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This is our last response for the Handmaid’s tale. I hate the oppressive, claustrophobic nature of this book, the fear and paranoia it engenders in me; not knowing when and where they are going to strike!, but knowing that they must strike and will!…. when we least expect it. When they do strike it will come as a relief. There! Here it comes!, Let us endure it and be done with it! One way or the other! The anticipation is worse than the event!
I am thinking about the theme of Feminism in The Handmaid’s Tale. Is it time for a confession on my part? ……Whenever I hear the word Feminism mentioned, the room starts to get stuffy and I find myself looking for the door….an escape! Why? I wonder to myself. As a guy you cannot win with Feminism, you are going to be guilty one way or the other. Guilty for something you did or would have done, and even if you did not do anything, you are guilty by association like Luke when Offred told him that she had lost both her job and her money: “ I felt as if somebody cut off my feet” (179) . Luke, complete missing the point said: “Hush…You know I’ll always take care of you” (179).
Guys! Lets face it!. Women are the stronger of the sexes and because they are the stronger they can afford to take the back seat, exercise their power from the wings as it were! We guys are delicate creatures, testosterone-driven, power-seeking, as if in compensation for that which we do not have and cannot do. We make wars for our catharasis because we are unable to create life!
Which bring us to The Handmaid’s Tale and the question: Is The Handmaid’s tale a Feminist novel? I thing not! Why? The reader may ask. Well, for one thing, while reading The Handmaid’s tale, I did not find myself looking for the door! That is answer enough for me but not for the reader, so let me elaborate.
The oppression and suffering in The Handmaid’s Tale is directed mainly at women, but the main oppressors are themselves mostly women: the Commander’s wives, the Aunts and the Marthas show scant compassion for their fellow women, who just happen to be Handmaids. Those women oppressors were The Republic of Gilead version of the Jewish Kapo: they thought first and foremost about their own survival, the commonality of their gender with that of the oppressed meant nothing to them. No false Feminist sentimentality here! We’re out for number one!, plain and simple!. The aim is to survive and the means justify the end…..to die of old age!.
The Aunts in “The Handmaid’s Tale” are the petty functionaries without whom The republic of Gilead would not have been possible: “Aunt Elizabeth standing by the double doors, arms folded, cattle prod hung on her belt, while Aunt Lydia strides along the rows of kneeling nightgowned women, hitting our backs, or feet or bums or arms lightly..”(194). The use of the word “cattle prod” here is significant. The narrator used the word to emphasize the impersonal industrialization of human reproduction in Gilead. Like chickens in a Chicken Broiler, the individualities, personalities and feelings of the Handmaids were of little to no consequence, beyond that which was needed of them to fulfill their roles as walking wombs.
Of womans inhumanity to woman:The Handmaids were shamelessly indoctrinated by their fellow women, the Aunts, as only women could have known how to manipulate other women: “What we prayed for was emptiness, so we would be worthy to be filled: with grace, with love, with self-denial, semen and babies.”(194). Ignorance was a virtue: “Knowing was a temptation, What you don’t know won’t tempt you” (195) and emotions frowned upon:“Love, said Aunt Lydia with distaste. Don’t let me catch you at it” (220)
“Keep calm they said on television. Everything is under control” (174)
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Martin Niemoller’s quote from the early postwar period should be an eye-opener for all of us but we would prefer to ignore those lines if we possibly can. It describes the complacency with which we face oppression, hoping that it will simply go away, as petty harassment oftentimes does when it finds no reciprocation.
So also it was in Gilead which became Gilead without anybody really paying attention until it was too late “It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.” (174). The fools felt uncomfortable but did not want to make matters worse so they waited patiently. “They said that new elections would be held but that it would take some time to prepare for them.” (174). It sounded reasonable to let the people decide in a democratic process and so the fools waited some more. “Newspapers were censored and some were closed down, for security reasons they said” (174) That also sounded reasonable they said, let us wait for elections; let the people decide!.
“Sorry, he said. This number’s not valid.” (175) Offred was told by the store clerk when her Compucard was refused despite her having thousands in her account. ”I have to let you go, he said. It’s the law, I have to” (176) Offred was told by her employer as he laid her off, without her understanding why. It was her street-smart friend Moira who wised her up ““Women can’t hold property anymore, she said. It’s a new law. Turned on the TV today?” (178). The trap has snapped closed and Offred is now powerless.
