A Voice of One's Own
Second Words By Margaret Atwood Beacon Press; 430 pp; $9.93
TO READ Margaret Atwood's own voice--as opposed to one of the many voices of her fictional and poetic personae--is to see the feminist motto "the personal is political" in a new light. Atwood once described herself in an interview as a "de facto feminist," taking the position that every intelligent woman is a feminist--but she can also argue from the standpoint of a crusader for women's rights, a poet, a novelist, a pioneering critic of Canadian literature, a Canadian nationalist, and an Amnesty International activist. The essays in Second Words emanate from all these Atwoods. But the tone and approach of each essay strikes one note over and over again--the personal. She remains determinedly anecdotal, specific, and sardonic throughout: on Canadian poets, on Canadian-American relations in the 1980s, on being a woman writer, on her own attackers. If you were one of her targets, you might say she had a chip on her shoulder.
Second Words, Atwood's selected essays from 1960 to the present, span the growth of her consciousness of injustice and her defense against growing attacks. Some of the battles she fought, as recounted in the book's second section--which she dubs "Dugout"--may seem remote to the non-Canadian reader in the present, as may some of the poetry reviewed in Atwood's early years, under the title "Rooming House." The shorthand, completely personal references ("Rooming House," she says, "runs from 1960 to 1971, during which I moved about fifteen times, always to places with a lot of stairs to climb and inadequate heat") typify her critical posture. No polished abstractions these; about half are actually lectures, clipped in tone, played for laughs, rambling in subject; and others, such as the long "Mathews and Misrepresentation," are openly aggravated responses to attacks on her work.
Atwood apologizes in the introduction that "I don't like writing the kinds of things that are brought together in this volume nearly as much as I like writing other kinds of things." She then goes on to describe approach-avoidance reactions and procrastination worthy of any reading-period squeeze. In all fairness, the essays suggest that her preference for writing fiction and poetry is well-founded. The value of the book reviews included (analyses of Kate Millett's autobiography Flying Marge Pwrey's Woman on the Edge of Time, and the works of Adrienne Rich, E.L. Doctorow and Tillie Olsen) lies not so much in their sparkling insight; rather, they reveal Atwood's developing ideas on feminism and female expression.
The longer, more "important," and therefore more satisfying pieces are the often-combative lectures on "Being a Woman Writer: Paradoxes and Dilemmas"; on "The Curse of Eve, or What I Learned in School"; on witches; and the lively tour de force which ends the volume, "Writing the Male Character." In these lectures, several of them first delivered at Harvard, Atwood's piercing wit, her incisive dissection of the pitfalls of male-female relations, and her considerable erudition all come together.
"Writing the Male Character," for instance, for the most part concerns the attacks on Atwood's novels for being "anti-male." She establishes the dukes-up posture early on:
A man is not just a woman in funny clothes and a jock strap. They don't think the same, except about things like higher math. But neither are they an alien or inferior form of life. From the point of view of the novelist, this discovery has wide-ranging implications....But first, a small digression, partly to demonstrate that when people ask you whether you hate men, the proper reply is "Which ones?"--because, of course, the other big revelation of the evening is that not all men are the same. Some of them have beards. Apart from that, I have never been among those who would speak slightingly of men by lumping them all in together; I would never say, for instance--as some have--"Put a paper bag over their bodies and they're all the same." I give you Albert Schweitzer in one corner, Hitler in another.
Defensiveness is transfigured, made into a viciously self-satirizing art.
Because her approach to the issues of feminism, nationalism, and, in more recent years, world-wide human rights is so insistently personal and specific, the essays do not project a world view so much as a personality. For a far more comprehensive feeling for Atwood's philosophy, one needs to examine the series of novels that have made her famous and have cast her--sometimes unwillingly--as a significant voice of the women's movement: Surfacing, The Edible Woman, Lady Oracle, Life Before Man, Bodily Harm. Set free with fiction, Atwood's remarkable ability to tease the significance out of individual situations and words succeeds most effectively.
In Second Words, when she offers an analytic generality it is almost slipped in sideways, a manner well-suited to her ability to remain ironically outside the usual conventions of a critical essay. In a 1973 review of the Canadian poet John Newlove, she crashes defiantly to the point:
I could say a lot about Newlove's "technique" or "craftsmanship"--the way he puts poems together--for he is indeed a master builder....his work is often a demonstration model of how it should be done. But that isn't my primary interest. I would rather talk about corners; what they are, what you do in them and how you get out of them. Because this seems to me what Newlove's poetry is obsessed with, and for him it's a life-and-death obsession.
Such an approach could also be called common sense, and it is this common sense which makes Atwood's insights so accessible and simultaneously so rich. Time after time, the reader's jolt of recognition and pleasure comes from one simple fact: Atwood expresses herself so well. As with her novels, one reads her essays with a pen nearby, constantly jotting down some spark of truth: she offers several epigrams. "Canadian-Arherican Relations Surviving the Eighties" (1981) contains the following aside:
I recognize that particular cross-filing system, that particular way of approving of people you don't as a rule approve of, every time a man tells me I think like a man; a sentence I've always felt had an invisible comma after the word think.
The author's evident flexibility of diction is another such pleasure. Atwood can range with ease from the academically highbrow to the high-school casual. Even this talent comes under self-satire from time to time, as in "Writing the Male Character":
The point of view I'm presenting is that of a practising novelist....So I will not even mention metonymy and synechdoche, except right now, just to impress you and let you know that I know they exist.
But don't let the verbal panache fool you. Atwood is usually dead serious; serious and getting more so as the years go on as she adds political causes such as Amnesty International to her original crusades against sexism and parochialism. "When you begin to write, you deal with your immediate surroundings," she explains in the introduction; "as you grow, your immediate surroundings become larger. There's no contradiction." Her most weighty essays, "The Curse of Eve" and "An End to Audience?" perceptively and persuasively detail two of her major concerns: the steady worsening of the publishing and distributing industries as ways to disseminate serious literature, and the subtly "evil" and "supernatural" and generally unsatisfactory female models scattered throughout literature.
"The Curse of Eve" consists mostly of an endless list of unsavory female characters of various types--from Lady Macbeth and the Furies to "Andromeda chained to her rock." Women in male literature through the ages, she suggests, are seen predominantly as natural forces, parts of the landscape through which the adventurer travels, forces of unthinking good or inhuman, automatic evil:
About the closest a male figure can come to this is lago or Mr. Hyde, but lago is at least partly motivated by envy and the other half of Mr. Hyde is the all-too-human Dr. Jekyll. Even the devil wants to win, but the extreme types of female figure do not seem to want anything at all. Sirens eat men because that is what Sirens do....One may as well ask why the sun shines.
Such concerns, no matter how jokily narrated, are anything but funny. Atwood demands a response not in terms of philosophy but in the context of the reader's own life; she offers her "far from comprehensive" list of female role models, which covers nearly four pages, and confronts the reader with the choice: which one will you create, or be? Or will you fight, too? As a call to battle, this voice is, perhaps, the best one can imagine.