MARGARET ATWOOD — THE TESTAMENTS — 2019
This second — and probably last — volume has been expected for quite some time to see how the original author could deal with the end of Gilead, because at the end of the first volume which was absolutely open as for the future the only question in the mind of the reader was about the end of Gilead. How can such a puritan Christian dictatorship come to an end? From inside? From outside? From both sides? Who could be the ending forces inside and outside? How could these forces make Gilead fall?
In this volume, Margaret Atwood answers all these questions but with such a distance that we do not have any detail about the fall itself. This year when we celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall that came from inside mainly, though two insides, the East German inside with the fall of Honecker and the Russian or Soviet inside with Gorbachev. In this case, the fall of the wall that will bring the fall of the regime came from an extremely long citizen movement for democracy and freedom in East Germany led by the rank and file (mostly) of the SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, the main dominant party, followed by the simple unaffiliated people who might have been, like Angela Merkel, members of some small token parties in DDR. From the second inside, the main push came from Gorbachev, the leader of the main ally of the East German regime, main ally, and supporter. We could also consider the fact a similar regime in Hungary played the role of a wide-open leaking or running faucet that enabled a lot of East Germans to cross to Austria. But there was little that could be comparable to what Margaret Atwood imagines with Gilead, which is, by the way, a Biblical name. Genesis 31:25: “25 Then Laban overtook Jacob. Now Jacob had pitched his tent in the mount: and Laban with his brethren pitched in the mount of Gilead.” Genesis 31:47–48: “47 And Laban called it Jegarsahadutha: but Jacob called it Galeed.48 And Laban said, This heap is a witness between me and thee this day. Therefore was the name of it called Galeed;” Numbers 32:1: “1 Now the children of Reuben and the children of Gad had a very great multitude of cattle: and when they saw the land of Jazer, and the land of Gilead, that, behold, the place was a place for cattle;” 1 Kings 17:1: “1 And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, said unto Ahab, As the Lord God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.” Note this Elijah or Eli for short is one essential character in Stephen King’s Children of the Corn (1978), and it is a basic reference in The Dark Tower: “Gilead is the capital city of the barony of New Canaan in In-world. Its most important residents are Roland Deschain, Steven Deschain, Gabrielle Deschain, Cortland Andrus, Abel Vannay, and its main appearances are in The Gunslinger (1982) and Wizard and Glass (1997), adapted from stephenking.fandom.com. Apart from the last reference all others are anterior to Margaret Atwood’s original novel, and since the action is mainly situated in Maine and other New England states in the USA, she could not ignore these references, not to mention the Bible since she uses the place name herself.
This set of references is not here to disparage Margaret Atwood’s work but to show that she wrote within a context and the horror she describes in the original novel and this sequel to it, not to mention the horror depicted in the various adaptations for the cinema and more recently for television, is quite comparable to the horror you find in Children of the Corn, though not at all in The Dark Tower which is more of a long picaresque heroic fantasy saga. In the Bible, there is also quite a lot of horror similar to that of Margaret Atwood. Margaret Atwood uses in this volume a Biblical episode from Judges 19 to 21 concerning the war between all the men from eleven tribes of Israel against the men of one tribe, the Benjamites. But it is necessary to look at it more closely. She calls it “the story of the Concubine Cut into Twelve pieces.” (page 78) It appears here in the official version of the Gilead Republic in which Aunt Vidala, a vicious cruel fundamentalist Aunt, pretends the concubine “deserved” the punishment of being raped by a gang of people and being cut in twelves pieces by her own master. “She shouldn’t have run away.” But just afterward another Aunt comes in to pacify Becka who took the story very badly, and this Aunt Estrée suggests: “The concubine was sorry for what she had done, and she wanted to make amends, so she sacrificed herself to keep the kind traveler from being killed by those wicked men.” (page 79–80). Margaret Atwood though puts in-between these two interpretations a short summary of the whole three-chapter story that comes from Judges 19 to 21, whose reference is only identified page 302. The summary makes the story gruesome. “The traveler cut the concubine’s body into twelve pieces [after having found the concubine lying on the threshold of the house in the morning dead due to the severe collective intercourse she was submitted to] and sent one to each of the Tribes of Israel, calling on them to avenge the misuse of his concubine by executing the murderers, and how the Tribe of Benjamin [to which the murderers belonged] refused because the killers were Benjaminites? In the war of vengeance that followed, the Tribe of Benjamin was almost obliterated, and their wives and children were all killed. Then the other eleven tribes reasoned that to obliterate the twelfth tribe would be bad, so they stopped killing. The remaining Benjaminites couldn’t marry any other women officially to make more children since the rest of the tribes had taken an oath against that, but they were told they could steal some girls and marry them unofficially, which is what they did.” (page 79)
