Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale And The Gilead Nationwide

I’ve read Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale late; in fact, I’ve only just finished reading it–by way of preparing to watch the new television series currently being aired on Hulu–some twenty-five or so years it was first recommended to me by an ex-girlfriend (who was then an office bearer with the National Organization for Women in New Jersey.) I might have read it too late; the issues broached in Atwood’s dystopian classic of speculative fiction–the rise of a totalitarian theocracy in the US, the forcing of women into sexual and reproductive subjugation, the curtailing of women’s bodily freedoms under the guise of protecting ‘conventional’ morality, a harsh penal regime, and environmental degradation notable among them–have been at the forefront of a great deal of political and moral discourse in the intervening years. The issues Atwood philosophized about–using the literary vehicle of a novel–have had their many complexities articulated and analyzed and theorized threadbare; they are now exceedingly familiar to us. For all of that, they are not any less threatening, and it is small wonder that as the Trump Administration, aided and abetted by that cabal of nihilists, the Republican Party, continues its wrecking ball treatment of the American Republic, the novel (and its associated television series) continues to seem increasingly prescient and prophetic. Perhaps even a little too much so; at least two of my friends have informed me that they will not be reading the novel or watching the show any time soon, ‘at least as long as this administration is in office–it’s a little too real right now.’ Dystopian speculative fiction should not be too realistic, I suppose.

The problem, of course, is that Donald Trump is not the problem; the Republican Party is. The impeachment of Donald Trump would merely bring to the Oval Office Mike Pence, a drone-like creature best placed to emulate those folks who run the land of Gilead in Atwood’s novel. Moreover, Republican run state legislatures the nation over specialize in drafting and passing legislation that flirts with the codes operative in Gilead: their primary obsession has been, and will be for the foreseeable future, the control of women’s bodies, but attempts to control where and how they work and what they can read or write never seem too far behind. (To be fair, state level Republican Party leadership is always interested in controlling what everyone reads and writes.) Take a look at some of the pieces of work linked to here–a piece dating back to last year–and you’ll have a fair idea of the medievalist mindset, which would not be out of place in Gilead, that is par for the course among the Republicans of today. Matters have only worsened since the election of Donald Trump; while his antics provide a never-ending series of distractions that cause liberals to foam at the mouth and fantasize about impeachment, Republicans quietly proceed with shadow legislation–like the new version of the American Health Care Act, which is due to be voted on, apparently without being read by anyone in a position to stop it from being passed.

Gilead will not come with a bang, but with a whimper.

Francine Prose On The Consolations Of Post-Apocalyptic Literature

In reviewing Margaret Atwood‘s Stone Mattress: Nine Tales Francine Prose makes a pair of perceptive remarks in her conclusion.

First,

[T]book offers none of the peculiar comforts and reassurances of such post-apocalyptic novels as Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. It denies us the glorious fantasy of flaming out en masse instead of, so much less dramatically, in a bed surrounded by a few grieving relatives; it withholds the consolation of leaving a ruined world–and being spared the certainty that life will go on without us, as if we had never existed. [link added]

And then,

These stories lack the hopeful possibilities lurking within the dystopian novel’s cautionary subtext: since the horrors of the fictive future are usually the result of some existing practice or system, there’s always the chance that, perhaps inspired by the novelist’s warnings, we may yet mend our ways and avert the grisly future the writer has imagined for us.

Prose’s second remark is more commonly made by those writing about post-apocalyptic literature: in essence, these works are not just morality plays, castigating us, informing us of our earth-destroying venality; rather, they offer a blueprint of sorts on how the future may yet be averted. (Marge Piercy‘s Woman On The Edge of Time offers a converse treatment: a traveler from an all-too easily imagined dystopian present travels forward in time to “a utopian world in which a number of goals of the political and social agenda of the late sixties and early seventies radical movements have been fulfilled. Environmental pollution, homophobia, racism, phallogocentrism, class-subordination, consumerism, imperialism, and totalitarianism no longer exist.”)

Her first remark cuts a little deeper. We find post-apocalyptic literature provides the most ‘peculiar comfort’ of all: if we are to die, let us at least die in a world which is dying with us, taking with it everything we held near and dear. We fear death not just because of the uncertainty of the void that awaits, but also because we know that we leave a life and a world behind–our traces soon to be overwritten by the lives of others. How comforting to think that all will be effaced at the same instant. (I wonder if, when lovers or family or friends face death together, the fact of their togetherness provides some comfort in their last dying moments.)

There is yet another dimension to the comforts of post-apocalyptic works: they are escapist, offering fantasy worlds in which an ordinary life suddenly becomes extraordinary, granted an opportunity to redeem itself with unconventional acts of courage, imagination, and fortitude. Fathers step up to the plate; mothers become fiercer; children mature quickly; cowards become heroes. Some of the eagerness with which we lap up news about impending disasters is underwritten by the ‘hope’ that we will now be delivered from our mundane lives into a proving ground of sorts, where hitherto unknown and unimagined personal qualities will become manifest. This is not a new observation: the impatience which greets delays in the declaration of war–and the resultant exultation when it does finally ensue–has been similarly analyzed.

