Margaret Atwood meets René Girard in “The Handmaid’s Tale”

Rebecca Mead wrote an article for The New Yorker (April 17, 2017) on one of today’s most famous writers, Margaret Atwood, the Prophet of Dystopia. The article particularly focuses on Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale:The Handmaid's Tale (Cover)

In writing “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Atwood was scrupulous about including nothing that did not have a historical antecedent or a modern point of comparison. (She prefers that her future-fantasy books be labelled “speculative fiction” rather than “science fiction.” “Not because I don’t like Martians . . . they just don’t fall within my skill set,” she wrote in the introduction to “In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination,” an essay collection that she published in 2011.) […]

With the novel, she intended not just to pose the essential question of dystopian fiction—”Could it happen here?”—but also to suggest ways that it had already happened, here or elsewhere.

As Mead’s article shows, the timeliness of The Handmaid’s Tale could very well rely on the novel’s depiction of women as typical scapegoats:

The U.S. in 2017 does not show immediate signs of becoming Gilead, Atwood’s imagined theocratic American republic. President Trump is not an adherent of traditional family values; he is a serial divorcer. He is not known to be a man of religious faith; his Sundays are spent on the golf course.

What does feel familiar in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is the blunt misogyny of the society that Atwood portrays, and which Trump’s vocal repudiation of “political correctness” has loosed into common parlance today. Trump’s vilification of Hillary Clinton, Atwood believes, is more explicable when seen through the lens of the Puritan witch-hunts. “You can find Web sites that say Hillary was actually a Satanist with demonic powers,” she said. “It is so seventeenth-century that you can hardly believe it. It’s right out of the subconscious—just lying there, waiting to be applied to people.” The legacy of witch-hunting, and the sense of shame that it engendered, Atwood suggests, is an enduring American blight. “Only one of the judges ever apologized for the witch trials, and only one of the accusers ever apologized,” she said. Whenever tyranny is exercised, Atwood warns, it is wise to ask, “Cui bono?” Who profits by it? Even when those who survived the accusations levelled against them were later exonerated, only meagre reparations were made. “One of the keys to America is that your neighbor may be a Communist, a serial killer, or in league with satanic forces,” Atwood said. “You really don’t trust your fellow-citizens very much.”

 

In 2006 Margaret Atwood was interviewed by Bill Moyers for his Faith & Reason series. Talking about her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood already expressed the idea contained in the above mentioned interview, an idea that could have come straight from the work of René Girard. Here are some transcribed quotes from Margaret Atwood during her interview with Bill Moyers:

Quote 1:

“[The Handmaid’s Tale] is a blueprint of the kind of thing that human beings do when they’re put under a certain sort of pressure. And I made it a rule for the writing of this book that I would not put anything into it that human societies have not already done.”

Quote 2:

Salem Witch Trial Bridget Bishop HangedThe Salem witchcraft trial is in my opinion one of the foundation events of American history. And it was an event where you can call it a clash between mythology and politics if you like. Because it depended very much on a belief in the invisible world. Cotton Mather, who was a very prominent divine at the time, wrote a book called The Wonders of the Invisible World, which was all about the behavior of witches.

Bridget Bishop TombstoneAnd the devil. And this is what people believed. They weren’t being hypocrites when they did these things. They were actually scared of witchcraft and the devil. And they believed that the devil could work his way into their community through witches, so it was serious business. But it was also a hysteria. The surprise to me has been all of the stuff I learned long ago. I thought, ‘Nobody’s going to be interested in this again. You know what good is knowing 17th-century theology ever going to be to me? Or anybody else. Surely nobody’s interested.’ And now suddenly it’s all come back. Because things do go around in cycles.”

Quote 3:

“I think the Salem witchcraft trial is the kind of event that replays itself throughout history when cultures come under stress. When societies come under stress these kinds of things happen. People start looking around for essentially human sacrifices. They start looking around for somebody they can blame. And they feel if only they can demolish that person, then everything’s going to be okay. And it’s of course never true, but there are these periods in history. If things aren’t going well, it must be the Communists. Let’s have Joe McCarthy. You know things aren’t going well. It must be them liberals. Whoever it may be.”

In the words of René Girard (from The Scapegoat – thanks to Brandon J. Brown for providing the quote): “Ultimately, the persecutors always convince themselves that a small number of people, or even a single individual, despite his relative weakness, is extremely harmful to the whole of society. The stereotypical accusation justifies and facilitates this belief by ostensibly acting the role of mediator.”

And here’s one last quote from Margaret Atwood on mimetic rivalry:

“What has amazed me is the theocracy that I’ve put in Handmaid’s Tale never calls itself Christian. And in fact it never says anything about Christianity whatsoever. Its slogans, etc., etc., are all from the Old Testament. So what has amazed me was the rapidity with which a number of Christians put up their hands and said, “This is an insult to us.” What did it mean? It meant they hadn’t read the book. You know they hadn’t read the book.

