Saturday, January 12, 2008

Idealization as exploitation (Books - The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood)

Laura herself didn't know it, of course. She had no thought of playing the doomed romantic heroine. She became that only later, in the frame of her own outcome and thus in the minds of her admirers. In the course of daily life she was frequently irritating, like anyone. Or dull. Or joyful, she could be that as well: given the right conditions, the secret of which was known only to her, she could drift off into a kind of rapture. It's her flashes of joy that are most poignant for me now.

And so in memory she rambles through her mundane activities, to the outward eye nothing very unusual - a bright-haired girl walking up a hill, intent on thoughts of her own. There are many of these lovely, pensive girls, the landscape is cluttered with them, there's one born every minutes. Most of the time nothing out of the ordinary happens to them, these girls. This and that and the other, and then they get older. But Laura has been singled out, by you, by me. In a painting she'd be gathering wildflowers, though in real life she rarely did anything of the kind. The earth-faced god crouches behind her in the forest shade. Only we can see him. Only we know he will pounce.

I've looked back over what I've set down so far, and it seems inadequate. Perhaps there is too much frivolity in it, or too many things that might be taken for frivolity. A lot of clothes, the styles and colours outmoded now, shed butterflies' wings. A lot of dinners, not always very good ones. Breakfasts, picnics, ocean voyages, costume balls, newspapers, boating on the river. Such items do not assort very well with tragedy. But in life, a tragedy is not one long scream. It includes everything that led up to it...

Ah yes, the age old artistic conundrum - the distance between the vision and the creation. Unfortunately it is never quite bridged in The Blind Assassin because of all its fussiness with its form (see my other posts on this here and here). Atwood's toying around with meta-fiction is never quite satisfying because it doesn't seem to be necessary. She is reduced, in the end, to explaining everything that was obscured for the sake of character or the puzzle she wanted to create by playing with form. Ultimately this hopping from article, to a story within the story, to another story within that story would, one hopes, create suspense - you keep delaying the information from reaching the reader. Unfortunately the book did not succeed in doing that because I already knew what it was hiding. Or one hopes that it will reveal something critical about the story that telling it more simply would not have done. Unfortunately this book apparently fails there too because Atwood is left at the end explaining what happened.

The story is not a bad one, I did finish it after all, and it does succeed in bringing out one theme very strongly: the way women of a certain generation could be run by men, infantalized, made helpless, used as props, not allowed to exist for themselves. Atwood writes a scene in which a dinner is prepared using the original The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook by Fannie Merritt Farmer. In it was an epigraph by John Ruskin:
Cookery means the knowledge of Medea and of Circe and of Helen and of the Queen of Sheba. It means the knowledge of all herbs and fruits and balms and spices, and all that is healing and sweet in the fields and groves and savory in meats. It means carefulness and inventiveness and willingness and readiness of appliances. It means the economy of your grandmothers and the science of the modern chemist; it means testing an no wasting; it means English thoroughness and French and Arabian hospitality; and, in fine, it means that you are to be perfectly and always ladies - loaf givers.

My answer to that would be - what a lot of crap, but Atwood's is much cleverer.

I found it difficult to picture Helen of Troy in an apron, with her sleeves rolled up to the elbow and her cheek dabbled with flour; and from what I knew about Circe and Medea, the only things they'd ever cooked up were magic potions, for poisoning heir apparent or changing men into pigs. As for the Queen of Sheba, I doubt she ever made so much as a piece of toast. I wondered where Mr. Ruskin got his peculiar ideas, about ladies and cookery both. Still, it was an image that must have appealed to a great many middle-class women of my grandmother's time. They were to be sedate in bearing, unapproachable, regal even, but possessed of arcane and potentially lethal recipes, and capable of inspiring the most incendiary passions in men. And on top of that, perfectly and always ladies - loaf givers. The distributors of gracious largesse.

Had any one ever taken this sort of thing seriously? My grandmother had. All you needed to do was to look at her portraits - at that cat-ate-the-canary smile, those droopy eyelids. Who did she think she was, the Queen of Sheba? Without a doubt.

This passage reminds me of some of the ridiculous myths believed about Jews (some of them still) - horns on their heads, zionist conspiracy - all products of fear because Jewish culture was unfamiliar. But those fearing them wanted it that way. Let's bar them from all opportunity of employment except a few (like money lending) and then criticize them for being money lenders. Let's keep women soft, uneducated, and helpless so that we can take care of them and then, let's call that helplessness their nature. After a few generations of seeing women as gracious loaf givers I guess you could come to believe it.

Living out the existence of someone else's idealization of you is a form of exploitation and the two sisters in this story are both the victim of it, although each succeeds in escaping it in a way. The meaning of their lives is created by that one event - it makes their lives sad and their compensations are small ones. This story is the product of that escape. And so concludes my first book for both the Chunkster Challenge and Dewey's Booker Challenge.

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