A poorly planned escape attempt and Offred becomes a Handmaid. Here she finally wakes up, determined to be reunited with her daughter. “Live in the present, make the most of it, it’s all you’ve got” (143) Offred admirable in her resolve, uses everything at her disposal to maintain her sanity. She lives only in the present, denying herself the opium of escapist fantasy or the resentment that brooding upon her loss would force upon her. Offred cannot afford resentment because it will make her vulnerable. She must and will control her emotions. Like a storekeeper she takes stock of her current situation: “I am thirty-three years old. I have brown hair….I have viable ovaries. I have one more chance.” (143) Offred thinks with cold and calculated reason. She cannot let her emotions take control of her. Her self-control is admirable and exemplary. Why express or even feel emotions that can only endanger her?
As for us, the Handmaids and even the Marthas, we avoid illness. The Marthas don’t want to be forced to retire, because who knows where they go? You don’t see that many old women around anymore. As for us, any real illness, anything lingering, weakening, a loss of flesh or appetite, a fall of hair, a failure of the glands, would be terminal (154).
Offreds courage and resolve in the face of such damning odds is amazing. How can she control herself? but she does! She sees the opportunity afforded her by the Commander’s interest in her. She ponders each and every move on that most dangerous of chess boards. She weight each and every word that she releases from her mouth, both with the Commander and Ofglen. She is not afraid to take calculated risks but only if they will advance her!
Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intent to last (Atwood 8)
From the very beginning Offred is aware of the many threats to her survival, threats both from without and within herself. Offred understands that the carefully control of her consciousness is key to her sanity and ultimate survival. I will examine some of the techniques that Offred uses to survive the forces that are the biggest threat to her well-being.
Thoughts and emotions must be carefully unspun so as not to lose self-control. “I put a lot of effort into making such distinctions. I need to make them. I need to be very clear in my own mind” (Atwood 33). Offred constantly tries to never let her thoughts and emotions run ahead of her. The taut spring of her mind must be unwound very slowly and deliberately.
Sensory stimuli is food to the soul. “But a chair, sunlight, flowers: these are not to be dismissed. I am alive. I live. I breathe” (Atwood 8) Like any prisoner, Offred understands that the more acute her awareness of the sensory stimuli that surrounds her, the better she can create a world in which she can survive and find meaning. She can feel the sunlight, bask in its heat and allow the visual stimulus to fill her. She can internalize the beauty of a flower, its soft perfection. She can lose herself in herself, in being alive, in breathing, slowly, feeling the cool air rushing through her nostrils as she inhales. She can expel her fears as she exhales. Breathing, cycle after cycle to transcend her current difficult reality. “I hunger to touch something other than cloth or wood” (Atwood 8). Despite the availability of visual stimuli Offred yearns for tactile stimulus. She would gladly work in the kitchen, kneads dough, prepare food just to feel the food with her hands.
Offred uses the nights to escape the present by visiting the past. “The night is mine, my own time, to do with as I will” (37). Offred can take mundane memories from the past and relive them, her friend Moira being a good example. Simple, silly and banal memories can, like old movies, be rerun in her mind to escape that which does not bear thought; the present.
The past is a double edged sword. It brings escape and joy but also pain and yearning:“I step into the water, lie down, let it hold me. The water is soft as hands. I close my eyes and she’s there with me, suddenly, without warning, it must be the smell of the soap” (Atwood 63). Smell can be a particularly powerful stimulus, it can bypass our consciousness and motivate us to action before we are even aware of it. Longings for her lost daughter are never far from Offred’s heart and constantly threaten her equilibrium. “The kitchen smells of yeast, a nostalgic smell…This is a nostalgic smell, and I know I must shut it put “ (Atwood 47). The smell of cooking and baking are also powerful stimuli and must be controlled.
