Atwood, Margaret (Vol. 4)
Atwood, Margaret 1939–
Ms Atwood is an accomplished Canadian poet and novelist whose richly complex work has been awarded several important Canadian prizes. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)
Much of what Margaret Atwood says in [Procedures For Underground] she has said in her previous books. She presents a world of peripheries, under-surfaces, divisions and isolation similar to the one in The Circle Game, but it would be a mistake to think that Procedures For Underground is simply a repetition of her earlier work. Certainly the surface of these poems remains the same; many of the images of drowning, buried life, still life, dreams, journeys and returns recur and the book is locked into a very repressive and inhibited atmosphere, even though the time-scope of the book is large, covering the chronological stretch from pre-history to the present. As in The Circle Game, personal relationships offer only minimal hope, yet most of the second half of this book expresses a promise of breaking-out that did not occur in the earlier work.
Even the title suggests that people need not be trapped or buried in stasis but that they can take action: there are motions that will push life and the individual forward. This volume moves in its second half more and more to the notion that words can break the authorities and inhibitions that fetter us and even a cry of agony is worth shouting, for it expresses that deep underside with its "mouth filled with darkness". This howl may be an automatic response to fear or pain, simply "uttering itself", but it is a statement, and, as such, is preferable to the blankness of "a white comic-strip balloon/with a question mark; or a blank button."
People still live on the edge in these poems, surrounded by flux, impermanence and repression, haunted by bad dreams, menaced by objects but
in fear everything
makes the edges of things burn
In our present pre-historic state of human relationships we are at least evolving; "we are learning to make fire." Flux and disintegration continue but the poet has the means of preserving experience—"Over all I place/a glass bell"…. Things may frighten man but he is a creator; he may in fact create his own fears, his own divisions, his own dreams and nightmares but the act of creation, in particular the act of poetry, becomes an important procedure….
The progression in the book is towards a fundamental belief in the prerogatives of poetry in a threatening, tense world. Even the lining of the poems, still the usual broken, tentative expression she has used before, somehow sounds firmer, playing some kind of strength against the details of violence, repression, doubt and fear, finally emphasizing the courage of coming to terms with that lower layer where "you can learn/wisdom and great power,/if you can descend and return safely."
Margaret Atwood has returned safely, broken the circle, shaken off the persona of Susanna Moodie [the nineteenth-century Canadian poet and novelist] which to my mind was a restriction on her own personality as a poet. Her own clear voice rings out from this book to give us her best collection to date.
Peter Stevens, "Dark Mouth," in Canadian Literature, Autumn, 1971, pp. 91-2.
Margaret Atwood's "Surfacing" invites comparison with Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar": both novels by poets, both about a young woman who has been made desperate by a stifling social milieu and who can find relief only by abandoning what those around her have defined as sanity. Yet Plath's novel, written 10 years ago, expresses only a pure and private suffering; her heroine, Esther, can make no more impression on the conditions of her life … than a fly on the walls of the jar enclosing it….
Miss Atwood's nameless heroine expresses a more sweeping revolt than Esther, but she is able at the novel's end to come up for air, to move confidently out of the destructive element and into freedom. The more recent novel, then, avoids the tone of flat, sealed-off resignation on which "The Bell Jar" ends; rather, it invigorates by its heroine's resolve to trust herself to the world while refusing, at the same time, to be a victim of it.
Victimization, and how to avoid it, is also the theme of Miss Atwood's companion volume to "Surfacing"—"Survival" (1972), a thematic guide to Canadian literature. In the latter book she indicts the literary tradition of her country for perennially reducing its heroes to victims, whether of confining social institutions, Canada's harsh geography, American power, or just their own inanition. Together, "Surfacing" and "Survival" have brought into sharp focus for Canadian literary intellectuals the problem of their country's cultural identity in the seventies.
Miss Atwood … has thereby outsoared her previous status as a widely-respected younger poet, author of five volumes of verse; she has become the literary standard-bearer of a resurgence of nativism and nationalism in Canada, eclipsing established Canadian writers of more cosmopolitan outlook…. Her work is also distinguished from theirs by its acute responsiveness to the Canadian landscape; we are constantly reminded that her formative years were passed largely in the sparsely settled "bush" of Northern Ontario and Quebec, rather than in the cities adjacent to the United States border….
