Published March 12, 2018
It has happened before. And it can happen again.
If we disregard the humanities, we can lose our moral bearings, and totalitarian regimes can rise. Science can run amok and lead us astray.
That, perhaps, is a takeaway of the talk that Margaret Atwood, one of the world’s greatest writers, gave to a packed Mainstage Theatre at UB’s Center for the Arts on the evening of March 9.
Atwood, a novelist, essayist, poet, literary critic and environmental activist, is known as the author of the “Handmaid’s Tale” and the “MaddAddam” trilogy. She was speaking at UB as the 2017-18 Eileen Silvers Visiting Professor in the Humanities at UB.
These speculative works of fiction portray dystopian societies in which, respectively, authoritarian rulers have quashed free speech and thought, and bio-engineering has led to a near-apocalypse for humankind. The “Handmaid’s Tale” has been adapted into an Emmy Award-winning television series by Hulu, a streaming service.
“Nothing went into ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ the novel, and nothing goes into ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ the TV series, that does not have a precedent in real life,” Atwood told the audience at UB.
With wit, candor and sometimes dark humor, she kept her listeners enthralled — and laughing — as she discussed tyranny and other bleak subjects.
Atwood’s lecture opened “Humanities to the Rescue,” a weekend of programming presented by the university’s Humanities Institute. Activities included an environmental film series, curated by UB history professor Adam Rome, that showcased documentary makers whose works spark environmental activism.
Atwood’s talk argued powerfully for the import of the humanities in an age where academia is tilting toward the natural and physical sciences — fields seen as capable of generating revenues for institutions of higher learning.
As a society, we are intrigued by genetic engineering, sex robots and the possibility of “young blood” to rejuvenate the aging. (“Hide your babies,” Atwood said.) But what of the moral and philosophical consequences of these advances?
“Like a hammer, any technology is morally neutral,” Atwood said. “You can build a house with a hammer, or you can kill your enemy with it.”
In Adolf Hitler’s Germany, Benito Mussolini’s Italy and Stalin’s Soviet Union, pressure to conform and demonstrate loyalty to the party in power was great. Intellectuals were vulnerable because they were likely to have nonconforming thoughts, Atwood said. Those who publicly expressed disagreement faced danger, even death.
This suppression is mirrored by “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at a time when a patriarchal, religious regime has overthrown the government. Terrifying events, including executions, occur on the grounds of what used to be Harvard University.
Atwood told the UB audience that Harvard began as a Puritan, theological seminary in the 17th century when New England was “emphatically not a democracy.”
“That bears remembering,” she said. “Where we have once been, we can be again.”
In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” art, storytelling and freedom of expression are crushed. Similarly, in the world of the “MaddAddam” trilogy, the humanities are devalued in a world where science is revered — conditions that set the stage for a young scientist to unleash a plague that attempts to wipe out humanity to make room for a new breed of bioengineered people.
As humans, who are we? How do we want to live?
Art, literature, philosophy and more — the humanities — inform the answer. Both science and the humanities are made by human hands and, therefore, are part and parcel of what we are, Atwood told her listeners.
Science can tell us that we are a carbon-based lifeform with DNA closely related to, but crucially different from, other primates. We share a common ancestor with lobsters, bottom-dwelling scavengers that prey upon decaying carcasses, Atwood said, reaping laughs from the audience.
But anthropologists and archaeologists would have a very different answer to the question of who we are as human beings, she added. Literature and the art of writing hold yet other insights.
“The arts and humanities must reclaim a central place in the public arena,” said David Castillo, Humanities Institute director and professor of Romance languages and literatures, who, along with institute Executive Director Kari Winter and College of Arts and Sciences Dean Robin Schulze, introduced Atwood to the audience at the start of the night.
When it comes to human wholeness — to the question of who we are and what we want to be — “the humanities must be engaged,” Atwood insisted.
She gave the example of the invention of the wheel, which gave rise to chariots, wagons and cars, and to a torture device called the wheel. In Roman times, the Wheel of Fortune of the goddess Fortuna elevated some individuals to positions of wealth while crushing others as it turned.
Simply inventing a new tool causes new uses to spring into being, Atwood said. But how will we employ technological advances? What kind of people do we want to be?
At weddings and other meaningful events, “We don’t recite our income tax reports,” Atwood quipped. “If we do recite, it’s likely to be poetry. We speak, we sing, we engage in rituals that are meaningful to us because they connect us not only with ourselves, but with our communities and with the human race.”
At the end of the night, she left the audience with many heavy questions. In return, they gave her a standing ovation.