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Critical Essay by Barbara Hill Rigney
SOURCE: "'After the Failure of Logic': Descent and Return in Surfacing," in her Madness and Sexual Politics in the Feminist Novel, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1978, pp. 91-115.
In the following excerpt, Rigney discusses the theme of discovering the self through descent and return in Atwood's Surfacing.
It is inevitable for Margaret Atwood's nameless protagonist of Surfacing that there should occur a "failure of logic," for her journey "home" is an exploration of a world beyond logic. Her quest, like that of Jane Eyre, Clarissa Dalloway, and Martha Quest Hesse, is for an identity, a vision of self. She must find that self—not only through the father for whom she searches the Canadian backwoods, but also through the mother for whom she must search in the depths of her own psyche.
Atwood, much like Virginia Woolf, juxtaposes and compares two internal worlds: the world of the male principle, characterized by rationality and logic but often also by cruelty and destruction, and the world of the female principle, which for Atwood implies an existence beyond reason, a realm of primitive nature where there are connections between life and death, suffering and joy, madness and true sanity, where opposites are resolved into wholes. A failure to recognize these connections is a failure to perceive the "female" part of one's self, and this results, for Atwood, in a catastrophic splitting of the self. Like R. D. Laing's patients in The Divided Self, alienated from the self and from society, Atwood's protagonist perceives herself as rent, torn asunder:
I'd allowed myself to be cut in two. Woman sawn apart in a wooden crate, wearing a bathing suit, smiling, a trick done with mirrors, I read it in a comic book; only with me there had been an accident and I came apart. The other half, the one locked away, was the only one that could live; I was the wrong half, detached, terminal. I was nothing but a head, or, no, something minor like a severed thumb; numb.
The protagonist has separated her body from her head, divided the parts of her self, and thus committed psychological suicide: "If the head is detached from the body, both of them will die." "At some point," she says, "my neck must have closed over, pond freezing or a wound, shutting me into my head…."
The division of the self is, at least partly, "a trick done with mirrors." In Atwood's novel and in much of her poetry, the mirror becomes a symbol of the split self, and one's own reflection functions like a kind of negative doppelgänger. Presumably, the mirror provides a distorted image of the self, thus stealing one's sense of a real or complete self, robbing one of an identity. Anna, that character in Surfacing who has no self left to lose, whose identity has been lost in her preoccupation with the false, made-up self in the mirror, has become "closed in the gold compact." In order to see herself as whole, the protagonist ultimately realizes, she must "stop being in the mirror." The mirror must be turned to the wall so that its reflection will not intrude between "my eyes and vision." She wishes, finally, "not to see myself but to see." In the poem "Tricks with Mirrors" Atwood considers the dangers of perceiving reflection rather than whatever reality might exist, and concludes: "It is not a trick either, / It is a craft: / mirrors are crafty." It is interesting at this point to recall that in Brontë's Jane Eyre, Jane's first visual contact with the mad Bertha, her doppelgänger, is a reflection in a mirror.
The camera is another device which Atwood sees as revealing the split self or doppelgänger, the "not me but the missing part of me." Cameras, like mirrors, according to Atwood's protagonist, can also steal the soul, as the Indians believed. Like "toilets and vacuum cleaners," other examples of "logic become visible," cameras might operate to "make people vanish," stealing "not only your soul but your body also." Photographs serve to shut one in "behind the paper."
As products of the world of logic, cameras are always operated by men in Atwood's works. The fiancé in The Edible Woman, for example, is a camera enthusiast. When he explodes his flash attachment in the eyes of the protagonist, she runs for her psychological life. In Surfacing, David and Joe complete their victimization of Anna by what amounts to a form of rape as they coerce her into revealing her naked body before their intrusive, phallic movie camera, which they use against her "like a bazooka or a strange instrument of torture." The protagonist considers herself reprieved in having evaded the movie camera, and, ultimately, she demonstrates a superior wisdom by emptying the footage of movie film into the lake. But those characters in Atwood's works who victimize others with cameras are themselves victims of faulty vision. David perhaps more than Joe sees reality only through a lens, which clouds and distorts. Perhaps it is also symbolic of a lack of vision that the protagonist's father is associated with cameras; it is the weight of a camera which prevents his drowned body from "surfacing."
