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Critical Essay by Estella Lauter
SOURCE: "Margaret Atwood: Remythologizing Circe," in her Women as Mythmakers: Poetry and Visual Art by Twentieth Century Women, Indiana University Press, 1984, pp. 62-78.
In the following essay, Lauter examines Atwood's revision of the myth of Odysseus and Circe in her "Circe/Mud Poems."
In her sequence of poems entitled "Circe/Mud Poems," Margaret Atwood engages in a complex act of remythologizing. That is, she steps back into the mythic realm of Homer's Odyssey to recreate and revise the story of the year-long sojourn of Odysseus with Circe from Circe's point of view. Simply by refocusing our attention within the story, Atwood reveals a more essential power in Circe than her infamous ability to seduce and deform men—namely, her highly developed capacity to see, see into, and see beyond her relationships to the persons, things, and events called "reality." Because Atwood shows how Circe exercises her capacity for insight, we are able to penetrate the masks and armor of the "hero with a thousand faces," and understand with her how the myth of the quest has become a disease in whose clutches the hero is helpless. By adopting Circe's perspective within the quest myth, Atwood is able to revalue Circe positively; at the same time, she exposes the limitations of a myth that still dominates Western civilization. Atwood's strategy of participating in mythic thinking, instead of making the usual distinction between myth and truth, allows her to suggest a surprisingly radical revision of the myth itself. She points out that we do not yet know the ending of Circe's story after Odysseus leaves her island, and that in our visions of a new ending lie the possibilities for an alternative myth, in which there is no need to journey. Atwood's work has implications for those of us who are exploring alternative images of women, and for others who believe that mythic structures offer essential knowledge that can be used to free as well as to enslave us.
In order to involve us in her mythmaking process, Atwood has us enter the island landscape of a forest blackened by fire as we would enter a dream, in a boat that glides over land "as if there is water." She explains through Circe's voice that she has not given us a full description of the landscape because she is quite sure that we live there right now and can see for ourselves. Atwood has Circe speak directly to a person who is never named, leaving open the possibility that she is addressing us. Since her awareness of Bronze Age rituals and modern steam-engines transcends ordinary boundaries of time and culture, we begin to believe that she can also transcend other restrictions that operate on our thought. Atwood reinforces this expectation of mythic behavior in her surrealistic images of bodies coming apart and crashing to the ground or trays of food containing "an ear, a finger."
In order to retain the degree of power Homer has assigned to Circe while she relocates its source and meaning, Atwood includes many of the trappings of Greek mythology: Circe has a temple where moon snakes speak of the future, and she wears a withered fist on a chain around her neck. But Circe knows the meaning of such symbols better than Odysseus or Homer did. As for her supposed power to turn her lovers into swine, she denies that she is anything more than a silent accomplice in the metamorphoses: she explains, "they happened / because I did not say anything." Actually, the men came to her in accordance with their own drives. She "decided nothing." They became animals because they allowed their skin to harden into impenetrable, armor-like hide, and because they failed to speak.
Homer was misguided on several other counts. Circe was not superhuman in the sense of being above feeling love, pain, fear, and anxiety; she did not willingly grant Odysseus' request to leave her. Nor was she rendered powerless during his stay. In Atwood's version, the lover unbuckles the fist on Circe's chain; instead of gaining control over her, he frees her from a dehumanizing pattern of action. He frees her, not to be like the totally receptive and unfeeling surrogate woman made out of mud, reported in a story by another traveller, but to penetrate his armor because her caring for him enables her to see who he is, what he intends, and how it will affect her life. The nineteenth poem shows clearly who is in command of reality. In it, Circe says (in prose),
You think you are safe at last.
I bring you things on trays, food mostly, an ear, a finger. You trust me so you are no longer cautious, you abandon yourself to your memoranda …; in the clutch of your story, your disease, you are helpless.
But it is not finished, that saga. The fresh monsters are already breeding in my head. I try to warn you, though I know you will not listen.
So much for art. So much for prophecy.
Circe's power is not sufficient to transform her lover's story without his consent, but her insight that the story continues to happen partly because she has not revealed how she felt about it, and partly because "fresh monsters" are "breeding" in her head to test his mortal courage with more misadventures, suggests that she may also have some unused ability to alter Odysseus' script.
