Category : People
Category : People
Sara Benincasa is most recently the author of Agorafabulous.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering whether or not he has actually left the house.
Author: Sara Benincasa
Subjects Discussed: How to get out of bed and leave the house, the unanticipated benefits of contextual noise, overstuffed schedules, voices inside one’s head, the picaresque existence, commitments and surprise, occupations that depend upon approval, the adventurous spirit within the urban domicile, “I Am a Rock,” mental illness metaphors, freakishness as a choice vs. those who are innately freakish, Lee Redmond‘s automobile crash, mania and obsession, envy towards freaks, long-distance walking and The Great Saunter, how one’s “normal” behavior is viewed by others as different, seeking willful disapproval, freaks and confidence, Tod Browning’s Freaks, the close alignment between educators and comedians, Sicily as “the Alabama of Italy,” American problems with geography, regional stereotypes, being part of The Other in New Jersey, punching one’s father, family fistfights, domestic violence, Benincasa’s migratory impulses, sustaining lasting friendships while moving from city to city, National Lampoon’s Vacation, F. Scott Fitzgerald, celebrity wordplay, deciding what real-life incidents and people can be reused in a memoir, writers who write for revenge, The Boston Phoenix‘s Thomas McBee, Jeanette Wells’s The Glass Castle, Kambri Crews’s Burn Down the Ground, needless humiliation through a writing platform, holding figures up for public ridicule, what Benincasa learned from blogging, revenge and negativity, working for untreated bipolar people, being treated like dirt while younger, deep needs for approval and love, growing up in a take-out family, Benincasa’s cooking progress, an itemization of the dishes Bennincasa can cook, scrambled eggs and kale salad, Alice Bradley, gaining weight on the road, being career-focused, lack of spare time, finding down time and blowing off steam, Stuff You Missed in History Class, Tara Brach, playing Dave Matthews over and over again, The Sound of Music, sound as a soothing sensation, giving away a giraffe, Momfidential, claiming adulthood at 31, being in touch with your inner child, peeing in bowls and urine constituency, memoirs written from a privileged position, outpouring and audience approval, Girl, Interrupted, discussing the complexities of Flemington, New Jersey, court reenactments of the Lindbergh trial, Bruno Hauptmann, the Lindbergh kidnapping trial vs. the Salem witch trials, supernatural powers and pining for mysticism, Weird New Jersey, WFAN, the decline of local radio show hosts, and the future of radio. Sirius XM, and online radio.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Benincasa: I’m doing well. I mean, I got out of bed and out of my house.
Correspondent: You got out of bed?
Benincasa: I’m very excited.
Correspondent: How do you get out of bed?
Correspondent: I mean, I think I got out of bed this morning. Obviously I met you here.
Correspondent: But I obviously don’t know how I do it sometimes.
Benincasa: Well, you know what? I was awoken by a fire alarm going off in my building. Which as it turned out was just a test. But it was very exciting. And it motivated me to get up. Because like most people who deal with depression and anxiety and certainly agoraphobia, getting out of bed is sometimes a challenge. Getting out of the house is a challenge. But in this case, I was so rudely awakened that it was just great, actually. And I got to work on time. It was amazing!
Correspondent: So you need a contextual noise these days in order to get out of bed?
Benincasa: I need you to yell at me.
Correspondent: I mean, how difficult is it now for you? Just out of curiosity.
Benincasa: It depends. Most of the time, it’s all right. A lot of times, I wake up and my first thought is, “Oh no!”
Correspondent: Oh no?
Benincasa: Oh no! A day!
Correspondent: I don’t think you have to be agoraphobic to have that thought. (laughs)
Benincasa: That’s true. Absolutely. I think that’s more of a function of probably an existential crisis.
Correspondent: It’s the default setting for 21st century life.
Benincasa: Pretty much. But I think generally it’s a lot better these days. I feel more motivated. Especially with the book coming out. I found that it helps to keep extremely busy. Like to overstuff my schedule. Because that is a very strong motivating factor. The fear of disappointing someone.
Correspondent: Overstuff your schedule? Like how overstuffed would you say? Down to every hour booked?
Benincasa: Oh gosh. Not every hour.
Correspondent: Two hour blocks?
Benincasa: You know, I do a lot of writing. I write for vice.com and for newnownext.com, which is LogoTV’s gay site, and I write for xojane.com. And I write for a startup called bookish.com, a publishing startup. And then I make videos. And I travel. And I talk to colleges. And I do comedy. And so I really take on too much on purpose. Because it keeps the brain demons away.
Corespondent: Oh yeah. The brain demons. You allude to the voice saying “I want to die!” many times in the book. When was the last time you heard that voice?
Benincasa: Well, it’s interesting. Because in the book, I chose to personify these urges I was having. It wasn’t like having a voice outside my head. It wasn’t like having a schizophrenic break, where I was experiencing auditory hallucinations. But it was like — when you listen to yourself and you think, “I need to listen to my inner voice. What is my gut telling me to do?” But your gut is all screwed up. Because all the signals are messed up. Because your brain is crazy. So it was more like that. It was more like, “Okay. I want to die. Yeah. Definitely want to die.” It wasn’t that long ago. It was really like four or five months ago. It was when I was finishing the final edits on the book. And I was in a relationship that ended in a sense. Because the guy moved a couple of continents away.
Correspondent: This is a recurring experience in your life, based on the book. (laughs)
Benincasa: Like I said, I think I need a lot of activity to distract me from the demon voices or my inner struggles. So that relationship was certainly a distraction. And the book was certainly a distraction. And with both of those things coming to an end in one sense, I didn’t have these distractions. So I had to face what was actually going on. And I didn’t really like that. So hence that. So actually my editor at William Morrow was really great and very empathetic. And so I went home for a couple months to Jersey to just kind of get better and get my shit together. And my boss at Bookish was great too and let me work remotely. So that’s the benefit of being a freelance writer. You generally aren’t making enough money. But you can do it from anywhere.
Correspondent: And it’s good when you have situations like this. I mean, these migratory impulses of yours. I’m really curious. You were saying — I learned before we talked that you had made yet another move. And this is very much a picaresque tale.
Correspondent: It takes us to Boston. It takes us to Asheville.
Benincasa: It’s like Moll Flanders.
Correspondent: Yes, I know.
Benincasa: Which I think is a picaresque.
Correspondent: Yes, yes.
