By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

4. "Negotiating With the Dead," by Margaret Atwood, pp. 91-122

"4. Temptation: Prospero, the Wizard of Oz, Mephisto & Co., Who waves the wand, pulls the strings, or signs the Devil's book?"
Can a good artist be a good person? After all, we've already considered the idea that writers have a double nature. Can and should he/she attempt to do good with his/her writing?
let us suppose that the words the writer writes do not exist in some walled garden called "literature," but actually get out there into the world, and have effects and consequences. Don't we then have to begin talking about ethics and responsibilities, and other, similarly irksome things that the priest of the imagination has claimed it as his prerogative to disregard?
In the twentieth century, she observes, writers no longer think of themselves as "Shelley's powerful, world-shaping poet." They recognize their own messed-up fallibility. She observes, however, that women writers don't suffer from this kind of inferiority complex because they were historically never highly regarded to start with: "the kind of eccentricity expected of male 'geniuses' would simply result in the label 'crazy,' should it be practiced by a woman."

Writers are subject on the one hand to the temptations of money and power -- to allow themselves to be influenced by those who have either or both -- and on the other by the temptation to use their art for socially and morally responsible ends -- to improve society. The latter choice seems the better, but ...
Every parent longs for it, this improving function of art, and every school board in North America would agree with it, and some of them would then use their agreement as an excuse for censorship. But improving to people how? And which people, and in what ways do they need to be improved? Improved, and also protected from influences that some might consider counter-improving?
The writer more typically uses people -- the ones he knows, the ones he overhears on the street -- in his work: "Are you entitled to make off with the conversations you overhear in bus stations and stick them into some recondite construction of your own? Can everything and everyone be used by you -- viewed as material?" The choice is between being a "detached observer" of life or a "dedicated spokesperson" for a cause. "Ought you to support worthy causes, or avoid them like the plague?"

Here she digresses a little into the dilemma peculiar to women writers:
even if you aren't an F-word feminist in any strict ideological sense, will nervous critics wallop you over the head for being one, simply because you exemplify that suspicious character, A Woman Who Writes? If, that is, you put any female characters into your books who aren't happy, and any men who aren't good. Well, probably they will. It's happened before.
(And it bugged the hell out of her.)

The solution to these dilemmas is to stick to your métier: "There's 'good,' there's 'good at,' and there's 'good for,' in the sense of good for other people. In which of these ways should art and artists be 'good'?... There is never any shortage of people who can think up good things for you to do which are not the same as the things you are good at."

The problem is, the medium (i.e., language) inflects the message: "language has a moral dimension built into it: you can't say weed without making a negative judgment about the botanical specimens you've just assigned to the weed category."
Language is not morally neutral because the human brain is not neutral in its desires. Neither is the dog brain. Neither is the bird brain: crows hate owls. We like some things and dislike others, we approve of some things and disapprove of others. Such is the nature of being an organism.
She concludes with three literary examples: The Wizard of Oz, The Tempest and Klaus Mann's Mephisto.
Baum's wizard is a good man but a bad wizard. Prospero is, depending on your point of reference, either a hero or a tyrant:
With just a slight twist, Prospero might be the Grand Inquisitor, torturing people for their own good. You might also call him a usurper -- he's stolen the island from Caliban, just as his own brother has stolen the dukedom from him; and you might call him a sorcerer, as Caliban also terms him. We -- the audience -- are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, and to see him as a benevolent despot. Or we are inclined most of the time. But Caliban is not without insight.
And Henrik Höfgen, in Mephisto, sells his soul to the Nazis because he thinks of himself as serving the higher calling of art. "It seems that when the artist tries for a sphere of power beyond that of his art, he's on shifty ground; but if he doesn't engage himself with the social world at all, he risks being simply irrelevant."
As for advice, should you be a young writer -- I could say, as Alice Munro has said, "Do what you want and live with the consequences." Or I could say, "Go where the story takes you." Or I could say, "Take care of the writing, and the social relevance will take care of itself."
Which is pretty much to say: do what you're good at.

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