Book Reviews

The Disappearance
By Philip Wylie
originally published by
Holt, Rinehart, & Winston
January 1951(out of print)

Editorial Reviews
Review by William  A.  Spriggs,  January 28, 2001

This past month I took a small detour in my studies and returned to a book that I read over thirty years ago, and which, celebrates its 50th anniversary this February 2001. It is a science-fiction book, but the impact that it made upon me was so profound that I realized that much of my current beliefs concerning gender roles had been influenced by its thoughts. Although out of print, and cost me several weeks of searching and inflated cost for the paperback edition that I finally did receive, it was well worth re-reading; its forward-looking musings about equality of the sexes was well ahead of its time.

The book wastes no time in presenting its theme: "The female of the species vanished on the afternoon of the second Tuesday of February at four minutes and fifty-two seconds past four o'clock, Eastern Standard Time. The event occurred universally at the same instant, without regard to time belts, and was followed by such phenomenon as might be expected after happenings of that nature." p. 1.

Of course the same event was happening to the females; the males disappear to the women at precisely the same time. The book starts by dividing the events of what happened to the males and females through their separate predicaments as to the possibilities of not having the opposite sex around. It was written as two separate books weaved into one, and the fabric of the two scenarios do not come together until the end of the book. Although written from the male perspective first, and does tend to dominate this tone throughout most of the book, it still manages to give a women's point-of-view unexcelled for its historical timeline.

One does not know the thoughts that permeated the author's mind at the time of his conception of the book, but we can look at the popular culture to give us a clue. The Second World War just ended with science taking front stage with the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on Japan. The Cold War was just beginning to heat up with a new "enemy," the former allies, the Russians, looming as a destructive force set to destroy all American and Western values.

If one remembers the science-fiction movies of the era, one should focus on the behavior of the "defenseless" female, screaming at the top of her lungs when faced with the insatiable blob, atomic-mutated large insect, or throbbing vegetable pod that threatens her and then, most likely has her fainting from a lack of blood to the brain while the male hero rushes in and "saves" her at the last possible second. It is upon this cultural environment that held sway in which Wylie weaved his story.

Not only was this the time of the "weak and defenseless" women that needed to be protected, it is also was a time of severe racial discrimination. The "world's greatest generation" went off to fight the tyranny of the Nazi hoard with segregated fighting units and barracks based upon pseudo-scientific beliefs that "Negroes," and "Coloreds" were intelligently inferior. If I have any complaint about bringing this book to your attention, it is this "reduction" of the African-Americans to a footnote in his book.  But such are the scars of evolution that leave marks upon our physical and mental behavioral heritage in each of our local environments.

But I am not here to point out the low point of the book, but its strength: gender roles, and in particular, the devastation created by the disappearance of the males from the female world. The culture of the time suggested by Wylie makes us believe that women were incapable of understanding what happened to them:

"The Disappearance required imagination for its understanding. Women deficient in the quality were unable to assimilate the event and, as a result, their responses were unsuitable. To deal with problems that immediately arose required vast imagination, as well as logic, and also a variety of informations which are popularly referred to as "know-how." p. 50

Again, Wylie gives us clues into the fiber of post-WWII America. "Hence women, presented with the instantaneous vanishment of the males, were in an extremely poor psychological condition to deal with the aftermath. Whatever pattern innately existed in them, what faculties they owned as individuals, what promptings, urges, intelligent ideas, logical extrapolations and valid hunches they were capable of were hidden; they found themselves without a tradition, without experience, without confidence, and without know-how." p. 52 & 53. In one final stab, the wife of the hero, a philosopher named William Gaunt, tells us what she "thinks" her husband may have been thinking about women' reasoning abilities: "Then for a moment it was if she could hear Bill dissertate: My dear, I don't know whether it's environmental or sex-linked, but the constant, observable unwillingness of women to reason, when they are faced by a problem that will yield to logic but not to emotion, has given the ladies their ageless reputation for intellectual frivolity." p. 93 & 94.

Of course, in Wylie's speculations, all this leads us to the catastrophic events in the female's world: Transatlantic and major route planes suddenly became pilotless, large ocean liners crash into harbor piers, and speeding trains collide head-on. The fires from the catastrophes went untended, hospitals suddenly found themselves with no doctors, and of course, their was no government to respond from a central sense of authority to rush in and "save" the females from a massive epidemic of Cholera. But in some instances that was a relief. In a world without women, Wylie spins us a tale in which the Russian and American males so distrust each other, and thought that each side was the cause of The Disappearance, that "naturally," they went to war by the Russians planting nuclear bombs in submarines and trucking-in atomic bombs; the Americans responding by massive nuclear attacks by bomber planes. Despite this 'minor' inconvenience of a nuclear war, it sometimes seemed that the only major 'problem' males faced in Wylie's book was untidiness in their household chores and dietary challenges.

As the months and years passed without the other, both sexes were faced with the "problem" of 'what to do about sex when their was only one sex,' p. 208. Wylie shows us the innocence of just fifty years ago by reducing the males to 'lusting' only after males who dress up and act like females or female 'dolls' made up as 'Miss America.' In the female world, they were reduced to having friendship parties at nightclubs and then having 'crushes' on other females. There are no other options or speculations in Wylie's world either because he was unaware of them or was not allowed to write about them. This was a victorious male's world that just emerged from the battlefields of WWII. Testosterone was thick in the air like magnolias in bloom; no sissy male or butch female behaviors here.

