Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

Watching Out for Art: Literature and the Future of Memory

Anne McWhir.

Near the end of Margaret Atwood’s recently published novel, Oryx and Crake, the children of Crake—creatures engineered to resemble human beings in a world without God and Nature--begin to chant. Snowman, the narrator, ponders the meaning of this—“Watch out for art, Crake used to say. As soon as they start doing art, we’re in trouble. Symbolic thinking of any kind would signal downfall, in Crake’s view. Next they’d be inventing idols, and funerals, and grave goods, and the afterlife, and sin, and Linear B, and kings, and then slavery and war.” (361).
At the end of human history, then, the reader is left to contemplate not only the future but a bleak narrative of the past in which the first stirrings of artistic consciousness imply a fall into religion, ritual, superstition, tyranny, violence--and, of course, writing.
This paper will consider some ways in which narratives of the past cast shadows on the present and future of our lives as teacher, scholars, writers, and citizens. If writing is more than a blight and if the human attempt to create meaning is worthwhile, then we need to “watch out for art” in a different sense from Crake’s. Yet, believing that art is something to be experienced, nurtured, taught, practiced, and performed, it is inevitably implicated in the human activities that Atwood sums up as “kings, . . . slavery and war.”
Atwood’s novel, I believe, offers some hope for the future of humanity in the persistence of dreaming, singing, and creating. Moving beyond discussion of a single novel, my paper will discuss how the persistence of kings, slavery and war makes that an ambiguous hope.


Anne McWhir  (Canada)
Professor of English
Department of English
University of Calgary

Anne McWhir has taught at the University of Calgary since 1978, specializing in British Romanticism. Publications include work on Mary Shelley and other Romantic-period writers, and articles on eighteenth-century poetry. Currently she is preparing an anthology of Romantic literature and editing Amelia Opie's Adeline Mowbray. She is an award-winning teacher who has recently helped to design a new interdisciplinary undergraduate course in the Humanities.

  • Literature
  • Canadian Literature
  • Fiction
  • Arts
Person as Subject
  • Atwood, Margaret

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)