Benincasa: Right. I think so.
Correspondent: I think Thackeray or someone along those lines was an impulse. Or Defoe. But I’m curious. Do you have difficulties often staying in one spot? Do you feel the impulse to flee sometimes?
Benincasa: Yes! I have trouble with commitment on many levels. Commitment sometimes to a person. Commitment to a place of residence. Commitment to a career.
Correspondent: I’m surprised that I got you to commit to this interview. (laughs)
Benincasa: Yes! I did! Very exciting. I decided to marry this interview.
Correspondent: Although it was last minute.
Benincasa: So it worked. A lot of times, the last-minute stuff works best for me.
Correspondent: So short-term commitment, okay. Long-term commitment?
Benincasa: I get surprised into committing.
Correspodnent: Surprised? (laughs)
Benincasa: I have to be surprised.
Correspondent: Being shocked and galvanized into committing.
Benincasa: Oh yeah. I’m really shocked.
Correspondent: To wake up. “Wow! I’ve been married to this guy for three years.”
Benincasa: Surprise! Oh great. I have a kid?
Benincasa: I have been surprised by my commitment to New York City. Because I’ve moved around quite a bit within New York City. But I’ve been here for six years. Six and a half years. And that to me is shocking. That I’ve spent that much time in one place. And so of course, I’m itching now and thinking about moving to Los Angeles or Asheville again or somewhere. But I don’t know what that is. I have a restless nature, I guess.
Correspondent: Is this why you have applied to jobs out-of-state over the years?
Benincasa: Oh yeah.
Correspondent: Hey, if the vocation takes me here, I can blame the job.
Correspondent: As opposed to my own decision.
Benincasa: Yeah. So that I can keep moving. Kind of like a shark that never stops moving. I don’t know if that’s a myth or true.
Correspondent: Or just a Woody Allen saying.
Benincasa: Or just a thing. Yeah. I find it necessary to just keep moving. Always keep busy. Always keep busy. And the upside of that is that I’ve got to have a lot of adventures and do fun things and meet a lot of cool people. And the downside is that eventually something does happen where you have to stop. And for me, when I’ve gone through a really deep-seated depression in my life, which has happened about three or four times, that has been just a screeching halt and has made me reflect on who I am and what I’m doing.
Correspondent: I was going to ask you about — I had one question just dissolve.
Benincasa: That’s okay.
Correspondent: As they sometimes do. But I wanted to ask you. I mean, here you are. You’re a comedienne, a freelance writer. These are occupations that depend very much sometimes — especially with comedians — on approval.
Correspondent: And I’m wondering how you deal with this. Because if you have all sorts of inner demons committing you to self-loathing, so to speak — at least temporarily, short-term commitment — and you can’t get a laugh from an audience or you can’t get a gig, how do you deal with that? I mean, do you have a good support base?
Benincasa: I have a really good support system in the form of a pathologically approving family and supportive family.
Correspondent: Pathologically? (laughs)
Benincasa: A really disturbing, supportive…
Correspondent: They’ve never said a bad word about you. (laughs)
Benincasa: You know, sometimes, they should have.
Benincasa: There are times where they should have been more critical, but just sort of very, very loving. Very supportive. So there’s that. And then I also have some great friends. But yeah, I think we all come to — those of us who are comedians often come to comedy for reasons that are not entirely healthy. And sometimes it is out of a twisted desire to be held up for ridicule. Sometimes it is out of a desperate need for love and affection. That’s me. And other times, it’s for the high of performing. And for me, I don’t think I’m chasing that high. I think it’s more about affirmation. Which is kind of ridiculous. Because it’s a losing battle. Because no one is going to be liked all the time. No one is going to be approved of all the time. So I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily the most psychologically healthy choice for a career. But it is the choice that I’ve made at this point. And writing, I think, is so similar. Comedians are writers. We just tend to do our writing in notepads and then perform very short-form stories on stage.
Correspondent: Yes. My query that had dissipated into the ruminative mist has come back.
Benincasa: Ah, excellent!
Correspondent: And it was about this notion of adventures taking you away from home. I mean, you clearly have had adventures inside an apartment and so forth.
Benincasa: Oh yes.
Correspondent: So I’m wondering why you feel that the adventurous spirit is not necessarily there within an urban domicile.
Benincasa: Well, it’s a little boring when you’re just adventuring with your television set and your books and your comfort objects. I love the song “I Am a Rock” because, you know, “I have my books / And my poetry to protect me / I’m shielded in my armor.” And he refers to the room as a womb. And that really is how it feels. So I can go adventuring in my mind when I am in my apartment. But especially because I’ve had times in my life when I was afraid to leave, I find that I need to make myself leave. It’s this impulse. Perhaps that’s part of my wandering nature. If I can wander and not be afraid, it proves to me that I’m not a slave to my particular form of madness.
Correspondent: Yeah. You still feel very much enslaved by it? I mean, it seems that you’ve had some success.
Benincasa: Sure. Definitely.
Correspondent: You’ve managed to, at least, emerge unfettered to the microphones right here.
Benincasa: I don’t feel enslaved it. But it’s there. It’s kind of like the way people who are in recovery talk about their addictions. It’s something that they manage. But it’s not something that is cured. That’s how I feel about mental illness for me. Because if I don’t take good care about myself, doing basic things like sleeping enough and eating properly and making myself leave the house and acting against type — so acting against what my instincts are sometimes — it can come back. Or it’s like, I need to constantly — it’s like keeping your house clean so that mold doesn’t grow on the corners. Because it will do that if you don’t keep it clean. That’s sort of another metaphor that works.
Arthur Goldwag is most recently the author of The New Hate.
PROGRAM NOTE: In Show #430, we asked our listeners if they could share their introvert and extrovert experiences. We received numerous stories and read many on the air at the head of this program.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pondering the dangerous possibilities of innate extremism.
