“‘When did the body first set out on its own adventures?’ Snowman thinks, after having ditched its old traveling companions, the mind and the soul for whom it had once been considered a mere corrupt vessel, or else a puppet acting out their dramas for them, or else bad company leading the other two astray. It must’ve got tired of the soul’s constant nagging and whining in the anxiety driven intellectual web spinning of the mind, distracting it whenever it was getting its teeth into something juicy or its fingers into something good. It had dumped the other two back there somewhere, leaving them stranded in some damp sanctuary or stuffy lecture hall while it made a beeline for the topless bars, and it had dumped culture along with them, music and painting and poetry and plays, sublimation, all of it, nothing but sublimation according to the body. Why not cut to the chase.”
An excerpt from Margaret Atwood’s (2009) Oryx and Crake, read by Stephanie Jo Kent.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Well, I’m happy to welcome Charles Hobby back to the show. Charles is the producer and co-host of When Will It End, another podcast about movies, and the producer of this podcast. How are you doing today, Charles?
Charles Hobby: Hey, good. Thanks for having me.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Well, what did you think about this one?
Charles Hobby: I was confused by the separation. Again, I love that this show just sort of forces you to grapple with almost no information. But this idea that the body, mind, and soul are all — those are the three things, right?
Stephanie Jo Kent: Yeah.
Charles Hobby: Body, mind, and soul. From my reading of it, the body is on its own now, and the mind and the soul are gone.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Something like that. I don’t know that the mind and the soul are actually gone, but I’m thinking that the body has become primary.
Charles Hobby: Hmm.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Maybe I’m interpreting it through my own lens of getting a little older and having the body actually converse with me more frequently in various kinds of ways than it didn’t used to. And it’s like, wow, things have been happening to my body while my mind, and my soul, and my spirit have been gallivanting through my life and now, ooh, it’s catching up with me.
Charles Hobby: Got it. So the priorities are shifting. When you’re younger, your mind and soul feel more important than your body. But now that you as an individual are getting older, your body is making a claim for some priority space in your life.
Stephanie Jo Kent: I don’t know. That’s definitely happening to me, whether that’s really what’s happening in this passage — I do think Snowman is advancing in his own age.
Charles Hobby: Is the Snowman a character or an actual snowman?
Stephanie Jo Kent: Snowman is a character, and —
Charles Hobby: That is a snowman or just called Snowman?
Stephanie Jo Kent: No, it’s just his name.
Charles Hobby: Okay, because that’s another funny thing when you don’t know anything else that — Snowman does just — is the epitomization of the body, that’s all it is. It’s just like big balls of snow. For me, when I was reading this, I was just thinking about a snowman who had no brain and was just going to a strip club. That’s what I was thinking about.
Stephanie Jo Kent: I get it. I mean, there’s a little bit of that. It’s like it wanted to be doing all of these gratifying physical things, and the mind and spirit kept getting in the way. So then I’m like, maybe it’s a different angle that it’s really coming about to, but the body is so necessary.
Charles Hobby: I guess for me it’s interesting, the words, the language that Atwood uses is, I don’t know, almost feels like nasty. And then when it’s describing the mind and the soul, it’s pejorative, which I found interesting. I don’t know, just like it was an unimportant aspect of the body’s life, and it’s glad to be rid of it now that it’s playing around with all the physical stuff rather than the fanciful stuff.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Right.
Charles Hobby: Like just stranded in some damp sanctuary or stuffy lecture hall in such a — I don’t know, it’s like on the nose description of what a professorial or just like —
Stephanie Jo Kent: Totally.
Charles Hobby: Also, this is my own bias, I’m not a huge Margaret Atwood fan. I pretty much hated Handmaid’s Tale and mildly put up with the sequel. I don’t know that I’ve really read anything else of theirs.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Why did you hate Handmaid’s Tale?
Charles Hobby: I’m very forgetful, but in my mind I found it to be pretty — there’s so many puns in it. I found it really distracting, the word play. This is on display in this little paragraph too.
They really seem obsessed with playing with language as a tool rather than using it as a way to access emotion. So I found it a little bit part cliché and forced, especially the ending, I really fucking hated the ending. I found it to be really cowardly and cheap.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Interesting.
Charles Hobby: Also, the narrator made no sense. I don’t know why this would’ve existed in its format, which so much of the book is based on being the letters of a survivor. I just found the whole conceit of it to be hard for me to get behind as a reader.
Stephanie Jo Kent: That’s so interesting. It’s been years and years and years and years since I read it, and I didn’t watch the show that was made a few years ago because it just felt too close to home.
