Contra Atwood and the Writer-Mystifiers

Atwood

Over at Faith and Theology, Ben Myers has just posted his latest piece on the art of writing. It’s a short extract from an essay by Margaret Atwood. I’ll quote it here:

What is writing for? Writers – unlike dentists, bricklayers and other practical folk – are always being asked why they do what they do; asked, in effect, to prove their usefulness. It’s an odd question, because language and mathematics are the two most potent and useful tools human beings have ever invented. Sometimes, as a writer, you forget this. You can get stuck; you can start believing in your own superfluity…

Essentially, you have three main choices as a writer in a capitalist society, one whose principle ideology is necessarily utilitarianism: either you revel in the uselessness of literature as an implicit rejection of that ideology (art for art’s sake), or you attempt to justify its uses (extending utilitarianism), or you mystify it by suggesting its magical potency. Here, Atwood combines the second and the third options (as does A. S. Byatt, who recently wrote of literature as something ‘dangerous’).

Any justification of literature is bound to be armed to the teeth with ideology of one sort or another. The very fact that you have to justify its existence testifies to its historical superfluity, to the fact that it is no longer an ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ (to risk a host of different problems) outgrowth of a given community. In this case, Atwood takes the tried and tested handicraft line. Language becomes an ‘invention’ – as if a caveman one day decided that his flint-headed spear and hollowed-stone plate just wouldn’t cut the mustard, so he poked around in his wordless head for a while and conjured up speech! John Banville recently trotted out the same old rubbish when he said that ‘The sentence is the greatest invention of civilization.’ Apparently Derrida hasn’t breached the literati citadel.

The context of the above quotation is an account of a trip Atwood took to ‘Somebody’s Daughter, a two-week camp for Inuit women that takes place in Nunavut, in the eastern Canadian Arctic. This project blends sewing, healing and writing in an unusual but very specific way.’ In terms of fostering human solidarity, the project sounds genuinely wonderful, but it could not be more emblematic of the situation of the writer. It’s essentially a camp for younger generations of women to learn the traditional handicraft skills of their elders; they’re attempting to resuscitate a tradition which is effectively dead. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why Atwood’s drawn to it: because as a writer in a digital and dizzying twenty-first century, in which literature has more or less no effect on material reality (other than increasing the capital flow of publishing houses), it enables the writer to tell herself that she’s a craftswoman, a shaman sculptor of words – worthwhile.

Sartre

And here I’m with the utilitarians all the way in denouncing this kind of clap-trap. Sartre and Barthes showed it for what it was back in the 40s and 50s. Essentially, the French writer in the 18th-century was writing for a split public: the ancien régime and the ‘rising class’ – the bourgeoisie. The writer became conscious that the requirements of formal liberties at the level of literature were the same liberties required by the bourgeois class as a whole. Hence, to be a writer was often co-extensive with being a revolutionary. But by the time we reach the mid-19th century, after the bourgeoisie had established itself as the new reactionaries, and amid the rise of a new class – the proletariat – who lacked the culture and learning to appreciate high-falutin’ literary innovation, the writer is in a bind. He cannot write for the new revolutionary class like his forebears of the previous century did, but nor does he want to write for the conservatives, whom he loathes. He could, of course, have rejected his class and taken up arms with the workers, but that was more or less unthinkable. So in the end he wrote for the bourgeoisie, whilst doing everything he could to make it seem like he wasn’t one of them: his clothes, his manners, his food – everything said ‘I reject them’. But the rejection was only symbolic. As Sartre puts it with characteristic precision:

[The writer] lived in a state of contradiction and dishonesty since he both knew and did not want to know for whom he was writing. He was fond of speaking of his solitude, and rather than assume responsibility for the public which he had slyly chosen, he concocted the notion that one writes for oneself alone or for God. He made of writing a metaphysical occupation, a prayer, an examination of conscience, everything but a communication.

At the same time, as Barthes demonstrated, the cult of the sculptor-writer arose: when literature is no longer self-justifiable, perhaps if you can make of it a painful process of labour which requires hours of tortuous meditation and rewriting and sweat and blood, then others (industrialists) will see it as worthwhile. Thus Flaubert, refusing to leave his hidey-hole until he had sculpted the perfect sentence; thus Proust in a cork-lined room.

