Time Quintet: Equal and Same

[Wrinkle Content Note: Fascism, Hypnotism, Captivity]

Wrinkle Recap: Alex Murry leads his children (and Calvin) to see IT.

A Wrinkle in Time, Chapter 9: IT

When we last left off, Alex Murry was helping "Charles Wallace" (whose brain is currently occupied and being controlled by IT) lead Meg and Calvin to IT whilst negging on about how Meg isn't prepared to meet with IT. Murry doesn't give her any pointers to resist because he's saving those for later when it will be mostly too late.

On the one hand, as an author I understand this. It's more scary for the reader when they don't know what is going on and are just thrust into a situation without introduction. On the other hand, this tactic can come across as forced and heavy-handed when it's not carefully justified--and moreso here, when it's been the entire book so far. The angels didn't stop to explain anything to Meg et. al. because after years and years of leaving Murry in captivity, apparently it was so urgent to get him right now that there was no time to explain anything or give directions which weren't uselessly cryptic.

Now we're continuing in that vein and it makes me want to pull my hair out: Alex Murry could tell his daughter what they're about to face and how he's been able to resist it for so long, but instead he's chatting with IT-in-Charles about how Meg totally isn't prepared, she won't be able to resist, et cetera ominous scary wooo. This is contrived to keep Meg and the reader in the dark for the Big Reveal, but it looks contrived, like a stage magician shouting "LOOK OVER THERE A PUPPY" because he can't think of a more natural way to distract the audience for his trick.

There is another facet here which annoys me: All this "she won't be able to resist" is specifically Meg-directed. Murry doesn't say "they" (i.e., Meg and Calvin) won't be able to resist, suggesting that he believes Calvin and Meg aren't prepared because of some mutual shared trait like their extreme youth. Nor does Murry say "you" (i.e., Meg, Calvin, and Charles) won't be able to resist, which would include Charles Wallace in that group and at least clarify whether Murry believes Charles is already possessed yet or not. Nope, he says Meg won't be able to resist.

He is also right. Meg will soon nearly succumb to IT and only Murry pulling an escape spell out of his ass will save her. Which means, to a certain extent, we can't just dismiss Murry's assessment of her as incorrect or flawed. Calvin and Charles don't do a much better job of resisting, mind you, but Meg nearly falls in minutes after her father held out for years. Whatever trait Murry possesses which allows him to resist IT, Meg has only a fraction of his talent or power. What's more, Alex was able to determine that after glancing at a daughter he hasn't seen in years: He knew she was objectively less strong or resistant than he. These are objective facts dropped in our lap and can't be swept away by assessing Murry as an unreliable judge of her character: He demeans her correctly.

Anyway, we return to IT and fears of government-mandated conformity and possibly of communism:

   Meg could feel a rhythmical pulsing. It was a pulsing not only about her, but in her as well, as though the rhythm of her heart and lungs was no longer her own but was being worked by some outside force. The closest she had come to the feeling before was when she had been practicing artificial respiration with Girl Scouts, and the leader, an immensely powerful woman, had been working on Meg, intoning OUT goes the bad air, IN comes the good! while her heavy hands pressed, released, pressed, released.
   Meg gasped, trying to breathe at her own normal rate, but the inexorable beat within and without continued. For a moment she could neither move nor look around to see what was happening to the others. She simply had to stand there, trying to balance herself into the artificial rhythm of her heart and lungs. Her eyes seemed to swim in a sea of red.

It is difficult to explain in 2018 how anti-communism propaganda worked when I was a child.

I remember when someone first told me that there were pro-communism communities on twitter and I was just so shocked. I could not imagine such a thing at first, because I'd been raised to see communism as this terrifying specter that would strip from a person all life, originality, and individuality. This seems amusing to try to explain now that we consider capitalism and cookie-cutter houses and American suburbs to be the death of joy, but believe it or not I was raised to think suburbs were a good thing. I was raised that way in part because I was a white child being taught the alleged 'benefits' of "white flight" from cities, but I suspect L'Engle wasn't immune to this rhetoric herself; in later books the Murrys talk about how pleased they are to have left the crime-infested cities.

Without anyone ever telling me that Camazotz was about communism, it was my childish understanding that it was. Everyone lived in the same style of house, wore the same clothes, played with the same toys. (Communism would give people the things the government decided you "needed" and if you needed or wanted more you were shit out of luck. Everyone would be deemed to have the exact same "needs" and there would be no individuality or variety.) Everyone showed up to work the jobs they were assigned to perform, no matter how hated or awful or immoral. (Communism would tell you your career and you had to work the jobs the government gave you. All jobs would be soul-crushing under communism, naturally.) It was therefore no surprise to arrive at Camazotz's Final Boss of Communism and see that, yes, even your breathing would be regulated by the government--you would be reduced to a cog in the machine, to a dehumanized puppet.

