In Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (2002), Margaret Atwood offers two observations about authorial historicity: first, authors adopt their terms of discourse early in their lives; second, authors are still living in the shadow of the Romantic movement or its fragments. These observations may seem old-fashioned but authors of her generation could not ignore the relationship between Neoclassicism and Romanticism, or between Romanticism, Modernism and Postmodernism. These relationships were an intellectual force; a cultural currency that conjures up Bloom’s anxiety of influence in Romantic poetry but on a larger and more complex scale. This article explores the ways in which Atwood adapts her adopted precursors in Alias Grace (1996), The Blind Assassin (2000), and the Maddaddam Trilogy (2003–2013). As such it is also a meditation on what motivates Atwood’s questioning of her precursors. I suggest she may have come to understand that, while we are historicised subjects—still struggling with our historicity—the future is not always in the past.
The Author’s Historicity
In 2000 Margaret Atwood gave the Empson Lectures at Cambridge University. These were reworked later and published as Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (Atwood, 2002). Early in the book she comments on her influences and how she has evolved as an author. Two comments stand out. First, she believes authors ‘tend to adopt the terms of their discourse early in their reading and writing lives’ (Atwood, 2002: xxvi). Second, she assumes we are still living ‘in the shadow cast by the Romantic movement or the fragments of that shadow’ (Atwood, 2002: xxvi). This raises the question of whether she understands the Platonic implications of this Romantic shadow. If we can never be sure, she may understand more than she admits.
A range of other questions emerge from Atwood’s observations. Is she suggesting authors inherit, process, and adapt their precursors? If so do they transmit their precursors in an evolved form or do they struggle to overcome their precursors and not transmit them at all? Do the terms of discourse and the shadow of the Romantic movement amount to the same thing, at least for some authors and some genres? Is she referring to how literature and philosophy evolved in partnership, during and since the Enlightenment, via Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Realism, Naturalism, Modernism, and Postmodernism, and continue to evolve in partnership
Is Atwood making the point that authors—at least those who wrote within one of these genres—could not ignore the evolution of a particular genre, even if they wanted to, because it was an intellectual force, a cultural currency, something like Bloom’s theory of precursors in The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973) but on a larger and more complex scale? Because of a particular genre’s historical and historicising power, must authors come to terms with this evolution, in positive or negative ways? In other words, do authors need to situate themselves within it, or react against it, or can they simply ignore it? These questions are open-ended and each author would probably answer them differently.
During the 19th and 20th century, British and Commonwealth novels with origins traceable to the Romantic movement followed a trajectory which has been called many things: the Post-Enlightenment critique of the Enlightenment; Modernism exploring the tension between Neoclassicism and Romanticism; Postmodernism continuing (or reacting against) Modernism. If the history of literature can be conceived as the archaeology of memes, we can see a range of dialectics within this literature: rationality–irrationality, reason–feeling, logos–mythos, master–slave, Apollonian–Dionysian, Socratic–Dionysian, ego–id, conscious–unconscious, civilisation–nature, and so on. These dialectics are all variations of an original or index meme: Plato’s hypothetical ‘old quarrel’ between philosophers and poets described in The Republic (c.380 BC).
The logic of that ‘old quarrel’ depends on Plato’s model of mind. In The Republic, he says the mind has a tripartite structure (rational, spirited, and appetitive) analogous to different parts of the body (head, heart, and lower abdomen) as well as different societal classes (guardians, auxiliaries, and producers). Presumably because philosophy is aligned with the rational mind (analogous with the head), Plato believed it had the highest truth-claims. Presumably because it comes from the spirited mind (analogous with the heart), he believed poetry had lesser truth-claims, as it could be easily corrupted by the appetitive mind (analogous with the lower abdomen). Nevertheless, poetry could also be noble, and did have its own truth-claims, provided it was the kind of poetry Plato approved of.
