces people to work more hours to afford a better lifestyle, which in turn creates excessive waste. If society were to return to a simpler way of life, without the free market, we could return to basic lifestyles, and this would allow more creative thought to prevail. He purposes that we reject all forms of control, much like Butler does, to create true freedom. Where Butler uses forward progress and change to show an ideal society, Marcuse uses reverting tactics and promotion of negative thinking to create his ideal society. The common threads between the two, published just under thirty years apart, are endless. Marcuse would agree that a complete destruction and destabilization of the current society, like the events in Butler’s story, would need to occur before society could revert back to its original habits. The characters in Butler’s story very much live their lives based solely on the search for basic needs. They are torn down to their foundations, security, shelter, food and water. In this way, if you can put aside all the violence occurring, Butler’s society is perfect in Marcuse’s eyes. The people of her neighborhood are not troubled with the desires of a modern consumerist world. Their lives revolve around growing food, finding clean water, and protecting their families. It does not get more basic than that.
Walt Whitman uses his poems to convey his message of change in the first installment of Leaves of Grass; Song of Myself. In it’s time, it was given bad reviews because of the overt sexuality encompassed in his naturalistic musings. Much like Marcuse, Whitman sees meaning in all things instead of resources to be used by society. A great quote from Whitman’s Song of Myself that shows his view on time and change is from section seven; “I pass death with the dying, and birth with the new-washed babe….and am not contained between my hats and boots, And peruse manifold objects, no two alike, and every one good, The earth good, and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.” (Whitman 6) This shows that like Lauren from Butler’s story, Whitman believes that all change is progress, and that all change is good.
Obviously one could see the opposing argument to this paper, that all three writers have very different views on change and its effects on society. But my response to those arguments is that how the reader perceives the opinion of the writer. Each person who reads these stories will have an entirely different experience than the next. So my argument and supports in this paper are based on my opinions and thoughts that I had when I read them.
Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2000.
Whitman, Walt. Song of Myself. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2001.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon, 1991.