Charles Hobby: I do think that readers can read for whatever they want to read. I have very specific needs as a reader. I’m excited about when a writer can make me feel like I’m a part of something. But the biggest hang-up for me is when I’m feeling like I’m being written to, rather than just dragged through a memory, or a feeling, or a time, a moment.
Stephanie Jo Kent: So there wasn’t a hook, there wasn’t a character, or a storyline, or something in there that you could relate to enough to feel that you could be part of it that didn’t reach you or speak to you in that way.
Charles Hobby: I think some science fiction, I’m not going to label it as bad or good, but for me, when it doesn’t work, it’s when the messaging — you know me, I think politics are super important, but if the messaging becomes more important, then the fiction, I just don’t trust it and can’t really find much purchase as a reader.
I would love to just have an essay by Atwood being like misogyny is bad and this is the ways that it really terrifies and crumbles a community. But putting it into a fiction doesn’t always work if that’s like I can really just feel that architecture more than the characters involved.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Got you. That makes complete sense to me, I get it. Well, I was going to ask you about the word sublimation. I looked it up because I’m like, it’s a word that I see and I sort of know, but I’m like, what does it really mean? How is she using it here? I was trying to figure that out.
Charles Hobby: I remember learning it in 9th grade.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Ninth grade?
Charles Hobby: In earth science, because I think the original definition of sublimate is to skip the liquid phase. So if ice goes directly to water vapor, that’s sublimation. So it is a cool word. I really like the word.
Stephanie Jo Kent: It’s a great word. It’s fascinating because it has uses in many different fields. It’s like what’s the feeling that it gives you? Is it a good feeling or a bad feeling? I think because maybe I’ve had exposure to academic graduate, blah, blah, yadi, yada stuff, the sublime, sublimation is touted as this really intellectually desirable experience.
You want to have the sublime and see it and feel it. But I’m like, what are the states that are being changed? How would Atwood would be using this if she’s talking about the body? It looks like the body is not interested in sublimation.
Charles Hobby: Yeah, not interested.
Stephanie Jo Kent: The mind and the soul can do their own things, but forget that.
Charles Hobby: Yeah, which is what I find so strange about this. The idea that the body is unimpressed by poetry, that is baffling to me. The best poetry hits the body first.
Stephanie Jo Kent: That’s right.
Charles Hobby: This idea that the body is saying, “Oh, you mind, you can have your sublimated existence of wine, and poems, and film, and music, and opera, and whatever, but I’m going to skip it and go look at tits.” I think the body is the bedrock for all these feelings. You’re not going to feel anything unless you have a body that can well up in tears and that hits there before it — that’s what good books do is they make you feel physically, I think.
Stephanie Jo Kent: I really appreciate that. What is also interesting is that part of the challenge of this paragraph is to recognize and validate the gifts of the body more instead of reducing them to their general functions.
Charles Hobby: But that’s the thing is I don’t know if, based on this one paragraph, the body is dumping, it’s removing, it’s exercising, and it’s just getting rid of all these things as though they’re not necessary for the body. I don’t know, I’m not sure if this is showing that they are necessary.
But when it says, “Why not cut to the chase?” I think for me, the sublimation act of going from — usually when it’s not about water, it’s about like growth as a person, going from one stage to the highest stage. Then the body in this case seems to be like, “Why bother with that? Why not just stay down here with me in the mud?” But I don’t know, that’s the feeling I get from this paragraph.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Right.
Charles Hobby: That they’re separate somehow.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Instead of merged and influencing each other.
Charles Hobby: Yes, inseparable. I mean, it’s a cool idea to be like what it would happen if you separated things that are inseparable and made a story about it? I just don’t really know what Margaret Atwood ended up deciding would happen.
Stephanie Jo Kent: I don’t know where this is in the book. I’m just wondering about its placement now relative to the story.
Charles Hobby: It definitely feels from the body’s perspective, it’s like it must have got tired of the soul’s constant nagging, and whining, and the anxiety-driven intellectual web spinning of the mind, distracting it whenever it was gritting its teeth into something juicy or its fingers into something good.
It’s such strong language that’s very — the body is, in this perspective, the better of the other two. The other two are whining, and annoying, and are really distracting from the true joys of life, the good.
Stephanie Jo Kent: I wonder if there’s a little bit of some reactivity, like a reaction of the body to the mind and the soul because the arc of the story — I’m assuming this is midway or later in the story, in the arc of the story.
Charles Hobby: I’ve never read it just so you know, so this is all I know.