In Atwood's sequence, Circe does attempt to change her relationship to the quest myth by proclaiming her disinterest in Odysseus' heroic gesticulations. Her attitude toward his infamous arrival on her island is scornful. The merits of his courage, pride and perseverance dissolve as she questions: "Don't you get tired of saying Onward?" With Circe's revelation of her boredom with the masks of heroism and of her disgust for the greedy, deceitful, arrogant, oppressive, vain men who have predictable desires for fame and immortality, Atwood dislodges one of the reasons that the myth of the hero survives: female approval of heroic behavior.
As the poems proceed, it becomes clear that the hero's dissatisfaction with mere material abundance has a deleterious effect not only on his lover, but also on the landscape, which is burned over, worn down, and strewn with skeletons. Since Circe states at the outset her intention to search (without journeying) for the "ones who have escaped from these / mythologies with barely their lives," and since she gives ample proof of her ability to love those who will unmask, clearly she is not the source of the misery on her island.
By the final poem, we are convinced not only that Circe's position outside the framework of the quest allows her to see more than those who remain inside it can, but also that her boundary position is a source of hope. Her capacity for breeding new disasters to appease the hero's desire for action is easily converted into a capacity for creating valid images. In the final poem, she "sees" two islands—one on which things happen pretty much as she has just recounted, over and over again like a bad film running faster and more jerkily each time it goes through the projector. The second island, independent of the first, exists only in her imagination. On the second, "we" walk together in a November landscape and are astonished by the orange hue of the apples "still on the trees." We lick the "melted snow / from each other's mouths" without sexual passion, and we are free to notice the track of a deer in the mud beside the not-yet-frozen stream. On this island, which Circe says "has never happened," our delight in the November landscape does not require any journey; the birds are birds, not omens from the dead whispering "Everything dies;" the gentle, sensuous caress between two people is enough; and mud is mud, not a symbolic woman to be fucked by man.
Circe's story remains unfinished in Atwood's sequence. We still do not know her fate after Odysseus leaves her island. We do know that she is not the seductress we thought she was. As an enchantress, her talents lay in gathering the syllables from the earth into healing words. Even without her magic powers, she is capable of imagining an alternative to the story that has imprisoned her. She emerges from the poem as an independent woman (perhaps a poet) who is capable of turning her considerable talent for seeing through others' stories into a strategy for her own survival—and perhaps the survival of all who are wise enough to trust her. Atwood's revision of Circe's story strikes us as true because it corresponds to centuries of partly-conscious experience of silent complicity in a myth we did not choose. Atwood's work raises important questions: How many other stories remain similarly unfinished? Should we finish them now? Is it really possible to change a myth?
Atwood does not provide us with an ideal goddess so much as with a believable woman, "by turns comic, cynical, haughty, vulnerable and sad," as Sherrill Grace has observed [in Violent Quality: A Study of Margaret Atwood]. But for all her realism, Atwood does not "demythologize" Circe. In the context of modern theological debate, that term is reserved for the process of stripping away the fanciful layers of image and story in order to penetrate to the (preferably historical) truth. Since, we have no reason, apart from the say-so of poets like Homer and Hesiod, to believe that Circe ever exsisted (she was never an object of widespread worship, for example), the most likely approach of the demythologizer would be to ignore or discredit her. As scholar or poet, then, the demythologizer might turn to the records of history for information about the lives of Greek women, but she would not bother to retell Homer's story.
In fact, of course, Atwood is sufficiently aware of Homer's conventions to give her poem exactly the same number of parts as Homer's book. She counts on our knowing the appropriate section (book X) so well that she can alter the story without repeating it first (as a daring jazz musician might begin a piece with an improvisation without stating the tune on which it is based). In other words, Atwood assumes that Circe is familiar enough to seem "real" to us before we begin reading her poem. Whether this reality has accrued from aesthetic persuasion (the effectiveness of Homer's text) or from psychological persuasion (our familiarity with women who seem to correspond with Homer's story) matters very little. Atwood does not want to disturb our belief; she wants to restructure it.
