Abstract: This essay argues that Lessing’s The Fifth Child opens with the parturition Gothic centered around pregnancy with an unindividuated monstrous and childbirth with an individuated one, but an individual whose ontological identity is uncertain. In the second section, the essay looks at the emergence of the maternal Gothic where the mother has to deal with the Thing that is also, at once, her child. In the final section, on the familial Gothic, the essay shows how the spaces of the family and family relations are reconfigured around Ben. Finally, I demonstrate that Lessing’s posthuman vision is presented as a species Gothic where the boundaries of the human merge with other species. The Human in Lessing’s novel might be characterized by the ability and desire to accommodate/incorporate, difference.
Keywords: Doris Lessing, posthumanism, gothic, uncanny, monstrous, crisis of perception, familial relations, intimate interiority, symbiotic relationship, postcolonial studies
Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child (1988), presents a progressive escalation of horror from pregnancy and parturition through the maternal, the family and finally to the human race and its lineage/ continuity itself. This horror, the essay argues, offers us particular versions of the Gothic, from the gynaecological to the species Gothic.1
At the centre of this multilayered Gothic is the Thing, Ben. Gary Farnell (2009) proposes that the Gothic is the name for the encounter with the Thing, which stands for absolute otherness, the sheer terrifying void, within the Real, and which resists all symbolizations. One develops, argues Farnell, an extimacy (Jacques Lacan’s term for ‘intimate exteriority’) with the Thing. Extimacy means the Thing ‘may be at once inside and outside one’s home, one’s family, or one’s self’ (Farnell 113). There is both attraction and revulsion at the Thing. Farnell also categorizes the Thing as ‘real-as-absence’ which is at the heart of all Gothic ontology (121). Farnell’s account of the Thing is a useful mode of approaching Ben’s position, identity and role in the Lovatt family and in the human race itself. Admittedly, Lessing does widen the (tragic) possibilities of Ben in her sequel, Ben, in the World. But it is in The Fifth Child that most of these themes are put in place far more powerfully and horrifically.
The Thing in Lessing is the radical, disruptive Other, Ben, at the centre of the self, the family and the race/species. Lessing eventually modulates the Thing-centered Gothic into a species Gothic and concludes with a vision that is posthuman. The horror is not the Thing itself but its relationship – simultaneously inside and outside – with the maternal body, the family and the human race itself. Fittingly, therefore, Lessing opens with the parturition Gothic.
The Parturition Gothic
The novel opens with two socially inept individuals, Harriett and David, meeting each other and getting married. Right away Lessing emphasizes the parturition theme: both ‘announced they ‘would not mind ‘a lot of children’ (13). When they acquire a new house (to which we shall turn later in the essay), David makes love to Harriet ‘with a deliberate, concentrated intensity,’ at a time when ‘she was at the height of her fertility’ (15). Lessing inaugurates the parturition theme by carefully drawing attention to the mutual desire for children. There is no reluctant motherhood resulting from an invasion/impregnation of the woman’s body – the staple of sci-fi horror – here: the motherhood is voluntary and eagerly participatory. Horror results when routine motherhood goes inexplicably wrong and results in teratogenesis (the medical term for monstrous births).
The parturition Gothic in Lessing’s novel has two components, both revolving around the question of individuation: (i) pregnancy and childbirth and (ii) the arrival of the infant and the subsequent responses of the mother. The first is the moment of the unindividuated monstrous and the second of the individuated one. The horror lies in the blurring of these two categories in Harriet’s pregnancy and the birth of the Thing.
The Unindividuated Monstrous
The parturition Gothic opens with pregnancy. Pregnancy constitutes an invisible and unindividuated monstrous in itself (since the monster, in its very etymology, is about revelation, about the future) here because the foetus and the mother are together, in a cataclysmic and unindividuated self, that is a sign of the events to come. The unindividuated monstrous is a symptom of the future. It is the unnameable Thing inside Harriet. Working the parturition Gothic for all the foetus-related horror possible, Lessing portrays the foetus as some-thing unnameable yet real. The unindividuated monstrous is a foetus inside of and connected to the mother but yet feels alien to her.
In Lessing, the foetus-as-unindividuated monstrous is prepared for by accounts of her early pregnancies. The first symptomatic sign is Harriet’s second pregnancy: she is uncomfortable and sick (25), but decides that she has not ‘changed her mind at all about six (or eight or ten) children’ (25). The second sign comes in the form of David’s sister Sarah, who delivers a child with Down’s syndrome (28). Together these two signs suggest a parturition narrative that has something lined up in the future.
