By Grace, of Atwood

Sherill Grace, Violent Duality: a Study of Margaret Atwood. Ed. Ken Norris.  Montreal:  Véhicule Press, 1980. 154 pp.

When Sherill Grace notes in black and white that Atwood has received two honorary doctorates by the age of thirty-five, it gives one pause. Can this be Canada, or a real Canadian writer, especially one who has called her country schizophrenic, her fellow citizens victims? Or is Atwood herself a myth? When Grace tells me that Atwood’s sense of the maze in Lady Oracle is informed by W.F. Jackson Knight’s Virgil: Epic and Anthropology, which discusses, among other things, its significance in rituals of rebirth, I feel more informed to cope with that mazeand it suggests a possible comparison with Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist, which is also a story of rebirth and which involves the hero’s passage through the labyrinth of Dublin. Does this uterine figure, along with that of gestation, of incremental growth, provide a natural or archetypal structure for any bildungsroman or novel of spiritual rebirth? When Grace culls from a tape recording Atwood’s remark that the mind is “a place where things happen,” I am intrigued and delighted.

     “Place” and “space” are key words for the postmodernist writers, the poets of process, from Vancouver to Toronto. Along with “field” they figure prominently in the work of Olson and Duncan. As Gérard Genette notes in an essay in his Figures I, much of the terminology of modern culture has become spatialized; “le langage sespace.”   More colloquially one might say it has become “spaced-out.”  Yet the whole tradition of English-Canadian culture, whether it is The Geological Survey or the building of the CPR, the Laurentian Theory of Canadian history or the painting of the Group of Seven, Grove’s Over Prairie Trails or Maclennan’s Seven Rivers of Canada, the work of how many poets — it has been predominantly spatial in its vocabulary and concern.  Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that a word such as “place” should have the power to move in and define what was once called the “soul,” that a contemporary, and an English-Canadian writer, should, in effect, define her soul as a place where things happen.

     Conversely, I suppose, a place where things happen, on whatever level, must define a soul, a community, a cultural organism.  Thus Atwood writes in Toronto, which inspires Grace in Vancouver to write a book that is published in Montreal, which inspires Terry Goldie in Newfoundland to write a review that is published in Canadian Literature back in Vancouver — to more or less damn Grace’s book.  If I lived in Tallahassee or Beirut, I presume I would not have to worry about any of that.  I might still live in an Atwoodian world of violent duality, but the names would be different.

     Terry Goldie’s reaction stems as much from frustrated expectation as from just observation.  Owing partly to Grace’s performance elsewhere, he hoped for something more narrowly focussed, probing and rigorous.  One can sympathize with his demand that Grace’s discussion of duality be related to Dennis Lee’s Savage Fields and to a more fully defined tradition of Canadian poetry, a subject that is broached but hardly dealt with.  But the demand that Grace reveal how Atwood’s treatment of duality extends our awareness of what Goldie considers a cliche of Western culture, from Plato to the present, that she undertake, I suppose, a philosophical analysis of the subject, strikes me as preposterous.  It is not that sort of book.

     Violent Duality takes the more modest form of a readers’ guide to Atwood.  It provides a biographical outline, a running commentary, more or less chronological, on Atwood’s major books of poetry, prose, and criticism, and a selected bibliography of the author’s work, interviews with and articles on Atwood.  Given the serial discussion of the texts, the treatment of any one aspect of Atwood’s work tends to become fragmented and slightly repetitious.  And since Grace touches on such a variety of aspects, many comments are brief or no more than teasing allusions.  The context of the discussion is both too wide and too narrow.   The first when Grace moves out to make fleeting references to Radcliffe or Lessing, Faulkner or Fellini.  The second when she moves in to concentrate on the theme of duality.  Here the context becomes too exclusively that of Atwood’s own writing and commentary, Atwood on Atwood.

     Still, if not a great book, Violent Duality remains a useful book, for the student who wishes to place a single text in a larger perspective or for the student who wishes to review the work to confirm, question, or initiate a reading of the whole.  For it does provide information, interpretation, and an overall focus that seems to be basically convincing.  For example, though the observations may be dispersed, Grace’s central thesis, that Atwood’s work is generated out of, or in terms of, an acute duality, is demonstrated again and again, at all levels of Atwood’s work.  The books, Grace points out, are designed for both the eye and the ear, most materially in those that combine text and illustration, the illustrations themselves becoming on occasion a collage of photos and drawing, a confrontation of objective and subjective, of historical and fictional.