Because in the book the regime does what all such [totalitarian] regimes immediately do. It eliminates the opposition. The Bolsheviks got rid of their nearest ideological neighbors, the Mensheviks, as soon as they had the power. They killed the lot. You know? Too close to them. They got rid of any other socialists. They wanted to be the only true church brand of socialists. So any theocracy in this country would immediately eliminate all other competing religions if they could. So the Quakers in my book have gone underground.”

For more on women as scapegoats, the gradual Biblical revelation of the scapegoat mechanism and the so-called mimetic theory of René Girard, suggested reading includes:

“The Devils Are Come Down Upon Us”: Myth, History and the Witch as Scapegoat (by Martha J. Reineke)

Pleasantville and Biblical Feminism

A Woman’s Uncanny Valley

Temptresses

The Handmaid's Tale Art Installation (Paula Scher and Abbott Miller)

Here are some highlights from Martha Reineke’s above mentioned brilliant article “The Devils Are Come Down Upon Us: Myth, History and the Witch as Scapegoat:

When we ask of a woman accused of witchcraft, “Was she who her accuser said she was?” and, by appeal to analyses such as those reviewed in this essay, gather evidence, put her on trial again, and pronounce her innocent, we play a strange game with truth. We say that the accuser, speaking as he did about demons, diabolic contagion, and the witch’s pact, was unaware of what he was doing: he was frustrated by changing marriage patterns, confused by economic instability, angered by plague and famine, and embattled over claims to political turf. Angered, frustrated, confused, and embattled, he picked out an innocent woman and killed her. What we do not say in all of this language is that this man was a persecutor. The reason we do not say this is that the language of witch persecution had only one home: sacred myth. If we alter the language of witch persecution, severing it from its roots in myth in order to render its meaning in other terms, we will never unpack the meaning of the word “scapegoat.”

[…]

Two stories highlight René Girard’s analysis of the stereotypes of persecution. In one story a Jewish woman is depicted contemplating two pigs to whom she has just given birth. In another story, a woman has intercourse with a dog and gives birth to six puppies. Her tribe banishes her and she is forced to hunt for her own food. The first story is from a 1575 German text describing the Jewish proclivity for witchcraft. The second is from a myth of the Dogrib people. Each story bears the marks of the stereotypes of persecution. The background for each, explicit in the former and implicit in the latter, is crisis. The women flaunt cultural distinctions, engaging in bestiality. Because they are women, they bear essential victim marks. Moreover, they fail to differ as they should from others, inviting the scapegoat mechanism. That lack of difference is implicit in the former story of the Jewish woman and explicit in the Dogrib myth, which tells us that the puppy children are really human, having the ability to remove their fur coats at will and reenter the world of human society.

With these examples, we begin to see that lines separating history and myth are arbitrary in stories of persecution. The structure of persecution is indifferent to such categorical distinctions, for the Dogrib and the author of the 1575 German text are telling the same story. Yet we want to read them differently. We want to deny the mythic meaning of the story from Germany and translate its meaning, following rules of witchcraft interpretation represented by scholars such as Midelfort, Klaits, and Larner.

[…]

The key dynamic of the witches’ ordeal is not “brainwashing,” but “ritual.” And the end to be achieved is not psychological catharsis or successful thought reform, but the expiation of sin and the restoration of cosmic order.

This mythic model accounts best for an accuser’s confidence in the truthfulness of his victim’s confession. How could he believe that the witch had real power, that all initiative came from her, that she alone was responsible for the cure as she was for the sickness in the society? Proper neither to political ideology nor to psychological thought control, the logic of his discourse expressed the sacred and appealed to a pattern of causality proper to it: expiatory powers had to cross the threshold of death, and only that which was transcendent and supernatural could cross that line. The witch had to be made to appeal to powers beyond herself if, at her death, those powers were to live on after her. The woman accused of witchcraft had to be tortured and killed because only those actions followed the trail of death and summoned the transcendent powers of good to do battle with the powers of evil, so that sin could be vanquished and godly order reign again.

[…]

If we resist the mythic reading of the witch craze, the persecutors cease to be persecutors. If the persecutors were not persecutors, then the women whose innocence we wish to proclaim were not victims. We must read the tales of persecution through the eyes of the persecutors because in their eyes alone lies the full structure of persecution undisguised.

We will not save the victims of the witch craze by snatching them from the grip of history to put them on trial again and to declare them the innocent victims of economic unrest, political change, or psychological manipulation. Rather we will save them by putting their persecutors on trial. Such a trial will be as much or more the task of the theologian as of the historian or sociologist, for the primary texts of human sacrifice are religious texts whose myths plumb the human spirit at its innermost depths. To truly challenge the persecutors we must challenge them there, on their own turf. Only then will we be able to name the myth that has fueled their violence and to free the victims from the place of their incarceration. Only then will we know enough about the persecutor — his motives and his weapons — to condemn him. We must turn to myth if we are to grasp the persecutory structure at its roots and break its power.

If we are to protect victims of scapegoating we must examine why the religions of the West and, in particular, Christianity, have been religions of sacrifice. We must find out why humans live by myths of persecution, and we must seek alternate myths to live by that can account for crisis, anomie, and angst in human life without need for the expiatory sacrifice. Vigilance is required to protect victims: past and potential. But we practice vigilance on behalf of victims only by turning toward the persecutors and the myths by which they live, seeking them out wherever they may be. Ironically, faithfulness to history is possible only if we embrace myth.

[…]

In a movement directly opposed to that taken by the physicians who viewed the new theory of the plague as part of a persecutory myth, and sought real causes elsewhere, we deny to the witch craze its mythic elements, confident in the truths offered by the social sciences. Both we and the medieval physicians have denied myth in order to make room for truth. The medieval physicians got it backwards. Have we?

My confidence in the adequacy of the discourse of the social sciences to the phenomenon of witch hunting has been profoundly challenged by Girard, who writes that, “if our ancestors had thought in the same mode as do today’s masters, they would never have put an end to the witch trials.”  Challenged by his vision, I believe increasingly that, only if feminist scholars look at the mythic investment humans have in the scapegoat, will we be able to come to terms with the terrors of persecution and recount our foresisters’ stories in memoriam.

Even so, when we work to redeem the past on behalf of a future freed from terror, we must wonder whether, in our own time, if humans have not lost the capacity to create scapegoats, we may have lost the capacity to recognize that a scapegoat who has no expiatory powers is no scapegoat. Unless we can confront that problem directly, and take its lessons to heart, the risk of new witch hunts remains high, for we continue to live in a society that searches for scapegoats and lives by the scapegoat myth, even as its capacity to recognize myth fades from memory. The tragedy of this cultural amnesia may be not only that our society can recognize everyone’s scapegoats but its own. The tragedy may be also that, no longer at home in a mythic universe, yet still in need of scapegoats, those who live in the modern age, more than those of the past, may seek them in evermore virulent ways.

 

One comment

  1. Benjamin David Steele · 11 Days Ago

    “So what has amazed me was the rapidity with which a number of Christians put up their hands and said, “This is an insult to us.” What did it mean? It meant they hadn’t read the book. You know they hadn’t read the book.”

    I don’t doubt they didn’t read the book. Even so, they had heard something about the story in the book. And maybe they uncomfortably recognized themselves in that mirror. It is largely irrelevant that many Christians might become victims themselves, if and when theocrats came to power.

    That wouldn’t stop Christians from supporting theocrats, no more than it stopped Christians from supporting the Nazis, even as the Nazis only cared about Christianity to the degree it helped gain and enforce power. Sadly, such insight about ultimate consequences didn’t stop mainstream liberals from siding with the Nazis against the left-wingers. That is how the German Revolution ended, as much a casualty of liberalism as of Nazism.

    There was an underlying message in the tv version of the Handmaid’s Tale, a message that I have yet to see anyone else point out. The younger generation had grown complacent, especially the comfortable liberal class feminists. They didn’t take seriously the threat and, instead, let themselves be lulled by the comforts of capitalism. They couldn’t see how authoritarianism first hits those on the bottom of society and so couldn’t imagine how they might be the next to be targeted.

    There is a severe left-wing criticism against the liberal class buried in that story. I made a similar point a couple of years ago in reference to the Handmaid’s Tale:

    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2016/10/29/depths-of-darkness-glimmers-of-hope/

    “It’s not just the fringe Evangelicals. I know some local Christians who read Stephen McDowell’s Monumental in their Bible study group (by the way, they used to regularly watch Glenn Beck). Living in the same respectable liberal college town as I do, they go to a mainline church with a liberal minister who recently began promoting gay acceptance. Their Bible study group is a mix of people, mostly moderate and mainstream as is found in a middle class Midwestern town — unlikely any Reconstructionist theocrats among them. Yet they were reading this text that comes out of the right-wing Dominionist movement, a text written by a guy who has advocated for Biblical slavery.

    “If someone like McDowell gets discussed in a Bible study group from fairly liberal church in a very liberal town, imagine where else in the country this gets a foothold. It’s not that these local Christians are going to seek to enslave me and my Pagan friends. But the Dominionist theology has many aspects that are as disturbing or simply problematic. The very premise of Dominionism is the opposite of a free democratic society. Still, you don’t need to go as far as Biblical slavery to see the dangers of reactionary politics, right-wing authoritarianism, and historical revisionism.

    “It makes one wonder how close we could easily come to the world portrayed by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale. This doesn’t require the majority of the population to be right-wing Evangelicals, much less ranting apocalyptic theocrats. Most authoritarian governments don’t come to power through majority support. The conditions just have to be right and the population has to be in a great enough state of fear, distress, and uncertainty. Some divide and conquer could help, along with perceived enemies to scapegoat, foreign and internal. Even the slow creep of authoritarianism is bad enough, as we’ve seen in recent decades. The stage has been set for a full authoritarian takeover. […]

    “Sometimes it’s the fears we don’t see coming that get us. While we worry about the religious right’s support of Israel, as part of their Apocalyptic aspirations of bringing on the End Times, we can forget that the mainstream political left has its own designs for Israel that may lead us to an apocalyptic World War III (or simply an ever more destabilized, violent world). Pick your apocalypse. Or maybe it’s the same apocalypse, with different rhetoric.”

    Liked by 1 person

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