Language and Art at the Ends of Civilization

Snowman, returning to the Paradice compound in the final chapters of Oryx and Crake, finds his own writing: an open letter composed during the apocalyptic JUVE epidemic explaining the virus’s origin and calculated dissemination. The letter ends in an ellipsis: “As for Crake’s motives, I can only speculate. Perhaps…” (347). The blank space here might signal a failure of imagination, or a failure of words; and Snowman crumples the letter up, thinking that writing is impossible now that there’s no potential audience, no context. And so Snowman rejects the idea of keeping a diary, thinking that “even a castaway assumes a future reader, someone who’ll come along sooner or later and find his bones and his ledger, and learn his fate. Snowman can make no such assumption: he’ll have no future reader, because the Crakers can’t read. Any reader he can possibly imagine is in the past” (41). Writing would be wasted on a group of creatures who have been genetically engineered without an impulse toward art.

And yet, the Children of Crake are for Snowman both an audience and a medium. “These people were like blank pages,” he thinks during his first conversation with them, and “he could write whatever he wanted on them” (349). So Snowman begins telling them stories: explanatory myths about various objects they see on their journey to the sea, tales deifying their teacher, Oryx, and their creator, Crake, and of course the origin myth that the Children of Crake ask him to repeat on a regular basis. When writing for the old world fails, Jimmy becomes Snowman and transforms his mode into mythmaking for the new world. The relationship between Snowman and the Crakers is not just one of storyteller and audience; Snowman is also inscribing his stories on the Crakers so that they will pass them on to future generations, giving the myths the kind of longevity that his letter could not have.

Little wonder, then, that the Children of Crake create their first proto-artwork, an effigy of Snowman intended to effect his return, despite Crake’s precautions to splice out the artistic impulse. Snowman has been giving them art all along: he’s told them stories, he’s shown them pictures, he’s even taught them abstract thinking by making an illustration of “chaos.” In his earlier life, Jimmy believed that art came of romantic love, especially the unrequited kind; Crake, in a more utilitarian variation of this belief, opined that art’s purpose lay in the courtship ritual and was meant to attract females. But the Children of Crake mate only seasonally, and experience no sexual desire the rest of the time. Yet they are still capable of art—in rudimentary forms, perhaps, but recognizable ones. Writing is a technology they don’t have; but they know about stories and pictures and representations that are not the real thing. Where does their understanding of art come from, if not from love or from a particular gene?

I think perhaps Crake’s error lay in giving his creatures language. The ability to speak, of course, is one of the things that makes them seem human, or close enough to it; but language also means the capacity for symbolic thinking. If they can understand the relationship between a word and its referent, it’s not much of a leap to think of making a representation of Snowman or to understanding chaos through an abstract, non-mimetic picture. I also like the idea of language being the gateway for art because the capacity for language has a biological basis, though one that is little-understood. So we don’t have to think of biology and art as two separate spheres that are not imbricated in one another; on the contrary, language is a site of their overlap.

Cari Hovanec

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~ by Cari Hovanec on February 19, 2009.

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