     Generically, the novels set up an interplay, if not confrontation, between realism and romance.  The poems may combine the modes of public documentary and intimate diary, of the telegram and the personal letter.   Rhetorically, the point of view, the tone, may be in ironic relation to the subject, the one impersonal, calm, almost indifferent, the other highly personal, violent, disturbing as a nightmare.  Structurally, the poems tend to develop in sequences around a central persona and to take the form of a dialogue between opposing voices.   Figuratively the themes are developed through a series of opposed images: straight line versus curved line, grid versus mosaic, map versus terrain; a sterile order, reductive and leading to closure, the dead end, no exit, versus a fertile disorder, opening to random growth; the static photo versus the moving moment; data and equipment versus intimate knowledge and craft.  One could no doubt draw up a fairly simple, if lengthy, list of binary opposites.  Archetypically these oppositions reappear in myth, most notably in the Persephone story, which persists through much of Atwood’s work, from the first volume of poems, Double Persephone, into its transformations in The Journals of Susanna Moodie and Surfacing. Even when the myth is triadic, as in the case of the triple goddess, Diana, Venus, Hecate, it tends to collapse into a dualism within the context of Atwood’s vision of Canadian indicates life, where the middle term, Venus, drops out.

     As Grace indicates everything in Atwood’s world tends to become polarized: the land versus the settlers, the French versus the English, the Canadians versus the Americans, men versus women, mind versus body.   Domesticated and internalized, it is the world of Power Politics and Surfacing, where lovers negotiate like competing corporate and military powers, where the individual is divided against herself, her ego erasing the actual body of experience to fabricate a new past, an instant reality.

     Of Power Politics Grace writes:

Through these poems Atwood shows how power struggles colour everything we do, turning our most sacred activities into deadly manoeuvers that, finally, destroy both sides.  The modern dilemma is particularly acute because a power politics mentality armed with modern technology has annihilated all contexts but its own (63)

     Here, precisely, Grace might elaborate on the modern dilemma and integrate Atwood more firmly in a Canadian context by referring to George Grant and Dennis Lee.  For the mentality she refers to is that which Grant ascribes to liberal technological culture, and the dilemma she refers to is very much that of Lee’s Savage Fields, where everything and everyone is simultaneously “world” and “earth” in hostile opposition, so that existence becomes a permanent state of civil war.  Atwood’s texts in Power Politics could serve as well as those of Cohen or Ondaatje to illustrate what Lee means by life in savage fields.  More broadly, one could suggest that the duality between culture and nature, the issue of just how one should live that distinction, finds particular expression throughout the tradition of English-Canadian poetry and culture.  That is, this cliche of Western culture there finds a local habitation and a name, and Atwood works within that tradition.

     A major theme in the long poems of such nineteenth century poets as Goldsmith, Howe, Kirby, McLachlan, and Crawford is the transformation of the North American wilderness into a civic space.  The hero is the pioneer, who clears land, builds cabins for himself and his family, lays roads, gradually creating a network of flowering villages.  His vision is primarily pastoral, the vision of an organic community, intimately related to its local space.  From the beginning, however, it is apparent that the pioneer hero may serve another vision, a vision of empire, in which space is controlled and exploited in the interests of power.  And it becomes increasingly evident to McLachlan and Crawford that the pastoral and the imperial visions are contradictory.

     The dual vision was carried across the continent with the settlers and surveyors, most notably, perhaps, in the figure of Charles Mair, would-be poet and would-be-empire-builder.  In Red River he sided with the surveyors when their linear grids collided with the gridless spaces and riverine curves of the Metis.  Divided himself between wanting to be a husbandman and an entrepreneur, a family man and a profiteer, he failed at both.  He bought land and built a great house in Portage La Prairie, expecting to get rich when the railroad arrived.  But the line went elsewhere and so did he, leaving house and family behind.