The extent of her investment can be measured by comparing her poem to Katherine Anne Porter's brief and charming essay, "A Defense of Circe." Porter not only accepts but repeats Homer's story, presumably in order to earn the right to reinterpret it. Enthralled by the bard's "sunny high comedy," she exclaims, "this is all pure magic, this poem, the most enchanting thing ever dreamed of in the human imagination, how have I dared to touch it?" Indeed, she does touch it lightly, retelling all sorts of details that Atwood omits: about Circe's immortal lineage and sunny disposition, her lovely stone hall in the forest glade, her handmaidens, her loom, her song, the role of Hermes in providing the herb (moly) to disarm her, her oath that she will not harm Odysseus, her restoration of Odysseus' men to forms more beautiful than the ones they had, her advice about how to visit Teiresias in Hades, and so on.
Porter does point out several minor flaws in Homer's logic. She cannot quite believe that the immortal Circe would feel threatened by Odysseus' sword. She finds unfounded the hero's claim that Circe promised to send him and his companions safely on their way. She knows that Circe's "divine amiability and fostering care" could not save Odysseus and his men from their ordained suffering. She also wonders why Circe did not steal the moly to destroy Odysseus' power, or why she did not break her oath and turn him into a fox! She resolves these problems by accepting the text as given ("this is Circe") and by offering her own non-traditional interpretation of Circe's character: whereas Odysseus and Hermes are foxy by nature, Circe can be trusted completely. Her purity extends to other realms as well; she is a "creatrix," an "aesthetic genius," whose "unique power as goddess was that she could reveal to men the truth about themselves by showing each man himself in his true shape according to his inmost nature. For this she was rightly dreaded and feared; her very name was a word of terror." This assertion of Circe's superior understanding is Porter's "defense" of Circe against those who fasten on her reputation for turning human beings into monsters.
Porter does not accept the theological distinction between myth and truth. She expects us to find her interpretation of Homer's story truthful, and she believes that The Odyssey is true in a way that "still hovers glimmering at the farthest edge of consciousness, a nearly remembered dream of glory." For her, the story is a myth only in the sense of being something that was once believed, or in the sense of being an enduring fiction that continues to touch a sensitive nerve. Its truth is limited. Porter's main reason for not altering the fiction is respect for her venerable colleague.
Not so in Atwood's case. Although she shares with Porter the interpretation that the men turned themselves to swine, Atwood knows that no successful "defense" of Circe is possible within the framework of Odysseus' story. I speculate that she also knows how difficult it is to rid the human consciousness of a stereotype that has such a long and venerable history. She could have created an historical prototype, from Greece or elsewhere, to counter the myth; indeed, many critics agree that her most successful book of poems to date is The Journals of Susanna Moodie, where she shows an uncanny ability to work with historical materials. She chose instead to remythologize the figure of Circe.
If the reader is to believe that women's essential power is not to seduce (or shall we say influence?) men but to see through them and free them from their stories, then the poet must demonstrate this power in the figure who carries the imago of seduction. The image must be transformed from within. Atwood chooses the surest way to convince us that her vision of Circe is true by letting Circe tell her own story in an authentic language. She counts on our natural desire to believe the stories that people tell about themselves—when the stories are good. But such a strategy alone would not suffice. The poet must preserve enough of the character of the original myth to give weight to her story; she must also extend it enough so that it stands on its own in the modern world. The poet must perform Circe's feats of penetrating vision with respect to the myth that has entrapped both of them.
Thus, Atwood has Circe describe her setting as the opposite of Homer's lush idyllic island. It is instead a burned forest which nonetheless spawns fireweed that splatters the air, symbolizing both nature's power of regeneration and Circe's verbal power over those who land within range of her voice. The voice, instead of singing seductive songs, asserts that Circe prefers self-effacing men who stand in humble relationship with nature to heroes who, like Icarus, regularly "swoop and thunder" around her island. She denies blame, or even responsibility, for the dismal fate of these "common" heroes; at the same time she admits her complicity. The fact that she "did not say anything" until now has meant that her words were wrecked along with their bodies.
In the fourth poem, Atwood begins to alter our image of Circe's role, presenting her as a healer (perhaps a psychiatrist?) whose people call upon her to soothe their pain, fear, and guilt with words from the earth they have assaulted. She is a hardworking witch who presses her head to the earth faithfully to collect the "few muted syllables left over." So depleted is her island that she can collect only syllables, "a letter at a time." Her wonderfully wry comment that she is a desert island (which she reports having quipped to the arriving hero) works on several levels at once. While she scores a point for clever repartee in the battle of the sexes, she also accepts the ancient identification of woman with earth as her source of power, and admits to the depletion of her own as well as the earth's resources.
