Bill Moyers on Faith & Reason
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BILL MOYERS: What interested me when I read it is that Homer tells the story of Odysseus and his ten years at the Trojan War and his ten years of wandering-- until he gets back. He tells it from Odysseus standpoint, he tells it from the-- masculine worldview. And you have taken the story of Penelope, his wife, who's a relatively inconspicuous figure, not inconspicuous, she's a relative marginal figure in Homer's account of it. And you've give her her own voice.

I mean in Homer this is the description of Penelope. "Shrewd Odysseus, you're a fortunate man to have won a wife of such preeminent virtue. How faithful was your flawless Penelope. How faithful was your flawless Penelope, Icarus' daughter. How loyal has she kept the memory of the husband of her youth. The glory of her virtue will not fade with the years, but the deathless gods themselves will make a beautiful song for mortal ears in honor of the constant Penelope." But we don't hear much of-- from Penelope in Homer in her own voice. You have given her her own voice.

MARGARET ATWOOD: She has a somewhat different voice. The Odyssey is actually constructed in a very interesting and clever way. It's like movies that you see now in which you cut back and forth from one scene to the other, so that part of it is Odysseus approaching, then we cut to the palace to see what's going on there. Penelope doesn't know that Odysseus is approaching, she's in desperate straits. They're trying to murder her fun, they're importuning her, they're eating up all her stuff, whatever is she to do.

So that's how the audience-- The Odyssey goes, it's goes back and forth. Some of it is from Penelope's point of view. She happens to be rather tearful in The Odyssey. I didn't have to deal with that. It's true that people cry a lot more in both The Iliad and The Odyssey then we might find-- agreeable nowadays. They do a lot of public waling. So I had to deal with the tearfulness. But she must have been a pretty shrewd practical person to have run things for so long by herself. So I make her much more obviously shrewd and practical then she is in The Odyssey.

BILL MOYERS: But as I read that I thought of a theme that runs through much of your storytelling which is that life is not all sugar and spice for little girls.

MARGARET ATWOOD: Life is not sugar and spice for anybody. If you-- if you're telling it from a female point of view it's going to seem life is not sugar and spice for little girls. But if you tell it from the point of for instance Oliver Twist then it's not sugar and spice for little boys. I did a novel from an entirely male point of view recently-- cause I was tired of people saying to me, "Why do you always write from the point of view of a woman?" And I was tired of saying, "Cause it's easier." So I wrote one entirely from a male character. And then of course they said, "Why did you choose that novel from the point of view of a man," at which point I said, "Why not? Is there something wrong with that?"

People always wanna know this, but there isn't-- there isn't a hard and fast answer. Historically women have been on the less visibility powerful side of things. However, you'll notice in THE ODYSSEY that all of the characters who help Odysseus are female, almost all of them with the exception of-- Hermes. The goddesses and the-- human women who help him out are all women. What am I saying-- the human beings who help him out are all women. So they have quite a lot of power within this story, but it's not the kind of power that an Agamemnon and Menelaus etcetera has.

BILL MOYERS: It's not their story, they are the extras in a way. I mean they're not...

BILL MOYERS: --play vital roles on the stage, but it's not told from their viewpoint and you--

MARGARET ATWOOD: Yeah, as soon as you tell something from the viewpoint of a character then that character has the spotlight, even if they're an orphan or a King Lear, they are still the center of the story.

BILL MOYERS: How did you come up with this opening line of THE PENELOPIAD, "Now that I'm dead I know everything."

MARGARET ATWOOD: Well I can't tell you how I come up with opening lines. What can I say, I'm a writer, it's what I do.

BILL MOYERS: But you seem to have a real connection to that underworld to speaking for the dead.

MARGARET ATWOOD: Well what can I say.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah there are some questions that have--

MARGARET ATWOOD: It's one of those dimensions--

BILL MOYERS: --have no answers, right?

MARGARET ATWOOD: --no-- yeah that's right. It's one of the dimensions of the Greek world. They had, and we have it also, in the medieval view of life, there was Middle Earth which is the one that we're in right now. You have a body and you're human being, you live in Middle Earth. Underneath there was the underworld, and above there was the Olympus with gods in it. But the underworld is a very real place for them.