Plato banned the poets from his ideal republic because their poetry did not represent the highest form of truth and because their poetry was produced by the mind’s spirited part not its rational part. As poets were not philosophers, he believed they had the potential to create bad poetry. Their occupation was to tell stories about heroes and the gods, but those stories could tell lies, be subversive, and corrupt. They traded in copies, and lived in the shadows, similar to the Romantic shadow Atwood alerts us to. Theoretically, according to Plato’s logic, philosophers live in the light and are not as susceptible to lying, subverting, and corrupting. Therefore, he believed philosophers should be leaders and poets should not.
Along with the ‘old quarrel,’ Plato’s tripartite structure of the mind has been extraordinarily influential throughout Western history, for better and for worse, depending on where one stands. In the world of literary fiction, the ‘old quarrel’ is represented in a broad range of genres which provide a literary corollary to Whitehead’s comment: ‘The safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato’ (Whitehead 1929: 23). This proposition will make sense to those who see Western fiction and philosophy as the evolution of inherited memes at least since Socrates but perhaps before him, somewhere among the Presocratics, or their equivalent in the ancient Greek Tragedians, or their equivalent in the ancient Near East.
Atwood studied literature as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, and as a postgraduate at Radcliffe College, although she did not finish her doctoral program. She understands literary genres and philosophical movements, the novel that critiques the metanarrative of coloniser and colonised, and the national novel that is simultaneously international. She also has a broad and impressive knowledge of the sacred canon, other writings from the classics, the humanities, the sciences, and the history of ideas, all of which she wears lightly and gracefully. From this we know she is aware, on a range of conscious and unconscious levels, of the tradition literature shares with philosophy.
After the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale (Atwood, 1985), Atwood continued to push her literary boundaries, as she entered her literary maturity. For example, as far as ancient Greece is concerned, she decided Homer’s Odyssey needed to be rewritten from a different perspective, since the traditional story, which is male-centred, does not hold water and contains too many inconsistencies. Operating on the principle that mythic material was originally oral, local, and would have been told one way in one place and differently in another, she used non-traditional material to re-tell the story from Penelope’s perspective. In The Penelopiad (Atwood, 2005), she used the details of Penelope’s parentage, her early life and marriage, and the scandalous rumours about her, to answer a question any close reading of Odyssey must pose: What was Penelope really up to? As Atwood is aware of hubris, the novel is, to a certain extent, a response to questions about precursors and historicity.In Negotiating with the Dead, Atwood acknowledges the pitfalls of the Romantic image of the artist as inspired by the muse. This is why she avoids the ‘often drastic mythologies’ of the author as self-dedicated ‘priestess of the imagination’ devoted to creating a perfect work. But even she admits: ‘In truth, if you do not acknowledge at least some loyalty to this ideal … you are unlikely to achieve more than mediocrity, and perhaps a “glaring insignificance”’ (Atwood, 2002: 96). From this we can assume that, as far as she is concerned, not all literary works are equal. Also, she associates writing fiction with functions once reserved for religion, such as bridging the gap between the living and the dead; the gap between this life and the afterlife.
According to Atwood, what happens during the process of writing is primordial; narrative is motivated ‘deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality—by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead’ (Atwood, 2002: 156). Thus the author, although clearly not a Romantic priest, is here likened to an ancient shaman, who descends into forbidden places, and struggles with dark forces, wresting something important from them, while trying not to be killed in the process. This important something is a story, the final quality of which is a proxy for the nature of the struggle. She emphasises the religious function of this special kind of story by retelling the story of the first shaman–author, Gilgamesh:
He wants the secret of life and death, he goes through hell, he comes back, but he hasn’t got immortality, all he’s got is two stories—the one about his trip, and the other, extra one about the flood. So the only thing he really brings back with him is a couple of stories. Then he’s really, really tired, and then he writes the whole thing down on a stone. (Atwood, 2002: 176)
Being a shaman, descending into the dead, negotiating with them, and ascending again to write up what you have wrested from them, is exhausting, but tremendously important.
