Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Choice and Freedom Within Lilith's Brood

The idea of freedom; of having a right to choose and decide for yourself who you want to become and where you want to go, has been the catalyst for many wars and revolutions. The idea that one has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is an ideal that nearly every country aspires for.  This is a freedom that not only allows us control over our own lives, but also, over our own bodies.  However, one can be fairly certain that every person, no matter their age or gender, has moments in their life when their innate desires seem to distract or torment them from making the right choices.  But, if we are granted the ability to choose to do whatever we will to our bodies, even if this means harming ourselves or our depriving ourselves of something we most desperately want.  Most would say that this is an easy price to pay.  We may not always make the best decisions, but the idea that we are the only ones permitted to make them, is a right that most would fight for.   However, the Oankali don’t share the same philosophy. Although they give human’s the idea that they still have control over their lives, the Oankali intervene in nearly every decision they make, justifying their actions by asserting that they know what we want better than we know ourselves.  This seems to directly contrast with our ideals of freedom and liberty, but, is a society that is governed by all knowing beings who make the “right” decisions for us, perhaps the better alternative than us running amok with flawed judgement?
            After Lilith and Joseph are both simultaneously stimulated and pleasured by Nikanj, Joseph is mortified and confused.  When confronted with the situation again, Nikanj claims that this time, Joseph is allowed to choose whether or not he wishes to participate again.  ““No!”  He said sharply.  “Not again!”” However, despite Joseph’s refusal, Nikanj continues to virtually seduce Joseph, stating, “Your body said one thing.  Your words said another.”  Joseph continues to resist the Ooloi, protesting, demanding that the monster let go of him.  However, the alien simply replies, “Be grateful, Joe.  I’m not going to let go of you.”  Due to the lack of willpower to resist the temptations of the Ooloi, Joseph easily gives in and allows Nikanj to essentially have its way with him.  Lilith observes that his face is peaceful and that, “…he was ready to accept what he wanted from the beginning.”  (Butler, 190)  Joseph, although his body was apparently willing to be had once again by Nikanj, his mind was adamant in his refusal.  In doing this, Nikanj quickly dismissed what Joseph consciously and intellectually wanted, and instead opted to give Joseph what he truly desired, and in the end, Joseph is at peace with this intervention.  
            This is not the first instance in which the way that the Ooloi give human’s only the mere illusion that they have a choice before giving them what they truly desire and need.  After nearly being raped by Paul Titus, Lilith becomes irate at the prospect that she was put in that room to “share sex, ”and essentially breed with him. However, Nikanj reassures Lilith, claiming that she only will make the decision when she wants to have a child.  “When you’re ready.  Only then.”  (Butler, 98)  However, after Joseph is murdered, Nikanj informs Lilith that he has impregnated her.  Lilith, understandably, becomes enraged that she has been made to be pregnant against her will, especially since Nikanj seemingly told Lilith that she would decide when she would want to have a child.   In response to Lilith’s objections Nikanj supplies his logic.  “I said not until you were ready.  You’re ready now to have Jospeh’s child.  Joseph’s daughter.”  (Butler, 246)  Nikanj, for whatever reason, believes that now is the right time for Lilith to become pregnant, and thus he makes it so.   In this way, Nikanj asserts, time and time again, that he knows what Lilith (and previously, Joseph) wants and needs better than she knows herself.  This is apparently the justification for not just Nikanj, but all of the Oankali controlling the humans as completely as they do.  Although one could argue the fact that it is evident that Oankali are still somewhat inept at predicting human reactions; considering Joseph’s murder and Lilith nearly being raped by a man who had never acted out before.  Nonetheless, the Oankali and firmly in charge, dissolving whatever responsibility and control the humans thought they had over their lives.
            Through these instances, there is the implication that perhaps, the Ooloi are particularly adept in knowing and giving humans what they secretly desire, even if they consciously reject it. And because of this, at least from the Ooloi’s point of view, they are doing what is best for the humans, and are therefore allowing the humans to lead better lives.  “Just as Joseph could never have invited me into his bed—no matter how much he wanted me there.  Nothing about you but your words reject this child.”  (Butler, 247)  If the Ooloi know what the humans truly want and yet were afraid to admit; and grant their deepest, darkest desires, will the humans actually be happier than if we were allowed to make the decision ourselves, at least, in the long run?  This seems to be true for Lilith.  Never would Lilith consciously admit, so soon after the loss of Joseph, that she would want a child to keep her company.  Instead, it is Nikanj who makes the observation that she needs a companion, because, in his words, “You’ve been very lonely.”  (Butler 246)  Perhaps, what disturbs us isn’t the idea of a society in which decisions are made for us, but rather, the idea that this would in fact make us happier, and lead to a more ideal existence.  Our free will and ability to choose our lives is a highly treasured ideal that is universal, but if we could have something that would make the decisions for us, the decisions that we truly wanted to make, and then, be alleviated of its responsibility, would for many of us be a tempting option.  However, one might be too embarrassed to consider it.  Which is perhaps why, although the humans do put up a certain resistance, the Ooloi proceed with their decision anyway, because they know that we truly want them to decide for us.  Even though we might not admit it, maybe our true ideal society, is one that controls us, rather than us controlling it. 


  1. You pose an extremely interesting question in your blog post: Do humans really want free will or are they just too stubborn to let someone else make decisions for them, even if its in their best interest. I feel as though it is hard to blame the Oankali for Joseph’s “rape” or Lilith's seemingly unwanted impregnation. The Oankali are obviously incapable of lying and they never explicitly say, "We will do this if you SAY you want it" they simply say they will do it when you want us to, or when you are ready. I don't think the Oankali are ever actually going against our free will, I just think they aren't taking our words into account. It is apparent that they perceive something about our needs that transcends speech and audible stimuli, so its hard to say that the Oankali are forcing us to do anything I think they are just seeing past our lies. I still think that your question is intriguing, Should we let the Oankali do to us what they perceive as best? It is possible that I missed this because I didn't read thoroughly enough into your argument, but I would like to see where you stand in this debate, or an assertion that one argument is stronger than the other. I think you present us with a fascinating dilemma I would just like to see you address it. However I do believe you deal with the text very proficiently, I do think your analysis is very sound and thought provoking.

  2. There's a vagueness to what you mean by "freedom" in the first paragraph. It isn't only *your* vagueness - we are often vague when we talk about big, important, abstract concepts. But this is the kind of term where you want to struggle toward precision, at least in formal writing. I say that because what we mean by freedom can, in fact, vary greatly. For many founders of the American republic, a critical freedom was to be free to manage their slaves as they saw fit. Or take the abortion debate: the freedom of a woman to control her body vs. the freedom of a fetus [a person, some would say] to develop.

    I'm not telling you to avoid abstract concepts and big topics - I'm telling you to find ways of bringing them under control.

    I suspect that Nikanj, if so inclined, could argue that it is giving Joseph and Lilith freedom: that is, the freedom to become who they really are. Probably forced self-actualization isn't how you or I would usually define freedom - but it certainly *could* be defined that way (especially in a religious context - Paul's epistles with their rhetoric of slavery and freedom kind of do this).

    In the closing paragraph, you actually discuss a parallel possibility - that if the correct choices are made for us, we might find ourself to be happier. My point is that this kind of happiness has often been called freedom itself ("arbeit macht frei", work makes free, was inscribed over the gates into Auschwitz).

    In short: I think you have a strong handle on what's going on in the text, and that you are going in potentially interesting directions, but by being careless with your terminology, I think you're not going as far as you could into investigating either the contrary claims of different models of freedom, or an ethical argument, based on clearer definitions, that Nikanj is either right or wrong...