Soon enough Harriet is pregnant and we now receive the first full-scale markers of the ‘gynaecological Gothic’ in Lessing’s graphic account. In most popular cultural forms dealing with the gynaecological Gothic, Andrew Scahill (2010) notes, the pregnant woman feels herself invaded, and at the mercy of the unborn child. (Lucy Fischer, 1992, points out that, in the gynaecological Gothic, the mother has an antagonistic relation with the foetus inside her.) The (human) mother herself is made monstrous by the horrific (alien?) secret within her. Harriet’s fifth pregnancy proceeds badly. She believes she is being ‘poisoned’ by the foetus inside her (41). She feels an ‘imperative’ beat inside her and ‘hard’ movements (45). Harriet cannot believe that ‘such a tiny creature could be showing such fearful strength’ (49-50), and as a result she is in constant pain. Harriet begins to imagine that what she is carrying is a chimera, ‘pathetic botched creatures,’ hybrids and deformed creatures (52). This supposedly unindividuated monstrous is begin to show signs of something alien inside her.
This marks the uncanny extimate relation of mother and foetus in Harriet’s case. The extimate, writes Mladen Dolar, is ‘located where the most intimate interiority coincides with the exterior, provoking horror and anxiety … [It is] simultaneously the intimate kernel and the foreign body’ (1991: 6). Whatever is growing inside her, connected to her, feeding off her, is at once the extreme of intimate interiority and is yet external to Harriet. The extimate and its uncanny is an anterior moment to the theme of the alien, as we shall see.
Though there is absolutely no suggestion anywhere in the novel that her pregnancy is the unexpected result of any scientific experiment, Lessing refers us to a quasi-scientific explanation for the creature in Harriet’s womb. This move is a crucial one for it suggests that hybrid creatures, or hybridization, cannot be controlled by science (Squier 1998). Lessing uses ‘foetus’ and ‘creature’ alternately from this point, suggesting an uncertainty over the identity. Harriet screams out to the doctor that what is inside her is ‘absolutely different’ (59, emphasis in original), as her stomach ‘heav[es] and seeth[es]’ (59). This heaving seething foetus inside is the Thing: unnameable, defying descriptiuon, a Real without a label.
Horror dawns upon the mother when she realizes that whatever is inside her is already in an antagonistic relation to her. That whatever is inside is eager to come out, to separate (individuate) from her: ‘seemed to be trying to tear its way out of her stomach’ (49). What ought to stay within, and in a symbiotic relationship with the mother’s body, is described as alien, poisonous and seeking exit and independence. Lessing has already subverted the unindividuated nature of the foetus here by suggesting a remarkably monstrous individuation at work – which seems to mark the foetus as a Thing at once inside and outside the symbiotic relationship.
The Individuated Monstrous
The parturition Gothic has its climactic moment in the childbirth when whatever is inside Harriet’s womb emerges as a recognizably individuated individual. When Ben emerges into the world he is eleven pounds in weight, does not look like a baby, is ‘heavy-shouldered’ with a weirdly shaped head, yellow hair, thick heavy hands, green-yellow eyes, like ‘lumps of soapstone’ (60). Yet, Lessing ensures that the physiognomy and anatomy are not the truly horrific things about Ben. The parturition Gothic can only achieve its most intense horror in the mother-baby relation at the moment of birth, i.e., the moments after the separation of the two bodies. Lessing’s narrative acquires its searing intensity not because of Ben’s obvious physical difference but in his parents’, especially his mother’s reaction, to him.
He opened his eyes and looked straight up into his mother’s face. She [Harriet] had been waiting to exchange looks with this creature … but there was no recognition there … her heart contracted with pity … poor little beast, his mother disliking him so much… (60)
Acceptance, recognition and the forging of a relation is what the parturition Gothic of Lessing subverts to generate horror.
Ben as a foetus, we have seen, blurs the individuated/ unindividuated distinction. Inside Harriet, even though a foetus still connected to the mother, he is distinctive and works as an alien presence, at least in Harriet’s perception. Once outside, as a separate entity, Harriet feels pity for him because she is his mother. Thus, when Ben ought to be unindividuated (inside) he appears as an alien – Harriet does not, at any point in this pregnancy, think of what is inside her as a part of herself, as her child. Once out in the world, Harriet feels pity, recognizes him as her child. What had seemed alien when inside is now, ironically, identified as her child, even though his physiognomy situates Ben outside the ‘normal’ child category.
