Margaret Atwood believes in dialogue, unless she is criticized, and she likes submissive natives as well

My previous post, Novelistic Scabs, criticizing Atwood and Ghosh, didn’t get approved in the comments to her posting of the two’s “acceptance speech” for the Dan David prize on Atwood’s blog. It was deleted twice.

She does allow critical views. My post wasn’t more critical than other comments she let through. It was more detailed, and rather than merely challenging them on moral grounds, it also paid close attention to how poor the logic of their arguments was. I guess that was just too painful. So much for openness to views not her own, that she so pretentiously described as her trademark and the reason for accepting the prize!

But half a million dollars can sooth a lot of wounds to a writer’s ego.

Oh, by the way, she went to the West Bank. If you’re interested in how one can make literary experiments, nouveau roman and poliphonic turds out of apartheid, go and read her collection of “Israelis said, Palestinians said” cliches.

There, in the Occupied West Bank, Atwood had an amazing discovery:

Nor was there an avoidance of the situation: on the contrary, people really wanted to talk about it. These people were from many areas, but self-selected, of course. (That is: There are a lot of people from extremes and semi-extremes who would not have talked to me, and certainly not freely).

Some people didn’t avoid talking about the situation with a visitor who tours the West Bank and meets them in the process of explicitly pretending to be interested in the situation. Can you imagine? But what about those “from the extreme and semi-extremes.” who wouldn’t talk to her? Why not call them extremists, given that this is what she wants to say? How did Atwood realize that some people don’t care whether she understands them? Did they refuse to meet with her? Or is it simply her projection? She doesn’t say. What exactly does she mean by saying that people “from the extreme and semi-extremes” would not be speaking “freely”? What opposition between freedom and lack of it is being presented?

People from the semi-extremes are people who shun conversation, or make preconditions, or if they speak, they do not speak “freely.” Presumably, their “extreme” politics gets in a way of providing Atwood with decontextualized shreds of discourse. That is, presumably, people from “extremes and semi-extremes” tend to maintain their right to speak in their own voice, to make sense and present a coherent speech rather than to become formelss material for someone’s else discourse. That means they do not speak “freely.” To speak freely consists on providing Atwood with cliches such as

‘A war of the strong against the weak will always fail.’ ” “There are no stereotypes that fit.” “It’s like a roll that’s stuck in your throat: you can’t swallow it, you can’t cough it up.”

That is, “freedom,” for Atwood, is willingness to submit, to be someone else’s raw material, not to make sense but to be the object one makes sense of. To speak freely is to speak like one speaks to a therapist, hesitantly at first, but with increasing openness once one realizes “the other” is a blank stare, without any identity or content, the ideal, apolitical, neutral listener:

there was some initial tentativeness about me—where did I stand, did I have preconceptions? Being neither an Israeli, nor Jewish, nor Muslim, nor Christian, nor American, was probably facilitating.

Free speech is therefore the opposition of politics, that is of speech that is engaged in the demand of freedom. Free speech is speech free from the constraints imposed by a concern for freedom. Lack of freedom is the condition of those who insist of a measure of control of their position in the conversation. They are constrained by, made “unfree”, presumably, by their claim to speak as one who is free, or as one who wants to be free; they might not even speak to her. The main opposition that structures Atwood’s impression of the native is thus the one between “speaking freely” and speaking as a political Subject who demands freedom. That is, what Atwood’s calls the freedom of the native, is in fact the freedom of the ethnographic visitor to control the representation of the native.

I assume that a quite a few Palestinians told her not to bother dropping by, given that she accepted a prize at Tel-Aviv University that violated the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. Painful! But again, half a million dollars can sooth a lot of wounds to a writer’s ego.


I'm a teacher, writer, and activist based in Bangalore. I am dedicated to various issues including #BDS and Palestine, living a Zero Waste life, and putting the carbon back into the soil through composting!

Posted in Cultural Boycott
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