Within the novel, anti-Americanism serves to construct a new version of the 19th-century contrast between the English novel, concerned with man as he is shaped by social institutions, and the American romance, concerned with man in relation to moral absolutes and to nature. Then, the typical American hero was represented as an innocent being, untainted by Europe's moral obliquities. But now, when America's claim to innocence has been discredited by the brutalities of power politics, Atwood can assert the Canadian's claim to have virtue in his very powerlessness and uncertainty about his mission, if not in any more positive quality. Like her mute and destructive heroine, he must "clear a space" before he can know who, or where, he is….
At a time when many novelists restrict themselves to a single mode of expression, such as documentary realism or unrestrained fantasy, Miss Atwood has undertaken a more serious and complex task. Denying Emerson's maxim that the true art of life is to skate well on surfaces, she shows the depths that must be explored if one attempts to live an examined life today.
Paul Delany, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 4, 1973, p. 5.
Margaret Atwood is a Canadian poet, one of the best, and [Surfacing] is a poet's novel. The story takes place on an island two miles long in the wilderness of northern Quebec, on the last rim of marginal civilization. Miss Atwood's sense of the place, of the lake in its various moods, of the animal life retreating before the intruder, is beautifully conveyed. In the most intense passages of the book her writing reminds me of Iris Murdoch….
There are … passages of fine writing in this book, and scenes of considerable power [as well as] identification of sensibilities in this North country which I believe to be true. I think it a pity that at the end … the heroine's behavior and her future … are so hard to believe.
Edward Weeks, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1973 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), April, 1973, p. 127.
If the "argument" of Sidney's Astrophel and Stella is "Cruel Chastity," the argument of Atwood's Power Politics is cruel sexuality…. In Power Politics, as in Atwood's two novels, the unrequited love of courtly myth gives way to its equally frustrating modern form, a hedonistic, yet somehow mechanical union. The woman in Power Politics feels that her being is lacerated and her capacity for vision destroyed by subjection to a sadomasochistic sexual love….
Atwood's ironic inversion of courtly love connects her art with the revelations of MacLuhan, Millett, Roszak, and Chesler about the social mythology of Western culture. Romantic obsession with lover or husband is presumed to provide the woman with her most satisfying form of existence….
To Atwood, the love-aggression complex is an historical-personal fact. The cover of Power Politics expresses the predicament of women in the sexist society….
The theme of Power Politics is role-engulfment: "You refuse to own/yourself, you permit/others to do it for you…." The self is lost to the social role of romantic lover, warrior, wife, superman: fulfilment means incarnation within the archetype…. Beyond the mask of social role lies the paradox of Western culture: a postulated uniqueness of self that may not exist, or perhaps cannot be known, if it does exist…. The antithesis of the mask is the "face corroded by truth,/crippled, persistent," asking "like the wind, again and again and wordlessly,/for the one forbidden thing:/love without mirrors and not for/my reasons but your own."… [The] implicit quest is always for some alternative to the sadistic penetration and destruction of the [sadomasochistic sexual] relationship, for some "reality" behind the engulfing political role, and for some communion with that "reality". Power Politics confronts us with an entropic modern world in which a formerly solar masculinity now operates as a suction pump to exhaust and destroy the environment….
The imagery in Atwood's novels also expresses mechanization and destruction, but there the woman's helpless suffering or retaliation changes into an urgent desire for liberation. [Onley notes, though, that "the movement from bondage to liberation is not a chronological development of theme.]…
A persistent strain in Atwood's imagery, appearing in the poetry as well as in Surfacing, is the head as disconnected from, or floating above, the body…. Often the imagery describes the body as a mechanism remotely controlled by the head; sometimes the neck is sealed over; always the intellectual part of the psyche is felt to be a fragment, dissociated from the whole. The "head" of Atwood schizoid persona is the "Head" described in Michael McClure's "Revolt" (reprinted in Roszak's Sources), the Head that "quickly … fills with preconception and becomes locked in a vision of the outer world and itself…. The Head [that] finally may act by self-image of itself, by a set and unchanging vision that ignores the demands of its Body."…
Through the perceptions of her narrator [Anna in Surfacing], Atwood records again the pathology of a sexual relationship in which the male asserts his masculinity by inflicting physical or psychological pain….