Cameras and mirrors thus serve to make the self more vulnerable by emphasizing its division, but the doppelgänger or missing part of the self is also detectable by other means. Anna, employing a perverted version of the magic which is part of Atwood's representation of the female principle, reads the protagonist's palm. She perceives that some of the lines are double and asks, "Do you have a twin?" The protagonist's twin, of course, is that part of herself which is alienated, suppressed, and almost irretrievably lost.
Part of that lost self is an artist who compromised and became an illustrator, acting on the advice that "there has never been any important women artists." All Canadian artists, according to Atwood, suffer a kind of schizophrenia. In Survival Atwood's exploration of Canadian literature and the Canadian psyche, she writes:
We speak of isolated people as being "cut off," but in fact something is cut off from them; as artists, deprived of audience and cultural tradition, they are mutilated. If your arm or leg has been cut off you are a cripple, if your tongue has been cut off you are a mute, if part of your brain has been removed you are an idiot or an amnesiac, if your balls have been cut off you are a eunuch or a castrato…. Artists have suffered emotional and artistic death at the hands of an indifferent or hostile audience.
The subject of the protagonist's illustrations is, significantly, children's fairy tales. "I can imitate anything," she declares. She does not, however, imitate reality, but rather she creates a fantasy world with her sketches of idealized princesses and unconvincing giants. She also has created a fairy tale for her own history, the facts of which are obscured even in her own mind. Thus, she has lost a part of herself somewhere between memory and lie. She fears the truth, but also fears losing it, as she takes inventory of her memories. "I'll start inventing them and then there will be no way of correcting it, the ones who could help are gone. I run quickly over my version of it, my life, checking it like an alibi."
For example, she has invented the alibi of an unsuccessful marriage and a childbirth to sublimate the more painful fact that she unwillingly underwent an abortion and was then abandoned by a complacent, middle-aged lover. Fragments of memory of the abortion itself—often described in terms of amputation, cutting, splitting—cause such pain that she cannot accept their reality. She considers that her invented son, in reality an aborted fetus, is "sliced off from me like a Siamese twin, my own flesh canceled." But it is an unborn child who represents her twin, a part of her self, and she is haunted by unbidden visions of the abortion which symbolizes her division from herself:
I knew when it was, it was in a bottle curled up, staring out at me like a cat pickled; it had huge jelly eyes and fins instead of hands, fish gills, I couldn't let it out, it was dead already, it had drowned in air.
The abortion itself, however, is not a cause for but an effect of the protagonist's split psyche. If a complete self had been in control, she is ultimately to realize, the operation would never have occurred. In order to become an autonomous, completed self, however, the protagonist must heal yet another kind of split—that between "good" and "evil." She must come to terms with herself as perpetrator as well as victim, or at least as a correspondent in her own victimization. During an interview, Atwood explained her protagonist's problem in the following way:
If you define yourself as intrinsically innocent, then you have a lot of problems, because in fact you aren't. And the thing with her is she wishes not to be human. She wishes to be not human, because being human inevitably involves being guilty, and if you define yourself as innocent, you can't accept that.
Atwood's concern with this delusion of female innocence is also reflected in other of her works. Marian in The Edible Woman, for example, maintains her own innocence throughout a destructive sexual relationship until the very end when she realizes that she, too, is guilty of exploitation and destruction. In Survival, Atwood groups the subjects of Canadian literature into what she terms "basic Victim Positions." She states that the central question in Canadian literature is: "Who is responsible?" The answer to that question, provided most clearly in Surfacing, is that ultimate responsibility lies almost inevitably in the self. Like Lessing's Martha Quest Hesse in The Four-Gated City confronting the "self-hater," that part of the self which victimizes both the self and others, Atwood's protagonist must confront her own complicity in such acts as the abortion. Carol P. Christ, in her article "Margaret Atwood: The Surfacing of Women's Spiritual Quest and Vision," upholds a similar contention:
Her association of power with evil and her dissociation of herself from both reflect a typical female delusion of innocence, which hides her complicity in evil and feeds her fake belief that she can do nothing but witness her victimization. In order to regain her power the protagonist must realize that she does not live in a world where only others have power to do evil.
Even God, or perhaps most especially God, the protagonist comes to realize, incorporates evil: "If the Devil was allowed a tail and horns, God needed them also, they were advantages."
