Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize win is infuriating given the reality that writers like Margaret Atwood are still walking around. I saw that man in concert a few years back and he stood at the mic to mumble the same stuff that made him famous decades ago, back when that type of stuff was new, relevant, less cliché. A huge owl, grey and real, flew in while Dylan was “singing” and landed up in the eaves; the crowd applauded for that bird more earnestly than they did for Dylan because the original vagabond, the unwashed phenomenon, looked so lackluster after all these years. And his tired words are the same, when written on paper, because they mattered once but don’t fit in now. That man missed the change he was looking for but we’re still giving him awards for it; awards he cherishes so much that he no-shows to the ceremony and plagiarizes the speech he sends in after the fact.
How dare we treat relevant art—art like Atwood’s—that way? Frankly, we did the same thing for Obama. For the record, I voted for that man twice and I’m a huge fan, but given the countless drone strikes and civilian casualties that came as collateral damage during his tenure, I wonder occasionally at the impetus behind his own Nobel win. That medal is being strung around necks to send messages now instead of awarding artistic contributions, and it cheapens the recipients’ work that came before, the work that was worthy of award. Hell, I’d hate to put words in Atwood’s mouth because hers are already so much better than my own, but she seems to agree with me in this video. So, given my task this week to write about contemporary works of sublimity, I’m choosing to write about Atwood because if people don’t stand up and point at her writing, she might pass before most of us realize that we’re living in the same time as one of this world’s most sublime artists.
True, people are noticing her work nowadays thanks to those creepy women in little-red-riding-hood cloaks on Hulu, but that’s just not good enough because she has given us more than that. I don’t want this to sound hyperbolic, but when it comes to dystopian works that can teach us about our mistakes before we make them, Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake” belongs at the top of the list, right above both Huxley and Orwell; her prescient work really is that good. And the reason for this is Atwood’s mastery of the sublime. Her passages are overwhelming and exalting simultaneously and that’s what defines the tenet. Here, read this:
“What did his father look like? Snowman can’t get a fix on it. Jimmy’s mother persists as a clear image, full colour, with a glossy white paper frame around her like a Polaroid, but he can recall his father only in details: the Adam’s apple going up and down when he swallowed, the ears backlit against the kitchen window, the left hand lying on the table, cut off by the shirt cuff. His father is a sort of pastiche. Maybe Jimmy could never get far enough away from him to see all the parts at once.”
Get it? Do you see the sublimity? I’m not going to comment on Atwood’s stylistic qualities because her ability to transcend pedestrian prose has nothing to do with her mechanics—Atwood is sublime because she writes about truth and emotion and deep things that don’t usually dawn on laypeople. Her words are profound and simple at once, and that’s where the explosion comes from. If you’re too close to a person, of course they’ll look like a pastiche because your piecemeal perception of him or her is nothing more than an imitation of who he or she really is. We build in our minds portraits of the people around us by piecing together events and images and perceptions clouded by our own bias, and then those people stop looking real because our rendering of them is anything but real. That’s some deep, sublime shit, and Atwood threw it into her book like a backhanded afterthought; that’s the sort of sublimity a master can engender. That’s the type of perfection that deserves a Nobel Prize.