The Books: Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing; “Temptation: Prospero, the Wizard of Oz, Mephisto & Co.; Who waves the wand, pulls the strings, or signs the Devil’s book?”, by Margaret Atwood


On the essays shelf (yes, there are still more books to excerpt in my vast library. I can’t seem to stop this excerpts-from-my-library project. I started it in 2006!)

NEXT BOOK: Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, a collection of a series of lectures, given by Margaret Atwood, about writers/writing.

In this lecture, Atwood discusses the relationship between a writer and his art. There is sometimes something uncanny there, which may be described as “evil”, as a sort of communing with the supernatural, a Faustian deal with the devil, in order to bring the art out. Writers often struggle with this, in little or large ways, even in the present day when we no longer burn witches at the stake. Atwood is interested in that anxiety, about the powers of the artist, and how the artist uses his power … and what that all might signify. In this chapter, Atwood references Stephen Dedalus repeatedly, the “star” of A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man (as well as Ulysses, although Atwood focuses on Portrait because it is about the “artist” more explicitly). The famous final line of Portrait, an entry from Dedalus’ journal, reads:

Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.

Which is glorious. Daedalus yearns to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” A lofty goal, yes? And notice the ego: the “conscience” of the “race” is not yet created. It is up to the ARTIST to “create” it. (Any great artist has a massive ego. It comes with the territory. You need it – on so many levels you need it, just to have the guts to say, “I want to do this.” That is the entire journey of Portrait, through its five distinct chapter.) But in the final moment of the book, Dedalus calls on the “artificer”, acknowledging the art is not reality, reality is not art, that all is “artifice”. Whatever will come will be created. This is the power of creation.

Regular people are suspicious of artists. Or they say stuff like, “If I had the time, I would write a book.” Or “I have a great book in me.” (People say stuff like this to me all the time. “If I had the time I would write a book” is one of my least-favorite common sayings – almost up there with “He just played himself.” Oh, so, according to you, James Joyce wrote those books because he had the time to do so? George Eliot wrote Middlemarch because she had the time for it? Is that how you think art works? No wonder you haven’t written your glorious imaginary book. Art is hard, and you do it whether you have the “time” for it or not.)

An artist may very well tap into the “uncreated conscience” of the race, but how does he do it? Is he in touch with something slightly demonic or dark in order to do what he does? Who does he think he is? (and etc.) Does he think he’s better than us? Atwood is interested in that kind of relationship. Atwood’s books, while realistic (for the most part), often include unexplainable moments (the unforgettable moment on the snowy night with the floating woman in Cat’s Eye). It takes courage to write like that, to put “that” out there.

In this essay she talks a lot about worship: What does a writer worship? Is the writer a kind of priest? A “shepherd”? Once upon a time, writers were like prophets. Now? The world is different. How does a writer deal with the sense of his own “inconsequence”? Atwood’s lecture is filled with examples, varying from David Foster Wallace to T.S. Eliot. A writer’s sense of his own insignificance, or irrelevance, can bring forth magnificent works. But how does an artist perceive himself? And his own work?

To discuss all of these different elements, Atwood focuses her lecture on three “magical” characters, the Wizard of Oz, Prospero from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Henrik Hofgen from Mephisto. These characters are all “artificers,” they truck in illusion. They are metaphors for artists. Are they madmen? Prophets? Con-men? Snake-oil salesmen? Do they believe their own magic? And how deeply? Here’s an excerpt.

Excerpt from Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing: “Temptation: Prospero, the Wizard of Oz, Mephisto & Co.; Who waves the wand, pulls the strings, or signs the Devil’s book?”, by Margaret Atwood

The Wizard of Oz – soi-disant magician, wielder of power, manipulator, illusionist, and fraud – has a long genealogy. His remote ancestor was probably a shaman or high priest or conjuror, or one who combined these functions. Other ancestors can be found in folklore. More recently, and in literature, he can be traced from Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus through Prospero of The Tempest. Prospero begot Jonson’s Alchemist and The Alchemist begot Thackeray’s Prologue to Vanity Fair with its puppet-show world controlled by the puppeteer as author. He also begot a lot of tyrannical magicians and artist figures, including Nathaniel Hawthorne’s sinister or deluded alchemists of “The Birthmark” and “Rappacinni’s Daughter.” Sometimes things turned nasty, and we got the bad magicians of E.T.A. Hoffmann – see also the Offenbach opera, Tales of Hoffmann, – and George du Maurier’s exploitative hypnotist Svengali in Trilby, and then there was some fooling around under the table, and who knows who begot whom, and further along there were the creepy shoemaker in the film The Red Shoes, and the master of the wax museum in Joseph Roth’s novel The Tale of the Thousand and Second Night, who creates illusionary monsters because that’s what people want. Then there are Thomas Mann’s hypnotist in “Mario and the Magician,” and Robertson Davies’s master-magician Eisengrim the Great, alias Paul Dempster, in the Deptford trilogy, and Bergman’s tormented hero in his film The Magician. They range from showmen out to make a buck to those who wish to manipulate the lives of others for fun and profit, to those who suspect their magic may in fact be real, and that the world of wonders they concoct really is a wonder, and a creator of wonder in others.

Let us then consider Shakespeare’s Prospero, for he is in a way the grand-daddy of all the rest. We know his story. Betrayed by his usurping brother, cast away with his daughter and his books – including, not incidentally, his books of magic – he fetches up on a tropical island, where he attempts to civilize the one native available to him, the witch-born Caliban, and when this fails keeps him under control by aid of enchantment. Along come the bad brother and the King of Naples and his court, shipwrecked on the island. Prospero calls up his familiar, the airborne elemental, Ariel, and proceeds to entice, confuse, and scare the pants off those erstwhile enemies whom Fate has now put into his power. His aim is not revenge, according to him – he wants to bring about their repentance: “They being penitent, / The sole drift of my purpose doth extend / Not a frown farther,” as he says. Once they are penitent, his own restoration as the Duke of Milan will follow, and also the marriage of his worthy daughter with the worthy son of the King, thus forestalling the proposed assassination of the latter. In short, Prospero uses his arts – magic arts, arts of illusion – not just for entertainment, though he does some of that as well, but for the purposes of moral and social improvement.

That being said, it must also be said that Prospero plays God. If you don’t happen to agree with him – as Caliban doesn’t – you’d call him a tyrant, as Caliban does. With just a slight twist, Prospero might be the Grand Inquisitor, torturing people for their own good. You might also call him a usurper – he’s stolen the island from Caliban, just as his own brother has stolen the dukedom from him; and you might call him a sorcerer, as Caliban also terms him. We – the audience – are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, and to see him as a benevolent despot. Or we are inclined most of the time. But Caliban is not without insight.

Without his art, Prospero would be unable to rule. It’s this that gives him his power. As Caliban points out, minus his books he’s nothing. So an element of fraud is present in this magician figure, right from the beginning: altogether, he’s an ambiguous gentleman. Well, of course he’s ambiguous – he’s an artist, after all. At the end of the play Prospero speaks the Epilogue, both in his own character and in that of the actor that plays him; and also in that of the author who has created him, yet another behind-the-scenes tyrannical controller of the action. Consider the words in which Proposer, alias the actor who plays him, alias Shakespeare who wrote his lines, begs the indulgence of the audience: “As you from crimes would pardoned be, / Let your indulgence set me free.” It wasn’t the last time that art and crime were ever equated. Prosper knows he’s been up to something, and that something is a little guilt-making.

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