An Unsorted Collection on Atwood

Margaret Atwood: Language, Text, and System, edited by Sherrill E. Grace and Lorraine Weir. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1983, 158 pp.

Language, Text, and System consists of nine commissioned articles on the criticism, prose fiction, and poetry of Margaret Atwood.   Its purpose is to provide a critical overview of the whole of Atwood's oeuvre. (True Stories and Bodily Harm were published while the collection was in progress.) That oeuvre is already considerable — eight books of poetry, six novels, and one book of criticism.  (Neither Atwood's comic strip nor her casual or uncollected pieces are considered.)  But the collection claims more than simple comprehensiveness.  As its sub-title suggests, it has a programme.  It marches under the banner of a maxim from Tsvetan Todorov, cited in the introduction: "the goal of investigation is the description of the functioning of a literary system, the analysis of its constituent elements, and the discovery of its laws" (ix).  The system in question in this collection is not that of la littérature, still less of the individual récit, but of the oeuvre, the entire canon of an author: "Embedded within a text, language is a system within a system, just as the text is in relation to the larger system of an author's oeuvre and as that oeuvre is in relation to the still larger system of the world as text" (ix).

     The first essay, by Sherril Grace, is a Marxist-feminist reading of the oeuvre.  Taking a very long view of space and place, boundary and border, Grace concludes that "beginning with the dominant Western system of hierarchical dichotomies which support economic and class structures and encode a society's political, cultural, and psychological values, she [Atwood] continually explores the evils of that system, forcing her readers to recognize their blindness and responsibility" (13).  The second essay concentrates on the fiction as structured in terms of two "poles": hunger and love.  Linda Hutcheon argues — with the help of a Group Mu style existential graph — that these poles yield "metonymically" chains leading from eating through body to actions on one pole, and from possessing through mind to object on the other.  On the left (hunger) we have "process", the organic, and life; on the right (love) we have stasis, artifice, and death.  Hutcheon concludes that "the answer to the static 'carven world' is the reading process that mirrors the dynamic creative act of the writer" (30).   These observations apply severally to the Atwoodian system, that is, it is derived from the whole canon.

     These two opening articles and the closing one by Lorraine Weir, are the only ones that live up to Todorov's maxim.  Weir's essay also employs the spatial metaphor, here concerned with analogue space or mental "space".  She draws primarily on Jacques Derrida and Julian Jaynes, but manages to invoke as well Michel Foucault, Frances Yates, Charles Darwin, Hans Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, Mircea Eliade, Martin Heidegger, Roland Barthes, Dennis Lee, and Giambattista Vico.  These European heavyweights are drafted to clarify some of the issues raised by the oeuvre of Margaret Atwood.  (Dennis Lee, of course, is Canadian content.)

     The other essays do not fit so neatly into the project of discovering laws.  Barbara Blakely's essay is a frankly feminist reading of Atwood under the banner of "the phenomenological perspective of Maurice Merleau-Ponty" within which "the meaning of the world, and our human identities as woman and man, are not givens but are the products of our consciousness and our interactions" (34).  Eli Mandel's engaging essay speculates about the importance of shamanism to Margaret Atwood, thus committing the sin of postulating an author for the oeuvre.  Marie-Françoise Guédon treats the same topic more "correctly" in that, as an anthropologist, she articulates for us the nature of Amerindian shamanism to which the text of Surfacing refers.   Robert Cluett's computer analysis of the syntax of Surfacing reveals that it is extraordinarily simple and unvaried — even for Margaret Atwood.  Cluett and Philip Stratford are the only contributors whose essays attempt to place Atwood in the context of Canadian writing — Stratford contrasting her with Aquin alone, and Cluett using four writers for comparison.  Both Mandel and Woodcock do endeavour to place Atwood in the literary tradition — Mandel in the Gothic tale, and Woodcock (more grandly) in the Ovidian metamorphic tradition.

     Although the articles are all of a high quality, one cannot easily refrain from asking what purpose this collection is meant to serve.  It is avowedly designed to fulfill a critical task — the articulation of the laws governing Atwood's "system".  But instead of a set of laws, we find an unsorted collection of topoi, motifs, themes, genres and rhetorical strategies.  All of these are of interest, and all of the essays are worthy of our attention.  Yet — and, perhaps more to the point — if it had articulated a set of laws, it is difficult to imagine what utility these could have for an author still — we have every reason to hope — in mid-career.  (Or, if you prefer, for an oeuvre still incomplete.) Surely the editors would not claim that these laws could predict the character of future additions to the oeuvre of Margaret Atwood.  Nor is it possible to entertain the notion that a failure of future contributions to the oeuvre could be excluded from it if they failed to conform to the derived regulations or laws.

     It is possible to speculate that there may be some laws governing critical as well as poetic composition.   One of those laws is surely that a critical text should display erudition.   Within the tradition of scholarly writing that erudition has boundaries.  It must be pertinent to the text, the author of the text, the period of the text's composition, or the history of the text's reception.  One troubling aspect of the new criticism — whether labelled structuralism, semiotics, hermeneutics, or deconstructionism — is that no rules of pertinence whatever seem to apply.  The erudition seems to be either randomly or arbitrarily selected from the universe of human discourse — from linguistics, semiotics, metaphysics, psychology, anthropology, etc.   The only rule of pertinence that can be seen to apply is that the critical commentary discover some analogy between the subject text (the novel, the poem, or the oeuvre) and the interpreting text (Saussure, Eco, Derrida, Lacan, Levi-Strauss — or some other).  Arguments tend to rest on metonymic displacements — proper names of celebrated Europeans standing for entire discourses, which in turn are supposed to clarify and illuminate the subject text — seen as reflecting in some way that discourse.   Obviously such a technique can be intellectually useful only if the invoked discourse expresses truths about the nature of the world or art or expression.  But no such criterion seems to apply, for one typically finds the names of authors (dare I use the word) who contradict one another invoked in the same essay.  One is thus left with the uncomfortable suspicion that the erudition is displayed for its own sake, and not for its truth value — or even its heuristic value as a clarifying analogy.  It seems to me that one is entitled to ask of this collection: What is the pertinence of the erudition displayed?  Do we need Foucault, Derrida, and Levi-Strauss to understand Margaret Atwood?  Perhaps we do, but I would like to see the question addressed, and it is not addressed here.

Leon Surette