The essay ‘Attitude’ by Margaret Atwood, is originally the convocation ceremony’s speech given by her for the graduates of University of Toronto on June 14th, 1983. Its been more than three decades now but much of what she had said back then, still holds true for the fresh university graduates. In her speech, she tells her audience that its not their college degrees, but their attitude towards life and its challenges that will ultimately decide the quality of their life.
The speech by Margaret Atwood begins with her expression of joy for being chosen to address the graduates on the commencement ceremony. She says that one feels immensely satisfied on receiving a honorary degree from a university that transforms an otherwise inexperienced and ignorant mind into a storehouse of immense knowledge. Though, she adds a pinch of humour in her speech by saying that the great amount of knowledge received and retained by a student often makes him confused.
The professors of such esteemed universities, like the University of Toronto, put up gracefully with many overdue term papers, struggle with the challenge of deciphering the student’s handwriting. The best remark that a student can expect from any professor is ‘interesting’. Great universities have had students of the likes who had failed to learn Anglo-Saxon or have missed out on mentioning Bibliography, entirely, in some project. Though again, sounding humorous, Atwood says that she was certain of no graduate who present in the audience, who has missed out on mentioning bibliography in their project. Universities, she continues, have witnessed graduates who have experienced extreme pain not only of the soul but of the body too. One may initially believe such pain to have risen from immense hard work and academic pressure but later the reality surfaces that the pain occurred due to consuming excessive coffee in the interiors of Wymilwood.
Speaking about her own experiences she says that after her becoming a graduate, she went on to be with Victoria college which saved her from being jobless, which ultimately spared her from getting into a state of anger and cosmic depression, typical of novelists and poets. Referring other colleges like Bell Canada, Oxford University Press and Mc Cleland & Stewart College, she says that even at all these great colleges she couldn’t secure a job for herself, during the summer of 1963, on the grounds of being either over-qualified or for being unable to type.
Giving further sneak-peek into her life, she says that it was due to a person named Northrop Frye at the Victoria College that she stayed back in Canada. Had she not paid heed to Frye’s advice, she would have run away to England to work as a waitress and live in a garret, writing her literary pieces and ending up suffering with tuberculosis. Recalling Frye’s advice, Atwood narrates how she would have ended up living in a stupor, writing footnotes and getting anxiety attacks had she attended a Graduate School at Boston. Hence, she acknowledges following the advices of her Alma Mater which resulted in her attaining the success, which she now held in public eye. Recalling her college days she mentions how she was taught to speak the truth as it keeps the person free without any worries or concerning about hiding the facts. However, she says that the professors at her college never told her about the consequences of telling truth. Though she expresses her gratitude towards her professor for teaching her to remain truthful always.
Returning to the audience, after stating the various anecdotes from her life, Atwood said that no sooner had she received the invitation to address her audience than she started realizing the exorbitant pressure of the expectations held from her. She says that everything comes with a price and so does being famous. Being famous and great has its own bags of responsibilities which a person always carries on his back. So was the case with her, for she was too concerned about what topic should she be addressing before the graduates of the University of Toronto. She had to come up with a thoughtful subject to address the graduates which would, in most likelihood, be useful, helpful, encouraging, optimistic and loaded with an overview to bring in clarity of thought. Atwood here mentions that the year 1983 had witnessed economic downturn and had lead to large unemployment. Young and genius minds, even the Ph.D. degree holders were bound to work as taxi-drivers.
The year 1983 is the same year when these young graduates of the University of Toronto were supposed to go out into the world and find themselves a suitable job. Hence, Atwood had a greater responsibility of delivering a motivating and an inspiring speech. Atwood, here, stresses the phrase that since these fresh graduates were about to be ‘launched’ in the workplace, ‘ejection’ sounded more apt in her opinion. She wondered why the ceremony was called as ‘convocation.’ Ejection, she said, sounded better for a fresh graduate it felt more or less like being pushed over a cliff; out from college and thrown into the practical world with no support or guidance. One didn’t feel so in the times where economic conditions were better and finding a suitable job was not much of a challenge. But currently, in the year 1983, the issue of unemployment was on the rise. Atwood says that she feels somehow responsible to warn these graduates that the situation outside college was bad. In a humorous tone, she tells these graduates that in days to come they will realize that their university degree which they carried were worthless piece of paper.