The parturition Gothic is the consequence of this messy overturning of individuated identities and their borders. From the horror of the parturition Gothic to the maternal Gothic is a progressive step in the novel.
The Maternal Gothic
‘I wonder what the mother would like, the one who would welcome this – alien’ (62).
These are Harriet’s thoughts on seeing Ben whom she has just delivered. Interestingly, Harriet’s thoughts are on motherhood: what kind of mother wouldn’t mind Ben, who would welcome Ben. She is uncertain whether, despite the biological connection, she is the ‘right’ mother for Ben. This one thought is the inaugural moment of the maternal Gothic in the novel.
The maternal Gothic is embodied in Harriet’s encounter with the Thing and her subsequent relations with it. The Thing, writes Farnell, is ‘located inside and outside language or culture or art’ (113). Harriet’s first attempts to describe Ben gesture at the impossibility of having a symbol for Ben. He defeats naming, symbolization, but must yet be named. ‘He’s like a troll, or a goblin or something,’ is Harriet’s first set of nouns for Ben when he first emerges into the world (61, emphasis added). ‘What is he?’ is Harriet’s anguished cry a little later (66). He is ‘an angry, hostile little troll’ (69).
The maternal Gothic is the consequence of a disruption in what Laurel Bollinger in her reading of Octavia Butler terms the ‘placental economy’ (2007). The placental economy insists, suggests Bollinger, on absolute alterity and intimate connection. There is ‘emphasis on separation must be understood in the context of a broader call for connection, even fusion’ (327). There is ‘an insistence on connection between two fully-realized subjectivities’ (328). The placenta is a ‘model for human interaction,’ ‘a physiological structure that protects both mother and fetus’ and therefore ‘a metaphor that enables the exploration of intersubjective fusion’ (329). That is, Bollinger proposes a simultaneous othering and a fusion, where all subjectivity is intersubjectivity. The maternal Gothic works because the placental economy which would have given both Ben and Harriet the necessary intersubjectivity where they are individuals and fused from/in the womb breaks down in the extimate relationship noted above. We have already noted the disruptive conditions of individuation in Lessing. Harriet experiences Ben-the-foetus as an alien. Upon birth, he is alien, but ‘poor Ben’. Ben’s mimicking of Harriet’s description, ‘poor Ben’ in the latter parts of the book suggests a certain awareness of how his subjectivity has been shaped by the maternal. Yet this is never allowed, in Lessing’s scheme of things, to dominate.
Ben is rarely referred to as a child, or treated as one. He is just ‘it,’ a Thing that exists at the heart of the family, but for which they really have no name. Ben defies categories, even for his mother. Following Farnell’s formulation it is possible to argue that Ben is the real-as- absence. He is undeniably real, but has no ‘meaning’ within the institutions and familial relations in which he is (supposedly embedded). Ben’s violence (he kills a cat, a dog and attacks Paul) is very real if inexplicable. Harriet foregrounds the undeniable reality that is Ben when she complains: ‘after a day with Ben I feel as if nothing exists but him. As if nothing ever existed. I suddenly realize I haven’t remembered the others for hours’ (79). Ben ensures that Harriet is the maternal presence only for him, even though there is no sign that he sees her as Mother. He denies the maternal to the other children, as Harriet acknowledges. We are back at the blurred borders of individuated/unindividuated mother- child relation here – where Harriet’s world is circumscribed by Ben.
Ellen Moers (1976) had famously identified a ‘female Gothic’ tradition in which women labored, literally and figuratively, afraid of entrapment within the domestic/familial and within the female body, whose most terrifying experience was in childbirth. The Gothic has consistently portrayed the woman as ‘trapped’ in the house/domesticity and at risk within the home, threatened by invasion of her home and her body. While this dated definition does, to a considerable extent, describe Harriet’s condition in the novel, Lessing pushes the nature of entrapment in a wholly new direction. Her rejection by Ben suggests, to her, that she is not really a mother to him: ‘nothing in his touch or look ever seemed to say, This is my mother’ (73). Harriet remarks that women before birth control would have been terrified of getting pregnant, but ‘they weren’t afraid of giving birth to a troll’ (79). She is a primary care- giver who will never be identified or recognized as such. Her dislike and fear of Ben is at the heart of the maternal Gothic where Ben is at once inside the mother-child relation and outside of it.
