The shoulders we stand upon – Part 1
The treasure trove of the Oligoamorists is teeming with heroes and monsters, idols, mythical figures and chimeras.
But the best stories are written by reality itself – or rather: it is reality that finds its expression in stories, absorbs impulses from them and finally weaves them into an incredibly colourful carpet.
I would like to dedicate this four-part series of articles to the history of Oligoamory, especially its fascinating roots and its most important value, self-awareness.
Of Jungles and Moons
In 1865 Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay as son of an Anglo-Indian family. “Anglo-Indian” families were actually wealthy British families, who – due to colonial rule – lived entirely in India and thus were also largely influenced by the local culture there. In his memoirs Kipling later wrote that in his early years he was mainly cared for by an Indian “Ayah” (nanny): “In the afternoon heats before we took our sleep, she or a Meeta (the Hindu bearer, or male attendant) would tell us stories and Indian nursery songs all unforgotten, and we were sent into the dining-room after we had been dressed, with the caution ‘Speak English now to Papa and Mama.’ So one spoke ‘English’, haltingly translated out of the vernacular idiom that one thought and dreamed in.” English, Kipling went on to write, would thus finally have seemed to him to be a somewhat foreign language.
But already in 1870 little Rudyard was expelled from this paradise: He was sent (together with his younger sister) to foster parents in England for further upbringing and education, as was customary at that time. The shock regarding language and culture was considerable, the different customs were strict – and there are bitter entries about this in his later memoirs.
It was not until twelve years later, in 1882, that Kipling was able to return to the places of his lost childhood, once again accompanied by a whirlwind of strong emotions; he wrote: “I found myself at Bombay where I was born, moving among sights and smells that made me deliver in the vernacular [Kipling is referring to Punjabi!] sentences whose meaning I knew not…“
However, Kipling, with the support of his family, and also thanks to his rich imagination and pronounced intellect, managed to emerge inspired from these conflicting experiences. Over the next twelve years he lived and worked as a journalist and writer in England, India and the USA, married and founded his own family.
In the winter of 1892, when his first daughter was born, Kipling began to pursue the idea of a children’s book, in which various motifs from his own childhood were incorporated: There were for example the ancient Indian legends he knew from his Ayah, fables from the “Panchatantra” (a collection of ancient Indian animal tales) as well as the “Jataka” (myths about the Buddha in his animal and human form). But probably also whispered servant stories about the “Jungle Children of Husanpur and Sultanpur” (reports about several “Feral Children” who, according to hearsay, were found surviving without human care in the wilderness between 1846 and 1848 in the Indian provinces of Agra and Oudh¹). And of course Kipling’s own life experience, as a “scion of two worlds” – the Indian and the European – and his own growing up under strongly contrasting views.
Especially these – in part quite personal – impressions prompted Kipling to tackle a question that was also of great concern to the just burgeoning science of psychology of his time: What are the circumstances and developments that make a person human and what are the decisive factors that influence the unfolding of an individual?
Rudyard Kipling answered this question for himself with the first part of his “Jungle Books”, published since 1894, with the story of the foundling Mowgli, who is raised in the jungle by wolves and finally “socialized” by them, as well as by a panther, a bear and a python.
Kipling designed a fascinating and exotic world in which a human child finds its way to survivability and ethics, solely guided by the mythical forces of its inner and the omnipresent outer (untamed) nature. His book became a world success, certainly also because at many points of his story the belief in an “immanent good” regarding mankind and concerning the whole creation can be felt – possibly a reflection of the optimistic confidence of the 19th century, but perhaps also the confidence of Rudyard Kipling himself, who had to find – and who did find – his way of life “between two worlds”.
About 25 years and one world war later, around 1920, another boy, this time in the USA, began to explore his way “between the worlds”.
Youth literature was by no means as rich as it is today, but for boys there existed beside classics like E. A. Poe (e.g. “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket”) and J. Verne (e.g. “From the Earth to the Moon”) an increasing group of more recent authors like Jack London (e.g. “The Red One”), H. G. Wells (e.g. “The Time Machine”) or Rudyard Kipling (e.g. “Aerial Board Of Controls”) who experimented with a new genre of visionary fictions concerning technology, science and society. Such stories also began to appear on the market with a completely new conception, as weekly or monthly pulp-magazines in which stories by different authors were presented to the reading public for an affordable price.
