Patricia Anthony's Cradle of Splendor

©1997 L.Timmel Duchamp

Patricia Anthony's Cradle of Splendor is a fascinating, provocative political thriller. While its extended opening scene only hints at the stakes of the characters' often covert contention, it reveals straight off the tendency of the characters to (a) talk (or perceive) at cross-purposes (sometimes with grievous consequences), especially where sex and gender are concerned and (b) always serve associations and interests that are either invisible to arrogant eyes or deliberately concealed. But then Anthony's characters-- across the spectrum of her novels-- generally do not enjoy mutual knowledge of one another; power relations always figure seriously in how her characters perceive and relate to one another.

The extended opening scene shows most of the novel's cast of characters watching the lift-off of a Brazilian rocket. In an utterly paradigmatic exchange, Roger, a NASA nerd, UFO buff, and CIA spy, asks Brazilian artist and CIA-trained spy Delores Sim what she makes of the rocket. Delores says (quite correctly, in the symbolic terms of the novel) that the rocket looks to her like a big breast with a gray nipple, "useless as tits on a boar." Spy nerd Roger doesn't get it. His response is to whoop loudly, "nearly fall onto the Sudanese ambassador's wife," and say "God! So cool! I love it when a woman talks dirty!" The reference to the boar goes right over his head. By contrast, most of the men watching see only a "big dick." As Delores says to the nerd (one day later), "You know the problem with men? They have tunnel vision. It comes from looking at everything through their dicks... A little bitty hole, Roger. The penis has this little bitty hole." Here she isn't talking about what he sees when he looks at the rocket, but what he sees when he looks at photographs of her, when she was younger, hiking through the Amazon and the Andes. As Delores says, "The Amazon jungle. The Andes. And all it [i.e., Roger's "tunnel vision"] lets you see is a good-looking chick in khakis." Who can be surprised when because she derides his inability to see her in anything other than sex-object terms, he tells her she's a lesbian?

This "seeing through the dick" fuels the action of the book. The president-- and dictator-- of Brazil is a black woman, Ana Bonfim, a long-time close friend of Delores. Their relationship-- the central relationship in the book-- is caught up in the frustration and obstacles that are the consequences of the extent to which male power and plots shape who they are and how they perceive themselves and the world. Ana has what is essentially a deal-with-the-devil, whereby a special source provides her (and Brazil) with items of powerful technology (cold fusion, room-temperature super-conductivity, anti-gravity) that not only lift Brazil out of poverty but also allow her to enforce social reforms that benefit women and the poor. But her deal with the devil makes her complicit with abuses of power that she is completely incapable of controlling. Moreover, she has a history of abusive relationships with men (from which Delores has several times in the past "liberated" her by murdering the men-- which is the main use to which she has put her CIA training). Most of the action in the book, however, involves the US's panic and rage over Brazil's possession of the technology (and of course it doesn't help that a black woman is their principal "opponent," which makes US media and government officials even more hysterically virulent than usual). Once the rocket goes up-- and precisely because it fails as a normal rocket is clearly seen to be powered by anti-gravity-- the US gets hysterical (a la Iraqi crisis-hysterical) and manufactures an excuse to attack and destroy Brazil (which has no defensive capability and doesn't even try to defend itself). It's no accident that the battered-wife scenario appears at several levels, from the concrete to the metaphorical to the elaborately symbolic. Ana and Delores were battered wives; Delores killed Ana's batterer, and Ana in turn has made it possible for Brazilian women to deal with their batterers. For the women, battering is a concrete, known, material evil. But the men talk about battering (and killing) women metaphorically and symbolically (which follows, of course, from "seeing through the dick"). Ultimately, the book is extremely pessimistic about women working with phallic forms and structures to achieve an agency that is free of male control.

Seeing through the dick is one of the three axes of the book. (All the axes intersect through the phallus/penis, which is, conceptually, the zero-point of the book.) Another axis is the knowledge/technology axis. "You don't know dick," one male character says to another early on in the novel. This is another telling expressing that at first glance one tends to read as just another boy-talk cliché (like the "talking dirty" misconnaisance I mentioned above). Most of the men in the book take "dick" (the phallus) and "knowledge" or "science" as equivalents. US and Japanese corporate executives and US government officials (and CIA officers) are all bent out of shape over Brazil's apparent possession of advanced technology not only because they see this technology as deeply threatening their own political and economic interests (though that is the most explicit level on which the discussion takes place), but because they conflate that technology with a bigger and more powerful "dick." Anthony has these government and corporate characters mixing up the levels of discussion without even noticing they're doing it. This is true to real-life, of course. (For an explication, see Carol Cohn's justly famous and influential article on the language of nuclear weapons, "Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals," Signs 12, 4; Summer, 1987.) Such talk sounds and feels cool and cute and in-control to the men-- but Anthony makes the significance of the linguistic conflation inescapable, especially as she reveals the source of the Brazillians' technology. (It's all a question of instrumentality, I suppose one could say.) Interestingly, the men themselves are confused about the relative power found in science and that found in raw military force. (I.e., they aren't sure where the real phallus is when the powers of science and the military are competing in an all-out pecking-order struggle.) We see this explicitly played out with Roger, the NASA nerd who is terrified of the CIA officers who are running him, and in the simultaneous articulation of idolization of Roger's scientific knowledge by the CIA station chief (who has been running him) even as he is preparing to kill him. This station chief, by the way, also indulges a riff about romantic love and how romantic love almost requires battering and murder and how the ultimate form of romantic love is necrophilism and beyond (the "beyond" being the deliberate "creation of the corpse" solely to have it to idolize, and not simply to possess the object of the romance-- i.e., deliberately creating the object to idolize with the full intent of doing so, rather than simply trying to control the object after one finds oneself idolizing her or him).

The third axis is sex in general and, more specifically, a homophobic sexuality that Anthony clearly sees as a twisted form of homoeroticism. (I don't believe she's implying that all homosexual relationships are based on homophobia, but rather that the stronger a man's homophobia, the stronger his repressed sexual desire for men, which may, if I understand her correctly, be directly related to the degree to which the man is obsessed which phallic power.) At any rate, the homophobic male sexuality in the novel is all tied up with phallic obsessions and confusions. And in any case, as far as the sexual goes in this book, where men are concerned, their "seeing through their dicks" makes them totally destructive-- and blindly self-destructive. For the female characters, though their own sexual desires make them more vulnerable to this idiotic phallic destructiveness, since they don't basically "see through" their own genitals, their problem is getting caught up in seeing through men's (i.e., in adopting the "tunnel vision" that comes through that "very small hole" in the penis). In other words, their own sexual desire and pleasure is not destructive or generative of genital "tunnel vision" per se, only likely to sway them to seeing through male genital tunnel vision. It is the phallus that is the empty zero, the all-important determinant that makes people unable to see straight or behave decently...

Maybe I haven't gotten this right. But Anthony puts it all so explicitly it's hard to believe it's not intentional (particularly since I believe her rage at the Gulf War is the driving energy behind the novel). The women aren't victims; the men aren't monsters. But the desire for the phallus makes all of them tragically unable to see or understand what they're doing, either to the people they supposedly love, or to the world at large.

March, 1997

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