Throughout Surfacing, as in Sadian fantasy, sex is linked with mechanization, coercion, and death….
To Atwood's intuitively psychoanalytical consciousness of human nature, engulfment in the sexual role, as she satirically exposes it in Surfacing, means that the ego of the cultural personality tends to become fixated at the stage of anal-sadism, condemned to the hellish circle of self-definition through violence, in which each man kills the thing he loves, in one way or another….
The basic metaphor of descent and surfacing is a transformation of Atwood's inherited romantic image of death by drowning. The last part of the novel is thus a paradigm of descent into and ascent from the fluid ego boundary state of schizophrenia. But it is a carefully controlled, artistically simulated descent, of therapeutic purpose and value within the psychoanalytic dimension of the novel. The ego core (or inner self) of the narrator always retains its integrity, except for a fleeting moment during the peak experience of hallucinatory oneness with nature where Atwood seems to be synthesizing a primitive state of mind analogous to Lévy-Brühl's "participation mystique". Like [R. D.] Laing, Atwood seems to believe that schizophrenia is a form of psychic anarchy: a usually involuntary attempt by the self to free itself from a repressive social reality structure….
In Surfacing and The Edible Woman, it is as if Atwood had inferred from the glittering surfaces of our social images the Freudian theory of personality as narcissistic, accomplishing self-definition through various forms of aggression, ranging from overt coercion to the subtle forms of unconscious "induction" revealed by Laing….
A fusion of many literary forms, Menippean satire, diary, wilderness venture, even the Canadian animal story, Surfacing is the classic human animal story: the wilderness guide as social deviant becomes a scapegoat, driven out of the technological society for her sexist peers so that they may define themselves by their rejection of her.
By the end of the psychological quest, it is clear why, as Atwood stated earlier in The Circle Game, "Talking is difficult" and why in Surfacing "language is everything you do". The difficulty in human relations, metaphored in Surfacing as exile from the biosphere, is metaphysically related to the exploitative use of language to impose psychological power structures. The need for communion in Power Politics is paralleled by the realization that language tends to warp in the hand from tool to weapon….
In Atwood's poetry, the psychological basis and the value in human relationships of the individualism of Western man is very much in question: partly by reference to her sense of self-definition by violence explored in the transactional social worlds of the two novels, where individualism becomes a potent carrier of death; and partly by reference to a presumed primitive, non-linear, and pluralistic state of being which functions as a mythic reference in most of her poetry from the earliest work on, emerging in Surfacing as a utopian alternative to alienation. In the love poems the tension between individuality and isolation, on the one hand, and loss of identity and sexual fulfilment on the other, is extreme and cannot be resolved. Imagistically it is an anguished oscillation within the either/or psycholinguistic structures of Western man, the existentialist trap the wilderness guide describes as the "walls" of "logic". An oscillation between the polarities of civilized/primitive, individual/generic, male/female (in terms of Atwood's camera imagery, focussed/unfocussed), in which reciprocity of being, psychosomatic, wholeness, and a sense of genuine communion, as integrated qualities of experience, remain mythic states forever beyond reach. The channels of communication and action are patriarchal almost beyond redemption: "… you rise above me/smooth, chill, stone/white … you descend on me like age/you descend on me like earth"….
The anguished lack of communion between the lovers in Power Politics is, for Atwood, the inability of the alienated self to break through the thought structures of Western culture….
To read Atwood's description of insanity by social definition and of psychic iconoclasm in "Polarities" [a short story published in The Tamarack Review, 58 (1971)] and Surfacing in conjunction with contemporary works which analyze the social construction of reality is to realize that what Atwood calls "mythologizing" is usually a conscious or unconscious enforcement of the sexual "polarities" inherent in the myths of romantic love, nuclear marriage, the machismo male, and the "feminine" woman. As an intelligent woman and a poet, Atwood indicates that we must somehow escape from this alienating cultural definition of personality and human relations….