Note the term “handmaid” is used in this long episode in Judges 19:19 to speak of the concubine, and it is not a simple equivalent to a servant. It implies servants, and a handmaid is a maid, hence a servant, were at the free disposal of the men who controlled them. This explains that there is no crime from the Benjaminites requiring the girl who was supposed to be given to them. The master of such a handmaid or any of his servants could do what he wanted with them, like Abraham’s wife who gives Abraham her own servant, or handmaid, in order for Abraham to have a child she could not provide. This element is not used by Margaret Atwood. This community is regressing to the state of affairs in the Old Testament without changing the slightest comma and the smallest interpretation detail. Handmaids are justified by this very episode and if the handmaid is killed, by her own promiscuity or fornication authorized by her master, it is nothing but justice, and in a way a sacrifice to protect the master. This reveals the regressive level of these Gileadeans. They are regressing to a social level anterior to the fundamental turn in Biblical history represented by King David and King Solomon, which seems to be normal for them because those two kings are definitely attached to Judaism because of David’s star that is also a symbol of Solomon’s wisdom, not to mention the Song of Songs. They reject this Jewish interpretation, or even twisting distortion, and prefer the older version of total submission of women and a fundamentally hierarchical and segregative social order in which God is the only reference. “God always made the punishment fit the crime.” (page 79) And this is a least in open contradiction with what Aunt Lydia writes: “To err is human, to forgive, divine. As someone once remarked” and Commander Judd replies: “You are so erudite.” (page 179) The someone is Alexander Pope, and Margaret Atwood seems to be deeply nourished by his wise poetry, though she avoids the witty racism of the man when he says: “Lo! The poor Indian, whose untutored mind sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind.” Pretty soon after him the poets were to all turn Indian altogether with Sturm und Drang and Romanticism but for sure Margaret Atwood’s characters are no Indians. Nature is not exactly the confidant of her characters.
But in a later passage, the story of the Concubine Cut into Twelve Pieces is reinterpreted when Agnes or Aunt Victoria tells us of the real story she found in the Bible when she was finally authorized to access this book, too sacred to be entrusted to unskilled minds, meaning skilled minds believed the faith of Gilead. But the change of interpretation was only the refutation of Aunt Astrée’s heroic conception in favor of a clear vision of punishment. And yet the real meaning is missed. This kind of problem, the free use of a handmaid, a servant, authorized by her master, and the subsequent gross dismembering and war of eleven tribes against one, is not really captured the way it is in the Bible itself in the very last verse of the Book of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel, and every man did as it pleased.” (Judges 21:25) and this is the best justification of any authority, authoritarian power. There cannot be any social or political peace and harmony if there is not a central power, in a way or another, imposing its own rule over everyone. It would have been so much pertinent if the author had used the contradictory reference to Sodom and Gomorrah. But of course, the only common point would be the non-respect of hospitality rules by the men outside the house, but these outside people requested two angels they took for men and thus had a homosexual project, and in spite of Lot putting his two virginal daughters on the table, or on the sidewalk, the people outside kept their demand. We all know the next episode. Lot, his wife and his two daughters are authorized to escape by God who destroys the two cities. Unluckily Lot’s wife looks back and she is turned into a block of salt. That’s where the real lies of the Republic of Gilead are: the broken rules are those of hospitality, but then the giving of the two pure daughters by their father would be very shocking to these puritanical Gileadeans. But what about their insistence to get the two angels/men? That’s a theme that is very carefully never alluded to in Margaret Atwood’s books. And that makes the Biblical reference and even discussion at the level of interpretation very weak.
