Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Text as Text, the Text as Prophetic

On the Wednesday of Holy Week, I read this wonderful article about Margaret Atwood.  I had spent the last several weeks rereading The Handmaid's Tale--what a wonderful book, despite its bleak subject matter.

The writer of the article accompanies Atwood to the library that houses her materials.  They look at all the boxes, including articles that Atwood accumulated as she wrote the book:  “'Clip-clippety-clip, out of the newspaper I clipped things,' she said, as we looked through the cuttings. There were stories of abortion and contraception being outlawed in Romania, and reports from Canada lamenting its falling birth rate, and articles from the U.S. about Republican attempts to withhold federal funding from clinics that provided abortion services. There were reports about the threat to privacy posed by debit cards, which were a novelty at the time, and accounts of U.S. congressional hearings devoted to the regulation of toxic industrial emissions, in the wake of the deadly gas leak in Bhopal, India. An Associated Press item reported on a Catholic congregation in New Jersey being taken over by a fundamentalist sect in which wives were called 'handmaidens'—a word that Atwood had underlined."

I have often heard Atwood say that she included nothing in the book that wasn't happening somewhere in the world in the 80's when she wrote the book.  But how interesting it must have been to see those articles!

Reading the Atwood article juxtaposed to this blog post by Martha Spong sent my mind in so many directions.  She talks about a version of Battlestar Galactica and the Book of Pythia, which contains a prophecy:   “All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.”   She says, "I think we read our own texts the same way, because we can’t quite make sense of them."

Spong spent the season of Lent reading the Gospel of Luke, so her text is different than an Atwood text.  And then I'm thinking of our very lives, which are also texts.

I have not watched the Hulu episodes of The Handmaid's Tale yet.  I plan to do so--but it may take awhile.  And it's a 10 episode show, which means I feel even more hopeless about staying caught up.  And then, to make matters more interesting, this week I heard that Hulu has ordered another season--we'll follow the characters beyond the end of the novel.

I was very happy with the ambiguous end of the novel, both when I first read it and just recently.  I do believe that once an author has released the text into the world, we can do with it what we wish, including making fan fiction, writing our own sequels, making a film.  I know there are copyright laws, and I'm not talking about ignoring them.

I'm remembering that when I was a much younger literary scholar, it seemed immensely important to know what the author intended with the text.  Now that's just one interpretation to me, and often, it's not the most interesting one.  Part of my change comes from decades of doing my own writing and being surprised by what happens in the text--and from readers (usually also friends) who see things that I didn't see and didn't intend--but they work.

I do see Atwood's text as more prophetic than I once did--I've had more years to read about the history of oppressive governments and to see them in action.  I have been buoyed by the protests launched in these early days of the Trump administration and by the judges who step in--the limitations put into place by the Founders really work--the checks and balances seem to be working better than ever.

I do worry that we'll all get tired.  But I'm also seeing evidence that Trump is getting tired in a way that leaders like Hitler never did.

I plan to order Timothy Snyder's latest book, On Tyranny:  Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century to remind myself of all the ways we can resist now--while resistance is still an option.  Margaret Atwood reminds us of what may happen if we let ourselves get tired.

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