Margaret Atwood On The Novel, Time, Upheaval & Utopia

“Novels are about other people and poems are about yourself.”
  • Novels are about people. Novels happen in a particular time and place with certain conditions. If it’s a place in crisis the individuals cannot isolate themselves from the crisis
  • Time is always involved in a novel, maybe not a lyric poem or prayer but always a novel. “If it’s a novel theres a clock in it” (Henry James biographer)
  • Novels are concerned with “the human condition”: people in a particular situation dealing with issues of power and control.
  • Plato on poets: they should be expelled because they lie about the gods. Logical positivism did not interest me, ethics and aesthetics did (so I switched to english). But novels have to tell the truth in some way.
  • Writers don’t create conditions, they have no power (the pen is not mightier than the sword, the opposite).
  • “I was a Victorianist”: the Victorian era created so many utopias that it was parodied, utopias put into action “went pear shaped”.

Counterpoint: J.G. Ballard

“The bourgeois novel is the greatest enemy of truth and honesty that was ever invented. It’s a vast, sentimentalizing structure that reassures the reader, and at every point, offers the comfort of secure moral frameworks and recognizable characters. This whole notion was advanced by Mary McCarthy and many others years ago, that the main function of the novel was to carry out a kind of moral criticism of life. But the writer has no business making moral judgments or trying to set himself up as a one-man or one-woman magistrate’s court. I think it’s far better, as Burroughs did and I’ve tried to do in my small way, to tell the truth.”

Agnes Callard On ‘The Paradise Paradox’

The spectre of evil, badness and suffering.
  • Genesis: Eden, they eat the fruit, they get kicked out (current philosophy students think things get interesting when we got kicked out, they’re glad).
  • Plato’s republic is the ideal society.
  • People are not attracted to written/imagined utopias (we don’t want to live somewhere based on lies or repression).
  • But it’s not just single qualities, theres a paradox about paradise: we don’t like it.
  • What Makes a Life Significant? by William James.
  • “What human society might be” without suffering and no “dark corners”?
  • BUT: “this order is too tame”, “this atrocious harmlessness”.
  • James’ answer to why we are not satisfied with utopia is the absence of struggle and strife.
  • We can’t merely insert struggle and strife (like arbitrary competitions), we want it to be real. And not just any struggle and strife: effort for a purpose, towards a better world.
  • James feels that leisure is unsatisfying.
  • Aristotle contra James: leisure is the point of life. BUT he distinguishes leisure from simple rest and relaxation.
  • Aristotle downs simple R&R along the lines of “restaholics are addicted to rest”. Set apart from struggle and relaxation is Aristotle’s leisure, the proper use of leisure. It’s the point of life, the purpose of cities.
  • But what is leisure as leisure? Contemplation (ie. not a process like research or problem solving). When we contemplate we imitate god thinking of god.
  • Aristotle’s god outputs nothing. So why didn’t Aristotle imitate that? “Not even Aristotle understood leisure”.
  • “Struggles to improve the lot of man” are non-arbitrary, but we can’t make use of such struggles in utopia.
  • However, there are non-arbitrary struggles that aren’t oriented to construction of utopia.
  • The struggle of explaining/teaching could be an example of struggle that is not arbitrary.

My Notes:

(visual presentation: orange turtle neck over blue dress, goofy light green watch, oversized round thin framed purple glasses, girly mannerisms, eccentric graphic art decorated room, imitation-fire space heater on a pedestal / review: fun and engaging speaker)