Patricia Anthony's Cradle of Splendor


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
©1997 L.Timmel Duchamp
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