Author: Arthur Goldwag
Subjects Discussed: Hate in the heart, Barfly, Richard Hofstadter, the Illuminatus, Glenn Beck, attending a white nationalist convention, how to reason with a crazy person, attempts to talk rationally with a 9/11 truther, conversing with a murderer, catered lunches at white nationalist conventions, the difficulties of spewing cant when the people who oppose it too, Michelle Malkin’s “progressive climate of hate,” Malkin’s hate, why the haters insist that they are the ones who are persecuted, name-calling in blog comments, Gingrich’s lack of ideology and his use of hatred as a demagogic tool, Herman Cain’s meltdown, political sex scandals, people who want to believe that their victims, Thomas Frank‘s Pity the Billionaire, the right mimicking progressive politics, Father Charles Coughlin’s confused ideology, William Buckley’s mission statement for The National Review, Revilo P. Oliver’s conspiracies, rational reactionaries, Robert W. Welch, Jr., the crazy classist idea that America was poisoned by the French Enlightenment, anti-Semitism, Ron Paul, the Weatherman Manifesto, people who believe that they are patriotic Americans, Republican insiders who claim to be outsiders, unrealistic goals of change and creating past political mythologies to house them, the Wild West, innate extremism, William Dudley Pelley‘s crackpot tendencies and fleeting literary career, demagogues who come from shoe factories, the hazards of being a Kabbalist, having a Messiah complex, hateful texts lifted from satirical texts, The Report from Iron Mountain, The Education of Little Tree, haters who are certain that their enemies are having better sex than they are, the Ground Zero mosque and the Christian American Family Association, Democratic cowardice and Harry Reid, Pam Geller, Anders Behring Brevik’s manifesto, Islamophobia, fear and mugging, how New Yorkers reacted to 9/11, Coughlin and the development of hate-oriented talk radio, David Graeber’s Debt, entertainers who don’t have political influence, class rage, Michelle Bachmann, Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin, all-purpose hate fragmenting over the years, and the right-wing crackup.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Arthur, you’re a very huggable guy. But how are you doing?
Goldwag: I have no hate in my heart.
Correspondent: No hate in your heart? Well, let’s get down to this business of hate. I mean, I couldn’t help but think of Mickey Rourke’s line in Barfly when I was reading this. “Hatred! The only thing that lasts!” One of the starting points of this book is Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” He pointed out that status politics was more likely to be expressed in this vindictive sense rather than through a proposal for positive action. So I’m wondering. To what degree is vindictiveness the natural mode of status politics? I mean, why don’t we have a lot more hugging and kissing and love-ins? Why isn’t that more of a draw? Maybe we can start from there.
Goldwag: Well, I think it depends on which side of the status divide you are. And I think on the relatively educated, prosperous side of the status divide, there’s a positive sense of smugness that infuriates the people on the other side of the divide.
Correspondent: Can violence be smug?
Goldwag: Well, that’s kind of the feedback loop of our politics. Weak people get smugger and smugger, and they get more and more infuriated. And it works to the advantage of people that aren’t actually involved in status politics at all. They’re involved in money politics. But it works very much to their advantage.
Correspondent: I’m wondering. Do movements and demagogues tend to time their vindictiveness in any way? I mean, just looking at the various historical examples, have you noticed any specific vindictive trends?
Goldwag: Well, we’re living through such a bad moment. We’re probably living — if America is going the way other big empires have gone, we’re beginning our decline. We’re well into our decline. And there were a lot of people who were doing very well in America who weren’t doing so well anymore. When you look at the history of the United States, when you look at it closely and not in terms of the stories that politicians tell on the stump, you realize there’s been very few good times in this country. I grew up in an age of unprecedented prosperity. But, you know, it was an age of tremendous ideological conflict. It was the civil rights movement. The Vietnam War. But there was a lot of money. Thanks to unions and the New Deal, people that were relatively uneducated were doing pretty well. And that’s not happening anymore.
Correspondent: But why don’t they look at those achievements and say to themselves, “Well, hey, maybe I can be part of that?” Why do they feel the need to be hateful? I mean, is there something inevitably wrong with the political mechanism that forces them to hate. Do people not really have a voice? And is this one of the reasons why they resort to this vindictiveness?
Goldwag: These people actually — they couldn’t answer that question. Because they never describe themselves as haters. I went to a white nationalist convention in Washington a couple of months ago.
Correspondent: Oh yeah?
Goldwag: And over and over again, they told themselves — because there weren’t outsiders there, except me and one or two other reporters. They’re telling themselves, “Look, we don’t hate anybody. Our thing is: we love white people.”
Goldwag: They love whiteness. And I talk about that in the book too. And Hofstadter talks about it when he gets into the status politics. You know, if whiteness is the only thing you have, you’re going to hold onto it very tightly. And then there’s a whole complex of things that go with it that, you know, they’re not bad things. They don’t actually have anything to do with whiteness. I mean, one of the things that I actually learned at this convention is that white people really love their families. But that’s not a white attribute.
Goldwag: But the other side of that, of course, is if you love yourself to the exclusion of somebody else is the somebody else. And there’s the specter in America — you know, it’s a darkening country. One of the speakers who made a very moving speech in a way — he said, “Imagine a country with no blonde women.” That’s like, okay. Imagine that. There’s countries in the world where there are no blonde women. But America, we’re an unusual country. Blood and soil, it’s a much more natural idea in Europe than it is over here. Maybe as things are coming apart over here, it’s starting to become a part of American identity now.
Correspondent: I notice that you offer a smile every time you mention that things will fall apart over here. This leads me to wonder whether, I suppose, the erosion of the American government might in fact encourage people to love each other more. Do you think that hate will actually dissolve once we really don’t have a political mechanism with which to contain it?
Goldwag: I don’t. Because I think that I’m not a religious person. But I believe in the fall of man. On the other hand, I’m not an optimistic person at all. But I believe we’ve made tremendous cultural and spiritual progress in this country. You know, there’s this incredible resentment of our African-American President. But he got elected by a landslide. There’s this incredible homophobia. But in an astonishingly short amount of time, there has been such a raising of consciousness. I would have never imagined ten years ago that gay marriage would be as accepted as it is today.
Correspondent: But we still have white nationalist conventions that you’re attending.
Goldwag: Yeah, but they’re small.
Correspondent: They’re small?
Goldwag: What disturbs me, and what made me write this book — you know, I had written this other book called Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies, and it was encyclopedic. And it was also, it was like a browsing book. And it was like a gee whiz book. Like these are the crazy things that people believed. And after the book came out, some of these people that I had blithely thought were crazy people kind of introduced themselves to me. And I discovered that they’re out there. And then, almost simultaneously with the publication of my book and the inauguration of Barack Obama, it’s the debut of Glenn Beck on FOX News. And Glenn Beck, he’s not on mainstream TV anymore. I don’t want to give him any more credit. He’s an entertainer. But he was channeling all this stuff. I mean, if you had been as immersed in this stuff as I was, none of it was unfamiliar. It’s called the John Birch Society, basically. That’s the template. And the John Birch Society template goes back to the origins of modern Western conspiracy theory, which is that fear of the Illuminatus. People that listen to rap music think the Illuminatus is something new.