They didn't like it much, the afterlife wasn't-- it didn't have the heaven and hell choices that later came into being. It had a level where you were if you'd been sort of medium good, and had a somewhat better place if you'd been a hero or somebody like that. And if you'd been really bad you got tortured in a level called Tartarus. But it didn't have eternal bliss and joy. In fact Achilles says, when he meets Odysseus, Odysseus calls up the spirits of the dead at one point in The Odyssey, has a conversation with them. Achilles says-- Achilles who was chosen a short life and a glorious one, instead of a long life and an obscure one, says to Odysseus, "Better then one day better one day on earth as the most miserable swine herd then king of the underworld."

BILL MOYERS: And yet when you offer Penelope, in your telling of the story, the chance to go back to earth to be a queen and a-- or a housewife again. She says no.

MARGARET ATWOOD: No, she says no, too risky, you don't know what you're gonna get. Yes, one of the versions of-- because the Greeks had various versions of what was on offer down there. And in one of the versions you could drink the water of forgetfulness and get reborn. So rebirth was a possibility, but you're taking your chances. You didn't know what you would be reborn as. She thinks it's safer just to stay where she is.

BILL MOYERS: I enjoyed the book so much from the revelations you learn about the gods from Penelope. Penelope is now in the underworld, it's all over, she's down there, and she really unleashes a stream of revelations about the gods. You have her saying, "There was something childish about the gods in a nasty way, making people roll heavy stones up steep hills is one of their favorite jests. What the gods really like," you write, "is to conjure up banquets, big platters of meat, heaps of bread, bunches of grapes and then snatch them away."

MARGARET ATWOOD: That's one of the tortures in the Tartarus part of the underworld. This stuff is all real, I didn't-- by real I mean that it has precedent in the mythology, I didn't make things up.

BILL MOYERS: You didn't put this language, these words into her mouth out of your own imagination.

MARGARET ATWOOD: No, no, no those are things that-- that-- that were actual things that happened to figures in great mythology. Sisyphus is the one who has to roll the stone up the hill-- Tantalus is the one who has the banquet always snatched away from him in a tantalizing fashion, because they've been bad you see, they've been bad. But if you haven't been that bad you just walked around and ate ambrosia.

BILL MOYERS: "The gods were never averse to making a mess, in fact they enjoyed it. To watch some mortal shake with his or her eyes frying in their sockets through an overdose of god sex made them shake with laughter."

MARGARET ATWOOD: Yeah it's true. That's what happened to one of the loves of Zeus who asked to-- who asked to see him in his god form. So he showed himself to her in his god form, it was too much for her and she burnt up.

BILL MOYERS: "The gods couldn't seem to keep their hands or paws or beaks off mortal women." Well that doesn't sound very divine. That sounds like--

MARGARET ATWOOD: Well you know they were always changing themselves into bulls or swans in order to have sex with mortal women. Those would be Leyda and the swan, it would be Europa (PH), yes they took many different animal forms.

BILL MOYERS: Is she settling old scores here with the gods?

MARGARET ATWOOD: She doesn't think she's been treated very well by them. Not as badly as you might be treated, but you know waiting 20 years it was pretty tedious.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah well doesn't trying to give a w-- doesn't giving a women her voice and an inner life always going to be considered feminist by those who think women should only be handmaids?

MARGARET ATWOOD: Absolutely, but of course such people don't want women to have any kinds of voices at all. But feminist is again one of those words like Christian it has many different sects. So if you're gonna say anything at all meaningful about it, you have to say what kind of feminist. You can say in an overarching way that within this huge umbrella of feminism-- we could vote-- for instance we could go back in time and hands up everybody who believes that women have souls. Do you think women have souls?

BILL MOYERS: Of course I do.

MARGARET ATWOOD: Okay, hold up, you're a feminist according to some early Christian fathers who said they didn't, alright. Do you think that women should be allowed to read and write?

BILL MOYERS: Oh sure I believe that what's good--

BILL MOYERS: --for anyone is good for everyone.

MARGARET ATWOOD: Oh I don't quite believe that, not entirely.

BILL MOYERS: I believe if I can read-- if-- if I can read it's good for you to read.

MARGARET ATWOOD: Maybe-- maybe not.

BILL MOYERS: But there are certain common themes we have-- needs we have and desire we have as human beings that seem to me to be universal.

MARGARET ATWOOD: Some are, maybe it's debatable.

BILL MOYERS: Alright, you have to write about that.

MARGARET ATWOOD: No, you have to do a repeatable experiment to know whether it's true or not.

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