In the next eight poems, a curious reversal of our expectations occurs as Circe "loses" the battle she initiates. The poems correspond to and replace about sixty lines of Odysseus' story about his "victory" over Circe which supposedly culminated in her invitation: "Come then, put away your sword into its sheath, and let us / two go up into my bed so that, lying together / in the bed of love, we may then have faith and trust in each other." In Atwood's sequence, the battle between the two is more strenuous. Circe's part in it is largely verbal; she openly berates Odysseus for his lies, his passivity, his greed, and his delusions of power, interjecting that he need only inquire of the moon snakes at her temples in order to know the future. Her magic may be diminished, but she still knows "what is sacred." In the seventh poem, she includes us in the fray, taunting or chiding us to recognize this scene as part of our own landscape, but also revealing that it is a landscape of "ennui" that offers little satisfaction.
What is remarkable about this Circe is her consciousness of what is happening to her and her articulation of that consciousness at the moment of interaction with the "other." She watches Odysseus coldly as he approaches her for her sexual favors clothed in his shell of confident expectation. She anticipates that if she grants him his wish, she will either fear or despise him. Finally, she does capitulate, and she even allows herself some moments of generosity before she notices that he receives her gifts as his due without acknowledging them. Still, she protests his rough approach to her body, calling it "extortion" and pointing out the fine line between love and hate in such gestures. She knows that underneath her own soft masks there is a face of steel to match his own, and she dares the hero to see his reflection in it.
Despite her consciousness and her protests, however, Odysseus "wins." Atwood invents her own symbol for Circe's magic power—a closed fist on a chain around Circe's neck—and presents Odysseus' conquest as a triumph of the hero's armor over the fist's stuttering and muttering in the language of magic. Finding its foe unas-
The surprising feature of Atwood's poem is that having "lost" the battle of wills, Circe is released from the mentality of battle. Circe "opens" like a hand cut off at the wrist clutching at freedom. The image is grotesque and not entirely successful. It is not clear how a hand can open and clutch at the same time; and the arm that feels the pain of her absence (the goddess who surrenders to patriarchal force?) is not sufficiently defined. Still, the poem clearly asserts that Circe is released into the freedom of guiltless sexual enjoyment. The result is that she is able to see her lover's body for what it is—a scarred and flawed instrument—and to continue to feel desire for him, even though she knows that his body is not the essence of what she wants.
At the same time, she suspects that her body is all he wants. Extreme as the image of the "mud woman" is, in the story "told by another traveller," Circe is vulnerable to it. She has already acknowledged her affinity with the earth, and in her present state of sexual responsiveness, she admits that it would be "simple" for her to give in to his desire, especially if Odysseus allows himself to be transformed into a gentle lover (as it appears he does later in the poem).
Circe's "freedom" is short-lived. The lovers are assailed from all sides. Their pleasure offends "the suicides, returned / in the shapes of birds" to warn or complain that "everything dies," who had not found the fruits of the earth sufficient, and who demand the lovers' death as vengeance for their own unhappiness. Circe still fears the goddess "of the two dimensions" (Hecate), who wants her to resist her lover, wants her to make herself "deaf as an eye, / deaf as a wound, which listens / to nothing but its own pain." Hecate would have Circe kick Odysseus out, and Circe knows that Hecate "gets results."
As for the hero, he becomes preoccupied with his own story, and perhaps too trusting: as Circe becomes more servant than lover, her mind turns to the creation of "fresh monsters" to feed his heroic appetite. Whether these monsters are created to make him afraid to leave, or to keep him from leaving by giving him something more to write about, they have the negative effect of undermining the couple's newly found ability to value each other apart from their stories. That ability is also undermined by Circe's jealousy of Penelope, and her resentment of the fact (which she foresees) that Odysseus will believe Penelope's defense of her wifely honor.
The hero's lack of contentment with the present, the only motive Homer provides for Odysseus' departure, is also an element in the disintegration of the lovers' relationship in Atwood's poem. Odysseus naively wants Circe to tell him the future. She responds caustically,
That's my job,
one of them, but I advise you
don't push your luck.