Correspondent: But on that subject, in the book, you cite tenuous connections between Michael Jackson and Jay-Z. I mean, how much does the Illuminatus or the Masonic society even matter in 2012 America? I got a lot of historical examples from you.
Goldwag: It matters in the imagination. It matters as an idea. Real Masons are regular people. And some of them are very sophisticated people. But they’re not the figures in the Dan Brown book or the figures on the cover of Jay-Z records. It’s something else. But ideas are important. Human beings live by ideas.
Liz Moore is most recently the author of Heft.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Swelling with untapped emotional weight.
Author: Liz Moore
Subjects Discussed: Emotional sincerity through a twin narrative, Mary Gordon, McNally Jackson, “grotesque” characters, Flannery O’Connor, complicated relationships with food in the developed world, body image issues, the perception of physicality, researching addictions and obsessions, Harper Lee, Beverly Cleary, Holden Caulfield, masculinity as a virtue and as a pathetic quality, feminine qualities, being the strong person in a relationship, emotional sensitivity, Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies, looking at the failings of our contemporary world through children, broken families and togetherness, the necessity of breaking a character in some way, the difficulties of generating plot, mystery narratives, maintaining a stacked series of coincidences, writing insecurities, ensuring the believability of events, imposing incidents, shifting back-and-forth on the book’s ending (not revealed in this conversation: don’t worry!), parallel character qualities, red herrings, readers who impose their own notions of authenticity, Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, confusing sentiment with sentimentality, writing nasty and unlikable characters, the necessity of liking your characters, sincerity as a revolutionary act in 2012, Gordon Lish and style-oriented fiction, modernist writers, reading James Joyce as a teenager, “The Dead,” “Counterparts,” how different readers choose different favorite stories from Dubliners, giving Arthur a monied background, various characters who give Kel money, how money changes everything, withholding godlike interventions when writing fiction, an early version of Heft written in the third person, first person vs. third person, The Words of Every Song, playing around with third-person, the influence of music upon writing, listening to lots of jazz, dashed dialogue, artificially congealed viewpoints, working at a guitar shop, the best places to observe people, being easily distractable, peripheral hearing, writing exercises from Colum McCann, teaching, the meanness of people who stare through other people and pretend that they don’t exist, people who cry by themselves, the giddy embrace of an old friend, the relationship between observation and imagination, when your friends begin to die, when your friends get married and having kids, increasingly delayed marriage among twentysomethings, and assorted existential possibilities.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I was curious, first of all, about a certain quality in this novel that is channeled through these two very different perspectives. You have, of course, Arthur, who is this man who is an ex-professor. He is just under 600 pounds. You have this kid, Kel, who has an alcoholic mother and the like. What’s interesting to me is that these types of perspectives in another author’s hands might almost be grotesque or caricaturish. Yet there’s a good deal of emotional sincerity to this work. And I’m wondering what you did to get that. I mean, is it a matter of knowing the characters extremely well before you set out on this journey to describe their intertwined fates? What of this? Let’s start from there.
Moore: Sure. Well, it’s interesting that you use the word “grotesque.” Because last night, actually, I had an event at McNally Jackson with Mary Gordon. It was a conversation with Mary Gordon. And I used the word “grotesque” to describe the characters.
Moore: And she looked at me. She correct me and said, “They’re not grotesque. Not in the literary sense.” They’re not grotesque the way Flannery O’Connor’s characters are grotesque because neither one of them is mean or intentionally malevolent in a way. So I think they both have good intentions. And despite the fact that Arthur is certainly grotesque-looking, I think his internal life or his interior life is — I don’t know. There’s something pathetic about him in a way. But I like to think that his thoughts kind of save him from whatever lack of appeal he has physically. I hope his interior life is appealing in some way.
Correspondent: The thing is: I read this and I was both conscious and not conscious of Arthur’s physicality. I mean, he describes it also on a compartmentalized level. Like he’ll sometimes describe his belly or he’ll describe what he eats more so than who he is. I mean, he is what he eats. And I guess this goes back to the question of emotional sincerity and how you managed that. Whether this is the way to turn any physicality into something more. To nail that. I mean, four years is a long time to work on a book. So I’m curious.
Moore: Yeah. You’re talking about how…
Correspondent: How you put yourself on the line emotionally. Yeah.
Moore: Well, it was difficult. So, okay, I am not obese. I know this is a radio interview. But I’m not. And so I think some people have asked me, I guess, a two-part question. One is how I know what it’s like to be obese or to compulsively overeat. And the other is what right do I have to write from that perspective — in the same way that you might ask somebody why am I writing from the point of view of men. What authority do I have to do that?
Correspondent: I’m more in the former camp. (laughs)
Moore: You’re more in the former camp. Okay. Well, I’ll say this. I think it is impossible in the developed world not to have a somewhat messed up relationship with food. So I’ll say this. Because I’m a woman, from my point of view, every woman that I know has some sort of messed up relationship with food or I can imagine very clearly what it would be like to let go and to go to the very extreme place I can imagine food-wise and to just say, “That’s it. I’ve given up. I’m done restricting what I eat. And therefore I’m just going to eat whatever it is that I want.” And ao, in a sense, that was easy to imagine. Because I have imagined it. I mean, I don’t want to speak for every woman or every person. But I think it’s a place that I could easily imagine myself going. And so investing those thoughts into Arthur was easy. I’ve had them. In terms of his physicality, I guess that was more imaginary. But even again, we all loathe. I think he’s a self-loathing character. And we all loathe certain parts of ourselves. Even our own bodies. I mean, I have spent energy in my life loathing certain parts of myself. So that too comes, even though it’s not extreme, I’m –
Correspondent: Such as what?
Moore: I’m some place on the spectrum of both those things.
Correspondent: What is it that you loathe about yourself that you can draw from?
Moore: My physicality — if you want me to get specific? No, I’m not going to get specific.
Correspondent: Okay. No problem.
Moore: But there’s…
Correspondent: I’m just trying to get a general idea here.