Harriet could be seen as a victim of a patriarchal set up where she is the primary care-giver to Ben. David, as the novel and Ben’s ‘difficult’ behavior progresses, slowly detaches himself from the home and family, spending more time at his work, to bring in extra income. Yet, the horror of Harriet’s life is not the domesticity entrapment alone, but her awareness of what she has produced. Harriet admits her own monstrosity: ‘it was not with love, or even affection, that she thought of him, and she disliked herself intensely for not being able to find one little spark of normal feeling’ (93-4). As Clare Hanson points out, Harriet’s ‘care for Ben is motivated not by love … but by duty and the memory of what she has done for her other children’ (2007: 175).
The maternal Gothic moves the horror beyond parturition to the mother-child relation here. Harriet is unable to come to terms with Ben’s individuated self that rejects (even) her completely. Her own response to him frightens and saddens her. From this maternal Gothic to the familial Gothic is but a step.
The Familial Gothic
The familial Gothic in Lessing emerges in a set of related themes, all involving Ben. There are two components to Lessing’s familial Gothic both of which are classical Gothic tropes: the spaces of the family and familial relations.
In the early stages of the novel Lessing paints for us a picture of highly fertile couple in a large house hoping to have several children. In keeping with Gothic conventions of large houses, the house David and Harriet eventually buy is a ‘large Victorian house in an overgrown garden’ (13). It was ‘absurd, a three-storeyed house, with an attic, full of rooms, corridors, landings…’ (13). There is plenty of space (14) and light (15). David and Harriet’s bedroom itself is described as ‘progenitive’ by David (25), thereby recalling a traditional Gothic motif of haunted spaces with supernatural or preternatural powers that intervene in human affairs. It is precisely these very features that become the site of the familial Gothic.
In the ‘big living-room where all the family were,’ Ben’s ‘presence effected people, and they tended to go away’ (69). In the ‘baby’s room’ Ben spends a lot of time at the very high window-sill ‘surveying the outside world’ and ‘letting out his thick, raucous cries’ (73). During Christmas he is kept confined to the room (73). People go up to the room to look at Ben, out of a ‘fearful, uneasy curiosity’ (74). The room is his ‘little prison’ (75), and even the rest of the house ‘was not the same’ (73). Doors in the house have to be kept locked for fear that Ben would attack the family members in their sleep (115). Soon their daughter Jane spends more time away from home, with friends (119). Their house, which used to be the hub of family gatherings, attracts fewer people with passing years: ‘the Christmas after Ben became three only partly filled the house’ (85). The attic becomes a space which Ben haunts. One day she sees him in the darkness of the attic: ‘all she could see was the obscurities of an attic that seemed boundless … He was crouching there, staring out at her… ‘(140).
The house filled with people, noise and laughter becomes a haunted house. Replacing the traditional Gothic trope of the mad woman in the attic with the Thing in the attic, Lessing converts the family space into the most threatened of all spaces. Ironically, the vastness of the house contrasts with Ben’s ‘little prison’ and the locked doors. Rather than a supernatural visitation the family fears a visit from Ben.
Lessing moves from this subversion of space and the conversion of the ‘home’ into a haunting, frightening space to the disruption of the familial relations.
First, Ben subverts the very idea of the family by being so radically different. ‘He may be normal for what he is. But he is not normal for what we are’, Dorothy tells them voicing what others, including David have believed for a long time (79). More importantly, by being the real- as-absence, by defeating categories, the others have an extimate relation with Ben. He is at once inside and outside the family, the object of revulsion and attraction. Even the Downs’s Syndrome child, Amy, who is ‘full of love and kisses’ (81) tries to befriend Ben, but then ‘backed away, staring at him’ (81).
Second, in the space of the family, the maternal is rejected. Harriet sees everyone in the family treating her like a ‘criminal’ (74, 94, 125), the ‘destroyer of her family’ (141) for having had Ben. At one point when she screams at David ‘He’s our child,’ he responds ‘No, he’s not
… well, he certainly isn’t mine’ (90). True to the conventions of the female Gothic, Harriet is trapped in her criminalized maternal role. What Lessing also does is to show Harriet as the progenitor of the disruption. She is not invaded, neither is her home. But she is the carrier of the Thing that invades and disrupts the home and family. Shifting away from the traditional Gothic stereotype of the woman under threat Lessing portrays Harriet’s body and progenitive and maternal abilities as threat. She is the mother who poses the greatest threat to the maternal. Thus the maternal ‘trapped’ in the nightmare of domesticity is what disrupts this domesticity – it is Harriet who brings back Ben from the institution and thereby ruins the peace of her home again.