In the Handmaid’s Tale we thrown into the debilitating and ever present fear of a totalitarian patriarchal regime that is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. A reality where one is afraid to even think let alone hope. Women are divided, classified and color coded by their clothing; blue for high status wives (of regime officials), red for handmaids (surrogate mother), green for domestic help (Marthas), and striped clothing simple women without social status. Women who are destined to be handmaids, are mere chattel, to be used and thereafter discarded when no longer fertile.
In sections I and II, the main character, protagonist and narrator Offred (“of fred” or belonging to Fred), is evaluating her new role as a (traditional) surrogate mother, in a post-revolutionary period when a Christian fundamentalist movement has taken control of the U.S.A. Fertility rates have plummeted due to sterility from pollution. Offred has reluctantly agreed to be the biological mother of a baby that will be fathered by the “Commander” (and master of the house in which she now lives), and adopted by him and his aging wife Serena Joy (a former televangelist). Offred accepts her role as a surrogate mother as the lesser of two evils, the alternative being very much less palatable: banishment to work in servitude in an agricultural or polluted area. When first introduced to the Serena Joy, Offred is reminded of her true value: “This is your second [attempt at surrogacy] , isn’t it?” (Atwood 15), Offred is asked by the Commander’s wife at their first meeting “Third ma’am I [Offred] said…..Not good for you either, she [Commander’s wife] said” The aging Offred’s worth in this heartless society is already quickly trickling away at the very opening of the novel.
Initially, Offred has definite hopes for/expectations for emotional fulfillment in her new role. Offred has hopes for a sisterly relationship with the Commander’s wife in her new role: “I wanted, then, to turn her into an older sister, a motherly figure, someone who would understand and protect me.” (Atwood 16)”. However the Commander’s wife has no such intention: she resents the imposition of Offred in her life and views Offred as a threat: “I want to see as little of you as possible, she said. I expect you feel the same way about me…….As far as I am concerned this is a business transaction. But if I get trouble, I’ll give trouble back. You understand? ” (Atwood 15). “ As for my husband she said, he’s just that. My husband. I want that to be perfectly clear. Till death do us part. It’s final.” (Atwood 16). Offred can expect no empathy from the Commander’s wife
Offred hopes that the sexual component of her new role will be emotionally fulfilling. When, at the very beginning of the book, Offred was housed in the gymnasium with the other handmaids (surrogate mothers), we read: ”There was old sex in the room and loneliness, and expectations, of something without a shape or name. I remember that yearning, for something that was always about to happen and was never the same as the hands that were on us there and then in the small of the back or out back, in the parking lot….…” (Atwood 3). Offred hopes that the sexual contact with the Commander will not be a mindless and disappointing activity like sex in the parking lot in times past; an activity to achieve mere release of physiological tension, and no more. Offred wants the act of procreation to be meaningful, if it’s intention is to create new life. This is not to be: “My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for” (Atwood 94). The procedure or “ceremony”is stripped of any and all emotion. Even passion is removed. It is as if Offred is not really there, though her body is. Offred as a person is not acknowledged in any way.
I contend that Miranda Carroll, the “.. preternaturally composed and very pretty, pale with grey eyes and dark curls [girl, who] comes into the restaurant in a rush of cold air, January clinging to her hair and her coat..”(77) is none other than the narrator herself and is the true central character in the novel. Every artist desires to resolve an internal conflict upon the canvas, after mixing the frenzied paints of their emotions in the palette of their consciousness. Thus too, does the narrator of Station Eleven resolve her feelings toward herself and her cocharacters in Station Eleven.