The narrator of Surfacing returns to sanity with the realization that she can refuse to participate in the destructive "mythologizing" of her society: "This above all, to refuse to be a victim…. The word games, the winning and losing games are finished; at the moment there are no others but they will have to be invented, withdrawing is no longer possible and the alternative is death." Arising renewed from the non-evaluative plurality of nature, the wilderness guide comprehends that reality is, as William James said, a "multi-dimensional continuum." For the first time she understands and has compassion for the subjective dimensions of others. She realizes "the effort it must have taken [her father] to sustain his illusions of reason and benevolent order," and how her mother's "meticulous records" of the weather "allowed her to omit … the pain and isolation." Her perception of her lover is altered. "He isn't an American, I can see that now … he is only half-formed, and for that reason I can trust him." She has escaped her former sense of total closure, thus achieving a liberated self and a basis for action within the world.
Gloria Onley, "Power Politics in Bluebeard's Castle," in Canadian Literature, Spring, 1974, pp. 21-41.
We sense right from the opening poem of The Circle Game—"This is a Photograph of Me"—in which the poet is unable to place herself in any sort of harmony with the landscape, that the haunting mood of isolation in the book is associated, in some undefined way, with geographical wilderness. No human form is visible in the photo; we get the feeling that wilderness somehow precludes human existence….
Owing in part to the repeated conjunction of wilderness setting with moods of fear and alienation, physical landscape very soon comes to imply a good deal more than neutral, external reality…. [The] unspecified conflict between poet and landscape is internalized within the poet herself to the extent that the wilderness world comes to stand for the outside correspondent of some internal state. The element of schizophrenia evident in several poems is, in this light, not only explicable, but indeed quite justified.
Atwood's treatment of civilization—what we might be tempted to regard as the opposite of wilderness—affords evidence, if any be needed, that her use of landscape is predominantly and consistently figurative. Modern writers have, of course, long made use of the ironical truism that as more people crowd into an area, the more superficial becomes the contact among them. In other words, the city (and all it implies) has long supplied writers with contexts and symbols of human alienation. But Atwood provides her own twist: she portrays the city as nothing more than a variation on the wilderness theme. Civilization is a glass and steel and asphalt veneer, not a change so much as a disguise ("the landscape behind or under/the future cracks in the plaster"), and a temporary one at that….
Like the wilderness, the city exists in an emotional vacuum. Civilization obliterates humanity as surely as a flood or the plague…. In whatever setting, people are trapped, impotent. The poet can say "outside there is a lake/or this time is it a street" ("Playing Cards"), because it really makes no difference. The outer world, in whatever form, is wilderness.
But the wilderness, we have said, symbolizes something within the poet. That something, the barren side, the gravitation toward chaos, the isolation, prevents any type of valuable human relationship. An assimilation is never achieved, never even a happy alignment; instead there is always actual or potential repulsion, the reaction against, a jerky attraction reversed, like magnets…. The need for love is real and strong, but it finds little sustenance and no parallel outside itself. Wilderness is dominant….
The problem, however, refuses such a simple solution. Love itself turns out to be a dubious blessing. As the need for an involved human relationship approaches satisfaction, a counter-reaction grows proportionally stronger. Hence the poet, struggling to escape isolation, suddenly finds herself saying "How could you invade/me when/I ordered you not/to." Whenever the existence of a love relationship is assumed, this repellent force is very powerful. New variables are brought into the equation of self, and these are as difficult to understand and solve as the old….
An important question thus arises: how does one reconcile the need for individual identity, for separate wholeness, with the simultaneous and equally urgent need for others, an escape from total isolation? In other words, we have come full circle and arrived at the question that has been implicit from the outset: how to reconcile the inner and outer worlds?
It would be a gross oversimplification to say that physical wilderness is neutral, incapable of love, and that the inner, private world of self resembles external nature only when the capacity for love goes unused; but surely the poetry is drawing us in the direction of such an understanding. At the least we could say that nature, generally, is benign when the perception of it is shared. Even a landscape of threat is less terrifying through a common lens. We could say also that those poems dealing directly with the two-person relationship ("Eventual Proteus", "A Meal", "The Circle Game", "Letter, Towards and Away") tend to contain very little wilderness imagery.