To know the future
there must be a death.
Hand me the axe.
As you can see
the future is a mess.
Here, as elsewhere in the last eight poems of the sequence, Circe has powers that may be explained as psychological or cognitive rather than magical. Her ability to change the island's summer climate to winter in the twenty-second poem is presumably a correlative for the psychological state of coldness she must develop in order to let her lover go. Her knowledge and insight are more acute in relationship to others, however, than they are in predicting her own fate. She worries that when Odysseus leaves the animals "may transform themselves back into men" and threaten her life. She questions whether her father, Helios, cares about her enough to restore her immortality. She wonders if Odysseus will give her back the facility with words that he released from her fist. In the face of her own fate, she is the vulnerable woman.
The final poem shows, however, that despite her worries Circe the woman retains her goddess-like capacity for envisioning the future. The first island that she sees would maintain the power of the story—revised, of course, so that she "is right." The second island seems more than anything to be a place where neither story counts. On it, the deer is not a stag to be killed for Odysseus' men, as it is in The Odyssey. The birds are not disguised suicides and the snow is not a symbol of psychological coldness as they are in Circe's story. The landscape is neither idyllic nor burned. The lovers are not surrogates for the traveller and his mud woman. The image of the second island is too open to be quite convincing—but perhaps that is its source of power. Since Circe does not articulate her dream fully, we are encouraged to dream it onward ourselves.
The Circe we see here needs no defense, although she is vulnerable. Certainly she is not pure, although she is no worse than Odysseus. Despite all the fanciful elements in the poem, we believe that Atwood has put her finger on a significant aspect of woman's power that was embodied in the ancient figure of Circe and needed only to be articulated clearly: the ability to see, see into, and see beyond the stories we tell about who we are. This is not exclusively a female power; traditionally it belongs to both Cassandra and Teiresias. But perhaps women have more often been consigned to the islands where such capacities flourish. Specifically, we have long had a different vantage point from which to view the male hero. Perhaps the delight that this poem produces in female audiences has to do with Atwood's success in modelling how to reveal the dark spot on the back of the man's head, without which, Virginia Woolf said, the man's portrait remains incomplete.
Some will say that Atwood's Circe is ungenerous; Homer's Odysseus, after all, was capable of great sorrow and guilt, not to mention aesthetic appreciation. But Atwood knows, as most of us do, how often those capacities have been repressed in favor of rapaciousness. Others will say she is too generous—that men like Odysseus have no reason to change. Atwood presents the many difficulties we would experience in achieving a real partnership, but at the same time she holds out hope for change. Whereas Homer's Circe is a minor goddess whose power to seduce men is overcome by the superior connections of Odysseus with the pantheon of gods, Atwood's is a woman who had certain enduring goddess-like capacities.
Atwood herself might describe Circe as a Venus released from the "Rapunzel Syndrome" the poet described in her book of criticism, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, published two years before You Are Happy. This literary pattern "for realistic novels about 'normal' women" includes Rapunzel, "the wicked witch who has imprisoned her," "the tower she's imprisoned in," and the Rescuer "who provides momentary escape." In the literary versions of the fairy tale, however, "the Rescuer is not much help…. Rapunzel is in fact stuck in the tower, and the best thing she can do is to learn how to cope with it." Atwood speculates that although the Rapunzel Syndrome transcends national boundaries, it takes a Canadian form: the Rapunzel figures have difficulty in communicating, or even acknowledging, their fears and hatreds; "they walk around with mouths like clenched fists."
Certainly Atwood's Circe symbolizes the release from such difficulties of communication. She has not become her own tower by internalizing the values of Western culture that would consign her to the role of cold seductress, la belle dame sans merci. Her enjoyment of sexual pleasure in the center of the poem identifies her as more Venus than Diana or Hecate, in the triple goddess figure from Robert Graves that Atwood uses to describe the possibilities for women in fiction. Circe is perhaps not a perfect Venus, as Atwood understands the figure, both sexual and maternal—unless we think of Circe's healing and serving capacities as products of maternal impulse. She is Venus with a difference: a Venus who finally does not lose her self in expressing her sexuality; one with the capacity to conceive of a new tower (island) in which she will not be imprisoned; one with the potential to be her own muse.