     If the pastoral dream went west with certain homesteaders, the imperial dream went west with the CPR, whose construction becomes a national epic in the poetry of E.J. Pratt and the prose of Pierre Burton.  Pratt continues to celebrate the collective project, extending and maintaining the transportation and communication lines, “the civil discipline of roads.”   But his vision of the world is hardly pastoral; it is more in keeping with that of his colleagues at the University of Toronto, Innis and McLuhan, in such books as Empire and Communications and The Gutenberg Galaxy.  And Pratt’s hero is no longer the pioneer settler.

     The pioneer hero was both axeman and husbandman, both technologist and lover.  At the centre of his vision was a feminine presence, his wife, his land.  His relationship to them was personal, erotic, one of love rather than power.  By the end of the century, however, the pioneer-axeman was obsolete.  The woodcutters in Roberts and Lampman, like the poets themselves, retain an intimate relation to their local space, but they do so at the price of isolation from the human community and the collective project.  The hero, in effect, splits in two as the lover and the technologist, private space and public space become increasingly divided.  F.R. Scott in poems such as “Laurentian Shield” tries to hold them together.  Margaret Avison in “Meeting Together of Poles and Latitudes” can only envision their integration as a desirable miracle.  By and large, from Lampman through Birney, Souster, Layton to Lee, the city is envisioned in terms of nightmare, as no longer a centre of community but a centre of power.  The family is moved to the suburbs; the feminine presence is not longer central but peripheral.  The personal values and domestic intimacy of the lover and the husbandman cut no ice in a world permeated by what Lee terms simply “imperial space.”

     Goldsmith initiated the tradition of Canadian poetry by reversing the terms of his great uncle’s melancholy poem “The Deserted Village.”  But as we read Roberts’ “Tantramar Revisited,” Birney’s “November Walk Near False Creek Mouth,” Lee’s “400: Coming Home” and, above all, his “Civil Elegies,” we return through a series of “takes” to that full-blown pastoral elegy.

     Atwood’s work is not primarily in the elegiac mode.  As Grace points out with reference to Power Politics, it is essentially satirical.  Her personae are almost wholly caught up, consciously or unconsciously, willingly or unwillingly, in imperial space.  However subjective, personal, erotic their experience, they find themselves dealing with it in absurdly objective, impersonal, and abstract or technical fashion.  Whatever is feminine, the land or the animals, one’s own body or private sensibility, is raped, polluted, or ignored.  It is a schizophrenic world where one is simultaneously victim and victimizer, grotesque and often violent.  Yet it is still a world she shares with other Canadian poets.

     In part, Atwood writes a revised, ironic version of nineteenth century literature.  The familiar figures reappear, the explorers, the settlers, the surveyors, now, however, wholly caught up in the imperial rather than the pastoral dream. The insane pioneer becomes trapped in his own purely logical articulation of space, unrelated to the local terrain with its plants, animals, particular weathers. The surveyors become city planners and succeed in building “The City of the End of Things,” a purely functional space without memory, without a past or personality.

     This space too is familiar in the work of Lee, Souster, Avison, Page. It is the world of Page’s “The Stenographers,” a public world in which individual identity, all sensuous, subjective, intra-personal experience, has become irrelevant or meaningless; the personality, like cloth, is stretched on the frame or purely operational values. Souster’s lovers escape into private space in alleys, backyards, kitchens or bedrooms. Avison makes a personal contact with the world when an insect dies in the bathroom. But when the girls of Page or Atwood retire to their boardinghouse rooms, they still encounter a void. Though the landladies pick their locks and go through their drawers, they find nothing to satisfy their hunger for intimate knowledge. For these “private” rooms have been invaded by public space. As Lee says, “Empire permeates.” Private language, personal names, like the names of the divine, have become “empty as tap water.”

     It is hard to have biblical knowledge of a person or a place, of the world, if there is no meaningful vocabulary in which to express it. Inarticulate, it disappears into the unconscious.  Klein may emphasize the disappearance of the poet and Lee the disappearance of God, but one may suggest that within the tradition of Canadian poetry sketched here the host of fossil animals, buried villages, sunken farms, drowned poets, snow-covered writers and sleeping shepherds, from the Piper of Arll and Keejigo to Tom Thompson and Mrs. Moodie, represents the disappearance of the pastoral vision, the biblical knowledge of local space, before a triumphant imperial vision.