In searching her childhood for the self she has lost and the memories of evil which she has unconsciously suppressed, the protagonist comes across two scrapbooks preserved by her mother. One contains drawings by her brother, all depicting war, bomber planes decorated with swastikas, people under torture—all obvious symbols for what the protagonist sees as male power in its most evil form. Her own drawings, in contrast, are representations of an impossible innocence, a feminine vision of fertility represented by artificial Easter heavens of bunnies and eggs and colored grass. The male and female principles, always in perfect balance in these childish drawings, are represented by a moon in the upper left hand corner and a sun in the right. A more enlightened, adult protagonist recalls:
I didn't want there to be wars and death, I wanted them not to exist; only rabbits with their colored egg houses, sun and moon orderly above the flat earth, summer always, I wanted everyone to be happy. But his pictures were more accurate, the weapons, the disintegrating soldiers: he was a realist, that protected him.
At another point in her memory gathering, the protagonist recalls her brother's childhood occupation of capturing and imprisoning wild animals and insects, and then allowing them to die. Her own "feminine" role was to free the animals, risking her brother's anger. A memory which is less congenial to her self-delusion of feminine innocence involves her cooperation with her brother in an act which foreshadows her cooperation in the abortion, the stabbing and dismembering of a doll, left then to float, mutilated, in the lake.
For the protagonist, the brother thus represents male power in general, manifesting itself in war games and in the violation of an essentially feminine nature, the wilderness. His exploitation of animals is repeated in the actions of "the Americans," hunters and fishermen who come to Canada to gratuitously destroy for sport. The Americans represent society's destruction of nature, obvious even in the Canadian backwoods as pollution and land "development" encroach upon the island sanctuary which is the protagonist's home. Americans, she says, "spread themselves like a virus." They represent power: "Straight power, they mainlined it…. The innocents get slaughtered because they exist." Finally, the Americans are manifestations of that origin of evil, the Hitler-boogie of the protagonist's childhood. They call to mind the fascist figure as sexual oppressor in the works of Woolf and Lessing.
Atwood's symbolism involving nature as victim is, quite obviously, multilayered. The protagonist, like the exploited wilderness, represents Canada itself and its predicament as a political victim. As Brontë, Woolf, Lessing, and Laing have also maintained,… individual schizophrenia is often a reflection of a greater, more pernicious national schizophrenia. Atwood's protagonist is a divided self, as Canada is a country divided and exploited by Americans. Atwood writes in the afterword to The Journals of Susanna Moodie: "If the national mental illness of the United States is megalomania, that of Canada is paranoid schizophrenia."
The representative crime of the Americans in Surfacing is the killing of a heron, slaughtered not for food but in truth merely because "it exists." The bird, as a trophy of power, is hanged from a tree, wings outspread, in crucifixion position. The protagonist sees the heron as symbolic of her own psychological death, but sees herself as free of responsibility for both the heron's and her own fate. She is to learn, however, that the "Americans" are, in reality, Canadians, like herself, and thus she too is somehow guilty, involved. Through her passivity in refusing to prevent the heron's death, she has cooperated in its execution, very much in the same way that she has cooperated in the perpetration of the abortion. Of the heron's death she says, "I felt a sickening complicity, sticky as glue, blood on my hands, as though I had been there and watched without saying No or doing anything to stop it." Later in the novel, she says of her participation in the abortion: "Instead of granting it sanctuary, I let them catch it. I could have said No but I didn't; that made me one of them, too, a killer."
Thus the exploiter is not "they" but "we"; women too are human and therefore killers—but perhaps with some mitigation. The protagonist kills animals only for food and then only with a kind of religious reverence for the creature she has destroyed. She fantasizes, as she clubs a flailing fish on the back of the head or fastens a squealing frog onto a fish hook, that the animals will their own victimization just as people do and are willing to die to sustain her: "They had chosen to die and forgiven me in advance." Later, she thinks:
The shape of the heron flying above us the first evening we fished, legs and neck stretched, wings outspread, a blue-gray cross, and the other heron or was it the same one, hanging wrecked from the tree. Whether it died willingly, consented, whether Christ died willingly, anything that suffers and dies instead of us is Christ; if they didn't kill birds and fish they would have killed us. The animals die that we may live, they are substitute people, hunters in the fall killing the deer, that is Christ also. And we eat them out of cans or otherwise; we are eaters of death, dead Christ-flesh resurrecting inside us, granting us life. Canned Spam, canned Jesus….
