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12 THE MIDWEST QUARTERLY, serve as paradigms of the genre precisely because their. negative futures stem specifically from the implementation. of a rational design for reorganizing society a utopia Since. most if not all such designs for a dirigiste world belong to the. political left most of course are communal coUectivistic . their anti type the dystopia usually is or at least appears to. be conservative counseling rather the bearing of those ills. we have than flying to others that we know not of Another. tradition of utopias however depends on revelation rather. than on reason on some divine injunction or leading from. above in which case they are usually theocracies regimes. ruled by a priestly class whose authority rests in the will and. word of God Giliad the futuristic society depicted in The. Handmaid s Tale is Atwood s dystopic projection of such a. theocracy a right wing fundamentalist Christian theocracy . Aldous Huxley has argued that whatever its artistic or. philosophic qualities a book about the future can interest us. only if its prophecies look as though they might conceivably. come true That is to say the conviction or force that such. projections convey depends on real world conditions or at. least on the perception of these conditions consequently . as these conditions or perceptions change so will the vatic. force of the fictive projections Powerful as Nineteen Eighty . Four remains in many ways its potency as a possible and. fearful future significantly declined with the decline of the. old fashioned jackboot and truncheon totalitarianism With. the collapse of the Evil Empires of Orwell s day the specter. of Ingsoc no longer haunts Europe or the world As long ago. as 1958 in Brave New World Revisited Huxley noted that. recent developments in Russia have robbed Orwell s. book of some of its gruesome verisimilitude and argued . correctly that the odds were more in favor of something. like Brave New World than something like 1984 looming. in our future We have in other words little cause to fear a. future that does not seem a plausible extrapolation of current. conditions An America for example whose super rich. FEAR ITSELF 13, convert to Christianity sell all they have to give to the poor . and thus create a crisis in capital accumulation and economic. catastrophe is not a scenario that arouses much anxiety . The question then that I want to consider is the, plausibility in light of current conditions of the future. depicted in The Handmaid s Tale We ought however , first recall that the purpose of a dystopia is not accurate. prediction but effective prophylaxis the dystopist that is . wants to offer a self defeating prophecy The media frenzy. in and around 1984 over Nineteen Eighty Four as prediction. almost invariably missed the point that Orwell did not want to. describe accurately a totalitarian future but to forestall one . The less right he was the better job he had done Similarly . we may safely conclude that Atwood has no desire to prove. an oracle assuming however that her purpose is more than. merely to entertain jolly good yarn the minatory force of. her tale will depend on the effectiveness of her extrapolation. from real and present dangers in todays society Trueness. to the future is thus not the crucial criterion of a dystopian. vision but trueness to the present paradoxically is . Atwood s Giliad exists in the near future not just within. the lifetime of her protagonist Offred or June but within. the span of her childbearing years Less than a decade . seemingly separates the Giliadian future from the more. or less present the world we know Is so cataclysmic a. social revolution occurring so abruptly plausible Atwood. has adduced the example of Iran under the ayatollahs as an. instance of a society s performing such an abrupt volte face . and indeed the speed with which Iran retook the veil lends. credence to her fictive scenario Twentieth century history. offers other apt analogues Could the boyars of Russia in. the summer of 1914 have imagined the epic transformation. that the guns of August would inaugurate Could a normal. citizen of Weimar Germany in say 1929 have even begun. to conceive what his nation would be like a decade later . It is Orwell wrote in 1940 as though in the space of. 14 THE MIDWEST QUARTERLY, ten years we had slid back into the Stone Age Human.
types supposedly extinct for centuries have suddenly. reappeared not as inmates of lunatic asylums but as masters. of the world Indeed could any of us only a few years. ago have predicted the collapse of the Soviet empire so. swiftly so totally so bloodlessly and the momentous social. transformations that followed in its wake A sort of historical. Doppler Effect seems to have developed where rapid and. radical change appears to be the most dependable constant. of our time The once seemingly irreversible trend toward. ever greater internationalism has foundered on the rocks of. renewed nationalism and even nationalism itself confronts. the disintegrating forces of ethnic and religious tribalism . Not only are the Balkans being rebalkanized so is much of. the rest of the world What Atwood projects then is the. sort of cataclysmic upheaval that the rest of the world has. experienced happening here and happening as the result. of the same sort of disintegrating religious tribalism The. former United States is in this scenario a patchwork of. warring satrapies of which Giliad is but one the area once. known as New England , Given then that historical analogues render Atwoods. scenario not altogether implausible the more crucial. question echoing the title of Sinclair Lewis s 1935 novel on. a similar theme becomes Can it happen here Atwood. stated that she did not include anything in The Handmaid s. Tale that had not already happened or was not underway. somewhere perhaps so somewhere in Iran or Romania. or East Timor but in the United States Even in this one. of the darkest and most retrograde periods of our nation s. history Is there that is any legitimate plausibility to her. future and therefore any real force in her warning When. Atwood wrote the tale in 1985 the religious right was riding. high the result largely of tent revivalism s having discovered. cable television Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority both. now defunct were receiving a lot of media attention Jimmy. FEAR ITSELF 15, and Tammy Faye Bakker had blubbered their way to a bizarre. sort of celebrity and the pre masturbating a hooker in a . motel room revelation Jimmy Swaggert offered a nightly. spectacle of evangelical rapture equaled in authenticity. only by his peers in the World Wrestling Federation All. their grotesquerie appeared to many observers as the goofy . face of a serious sociological phenomenon the