They would feel equipped but helpless just like if one is sent into a jungle and is given a refrigerator but he can’t make use of it for there are no three-pronged grounded plug holes in the jungle. Atwood, very beautifully narrates the wide gap that a graduate experiences between the theoretical knowledge attained during the university education and that between the practical application of it on the workplace. It’s during such times that a fresh graduate might feel lost, for he may have the theoretical knowledge but may not have the attitude to practically implement it.
Not just these little defeats at the work, Atwood says that there may be times when one might wake up in the middle of the night out of anxiety, only to realize that a few of the friends with whom he went to school, have gained senior and powerful position at work. Some might soon have their own entrepreneurial set-up too. Atwood believes that such a thing is absolutely unpleasant for anyone. It is very difficult to lose at the hands of people who once were those average batchmates who had only half the knowledge that we had and we stood as an example of perfect knowledge back then, but in the current situation those very average batchmates were now more knowledgeable and held superior position at work than us. It will be a very obvious feeling for us to feel doomed. Herein, again, Atwood states an example from her personal life. She mentions the name of Brain Mulroney, who she says is just a year older than her, but has been instated as the 18th Prime Minister of Canada, whereas relatively, she ended up being a literary personality.
Speaking beautifully about the internal emotional conflict that one faces on realizing and comparing his success with his peers, Atwood says that on feeling lost and trailing behind in the career as compared to the peers, one may take up the habit of nail-biting, uttering mantras or jogging, as a resort to escape embarrassment. These behaviors, she says, are similar to those expressed by animals, for instance, scratching. Hence, further degradation in our standard for failure stoops us to a lower version of ourselves. Having warned and made these fresh graduates aware, Atwood assures them of a brighter side and says that she would be shifting to the positive aspects.
Coming back to her original concern again, Atwood says that she was restless and in deep thoughts, trying to come up with a topic to address her audience. Restless she was, she says, due to discomfort while on a boat for she suffered with nausea and motion sickness and only got better after taking the medication, Gravol Oven then. Atwood said, she was struggling to come up with a subject for the speech. At one point she thought of paraphrasing Kurt Vonnegut’s words which he had spoken while addressing a graduate class. Atwood states Vonnegut’s words which went like;
“Everything is going to become unbelievably worse and will never get better again.”
Atwood said that after saying so, Vonnegut just walked off the stage. But that, she says, is an American style of addressal which is very specific and straight-forward. They are either too appreciative or too critical. Canadians, she said, would still hold onto the faint light of hope and work for becoming better and there by improving conditions.
Next, in her quest for the topic to address her audience, Atwood says that at one point she thought of speaking upon the subject of a liberal arts education and how it prepares a person to face and deal with life. After putting in a little thought she turned down this topic too. She tells the graduates that she soon realized, and that they will eventually discover too, that liberal arts education didn’t exactly prepare one for life. Liberal arts education, she says does not follow a course on ‘preparation-forlife, curriculum. It rather discussed about Victorian Thought and French Romanticism, hence, it had nothing which would prepare a graduate for the practical life ahead.
‘Preparation-for-life’ curriculum would ideally comprise of topics like; “…How to cope with Marital Breakdown, Getting More for your footwear Dollar, Dealing with stress,…” In other words, Atwood said, the curriculum of ‘Preparation-for-life’ course would mostly read like the ‘contents page’ of Homemakers Magazine. Hence this topic too felt irrelevant to the occasion and Atwood said that she went on to ponder over a new topic which would have been apt to the ceremony.
Atwood said that she even considered, at one point, to speak about the glaring errors that existed in the educational system or compile and speak about the things that she was taught but were completely untrue in reality. Atwood states an anecdote in the similar context. She says that during her high school, she made a mistake of taking Home Economics subject over typing, with a thought then believed that anyone who took the commercial course would lose most of their eyebrows and would have to end up drawing them with a pencil for the rest of their lives. But in fact, in the Home Economics paper, they were told about what colour of food to choose in a meal, that licking spoon while cooking was bad and finally, the inside of a dress seam was as important as outside. Atwood says that no truth lies in such things and anyone who believes so should discard it right away. Next, she says that nobody ever warned her before to practice back and wrist exercises which are much needed for any writer, for she believes that writers get thick wrists due to lengthy writing. She says that people would someday do researches on some and verify this logic of hers. She says so with reference to Dickens and Melville. Another reference she gives is of Emily Dickenson who had to limit herself to short lyric poems as she had spindly fingers.
