Dr. Adam Johns
Seminar in Composition
14 November 2014
In today’s world, most individuals find the idea of abolishing history absurd. As Winston Churchill said, “Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.” Many people believe it is best we understand history and learn from it. If we fail to do so, we are destined to recreate the past. However, throughout the first book of the Lilith’s Brood trilogy by Octavia Butler, the Oankali present the idea of erasing history. They seem to think that history in the hands of humans will cause more harm than good. They finish destroying the Earth the humans left in rubbles and begin to create a new one. According to what most humans believe, this will only result in an unfortunate repetition of history. But, would it really be bad if history did happen to repeat itself? I believe Butler struggles with this question throughout the novel. She contemplates the idea of rethinking our views and adopting views similar to the Oankali.
As the book unfolds, we find that the human race has nearly destroyed itself by means of “humanicide” or nuclear warfare. The few humans who did survive were captured by the Oankali. The Oankali have spent a great deal of time attempting to repair the earth. They have gone so far as to mutate plant life and completely change animals. When Jdahya informs Lilith of how the Oankali have destroyed what ruins were left on earth she becomes flustered:
“You destroyed them? There were things left and you destroyed them?”
“You’ll begin again. We’ll put you in areas that are clean of radioactivity and history. You will become something other than you were.”
“And you think destroying what was left of our cultures will make us better?”
“No. Only different” (Butler 74).
The Oankali seem to function by abolishing history entirely and recreating their lives. They feel as though destroying history is the only way to a fresh start. Another instance where the Oankali show they want to discard history is shown when Lilith asks to have a piece of paper and a pen. Lilith believes this is a simple request. She only wants pen and paper to aid her in learning the language of the Oankali. However, Nikanj responds to this request quite angerly:
“I cannot give you such things. Not to write or to read.”
“It is not allowed. The people have decided that it should not be allowed” (Butler 132).
Leading up to this exchange of words, Lilith was spelling out names in the soil. After a short while, the letters would disappear. She wanted paper to document what she was learning and to potentially speed up the learning process. The Oankali, however, do not allow Lilith to document the words she is learning. This would create records of history and since the Oankali believe in forgetting about the past, they deny Lilith’s request.
As we can see, the Oankali spend a great deal of time expunging history. Consequently, as Winston Churchill predicted, history is shown repeating itself. One instance of the repetition of histroy is seen with the reversion to the caveman lifestyle. Although the Oankali and Lilith herself deny the occurrence of this event, it admittedly does take place. The individuals being Awakened on the ship must learn how to survive on the newly developed earth. This means an entirely unfamiliar environment. Nikanj describes the new earth stating:
“There are new plants—mutations of old ones and additions we’ve made. Some things that used to be edible are lethal now. Some things are deadly only if they aren’t prepared properly. Some of the animal life isn’t as harmless as it apparently once was. Your Earth is still your Earth, but between the efforts of your people to destroy it and ours to restore it, it has changed” (Butler 63).
Nothing will be familiar on earth and the humans must adapt to their new environment. Lilith must teach them “to live in forests, build their own shelters, and raise their own food all without machines or outside help” (Butler 60). They will be without technology, without shelter, with their normal cooking methods. They will be forced to live like the cavemen did. This may sound awful at first, but the social life of cavemen is a particularly desirable one. Erik Kennedy writes about the lives of cavemen, discussing primarily the concept known as Paleo-social. This idea is relates to the fact “that we would be healthier if our social lives more closely resembled those of Paleolithic man” (Kennedy). The reasoning behind his concept is quite simple. As Kennedy explains:
“In study after study, having and spending time with close friends is consistently correlated with happiness and well-being. And yet, the last few decades in America have seen a remarkable decline in many things associated with being in a tight-knit social circle—things like family and household size, club participation, and number of close friends. Conversely, we’ve seen an increase in things associated with being alone—TV, commutes, and the internet, for example” (Kennedy).
Removing technology would be beneficial to the welfare of humans. Humans would interact with one another and work together within the community. Perhaps humans may even begin to work harder. More recently, humans (Americans specifically) have been classified with the stereotype of lazy. We do less work ourselves than ever before. We either hire other individuals or depend on technology to complete our work. Reverting to the caveman lifestyle would abolish this unhealthy habit. As Karen Deis writes, “Cavemen were the very first entrepreneurs. If they didn't hustle their butts off, they would starve and die. They had to be resilient and cunning and always thinking ahead to know where their next meal would be coming from. Then came the industrial revolution.” When technology began to grow, humans began to rely heavily on machines. The workload of the common person diminished dramatically. Life became much easier with access to packaged food and machine made clothing. Perhaps returning to this hard-working lifestyle would make humans appreciate life more.
While repeating history could be beneficial, Butler does not neglect the negative events that could reoccur as well. For instance, the idea of slavery is brought to life in Lilith’s Brood. The definition of slavery as written in the Slavery Convention Reads, “Slavery is the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised”(Allain 240). From the moment Lilith is Awakened, she is kept slave by the Oankali. She must remain where the Oankali place her and complete tasks asked of her. Even as her relationship with her captors appears to progresses, she has no real freedom. Lilith has no chemical control over the ship and she “would go on being a prisoner, forced to stay wherever they chose to leave her. She would not be permitted even the illusion of freedom” (Butler 100). As the book progresses and Lilith begins to awake other humans, they too become slaves to the Oankali. The Oankali begin to drug the humans in order to make chemical adjustments. Peter in particular is very disturbed by this. His reaction is depicted as so:
“Under their influence, Peter might have laughed at anything. Under their influence, he accepted union and pleasure. When that influence was allowed to wane and Peter began to think, he apparently decided he had been humiliated and enslaved. The drug seemed to him to be not a less painful way of getting used to frightening nonhumans, but a way of turning him against himself, causing him to demean himself in alien perversions. His humanity was profaned. His manhood was taken away” (Butler 352).
Taking away the freedom of an individual pays a toll on their mind. Anxiety can be developed and well as a form of PTSD. Once a human being is stripped of their rights and forced to perform tasks, they live in a continuous state of danger. This can lead to the harm of themselves or others. Too many individuals have suffered the pain of dehumanization already and inflicting this pain on even more people is unnecessary.
While Octavia Butler uses Lilith’s Brood as a platform to question the idea of erasing history, I believe she prefers the idea of learning from history. History is undoubtedly important. The past tells us much about the problems we face now. If we do not listen, we may end up where we began. The power of history has shaped us into the beings we are today, and it must continue to do so in order for humans to properly progress.
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Kennedy, Erik D. "On the Social Lives of Cavemen." Erik D Kennedy. N.p., May 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. <http://erikdkennedy.com/essays/social-lives-cavemen.php>.
Trompf, G.W. The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, From Antiquity to the Reformation. N.p.: n.p., n.d. University of California Press. Web. 6 Nov. 2014. <http://www.ucpress.edu/op.php?isbn=9780520034792>.