Moore: Yeah. I mean, just growing up as a young woman, you fixate. You almost disconnect certain parts of your body from yourself. You disconnect. You fixate on whatever part of your body you imagine to be grotesque — to use that word again. And you just…you spend a lot of time and energy detaching yourself from it or imagining it as some thing outside of yourself. And I guess that I think Arthur does that a lot by describing his failure, his gut. The way he describes it. Or describing his chins. Or describing the way that his gut hangs down between his legs when he sits down. That’s almost something outside of himself. I mean, it is outside of him. But the way I have, or people in general sometimes think of their bodies as not being part of themselves, as being something else, interests me. And that’s what I was imagining when I was writing Arthur.
Correspondent: But for his specific feelings and thoughts on food — especially the early incident with the chocolate eggs that is late in the book — I mean, did you talk to people who are overweight? Did you observe? Or did you draw from this sense of the imagination or this transposition of your own experiential point of view?
Moore: I did not go out and intentionally binge ever in researching this character. Although that would have been a good excuse to. If I really wanted to.
Correspondent: Yes. “I’m having that second bowl of ice cream, dammit!” (laughs)
Moore: Research! I didn’t do that. I know what it’s like to. From history. And I know people who are overweight. And more than that though. I know people who have had addictions. And when I think of Arthur — I mean, he doesn’t just eat too much. He has an addiction to food. And to other things too. To isolation and solitude and to being inside of his home. He’s certainly, I would say, agoraphobic on some level. And other characters in the book have addictions too. And so I was drawing from, when I say my own experience of addiction, I don’t mean my own addictions, but my personal experience with people who have had addictions. I wouldn’t call it research. Because it’s just been part of my life. And the research that I did tended to be more technical. Like I spoke to a couple of different doctors about the medical consequences of obesity and also the medical consequences of long-term alcoholism. There’s another character in the book who’s an alcoholic. And also, without giving too much of the plot away, I had to research some medical interventions. Emergency treatments and stuff like that.
Correspondent: You don’t necessarily have to have your left tail in your car go out in order to actually write about it. Or did you?
Moore: Never had my left taillight in my car out. Good memory. That’s outstanding. And I’ve never punched anyone. And I’ve never… (laughs)
Correspondent: Punched by accident too.
Moore: I’ve never…I’ve never…well, now we’re getting into too many plot points. But I think every author that I’ve ever spoken to will say that personal experience is what invests the book with its energy. But certainly very little of this book is autobiographical.
Correspondent: Would you say, especially with Kel, that it has been drawn from reading, for example, of Harper Lee? There’s a Cleary in there. Beverly Cleary?
Moore: Oh, I love that. Beverly Cleary. (laughs)
Correspondent: I’m wondering, I suppose, if the muse in a sense wasn’t just the transposition theory I have offered, but also a lot of reading and wanting to capture that feeling of what it is to be young so that you can have this emotional sincerity alive on the page with Kel.
Moore: Yeah. I mean, I’ve heard Kel compared to Holden Caulfield and angry young man type characters, and I’m sure that I’ve been influenced over the years by a lot of the young — I guess the most famous adolescent characters in history. I think it’s impossible to avoid. But for me, he comes out of a lot of kids I grew up with, many of whom had very serious burdens that they were carrying around. But especially the young men, who had to perform this kind of extreme bravado. Especially the athletes too. There’s something so sad and kind of pathetic, again, I guess you could use that word again, about watching kids, young kids, being externally macho or externally tough and internally just torn apart and really sad and lonely and needing help and having to still be tough.
Correspondent: Masculinity’s a pathetic quality? Not just that quality in youth — speaking as a man, we all have our little moments, I suppose. But why do you find it to be pathetic? I mean, maybe I’m not viewing it that way — in large part because I found the book to also really grapple with issues of sensitivity in these characters. So maybe this is a way to anchor what you might view as pathetic.
Moore: Yeah. I think masculinity can be a virtue in a lot of cases. But I think it’s the idea of having to perform it when you don’t feel it. Or perform an extreme version of it or something that is pathetic and that makes me sad to see. Mostly it makes me sad to see in children.
Agnieszka Holland is most recently the director of In Darkness, which has been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award and opens in limited release on Febraury 10, 2012.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Fumbling in the dark for the Zippo.
Guest: Agnieszka Holland
Subjects Discussed: Creating cinematic environments, how to design a sewer system for a Holocaust movie, the sewer as metaphor, the difficulty of locating the right sewer, Polish sewers, technical limitations on location, managing 60 to 70 people in a tight location, the differences between canalization sewers and sanitation sewers, finding sewer experts, Montreal, Phantasm, Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal, The Third Man, cinematographic efforts to avoid the beauty of the sewers, darkness as a false beauty, avoiding candles, directing actors in real darkness, making a movie which containing numerous languages, linguistic training and actors, ovepreparing actors, the Balak Polish dialect, working with Ed Harris, importing Method acting ideas into the Polish acting community, Jennifer Jason Leigh, finding the right actors, Polish theatrical training, Holocaust fatigue, developing behavioral quirks to overcome tropes, the Downfall meme, Olivier Olivier, Holland’s experience with identity emerging as a theme in her films, Zelig, being identified as the “literary culture” director during the 1990s, Total Eclipse, The Secret Garden as Holland’s favorite book as a kid, being faithful to Henry James, Washington Square vs. The Heiress, and efforts to determine why David Simon paired Holland up with Richard Price-penned scripts on The Wire.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: This actually came up in a conversation I had a few weeks ago with the Australian novelist Elliot Perlman. We were talking about the notion of Holocaust fatigue and how some books or films that deal with the Holocaust have to now face this dilemma. I was looking at some of the reviews and some of the write-ups of this film and I noticed, for example, that A.O. Scott suggested that “the Holocaust movie has become a genre in its own right.” And in Tablet, you have Daphne Merkin suggesting that “the audience for Holocaust films is even smaller than the audience for Ukranian imports.” But on the other hand, I think one of the things I appreciated about this film, and also Europa Europa, is that you have characters who are committing adultery, who are shooting up, who are masturbating, and as a result you have behavioral quirks that almost defy these labels. So what do you do, when you’re making a Holocaust narrative of any kind, to get away from these tropes? Does it really come down to these behavioral quirks or what?
