This post was directly inspired by and partially a response to Abby’s wonderful post. In this post, she makes a connection between commentary by Toni Morrison on how “slavery broke the world” and the way Jemisin has Alabaster literally destroy the earth in defiance of the slavery orogenes are put in to.
I won’t elaborate any further on this connection, Abby has already done such a wonderful job with it, but I do want to continue the discussion of slavery in the lens of a book I have been reading for another course: The Fall, by Albert Camus.
For those of you who haven’t read any Camus (though it is likely you’re at least familiar with his most famous work, The Stranger), he was a French journalist, writer, and actor and is generally considered an existentialist (although he did not consider himself to be one). Existentialism is a philosophy I have a complicated relationship with, but the basic idea (at least the Camus version, which he called the philosophy of the absurd) is that there is no God and no meaning in life set by a higher power than humans, so the onus is on us to create a meaningful life for ourselves. If you’re interested in a more nuanced and detailed explanation, “The Myth of Sisyphus” is a good place to start.
*Note: I read The Fall in French – any quotations and page numbers that I use are found in this translation.
Toward the aim of exploring this philosophy, Camus wrote The Fall, the confessional of Jean-Paul Clamence, a once-successful lawyer from Paris who has moved to Amsterdam after experiencing a series of unfortunate events that make him realize that life has no higher meaning and there is no such thing as true innocence. He spends his time in a bar telling his life story and preaching this higher truth to others. The basic message of this novel, as well as The Stranger, is that because of the lack of higher meaning, all humans play the role of “judge-penitent” – that is, we judge both ourselves and others (thus becoming both judge of others and penitent in the eyes of others) and in this way, we are all collectively responsible for crimes of humanity.
One of the most compelling things about The Fall is Camus’ exploration of the individual’s place in society, and this is where the aspect of slavery comes in. According to the book, we have never really shed slavery, only transmuted it into other forms. A section where Clemence makes fun of his Parisian contemporaries reads “Slavery?—certainly not, we are against it! That we should be forced to establish it at home or in our factories—well, that’s natural; but boasting about it, that’s the limit! (16). That is to say, exploiting workers in factories or the dominance of men in the home (keep in mind this was published in 1956) is just slavery that we feel good about. “Isn’t it better that whoever cannot do without having slaves should call them free men? For the principle to begin with, and, secondly, not to drive them to despair. We owe them that compensation, don’t we? In that way, they will continue to smile and we shall maintain our good conscience” (17).
Of course, this is not better at all – the narrator is morally corrupt and serves as a lens to examine our own ideas and self-image (literally, the narrator is speaking directly to the reader in the form of 2nd person narration and directly asks the reader many questions, thereby forcing the reader to come to terms with their own complicity in the crimes of humanity, among other things), but it does raise the point that we really haven’t shed slavery in our own world, which Abby’s post points out through the words of Morrison, but not just in legacy – it still exists in form too, though we prefer to call it other things – sweatshop labor, patriarchal dominance of the household, racism, sexism, and all the other -isms, among others. The key is that it is all based on people’s self-asserted power over other people.
I think the scene in The Obelisk Gate where Essun destroys the ballot box is the best example of this form of slavery – though they are not technically enslaving the orogenes in the way that the Fulcrum does, the citizens of Castrima are given undue power over the orogenes of Castrima, Camus’ definition. In this sense, Essun’s actions, which I am still struggling with, could be viewed in the light of liberation, where she removes the ability of non-orogenes to wield power over her and the others, her act of dictatorship is still problematic – she becomes the enslaver in the act of becoming the one in power.
I specifically said “undue power” because there is an aspect of Camus’ theory of modern slavery that I find problematic, which is the insinuation that any and all power is bad. Sometimes, power is good – as Camus himself wrote in The Fall, society as we know it would fall apart without it. Personally, I am generally fine with the power that democratically elected leaders have over us (though I have recently found many exceptions to this rule thanks to recent developments in American politics as well as finding more as I learn more about world history). However, if society as we knew it fell apart, would it necessarily be a bad thing? Maybe we could find a way to escape the trap of modern slavery.
To quote Abby, “Thus, Alabaster shattered the earth. Despite being motivated by those same undertones identified by Morrison, his actions do not further a literal and societal broken earth (as opposed to those of the orogenes who lost the moon), but instead are meant to end it.” Maybe Camus believed we were trapped in eternal slavery (though we don’t call it that), but maybe, there’s a way to end it by ending the world and starting over again.