By Charles Matthews

Friday, April 30, 2010

6. "Negotiating With the Dead," by Margaret Atwood, pp. 153-180

"6. Descent: Negotiating with the dead, Who makes the trip to the underworld, and why?"
The chapter's "hypothesis is that not just some, but all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality -- by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead." I tend to think of writing, the kind I do, which is critical and documentary, as a momentary stay against confusion, an attempt to bring order out of the chaos of impression, imagination and thought. Moreover, as she puts it, "the nature of writing" is "its apparent permanence, and the fact that it survives its own performance -- unlike, for existence, a dance recital." But I see the point, especially at my age, that the writer does make an effort to bring the dead -- not only people but ideas -- back to life.

Time, she observes, is "one damn thing after another, and the important word in that sentence is after. Narration -- storytelling -- is the relation of events unfolding through time." But it's also, as any reader of Proust or Faulkner knows, a demonstration that the past persists into the future, which is why writers pursue the dead, sometimes to try to make them speak again and sometimes to try to make them shut the hell up.

This chapter, indeed all the chapters in the book, is filled with examples drawn from her reading -- the whole book is a great reading list.
You can't go home again, said Thomas Wolfe; but you can, sort of, when you write about it. But then you reach the last page. A book is another country. You enter it, but then you must leave: like the Underworld, you can't live there. 
It's somewhat daunting to reflect that Hell is -- possibly -- the place where you are stuck in your own personal narrative for ever, and Heaven is -- possibly -- the place where you can ditch it, and take up wisdom instead. 
The story is in the dark. That is why inspiration is thought of as coming in flashes. Going into a narrative -- into the narrative process --is dark road. You can't see your way ahead. 
All writers learn from the dead. As long as you continue to write, you continue to explore the work of writers who have preceded you; you also feel judged and held to account by them. 
This is sort of like what Harold Bloom calls "the anxiety of influence."
All writers must go from now to once upon a time; all must go from here to there; all must descend to where the stories are kept; all must take care not to be captured and held immobile by the past.

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