It is perhaps her delusive claim to innocence, and thus her lack of reverence, which prevents Marian in The Edible Woman from eating meat and, later in the novel, from eating almost anything at all. Only when she recognizes her complicity in her own victimization, when she understands that she has allowed men to "eat" or destroy her and that she has also attempted to destroy them, can Marian overcome her antipathy to food, bake a huge cake which is an effigy of herself, and gobble it down.
The traditional greeting of the fishermen in Surfacing, "Getting any?", is also a sexual allusion. The violation of nature by society is, for Atwood's protagonist, paradigmatic of the violation of women by men. Sexual politics, too, she sees as a battle, with herself as victim. The protagonist recalls her childhood arguments with her brother in which "after a while I no longer fought back because I never won. The only defense was flight, invisibility."
More victimized in sexual politics than the protagonist, who at least intuits something of her complicity in her situation, is Anna, whose "invisibility" is achieved behind her excessively applied cosmetics and the smoke from her constant cigarette. Her only reading material is murder mysteries, though she never realizes the ironic fact that she herself is a victim of another sort of murder. In Anna's relationship with David, her body is "her only weapon and she was fighting for her life, he was her life, her life was the fight: she was fighting him because if she ever surrendered the balance of power would be broken and he would go elsewhere. To continue the war." Anna says of David's tyranny over her: "He's got this little set of rules. If I break one of them I get punished, except he keeps changing them so I'm never sure." David, thus, is uncontestably the winner as Anna masochistically endures, perhaps even enjoys, his crude and insulting sexual allusions, his insistence on her stupidity, her own reduction as a human being.
The protagonist, perhaps, has chosen her mate a bit more wisely. Joe is more "natural" than civilized, more animal than man, with his exceptionally hairy body and his inability to communicate verbally: "Everything I value about him seems to be physical: the rest is either unknown, disagreeable or ridiculous." "What will preserve him," she says at another point, "is the absence of words." Joe's ability to manipulate power, too, is limited, as indicated by his professional failure as a potter whose grotesque vases no one ever buys. "Perhaps it's not only his body I like," the protagonist thinks, "perhaps it's his failure; that also has a kind of purity." Finally, Joe is desirable because "he isn't anything, he is only half formed, and for that reason I can trust him."
But even Joe, for a time, insists on commitment, "love" and marriage. For the protagonist, with the living proof provided by Anna and David constantly before her, marriage is more a surrender than a commitment; it is, for the woman, total immersion in the male world and thus a further division of the female self. One ceases, in marriage, to be a whole self and turns "into part of a couple." The protagonist thinks of her imagined former marriage as "like jumping off a cliff. That was the feeling I had all the time I was married; in the air, going down, waiting for the smash at the bottom." Married people, she thinks, are like the wooden man and woman in the barometer she saw when she was little, balancing each other in a perpetual kind of opposition.
Marriage and sex, for Atwood much as for Brontë, Woolf, and Lessing, are linked not only to the psychological death of the self, but to physical death as well. Atwood's protagonist perhaps confuses childbirth and abortion, but the process is nonetheless grotesque. "They take the baby out with a fork like a pickle out of a jar. After that they fill your veins up with red plastic, I saw it running down through the tube, I won't let them do that to me ever again." Contraception in itself poses a very real and practical danger. The protagonist discusses with Anna the adverse and potentially lethal effects of "the pill" on women's bodies. It is diabolic that pills come in "moon-shaped" packages, masquerading as feminine creations, because, like cameras, they are inventions of male logic. Also, like cameras, they act to obscure vision, covering the eye with a film like vaseline. The protagonist concludes:
Love without fear, sex without risk, that's what they wanted to be true; and they almost pulled it off, but as in magicians' tricks or burglaries half-success is failure and we're back to the other things. Love is taking precautions…. Sex used to smell like rubber gloves and now it does again, no more handy green plastic packages, moon-shaped so that the woman can pretend she's still natural, cyclical, instead of a chemical slot machine. But soon they'll have the artificial womb, I wonder how I feel about that.