An indication of an ulterior motive in the narration of Station Eleven first became apparent to me by the repeated and almost clumsy references to Arthurs three marriages.. ““I think there were maybe three or four” Goneril said talking about the ex-wives ”Three”“……”“ Three divorces” Gloucester said “Can you imagine?””. I certainly can imagine a person have three great loves in their life, the phenomenon is not uncommon and Arthur Leander simply chose to formalize those relationships, perhaps in a naïve belief that by doing so he might enhance their resilience. Admittedly, having three failed marriages is statistically uncommon but it is also insignificant from a human perspective, yet the fact pops up like a bad penny for Arthur to confront and embarrass him time and time again; and to what end I ask myself. I thus began to suspect that the character Arthur was in real life a person who was significant for the narrator yet had fallen short and disappointed her. In Station Eleven the character Arthur is very unsupportive of his first wife, the girl whom he could not forget after first meeting her when she was seventeen and whose phone number he kept with him for years before finally calling her again “ Once in the room , he sits on the bed, relieved to be alone and unlooked-at but feeling as he always does in these moments a little disorientated, obscurely deflated, a bit at a loss, and then all at once he knows what to do. He calls the cell number that he’s been saving all these years.” (79) How beautifully romantic! Yet the fool humiliates Miranda on their third year wedding anniversary “This time I’ll be damned if the girl hasn’t got her worldly belonging with her”(97) he recounted their second night together and then, later that night, he flirts with Elizabeth Colton “Arthur thanks everybody for coming to his home, meeting everyone’s eyes except Elizabeth’s, who had lightly touched his thigh under the table, and this is when she [Miranda] understood” (98). These slights could not be forgotten or forgiven and Arthur was condemned to die in the opening pages of Station Eleven, although he was afforded the privilege of being rehabilitated before his death when, on the night of his death..”…he didn’t want the comic because he didn’t want possessions. He didn’t want anything except his son” . Arthur Leander was allowed to die with a clear conscience, in a state of “grace” but die he must before the novel may start.
Miranda Carroll is the only true three-dimensional characters in the book . While working at Neptune Logistics we see a mature, yet not mature, twenty-four-year-old Miranda and her work colleague Thea : “Thea, who is impeccable in a smooth, corporate way that Miranda admires…..In Thea’s presence [Miranda] feels ragged and unkempt, curls sticking up in all directions, while Thea’s hair is glossy and precise, her clothes never quite right whereas Thea’s clothes are perfect. Miranda’s lipstick is always too gaudy or too dark, her heels too high or too low. Her stockings all have holes in the feet…”(80). This description rings so true that I am sure that it is from real life. It would be so difficult to make it up. This is the voice of the narrator recalling a personal experience. “The problem is that she is colossally bored with the conversation, and also bored with Pablo,” (85) is also, I believe from a real-life experience. “I repent nothing…Miranda is a person with very few certainties, but one of them is that only the dishonorable leave when things get difficult” (89). Here we see an ambivalence toward herself as she abandons her relationship with Pablo” (89) her failed artist boyfriend. This statement sticks out like a sore (conscience) thumb and also comes, I believe, from a real-life experience. As she attempts to fit into the lifestyle of a Hollywood wife, we see Miranda struggling with self-doubt “ “I wish you’d try a little harder” Arthur had said to her once or twice, but she knows she’ll never belong here no matter how hard she tries.”(92). This repeats the strong feelings of inadequacy that we see in the quote from line eighty above. Again “The thing about Hollywood Miranda realizes early on, is that almost everyone is Thea, her former colleague at Neptune Logistics, which is to say that almost everyone has the right clothes, the right haircut, the right everything, while Miranda flails after them in the wrong outfit with her hair sticking up” (96). In the character of Miranda we see a true three-dimensional character, developed to a degree that would be hard to imagine if Miranda were not in fact intimately known to the narrator which I believe Miranda is, as she and the narrator are in fact, one and the same.
“A reflection of where I am in the process” said the man to himself as he explored the maze. “I honestly do not know but I believe that I will thoroughly enjoy the journey”.
I would like to come clean and admit something to y’all; I dislike Science Fiction. I always have. I never liked Isaac Asimov’s writing in my childhood, despite recognizing his genius. I have always felt Science Fiction to be a form of escapism from a reality which is so much more wonderful than anything science fiction could ever cook up. I know that this is a bias on my part but I do not regret it. I know that science fiction is really another way of looking at reality but I do not repent. There! I’ve said it.
That being said and having been brought by karma to English 2001, I must admit that Station Eleven appears to be easier reading than Lolita (Nanokov Vladimir), the English 2001 text from four years ago. My grandfather comes to mind, as he admonished me for not seeing the bigger picture in life: “Count your blessings”. So I count.