The official discourse of Gilead why the old society had to be gotten rid of, as expressed by Commander Judd page 174 is at least evasive and even clearly superficial since he is trying to force an ex-judge to pass on their side and accept to organize the “separate sphere for women.” (page 175) Here is his summary: “We have seen the results of too much laxity, too much hunger for material luxuries, and the absence of the meaningful structures that lead to a balanced and stable society. Our birth rate — for various reasons, but most significantly through the selfish choices of women — is in free fall. You do agree that human beings are at their most unhappy when in the midst of chaos? That rules and boundaries promote stability and thus happiness?” (page 174) That is very weak. All fundamentalists of any religion or philosophy insist heavily on the elements they consider both against the rule of God and against nature which is the same for them since the natural order was established by God. Too much laxity is by far too weak and the rejection of consumerism is also very weak. We are expecting here the rejection of free sex, of any kind of sex that is not narrowly heterosexual and procreative, in fact of any sex that is not with only one objective, to procreate. We are surprised in this society that the handmaids are only for the elite. How then can the Econo-people, wives, and husbands reproduce if the general explanation of a total loss of female fertility is the explanation of the institution of handmaids? This explanation is only feasible if handmaid’s survival is provided to ALL men in Gilead, which is not the case. How then can only the elite be concerned? What about the wasteful use of women as Marthas and Aunts who are banned from procreation, be they fertile or not? In this second volume these shortcomings are dramatically visible and that takes away of lot of credibility. So, Commander Judd’s program for the first three aunts he recruited at the very start of Gilead is pure overuse of meaningless words: “We want you to help us to organize the separate sphere — the sphere of women. With, as its goal, the optimal amount of harmony, both civic and domestic, and the optimal number of offspring.” (page 175) Handmaids for the elite would not be enough, far from it. And there never is one other concrete suggestion to get the “optimal number of offspring.”
But the most mysterious Biblical quotation is Psalm 90. It reveals a Furious, angry, punishing God that does not accept — never mind forgive — any mistake on the side of men, mistakes, that are called sins of course, but the psalm does not even justify God’s wrath: it is his privilege. I will expand the quotation a little bit, the real quotation in Margaret Atwood’s book is in red bold italics, the same as the quotation in the book.
[Prayer Of Moses, man of God]
1 Lord, you have been
our refuge from age to age.
2 Before the mountains were born,
before the earth and the world came to birth,
from eternity to eternity you are God.
3 You bring human beings to the dust,
by saying, ‘Return, children of Adam.’
4 A thousand years are to you like a yesterday
which has passed, like a watch of the night.
5 You brush men away like waking dreams,
they are like grass
6 sprouting and flowering in the morning
withered and dry before dusk.
7 For we have been destroyed by your wrath,
dismayed by your anger.
8 You have taken note of our guilty deeds,
our secrets in the full light of your presence.
9 All our days pass under your wrath,
our lives are over like a sigh.
10 The span of our life is seventy years –
eighty for those who are strong –
but their whole extent is anxiety and trouble,
they are over in a moment and we are gone.
11 Who feels the power of your anger,
or who that fears you, your wrath?
12 Teach us to count up the days that are ours,
and we shall come to the heart of wisdom.
13 Come back, Yahweh! How long must we wait?
Take pity on your servants.
14 Each morning fill us with your faithful love,
we shall sing and be happy all our days;
15 make our future a²s happy as our past was sad,
those years when you were punishing us.
16 Show your servants the deeds you do,
let their children enjoy your splendor!
17 May the sweetness of the Lord be upon us,
Make all we do to succeed!
(Jerusalem Bible, several versions)
This is the psalm that Agnes’s (Aunt Victoria’s) adoptive mother in Gilead used to recite with her before dying. Agnes, though she does not know it yet, is the natural daughter of the handmaid in the Handmaid’s Tale that was abducted from her before she was turned into a handmaid. Her adoptive mother is Tabitha. The psalm expresses very well the absolute submission to god’s will, anger, wrath, fury, or whatever makes him take and impose irreversible decisions against men and women who are just supposed to accept their fate in the hands of such a barbaric God. Here we could say the psalm’s author is able to reach the same level of cruelty and barbarity as the various gods of let’s say the Maya to find a reference in America. In the very same period the author or authors of the psalms think a god that is as awe-inspiring in his (and there is no possible “her”) wrath, fury, and anger, and the collective authors of the mythology of the Maya invent Gods who require blood self-sacrifice and human sacrifice to just grant men and women the favor of honoring their hard work with a good harvest. I would say this Gilead is regressing to Stephen King’s Children of the Corn’s god He Who Walks Behind the Rows, except that this here story is locked up in the elite of this schizophrenic society. You can understand why the whole psalm is not given in the book: it would reverberate on the religious practices of standard Americans too much: submissiveness, total lack of initiative, gullibility if not even worse, hatred of women since the psalm does not even contain one single female reference, blind and relentless rejection of anything that is not absolutely in conformity with what God wants, though we do not really know what his last-minute caprice might be in his wrath, fury, anger and terrorizing absolutism.