Holland: Well, you know, I think that the Holocaust is such an important event in the human history, the border point of the humanity, that I don’t think it will disappear as a subject. Even for the next generation. I think what happens really — it was too many of pretty superficial and not very good treatments of this period and of this subject, which change it to some kind of the moralistic sentimental kitsch and I think really — yeah, this kind of treatment, people have enough. It means, in the first, it was educationally important and work up some kind of knowledge and curiosity. But after, it became some kind of cliche. For me, it’s important that it’s not like, that you cannot label this as the Holocaust. It is not really Holocaust film or it’s not the film of the Polish/Jewish relationship. It’s a film about the human condition and the particular circumstances. And what you know of the human nature is able to give, to deliver the best and the worst. And that is the universal question which you can also translate to another sensitivity and another times. I think personally that the only thing which is important: if it’s artistically successful and if it’s honest. Humanly speaking and psychologically speaking and historically speaking. If it’s dishonest or bad, it’s bad. If it’s really powerful and goes straight to the heart of the people, you know, yes. I think that we, of course, had the ambition to shot into the heart of the people and the brain comes later, you know? And if after it wakes up the reflection, what it was, how it was possible, when was my nation in that, how I will act in those circumstances, that is a bonus.
Correspondent: Yeah. Well, I agree with you. But on the other hand, you as a filmmaker are competing with, for example, the Downfall meme on the Internet. Where they take that scene and put different subtitles with Hitler. “Hitler has learned this.” As a result, any serious consideration of the Holocaust now has to compete with these caricatures. Although, oddly enough, I guess you were sort of ahead of the trend with the Hitler who’s in Europa Europa.
Correspondent: But how do you deal with this? Does it really come down to creating subcultures? Behavioral quirks along these lines that defy all tropes?
Holland: Well, you know, it’s where we are today. And anyway, you know, the Internet. And you think of the artifacts and the pieces of art on the Internet and the cut-and-glue, you know, kind. It exists. You cannot do anything about it. And of course, you can answer the question, “How long the regular dramatic narrative will survive?” And if it will change to something different. Some kind of interactive games or something like that. I don’t know. By now, it still exists and you still can touch a pretty amazing amount of people with that.
Correspondent: I was always curious. I’ve been wanting to ask you this. Why are you so interested in frauds and swindlers and those who have secret identities or who are pretending to be somebody else? I mean, even in this film, you’ve got con men. There’s the pretense with the cash. Olivier Olivier — is the boy real or not? Things like that. Is this, I suppose, the result of growing up in pre-Solidarity Poland? This natural curiosity? Or is it just good for narrative?
Holland: Probably. Probably. In Polish Jewish family also, where, you know, I had to change those hearts depending upon who I am talking to. So in some way, part is my own experience. And being woman in a man’s world. And in general, I think that the people are wearing the masks all the time. So that is like the basic human problem. Who we are really in the depth of our identity and what we pretend if that real identity really exists or is just the function of the circumstances. If it’s something like the true, true, you know, true myself — someplace — and the rest is just some kind of the appearances, the true myself doesn’t exist. Everything is appearances. The question is asked in Europa Europa in a very vivid way. Because the guy had been like the Zelig — changing identities, depending.
Correspondent: And very flute-based as well.
Holland: Right. And in Europa Europa, it was paradoxical. It was that his identity was his circumcised penis. If he wasn’t circumcised, probably he will become someone else totally. And that he had to remember.
Correspondent: No greater physicality than that. (laughs)
Stephen Fry is most recently the author of The Fry Chronicles.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Basking in a pleasant tsunami of erudition.
Author: Stephen Fry
Subjects Discussed: Journalists who attack morally and spiritually, capitulating an iPhone, the number of gadgets that Fry carries on him, physical books vs. ebooks, high school physics lessons and vacillating ideas about the atom, books and mass, Anthony Powell’s Books Do Furnish a Room, technological developments and misunderstanding about replacement, ways in which technologies complement each other, the plight of newspapers, Page One, whether The New York Times is a trusted platform, accepting the fact that Gaddafi is dead, embedded journalists, Kickstarter campaigns and journalism, working for free in the post-Internet age, Fry’s presence on Twitter, Twitter vs. newspapers, not giving print interviews, the achievements of journalists, terrorists who rely on newspapers, the difficulties of not reporting serious changes to the Manhattan skyline, “cheating” on essays in school by writing them in advance, Fry’s ability to recall books by line number and specific edition, Shakespeare, hypothetical exam answers to Macbeth, the Wooly Willy, the pointlessness of exams, Fry’s love for technology, what education can learn from the ancient Greeks, the numerous intellectual trajectories which spring from coffee, Diderot, Secessionist Viennese coffeeshops, Gustav Klimt, the value of giving someone a single word to jump off from, Oscar Wilde’s “De Profundis,” Lord Alfred Douglas, the Oxford manner, education as “the ability to play gracefully with ideas,” intelligence rooted around connection, the No Child Left Behind Act, Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System, the etymology of “draconian,” vocational training, fruit trees, people who believe the Alps to be dull, those who blame teachers, having a busy schedule, Fry’s schedule vs. a politician’s schedule, not knowing things and greed, Fry’s shaky terpsichorean skills, humans and language, Steven Pinker, Guy Deutscher, how tenses imply futurity, animals and sex, the Phoenicians and writing, cuneiform and the alphabet, hip-hop, Fry’s rapping talent, forgetting to delight in the beauty of language, Wodehousian language rhythms and music, connections between Wodehouse, Cicero, and W.S. Gilbert, film adaptations of The Importance of Being Earnest, Jewish and gay identity, the linguistic roots of Shoah, 19th century anti-Semitism, meeting Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, playing Schumann’s Träumerei on the cello for Josef Mengele, when human beings are treated like machines, Hannah Arendt, Ring Lardner’s golden rule for screenwriting, political correctness, restrictions on the depictions of smoking in BBC documentaries and drama, Spooks, bizarre moral standards on British television, being exploited by Stephen Sondheim for a scavenger hunt, having a fax machine in the early days, Fry’s efforts to read Atlas Shrugged, the 1949 film adaptation of The Fountainhead, writing the book for Me and My Girl, the fine aural distinctions between a fax machine and a 56k modem, the 21st century audience for Ayn Rand, maniacal ideologies that don’t include joy or hope, the RAND Corporation, the Tea Party, reasonable addictions vs. extreme addictions, empathy, false categories when contemplating what it is to be human, Artistole’s “man is a political animal,” Kant’s symbolic logic, the behavioral thrust of David Hume, the readability of philosophers, TE Hulme’s influence on Pound and the modernists, moralists, Hulme’s “concrete flux of interpenetrating intensities,” humans being verbs rather than nouns, doctors and diagnosis-based language, referring to people by their condition, kindness and cheerfulness as essential virtues, eudaimonism, Mad cartoons, the “pay it forward” principle, Fry’s aborted career as a book reviewer, whether criticism is necessary, thick skins vs. thin skins, not wanting to hurt people’s feelings, Alec Guinness’s rude remarks to other actors, Paul Eddington, The Browning Version, Fry’s desire to play Crocker-Harris, pathetic efforts to be polite, Fry’s futile efforts to hawk his own book, teaching Aeschylus to inspire, cruelty, “Never presume to understand another man’s marriage,” ethics and absolute evil, Schindler’s Ark, the French Resistance bombing restaurants, Fry’s Apple zeal in relation to Foxconn abuses, suicides at Foxconn, Steve Jobs vs. Henry Ford, Brave New World, Godwin’s law, Apple’s business in China, overseas industrialization, Alms for Oblivion, and why Fry believes Simon Raven is better than Anthony Powell.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Tying these multifarious observations with what is in your book, I actually wanted to ask you about this intriguing period when you were at Cambridge. You describe how you were “cheating” on essays because you wrote all of the essays in advance in your head — to the point where you were able to cite chapter and verse.
