The Visionary Imagination – Margaret Atwood
In Chapter 3 of book 9 in the series on risk (Envisioning Risk, Seeing, Vision and Meaning in Risk) I present a review of select visionaries, people who envision, know all about risk. The last thing visionaries want is stasis and zero. One such visionary is Margaret Atwood. The following is an except from my book and serves as an example of how visionaries expose fundamentalisms, binary oppositions (like safety) and how Poetics is demonized by the risk and safety sector.
You can read the first few chapters of Envisioning Risk here: https://safetyrisk.net/free-download-envisioning-risk-seeing-vision-and-meaning-in-risk/
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When people think of Margaret Atwood it is most probably through the lens of the popular video series The Handmaid’s Tale (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5834204/). The Handmaid’s Tale tells the dystopian story of Offred (the possession of Fred) in the United States of America in the future under the rule of a fundamentalist Christian politik. The Handmaid’s Tale video series won the Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series – Drama. The main actress Elisabeth Moss was also awarded the Golden Globe for Best Actress.
The symbol of The Handmaid ’s Tale is the Puritanical bonnet. The curtain ‘wings’ bonnet in Gilead is the symbol for the a repressive Fundamentalist regime in which the main protagonist Offred is forced to live. The bonnet is intended to function as a sign of female subservience and the tyranny of non-vision.
The costume of The Handmaid’s Tale has now become the symbol for women’s rights (https://qz.com/quartzy/1643273/the-handmaids-tale-costume-has-become-the-symbol-of-womens-rights/ ). In 2017, handmaids marched on Capitol Hill, Washington, in protest at the Republican Healthcare Bill which was seen to threaten women’s bodily autonomy. Protesters against Trump’s 2018 and 2019 visits to the UK also wore handmaid costumes in protest against abortion-related legislation.
Atwood’s description of the Handmaid’s dress is based upon the Anchorites of Medieval England. The purpose of the winged bonnet serves as a wonderful metaphor for this book, on the need for vision. The Handmaid was unable to see out from under her bonnet and it forced her to be bowed and submissive. Similarly, the bonnet prevents vision so that the females featured and facial identity cannot be recognized. See Figure 65. The Winged Bonnet.
|Figure 65. The Winged Bonnet|
It is of interest that there is no Feminist perspective globally that reflects on the patriarchy of the risk industry. The Discourse of women in the risk industry conforms to patriarchal Discourse. Even a casual examination of any of the women in safety discourse demonstrates the same discourse as masculinist safety.
Atwood also tells the story of a seventeenth century forebear: Mary Webster in a Puritan town called Hadley, Massachusetts who was accused of being a witch. The truth is that Mary was simply unusual and so they strung her up. Back then they didn’t do drop-hangings, so Mary dangled from the tree all night and the next morning they cut her down think she was dead but was alive. Webster became known as ‘Half-Hanged Mary’ and was one of the dedicatees in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Atwood is a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, inventor, teacher, and environmental activist. Her father Carl was an entomologist and Margaret spent much of her childhood in the backwoods of northern Quebec. Atwood realized she wanted to write professionally when she was 16 and since then has been a prolific writer with over 60 books published including: novels, poetry, short stories, critical works, children’s literature and comics.
Atwood’s works encompass a variety of themes including gender and identity, religion and myth, the power of language, climate change, and power politics. Her vision is for a better and more humanised world. In The Handmaid’s Tale and Much of Her Work Atwood demonstrates the Faith-Hope-Love-Justice dialectic showing what non-Faith looks like and the Hope in Justice and Love through apocalyptic and dystopian themes.
Rebecca Mead in The New York Times describes Atwood as a ‘Prophet of Dystopia’ (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/17/margaret-atwood-the-prophet-of-dystopia), an insightful piece on Atwood’s vision.
In an interview with Mead, Atwood describes the lot of visionaries:
After sixty years, why are we doing this again? But, as you know, in any area of life, it’s push and pushback. We have had pushback, and now we are groping to have to push again.
Atwood made this comment when she went to a Women’s march and saw a sign that said ‘I can’t believe I’m still holding this f%$#ing sign’. The visionary spends most of their time seeking to release themselves and others from toxic trajectories found in conservativism, traditionalisms and orthodoxies.
Having been raised in a Fundamentalist Christian home and having studied Theology I can see many connections to reality in Atwood’s dytopian projections not least of which is: the cult of Trump, the binary disinformation and power of propaganda, a general lack of discernment and critical thinking, the suppression of opposition, the alienation and demonisation of criticism and the rise of right-wing fundamentalist governments across the world in 2020. Some of this fundamentalist Discourse populates the risk and safety industry.
One of the ways Atwood brings home the nature of cults and taboo myths is through the use of language eg. In The Handmaid’s Tale a sign of acceptance of suppression, oppression, cult conformance and duty were captured in the repetition of: ‘Blessed be the fruit’, ‘may the Lord open’. Cults are maintained by such symbolic language (mantras) and the semiosis attached to them (eg. zero harm). Similar gestures and rituals are practiced in the risk industry that confirm ingroupness but serve little or no purpose.
Atwood draws upon an assembly of well known archetypes and myths in Theological and literary traditions to demonstrate how easily persons can be dehumanized in the name of good.
‘Whenever tyranny is exercised’ Arwood warns, ‘who profits by it?’ This is often the vision of her work. This is one of many foundational questions visionaries ask but a pertinent one, and often it is those whom they criticize and satirize that are the beneficiaries of the work of dehumanisation. This is what makes visionary work risky, speaking truth to power often results in
the crucifixion of the visionary and this is the struggle of the Faith-Hope-Love Justice dialectic.