Belmont students and faculty welcomed author Margaret Atwood Wednesday, Oct. 27 as the keynote speaker during the ninth annual Humanities Symposium sponsored by the university’s School of Humanities, which includes the departments of English, philosophy, and foreign languages.
Many expressed that the university was honored to allow Atwood, a Booker prize recipient and Dashiell Hammett award-winner, to serve as the culmination to the eight-day speaker series surrounding the theme, “Giving Shape to Airy Nothings: Inventing Communities, Creating Identities.”
As proud English professor and organizer of the symposium Dr. Sue Trout stated before introducing Atwood, “Please enjoy my dream.”
Atwood’s quiet, poised demeanor and her gentle wit and charm seemed to captivate and connect with the audience. Her first time in Nashville, “the mythic place where the Grand Ol’ Opry exists,” she even surprised the audience by singing—her effort to pay homage to the country legends she had listened to as a child.
Keeping with the theme of community, Atwood elaborated on two types of extreme communities present throughout her literary works—utopias and dystopias. The utopian, or ideal community, was a popular topic in 19th century literature, but as the vision of an ideal society became near impossible to achieve, writers began to capitalize on an opposite view of community through the dystopia.
One of the largest drawbacks to utopia, Atwood said, is “some people just don’t fit into your plan.
Ironically, Atwood concluded every dystopia contains some sort of utopia, just as every utopia contains some dystopia. “A life of entirely happy people,” she said, “would be extremely boring.”
Regarding the release of The Year of the Flood, her latest dystopian novel “with a little utopia,” Atwood described the community effort of her book launch.
She created an online community via the blogosphere, Facebook and Twitter, receiving widespread global support for her newest literary work. The conservationist and environmental themes resonated deeply with readers.
In the fictionalized dystopian world she created, the utopian “green cult” in her novel represents the steps made towards protecting and preserving the environment in the midst of what Atwood implies is steadily becoming a dystopian society.
“Shall we not repay the gift of life by repaying life with gifts?” she said in her reading of a section in The Year of the Flood.
And just as she began, Atwood concluded her lecture by singing one of the hymns inspired by the “green cult” in her novel.
Speaking on the different types of communities revealed in her acclaimed works, Atwood shared her vision of “repaying the gift of life” and revealing the importance of even the most infinitesimal aspects of creation—“God’s tiniest angels that work together in His polyphonic symphonies.”
As Associate Provost Dr. Jimmy Davis commented as he introduced Atwood, “We need a jolt— someone to shake us up, so we can see the context that connects us to the ever-widening universe. Margaret Atwood introduces us to that invisible world.”
A “teller of truth and revealer of context,” as Davis said, Atwood is using her utopian vision evident in her writings to “give shape” to the “airy nothings” of today’s community.
Her presence in the Belmont community during the 2010 Humanities Symposium, however, will not soon be forgotten.