Correspondent: Specific lines down to the line number of Shakespeare. Specific critical reference works down to the publisher, the edition.
Fry: The review course.
Correspondent: Whether it was in trade or whether it was in hardcover. Rather extraordinary. And that you would actually tilt these essays in relation to the question that was asked of you.
Fry: That’s the point. Exactly. The point is: if you have an essay on Othello, if you have an essay on Anthony and Cleopatra — we’ll stick with Shakespeare just for the sake of a closed canon, so we can think about it — if you have an essay on Macbeth, you have a point of view. I know I can deliver 3,000 words very quickly on Macbeth if I know I can.
Correspondent: You have 45 minutes right now, man!
Fry: And the question is “The essence of Macbeth is the difference between the microcosm of Macbeth’s mind and the macrocosm of the real world,” say. Now that may not suit my thesis at all for Macbeth, which is actually to do with the way the poetry disintegrates as the play progresses. But I can make it exactly answer that question. You just have to polarize. You know, it’s like getting a magnet. Did you ever have it in — you probably were American. So I don’t know why I’m asking if you had them. Those little bald men with iron filings and a magnet and you used to make beards out of them.
Correspondent: That was, I think, before my time.
Fry: It probably was before your time. But that’s what you’re doing. You’re taking a magnet and you’re polarizing what you know. Now it’s kind of cheating. It’s not cheating really. Because I am passionate about Shakespeare. I love Shakespeare. But I’m very, very lazy when it comes to exams. And I also am aware that an examination is nothing other than the ability to pass an exam. And what use is that? You might as well say, “In order to qualify from Harvard University, you have to win a squash match. Or you have to do the best Lady Bracknell of your year. Then you’ll get your top degree.” But why is the ability to reproduce prepared pappy ideas about intellectual concepts on paper — why is that a good reason to give someone a job in a law firm, in Wall Street, or in a publishing company for that matter? And part of my love of technology, personally what I would love is, of course, to go all the way back to the days of ancient Greece where you had Aristotle and you had Plato and you had the Lyceum and you had the Academy. So you would actually have a master. And to me, this is how an ideal examination would go. It doesn’t matter what subject the person is reading, as we say in England, or studying, as you would say here. You would just say, “Coffee.” Now someone who’s reading history might just instantly start talking about the coffee shops and how they were banned by Charles II, how they then came back again under Queen Anne, and how they caused a movement with the coffee shops in Paris with Diderot and the Republic of Letters and Voltaire and the Enlightenment. Or they could talk about the Secessionist Viennese coffee shops of Mahler and Klimt and so on. And Stefan Zweig and the whole generation of intellectuals. Rilke and Kraus and so on. Or you could talk about coffee as: Is it an emulsion? Is it a solution? How is coffee grown? What is it as a cash crop? What is is politically? Ethically? That there are some countries who are not allowed to grow food that they can eat. They can only grow food that they can sell. Currency rates. It’s a geopolitical issue. You can talk about the history — here we are in a publisher’s office — about the coffee table book. You could talk about it as a medical student. You could talk about it as a stimulant. You could talk about caffeine.
Correspondent: Worker exploitation. Fair trade.
Fry: Yeah. Basically, what you want, if you’re examining someone, is just to give them a single word and watch them run with it. One of my absolutely favorite quotations — and I’ll try and get it right — is from “De Profundis,” the letter that Oscar Wilde wrote in prison to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. Bosie, as he nicknamed him. The man who basically destroyed his life. The boy who destroyed his life. And at one point, he’s talking about Oxford, and he’s saying, “The fact that you didn’t get a first-class degree is a disgrace. Many first-class minds never achieve first-class degrees. The fact that you didn’t get any degree at all is no disgrace. Many first-class minds never finish their course and get their degrees. But what to me, Bosie, is unforgivable is that you never achieved what I believe used to be called” — he put in inverted commas — “the Oxford manner.” And he then says, “Which I take to mean the ability to play gracefully with ideas.” Isn’t that the most beautiful definition of education you’ve ever heard? The ability to play gracefully with ideas! So whether the idea be coffee, whether it be paper, whether it be homosexuality, whether it be floorboards, it doesn’t matter. Because intelligence is about connection.
Fry: So an exam question that just says, “Discuss Shakespeare’s use of imagery in Measure for Measure.” Well, gah! Come on.
Correspondent: But it’s actually much worse here in America. I’m sure you’re familiar with the No Child Left Behind Act, which is imposing these draconian standards and is absolutely convinced that all schools can offer 100% competence adhering to these standards. As a result — and there’s a great book by Diane Ravitch called The Death and Life of the Great American School System.
Fry: Oh yes. I’ve heard about it.
Correspondent: Which outlines exactly what’s been going on. Which means that if the school doesn’t meet these draconian standards, it gets sanctioned. It can fire teachers and administrators who are considered to be failures.
