Honey and Salt | The Nation


Honey and Salt

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No culture without nature: but equally, the Gardeners understand, no nature--or at least no human nature--without culture. Adam One's first sermon recalls the original Adam's first act: naming. To name a piece of nature is to bring it into culture, and it is culture that creates memory, continuity, knowledge. The Gardeners don't just grow radishes and forage for roots; they enact rituals, sing hymns, teach classes, establish traditions. Eschewing writing as perishable (as well as potentially incriminating), they memorize, memorize, memorize: songs, sayings, useful information. Most important, they use culture to shape time. Oryx and Crake begins with Snowman looking at his broken watch. "A blank face is what it shows him: zero hour." Like McCarthy's protagonist, whose story also begins with a stopped clock, he spends the rest of the novel suffocated by the sense that duration stretches out before him like a featureless waste--a succession of meaningless days that lead only to death. But Toby begins each day of her postapocalyptic isolation by remembering the name of the appropriate Gardener saint. Culture preserves the past, and it also promises a future.

About the Author

William Deresiewicz
William Deresiewicz is a Nation contributing writer whose Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and...

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McCarthy, whose work has long been marked by distrust of the human word, vile forgery of God's, could not feel more differently. "Years later he'd stood in the charred ruins of a library where blackened books lay in pools of water. Shelves tipped over. Some rage at the lies arranged in their thousands row on row." Crake concurs in his own imperious fashion. Compared with science, art, for him, is pointless and pathetic (not a rare view these days). An evolutionary psychologist of the worst kind, he regards aesthetic creation as nothing more than a masculine strategy for getting laid (as for female artists, he explains--just in case we have any doubt about whose side Atwood stands on--they are "biologically confused"). The Crakers, programmed for sexual bliss, will have no need of art or culture. "Watch out for art," Snowman recalls him saying. "As soon as they start doing art, we're in trouble. Symbolic thinking of any kind would signal downfall." Yet what Snowman finds his charges needing most, and what he invents for them as quickly as he can--ad man turned artist--is, precisely, culture: explanation, understanding, stories of origin and purpose. Who are you? What's become of Crake? What are we supposed to do now? The need for meaning lies too deep in human nature, it seems, for even Crake to have eradicated it.

But the erosion of culture, in Atwood's view, like the extinction of nature, is not waiting for the apocalypse. Jimmy lies awake at night, after a day of corporate spin-doctoring, mourning the death of language: "he'd stare at the ceiling, telling over lists of obsolete words for the comfort that was in them. Dibble. Aphasia. Breast plough. Enigma. Gat." For Atwood, the cultural tragedy is not only equal in import to the natural one; it lies behind it:

When did the body first set out on its own adventures? Snowman thinks; after having ditched its old traveling companions, the mind and the soul...distracting it whenever it was getting its teeth into something juicy or its fingers into something good. It had dumped the other two back there somewhere...and it had dumped culture along with them: music and painting and poetry and plays.

No culture, no restraint; no restraint, no world. "And appetite," says Shakespeare, "an universal wolf,/So doubly seconded with will and power,/Must make perforce an universal prey,/And last eat up himself."

The trilogy is Atwood's attempt to reverse the process, to address the natural disaster, like the Gardeners, through cultural means: to name, like the original Adam; to tell stories, like Snowman; to put our minds and souls in play again. McCarthy thinks the only hope is goodness, a gift from God. Atwood thinks that God may well help to keep us good, but only because He is himself a product of culture. Adam One doesn't spare the theology, but only, it turns out, for strategic reasons:

"What you mean is, with God in the story there's a penalty," said Toby.
 "Yes," said Adam One. "There's a penalty without God in the story too, needless to say. But people are less likely to credit that."

With Oryx and Crake and now The Year of the Flood, Atwood seeks to make us understand the penalty, whatever we happen to believe.

People can't imagine their own death, Crake says, because "as soon as you say, 'I'll be dead,' you've said the word 'I,' and so you're still alive inside the sentence." The same applies on a species-wide scale, and limits the power of apocalyptic fiction. Not only does the genre inevitably focus on the survivors--among whom, no matter how few they be in number, we always imagine ourselves--it necessarily implies the persistence of an audience. Not only are Ren and Toby left; the narrator is left, and we are left, listening to her. Like "I'll be dead," the grammar of the genre negates its meaning. We close the book feeling, Well, at least I'm still there. But Atwood does her best within the limitations of the form, and if the message gets lost, it won't be her fault. "I knew there were things wrong in the world," Toby thinks of her girlhood days,

But the wrong things were wrong somewhere else.
 By the time she reached college, the wrongness had moved closer... Everybody knew. Nobody admitted to knowing. If other people began to discuss it, you tuned them out, because what they were saying was both so obvious and so unthinkable.
We're using up the Earth. It's almost gone.

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