You know the painting Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali? Yes, the one with the limp watches. It’s coming to the National Gallery of Victoria soon. I will visit it because I never noticed the ants crawling over the watch on the table like it was food. Midway through the second series, and I feel the Gilead of the The Handmaid’s Tale is located in this Dali-scape. I keep thinking as I watch this series on SBS, am I missing something? I am looking for the ants in the corner, under his eye.
Gilead is where time has been stood still, and been rewound. The strongest people are worn down by its impersonal mechanisms, so they become limp and complacent in a psychological and spiritual desert lacking all sustenance and nourishment. Meanwhile, ants in some kind of May Day picnic are preparing their attack to restart time. Looking like they are acting naturally in an unnatural world, the ants go unremarked until they set about that watch, and it goes boom.
There is something of a waiting quality to this Dali painting, and I am constantly on edge watching this series too. Hopes are raised and then dashed; Offred is restored to June and then dissolved again. Then she is seemingly reintegrated as both Offred and June, but neither, like she is a cog in the wrong timepiece. The same happens to Emily / Ofglen in a physically more austere and sick landscape, but a more emotionally satisfying one. Those prayers! But even the people with power are stuck and punished, like Nick and even believers like Serena.
Offred is right though, Gilead is always within, like any persistent memory, distorting the world around it. My fear is this distortion redefines ‘normal’ until, eventually, we too become comfortable with the both the narrative and the art. I don’t want to be comfortable, which is why it is important this story remains visceral: we need to see the blood and the blighted landscape as well as Serena’s casual violence, and the systematic oppression and murder at the heart of it.
I think about what we have learned in this tale about how the next generation of women and men are taught to see horrifying as normal, and how everyone colludes in this acculturation to survive. I say horrifying but the experiences depicted are not especially alien to the human condition. Margaret Atwood invented very little for her book, and the series only lends this narrative a jarring beauty with silent and slow motion scenes, and the colours captured by the cinematography, over which lies the sound track like June’s internal monologue.
I wonder at the world right now. I question if memories of horror will persist, like stories do. I wonder too, if there is anything we can do to restart compassion like a fat gold watch.