Atwood says, in her quest for the topic of her speech today, she but decided not to speak about writing for she believed that from her audience, a few might wish to become writers in the future. Hence, her speaking about writing would further encourage them to pursue this particular field and that she said would increase competition, which is not wise. She says that unlike her times, a large number of creative writing courses exist that tend to enhance the writing skills of the learner. Atwood fears that soon there will be times when everybody will become a writer, unfortunately sparing no one in the reader’s category. This would be exactly opposite of how things were in 1960’s. Atwood said that back in sixties, there would only be a few writers, she being one among them and she composed dolorous verses while sitting in her rented apartment, using her skills.
Addressing her audience, Atwood says that at one point she even thought of speaking on the subjects of little known facts. For instance, women tend to lose their hair after having a baby. Not all hair fall and obviously not all at once, but they do fall. The reason behind this is the sudden imbalance of zinc. Though the relief is that the hair do grow back in again. But this, she says, is only applicable for women. Men tend to lose hair whether they have a baby or not and it never grows back in. Yet men seem to remain hopeful about it. She quotes that,
“God only made a few perfect heads, and the rest be covered with hair.”
At this juncture, Atwood makes a strong statement. She says that;
“When faced with the inevitable, you always have a choice. You may not be able to alter reality, but you can alter your attitude towards it.”
She illustrates further that during her liberal arts education she had learnt that any symbol can have two versions of it, a positive and a negative one. It depends entirely upon a person’s perception of it. For instance, blood can either signify to be a gift of life or as a fluid that flows out from a cut wrist. Similarly, if one happens to spill the glass of milk, one is left with the remaining half. Whether the remaining is half full or half empty, it depends upon perception of the person only.
Hence, Atwood now addresses the main agenda of her speech. Speaking to the university graduates, she says that these fresh talents are about to explore the “World that is both half empty and half full,” which means that out there in the practical world, there are numerous avenues, numerous fields that are awaiting to welcome them to be explored. On one hand, she says, there has been a drastic switch in the relationship shared between Nature and living beings. On the other hand, we as a civilization have become cautions and aware of our actions and mistakes. We also have the technology to stop committing those mistakes but there is a severe dearth of will-power.
Another example that Atwood states is that pertaining to our daily lives. Man is constantly living in the fear of annihilation. To us, it seems that we are mere computer buttons who are just minutes away from the end and with each passing day, the gap is narrowing. We are living in constant fear of it and at times we slide into a mental state of powerlessness and consequent apathy.
On the other hand, the catastrophe which threatens us and all the other species is nothing unpredictable or uncontrollable. If life ends on earth, then we will die with a sense of partial satisfaction for knowing that the end of the world was man-made, hence could have been prevented. But the failure to prevent the catastrophe would only mean the failure of human will.
Hence, Margaret Atwood concludes her speech by introducing the dubious state of affairs in the man’s world. There are situations which are unpleasant, depressing and even question the worth of a being. Many people in Canada, she says, would question as to how many of its habitants possess two automobiles. One may tend to doubt the prosperity of the people if one tries to look into the data stated in the newspapers. But, Atwood says, there are places, where people don’t expect to own two cars, houses or a job, but struggle with the hope of being able to feed themselves the next elusive meal. But this is certainly the dark side of the affairs, the half-empty version.
The brighter picture of the world exists too. The upside of the story is that democracy still exists. One does not get shot or tortured yet for expressing one’s opinion about something. The politicians do get affected by public opinion and listen to the voice raised by the country men. It may be out of sheer greed or lust for power. Politicians still feel that its more important to perceive issues raised by the countrymen and address them rather than just win a position and confer its powers upon oneself.
Atwood closes the speech by saying that the true power lies in the hands of the people of the land. If people decide to vote on the premise that they want changes to be made, only then do the changes become possible. Once the mindset is changed, everybody willingly participates in the growth and betterment of the state of affairs. Atwood, once again repeats her phrase to emphasize on the impact of having the right attitude in life. She concludes; “You may not be able to alter reality, but you can alter your attitude towards it, and this, paradoxically, alters reality. Try it and see.”