Beautiful Souls: Takes One to Know One

In September, I continued further in my dark ecology reading of Trouble on Triton and explored how Bron exemplifies the Beautiful Soul, the subject position figured in Ecology Without Nature. Bron’s consummerist attitude is refined to the point that he is alienated from every conceivable subject position. He refuses to be a type of consumer in a society that demands consumption. His predicament, though, is not unique. As Delany explains in an interview, the second appendix to the novel suggests Bron’s dilemma has a political side that is not obvious in a narrative told from his point of view. (Concordia University)

The second appendix concerns Ashima Slade, a character referred to in the novel but who doesn’t actually participate in the narrative. Slade turns out to be something of Bron’s doppelganger: also from Mars, also with a scar above his eye, also involved with metalogics, and also undergoes a sex change operation. These are striking similarities, and while Bron lives a frustrated life of mediocrity, Slade seems to have lived a frustrated life of intellectual brilliance. Slade, at least, is able to identify a political cause for their shared frustration:

Our society in the Satellites extends to its Earth and Mars emigrants, at the same time it extends instruction on how to conform, the materials with which to destroy themselves, both psychologically and physically–all under the same label: Freedom. (p.302)

The above excerpt is part of Slade’s treatise on the concept of landscape, a concept very much in accord with dark ecology. Landscapes are constructed by framing both objects and subjects. Delany envisions a society of Satellites that is fully landscaped: the inviolability of the subjective, which is what Morton calls the Beautiful Soul, maintains a split between self and world, an irresolvable chasm… ? (p.118). Unlike Bron, Slade recognizes the political forces that utilize the push and pull of language to enforce this split, which he says is yet another way for the rest of us to remain oblivious to other people’s pain. ? (p.303)

How language manipulates Bron and other emigrants isn’t directly apparent in the 3rd person narrative because it is 3rd person, but Delany does manage to step out of the 3rd person briefly in the novel itself. He gives the Spike a an epistolary voice that embodies the ebb and flow of language identified by Slade. The letter occurs in the middle of the novel but was the first part to be written. Her scathing diatribe makes explicit the unsympathetic response to Bron that Delany intended, giving voice to the reader’s sneaking suspicion that Bron is not a very nice man. ? (Concordia University).

The letter is introduced in the text by several paragraphs laden with medial elements that accentuate the epistolary qualities, such as delivery mechanism, return address, and opening salutation. In the letter itself, the Spike attempts to apply ambient poetics, including the As I write this… ? opening that Morton identifies as quintessential to ecomimesis. (p.32)

If it were seven o’clock in the evening instead of two in the morning I would just sign it there and send it but it is two o’clock in the morning with real moonlight coming over the Lahesh mountains and doing marvelous things to the rain that’s been falling against the window for the last three minutes…(p.191)

The rhetorical effect, though, is weakened by an additional element: the voice-scripter fails to work properly and frequently interjects her verbal commands instead of implementing those commands. The letter opens with Bron’s name but is immediately followed by an imperative not meant for him:

Bron, and then I guess you better put a colon no a dash–


This opening must be re-read several times to be understood, as it would also take Bron several readings to understand. The you ? being addressed is the instrument the Spike is using. This isn’t the opening of a letter but the record of someone writing the opening of a letter. The Spike’s intended opening sentence is cliched: The world is a small place. ? The instructions being explicit changes the sentence’s domain and imbues the statement with more energy; the subject isn’t the abstract concept the world ? but the letter itself, and the Spike has agency as the letter’s composer.

Slashes, dashes, and italics are expressed as imperatives for most of the letter and vitiate the ambient poetics the Spike tries to use. In the middle section, however, the voice-scripter begins to work properly as the Spike asserts her reasons for not liking Bron. These sentences are constructed so that Bron is assigned agency for actions that are destructive: I was offended at your assumption…I was amused/angered at your insistence…I thought your making Miriamne lose her job was horrible. ? (p.192) The voice-scripter reduces the effectiveness of the Spike’s poetic elements in the first part of the letter but transcribes her vitriol without interruption. Thus, her criticism feels ? true to the reader.

In a very concrete way, Delany uses language to withhold the Spike’s means of constructing her message except where that message is most destructive. This letter, which was the first thing written of the novel, models the way language is used in the novel to push and pull on readers’ sympathies concerning Bron; and the Spike is made complicit in this political process. The final paragraph of her letter begins with the charge that Bron’s faults are a result of emotional laziness, but in a moment of blatant hypocrisy, she chooses not to revise the letter before sending it. The disruptions of the voice-scripter, that reduce the effectiveness of her intended poetics, becomes intentional and is an element of ambient poetics: the Remark, that which differentiates between space and place. ? (p.49)

Like Bron, accusing the Spike of hypocrisy misapprehends her subject position. She is unable to take a critical view of herself; she can’t see her own assumptions nor discern her own emotional inertia. She is able to condemn Bron because she sees herself as separate and different, not only from him but from the entire Universe:

I’m angry–at the Universe for producing a person like you–and I want to rake up the coals. I want them to burn. (p.192)

Her statement simultaneously recalls the conversation where Bron says people like him should be exterminated and foreshadows the fiery destruction of Earth by the Satellites. This is the cry of the Beautiful Soul and expresses the attitude that makes possible the devastating war between the Satellites and the worlds Earth and Mars. The Spike, as much as Bron, is a Beautiful Soul; but she is a native of the Satellites and favored by the political forces that frustrate Bron, Slade, and other emigrants from the worlds.

Many readers of Trouble on Triton have understood Bron to be a singularly irredeemable jerk in a near-utopian society, and such an interpretation was certainly Delany’s intention. Or rather, such a misinterpretation was his intention. (Concordia University) Bron only appears to be unique in the Satellites because the narrative is told from his point of view. Delany framed the story so that Bron’s prejudices would become apparent to readers, and their attitudes toward him would shift not only once but twice by the end of the book.

The shifting attitude toward the protagonist reveals the influence of the story’s frame as it creates the narrative landscape, which, as Sam says in the first appendix, is the primary hero of the s-f novel. (p.282) Bron is not unique in the Satellites and is the product of them, as are Slade and the Spike. Far from being utopian, what is revealed by the Satellites is that at its extreme the inviolability of the subjective entails genocide–and that everyone is responsible for the destruction.

In my next post, I will explore the political implications of reading Trouble on Triton as dark ecology. What is made possible/impossible?

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