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The World According to Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood in Conversation with Dahlia Lithwick, Photo Credit Matthew Redmond

Margaret Atwood had something to say about stirrups. 

It was about fifteen minutes into her wide-ranging conversation with lawyer and journalist Dahlia Lithwick, an event organized by the Stanford Storytelling Project and the Stanford Speakers Bureau, which took place before a packed audience in Memorial Auditorium, that Atwood brought up “the invention of stirrups for horses.” 

She paused to let confusion bubble up around the room, which of course it did. Then Atwood cupped both hands over her mouth, channeled her inner Orson Welles, and took us back through history.

“Once upon a time” she mock-boomed, much of the audience now giggling, “there were no stirrups for horses. You just had to sit on ’em, and you fell off quite a lot. Yes, but then they invented stirrups … Then you don’t fall off as much. So, it’s a military weapon. You can stay on your horse and the other people are falling off theirs, right? But then they find out about them, right? ‘We can use those.’”

This brief history lesson feels expressive of Atwood’s essence as a writer and an intellectual. For one thing, it describes a phenomenon that recurs throughout her reading of history and her work: the two-edged sword of technology cutting first one way and then, inevitably, the other as well. “Anything that you can use, your opponents can also use against you. And people ought to be cognizant of that fact before they set any really stupid precedents that can then be used against them. They always think that they will have a monopoly, which they don’t.” For Atwood, many of our world’s worst calamities result partly from our underestimating how versatile, how amenable to even the most appalling application, new technologies truly are. 

The same goes for old dogmas. Asked about the origin of The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood described the novel as a thought experiment rooted in hard social and political realities. In the 1980s, as the Reagan administration was bringing about a reactionary return to stifling gender politics, Atwood wondered how still more repressive measures might flourish in American society, and decided that they would come clothed in the Puritanism of the past. She is fascinated by the ways that religion has been wielded for radical change (abolition, civil rights) as well as authoritarian control. 

But the anecdote of the stirrups reveals another aspect of Atwood’s nature: she loves to throw you off guard, to stagger expectations at just the right moment. Introducing Atwood at the event’s outset, the Stanford Storytelling Project’s director, Dr. Jonah Willihnganz, said he had learned to think of her as “wicked,” not merely in the Bostonian sense of the word (think Ben Affleck’s oft-quoted line in Good Will Hunting), but in a more archaic sense that denotes transformative disruption. To be wicked is to radically alter others’ ways of seeing and being, to change, perhaps instantly, their relationship to the world, other people, and themselves. 

Atwood looked pleased as punch with this introduction, and it was hard not to see her share of the conversation with Lithwick as so much effortless confirmation of how wicked she is. It was even harder not to be impressed by the transdisciplinary tendencies of such an omnivorous intellect. “The border,” said Atwood’s countryman and peer, the poet Robert Kroetsch, “is a place where things are really happening.” A Canadian educated in America, who “grew up amongst the biologists” and is fascinated also by Scripture, Atwood has always derived imaginative force from the crossing and re-crossing borders: national, disciplinary, you name it. 

While the crowd in attendance varied widely in age, Atwood directed much of her commentary on contemporary issues toward the young. She stressed that things are not as dire as they sometimes appear—at least not for the moment: “You should be alert to the fact that some people in your society are attempting to cause chaos. You should be alert to it. But you’re not there yet.” Before Lithwick had even finished the question of how this young generation can cope with the sense of having inherited “a pile of crap,” Atwood hastened to point out that every generation has inherited such a pile. The way forward consists of choosing “practicalities rather than panic,” thinking your way through difficult situations, supporting libraries and becoming active in local politics, and, perhaps most essentially, not losing hope. “There’s no point in not having hope, because if you have no hope, you did nothing.”

At the close of their conversation, Lithwick deftly wondered aloud whether Atwood might have any further words of inspiration or guidance to offer her youngest admirers. Atwood brought up a friend of hers, Les Stroud, who stars in a show called Survivorman, in which he drops himself into “insalubrious locations” and escapes using few and meager supplies. In his book on survivalism, Stroud identifies the four attributes most helpful for surviving any disaster or harsh environment: knowledge and experience, the right equipment, willpower, and luck. “If you don’t have any of those things, you probably won’t get out. But you can get out with just two of them.”

Now addressing the assembled undergraduates more directly than ever, Atwood made the purpose of this anecdote movingly clear. 

“So, think about yourselves. You’re here, you’re students. You’re getting the knowledge and experience. You’re getting the right equipment. You need the willpower. And I’m wishing you the luck.”


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