Why does Atwood question her precursors? It seems to me that, as a student of literature and life, she recognises the many ways in which post-Romantic literature has influenced her own historicity. Is it because, like all historicity, her historicity is a mixture of lies as well as truths? Is it because one of her mottos, expressed by the female narrator her second novel, Surfacing (Atwood, 1969), is:
This above all, to refuse to be a victim. Unless I can do that I can do nothing. I have to recant, give up the old belief that I am powerless and because of it nothing I can do will ever hurt anyone … withdrawing is no longer possible and the alternative is death. (1969: 77)
As Atwood’s career progressed, she became more interested in the future than the past, as she explains in her essay In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (2011). Incidentally, in this work, SF means ‘speculative fiction,’ not ‘science fiction,’ since she confesses to no longer knowing what ‘science fiction’ means, and she is always reminding her readers of the underlying realism of her speculative fiction. In other words, the future that interests her is not far-fetched.
While Atwood is not a literary theorist, her novels do question the traditional roles of Neoclassicism and Romanticism, and their traditional relationship with Modernism, especially those written after The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). In Cat’s Eye (1988) and The Robber Bride (1993) she questions the historicity of her generation. In Alias Grace (1996) and The Blind Assassin (2000) she questions the historicity of previous generations. In the 21st century, she returns to the future, where her heart seems to be, in the MaddAddam Triology: Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), and MaddAddam (2013). This article focuses on her speculative past and her speculative future.
The central mystery of Alias Grace is based on a true story, never solved, which Atwood brilliantly describes. Grace Marks was one of the most notorious Canadian women of the 1840s, convicted of murder at the age of sixteen. In the novel’s Afterword, Atwood tells us Grace’s trial was widely reported in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States because the combination of sex, violence, and the ‘deplorable insubordination’ of the lower classes was ‘attractive to the journalists of the day’ (Atwood, 1996: 461).
As opinion about Grace was divided from the start, her death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. During an incarceration of nearly thirty years, she continued to polarise public opinion, and contemporary attitudes towards her reflected an ambivalence about women. Was she ‘a female fiend and temptress, the instigator of the crime’ or ‘an unwilling victim, forced to keep silent’ by threats from her co-accused for fear of her own life (Atwood, 1996: 461)? In searching for the true character of the historical (and historicised) Grace, as a biblical scholar searches for the true character of the historical (and historicised) Jesus, Atwood confronted the same problem they did: All the textual evidence portrays a constructed person.
Contemporary constructions of Grace’s identity are aliases traceable to the master–slave dialectic (Hegel 1807) which originates in the Greek myths of rationality and irrationality, emblematically located in Plato’s ‘old quarrel’. Accordingly, Grace’s peers choose from two possible choices; or from one choice with antithetical aspects: she can be a servant embodying the heart’s noble feeling (a Madonna) or she can be a servant embodying the lower abdomen’s base appetite (a Whore). Her peers never allow her a master’s reason, although she may have a great deal of reason she is forced to conceal. While she is aware of her aliases, as aliases, she still acts them out because she has no alternative.
Depending on who you were in the 19th century, you might assign Grace an alias according to the logic of what passed for science then, or the logic of the alias might be located in the opposite of science, somewhere between spirituality and spiritualism. Those who believe Grace is evil are identified with Neoclassical reason; they need to invoke their contemporary definition of ‘rational’ science to demonise and control her because they fear the irrational, as the Classical Greeks supposedly feared the irrational (Dodds 1951). Those who believe she is good are identified with Romantic feeling; they are a federation of strange bedfellows—religionists, spiritualists, mesmerists, hypnotists, and con men—who do not share Neoclassicism’s suspicion of the irrational.
Atwood’s purpose was, arguably, not to write a historical novel about Grace. It was to write a novel through which she could achieve something she could not have achieved in nonfiction. This does not mean Alias Grace is untrue; any more than the portrayals of Jesus in the canonical gospels are untrue. Atwood interpreted her sources with wisdom and integrity, in keeping with the truth of fiction., not verisimilitude. In answering the ‘Who do you say I am?’ of Grace’s humanity she complements the ‘Who do you say I am?’ of Jesus’ divinity (Matthew 16:15).