Later, as she overhears Anna's strangled cries and inhuman moans through the thin walls of the cabin, the protagonist thinks that sex is "like death." Love and sex as destructive forces are also themes in Atwood's poetry: "next time we commit / love, we ought to / choose in advance what to kill." By the conclusion of Surfacing, however, the protagonist is able to understand that sex includes life as well as death, that it can, at least theoretically, be natural and positive as well as mechanical and destructive.
In the meantime, however, the protagonist is still divided, unable to achieve any resolution of such opposites as life and death, creation and destruction. She fears sexual commitment and so elects the defensive mechanism of refusing to "feel." A similar technique … is used by Woolf's Septimus Warren Smith and Clarissa Dalloway and by Lessing's Martha Quest Hesse. The first indication that Atwood's protagonist has chosen such a procedure is her dispassionate, almost journalistic narrative reporting of events and developments. "Anesthesia," she says, "that's one technique…." Most often, however, she does not accept the responsibility for her inability to feel, classing it as a kind of congenital condition or birth defect: "Perhaps I'd been like that all my life, just as some babies are born deaf or without a sense of touch." But as she observes her companions, hears their "canned laughter," and realizes that they too are incapable of feeling, she thinks "or perhaps we are normal and the ones who can love are freaks, they have an extra organ, like the vestigial eye in the foreheads of amphibians they've never found the use for."
Another protective technique … is the depersonalization of sex. Atwood takes the idea to its extreme absurdity: "two people making love with paper bags over their heads, not even any eyeholes. Would that be good or bad?" But, she imagines, if sex and marriage could be relegated to the inconsequential, the trivial, they could not perhaps claim so many victims. Marriage, says the protagonist, is "like playing Monopoly or doing crossword puzzles;" moving in with Joe is "more like buying a gold fish or a potted cactus plant, not because you want one in advance but because you happen to be in the store and you see them lined up on the counter." Even relationships with other women are superficial; the protagonist has known Anna only two months, yet she is "my best woman friend."
Such procedures as refusing to feel and to relate to other people, however, limit and divide the self almost as effectively as the dangers they minimize. The protagonist longs for the ability to feel: "I rehearsed emotions, naming them: joy, peace, guilt, release, love and hate, react, relate; what to feel was like what to wear, you watched others and memorized it." The protagonist has even resorted to pricking herself with pins to experience at least a physical feeling: "They've discovered rats prefer any sensation to none. The insides of my arms were stippled with tiny wounds, like an addict's."
Coincidental with the inability to feel is the protagonist's inability to communicate. The very language, for her, becomes useless and finally undesirable: "Language divides us into fragments." In replying to Joe's proposal of marriage, she finds "the words were coming out of me like the mechanical words from a talking doll, the kind with the pull tape at the back; the whole speech was unwinding, everything in order, a spool." In order to ever communicate again, the protagonist thinks that she must find a language of her own:
I was seeing poorly, translating badly, a dialect problem. I should have used my own. In the experiments they did with children, shutting them up with deaf-and-dumb nurses, locking them in closets, depriving them of words, they found that after a certain age the mind is incapable of absorbing any language; but how could they tell the child hadn't invented one, unrecognizable to everyone but itself?
Woolf's Septimus Warren Smith can understand the birds; Lessing's Lynda Coldridge communicates with spirits in code. Atwood's protagonist ultimately is to conclude: "The animals have no need for speech, why talk when you are a word…."
If one cannot communicate, cannot feel, has no name, has been so thoroughly divided, one is, like Atwood's protagonist at the beginning of the novel, psychologically dead. Atwood herself has referred to Surfacing as "a ghost story." Her protagonist has, in the sense of Laing in The Divided Self, been engulfed, "drowned," ceased to exist as a self, just as both her father and her aborted baby have drowned, one in the lake, the other "in air." She speaks also of her brother having drowned as an infant, an event which she has vicariously experienced, or at least somehow observed from what she describes as her mother's transparent womb. Later we learn that the brother was saved by the mother's intervention, but according to the protagonist, he has not regarded his experience with the respect it warrants; it was, the protagonist thinks, a kind of rebirth. "If it had happened to me I would have felt there was something special about me, to be raised from the dead like that; I would have returned with secrets, I would have known things most people didn't."
