If only we’d all just listened to Margaret Atwood.
The acclaimed author of The Handmaid’s Tale has been acting as something of a political sage recently. Thanks in part to an upcoming, timely Hulu adaptation of her dystopian classic about a woman forced to act as a breeder for a powerful, childless couple, many have found the book’s depiction of a theocratic totalitarian state to be painfully relevant commentary on this political moment.
A woman’s right to control her own body isn’t Atwood’s only political hobbyhorse. An interview published by the CBC shows that as far back as 1981, she was arguing powerfully for the primacy of art and culture in defining a nation.
Asked by interviewer Russ Patrick whether “survival of country” is really so strongly linked to the vibrancy of a nation’s culture, she responded philosophically: “Well, what is a country?” She elaborated, ”If you think of Britain in the 19th century, you probably don’t know a lot about statistics on who had bathrooms — although that is interesting. You think of Charles Dickens and you think of George Eliot, do you not? It’s what people made. It’s the expression of the culture that lasts.”
Aside from a sudden yen to know a great deal more about toilets in 1850s England, Atwood’s interview leaves us with a poignant lesson about the necessity of fostering great art: Centuries from now, our cultural achievements will be the most important way later generations will remember us.
Though her words were given in a Canadian context and have now been recirculated by Canadian media, the relevance to the U.S. right now seems unmistakeable, even pointed. The unusually severe blow President Donald Trump proposed to deal to national arts and culture programs in his budget has prompted many to debate the value of a country funding artistic pursuits at all. When viewed through Atwood’s lens, the answer seems clear: Stimulating the arts and culture sector helps a nation ensure its own historical legacy.
The Handmaid’s Tale also, heartbreakingly, made this point; heroine Offred’s narrative is framed by a lecture given by an academic. Many years after her memoir takes place, the all-powerful Republic of Gilead has been reduced to a handful of cultural artifacts, including her self-told story of resistance, mulled over by scholars for their authenticity and enduring meaning. The theocracy’s restrictive, censorious nature didn’t foster a wealth of culture or accurate records; in many ways, Offred had the last laugh on her oppressors by telling a tale that outlasted them.
Atwood’s 1981 words in defense of celebrating culture were resurfaced by the CBC in anticipation of the public broadcaster’s battle-of-the-books program Canada Reads. At the time the interview took place, she was several years away from publishing The Handmaid’s Tale, but she did publish a book that year: Bodily Harm, her fifth novel. Safe to say that she has made her own indelible mark in literary history.
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