There are four themes in Alias Grace central to Atwood’s exploration of Grace’s identity. First, her experience of being a constructed woman in the 19th century, without a voice to describe herself. Second, her relationship with Simon Jordan, a doctor who wants to use her as evidence to support a ‘scientific’ theory of metapsychology which prefigures the work of Sigmund Freud. Third, her relationship with Jeremiah the Peddler, who has many aliases of his own; a con-man who appears to have an affinity with her but turns out to be another constructor of her identity Fourth, her relationship with Enoch Verringer, a clergyman and icon of Western religion, who supports her throughout her incarceration, against a great deal of institutional opposition, and is ultimately responsible for her pardon.
The Neoclassical Simon Jordan hopes to penetrate Grace’s unconscious, recover her repressed memories, and discover the truth about her innocence or guilt. One of his motives is to validate his ‘scientific’ theory of mind, which would give him fame for having contributed something important to ‘modern’ medicine; although we must now admit that, like Freud’s theories of the mind, Jordan’s proto-Freudian theories are neither scientific nor modern; they are ancient and Platonic. Another motive is hidden and only emerges as his relationship with his neurotic, desperate, and manipulative landlady evolves from something harmless to something as dangerous and transgressing as the relationship Grace is supposed to have had with her alleged accomplice and lover.
Doctor Jordan takes his proto-Freudian experiment seriously because he is a male and his ‘science’ is essentially a male thing. Grace pretends to take it seriously, because she has a vested interest in it, and because she has no other options. Atwood sends up the experiment. One comic sign, which bemuses Grace, is Jordan’s attempt to use associative objects to trigger repressed memories. He begins with a red apple but no memory is evoked. She simply sees it as a reminder of a fruit she is deprived of in prison. Her response, when he leaves the room, frustrated, is to press the apple against her forehead, signalling to the reader that he is trying to transpose the myth of the apple—hence the myth of Eve—from one side of her cranium to the other. Then he tries a range of root vegetables that all grow underground; tuberous vegetables which will hopefully lead Grace’s conscious mind into the underworld of her unconscious mind. That attempt also fails.
As the novel progresses, and each new masculine–phallic attempt to systematise Grace’s unconscious fails, Jordan interrogates her in an increasingly forensic manner. As he becomes more aggressive she becomes more opaque. Whatever truth she possesses is packaged within dreams or is simply forgotten; at times she covers her eyes with a hand and says, somewhat camply: ‘All that time is dark to me, Sir’ (Atwood, 1996: 317). When he attributes motives that place her in an unflattering light she points out to him that thinking about a criminal act is not the same as doing it, as she says: if ‘we were all on trial for our thoughts, we would all be hanged’ (Atwood, 1996: 317). Their relationship becomes a ‘contest of wills’ in which Jordan wants to know what she ‘refuses to tell’ or what she ‘chooses perhaps not even to know’ (Atwood, 1996: 322). His intention is to pry the truth out of her. He sees himself as a fisherman who has got ‘the hook in her mouth’ (Atwood, 1996: 322). He hopes he can ‘pull her out’ of ‘the deep blue sea’ (Atwood, 1996: 322). He thinks of this mission ‘as a rescue’ (Atwood, 1996: 322) but she does not appreciate being likened to a fish. That is why she evades his hook.
During these masculine, phallic, proto-Freudian endeavours, which represent the science of the mind before Freud was born, Jordan maintains an appalling and arrogant insensitivity to the social, economic, and moral dimensions of Grace’s reality. Atwood is clear about his lack of humanity towards her, his ambition for himself, and the abusiveness of his experiment. Ultimately, Jordan fails to discover the truth about Grace and Atwood makes us grateful for his failure. He becomes afraid, abandons Grace, escapes from his dangerous landlady, and flees. Later, Grace writes him a letter reminding him that he was going to ‘write a letter to the Government’ (Atwood, 1996: 422) on her behalf, to set her free, and she is now afraid he will ‘never do so’ (Atwood, 1996: 422). The power he had over her life, as a doctor and a man, explains her complicity in an experiment indistinguishable from any other treatment she has received from men throughout her life.
