Thursday, 24 February 2011

On Forgiveness, Sex, & Love

Remembering arguments with Luke (for which she sometimes hungers, the narrator tells us), she says, "We were both feeling miserable. How were we to know we were happy, even then?" (202) For all of this novel's ambiguities, I definitely feel that Atwood equates happiness with freedom, or with certain freedoms--all relative, of course, she reminds us.

The narrator and Luke were happy then, as they prepared an escape, I presume, because they still had choices--a sense of agency, freedom, and control in their lives. "This does not seem as if it ought to be the true shape of the world," she soon tells us, reflecting on the present in contrast to the past (212). Even as the narrator relinquishes some of her self and much (or all?) of her power to this new regime, she knows and acknowledges that the world before was a markedly better world; that is her small bit of agency left, all that remains.

Chapter Thirty-Two closes with the line, "I feel buried" (223). The narrator increasingly loses ownership of her self--a kind of dying a slow death.

After she talks with Ofglen about Janine, the narrator comments, "People will do anything rather than admit that their lives have no meaning" (227). Atwood seems to suggest throughout the novel that meaning in our lives comes from intimate relationships (with partners, children, friends) and from having some say in who we are and what we do. It is without these things that life has no meaning, as life for the people in Gilead has lost or is rapidly losing its meaning for inhabitants--at least for the women. (The Commander seems reasonably happy with his life.)

While the Commander describes women and girls "saved by childbearing", the narrator reflects on what is absent when sex is merely a woman's duty and when the fertility and productivity of her body are her only worth (233). Nuns, celibate and therefore outside the world of sex altogether, are treated like witches in Gilead and forced to recant or go to the Colonies. They are broken. This society uses sex as function and the dehumanization of women to control them. Women are without agency. Without any at all (save the confines of their own minds, we hope, though even there, our narrator is losing ground).

The Commander makes love sound "trivial", like "a frill", "a whim", but in fact, the narrator reverses his definition, saying, "It was on the contrary, heavy going. It was the central thing; it was the way you understood yourself" (237). This is one of the central paradoxes in Atwood's book: even though falling in love sounds like a loss of self, it is in fact one of the greatest demonstrations of the human capacity for agency--choosing to be vulnerable, allowing oneself to love another. I share Atwood's admiration for the human ability to 'fall in love' and the ways in which it can be distinguished from a loss of power or a loss of self (all of which reminds me of Boland's poem 'Against Love Poetry' and its acknowledgment of the inherent contradiction in loving someone deeply and keeping all of yourself for yourself). Maybe love is both at once: a loss and a gain. Maybe we best express our humanity in this willingness to exert strength (emotional, spiritual, psychological) in the direction of loving another human being.

Along these lines, in my view anyway, sex is loving and healthy and good when it is a choice for both people involved, when it is an expression of love or intimacy, when there is freedom to give and to receive (and when both happen), and when both people have the freedom to engage or disengage. I think closeness (intimacy), committed relationships, and communication can be ideal in sex but not that these are absolute requirements. I would venture to say that the most important aspect of good sex is a balance of power between parties--even if roles and power balances are exchanged as part of the shared experience. When and if ever sex happens as one person's assertion of power and control over another to the extent of making the dominated person feel unsafe, uncomfortable, unhappy, or inhuman, I would be extremely skeptical of a view of the interaction as positive for anyone (the dominator, the dominated, the society).

As for forgiveness, I wonder if practicing forgiveness is an even greater demonstration of agency--the greatest, even, of all (as the narrator suggests earlier in the story).

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