This expanding colourful world was entered by young Robert A. Heinlein, first as a reader – but after he had to end his short career in the Navy for health reasons – finally as an extremely eager and talented writer.
Henceforth, Heinlein enthusiastically produced series such as the ambivalent “Starship Troopers” (until 1959). In its militarism and totalitarianism, this particular story cycle was strongly influenced by Heinlein’s own military experiences. However, Heinlein had noticed in the military just as much how “equalizing” – regarding differences in age, status and even gender – military structures were able to affect overall conduct. Still today, a hint of these surprisingly egalitarian ideas can be felt in his texts as well as in later film adaptations, when, against a martial background, women and men interact both entitled and body-conscious with a high degree of naturalness and self-evidence.
When Heinlein approached the zenith of his creative work towards the end of the 1950s (his audience began to count him in the science fiction genre alongside I. Asimov and A.C. Clarke among “The Big Three”), he picked up an idea that had been on his mind for the last ten years: to create a modern vision of R. Kipling’s “Jungle Books”. Heinlein, like Kipling at his time, was also regularly fascinated in his writing by the question of “what conditions would define a person human” – and which parameters determined ” humanity”. For his own literary projection of this theme, however, Heinlein wanted to go beyond Kipling’s “Mowgli”, whose “human foundling” had after all been raised by rather respectable acting animals to become a kind of “noble savage”. Heinlein considered a concept in which he now wanted to let a human child grow up completely different – and according to the social rules, spiritual customs and cultural ideas of a completely dissimilar species.
The product of this thought experiment became the novel “Stranger in a Strange Land” (1961) – in which the main human character, as the title already suggests, has to find his way between two completely different universes of values after his return to earth. But Heinlein also gives the literally “cosmo-politian” main character Mike partly messianic traits, who – equipped by his alien educators with partly supernatural abilities – in turn introduces human society to a “new way of thinking” in the sense of a spiritual legacy. The resulting “Church of All Worlds” ² is extremely non-conformist, egalitarian and organized in small cell-like groups (so-calles “Nests”), all of which strive for self-efficacy and emergence of (inter-)personal potential.
Although Heinlein succeeded in “Strangers in a Strange Land” by cleverly questioning “acquired” social structures such as family, religion, gender roles or even sexual morals, his work remained in some other parts rather reactionary (e.g. stereotypical view of women).
Heinlein, who thus recognised that as an author he too was always “part of a system” and thus also part of a “way of thinking”, thereupon strove with another book to liberate himself even further from such limitations in fictional literature.
In 1966 his novel “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” was published. This time Heinlein used the science fiction background to design a challenging (lunar) environment that has tangible implications for resource distribution, shared use and optimisation of what is available to the human pioneers. For this purpose the author e.g. focused on the social structure of a colonist community that still has to cope with an surplus of male personnel even after several generations. Heinlein chose as a solution to this “social question” the formation of polyandry, group- and community marriages, as well as an unorthodox, highly integrative kind of society in which differences of ethnicities and attitudes no longer are able to prevail. When in the course of the book the moon inhabitants are confronted with an ecological catastrophe (which they can fend off by further social change), Heinlein leaves at the end of the book the question unanswered, to what extent the freedom of an individual may be restricted by democratic rules of a community.
In my view, the visionary power of both Kipling and Heinlein’s fictions is so literally “groundbreaking” because both authors dared to explore in a literary way the conditioned boundaries of “human conventions”.
Their own life experience prompted both writers to offer their readers a glimpse of the surprisingly large scope for individual and social creative leeway that began to present itself when the “pre-set given definitions” had to be transcended (whether out of necessity or pioneering spirit).
Kipling, and Heinlein in particular, wanted to show that, in view of the fundamentally adaptable nature of human beings, our mobilisable potential is probably far greater than our belief in predetermined, traditional patterns, which we regard as “established normality (and normativity! )“.
And they dared to suggest that possible change due to this potential would always be “only a thought away”, in other words: within our reach, accessible with courage – realisable and consequently liveable.
Part 2 deals with a highly remarkable development that further encouraged unconformist thinking towards ethical non-monogamy.
Part 3 and Part 4 are about those brave people who took up the torch and actually got involved in this adventure.
¹ Lucien Malson, “Feral Children”, Suhrkamp publishing house 1964
² The “Church of all Worlds” with the abbreviation COW; becomes important again in the third part of this article series.
Thanks to Marcus Dall Col on Unsplash for the photo.