Third, Lessing shows us exactly how anatomical and other differences are not quite the hindrance to the familial bond. Sarah’s child, Amy, with the Down’s syndrome serves as an instance of an acceptable (human) ‘abnormality’ that makes Ben all the more (inhumanly) monstrous. Amy, Sarah’s child turns out to be better fitted into the family and the human race than Ben.
Fourth, the ‘family’ as a unit starts functioning again only after Ben is sent away. The children ‘were full of high spirits’ and everybody is happy (93). And yet, Harriet ‘thought of Ben all the time’ (93). ‘Normality filled the house,’ writes Lessing after he is sent away (93). After she brings him back from the institution, Harriet hires a gang of unemployed youth to take care of Ben. Harriet notes: ‘[he] went exultantly, laughing, without a look back at his mother, his father, his brothers and sisters’ (111). He had to be ‘kept away from his home until supper time’ (111). As a result ‘the family became a family again’ (111).
Ben finds the necessary support and recognition from this gang. Harriet notes: ‘they treated him roughly, it seemed … even unkindly, calling him Dopey, Dwarfey, Alien Two, Hobbit, and Gremlin … But he was happy…’ (114). He ‘was teased and roughed up, but accepted’ (114). Ben’s support system then is outside the family, never within it. He is accepted, despite his ‘problems’ by strangers, not by his blood-relations.
Fifth, Ben corners the attention from Harriet and Paul, feels Harriet, because he ‘had not had a mother at the proper time’ (119). ‘It’s always Ben, Ben, Ben …’ screams Paul in frustration at one point (139).
Lessing here begins to move the ‘source’ of the Gothic horror away from the Thing to the contexts of the Thing: the family. Are Ben’s different features and behavior the source of horror, or is it the human family’s reluctance to accept difference the true source? Lessing, I suggest, calls upon us to examine the semiotic universe in which the Thing accrues meaning as the unnameable, unidentifiable and unacceptable Thing. The familial Gothic is the effect of the normative notions that regiment a family’s reactions to Ben’s difference. He is a Thing in comparison with the other children. For the unemployed youth, always already on the margins of acceptable society, he is like one of them. What we see is a shift from identity drawn from filiation (Ben in the family) to identity based in affiliation (Ben in the world). This is the familial Gothic.
Lessing’s Species Gothic and the Posthuman Vision
Up to this point we have examined Lessing’s Gothic as foregrounding Ben’s connection with the others. I now turn to one final component of Lessing’s tale, her ‘species Gothic’ – by which I mean the confusion of ontological categories that results in the horror. Lessing’s novel, I argue, calls for a posthuman ethos and ethics in our recognition of the other.
Lessing’s novel works through this theme of recognition in two significant ways. First, the horror that is Ben, Lessing suggests, is essentially produced by a crisis of perception. Second, this perception of Ben-as-horror folds into a recognition theme, of Ben-as-the-return- of-the-past.
The Uncanny is the Thing
‘Seem’ is a word that Lessing uses frequently to describe Harriet’s perception of Ben. Her very first sight of him is described thus: ‘it seemed as if he were trying to stand up’ (60). When she held him, ‘he seemed to be standing in her arms’ (63). His ‘small cold eyes seemed to her malevolent’ (64). When people stared in ‘horror’ at him, ‘he did not seem to mind, or even, or even to notice’ (70). Harriet believes that ‘condemnation, and criticism, and dislike: Ben seemed to cause these emotions’ (72). He does not seem to relate to her: ‘nothing in his touch or his look ever seemed to say This is my mother’ (73). But at times, ‘he seemed to know that he ought to like them [his family]’ (75). Even when she rescues him from the institution ‘he didn’t recognize her, she thought’ (104). He only ‘seemed worn out’ to Harriet (106).
