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Intimations of immortality

In the nature of a contemplation on writing and writers, Negotiating with the Dead is motivated by Atwood's desire to bring something back from the dead, says M.S. NAGARAJAN.

The moving finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on: nor all your piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your tears wash out a word of it.
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

NEVER before in the realm of 20th-century literary criticism was so much owed by so many to one book of interpretation, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930). Soon after its publication, it established itself as an indispensable aid to the training of literary sensibility. Its author, William Empson (1906-84), knighted for his contribution to literary scholarship, is said to have written it in a couple of weeks when he was just 22. The University of Cambridge, which once expelled him from Magdalene College for what now might be deemed not even a minor offense, rehabilitated and honoured this most extraordinary critic, years later, by instituting a generous endowment called "the Empson Lectures" which were designed as a series meant to address "topics of broad literary and cultural interest". Margaret Eleanor Atwood (b at Ottawa, 1939) the celebrated Canadian poet, critic, novelist and woman of letters delivered, on invitation, a series of six lectures in April/ May 2000 at the University of Cambridge's famous Lady Mitchell Hall. These lectures are now gathered and issued to the public under the title Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. The thrust of the argument is best wrapped up in the following clincher:

All writers learn from the dead... 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. And all must commit acts of larceny, or else of reclamation, depending how you look at it. The dead may guard the treasure, but it's useless treasure unless it can be brought back into the land of the living and allowed to enter time once more-which means to enter the realm of the audience the realm of the readers, the realm of change (p.178-9).

In these memorable lectures Atwood addresses a number of fundamental issues and raises a number of challenging questions any serious writer is up against. As the subtitle indicates, the theme of the lectures is writing and writing life, the purpose and pleasures/ pains of writing. In her introduction, she echoes Virginia Woolf's sentiment that writing is like walking in a dark room but with a deep desire to enter the unlit place and bring back something out to light. Northrop Frye taught in Victoria College in which she was enrolled as an undergraduate and he had just published his trailblazer The Anatomy of Criticism (1957). Marshall McLuhan taught in a nearby college and his magnum opus, The Gutenberg Galaxy (1960) with its supreme slogan that media is the message had a rippling effect in the minds of the reading public. Fortunately for her, there were not many Canadian writers of repute at the time she was considering a writing career. The woman, the milieu and the moment met. Time was ripe. Atwood took the plunge. The rest is history. She has received numerous awards, including the Booker Prize for her The Blind Assassin, in her 30 years of authorship of more than 25 highly acclaimed works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry.

The second chapter is devoted to reflections on the syndrome of the writer's anxiety about his/her other self. The writing self (the author) is different from the living self (the person). Of these two selves, the latter half does the living while the former half does the writing and "each is parasitic upon the other". The half that does the living meets with death while the half that does the writing becomes a name and gets attached to the body of the work that is created. Atwood believes that the Romantics were the earliest to fix this concept of the doubleness in public consciousness. She explores another dichotomy, art versus commerce. The questions posed are, "Should a writer write for money? And if not for money, then for what? What intentions are valid, what motivations pass muster? Where to draw the line between artistic integrity and net worth? To what, or to whom should the writer's efforts be directed" (p.63)? These are some of the expectations made on the writer. We know it for sure that these are the days when the publication industry takes control of authors' lives. Superstar mega-authors get more attention than most other public figures, not to speak of Hollywood icons. Sales promotion and marketing plans are discussed threadbare before a work is launched on the market. Atwood's questions seem wholly relevant in such a murky atmosphere in which egregious monetary considerations dictate terms to writers, thus taking the upper hand in artistic creation too.

The chapter on art versus social relevance raises the time-honoured (but never satisfactorily answered) question whether art is for art's sake or for society's sake. How should a writer determine his/her position in relation to the rest of humanity? Atwood's answer is plain and simple "Take care of the writing and the social relevance will take care of itself." The writer, the reader and the book form an eternal triangle with the book acting as the go-between. For whom does the writer write? For the dear reader who is a real person, one who is specific. This ideal reader may be any one "because the act of reading is just as singular — always — as the act of writing (p.151). In the last section, Atwood quotes, most appropriately, from "Everyman", the anonymous play. "Everyman I will go with thee and be thy guide, In thy most need to go by thy side." In the play, Knowledge, the sister of Good Deeds, speaks these lines offering her hand to guide Everyman to his last journey to the grave when all others had deserted him. The function of writing is to provide us with this guidance. What a lofty ideal! To quote Atwood again, all writing "is motivated deep down, by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead" (p.156).

The book is in the nature of a contemplation on writing and on writers. A work of self-interrogation, it casts a perceptive look at a great many writers. The explorations are supported by evidences drawn from a wide array of literary works and strewn with anecdotes from the lives of writers. Wild details, literary allusions, references to movies, fairy-tales, myths (the influence of Frye is conspicuous) and metaphors and conventions that lie behind everyday reality — all drawn from the world's body of Western literature — fill every page of writing. These profound meditations on the task of writing — writing as a product and not as a process — make Negotiating with the Dead a most insightful and engaging work of non-fiction.

Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, Margaret Atwood, Cambridge University Press, 2002, p.219, $18.

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