Drowning thus comes to represent not only death or a loss of self, but also a procedure for finding the self. The protagonist's descent into the lake in search of the Indian cave paintings is symbolic of her descent into her own psyche, from which return, resurrection, "surfacing," is possible. Similarly, Lessing's Martha descends into madness before she can emerge as truly and divinely sane. Surfacing is as much an allegory of the quest for psychological rebirth, for life, as it is a search for the theological meaning Carol P. Christ describes.
To be "reborn," just as to be born, the protagonist must have a "gift" from both father and mother. She has carried "death around inside me, layering it over, a cyst, a tumor, black pearl." To be alive, whole, she must recognize that she is a product of both the male and the female principles. She must understand her parentage and her origins before she can understand herself.
Her search for the father ends in the depths of the lake. "Return" for him is impossible; his body, weighed down by the symbolic camera, has never "surfaced." He is reduced to "a dark oval trailing limbs." Like Virgil, who can guide Dante's descent and show him the way through hell but never enter paradise himself, the protagonist's father represents human reason and its limitations. He can point the way with his drawings and maps, "pictographs," to "the place of the gods," the sacred places "where you could learn the truth," but he cannot himself see truth.
In the beginning, the protagonist imagines that her missing father has gone mad and lurks in the wilderness outside their cabin. His madness, she imagines, would be "like stepping through a usual door and finding yourself in a different galaxy, purple trees and red moons and a green sun." Such experiences, she thinks, could lead to revelation: "He had discovered new places, new oracles, they were things he was seeing the way I had seen, true vision; at the end, after the failure of logic." But it is only the protagonist herself and not her father who has such visions. In her dive deep into the lake she discovers not the cave paintings her father has described but the "galaxy" of her own psyche: "pale green pinpricks of light," strange shapes and mysterious fish, "chasm-dwellers."
The father himself is incapable of such visions because, for him, logic has never failed. He represents, however, the best of the male principle—logic without destruction. He has, for himself and his children, reasoned away evil, teaching them that even Hitler, "many-tentacled, ancient and indestructible as the Devil," is not, after all, "the triumph of evil but the failure of reason." The father has attempted to protect his family from evil by secluding them in the Canadian wilderness where World War II is only a subject for children's games. Yet these very games reflect the failure of the father's teaching and indicate the inevitability of evil: the first pages of the novel describe the young brother and sister, their feet wrapped in blankets, pretending that "the Germans shot our feet off."
As the father tries to eclipse evil, so he tries to reason away superstition, fear, religion: "Christianity was something he'd escaped from, he wished to protect us from its distortions." But this too is impossible. The protagonist's childhood is haunted by the idea that "there was a dead man in the sky watching everything I did." Ultimately, she must go beyond the father, beyond the world of logic which he represents. She must confront the presence of evil, in the world and in the self, and she must also confront the gods: "The power from my father's intercession wasn't enough to protect me, it gave only knowledge and there were more gods than his, his were the gods of the head, antlers rooted in the brain."
The father's gift of knowledge, however, cannot be considered inconsequential. He has led the way to self-knowledge and pointed out reality. Even the father's drowned body is "something I knew about," it is, symbolically, also the body of her own aborted fetus, "drowned in air," its fishlike corpse having been flushed through the sewers, "travelling … back to the sea." As she recognizes her father's body, the protagonist's past suddenly becomes very clear to her and her fantasy past disintegrates. "I killed it. It wasn't a child but it could have been one, I didn't allow it." "It was all real enough, it was reality enough for ever…." With this recognition the protagonist begins to experience feeling, life: "Feeling was beginning to seep back into me, I tingled like a foot that's been asleep." Shortly afterward she finds that she is even able to cry. But her resurrection is not yet complete: "I wanted to be whole."
The father thus participates in a kind of conception, but the actual birth process is the business of the female. In order to be reborn, to become whole, the protagonist must also find a "gift" from her dead mother:
It would be right for my mother to have left something for me also, a legacy. His was complicated, tangled, but hers would be simple as a hand, it would be final. I was not completed yet; there had to be a gift from each of them.
The mother's legacy is the revelation of a drawing from the protagonist's childhood of a woman "with a round moon stomach: the baby was sitting up inside gazing out." Just as the protagonist has earlier envisioned herself as present before her birth, able to see the world through her mother's transparent womb.