Lessing’s account suggests that Ben’s ‘nature,’ whatever it is, is horrific primarily because he is perceived in particular ways. While he is different, much of Lessing’s description, and her emphasis on the illusion or uncertain/partial vision – ‘seemed’ – that we have noted above, seems to propose a crisis of perception which engenders the horror. This crisis of perception is a characteristic of the uncanny (as Freud 1919 and later theorists have suggested, the uncanny is about perception). This crisis of perception induces a certain ‘hesitation’ in the mind (Tatar 1981: 169), an undecidability (Weber 1973). Ben, perceived as different and horrific engenders horror because none of the people around him, including his biological mother, are able to guess what he is thinking or feeling. In a particularly resonant passage that captures the hesitation and epistemological uncertainty at the heart of Harriet’s uncanny, Lessing writes:
What was he thinking as he stood there, watching them sleep? Did he want to hurt them? Was he experiencing a misery she could not begin to imagine, because he was for ever shut out from the ordinariness of this house and its people? Did he want to put his arms around her, like the other children but not know how? (116)
Here is the uncanny’s most powerful effect: Harriet’s uncertainty over what Ben is, her need to know what he is. In order to resolve this epistemological uncertainty, Harriet seeks an explanation which in fact addresses another component of the uncanny: the return of the past.
This where Lessing’s species Gothic emerges.
Uncanny Pasts and the Species Gothic
The uncanny is itself the return of the past. The Gothic too, as we know, is characterized by a ‘fearful sense of inheritance’ (Baldick, 1992:
xix). The past is a ‘site of terror’ (Spooner, 2006: 18). Harriet’s mode of addressing the uncanny that is Ben, or rather, her perception of Ben, is to locate Ben, and his horror, in the human race’s past. The ‘resolution’ of the uncanny as a return to the race’s past offers Lessing the chance to articulate a whole new vision, as we shall see.
The Thing, Ben, is variously described as ‘alien,’ ‘Neanderthal’ (65), a ‘changeling’ (72) and, as we have seen, as a troll or goblin. From the misfit in the womb, the mother-child relation and the family, Ben does not fit the human family now. The novel has already anticipated the ‘species Gothic’ in these descriptions. This species Gothic is the space of the uncanny, in the way people perceive Ben, but also uncanny for Ben’s horrific antiquity.
In the London clinic Harriet asks: ‘how do we know what kinds of people – races, I mean – creatures different from us, have lived on this planet?’ Ben is then described as a ‘throwback’ (127). If the Gothic traditionally dwells on the arcane and the atavistic (ancient evil, spirits, the undead), as does the uncanny, then in Lessing’s novel what we see is a species Gothic where another race has returned in the form of Ben. Ben’s was a race, Harriet believes, ‘that reached its apex thousands and thousands of years before humanity, whatever that meant, took this stage … perhaps [they] had left their seeds in the human matrix, here and there. To appear again, as Ben had’ (156).2
Ben is familiar and yet strange. When compared with other humans, the difference is startling, of course. Ben evokes dread as the uncanny ‘human’ (or humanoid), at once strange and familiar. He is the site of the uncanny because he is at once familiar and strange. His strangeness, Harriet now attributes to his ‘ancient’ seed. Like the specters that people stories of the Gothic and the uncanny, Ben, in Harriet’s view, is the expression of an ancient form, the embodiment of a gene long thought dead. He is, in one sense, the return of the repressed gene. At this point Lessing’s story folds the gynaecological Gothic with its emphasis on the uncanny’s extimate (in the form of the mother’s relation with the foetus) and the consequent maternal and familial Gothic into a species Gothic. The horror of Ben-as-Thing is now recalibrated as Ben- as-return-of-the-past-species. He represents here the radical disruption of the evolutionary scheme because he is the human race’s past.
But Lessing does not stop with this.
Lessing’s is a posthuman vision which grows out of her version of the Gothic. Beginning with the question of the ‘alien’ foetus and its maternal Gothic, with its theme of individuation and broken placental economy, she moves on to locate the Thing in a species frame, to suggest to us that alterity and fusion are both essential to survive as a race/ species. Ben represents not just a throwback but alterity, one which is ‘inside’ the human (literally, since he is born of human parents). That is, Ben is the Thing within the human, within us. We are Other. Ben is not an alien because he represents our own ancient roots and genetic traces. Ben recalls for us our ancestry. Lessing’s might be read as a critique of a plain evolutionary scheme where the past is a ‘foreign’ country when, ironically, the past continues within us as a genetic trace. The horror therefore is not in Ben, but in how we, as humans, see our own past as a radical Other, in our intolerance for this Other and, finally, in our refusal to recognize the Other-which-is-us.