Jeremiah the Peddler has an apparently Romantic affinity with Grace. Atwood describes an attraction between them and weaves a mystery around their friendship. From the moment Jeremiah meets Grace he wishes her luck, warns her of ‘sharp rocks ahead’ and tells her she is ‘one of us’ (Atwood, 1996: 155), which means he sees her as a fellow Romantic. He occasionally disappears and reappears in her life, each time in a new disguise: as Jeremiah the Peddler; as the noted medical practitioner Jerome DuPont; as the master of neuro-hypnosis Geraldo Ponti; as the celebrated medium Gerald Bridges. He often makes prescient observations about the reality around her and the dangers before her. She once asked him about this prescience. His reply is: ‘the future lies hid in the present, for those that can read it’ (Atwood, 1996: 265). But is he simply reading the signs for what they are? Is his supposed clairvoyance just common sense?
When they first meet, Jeremiah asks Grace to ‘come away’ with him. When she asks whether they will be married, his answer is: ‘Marriage never did any good … if the two are of a mind to keep together, they will (Atwood, 1996: 268). She is alarmed. If she is surrounded by present dangers there will still be future dangers with him on the fringes of respectable society. These are similar to the dangers facing the Romantic Marianne in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (Austen 1811) should she become too involved with Willoughby, or those facing the Romantic Jane in Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) should she marry Rochester before his first wife dies. Life with the handsome, sexy, and basically decent Jeremiah may well be better than any other life available to Grace at the time. But she has been chosen for a crucible of suffering, just as Jesus was, and the life she is eventually given provides her with rewards Jeremiah could not or would not give her.
The turning point in Jeremiah-Jerome-Geraldo-Gerald’s clairvoyant ability comes when he hypnotises Grace as part of another experiment, in the presence of Simon Jordan and Enoch Verringer, in an attempt to discover the truth about the murder. Jerome does the hypnotising, and the reader suspects he has coached her in what to say while she is under; however, he is either a good actor or he is confronted by what the hypnosis reveals, since it reveals something unexpected even to him. While she is under, a voice issuing from her admits to being present when the murder was committed. But the voice is ambiguous about who committed it:
The kerchief killed her. Hands held it … The wages of sin is death. And this time the gentleman dies as well, for once. Share and share alike. (Atwood, 1996: 401)
The voice claims to be another servant, the dead Mary Whitney, whose spirit entered Grace’s body while she was unconscious. The voice admits to telling the murderer ‘to do it’, making the murder a proxy not only for any motive Grace may have but for the motives all female servants may have against all male masters who abuse them.
Atwood lets the reader suspect Jeremiah-Jerome-Geraldo-Gerald is just another constructor of the historical Grace. After the hypnosis, when he realises she is a mystery even to him, he disappears from her life for good. She has challenged Romantic Jeremiah in the same way she has challenged Neoclassical Jordan.
Without Enoch Verringer, the novel’s moral recognition would never eventuate. While both the Neoclassical Jordan and Romantic Jeremiah eventually abandon Grace, the Reverend Verringer stands by her because he knows that to abandon her is to abandon Christ. He is committed to the social gospel and he is the only protagonist who sympathises with her cultural context. As he explains to Jordan early in the novel, there is ‘a widespread feeling against Grace’ in this ‘most partisan’ country (Atwood, 1996: 80), from Tories who confuse Grace with ‘the Irish Question’, even though ‘she is a Protestant’ (Atwood, 1996: 80). In the public mind, ‘the murder of a single Tory gentleman’ was the same as ‘the insurrection of an entire race’ of Irish immigrants (Atwood, 1996: 80).
Verringer puts the case succinctly: ‘we are caught between the notion of a possibly innocent woman, whom many believe to be guilty, and a possibly guilty woman, whom some believe to be innocent (Atwood, 1996: 80). He is interested in the truth, which the Lord says will set us free (John 8:32), even if this truth is uncomfortable as well as an affront to positivism and scientism. Witnessing to this truth means recognising the social, economic, and moral dimensions of Grace’s dilemma. He eventually encounters evil during her hypnosis, which leaves him ‘somewhat shaken’ and needing to pray for the strength to make the ‘leap of faith’ required to maintain her innocence in the face of the possibility of her guilt. The strength that allows his leap of faith comes from a belief in a God who ‘must have his reasons, obscure though they may appear to mortal eyes’.
