From The Archives
ROBERT INGERSOLL (1833 – 1899)
The Great Agnostic
Many ages ago our fathers were living in dens and caves. Their bodies, their low foreheads, were covered with hair. They were eating berries, roots, bark and vermin. They were fond of snakes and raw fish. They discovered fire and, probably by accident, learned how to cause it by friction. They found how to warm themselves—to fight the frost and storm. They fashioned clubs and rude weapons of stone with which they killed the larger beasts and now and then each other. Slowly, painfully, almost imperceptibly they advanced. They crawled and stumbled, staggered and struggled toward the light. To them the world was unknown. On every hand was the mysterious, the sinister, the hurtful. The forests were filled with monsters, and the darkness was crowded with ghosts, devils, and fiendish gods.
These poor wretches were the slaves of fear, the sport of dreams.
Now and then, one rose a little above his fellows—used his senses—the little reason that he had—found something new—some better way. Then the people killed him and afterward knelt with reverence at his grave. Then another thinker gave his thought—was murdered—another tomb became sacred—another step was taken in advance. And so through countless years of ignorance and cruelty—of thought and crime—of murder and worship, of heroism, suffering, and self-denial, the race has reached the heights where now we stand.
Looking back over the long and devious roads that lie between the barbarism of the past and the civilization of to-day, thinking of the centuries that rolled like waves between these distant shores, we can form some idea of what our fathers suffered—of the mistakes they made—some idea of their ignorance, their stupidity—and some idea of their sense, their goodness, their heroism.
On this date in 1939, Canadian novelist and poet Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, Canada. As a youngster, she spent many months of each year in the wilderness with her parents, due to her father’s job as a forest entomologist, and began writing at age 6.
Atwood, fittingly, was descended from a Salem woman, Mary Webster–accused of witchcraft and sentenced to be hanged in 1685, but allowed to live after the rope broke. Atwood made her notorious ancestor the subject of her poem “Half-Hanged Mary.”
Atwood earned a B.A. from the University of Toronto in 1961, her M.A. from Radcliffe College and attended Harvard for two years of postgraduate study. She has held a variety of positions at various colleges and universities in North America, including lecturer, instructor and writer in residence. Atwood has been published in 14 volumes of poetry, including Margaret Atwood Poems (1965-1975), published in 1991. Her novels include: Edible Woman (1969), Surfacing (1972), Lady Oracle (1976), Life Before Man (1979), Bodily Harm (1981), The Robber Bride (1993), The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Cat’s Eye (1988), Alias Grace (1996), The Blind Assassin (2000) and her latest, Oryx and Crake.
She was named Canadian Humanist of the Year in 1987, as well as the American Humanist Association’s 1987 Humanist of the Year. Handmaid’s Tale, about a theocratic take-over of the United States, inspired the 1990 movie adapted by Harold Pinter.
Atwood has called herself an agnostic: “A doctrinaire agnostic is different from someone who doesn’t know what they believe. A doctrinaire agnostic believes quite passionately that there are certain things that you cannot know, and therefore ought not to make pronouncements about. In other words, the only things you can call knowledge are things that can be scientifically tested.” (Quoted in Humanism as the Next Step by Lloyd and Mary Morain, cited by Who’s Who in Hell edited by Warren Allen Smith.) Margaret Atwood lives with writer Graeme Gibson. They have three children, and, at last count, one cat.
“I was reading the Bible–some of us still do that, you know–and I saw the tale of Jacob and his wives and handmaids, a kind of early Baby M. This is not an attack on Christianity, but the fact is Christians have long persecuted other sects and each other, as they are in Northern Ireland today. People were saying things like, ‘A woman’s place is in the home.’ And I got to thinking, well, how would someone enforce thoughts like that?” —Margaret Atwood on writing The Handmaid’s Tale, interview, The New York Times April 14, 1990
From TODD WALTON
Under The Table Books
“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on children than the unlived life of the parent.” Carl Jung
Part One of So It Turns Out…arose from my recent opening to, delving into, and accepting that I am Jewish. What does that mean? It means, among many other things, that I was born to and brought up by a Jewish woman who spent her entire life pretending she wasn’t Jewish; and one of the results of her subterfuge, though I didn’t have a conscious inkling I was Jewish until I was twelve, was my intense attraction to other Jewish people.
My friend Colin, my best friend in elementary school, a psychoanalyst now, wrote in response to Part One, in which he figures importantly, “What’s interesting is that over the years, as you have come to embrace your Jewish identity, it has become much less a part of my identity.”
But here’s the thing, Colin. Before I can embrace my Jewish identity, I have to allow that identity to emerge. My Jewishness has been sequestered deep inside me and disallowed in my waking life for nearly seven decades. Your Jewishness was never hidden. You were openly and proudly Jewish, so it makes sense that in the course of your long life, no longer living in a predominantly Jewish environment, you might evolve away from largely identifying yourself as Jewish. But you would never deny that you emerged into this life Jewish and spent your childhood in an openly Jewish family.