The protagonist interprets the message of the drawing as an instruction: in order to be alive and whole she must replace, resurrect, that part of herself which she has killed—the aborted fetus and the fertility aspect of the female principle which it represents. Early in the novel the protagonist has found it "impossible to be like my mother": now she must become her mother, "the miraculous double woman," giving birth to herself as well as to new life. The protagonist thus seeks out her lover and takes him to the shore of the lake, carefully arranging their positions so that the moon, representing the female principle as in the childhood drawings, is on her left hand and the absent male sun on her right. According to Carol P. Christ the conception itself is a religious act: "As she conceives, the protagonist resembles the Virgin Mother goddesses of old: at one with her sexual power, she is complete in herself; the male is incidental." The conception is also, however, a psychological rebirth, a healing of the divided self:
He trembles and then I can feel my lost child surfacing within me, forgiving me, rising from the lake where it had been prisoned so long, its eyes and teeth phosphorescent; the two halves clasp, interlocking like fingers, it buds, it sends out fronds.
Whereas images of cutting, splitting, division, fragmentation have dominated the novel to this point, now images of unity, joining, completeness begin to supercede. The protagonist has united the two halves of herself, found her parentage, reconciled the male and female principles within the self. Thus the "two halves" of herself also "clasp, interlocking like fingers." The body, which has been for her "even scarier than god," has been integrated with the head: "I'm not against the body or the head either; only the neck which creates the illusion that they are separate," For a second time the protagonist refers to palmistry: "When the heartline and the headline are one … you are either a criminal, an idiot or a saint." Now saintlike, in the sense that Woolf's Septimus is a saint, Atwood's protagonist has also resolved within herself the opposites of life and death. Thus she reflects nature itself:
I lie down on the bottom of the canoe and wait. The still water gathers the heat; birds, off in the forest a woodpecker, somewhere a thrush. Through the trees the sun glances; the swamp around me smolders, energy of decay turning to growth, green fire. I remember the heron; by now it will be insects, frogs, fish, other herons. My body sends out filaments in me; I ferry it secure between death and life, I multiply.
Although the argument for androgynous vision may be made with some relevancy in the case of Virginia Woolf, it is not a meaningful concept when applied to Atwood. For Atwood even more than for Woolf the male principle is ultimately expendable. The female principle alone and in itself incorporates and resolves opposites. Life and death, good and evil, exist within the protagonist, within all women, as they exist in nature. Atwood has described nature in Survival as being, not benevolently motherlike or nurselike in the Wordsworthian sense, but rather as a living process "which includes opposites: life and death, 'gentleness' and 'hostility.'" She invariably associates the female principle with nature; she deals, not with nature as a woman, but rather with women as nature. Therefore, although nature is not a mother in Atwood's novel, the protagonist's mother is aligned with nature, at home with it as with an extension of herself. Almost witchlike, with her long hair and wearing her magically powerful leather jacket, the mother feeds wild birds from her hand, charms a bear, and is in tune with the seasons which she carefully records in a special diary. It is she and not the father who represents life as she gives birth, saves her drowning son, prohibits cruelty; yet, dying herself, she also understands the mysteries of death. The protagonist, as a child asking about death, is convinced that her mother "had the answers but wouldn't tell." The protagonist recalls her mother's own death and wishes she might have taken her from the hospital room to die in the forest. There, perhaps, she might have been reborn, like nature itself: "It sprang up from the earth, pure joy, pure death, burning white like snow." It is only the male world of logic which insists on the finality of death. "The reason they invented coffins, to lock the dead in, to preserve them, they put makeup on them; they didn't want them spreading or changing into anything else. The stone with the name and the date was on them to weight them down."
Like her mother, the protagonist, although she hardly realizes it, is also aligned with nature, acting as guide for her companions in the backwoods and insuring their survival. She is instinctively aware of the dangers of the wilderness; she knows how to catch a fish and balance a canoe. She is even immune from the insects which so plague the others.
The protagonist is truly a part of nature, able to incorporate its powers into herself, however, only after she has received her mother's legacy and conceived both herself and her child. Her next act is to reject the world of male logic, the elements of civilization, its canned food and its clothing and its values. "Everything from history must be eliminated," she says, as she burns and tears books, clothing, even her fake wedding ring. The cabin itself is unbearable because it is man-made, and so she enters the forest naked except for a blanket which she will need "until the fur grows."