Lessing is also interrogating the essentialisms that characterize our species classification: what defines us as human? Ben represents, I propose following arguments made in the case of Octavia Butler’s Fledgling (2005), a form of ‘deracination’ where the essentials of a species are erased so that a different community – where other species cohabit with humans – can be formed (Nayar 2011). The Lovatt family’s attempt here may be read as directed at a species or racial domestication where Ben, maybe by losing his atavistic qualities (the essentials of his race), might form a relationship with humans, thereby posing less a threat than just a slightly anxious ‘interracial’ relationship.
Posthumanism, as articulated by Octavia Butler, particularly in Fledgling, and theorized by Donna Haraway, among others, is a conscious effort to move beyond species boundary with/as response to, recognition of and respect for the Other. ‘Species’ in its etymology (‘respecere’), Donna Haraway notes, is related to ‘respect’, ‘response’ as well as ‘to see’ (‘specere’). ‘To respond’, she writes, ‘[is] to respect’ (2008: 23). Cary Wolfe points to a ‘wet’ version of posthumanism where ‘a blind person and a guide dog form a third, prosthetic kind whose experience of the world cannot be well explained by reference to the traditional human vs animal’ (http://www.carywolfe.com/ post_about.html). Lessing’s novel concludes with this question of acknowledging difference, even if it is of a different species. The Human, Lessing’s novel suggests, might be characterized by the ability and desire to accommodate or even incorporate, difference.
Harriet insists: ‘I want it said. I want it recognized’ (127, emphasis in original), indicating that the unnameable Thing must be recognized and identified: the alien other she has birthed and cared for is an interspecies, born of human parents but with the attributes of a different species. ‘Recognition’ here is about the respect for a different species. Throughout Ben’s life in the Lovatt household, he stands and sits apart from the rest of the family: ‘He sat apart from the others, always apart; and, as always, his eyes were on others’ faces, observing’ (156). Clare Hanson argues that ‘Ben himself is a stranger or alien about whom she [Harriet] speculates with detachment’ (175). I would like to reverse this argument: it could also be Ben seeking recognition from the others, to be identified and identify with somebody of his own kind. This reading of Ben’s supposed ‘detachment’ is invited by the conclusion to the novel itself.
The novel’s last line is in fact a plea for the recognition of what/ who Ben is. Lessing writes: Harriet expects, when she puts on the TV, that, ‘she would see Ben, standing rather apart from the crowd, staring at the camera with his goblin eyes, or searching the faces for another of his own kind’ (159). What Ben seeks is recognition and respect, a reciprocity of gaze that would give him his affiliation, since his filiation- based identity has given him nothing.
The ‘posthuman Gothic’ and its horrors here is not about Ben, but in our perceptions and (intolerant) treatment of whatever is different. The posthuman Gothic offers a critique of what we see as horror by suggesting a different way of tackling difference. Lessing’s The Fifth Child takes recourse to the uncanny and the Gothic in order to articulate a wholly new vision of what it means to be human. To be human is to be able to recognize difference, to understand the companionate nature of all species. For, if the past survives in us in Ben-like ways, then how do we perceive the Other as different from us?
1. The term ‘gynaecological Gothic’ was popularized by Lucy Fischer’s reading of the film Rosemary’s Baby (1992).
2. The anxiety that Ben might reproduce his own kind, like in classic sci-fi film where the primary anxiety is about monsters reproducing, is voiced in a throwaway line towards the end of the tale: ‘and perhaps Ben’s genes were already in some foetus struggling to be born?’ (156).
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PRAMOD K. NAYAR. Teaches at the Dept. of English, The University of Hyderabad. His most recent books include Citizenship and Identity in the age of Surveillance (Cambridge UP 2015), Posthumanism (Polity 2014), Frantz Fanon (Routledge 2013), Colonial Voices: The Discourses of empire (Wiley-Blackwell 2013) and the edited 5-volume Women in Colonial India: Historical Documents and Sources (Routledge 2014). His work has appeared in Modern Fiction Studies, Studies in Travel Writing, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Ariel, Journeys, Prose Studies, Kunapipi, etc. Forthcoming is The Postcolonial Studies Dictionary and the edited Postcolonial Studies Anthology from Wiley-Blackwell.