I'm not really interesting in making the case that L'Engle meant IT to represent communism, because I suspect everyone in the audience has their own theory and I'm not here to convince anyone. But I will say that if IT is meant to be communism, much of this section slots easily into place. Murry's amazing resistance over years of torture is a function of his being a True American and additionally smart enough and experienced enough to know Why Communism Doesn't Work--he has the power of political theory and economics on his side.

Conversely, Meg is at risk because she is a child. How do I describe the widespread fears that communists would target and teach The Children? For reference, one of my school history books unironically included a possibly apocryphal quote attributed to Pat Robertson the gist of which being that he preferred "children to be bombed into heaven by communists than taught by them into hell". That was how scared the preceding generation had been of communism: It would send us all to real, religious hell. Our souls would be doomed. Our planet would fall under the total control of Satan and his minions.

Just like IT and Camazotz.

In this paradigm, Meg isn't in danger of Magic Mind Control; she's in danger of political indoctrination. [It's critical to point out that the people who worry about this most aren't against the political indoctrination of children; they're against someone else getting there first. People who want to teach children that communism is scary rarely care about teaching children the basics of political theory and letting them decide for themselves; they just want to have another convert to the anti-communism pro-capitalism side.]

To continue to metaphor, this is moreover why rhymes and maths and things recited by rote memory aren't much use against the communist brain--it is capable of absorbing such things, but balks at True Individuality and Real Creativity. But now I'm getting ahead of the text, so let's at last see IT.

   Then things began to clear, and she could breathe without gasping like a beached fish, and she could look about the great, circular, domed building. It was completely empty except for the pulse, which seemed a tangible thing, and a round dais exactly in the center. On the dais lay—what? Meg could not tell, and yet she knew that it was from this that the rhythm came. She stepped forward tentatively. She felt that she was beyond fear now. Charles Wallace was no longer Charles Wallace. Her father had been found but he had not made everything all right. Instead everything was worse than ever, and her adored father was bearded and thin and white and not omnipotent after all. No matter what happened next, things could be no more terrible or frightening than they already were.
   Oh, couldn’t they?
   As she continued to step slowly forward, at last she realized what the Thing on the dais was.
   IT was a brain.
   A disembodied brain. An oversized brain, just enough larger than normal to be completely revolting and terrifying. A living brain. A brain that pulsed and quivered, that seized and commanded. No wonder the brain was called IT. IT was the most horrible, the most repellent thing she had ever seen, far more nauseating than anything she had ever imagined with her conscious mind, or that had ever tormented her in her most terrible nightmares.
   But as she had felt she was beyond fear, so now she was beyond screaming.
   She looked at Charles Wallace, and he stood there, turned toward IT, his jaw hanging slightly loose; and his vacant blue eyes slowly twirled.
   Oh, yes, things could always be worse. These twirling eyes within Charles Wallace’s soft round face made Meg icy cold inside and out.

I must say that as an adult I find this disappointing. Brains don't creep me out anymore, and I suspect they didn't upset me much as a child either because I distinctly remember upsizing IT from "just larger than normal" to being massively huge and filling an entire room. Apparently, a brain which can fit on my nightstand isn't scary but a brain which can take up an entire room is. When in doubt, add Miracle Grow to monster.

   She looked away from Charles Wallace and at her father. Her father stood there with Mrs Who’s glasses still perched on his nose—did he remember that he had them on?—and he shouted to Calvin. “Don’t give in!”
   “I won’t! Help Meg!” Calvin yelled back. 

I have decided that I hate Alex Murry. I really do. He didn't acknowledge Calvin the entire way here--except to ask Meg who he is--because to do so would have meant Calvin could stand as a witness to Meg's statement that Charles Wallace was being piloted by IT. Now, now, he pays attention to Calvin in order to "help" him first before his own damn daughter. The daughter he just said wouldn't be able to hold out. I guess he's just straight up given up on her and assumed she was taken over the minute they walked through the door?

Here again we have this bullshit where the Strong Female Protagonist needs the men to protect her while they don't need her advice. ARGH. But! But! But! Perhaps I'm being unfair because despite this little aside, neither Calvin nor Murry actually ever do "help her". Instead, Meg disappears inside herself and pieces together some resistance strategies from Mrs. Whatsit's cryptic advice, so I guess L'Engle sorta... nods in the general direction of Strong Female Protagonism? But that just makes this whole section seem even more disjointed and weirdly edited.