coalescence. of evangelical Christians the lumpen born again into. a sizable and significant voting bloc On this premise Pat. Robertson in 1988 mounted a campaign for President that. went nowhere Nevertheless the ReUgious Right seems to. have established a permanent caucus in the Republican Party . where it pretty much writes party platform every four years. and enjoys a veto over presidential candidates It claims and. is claimed to have defeated the Equal Rights Amendment . has spearheaded jihads against legalized abortion gay rights . and the mainstream media and in general served as God s. PAC on earth The fervor and tenor of the Religious Right. can well be gauged by Pat Robertsons characterization of. feminism as a socialistic anti family political movement. that encourages women to leave their husbands kill their. children practice witchcraft destroy capitalism and become. lesbians , The phenomenon then that Atwood extrapolates into. Ciliad an intolerant totalitarianoid fundamentalism intent. on culture war obviously exists here and now but is it really. a serious enough phenomenon to send the sort o frisson. down the spine that a dystopia should I think not Nineteen. Eighty Four frightened because there was a Stalin in the. Kremlin and a Beria at Lubianka consequently as real world. totalitarianism receded so did the dread produced by the. fictive intensification of it in Oceania Because technology. more than politics informs Zamyatin s We and Huxley s Brave. New World and Vonnegut s Player Piano or more precisely a. politics generated by advanced technology and because the. potential for a techno tyranny remains quite plausible these. 16 THE MIDWEST QUARTERLY, dystopias retain much of their minatory power Compared to. the cataclysmic totalitarian threats of yore Hitler Mussolini . Stalin Mao or the continuing techno totalitarian threat a. neo theocracy on the banks of the Charles inspires little fear. as a plausible future While admiring the imagination and. artistry of The Handmaid s Tale I find it wants to frighten us. too much about too little , When I suggested something along these lines to a class.
studying the book I was surprised by the intensity of some. students objections to what I had said With abortion clinics. being bombed and gays being bashed with Roe v Wade. hanging by a thread and Clarence Thomas recently ensconced. on the Supreme Court my example is ofthat vintage with. the forces of reaction infiltrating school boards and Intelligent. Design being taught as science my reservations were taken. by the politically correctest among them to be ostrich like. at best and at worst objectively fascist as old line Marxists. used to say It was helpfully suggested that bUndness like. mine was exactly what had allowed Hitler to come to power . What I protested about all my Bush jokes My small but. very sincere contribution to People for the American Way . My support for the Dixie Chicks Did these count for nothing. in establishing my eity proi bona fides Nothing If I was. too obtuse to see that Giliad lurked just around the corner . then I probably also believed that Oswald shot Kennedy and. just say no really worked Clearly I thought my class was. stoned Oliver Stoned But when later untutored by this. experience I presented the same argument at an academic. conference liberally sprinkled with feminists the reaction. was even more virulent as I had no gradebook to brandish. against the assault Only an imperceptive and or evil running. dog of the status quo would have any but words of praise and. thanks for Ms Atwoods timely warning , These experiences confirmed one of my suspicions the. dystopia serves for a certain kind of reader much the same. function that the Cothic romance served for the eighteenth. FEAR ITSELF 17, century or that slasher movies serve for the pubescenti today . to scare them silly As one nineteenth century poet sang in. praise of Gothic terrors there is a joy in fear The joy in. fear that explains the appeal of horror stories probably also. explains the appeal of the dystopia an ideological horror story . My students I reaUzed and my fellow conference goers of. a certain persuasion wanted to be scared scared by the. specter of a shadowy cabal of rightwing zealots spreading its. secret tentacles everywhere just as earlier they had wanted. to be scared by Freddie Kruger or Pinhead The Nightmare. on Elm Street and the nightmare in Room 101 have much. the same psycho aesthetic appeal there is a joy in fear . Thus in minimizing the dangers that The Handmaid s Tale. maximizes I was literally acting as a killjoy throwing warm. water on them so to speak It was a critical approach not. greatly welcome in class or at conference , But I was not done Atwood s tale I went on to suggest . had other weaknesses in verisimilitude One of these struck. me when early in the novel in a casual bit of dialogue there. is mention that the armed forces of Giliad have just smoked. the Baptists out of one of their strongholds in the Blue Hills . If the sect that rules Giliad never specified is at war with. the Baptists with whom indeed could it be allied Of whom. indeed could it be composed Not only are the Baptists the. largest Protestant denomination in America but they are. surely the most theologically fundamentalist and politically. reactionary of any of the mainline Ghristian sects One can. hardly imagine a faction of the Religious Right far enough to. the right of the Baptists to be at war with them and yet large. and powerful enough to organize a coup to bring down the. U S government When in addition we discover that in the. ongoing sect wars Gatholicism has been declared illegal in. the Republic of Giliad and its priests when caught are hanged . the implausibility of Atwood s theocratic future becomes even. more obvious Were the Religious Right to pose any real. political threat it would arise from a convergence of all the. 18 THE MIDWEST QUARTERLY, fundamentalist elements not from internecine sect wars . among them One has to imagine Jerry Falwell in bed with. Cardinal O Connor metaphorically speaking of course . scratching each others backs not stabbing them But since. Falwells Southern Baptists and O Connors Irish Catholics. are criminalized in Ciliad its theocracy is composed of some. nameless nebulous sect sprung up from no known historical. roots in the real world body politic Truth is I suspect t. The Politics of The Handmaid s Tale GORMAN BEAUCHAMP IN CANADA THEY said Could it happen here In England they said jolly good yarn In the United States they said How long have we got Such were the reactions according to an interview that Margaret Atwood gave to The New York Times to her futuristic novel The Handmaid s Tale The British response is the calmest viewing the work

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