“We Listen Better In the Dark” (Margaret Atwood) — Emily Deng

As a science student, I rarely get the chance to familiarize myself with the Humanities. Truthfully, during a school term, I seldom step foot past the Dana Porter Library (where most of the Arts buildings are located). That said, I am a fervent lover of the Arts and was thrilled when I heard about Congress 2012.

The Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences is the largest gathering of scholars, students, delegates and the like for the purpose of sharing ideas and broadening exploration. This year it is being co-hosted by Laurier University and The University of Waterloo. The theme for the 2012 conference is Crossroads: Scholarship for An Uncertain World.

I was very excited to have had the opportunity to attend one lecture in particular, Margaret Atwood’s presentation that she entitled, Bedtime Stories.

Her message was full of humorous anecdotes and clever allusions.  She opened jokingly with the comment that she was “…delighted to be addressing anyone, because it’s a sign that I’m still alive.”

She shortly thereafter began speaking of her experience as a young writer in the 1960’s in Canada. At the time, writing was considered an irrational and risky path to pursue.  There was little to no opportunity to make a living as a writer.  Atwood commented on the lack of Canadian publishers that were present at the time. One almost certainly had to leave the country in order to find prospects in such a choice of profession.  Her earlier works – Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature and The Circle Games (Atwood’s first major collection of poetry) were published during her collaboration as a part of the beginnings of The House of Anansi Press, a then fledgling publishing company founded by Canadian poet Dennis Lee and Canadian writer David Godfrey. She mused about selling books in school gymnasiums and nightly poster runs. Amidst the laughter, a sliver of seriousness was still present and reminded me that the Arts had never had it easy. She likened it to “The grown up version of selling girl-guide cookies.”

Her discourse with the audience then began to flow into the main topic of the 2012 theme.  The world is uncertain, Atwood agreed but she emphasizes that we should not give up pursuing the Arts. She contended that literature; reading and writing are vital components of human nature. After all, language was and remains the greatest means of communication for mankind. – “Most people will put up with almost anything to engage in an act of communication.” It prevails even in today’s technology driven society. With the advent of self-publication, young people like myself are reading and writing all the same (albeit perhaps not “War and Peace”, as Atwood points out). Hence she urges us to think of writing as storytelling. For us, a piece of text is a voice frozen on paper that may be unfrozen through us by reading and interpreting, giving it momentary life.  Text to a reader is as scores are to a violinist, Atwood proposed. “People are natural storytellers…We must narrate or die. “

Atwood concludes that the fate of the Humanities is in our hands. Whether it is employed for economic gain in the form of spin-doctoring or otherwise, it is uncertain. The world is uncertain, especially in the dark at bedtime. These are the times that stories are most often told, Atwood affirms. “[But] we listen better in the dark.”

Published by

Mark Morton

As Senior Instructional Developer, Mark Morton helps instructors implement new educational technologies such as clickers, wikis, concept mapping tools, question facilitation tools, screencasting, and more. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Mark taught for twelve years in the English Department at the University of Winnipeg. He received his PhD in 1992 from the University of Toronto, and is the author of four books: Cupboard Love; The End; The Lover's Tongue; and Cooking with Shakespeare.

Leave a Reply