MURRY: "You, there! Boy I have not yet spoken to and about whom I have only said 'who's Calvin?'! Don't give in to the enemy!"

CALVIN: "I will not! Help Meg!"

*MURRY and CALVIN just stand there quietly and go into 'idle' mode*

   It was absolutely silent within the dome, and yet Meg realized that the only way to speak was to shout with all the power possible. For everywhere she looked, everywhere she turned, was the rhythm, and as it continued to control the systole and diastole of her heart, the intake and outlet of her breath, the red miasma began to creep before her eyes again, and she was afraid that she was going to lose consciousness, and if she did that she would be completely in the power of IT.
   Mrs Whatsit had said, “Meg, I give you your faults.”
   What were her greatest faults? Anger, impatience, stubbornness. Yes, it was to her faults that she turned to save herself now.
   With an immense effort she tried to breathe against the rhythm of IT. But ITs power was too strong. Each time she managed to take a breath out of rhythm an iron hand seemed to squeeze her heart and lungs.
   Then she remembered that when they had been standing before the man with red eyes, and the man with red eyes had been intoning the multiplication table at them, Charles Wallace had fought against his power by shouting out nursery rhymes, and Calvin by the Gettysburg Address.
   “Georgie, porgie, pudding and pie,” she yelled. “Kissed the girls and made them cry.”
   That was no good. It was too easy for nursery rhymes to fall into the rhythm of IT.

I have conflicted feelings about Meg's faults being her saving grace.

On the one hand, it's so rare for female protagonists to be allowed faults. A girl who is allowed to own her anger? her stubborness? her impatience? To be allowed to simply be those things without learning a moral that she needs to be smaller, quieter, softer? Amazing. (And one reason I'm so pleased with Meg's casting in the movie which we will later consider.) I want to applaud this and I want to see more of it. Yes.

On the other hand, I dislike that all we get of Meg are faults and failings. This book feels like one long self-neg about how she's bad at this and bad at that and every time someone points out that she's smart or clever it's like SIGH okay YES maybe I can do math but I can't do it the RIGHT way and therefore I'm awful and bad and bleh. As a depiction of a self-conscious teenager I think it's spot-on, don't get me wrong, but I find myself wishing a voice of authority (Murry? Mrs Whatsit?) had gone that extra step to reframe these 'flaws' as strengths. "Stubborn" is another word for "confident". "Anger" for "passion". "Impatience" for "driven". Would it have been so hard to make the leap from "I give you your faults" to "because they are virtues"?

On a third hand which floats disembodied and detached from the first two hands, I would like this a lot more if we weren't back to Communism vs. Great American Values. Using her American stubborn impatient anger, Meg starts reciting the Declaration of Independence.

   She didn’t know the Gettysburg Address. How did the Declaration of Independence begin? She had memorized it only that winter, not because she was required to at school, but simply because she liked it.
   “We hold these truths to be self-evident!” she shouted, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
   As she cried out the words she felt a mind moving in on her own, felt IT seizing, squeezing her brain. Then she realized that Charles Wallace was speaking, or being spoken through by IT.
   “But that’s exactly what we have on Camazotz. Complete equality. Everybody exactly alike.”
   For a moment her brain reeled with confusion. Then came a moment of blazing truth. “No!” she cried triumphantly. “Like and equal are not the same thing at all!”
   “Good girl, Meg!” her father shouted at her. 
   But Charles Wallace continued as though there had been no interruption. “In Camazotz all are equal. In Camazotz everybody is the same as everybody else,” but he gave her no argument, provided no answer, and she held on to her moment of revelation.
   Like and equal are two entirely different things.

I read this and then realize there are people in the audience who didn't have this "nuance" hammered into them as children and it's such a culture shock realizing that. Because this was an argument I was subjected to many times growing up, both in church and in school. In America, everyone is "equal" (no white privilege here, no sir! no need for reparations or affirmative action or any kind of acknowledgement of social inequality!) but not everyone is the "same" or "alike". If you happen to notice any inequality, therefore, well that's just someone being "not the same". They definitely had equal opportunities to you, so if they don't have equal wealth then they just didn't try as hard.