In the case of the Concubine story, the summarized quotations or allusions were not really going to the real stake behind it, here the quotation is reduced to a small extract that prevents us from widening our interest and questioning our daily practices. I am not talking of the various extremists against abortion or gay rights. I am talking of everyday behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs of simple Americans who want normal, simple, clear things in their life, that is to say only things and people who do not make them ask existential questions that lead to the fundamental dilemma in everyday middle-of-the-road conformity: “Is it right or is it wrong to do this or to do that?” As a Democratic candidate in the present period of primary elections and local by-elections said recently: “It is not a question of right or left. It is a question of right or wrong.” And that is just the bedeviling question that leads directly to a Republic like that of Gilead. The question is not to know if it is right or left, nor right or wrong. The question is to know whether it is humane or not, whether it brings comfort and encouragement to everyone or pain and suffering to some who are rejected in order to justify the measures concerned. Separating children from their parents for so many people is right as long as the parents and the children are not White Anglo-Saxon or West European Christian and preferably Protestant people begging for asylum at the southern border. Little to do with WEIRD, though partly quite similar. “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Developed,” or “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic,” but certainly not “Wonderful, Exciting, Independent, Real, Different.” Yet “rich” in the first two interpretations of the acronym is not necessarily compulsory since many blue-collar, hardly qualified or educated and low-income people can be found in this anti-immigrant category. That’s not really captured by Margaret Atwood. Her social vision is western blindness that is at times irritating. In her Canada those who cannot fit in the model of her liberal capitalistic hierarchical society, can survive, one way or another, including surviving in death, under bridges, in squats and begging on the sidewalks, totally free to go on surviving like that, as long as they do not in any way impair or endanger the tranquil peace of the middle and upper classes.
Of course, and to conclude, I will say that I regret the fact she did not even try to depict how the fall occurred. But how can she when her vision of such a fall is that schematic: “Totalitarianisms may crumble from within, as they fail to keep the promises that brought them to power; or they may be attacked from without; or both. I say it is schematic because any logical spectrum on the pattern of “either-or’ and “neither-nor” brings for possibilities: either they crumble from within, or they are attacked from without, or both together, or none of these solutions altogether. Totalitarianism is not a fair concept in the field of sociology, anthropology, history and even politics. The worst dictatorships came after severe wars like the two world wars, and at times not connected to such wars but coming from inner phylogeny of good liberal societies. Franco was brought to power by the excessive, divisive and exploded Popular Front that was more of a pot filled with spiders than a happy democratic debate. From it came the civil division, then the civil war, then Franco. Mussolini games from a similar situation in a country were the standard political forms could not come to some kind of working together with a deep division between the communists and possible left allies and the Christians and their democratic allies. Mussolini brought an alliance of all the center-moderates. As someone from Germany said recently about the fall of the wall, Germany was divided between west Germany where the people thought they had to assume the atrocities of the Nazi regime and compensate for them, whereas in East Germany the people considered they were the descendants and continuators of those who were imprisoned, incarcerated and/or exterminated in the camps, hence the victims of the Nazi regime. Both sides are wrong historically and both sides were not able to come together and the danger is this division that has survived entirely the fall of the wall, is right now producing a situation in which the worst principles of the Nazi regime are finding a new life and the old anti-Jewish antisemitism is simply replaced by a new anti-Islamic antisemitism (slightly open onto some Muslims from the Middle East and Central Asia who are speaking Indo-European and Turkic languages instead of Semitic languages like the Jews or the Arabs. The transfer is easy since it is religious, it is geographical, and it is cultural. We have found our new anti-Semitism of the 21st century and it might produce exactly the same evil as the antisemitism of the 20th century. Nothing new under this sky. In 1933 the German Communist Party refused any alliance with the Social Democratic Party, though both together had a comfortable majority in the country. A fire in the Reichstag brought that potential majority to a heap of smoking incinerated ashes.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU