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And "civilized" also means being corrupted by rampant economic temptations and in the process, ruining the land; and the narrator goes to great lengths to show that she "...wishes to not be human," which is a linking of "guilt and self-knowledge," according to Janice Fiamengo's essay (in The American Review of Canadian Studies). Essayist Fiamengo quotes Atwood from a 1972 interview (Surfacing was published in 1972) in which the author says that if "you define yourself as intrinsically innocent...then you have a lot of problems, because in fact you aren't." The narrator wishes "...to be not human," Atwood said, "because being human inevitably involves being guilty."
She's not likely saying that we're all guilty due to "original sin," but rather because we as the human race bear the responsibility for the misbehavior and inhumanity of those who came before us, such as the Europeans who "conquered" North America and while doing so slaughtered untold thousands of natives and drove a dagger into the heart of their aboriginal culture.
And, Fiamengo goes on, "What is the source of this guilt?" Indeed, given that there are myriad "...provocative and theoretically sophisticated" - and deep - psychological studies of Surfacing, still, the narrator's guilt "remains under-examined, with critics content to assume that it stems from her abortion, a resolvable moral and textual problem." Or, Fiamengo asks, do critics see the guilt in Atwood's Surfacing "...as part of the human condition generally?" Yes, Fiamengo continues, the connection has been made "between the narrator's personal journey and Canada's postcolonial anxieties," but scholars "have not always recognized the complexity of Atwood's representation of the national psyche."
From a different perspective, Cook expresses the thought that the Canadian psyche is wrapped up in "the immensity of the land, the husbanding of resources"; and part of that psyche is a response to the traditional portrayal of Canada as "the junior partner, first to Britain, then to the United States - a willing partner, to be sure - but deferring to those with access to more resources, larger populations, greater appetites.")
While not necessarily bolstering this reader's argument that the narrator herself - not the novel necessarily - is a metaphor for Canada and the concerned consciousness that fuels a sense of guilt in the more sensitive souls, Fiamengo goes into the question of guilt produced by the exploitation of Native peoples and resources. Guilt usually piggybacks on some kind of denial. David, a friend of the narrator's lover Joe, is in denial. David is perfectly willing to point the finger at American history and remind all, Fiamengo writes (Fiamengo 143), as to how "the black slave's unpaid labor" was the source of American prosperity. But "he does not acknowledge the exploitation of native peoples and resources as the root of the Canadian economy."
Even the narrator at this point seems to get into the denial act - or she is just mimicking the attitudes of early European interlopers into wild Canada? - as she explains that her father's move back to the boondocks of Canada sounds like the early settlers from Europe, who, Fiamengo quotes the narrator as saying, "...arrived when there was nothing but forest and no ideologies but the ones they brought with them."
In other words, the native peoples were empty of thoughts, desires and opinions? That would appear to be condescension personified. And continuing on with an examination of guilt, Surfacing was published in 1972, just three years after iconoclastic Canadian Harold Cardinal's book, The Unjust Society; Cardinal's book was, Fiamengo writes, "a direct rebuttal to [former Prime Minister] Pierre Trudeau's slogan of the 'Just Society.'" Indeed, in his book Cardinal "documented government failure to honor its treaty obligations and to recognize aboriginal rights," according to Fiamengo, who alludes to Cardinal's response to Trudeau's "infamous White Paper" on how Canada should treat aboriginal peoples. Trudeau, who was the darling of many U.S. media members during his tenure as Prime Minister, had actually created, Cardinal charged in his book, "...a thinly disguised program of extermination through assimilation."
Beyond that, Cardinal, whose writing it can be presumed was read thoroughly by activist / author Atwood - who was and is certainly an "A" student in matters of Canadian nationalism and cultural diversity - attacked Canadians' supposed "fair-minded and tolerant" self-image. He also questioned the sincerity of his nation's expressed concern over Third World hunger and racial issues in the America."..when Canadians ignore the plight of the Indian or Metis or Eskimo in their own country."
So, given the popularity of that 1960s-era book, at a time when Canadian opposition to the U.S. involvement in the blood-soaked Vietnam war rang shrill and loud, and a spirited national dialogue was occurring in Canada during that period with reference to the treatment of native peoples, it is reasonable to conjecture that Atwood expressed her morality - not just on the uncivilized "civilization" shoved down Canada's throat by America, but rather on the guilt discussed herein - through the actions and words of her narrator. And that connection having been offered, a connection which is certainly not a unique approach to Atwood at all, and doesn't claim to be, let's now be clear that this paper is asserting the narrator's guilt is identified as a metaphor for Canada's history of unfairness towards its native peoples, toward the deforestation of primeval forests, and the letting in - hence, the validating - of corrupt American values and culture.
And so, the position of this reader is not that the supposed victimization of women (through the narrator's feminist leanings, through her own failed romantic relationships, and her locked-in position as a good sexual partner for Joe, who is good in bed but offers little else) is designed to parallel the Canada's colonial experience (as many critics allege). But rather the point is that the postcolonial layers of guilt that thinking people in Canada (and elsewhere) must cope with or be in denial about is reflected - and personified - through the narrator herself.
And in a bigger brushstroke of color splashed across the canvas of this novel, why couldn't it be presented that the abortion (whether it happened or not) the narrator feels so guilty about is actually a metaphor for the way in which native peoples were flushed out of the womb of a virgin Canada? Like an unwanted fetus, the natives (similar to what happened in colonial America and elsewhere in the British Empire) were cruelly, rudely, coldly and surgically removed from the womb and cast aside to rot. The narrator doesn't tell Anna (page 45) about the abortion; and when she explains to readers that she has no photos of the baby "...peering out from a crib or...through the bars of a playpen," that presents an image of a prison, something trapped that wants and needs to be released. Does that phantom dead baby represent a dying or dead primeval Canada? Does it paint a picture of a Canada that is imprisoned by history's legacy of cultural unfairness towards First World people and of brutally arbitrary colonial chains?
I have to behave as though it doesn't exist," the narrator goes on, in reference to her abortion; "...it was taken away from me, exported, deported...sliced off from me like a Siamese twin, my own flesh canceled." And so was innocent Canada canceled, it should be noted.
And at the end of the novel, when the narrator believes she's pregnant with a new baby, is it the symbolic rebirth of an uncorrupted Canadian culture - of a fresh clean evolutionary cycle being launched to replace what was aborted? When it comes to Atwood's narratives and symbolism, is anything too far out in left field to be possible?
On page 197 the narrator speaks of being a "time-traveler, the primeval one who will have to learn, shape of goldfish now in my belly, undergoing its watery changes." And the theory expressed in the paragraph above is given strength by her words on page 198, the last chapter; "If I die, it dies, if I starve it starves with me. It might be the first one, the first true human; it must be born, allowed." And of course at this point she doesn't really know if there is a baby inside of her, but the protagonist can have her dream of newness and her passion to place an evolutionary fresh slide into the projector of Canadian cultural and ecological history.
Closer Glance at Atwood, Feminism and Sex in the Novel:
It's no secret that Margaret Atwood mixes her feminism, nationalism, and progressive politics into a stew of poignant protest whenever the chance arrives. For example, writer Peter Wilkins ("Defense of the Realm: Canada's Relationship to The United States in Margaret Atwood's Surfacing") points to Atwood's part sexual and part nationalistic testimony (in 1988) before the Canadian House of Commons regarding her opposition to NAFTA (the…[continue]
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