Atwood offers the latest variation on these one hundred and fifty year old ruses. Interestingly, in order to decide ‘what writing is for’, she chooses to rephrase the question – quite rightly! – to ‘who is it for?’ She catches on, in other words, to the truth of Sartre’s argument (and also, later on, to Raymond Williams’s, for whom ‘good prose’ was effectively ‘good social relations’). Unfortunately, she answers that question with the following, which draws on a line from a communal poem the Inuit women wrote: ‘It’s for the eagle. It’s for giving the eagle wings. It’s also for us, who watch it fly.’ If that’s not a continuation of the mystificatory bullshit of mid-19th-century France, then I don’t know what is.

But before I’m accused of being a philistine (and judging from overheard conversations in Shakespeare & Co., there’s a lot to be said for philistines), let me say one thing: Atwood’s a very good writer – a very good twenty-first century writer even. It’s just that, like most writers, she doesn’t have a clue what she’s really doing.

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3 thoughts on “Contra Atwood and the Writer-Mystifiers

  1. steve says:

    Those three choices you offer “in a capitialist society” are made by the writer, but what that writer writes immediately becomes two things: utilitarian and abstract. Isn’t a capitalist society one in which the agency and power of the self is always the centre, the key to life? The act of choosing you offer is part of that ideology, so what you write becomes subject to itself rather than proudly above it all.

    It’s no good trying to separate the choices with oppositions of utility and magic, Sartre & Barthes vs. Atwood & Banville. They all partake of the same thing which remains, if not a mystery, then radically separate. What ever they say, what ever they write, literature takes possession of it.

    The reader is in the position as the writer, distant from writing and seeking the centre.

    Still, you’re right to be contemptuous of Atwood’s feeble mystification as an alibi. It’s just that this says very little about what she or anybody else writes. The most interesting of writers (and I’d say Atwood isn’t one of them) are those who try to engage with both sides of writing, and that means, despite the cringemakingly awful poetry, watching an eagle fly.

    Unfortunately this blog post says a lot for philistinism even if you claim not to be. That is, you think you know what you’re saying.

    1. Daniel Hartley says:

      Steve, thanks for your response, though I’m not entirely sure I understand what you’re saying. Maybe I’ve written a confused post which has elicited a confused response.

      Perhaps my main error was the ‘three choices’ part: what I really meant to say was that for a non-radical, or non-innovatory writer, these choices are the three obvious ones. The writers I find most interesting are those who generate other possibilities (Sartre would be one of those) – usually by perceiving their writing as one aspect of broader historical movements. The act of choosing is, indeed, part of capitalist ideology, but not if your choice attempts to factor in the knowledge of the ideological aspect of choosing; in other words, ‘to choose’ in my sense would be to act and to write in terms of one’s best attempt to understand the historical dynamics of one’s situation. But really my post is not about what writers write; it’s about the reasons and justifications they give for the act of writing itself.

      Your notion of literature seems pretty idealist. There are many diverse institutions and disciplines which transform various types of writing into ‘Literature’, yes. But it is these material practices which constitute Literature, not ‘Literature’ itself as some form of deity which imbues disparate texts with Literary Life. Here I could point out the very boring explanations of how the literary canon is constructed, but I won’t.

      I really don’t know what you mean by ‘The reader is in the [same?] position as the writer, distant from writing and seeking the centre.’

      As far as your last paragraph is concerned, I’m not trying to say anything about what Atwood or anyone else writes. Though I would certainly like to say that their ignorance of what they’re really doing is often constitutive of their success. (I also think this is why (professional) literary critics tend to be bad fiction writers: because they’re too conscious of what’s at stake in the slightest move). I’m not sure what you mean when you say ‘engage with both sides of literature’. Abstract and utilitarian? If that’s what you mean then I think I’d probably agree. I’d certainly argue, along with Sartre, that any work of art is the embodiment of a gratuitous freedom, and that there is therefore a certain element at work in it which remains irreducible to historical or psychological or any other type of circumstances. There is, in other words, an element of gift or excess in any aesthetic object.

      As for my philistinism, I’d rather think of it as an exaggerated, exasperated reaction to the mystificatory bullshit I read on a daily basis in literary reviews, academic works, and literary blogs. Of course there’s a part of me that revels in ‘watching an eagle fly’, but there’s a bigger part of me that gets fed up with how the eagle shits on everything else.

      Ultimately, I don’t think any of us will ever know what we’re saying. So I doubt I’m the only one.

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