Here she can experience her own birth:
My back is on the sand, my head rests against the rock, innocent as plankton; my hair spreads out, moving and fluid in the water. The earth rotates, holding my body down to it as it holds the moon; the sun pounds in the sky, red flames and rays pulsing from it, searing away the wrong form that encases me, dry rain soaking through me, warming the blood egg I carry. I dip my head beneath the water, washing my eyes….
When I am clean I come up out of the lake, leaving my false body floated on the surface….
Now in tune with the powers of nature, the protagonist is granted a series of visions, one of prehistory itself: "The forest leaps upward, enormous, the way it was before they cut it, columns of sunlight frozen; the boulders float, melt, everything is made of water." She also sees her mother, who has always been "ten thousand years behind the rest," and who is also an extension of eternal nature. The protagonist becomes her mother, placing her feet in the footprints left by the vision, and finding "that they are my own." Thus she too is synonomous with nature: "I am not an animal or a tree, I am the thing in which the trees and animals move and grow, I am a place."
In this mystical identification with nature and with the female principle it represents, the protagonist surrenders individual human identity. In so doing, she comes face to face with the world beyond logic. "Logic," she says, "is like a wall"; in tearing down this wall she finds "on the other side is terror." Once the wall is destroyed, however, there is no choice: "From any rational point of view I am absurd; but there are no longer any rational points of view." She confronts madness personified, the ultimate mirror:
It is what my father saw, the thing you meet when you've stayed here too long alone.
I'm not frightened, it's too dangerous for me to be frightened of it; it gazes at me for a time with its yellow eyes, Wolf's eyes, depthless but lambent as the eyes of animals seen at night in the car headlight. Reflectors.
In Survival, Atwood discusses the theme of "bushing" in Canadian literature and the fascination of Canadian authors with the madness which occurs when one merges human identity with nature.
But for the protagonist the descent into madness, into the "chasm" of experience, must be temporary and therapeutic, rather than permanent. She desires survival, and she knows, for example, that what society sees as insanity might well serve as an excuse for persecution; she might be victimized, like the heron:
They can't be trusted. They'll mistake me for a human being, a naked woman wrapped in a blanket: possibly that's what they've come here for, if it's running around loose, ownerless, why not take it. They won't be able to tell what I really am. But if they guess my true form, identity, they will shoot me or bludgeon in my skull and hang me up by the feet from a tree.
Society is incapable of recognizing that what they perceive as a mad woman is, in reality, "only a natural woman, state of nature."
Thus the protagonist, like Lessing's Martha, loses a tenuous identity only to gain a firmer one. She "surfaces" from the illogical to return to a world of logic, but not now, as before, divided, incapable of coping. Their purpose accomplished, father and mother, as principles of nature and as "gods," have reassumed their humanity and the vision has faded. "No total salvation, resurrection. Our father, our mother, I pray, Reach down for me, but it won't work: they dwindle, grow, become what they were, human." There are "no gods to help me now." Even nature's power is now benign, impersonal: "The lake is quiet, the trees surround me, asking and giving nothing." Like Jane Eyre, Atwood's protagonist has found the mother within herself. Secure in an undivided self, the protagonist no longer needs parents or gods; she recognizes her own power and the fact that she can refuse victimization. "This above all, to refuse to be a victim. Unless I can do that I can do nothing." Now even "the Americans" can be managed and seen in perspective: "They must be dealt with, but possibly they can be watched and predicted and stopped without being copied." As Carol P. Christ says, the protagonist is "awakening from a male-defined world, to the greater terror and risk, and also the great potential healing and joy, of a world defined by the heroine's own feeling and judgment."
Atwood writes in Survival: "A reader must face the fact that Canadian literature is undeniably sombre and negative, and that this to a large extent is both a reflection and a chosen definition of the national sensibility." In its ringing affirmation, Surfacing is the exception to prove the rule. Withdrawal is no longer possible, says the protagonist, and "the alternative is death." She chooses instead a new life and a new way of seeing. She carries a new child, a new messiah: "It might be the first one, the first true human; it must be born, allowed." To the protagonist belongs the ultimate sanity: the knowledge that woman can descend, and return—sane, whole, victorious.
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