Stephanie Jo Kent: There’s a pretty massive die-off of human beings and not many survive. So Snowman is one of the survivors and there’s a reflection on what things used to be like and how he’s arrived to being one of the ones who’s still alive, and having to subsist in a pretty fundamental way with what his body is able to do.
Charles Hobby: So this is a world that doesn’t have much of the lecture halls, and music, and paintings, and stuff, or does it?
Stephanie Jo Kent: Not anymore. It’s like he experiences the transition from having had it to not having had it.
Charles Hobby: Got it, so that makes more sense, I guess, given that context of a body forced in its way to feel like it’s separate from the mind. But I don’t know, I guess that’s what dystopias, if everything is bad and — I don’t know, I just reread The Road recently, which also gets pretty, a lot of physical descriptions.
I think we associate comfort with where we are and removing comfort with dystopias. I guess most people think of if you can’t have nice things, you’re just going to be purely body, fighting to survive, and maybe — I don’t know. The body is — it is hard to imagine it’s separate from the mind and feeling and everything. I wonder what this exercise is. It’s an interesting exercise.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Yeah, and then just having the conversation about the possibility of that separation. And just thinking about how we normally conceptually have a hierarchy in our mind among these three things. I mean, the soul is out of fashion. That was important a couple 100 years ago, but —
Charles Hobby: We sort of ditched that one.
Stephanie Jo Kent: You might be embarrassed if we talk about the soul too much, or with the wrong people; people who are going to be judgmental if you believe in that aspect of the human experience.
Charles Hobby: As a mild practitioner of yoga, I think that’s part of it is not having a hierarchy to your existence, and seeing rest and work and mind and body as just all the same and just different versions of the same thing.
Stephanie Jo Kent: That’s right.
Charles Hobby: I don’t know. For me, after thinking about it and talking to you about it, the author seems to be like saying, “In this dystopia where we have none of these things that we used to relish in as a mind-driven occupation, what is the body forced to endure?” But I don’t know. I feel like even in a dystopia you’d still have more mind than this. It might be unpleasant, but I think it’d still be accessible and equal. Well, I hope it would be.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Unless you weren’t just in shock or numbed to the horror of the situation that you’re in.
Charles Hobby: If there’s trauma, it makes the mind harder to access.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Definitely.
Charles Hobby: Did you read The Road? Speaking of dystopias.
Stephanie Jo Kent: I didn’t read The Road. I didn’t read The Road.
Charles Hobby: It was a fun reread. Did you see the movie or do you know anything about it?
Stephanie Jo Kent: No, I didn’t. I just heard people talking about it.
Charles Hobby: Okay. Well, it was a fun —
Stephanie Jo Kent: Go ahead, say whatever you want.
Charles Hobby: Great. As an anti-dad guy, it was fun to read a whole book that was basically the punchline of a 200-page novel. The dad has just been making this boy suffer for all this time. Once he’s dead, the boy can just actually go live a nice life. Actually, you should read it. The last paragraph is, somehow, it’s so good.
It’s one of those books where I was reading it and reading it, I was like, “Wow, this is a slog. I don’t really like these characters.” I’m finding it annoying. And then the last page just completely translated the previous 200 into a book that I found absolutely incredible.
Stephanie Jo Kent: That’s really cool. I had that experience with Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game.
Charles Hobby: I haven’t read that since I was a kid, I should reread that.
Stephanie Jo Kent: I remember reading that and being like, “This is just pretty typical video game, warfare, blah, blah, blah.” And then I think there’s a moment when the aliens enter, and I literally was mind blown in that moment. I was like, “Wait, there is something else going on here.”
Charles Hobby: It’s cool when authors can — it’s not really a twist, it sort of is, but in some ways it’s just deeper than a twist. Like Cormac McCarthy shifts from talking about these two characters that you spend the whole book with, and then suddenly you’re just transported to nature for a split second. It’s just this really profound shift in perspective that changes the whole meaning of the book. It’s like, “Damn, I wish I could come up with stuff like that.”
Stephanie Jo Kent: Awesome. It reminds me a little bit of our conversation about ideology in the other episode.
Charles Hobby: Yeah.
Stephanie Jo Kent: How do you think about these things? How do you think about the mind and the body and the soul? How do you think about the experience of having your idea of a conception of what you’re understanding, or learning, or experiencing suddenly shifted, now you’re in a different structure of interaction.
Charles Hobby: Yeah, that’s right.
This short reading of an excerpt from Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, page 89, was originally published on the Structures of Interaction podcast on April 11, 2020.
Original music written and performed by Richard Guild Kent.
Transcript by Esther Wokabi.
Shownotes and Transcript are published at www.reflexivity.us.