Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lecture 17

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Wk 9 - Mon (29/9), 3-4 pm lecture: HSB1

Margaret Atwood: Cat's Eye (1988) -



It was taken some time ago.
At first it seems to be
a smeared
print: blurred lines and grey flecks
blended with the paper;

then, as you scan
it, you see in the left-hand corner
a thing that is like a branch: part of a tree
(balsam or spruce) emerging
and, to the right, halfway up
what ought to be a gentle
slope, a small frame house.

In the background there is a lake,
and beyond that, some low hills.

(The photograph was taken
the day after I drowned.

I am in the lake, in the centre
of the picture, just under the surface.

it is difficult to say where
precisely, or to say
how large or small I am:
the effect of water
on light is a distortion

but if you look long enough,
you will be able to see me.)

from The Circle Game (1966)
[Margaret Atwood, Eating Fire: Selected Poetry 1965-1995
(London: Virago, 1998) 2.]

"In a riddle whose answer is chess, what is the only word that must not be used?"

I thought for a moment.

The word 'chess'," I replied.

"Exactly," Albert said. "The Garden of Forking Paths is a huge riddle, or parable, whose subject is time; that secret purpose forbids Ts'ui Pen the merest mention of its name. To always omit one word, to employ awkward metaphors and obvious circumlocutions, is perhaps the most emphatic way of calling attention to that word. ... I have compared hundreds of manuscripts, I have corrected the errors introduced through the negligence of copyists, I have reached a hypothesis for the plan of that chaos, I have reestablished, or believe I've reestablished, its fundamental order - I have translated the entire work; and I know that not once does the word 'time' appear."
- Jorge Luis Borges, "The Garden of Forking Paths." Collected Fictions. Trans. Andrew Hurley. New York: Penguin, 1999. 119-28.

What's the missing word in Atwood's novel? Certainly not "time" ...

In physics and other sciences, time is considered one of the few fundamental quantities. Time is used to define other quantities – such as velocity – and defining time in terms of such quantities would result in circularity of definition.

An operational definition of time, wherein one says that observing a certain number of repetitions of one or another standard cyclical event (such as the passage of a free-swinging pendulum) constitutes one standard unit such as the second, has a high utility value in the conduct of both advanced experiments and everyday affairs of life. The operational definition leaves aside the question whether there is something called time, apart from the counting activity just mentioned, that flows and that can be measured.

Among prominent philosophers, there are two distinct viewpoints on time. One view is that time is part of the fundamental structure of the universe, a dimension in which events occur in sequence. Time travel, in this view, becomes a possibility as other "times" persist like frames of a film strip, spread out across the time line. Sir Isaac Newton subscribed to this realist view, and hence it is sometimes referred to as Newtonian time.

The opposing view is that time does not refer to any kind of "container" that events and objects "move through", nor to any entity that "flows", but that it is instead part of a fundamental intellectual structure (together with space and number) within which humans sequence and compare events. This second view, in the tradition of Gottfried Leibniz and Immanuel Kant, holds that time is neither an event nor a thing, and thus is not itself measurable nor can it be traveled.

Quotes from Errol Morris, dir. A Brief History of Time (1991):
  • Where did the universe come from?
  • Will time ever come to an end?
  • Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

This documentary is a biographical exploration of the life of Stephen Hawking, not a version of his 1988 bestseller of the same name.

Narrative Time

  • How do you represent duration?
  • Does the time spent exeriencing it equal the time elapsed in a narrative?
  • Why does Atwood use an unmediated present tense for the then, and a mixture of past and present tense for the now in her book?

We're told that she began the book in 1964: "The book is sometimes seen as containing autobiographical elements. For example, like Risley, Atwood is the daughter of an entomologist. However, Atwood has rarely, if ever, commented on the similarities directly."

That doesn't quite agree with what we heard last week from Atwood's own mouth, courtesy of Agnieszka. There she denied writing "endless pieces of autobiography" - an interesting choice of phrase.