Over time, Verringer keeps working towards Grace’s pardon, against the weight of public opinion, institutional authority, vested interests, and above all against the fear of the irrational (Dodds, 1951) that was being repackaged as science in the 19th century. If Jordan eventually fears what she represents, and Jeremiah eventually avoids her, Verringer never fears or avoids her. Why? Because he accepts that Christ can be known through Grace. And this knowledge does not depend on her innocence or guilt. It depends on the broader social, economic, and moral truth of her life as a poor female servant, not simply on constructions of her identity. It depends on the call to repentance and forgiveness through which the fullness of divine and human love are known. Only Verringer, the novel’s representative of Western religion, understands the religious significance of her name: Grace Marks = the Marks of Grace. According to Verringer, Grace is not Jesus but we can know Jesus through Grace.
At the end of the novel, Grace is released from nearly thirty years of imprisonment and Verringer’s pastoral care. Now in her late forties, she marries Jamie Walsh, the son of her murdered employer’s overseer, who had shown her a boyish love in his youth and yet testified against her during her trial. Whenever she recalls ‘a few stories’ from her previous life of ‘torment and misery’ (Atwood, 1996: 457) he repeatedly asks for her forgiveness. She is annoyed at first, although she does not admit it, because she knows that ‘few understand the truth about forgiveness’. She does not believe it is the culprits who need to be forgiven, it is the victims:
… because they are the ones who cause all the trouble. If they were only less weak and careless, and more foresightful, and if they would keep from blundering into difficulties, think of all the sorrow in the world that would be spared. (Atwood, 1996: 457)
The reader may regard this as a strange take on forgiveness, unless they account for Atwood’s literary–philosophical habit of questioning traditional formulas. Just as she loves female villains, and the example of female evil, she is fond of subverting the Romantic theme of female victim. She is not alone. Since Austen, female novelists have given their female heroes varying degrees of disadvantage to overcome. This literary–philosophical pursuit is not simply a matter of describing and inscribing female victimhood, it is a matter of maturity, and the literary–philosophical author knows maturity is not easy (Giffin 2014).
The Blind Assassin
In The Blind Assassin (2000), Atwood calls one of her heroes Iris: the muscle that controls what the eye can see; the messenger of the gods. In her youth, Iris chose between Classicism and Romanticism; preferring to be ‘upright and contained’, an ‘urn in daylight’, while her younger sister Laura becomes a Romantic prototype and all that implies in the literary–philosophical tradition Atwood is questioning. The chronology is correct; Neoclassicism is the older sister of Romanticism; they coexist within the same metaphysical paradigm; also, both Iris and Laura are ‘like bookends’ framing the character of Alex Thomas, the revolutionary or anarchical face of Modernity. At this point, a question needs to be asked: Why does The Blind Assassin—which is simultaneously a history of Canada’s story and a fictional reflection on the lives of two sisters within the story—contain references to Neoclassicism, Romanticism, and Modernity?
The question is interesting because the novel subverts the traditional roles of Neoclassicism and Romanticism within Canada’s story. Iris ends up being different from a typical Neoclassical trope. She had the clandestine affair with the Modern Alex not the Romantic Laura. She wrote the novel within the novel famously attributed to Laura. She remained silently in the background and allowed the world to regard her sister as a tragic hero. Conversely, Laura’s identity remains a mystery. She committed suicide because of an excess of feeling—a Romantic thing to do—while Iris the Neoclassical survivor lives on to tell their story, which is also Canada’s story, also similar to Australia’s story, and the broader story of the Anglosphere. Is Atwood making a similar point about reason that many of her contemporaries make? Why does Iris have the strength of character to tell Canada’s story rather than Laura?
Oryx and Crake
At the beginning of Oryx and Crake (2003), we find Snowman living in a tree by the seashore. He believes he is the last human alive after a global pandemic. A gentle humanoid species live nearby, the Crakers, bioengineered by Crake, Snowman’s one-time best friend and rival for his beloved, the beautiful and enigmatic Oryx.
