One might find it incredibly fitting that esteemed author Margaret Atwood came to University at Buffalo’s Center for the Arts to deliver her keynote speech Friday during UB’s "Humanities to the Rescue" weekend, on an evening close to International Women’s Day.
Atwood’s lecture was part of a UB’s Humanities Institute project aiming to call attention to the importance of the humanities in the current socio-political climate.
Hearing such an astounding female presence, who has been writing prolifically for nearly six decades, was an honor.
Atwood’s message for the evening was one about the humanities, history, her acclaimed novel, "The Handmaid’s Tale," and hope.
Atwood delivered a satirical address that combined a discussion of the history of totalitarian governments with the importance of preserving the humanities.
In her defense of the humanities, Atwood talked about "The Handmaid’s Tale," saying, "art is whole human expression. And through art, we not only express, we also explore and question. … And that, I fondly believe, is why the regime of Gilead in "The Handmaid’s Tale" did not last. They tried to suppress the whole human being, they tried to eliminate questioning. They tried to substitute only one official and restricting story for the many stories of us, of the many of us human beings."
Atwood connected this with the significance of human ingenuity, saying that science provides a measuring device for our advancement, answering the question of what we are. But it is up to the humanities to define who we are as humans and individuals.
Near the end of her lecture, Atwood entered into a thought-provoking philosophical contemplation.
"Here is a question that is at the core of the humanities," she said. "Where and how do we want to live? Is it in a society that strives to right ancient wrongs, to search for balance and equality, and to respect truth and fairness, or do we want to live in some other place in some other way? It will be up to you younger people to decide that, to question values, to explore the nature of truth and fairness. It will be up to you to understand the stories and to create better ones." She pointed out that "some of the best literature is written under repressive regimes. If you do nothing else, write down what happens every day."
During the question-and-answer portion of the evening, Atwood was asked to comment on how she sees her works, especially those set in dystopias, as hopeful.
"Writing always envisages a future reader," she said. "Even if it’s going to be yourself, even if it’s going to be your diary, even if it will be yourself in a future time, you are proposing that these words you are setting down will be read by somebody later, because writing is something in which there is always a time gap – there is a gap between what you’re writing and it being read, so the act of writing in and of itself is inherently hopeful."
Atwood’s writing might include many dark, dystopian societies – all of which, she mentioned, were based on precedent – but she has faith in future generations, and left many inspired to simply – or not so simply – go out and write.
Julia Beck is a sophomore at Buffalo Seminary.