If the potential of this Rapunzel to liberate herself is not yet fully realized, we should not complain. It is up to us to do better. Whatever we might wish for Circe's future, we must admit that Atwood, through her knowledge of the psychology and history of relationships between males and females and through her brilliant use of literary precedents both ancient and modern, has restored her to the realm of living myth where there is no opposition between myth and truth. In this realm, myth is one kind of truth—a kind that retains its power long after philosophers and historians have revealed its impossibility, a kind that continues to glide through our dreams, fantasies, and even our gestures "as if there is water." Atwood gambles here on the possibility that myth can be transformed from within without losing its power.
Clearly the transformation worked for Atwood, as she demonstrates in the poems surrounding "Circe/Mud Poems." The first section of You Are Happy is the record of relationships between men and women that are just short of violent in their outcome—where the only moment of "happiness" occurs when the woman, walking alone in sub-freezing weather, feels the images "hitting" her eyes "like needles, crystals." Then, "Songs of the Transformed," a contemporary bestiary, ends with the warning song of the human corpse who hoarded both words and love until it was too late.
The section that follows the Circe poems, however, is markedly different. In these poems, enigmatically called "There Is Only One of Everything," the lovers make an honest attempt to inhabit their bodies instead of abandoning them "in favour of word games or jigsaw puzzles." The woman seeks to express both her anger and her desire. They move from the experience of love based on need to an experience based on ripeness. Together, they transform an ancient ritual of sacrifice into a ritual of love. Coming after the Circe poems and drawing on the same mythic elements, these poems have the effect of confirming Circe's vision of the new island and validating its essential truthfulness.
In turn, the presence of the Circe poems in the volume gives to the final sequence the status of myth. In it two people transcend both the powerful myth of the war between the sexes and its brutal history in order to participate in life organized by the values of Circe's vision. The lovers' responsiveness to each other and to nature, in a moment to be appreciated for its own unique presence, is sufficient to overcome all other imperatives—whether of life or of death. "There Is Only One of Everything" does not mean that the lovers submerge their identities to achieve the "oneness" promised in the traditional marriage ceremony, but that in sharing the uniqueness of each moment ("the tree / we saw."), each opens him/herself and becomes whole.
In the poem "Is/Not," from the fourth section of You Are Happy, Atwood's female protagonist explains to her lover,
This is a journey, not a war,
there is no outcome.
I renounce predictions
and aspirins, I resign the future
as I would resign an expired passport:
we're stuck here
where we must walk slowly,
where we may not get anywhere
or anything, where we keep going,
fighting our ways, our way
not out but through.
What kind of a journey has no outcome and goes nowhere? Unlike Circe's flippant dismissal of her powers in a moment of frustration ("So much for art. So much for prophecy,") this paradoxical formulation seems to be serious. But what does Atwood mean?
Furthermore, what should we make of the fact that "Circe/Mud Poems" does not take the form of a journey at all? Indeed, one of its most intriguing features is that it does not propose an alternative form of the quest it criticizes so bitingly—not even the form Annis Pratt describes as the female rebirth journey. Perhaps we could say that Circe's island itself represents a release from societal norms, or that Circe's rejection of Odysseus' story about her represents such a release. But this is more a matter of externalizing her private knowledge (splattering the fire-weed) than it is part of an inward exploration—more an assertion of ego in defiance of patriarchal norms than a retreat from its concerns, as in other rebirth journeys by women. It would likewise be difficult to locate a green-world guide or token, unless it is the syllables from the earth that Circe gathers in her role as witch/healer. But that is the substance of her reality, not a deviation from it. Odysseus never really becomes Circe's "green-world lover"; although for a brief period he does reveal his body beneath his armor, he quickly returns to his own concerns. Perhaps we can see him as a catalyst in Circe's life, since he does undo the fist and release her capacity for passion. There is no overt confrontation with parental figures, although Circe does wonder whether her father, the sun, will rescue her. But her immortality is assured by language, not by Helios.