Snowman (Jimmy) first met Crake (Glenn) at high school, where they bonded over internet porn and complex online games. They lose touch when Glenn, who has Neoclassical attributes, is accepted at the prestigious ‘scientific’ Watson-Crick Institute, while the less intellectually endowed Jimmy, who has Romantic attributes, makes do in the ‘humanities’ at the shabby Martha Graham Academy of Liberal Arts. When they reconnect years later, Glenn-Crake is in charge of Paradice dome, where he is gene-splicing the Crakers and slowly and deliberately creating the pandemic that will destroy humanity.
Once Neoclassical Glenn-Crake unleashes the pandemic, he kills Oryx and himself, leaving Romantic Jimmy-Snowman alone with the Crakers. The logic Atwood proposes here is something like this: When Neoclassical reason is left to its own devices, it destroys civilisation and nature, and when Romantic feeling is left to its own devices, it is helpless to prevent Neoclassical reason from doing whatever it wants to do. Romantic feeling cannot fix the mess Neoclassical reason makes.
Oryx has an interesting relationship with her past and her present. Atwood tells us the story of her childhood in a remote and impoverished part of Asia, where her family sold her into sexual slavery. Not long ago, her life as a sex slave would have been considered harrowing and we would have constructed an edifice of victimhood around it, but Atwood does not. Clearly, Neoclassical Glenn-Crake and Romantic Snowman-Jimmy have different kinds of relationships with her. They want different things from her and do different things to her.
While Oryx responds to each of them differently, like Grace Marks, she keeps her true identity to herself. When Snowman-Jimmy learns about Oryx’s past, he wants to construct a myth of victimhood around her, but she never buys into that myth. When Glenn-Crake unleashes the pandemic, he murders Oryx and kills himself. What is Atwood telling us in these different relationships?
The Year of the Flood
In The Year of the Flood (2009), which takes place during the same timeframe as Oryx and Crake, the focus is on the God’s Gardeners, a green sect which has reconciled science and religion while prophesying the man-made pandemic. Their dilemma is whether to remain pacifists, who pray and forgive their enemies, or become militants who pray and try to stop the pandemic. The prevailing view, promoted by their charismatic celibate leader, Neoclassical Adam One, is to remain pacifists, since meeting threat with threat would violate their integrity. Significant opposition comes from one of the male elders, the charismatic non-celibate, Romantic Zeb, who favours strategic militancy and becomes a kind of freedom fighter. When their intelligence suggests the pandemic is approaching, sides are taken. What does Atwood favour: Adam One’s pacifism or Zeb’s militancy? We do not know, as she is even handed, and always pragmatic.
The novel has two female protagonists, Ren and Toby. Ren was brought to the Gardeners as a young girl, and assimilates Gardener values, but she is eventually forced to leave the sect. After graduating from a liberal arts college, she becomes a trapeze dancer in a high-end sex club, Scales and Tails, where she survives the pandemic, while locked away in quarantine for several months. Toby also lived with the Gardeners, assimilated their values, gradually became indispensable to the sect, and was eventually elevated to the status of elder. She was forced to leave the Gardeners, however, as a sadistic Painballer is pursuing her. She is given a new physical identity and finds work in a luxury spa for women, eponymously named AnooYoo. She survives the pandemic, quarantined in the spa.
After several months of isolation, she discovers Ren on her doorstep, near death, and nurses her back to health, but they are also driven by necessity to leave the deserted spa, to seek other humans, and to try to rescue their friend Amanda, captured by the sadistic Painballer.
While the novel gives us no sense of Ren and Toby being historicised by Neoclassicism or Romanticism, their different perspectives are best read alongside the perspectives of other female protagonists in Atwood’s earlier novels. While they are not tropes in the same sense Grace, Iris and Laura are, they are still on a journey into their freedom and their constraint. Who is out there in what is left of the world? Can they save Amanda? Or will they need to be saved themselves? The omniscient narrator makes a poignant observation, near the end of the novel, just as Toby feels certain she and Ren are about to die:
The Human moral keyboard is limited, Adam One used to say: there’s nothing you can play on it that hasn’t been played before. And, my dear Friends, I am sorry to say this, but it has its lower notes. (Atwood, 2009: 414)
But they do not die, at least not then; although how long they can survive is another story, which Atwood tells in the next and last volume of her trilogy.