Having met with Prof. Belli and having seen my blogs through her eyes, I was determined to introduce much needed structure into my next blog. I decided upon a subject (the narrator’s moral assessment of characters juxtapositioned with the pre-post pandemic eras), gathered and arranged quotes, has ideas for paragraphs and leading sentences, but in so doing I slowly realized that many of the characters in the book are flat and boring. I feel that they cannot be central to what the narrator really wanted to express in Station Eleven and that writing about them at length somehow misses the point. Furthermore this my last opportunity to speak before I must forever hold my peace about Station Eleven.
Miranda Carroll and her comic-book creation “Station Eleven” which is an extension of her character are, I believe, the axis upon which this book revolves. I believe that Jeevan and Arthur, both ostensibly, central characters in the book, are mere two-dimensional projections of real-life characters who were held in high esteem or loved by the narrator, but both have hurt and disappointed her in some way, as they both did in the book.
Arthur humiliated Miranda at their third year wedding anniversary “This time I’ll be damned if the girl hasn’t got her worldly belonging with her”(97) he recounted their second night together and then, later that night, he flirts with Elizabeth Colton “Arthur thanks everybody for coming to his home, meeting everyone’s eyes except Elizabeth’s, who had lightly touched his thigh under the table, and this is when she [Miranda] understood” (98).
Jeevan Chaudhary, while working the night shift as a paparazzo outside Miranda’s and Arthur’s house in Hollywood Hills on the night of their three year anniversary delivered the coups de grâce to Miranda that night. In the early morning hours, Miranda escaped the pain of the night’s events to ask for a cigarette and some empathy from Jeevan, both of which Jeevan readily supplied. However as she started to return to the house he called to her ““Hey!” Jeevan said suddenly, and as Miranda turns, the cigarette halfway to her mouth, the flash of camera catches her unaware, Five more flashes in quick succession as she drops the cigarette on the sidewalk and walks away from him……In the morning her picture will appear in a gossip website” (103)
Miranda Carroll is one of the few true three-dimensional characters in the book (Kirsten Raymonde being another).We first meet Miranda at age seventeen “.. preternaturally composed and very pretty, pale with grey eyes and dark curls, she comes into the restaurant in a rush of cold air, January clinging to her hair and her coat..”(77). While working at Neptune Logistics we see a more mature, yet not mature, twenty-four-year-old Miranda and her work colleague Thea : “Thea, who is impeccable in a smooth, corporate way that Miranda admires…..In Thea’s presence [Miranda] feels ragged and unkempt, curls sticking up in all directions, while Thea’s hair is glossy and precise, her clothes never quite right whereas Thea’s clothes are perfect. Miranda’s lipstick is always too gaudy or too dark, her heels too high or too low. Her stockings all have holes in the feet…”(80). This description rings so true that I am sure that it is from real life. It would be so difficult to make it up. This is the voice of the narrator recalling a personal experience.
“The problem is that she is colossally bored with the conversation, and also bored with Pablo,” (85) is also, I believe from a real-life experience.
“I repent nothing…Miranda is a person with very few certainties, but one of them is that only the dishonorable leave when things get difficult” (89). Here we see an ambivalence toward herself as she abandons her relationship with Pablo” (89) her failed artist boyfriend. This statement sticks out like a sore (conscience) thumb and also comes, I believe, from a real-life experience.
As she attempts to fit into the lifestyle of a Hollywood wife, we see Miranda struggling with self-doubt “ “I wish you’d try a little harder” Arthur had said to her once or twice, but she knows she’ll never belong here no matter how hard she tries.”(92). This repeats the strong feelings of inadequacy that we see in the quote from line eighty above. Again “The thing about Hollywood Miranda realizes early on, is that almost everyone is Thea, her former colleague at Neptune Logistics, which is to say that almost everyone has the right clothes, the right haircut, the right everything, while Miranda flails after them in the wrong outfit with her hair sticking up” (96).
We see a true three-dimensional character developed that would be hard to imagine as I believe Miranda is not.
So Miranda divorces Arthur, moves on, develops a business career, meets Arthur again in chapter thirty nine and meets the young Kirsten when she drops off the “Station Eleven” comics. Kirsten will carry the “Station Eleven” torch from this point on. Miranda heads off into the sunset to die of the Georgian Flu in distant Malaysia in chapter forty one,
Kirsten Raymonde is another three-dimensional character. I believe that Kirsten is another extension of the character that is Miranda. However we do not see the same depth in Kirsten that we have seen in Miranda.
