By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

3. "Negotiating With the Dead," by Margaret Atwood, pp. 59-90

"3. Dedication: The Great God Pen. Apollo vs. Mammon: at whose altar should the writer worship?"
Can art and money co-exist? Especially in Canada in the Fifties? "James Joyce's triple-barreled slogan, 'silence, exile, and cunning,' had a distinct resonance for aspiring Canadian writers, especially the exile part of it." Added to that is the stigma of writing for money, which "put you in the prostitute category."
So it remains in certain quarters to this day. I can still hear the sneer in the tone of the Parisian intellectual who asked me, "Is it true you write the bestsellers?" "Not on purpose," I replied somewhat coyly. Also somewhat defensively, for I knew these equations as well as he did.... Either poor and real, or rich and a sell-out with a price-tag on your soul. So goes the mythology.
But in fact there are four possibilities: "good books that make money; bad books that make money; good books that don't make money; bad books that don't make money." 

So what makes art bad?
The nineteenth-century battle over the proper function of art was fierce, but all attempts to bend art to some useful purpose, or to prove that it had such a purpose ... came to grief in the end, because what they amounted to was censorship. If beauty is truth and the truth will make you free, is there a kind of truth that ought to be suppressed? Yes: ugly truth, or any truth that might be bad for you, which is why John Ruskin destroyed many of Turner's erotic drawings.
The counterpoint to this is, of course, art for art's sake. And the corollary is art as religion, a higher calling with its own set of martyrs.
If sacrifice was demanded of the male artist, how much more so of the women? What leads us to suspect that the fancifully embroidered scarlet letter on the breast of the punished and reviled Hester Prynne ... stands not only for Adulteress, but for Artist, or even Author?... When I was an aspiring female poet, in the late 1950s, the notion of required sacrifice was simply accepted. The same was true for any sort of career for a woman, but Art was worse, because the sacrifice required was more complete. You couldn't be a wife and mother and also an artist, because each one of these things required total dedication.
The archetype of the female artist is Salomé: "She's very good at her art, good enough to seduce most viewers, but she allows this art to be corrupted by the promise of reward." The female artist is expected to suffer -- even, like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, to commit suicide: "So much a part of the job description did it appear that after my first two slim volumes had been published I was asked, in all honesty, not whether I was going to commit suicide, but when.... Luckily I wrote fiction as well as poetry. Though there are some suicidal novelists too, I did feel that prose had a balancing effect. More meat and potatoes on the plate, you could say, and fewer cut-off heads." 

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