In MaddAddam (2013), Atwood tells a story. It is not about the end of the world. It is the beginning of a new world. There are a few humans. There are a few genetically-modified humanoids. There are the genetically-modified flora and fauna. There is the permanently-altered ecosystem quietly absorbing the ruins of what passed for civilisation before the pandemic. It sounds dark and pessimistic but is curiously optimistic. This is a redemption story, subversive but salvific, in the tradition of North American religious allegory.
Atwood salvages the religious vision of the God’s Gardeners, saves Toby, and gives her the central role of narrating the next creation story. It is a creation story which the Romantic Snowman–Jimmy could not have narrated, because Romantic tropes are not high on Atwood’s list of storytellers, and because he spends most of this novel in a comatose state before dying near the end. Instead, she makes Toby a new Hesiod, one of ancient Greece’s first known teller of creation stories, and Toby’s creation story is a new version of Theogony (c.700 BC), Hesiod’s story of the birth of the ordered world. This new creation story is necessary because the ages of the more recent creation stories—the Tragic Hero, the Exiled Soul, and Adam—described by Ricoeur in The Symbolism of Evil (1960), are now over. Toby’s new creation story is composed of her experience, which she is trying to make sense of, and putting into an oral form, so it can be passed on to the Crakers and become the basis of whatever kind of religion it might become. Poignantly, Atwood also develops the relationship between Toby and Zeb, which is easier to understand if the reader has been keeping up with relationships in her earlier novels, between Grace and her men, between Iris and her men, between all women and all men, each of which has elements of pain about them.
Unpredictable things happen, when humans attempt to usurp the gods, or God, or try to be anything more than human. Another poignant moment in the novel is when the malevolent pigoons, ultra-powerful and ultra-smart pigs genetically-modified with human DNA, stop being enemies and become allies. They speak telepathically to the remnant humans through a young Craker named Blackbeard. They say they are concerned about their future. They want the killing of their genetically-modified species to stop. We can no longer call this an appeal to a common humanity, since it has become something else, something different: a common genetic mutancy perhaps.
Ultimately, Atwood subverts Crake’s legacy. We know he was a genius, in an über kind of way, but even über genius has its limits, and all supermen are bound to fail. Did Crake think he could predict the form his legacy would take and control how it would evolve? Did he know the Crakers would go on to develop their own language and evolve their own religion through Toby and Blackbeard? Did he know they would eventually interbreed with the remnants of the God’s Gardeners, and the remaining MaddAddamites, who helped to genetically-design the Crakers, in Paradice dome, before Crake launched the pandemic? And did the MaddAddamites have any idea that they would eventually become part of the genetic experiment, outside Paradice dome, after the pandemic?
While we can only speculate about Atwood’s speculation, one basic principle is certain, which is not speculative, since Atwood constantly reminds us of its reality. Her speculative future is our real past and real present, as she says in her acknowledgments:
Although MaddAddam is a work of fiction, it does not include any technologies or biobeings that do not already exist, are not under construction, or are not possible in theory. (Atwood, 2013: 393)
In all these novels, Atwood provides a highly nuanced critique of how the evolution of post-Romantic literature has historicised human identity. Why the critique? Could it be that, while we are historicised subjects, still processing our historicity, the future is not always in the past? Is our historicity is a mixture of truths and lies? Do the prisms of Neoclassicism and Romanticism need to be challenged, consistently, as they cannot be categorised as easily as they have been? Has post-Romantic literature reached its expiry date? We have Plato, we have the footnotes on Plato, we have the ‘old quarrel’ between philosophy and poetry, and throughout the ages we have quarrelled about the quarrel. But how helpful is the quarrel when only two things really matter; that civilisation is under existential threat; that nature is under environmental threat? If we have our precursors, and we are obliged to identify and dialogue with them, are we obliged to hand them on, or can we determine the direction of our memetic evolution? Atwood is an excellent example of the options open to us.
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