Lord Byron on the Writerly Compulsion

In Oryx and Crake, Crake quotes Lord Byron

What is it Byron said? Who’d write if they could do otherwise? Something like that.

Who indeed? Byron’s supposed description² of writerly obsession is by now familiar to us: writers write because they have to, they must, they can do little other; their activity is as much compelled as chosen.  It is a description that elevates writing to a calling, the answering to an inner voice that must be heeded, that brooks no interference in finding its realization.

This description of writing lends it the beauty of suffering, of the price paid for playing host to a terrible, demanding, desire. It is, as might be evident, part of the self-mythologizing of the writer, a long and honorable tradition of turning yet another profane human activity into something that partakes of divinity, that flirts with infinity. It sprinkles star dust upon the entirely earthy.

Why do writers describe themselves thus? In part because self-mythologizing is narcissistic and writers are nothing if not afflicted by Narcissus‘ disease (What other race of creatures would imagine that anyone else would be interested in its thoughts, its views, its particular rendering of the commonly experienced?); in part because writers are afflicted by the converse too–they are deeply insecure about what they do, always struck by the absurdity of trying to make concrete the unfathomable, of trying to freeze into the written page, all that swirls about within and without. So writers like descriptions like these of their work, because they seem to capture its difficulty well; they dignify its long fallow periods, its flirtations with disaster and sublimity alike, they make bearable the moments–and they occur often–of self-doubt and loathing.

A description of writing as compulsion also helps in understanding the peculiar misery that overcomes those who are unable or unwilling to write but would consider themselves writers anyway; they are so because their lack of fidelity has exacted its punishment.  It makes bearable the discipline that must be imposed in order to write: subject yourself to this chafing constraint because the alternative is worse.

It is also worth acknowledging the flipside of this description of the writer’s state of being: the writer looks longingly at those who do not write; the writer wishes he were not overcome and helpless; the writer dreams of not writing, of putting down the pen (switching off the machine?). It suggests a vivid, animating fantasy of overcoming: to write to the point of exhaustion, to fully spend all that lies within, to purge and bring forth, and then finally, by that writing out, by that expulsion, to be finally freed, allowed to live life in other ways. So at last, the last page written, the fire dies out, the itching stops, and the writing can end. That could be the animating passion; the promise, the dream, of the end of writing.

Notes:

1. Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake, Anchor Books, New York, page 167

2. I have not been able to locate the original source for this line. Pointers would be appreciated.

The Perennial Allure of Utopian Sex

In Margaret Atwood‘s cautionary, speculative tale of a genetic engineering run amuck, Oryx and Crake, the Snowman observes the Crakers are unusually and refreshingly sexually enlightened:

Off to the side, from what is probably a glade where the tents and trailers used to be set up, he can hear laughter and singing, and shouts of admiration and encouragement. There must be a mating going on, a rare-enough occasion among the people: Crake had worked out the numbers, and had decreed that once every three years per female was more than enough.

There’ll be the standard quintuplet, four men and the woman in heat. Her condition will be obvious to all from the bright-blue colour of her buttocks and abdomen….

Since it’s only the blue tissue and the pheromones released by it that stimulate the males, there’s no more unrequited love these days, no more thwarted lust; no more shadow between the desire and the act. Courtship begins at the first whiff, the first faint blush of azure, with the males presenting flowers to the females….From amongst the floral tributes the female chooses four flowers, and the sexual ardour of the unsuccessful candidates dissipates immediately, with no hard feelings left. Then, when the blue of her abdomen has reached its deepest shade, the female and her quartet find a secluded spot and go at it until the woman becomes pregnant and her blue colouring fades. And that is that.

No more No means yes anyway, thinks Snowman. No more prostitution, no sexual abuse of children, no haggling over the price, no pimps, no sex slaves. No more rape. The five of them will roister for hours, three of the men standing guard and doing the singing and shouting while the fourth one copulates, turn and turn about….It no longer matters who the father of the inevitable child may be, since there’s no more property to inherit, no father-son loyalty required for war. Sex is no longer a mysterious rite, viewed with ambivalence or downright loathing, conducted in the dark and inspiring suicides and murders. Now it’s more like an athletic demonstration, a free-spirited romp.

 No description of a utopia–even one gone wrong, as they usually do–is complete without its particular vision of how sex is reconfigured in its arrangements. A utopia wouldn’t be one if it retained this world’s insane sexual  jealousy, its violence, its terribly asymmetric, hypocritical, chauvinistic and gendered understanding of sexual roles, responsibilities, virtues and sins. Unsurprisingly utopian visions of sex often run close together; most seek to describe arrangements that ameliorate the devastating effects current sexual politics have on our psyches and bodies. The relief we seek in these imagined worlds is similar: freedom from the terrible burdens imposed on us by the expectations of masculinity and patriarchy, moral superegos, religious guilt, the discomfort our fantasies evoke in us.

Most of all, utopias seek to demote and demystify sex, to knock it off its pedestal; in so doing, ironically, they make intractable the mystery of why something so common, so necessary, so essential, becomes so mythical, so elusive.