Why do I write?
Most of what I write is work related, emails and reports. In both the writer needs to convey as much information as possible, using simple language and in a way that is easy to comprehend. Every superfluous word detracts from an effective email or technical report.
Emails especially need to be positive, upbeat and free of unnecessary emotion. It’s important to make the reader feel positive about what he reads. You are selling your idea and the pitch needs to be right.
In City Tech I discovered the joy of writing. One multiple occasions I have been so pleasantly surprised by the euphoric high that I get after working on a piece for a few hours. It seems counterintuitive that something so satisfying is both legal and moral. The catch however is that I have to really push myself to react that moment of catharsis, but when I get there, I am so light that it’s as if I am flying over the world looking down, at peace with myself as new ideas bounce around like a steel sphere in a pinball machine. These moments I cherish despite my avoidance of the effort required to achieve them.
Good writing demands discipline, as does any skill or art form. I balk at the restraints imposed upon me by structure but I must admit to its effectiveness. I would like to just fling words at the canvas in a frenzy of spontaneity but as somebody suggested to me recently, I should start by way of spontaneity and finish by way of structure in a second sitting. Who can argue with that?
I believe that a pleasure shared is a pleasure doubled. In my moments of literary euphoria I could not escape the thought that writing could benefit so many people. My thought went to those imprisoned in various institutions around the United States. Would not writing be an effective remedial therapy that could bring them joy and a positive attitude to themselves and their surroundings.
I would like to finish with Pablo Picasso’s “The Persistence of Memory” painted in 1931. Even though we know that this painting is illogical, it talks to us at a subconscious and irrational level.I think that effective writing also needs to talk to us at a subconscious level, appealing to us, without our understanding why.
I would like to explore the theme of happiness in the pre pandemic and post pandemic eras. Psychologists would define happiness as a state of well-being that stems from a sense of meaning and satisfaction, which is not untrue. I would define happiness as a state of fulfillment or contentment that is derived from the ability to feel compassion for others and act upon that feeling. A starving man, when given two bread rolls, will derive great satisfaction from eating the first bread roll but he will derive happiness from the second bread roll if he can bring himself to give it to his starving fellow.
On the very first page of Station Eleven Jeevan Chaudhary, in an impulse of compassion, leapt instinctively to the stage to perform CPR upon a dying Arthur Leander. He was unable to save him: “But now there was a prickling at the back of his neck, a sense of being watched from above.”(5). Jeevan told the young Kirsten that “he [Arthur] was doing the thing that he loved best in the world ” (8). As he departed the theater a few minutes later, Jeevan told the paparazzo “ I want to do something that matters..”(10). “Outside in the clear air, away from other people…….he [Jeevan] felt extravagantly, guiltily alive” (11). A few minutes later “.. he [Jeevan] found himself blindsided by an unexpected joy” (11), when he realized that he wanted to be a paramedic and help others.
Zooming forward to the first lines of part IV: “SOMETIMES THE TRAVELING SYMPHONY thought that what they were doing was noble. There were moments around campfires when someone would say something invigoration about the importance of art, and everyone would find it easier to sleep that night” (119). This state of fulfillment or contentment that is derived from the joy and hope that their art brings to the hard-pressed occupants of the towns that they visit, comes at considerable personal expense for the actors and musicians of the Travelling Symphony: “At other times it seemed a difficult and dangerous way to survive and hardly worth it…” (119). Such is the nature of happiness (state of fulfillment or contentment), like a salmon that fights her way upstream to spawn; it may exact a high price from it’s seekers but one which they readily pay to fulfill themselves. This sense of fulfillment, of having almost reached an ultimate state of release, brings with it a desire to transcend the present “Kirsten stood in a state of suspension that always came over her at the end of performances, a sense of having flown very high and landed incompletely, her soul pulling upward out of her chest” (59). “Perhaps soon humanity would simply flicker out, but Kirsten found this thought more peaceful than sad.So many species had appeared and vanished from this earth; what was one more?”(148)
Mere survival is thus insufficient.