Communism was, to the adults who raised me, the greatest threat to white privilege that they could imagine. The government would just come in and take your wealth and give it to poorer people than you. Everyone would be kept at the exact same level of wealth ("In Camazotz everybody is the same as everybody else") and you would never be able to get back to your previous level of wealth and comfort because working harder to earn more money was futile: The government would take the extra away and spread it among lazy people and it would be gone again.

Things not considered: That our wealth hadn't been "earned" fairly. That our ancestors had stolen land, resources, and labor and used that theft to enrich themselves. They then enshrined their own privilege into law, passing down to us stolen wealth and unequal privilege. No, it was very important for the American Dream to work that we all believed we were "equal" from birth. If we weren't "the same", that was alright because only Communism wanted people to be "the same". Words can't stress just how important this was to the adults who had control over my schooling and socialization, and I can't believe it's a coincidence that we find it here in Camazotz.

Meg imagines slicing through the brain with a knife, and IT gloats that this will kill everyone connected to IT.

   Words spoke within her, directly this time, not through Charles. “Don’t you realize that if you destroy me, you also destroy your little brother?” 
  If that great brain were cut, were crushed, would every mind under ITs control on Camazotz die, too? Charles Wallace and the man with red eyes and the man who ran the number-one spelling machine on the second-grade level and all the children playing ball and skipping rope and all the mothers and all the men and women going in and out of the buildings? Was their life completely dependent on IT? Were they beyond all possibility of salvation?

This is an interesting question which never receives an answer. Please recall this image from Chapter 4.

L'Engle is mixing science fiction with theology (recall the Bible-quoting centaurs), so the question here ("can the people of Camazotz be saved?") isn't just a science fiction one about their minds, there's a spiritual angle as well. The question of whether a "fallen" or Lost world can be redeemed is fairly contentious -- the answer is usually "no", with a handwave that it's not that God can't save people on a Lost world, it's that they've rejected him and he respects their choice.

A problem with this is that people from Battleground worlds (like Charles Wallace) who still have the possibility for redemption don't usually pop in to Lost worlds to visit. Charles has, and has gotten trapped by Satan / IT / evil, so it should still be possible to redeem him or else everything seems vastly unfair. In this regard, L'Engle threaded the theological needle at the end by making it possible for Meg to redeem her brother but leaving behind the Lost world to its fallen nature.

Absolutely none of this works if you stop seeing it as a theological discussion and instead see the little boy with the bouncing ball and realize that our protagonists left him to his fate and didn't think of him ever again because he was a child of a "fallen" world and therefore (somehow) choose his fate.

Anyway, back to IT: Meg's failings (her strengths!) weren't enough to help her hold out longer than, like, a minute? Tops? So it's time to leave.

   She felt the brain reaching at her again as she let her stubborn control slip. Red fog glazed her eyes.
   Faintly she heard her father’s voice, though she knew he was shouting at the top of his lungs. “The periodic table of elements, Meg! Say it!”
   A picture flashed into her mind of winter evenings spent sitting before the open fire and studying with her father. “Hydrogen. Helium,” she started obediently. Keep them in their proper atomic order. What next. She knew it. Yes. “Lithium, Beryllium, Boron, Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Fluorine.” She shouted the words at her father, turned away from IT. “Neon. Sodium. Magnesium. Aluminum. Silicon. Phosphorus.”
   “Too rhythmical,” her father shouted. “What’s the square root of five?”
   For a moment she was able to concentrate. Rack your brains yourself, Meg. Don’t let IT rack them. “The square root of five is 2.236,” she cried triumphantly, “because 2.236 times 2.236 equals 5!”
   “What’s the square root of seven?”
   “The square root of seven is—” She broke off. She wasn’t holding out. IT was getting at her, and she couldn’t concentrate, not even on math, and soon she, too, would be absorbed in IT, she would be an IT.
   “Tesser, sir!” she heard Calvin’s voice through the red darkness. “Tesser!”
   She felt her father grab her by the wrist, there was a terrible jerk that seemed to break every bone in her body, then the dark nothing of tessering.
   If tessering with Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which had been a strange and fearful experience, it was nothing like tessering with her father. After all, Mrs Which was experienced at it, and Mr. Murry—how did he know anything about it at all? Meg felt that she was being torn apart by a whirlwind. She was lost in an agony of pain that finally dissolved into the darkness of complete unconsciousness.

That's the end of that chapter. I don't think anyone will ask why Murry didn't try that in the hallway on the way to IT. Again, from an authorial perspective that would have been much less interesting and thrilling and climactic, but from a character perspective it just makes him and Calvin look silly that at no point did they think to LEAVE THE PLANET whilst walking unguarded down an empty hallway.


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