Saturday, November 29, 2008

In Which Margaret Atwood Speaks For Me

This is a short piece from Margaret Atwood's 2006 collection of essays, short stories and poems called The Tent. It's not a poem, but it's too short to be an essay.

Whatever it is, I'm reproducing it here:


Walking was not fast enough, so we ran. Running was not fast enough, so we galloped. Galloping was not fast enough, so we sailed. Sailing was not fast enough, so we rolled merrily along on long metal tracks. Long metal tracks were not fast enough, so we drove. Driving was not fast enough, so we flew.

Flying isn't fast enough, not fast enough for us. We want to get there faster. Get where? Wherever we are not. But a human soul can only go as fast as a man can walk, they used to say. In that case, where are all the souls? Left behind. They wander here and there, slowly, dim lights flickering in the marshes at night, looking for us. But they're not nearly fast enough, not for us, we're way ahead of them, they'll never catch up. That's why we can go so fast: our souls don't weigh us down.

This speaks to me on multiple levels. On the literal level, it gets at the core of my problems with most modes of transportation --- they really do go too fast. I never learned to drive, in part because of motion sickness but in part because I just could never react fast enough. I'd be sitting at a stop sign for ten or twenty seconds figuring out what to do, while other cars sat wondering WTF I was doing. I can't give directions to someone who is driving me around, because the scenery whizzes by too fast for me to register it, and I end up realizing where we are after the person driving me has already missed the turn. (What I end up having to do is draw out a map ahead of time, and read off from it to direct people). On the slightly less literal level, the same dynamic applies to life in general. I seem to move through time as slowly as I do through space, and with the same level of confusion and inability to plan while moving.

It also seems to work as a parable of industrial civilization: we've become so caught up in going faster --- extracting more and more of the Earth's natural resources to burn for energy, to build more and more gadgets that will use that energy up faster and faster, clearing more and more of the available land to grow food in a supercharged, unsustainable manner to feed more and more people --- that we no longer ask ourselves if we should do whatever it is we're doing at the time. We take the imperatives of our way of life --- to make money, to acquire more and better possessions --- for universal human needs. Most of us, I think, understand perfectly well the destruction our way of life wreaks on the planet, but we can't conceive of the radical changes we'd have to make in order to stop that destruction, so we just accept it.

Our souls don't weigh us down.

1 comment:

thinkingdifference said...

I'm on Heathrow airport now, with a 9 hours flight ahead of me. I wish I could get home faster ;)

If ever interested, check out T.H. Eriksen's book, The Tyranny of the Moment.