But buried in the book, Wylie does eventually present his "philosophy" (since his hero in the book is a philosopher), and if you pay very close attention, you can almost see that this is really a separate "philosophy" from the tone being presented because it is so profound that it really does not seem to fit in the frivolous structure of the novel. It is at this point in the book that he takes a swing at sexual morality and anti-female bias as seen the light of nature; one can sense his rage that: 

    "In nature, sex is an instinct served with felicitous collaboration by paired individuals for procreative purposes. It is the chain of life; it is the trunk from which life's variegations, its evolutions, have branched ever outward toward enhanced consciousness...
"It is expectable, in a species that has unconsciously perverted its instincts for its immediate vanity (as religions, faiths, dogmas, dialectics, "sciences," and so on), that strong cultural compulsions and taboos would everywhere surround the ancient, potent instincts of sex. Such, of course, is the case. Western man's religions (and hence his culture) are rooted in sex management and sustained by inculcated sex fears. Disobedience of the "sacred" rules or of the "common" law is "sin" or "crime." Sex hunger has here been made shameful so as to elevate the vanity of man in relation to other animals and so as to enhance the controlling power of cultural tradition and its agencies -- the churches, courts, and so on..."p. 215 & 216

Wylie then leads us to his more profound beliefs:

    "The half of a world that now survives is, in many senses, a whole world. It is a whole world owing to the fact that nearly all of humanity, in nearly of all of its recorded or known existence, has consisted of two worlds: the world of women and the world of men..." and the reason: "Man's greater stature, his considerably greater strength, his apparently greater penchant for the hunt, for aggression, warfare, and the construction of useful apparatus, his emancipation from the reproductive functions of child carrying, childbearing and suckling, and his recently touted larger skull capacity have caused man to regard himself as the "dominant" or "superior" sex...    
    "For thousands of years he has exploited the role. A human tribe in which the males think of themselves as substantially inferior to the females is a rarity...
"But generally, in marked degree, woman has been accorded a secondary place. She had been regarded as a slave in countless societies. She has a property status in numerous areas today. She has been denied many social, economic and political privileges accorded to men. Before the law, she is seldom equal...
"Where sexuality is concerned -- and in this discussion the concern is nothing other -- woman also has been grossly denigrated. In both the Old and the New Testament (on which Western "culture" so largely rests) woman's biological functions have been repetitiously and remorselessly associated with filth. According to the legendary attitudes, a woman during menses is "unclean..." The female who has borne a child is often supposed to be in an "unclean" condition that demands certain rituals for the restitution of her decency." p. 217. Despite today's multiple theories as to the concept of male domination, it basically boils down to reduction of the female's freedom of choices so that the maximum benefit to the males of resource accumulations will prevail.

As both sexes realized that their separation may be permanent and were faced with the nagging question of how to procreate in order for the species to survive, both sexes put their best scientists to work on the problem; with the majority being male, of course. We must remind ourselves that just fifty years ago we did not yet have the widespread knowledge of artificial insemination, DNA, nor the secrets of cloning. Toward the conclusion of Wylie's book, both sexes had failed to succeed in making any procreative advances possible and both sides fall into depressive states over this condition setting the tone for the finale of the book.

The book ends as mysteriously as it starts; both sides re-appear to each other with the snap of a finger and both sexes are overcome with the importance of giving both sexes the respect that they require. In several amusing scenes Wylie conjures a vision of the "new sexuality" and in particular gives us an image of one large and open orgy in one of the hero's large home-town public parks at night. Wylie then has a police officer stroll by and informs the hero that he has orders not to arrest anyone unless there was trouble, thereby informing us that a new morality is instantly in play in the new culture. It is fairly certain, that Wylie saw his 1950s society has sexually repressed and that scene was the ultimate and massive rejection of that repression. In fact, I sense that that scene was the main reason for writing the book.

In re-visiting a pastor of a cathedral that held importance at the beginning of the book, the author has this pastor cry out from the insight of having survived The Disappearance and by reflecting on the lack of people present in his church; and the one's that were there, who were kissing violently: "Not many came here, anyway. I regard that as a sign. There is something wrong here. We will tear down this edifice! This mausoleum of God! We will build a bright place, a simple place, and go in search of a new God! We will build a bright place, a simple place. Look at them -- ! We took away the sweetness of their bodies, their soul's temples. We kept them ashamed. We kept them sinning so we could own them through that hangman's rope of perennial repentance! We cut them off from nature. We built the barricade down the ages. We made what was one seem twain! There is only one sex, Bill! (Wylie's hero). Woman, man, are halves. In all the rest of nature they are one. By dividing them we kept them conquered and subservient. I am ashamed of my doctrines!"p. 342.

As a male, I am ashamed of my sex's treatment of the female as a subservient piece of property and intellectual inferior. But in the end, one must also admonish the female for picking males who took advance of this position to acquire resources in order to attract the most attractive females; it is these males and females who turn their back on their unfortunate brothers and sisters struggling in the dust. Both of our sexes are equally guilty of this crime against our fellow species. One good place to reflect on such innate behaviors is to look at this marvelous piece of fiction and science on its 50th anniversary.

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