     The Journals of Susanna Moodie explicitly links Atwood’s contemporary concerns to the nineteenth-century English-Canadian tradition and goes beyond a merely satirical re-writing of nineteenth-century texts to dramatize in mythical terms the loss of that earlier positive vision. Mr. Goldie to the contrary, I think Sherill Grace speaks accurately and legitimately when she says that “seeing in Susanna Moodie something archetypically Canadian, Atwood has mythologized her heroine, not merely in terms of the past but in the living present” (42).

     Initially Susanna Moodie is merely another, more highly individualized, version of the insane pioneer, bent on colonizing a new world in terms of her imperial vision. But this figure develops. Out of her sensuous and intuitive intercourse with the local space, Moodie generates a new personality, a second identity, becoming appropriately schizophrenic.  Finally, as first her children, then Moodie herself, die into the land, she is transformed into her opposite, the intimate knowledge of her Canadian space acquired through time.

     Mythically, Susanna Moodie embodies the substance of the pastoral vision, which lies mute, buried under the articulate structure of the urban streets. As Torontonians ride into December on the St. Clair bus, they incorporate body, the personal ground of their community in native space.

     Hugh Maclennan said that Canadians lost their soul when they left the rivers.  It was buried, one might say, under the tracks of the CPR, like the heroine of a nineteenth-century melodrama that went wrong.

     In a version of romance not entirely foreign to Atwood, Leonard Cohen’s “You Have the Lovers” affords a glimpse of what was at the heart of the earlier pastoral vision. Shut away from public life, in a locked room, the lovers lie locked in an intimate embrace, their hair and limbs becoming tangled with flowers and leaves as the whole space becomes one intricate garden where male and female, animal and vegetable, love and death become indistinguishable.

     This is the vision that crystallizes around Souster’s memory of his father and mother in the poem “On the Rouge,” and that haunts the conclusion to Daphne Marlatt’s Steveston on the West Coast. In Atwood it is a submerged island, a world flooded over with the building of dams, inhabited by the animals in that country. Until we develop procedures for underground and, further, open negotiations with that underworld, we shall endure the winter of a more abstract, impersonal, imperial space, articulate of power, not love.

     As Grace indicates, the dualities that Atwood first explores in terms of a classical tradition are later explored in terms of a native tradition. Persephone becomes Susanna Moodie. The world of Dis becomes the fenced, dammed, paved over substratum of the Canadian psyche. Atwood may deal with the cliches of Western culture, but part of what she does is give them definition in local space, in contemporary terms. And this, surely, is the role of the writer, part of the bricolage theft that for Levi-Strauss constitutes a culture.

     And surely the relations between culture and nature, as between art and life, are inherently ironic. For culture is human nature; yet culture defines human nature and its relations to the rest of the animal, vegetable, mineral world in quite various ways; and no culture, as a semiotic articulation of reality, is ever the thing itself or more than a local detail in time and space.

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.

Speech, culture, is the mother of dualities. To live outside duality is to live outside the articulate limits of culture, as when Atwood’s heroine makes an hallucinatory return to the elemental world of animal, leaf, stone in Surfacing. In the end, restored to her human community, she is restored also to her sense of irony.

     The implication of Atwood’s work, says Grace, is that to live as humans we must learn, not to escape, but to live the duality, which means neither suppressing one term nor polarizing both as absolutes. To do either is to do violence to reality, to ourselves. However extreme the dualities, they are no more absolute than the seasons; they exist in a dynamic relation, in continuous transformation. Whatever the relation between art and life, nature and culture, a pastoral and an imperial vision, it is itself ironic or paradoxical.

     Dennis Lee, in his essay “Cadence, Country, Silence: Writing in Colonial Space,” if not in his Savage Fields, quite pointedly calls for a double vision, simultaneously essentialist and purely functionalist in one’s view of identity or meaning. A particular table must be perceived as simply a utilitarian object and also as a familiar, uniquely defining the character of one’s life and world.

     The building of the CPR may, in Margaret Avison’s words, make us brave company for giantsso with the building of MANIC, the Space Shuttle, Voyager II. But if we are not to lose our life in the extensions of ourselves, we must have recourse to the beauty of the unused.  In a familiar paradox, to find it in the Other.

D.G. Jones