She also said "We got a real dish of Freud, so we are told that the early years were very, very important," but perhaps there are other ways to take Freud. Let's consider these lines from W. H. Auden’s "In Memory of Sigmund Freud" (1939):

He wasn’t clever at all: he merely told
The unhappy Present to recite the Past
Like a poetry lesson till sooner
Or later it faltered at the line where ...

Long ago the accusations had begun ...

- Auden, Selected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (London: Faber, 1979) 92.

That's one way to read it. It certainly fits the almost archaeological narrative structure of the book.

Another way to approach the structure of Atwood's novel also has to do with time. One can draw analogies with Proust's famous experience with a madeleine cake dipped in a cup of herbal tea.

What are the memory triggers in Cat's Eye? One, of course, is:

The Blue Cat's Eye Marble:
[all quotes from Margaret Atwood, Cat's Eye. 1988. London: Virago, 1992]

pp. 397-98: Finding the red purse she used to take to church. "I look into it, and see my life entire."

Another thing I get for Christmas is a red plastic purse, oval in shape, with a gold-coloured clasp and a handle at the top end. It’s soft and pliable inside the house, but hardens outside in the cold, so that things rattle in it. I keep my allowance in it, five cents a week. (55)

The cat's eyes are my favorites ... My favourite one is blue. I put it in my red plastic purse to keep it safe. I risk my other cat’s eyes to be shot at, but not this one. (62-63)

Her brother buries a jar of marbles in the ravine. “He tells me he’s done these things but he doesn’t say why, or where the jars are buried.” (63)
I take the blue cat’s eye marble out of my red plastic purse and leave it in my bureau drawer, and put the nickel my mother’s given me for the collection plate into my purse instead. (97)

The Ravine:

Shortly after meeting Cordelia (named after the youngest daughter of King Lear, with two sisters called Perdita and Miranda), they walk over the bridge across the ravine:
"Cordelia says that because the stream flows right out of the cemetery it's made of dissolved dead people." (75)

Cordelia digs a hole in her backyard. (106)

They shut Elaine [aka – the Catholic – Mary Queen of Scots] in the hole. (107-8)

She starts to peel her feet. (114)

She fears for baby Brian at her friend's hands. (132-5)

She's aware that Cordelia is "driven by the urge to see how far she can go. She's backing me towards an edge, like the edge of a cliff: one step back, another step, and I'll be over and falling" (154).

However, by now the cat's eye marble has become a charm. (141)

I keep my cat's eye in my pocket, where I can hold onto it. It rests in my hand, valuable as a jewel, looking out through bone and cloth with its impartial gaze. With the help of its power I retreat back into my eyes. Up ahead of me are Cordelia, Grace and Carol. I look at their shapes as they walk, the way shadow moves from one leg to another, the blocks of colour, a red square of cardigan, a blue triangle of skirt. They’re like puppets up ahead, small and clear. I could see them or not, at will. (155)

She thinks she can control them by turning them into problems in perspective: Art problems. But maybe that’s a bit beyond even this talisman’s powers …

The Madonna:

On pp.182-3 Elaine picks up a picture of the Virgin Mary on the street. As a result:

I can no longer pray to God so I will pray to the Virgin Mary instead ... My prayers are wordless, defiant, dry-eyed, desperate, without hope. Nothing happens. I squeeze my fists into my eyes until they hurt. For an instant I think I see a face, then a splash of blue, but now all I can see is the heart. There it is, bright red, rounded, with a dark light around it, a blackness like luminous velvet. Gold comes out from the centre, then fades. It's the heart all right. it looks like my red plastic purse. (183-84).

She can't pray to God because on pp. 179-80 Mrs. Smeath called her a heathen, and made it clear that she both knows and approves of what the girls are doing to her.

pp. 187-89. The primal scene in the ravine.

pp.190-91. Her mother finds her.

p. 192. Cordelia rings her, but when she goes back to school, she finds her power is gone.

p. 203: she puts the marble away in the purse: for good, as she thinks.

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