Compulsion and Consent

I want to write this blog post in response to the question Dr. McCoy asked us to think about last class, as I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways in which the Clay’s Ark enclave might be better or worse than the outside world and the real world around us. I was unable to attend class today, so I’m not sure if this topic was discussed/what was said about it; my apologies if I repeat anything that has already been discussed, but I wanted to explore this topic and perhaps I will bring up something new along the way.

Butler makes it impossible, I think, for readers to be totally comfortable with the way people live in the Clay’s Ark enclave. That being said, some of the benefits of the way people live in the enclave are also made quite clear. It seems as if these benefits are most easily identified when we look at the enclave as a community, especially within the greater context of the rest of the world that surrounds it. While car families and bike gangs ravage the outside world, committing unspeakable crimes and struggling to meet their basic needs, the people in the enclave seem to be getting by with relative ease. They grow food in gardens and raise livestock, and even when they do leave the enclave for supplies, it seems as if there is little struggle involved in doing so. Crimes that are commonplace in the outside world, especially in the “sewers”, seem to be virtually non-existent within the enclave – people have no reason to steal or murder. There is a sense of unity, a common understanding among the people of the enclave that binds its people together in a way that seems impossible in the world outside of it. The people of the enclave recognize that they are bound to one another and seem to realize not only the value of working together in a cooperative society, but also the futility of acting out against their own society. Their seclusion and solidarity serve as protection from the chaotic and dangerous world around them. Seemingly safe and having their basic needs provided for, it appears that life in the enclave is not so bad – juxtaposed with the world outside of it, it may even seem like a good way to live.

 

But then, something about the enclave repels me, makes me think I could never be content living there. Something makes me understand the way Blake and Rane desperately want to leave the enclave and never go back, despite the safety it offers them and the consequences they face by escaping. I have been contemplating this, trying to figure out what it is about the way people live in the enclave and why it makes me uncomfortable. At times, while reading Clay’s Ark, I became frustrated with Blake’s determination to leave the enclave – if he leaves, he’ll start an epidemic, and since he’s already infected, why not just join the society and carry on with life? But something always brings me back to understanding his drive to leave the enclave, and even now, knowing that he was the one who started the worldwide epidemic because of his unwillingness to stay with Eli’s people, I cannot demonize him for wanting to get away.

 

Dr. McCoy’s question about comparing the enclave with the outside world and the real world that we live in is what led me to finally realizing exactly what it is about the enclave that makes me unwilling and unable to accept it as better than its alternatives. The people in the enclave benefit in certain ways from both their disease and their way of life, but here’s what bothers me: they did not choose to live this way, and they cannot choose to live any other way. We have discussed the role of consent in this novel, and I think it plays a very central one. My initial thought was that the people in the enclave have lost much of their humanity, and that is what bothers me about it. Then I thought, what exactly is humanity? I think humanity can be defined in many different ways and be applied in many contexts. In the enclave, it seems the piece of humanity that is missing is the people’s freedom and ability to choose their own paths – to consent to the things that go on in their lives. Sure, their disease makes them physically and mentally stronger, but they did not consent to having this disease in the first place. It might be easy to see their strength as a benefit, but who says they want to be strong? People in the enclave are always paired with someone to be their partner, but they do not get to choose this partner for themselves. Very important human choices that have profound impacts on people, like whether or not to act upon sexual drive or become pregnant, are stripped away from people in the enclave. Their disease gives them a compulsion that makes them need to do things like infect people and have sex. Not only did they not have the choice to get this disease in the first place, but once they have it, these people do not have the choice to consent to their own bodies and minds.

 

The Clay’s Ark disease takes away people’s right to choose between impulse and reason, and instead forces them to act on compulsion while putting aside their will. As Blake relentlessly tries to escape from Eli’s people, I think he is really running from his own feelings of compulsion, trying desperately to hang on to whatever semblance of willpower and freedom of choice that he has left. He no longer has total control of his body and mind, as we see when he tries to rape his own daughter and infects a truck driver. What he can do, though, is force himself to run from the enclave, even when he knows it can provide him safety and prevent the spread of the disease to the whole world. Part of him wants to stay in the enclave, as much as he hates to admit it to himself. One thing he can choose though, one thing he can control as he loses parts of himself, is to run from Eli’s people. In running away from the enclave, Blake runs from the people who essentially took away his power of consent, clinging to his ability to choose to reject their society and acceptance of their condition. Blake seems to be very afraid of the fact that he is losing the freedom to consent to his very own body and mind. I can understand this, as the thought of not being able to control my own being because of a compulsion like the one caused by the disease in Clay’s Ark is, to me, terrifying.

I hope this post makes some amount of sense – I’m still trying to process this novel and work out its nuances in my head. Clay’s Ark is an incredibly complex piece of fiction, and I’m absolutely impressed with Butler’s talent after reading it. Her ability to put a reader inside the heads of so many different characters and force us to understand and feel things that perhaps we have never felt or understood is astounding.

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