Circe's report of Hecate's desire for her relationship to fail, her jealousy of Penelope, and her spiteful creation of new monsters to inhibit Odysseus might appropriately be described as manifestations of self-destructive potential (or "shadow"). If she gives in to the part of herself that experiences Odysseus' love as an invasion of her privacy, she dooms herself to loneliness. If she derides Penelope's story, she devalues her own capacity for telling a believable story. If she creates new monsters for Odysseus to conquer, she becomes a participant in the quest she criticizes. Presumably she manages to overcome all of these impulses in order to envision the second island. But can we call these acts a "plunge into the unconscious" for purposes of rebirth? This Circe seems to emerge from centuries in the unconscious to complete the cleansing acts of telling off the hero and admitting all sorts of other feelings she did not know she had.
It would be more accurate to see the whole poem sequence as proceeding from the inside out rather than in the usual manner of the spiritual quest. Circe says she "searches" for a certain kind of man. But it is more true to say that she opens herself to the possibility of a relationship that will develop that kind of man—and in turn will allow her to be the loving woman she would like to be. The poem is not so much a rebirth journey (there is no journey) as it is an exploration of what might happen if we stopped questing and made the most of the capabilities for relationship that we have "Right now I mean. See for yourself."
This is curious, for elsewhere in her work Atwood seems to be as committed to the idea of the quest as any modernist writer. Certainly Surfacing fits the pattern Annis Pratt describes, and many of her titles suggest a preoccupation with a psychological journey, usually in the form of a descent. Robert Lecker suggests that Atwood uses such patterns to question their assumptions—even to prove them false. He points out, for example, that Atwood often makes use of the romance pattern without its happy ending, return or ascent. In the case of Surfacing, he claims, "What Atwood really seems to be saying is that the mythical pattern of separation, initiation and return must itself be seen as a sham in a culture where rituals have lost their potency."
I doubt this explanation. Clearly rituals have not lost their potency for Atwood. In Two-Headed Poems, she and her sister sew a red shirt for her baby girl with every expectation of passing on to her daughter the heritage or "birth-right" of the world's mothers. She says,
It may not be true
that one myth cancels another.
Nevertheless, in a corner
of the hem, where it will not be seen,
where you will inherit
it, I make this tiny
stitch, my private magic.
And the child, as innocently as Sleeping Beauty once received her fatal prick from the wicked fairy, receives her mother's life-supporting gift with joy. Atwood still hopes that one myth does cancel another.
I think that what is finally mythologized in Atwood's poems is the possibility of altering myths that are so basic that we can scarcely dream of existence without them. Atwood knows that if one myth cancels another, it happens slowly, "Circe/Mud Poems," then, is part of a long process of rearranging the elements of the quest myth into a shape which may finally negate the idea of questing, as we now understand it, in order to embrace an idea of self-acceptance and relationship quite different from the traditional ideal of self-transcendence and attainment perpetuated by the quest. Atwood's vision is not "duplicitous" so much as it is double.
Like Circe, she envisions two possibilities, and she sees that, at least for the moment, "they do not exclude each other." In the first, the quest myth is simply changed from within so that the silent participants have their opportunity to "be right." In the second, the image of the journey itself is transformed, so that it becomes admirable to go through experience without going forward or getting anywhere. It is an image of movement "in place." The challenge of this kind of "journey" is simply to "Be Alive." Eventually, the antinomy between self and other that informed the quest will appear quite different, as it does in a later poem:
We do not walk on the earth
but in it, wading
in that acid sea
where flesh is etched from
molten bone and re-forms.
In this massive tide
warm as liquid
sun, all waves are one
wave; there is no other.
Atwood's mythic sequence stands in a pivotal position in her work, looking back to the "power politics" of earlier volumes and ahead to her developing sense of fruitful relationship among forms of life she does not regard as totally separate from each other. Thus her title "Circe/Mud Poems," cuts both ways. On the one hand, it protests the vision of woman which reduces her to her sexuality and materiality without recognizing her consciousness. On the other hand, from that same woman's consciousness comes a vision of the satisfaction of material reality. Perhaps Atwood will be the "poet of earth" that Wallace Stevens wanted to be, to match the poets of heaven and hell of the great tradition. As she says,
So much for the gods and their
static demands, our demands, former
is over, we take place
in a season, an undivided
space, no necessities
hold us closed, distort
Change is possible—even at the roots of our lives, in the myths that govern our experience.
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