"The Islands" is irrefutable evidence that physical landscape reflects quite clearly the inner state of the perceiver…. We have [in this poem] for the first time, an acceptance of aloneness, of personal isolation, and the very acceptance robs the fact of its terrifying connotation. Again, a kind of freedom is attained. The most significant point, though, is that she can accommodate herself to the condition of solitude only in the presence of someone else. What enables her to accept with such equanimity is the realization that her state is shared; everyone is cut off. Ironically, when things are shared—even things like despair and alienation—bonds are made, invisible bridges formed between islands, and insularity overcome.
The effect of landscape is altered by an alteration in attitude towards it. The change has come about through the poet's recognition of her affinities with others, and, by extension, with the outside world. It is not the conflicts between self and nature that she dwells on now, but the likenesses; and once you start seeking overlappings, affinities, you find them….
A tentative balance has been struck, a reconciliation achieved. The poles of isolation and community are not mutually exclusive. The poet is on her way toward creating a viable inner order; it remains now only to extend the integration by applying its implications back out to the real, physical wilderness. The connection is made through the direct juxtaposition of the outer landscape with the personal one, its human correspondent…. Inner and outer worlds do not differ in kind; the two selves need not conflict. Each is an integral part of something more…. In the recognition of this identity, the terror of landscape disintegrates.
Gary Ross, "'The Circle Game'," in Canadian Literature, Spring, 1974, pp. 51-63.
When the dart is an icicle aimed right between your eyes it is difficult to separate the magic from the magician. Reading the novels and poetry of Margaret Atwood is an intensely personal experience which culminates in a confrontation with the ubiquitous image of the poet on the back cover of the book….
The used words subside like snowflakes as Atwood, the magician, hypnotizes with the brilliant image which dazzles without illuminating. The hypnotic subject participates involuntarily in a grotesque, dances without knowing the steps. There is nothing shared in the experience of manipulation. The puppet learns nothing of itself or of the puppeteer.
The refusal to be known, except as female god or witch doctor is articulated in the motif of invisibility as the Atwood persona struggles to extricate herself from personal relationships. Like the extraterrestrial cliché of popular science fiction, she cannot feel, exists only to comment. In Surfacing, the protagonist "prayed to be made invisible, and when in the morning everyone could still see me I knew they had the wrong god." She is always the outsider, existing only to shatter the illusions of her fellow beings….
The world stripped of emotions and words is left visual and tactile and this is where Margaret Atwood finds her real strength. Her poems are petroglyphs indelibly printed on the brain. It is the image which persists when the words, often cruel and bitter, subside. Words are a substitute for and distortion of her world, which is silent and concerned only with survival and the passing seasons. One of the reasons The Edible Woman fails as a novel is the awkwardness of the dialogue. Atwood is self conscious in the urban environment which requires language. There is little dialogue in Surfacing to disturb the sounds of the country and this is one of the strengths of the more mature novel.
There is no warmth in the natural world where she takes refuge, only a lack of hypocrisy. Atwood, the observer, knows she has no control over the northern landscape she describes as no one else does and she admires its proud refusal to submit, except to death. In spite of her identification with animals, the fur coats, the leather jackets and startled grace, the Atwood persona is left to salvage what she can of the human condition. She knows a language and is burdened with a personal and social history. She cannot be animal. In Surfacing, she proves her dependance upon society. She cannot live alone in the wilderness….
There is a pervasive chill in her imagery. Death is cold. Love is cold. Snow is cold. The lack of a warming counterpoint in her work is the failure of compassion in the characters who dance in an involuntary circle around her ice-woman. No one is strong enough to challenge her supremacy at the centre of the universe and this is a weakness, as her voice becomes too strident, losing conviction. There is no dialogue on any level.
There is no life-giving warmth in her metaphorical water either. The ascent from drowning is no resurrection, just a return to conventional reality. In or out of the water, the drowned soul persists. Even life in the womb is surreal, grotesque. There is no state of innocence and there is no state of grace. The nightmare overcomes the dream. There is no escape. The fiction is a glassy mirror to cold realities.
The poet is the agent of beauty and the sharp instrument of death. She is a knife cutting through onion. Each layer falls away in beautiful symmetry. But there is no relationship between the layers and the centre is hollow.
Linda Rogers, "Margaret the Magician," in Canadian Literature, Spring, 1974, pp. 83-5.