Fry: The pedant in me would say that Draco was a leader of the Greek Republic at a time when every single crime was punishable by death. Which is what “draconian” really means. And I’m sure it isn’t draconian in that sense. (laughs)
Correspondent: But when the Oxford manner is in opposition like this…
Fry: I know what you mean.
Correspondent: …it’s difficult.
Fry: And even more in opposition to that is the other group of people, which tend to be the right-wing industrial nexus. Whatever you might call them. Those who have influence over politics who say that education actually is irrelevant. What matters is vocational training. And so they want people with MBAs. They want people with apprenticeships. They want people who don’t have a wide, broad education and the ability to play with ideas, but who can do very specific things. Like training. It’s training. and think of that in terms of a tree. You know how you used to train a fruit tree against a wall. You straightened out its branches. [begins spreading arms] You stapled them to the wall. And that’s it. And it bears fruit very efficiently. Now we’re human beings. We’re not fruit trees. And we’re certainly not there to have ourselves straightened out to produce fruit for the state. We’re here to question, to wonder, to oppose.
Correspondent: But you are extending your arms very impressively, resembling a branch.
Fry: Thank you very much.
Correspondent: So I think that if you wanted to be a fruit tree, you could. You have a good line in that.
Fry: (laughs) I’ve certainly been a good fruit. Whether or not I’m a tree — well, of course, by their fruits, shall ye know them.
Fry: But the education point is a really interesting one. And I don’t know what the answer to it is. I think, oddly enough, if I am educated, if I have an education, it’s obviously one I’ve given myself. Because that’s what, by definition, what all educations are. You’re drawn out. Nothing’s put in. You’re not a bucket that is filled by a good teacher. And one of the saddest things is when people say, “Ah, well, Shakespeare was ruined for me at school. Because I had a terrible Shakespeare teacher.” I would say back to them, “Yeah. It’s the Alps for me. I had this awful geography teacher. I just find the Alps so dull. Because I had this awful geography teacher.” I mean, it’s ridiculous. I think it’s either beautiful or it isn’t. You can’t blame a teacher for not being able to communicate its beauty. I can look at the Alps and see that they’re beautiful. And if you can’t look at Shakespeare and see that it’s beautiful, don’t blame a teacher. Blame yourself for not looking hard enough. And I know people don’t want to hear that. But that’s the answer.
Correspondent: And you get into that in the book. And I actually wanted to discuss this further. I mean, I’m in agreement that, okay, we are in a world of riches. We have more information available to us than at any point in human history. But at the same time, learning about apple trees, Shakespeare, or what not, this requires time. And if you are someone who is working two jobs, who is raising a kid, how do you factor that into your dismissal of…
Fry: I like that. Because I’m a gay actor who doesn’t do much…
Correspondent: (laughs) No, no, no. It’s not that at all.
Fry: No. I know you weren’t. But it is funny. I have to say — and I don’t mean this in a boastful way, but I have yet to share diaries with someone who is busier than I am. Including politicians. I’ve had meetings recently. I’m trying to get…
Correspondent: (laughs) Including politicians? Like who?
Fry: Well, they always say that every single hour of every day is taken up by…
Correspondent: Even the bathroom breaks and all that.
Fry: Yeah. Etcetera. And, of course, they are to some extent. But they’re not busier than me. Because that’s actually all stuff that’s done. And then when it’s done, it’s done. If you’re a writer and you have other things, it’s never finished. And I am a very, very busy person. But you may notice I’m quite tubby. It’s because I’m greedy. And if people say they don’t know anything, it’s only because they’re not greedy. They’re not greedy for knowledge. Sometimes an image I give is — imagine that the Mayor of Washington was told when he was a child, “Go to London. Because the streets are paved with gold.” If he knew that in every city, the sidewalks, as you call them here — the pavements were piled high with gold coins and it made a noise. It made a kind of clashing noise as you shuffled your way through it. And it was terrible. And you bumped into a beggar standing with his hat out, saying, “Please. Please. Give me some money. I’m poor. I can’t eat.” You’d look at him and go, “What? Look around you! Just bend down and pick it up!” And that’s what I feel when people say, “Oh, it’s all right for you. You went to Cambridge and were taught things. Oh, why can’t I? I don’t know about this stuff.” I just want to say, “Bend down and pick it up.” It’s never been more available. All it takes is greed. Curiosity.
Correspondent: You are in a country where most Americans don’t have a passport. You are in a country where they actually don’t know these options. I’ll give you a perfect existential example of my own. So the New York Public Library — if you go in that marvelous reading room, it’s capacious. Tables. Everything. It’s like, “Of course! I’m going to study. Because this is an environment totally made to not slack off in any way.” Right? But if you try to find a seat at a coffeehouse now, every single table is completely filled up with people with their laptops. And there’s often people who sit down and they have this board meeting vernacular. And you can’t get anything done. I mean, it’s to the point where it’s almost a Trail of Tears-like situation for me and my friends.
Correspondent: We have to go to the next coffeehouse before they discover it! But you can pretty much almost always get a seat at the New York Public Library. And the question is: What do we do to restore the balance? To get people understanding that, yes, the streets are paved with informational gold if you go and reach down and pick it up. What do you think?
Fry: To me, this is simply prejudice. It’s prejudice that comes from the gifts that nature never gave me. And they were coordination and music. Although I love music and I’m passionate about music and I listen to music every day and I collect music. I have musical heroes that are distinct and different. You may know that I made a film about Richard Wagner, which is very important to me. Partly because as a Jewish person, Wagner is always going to be traumatic if you love him. Because he was such a bestial anti-Semite. Of course, that was not his fault. Because he died fifty years before — literally fifty years before Hitler became Vice-Chancellor of Germany, who of course adored Wagner too. So I do love music. But I can’t do it. I can’t perform it. I can’t sing. I can play the odd note on the piano.
Correspondent: But can you dance?
Fry: Absolutely cannot dance! I can’t even begin to put myself in a position.
Correspondent: Have you tried to take ballroom dance lessons?
Fry: I would hate it! I would loathe it!
Correspondent: Come on, Stephen! Pick it up! The dance is right there! (laughs)
Fry: If you read my book, you would know my physical self-consciousness is extreme.
Fry: But bad as this sounds, and this is no complaint, the fact that I was so incompetent, so uncoordinated physically, so ungifted musically, meant that all I had to give myself any pride was language. It’s all I had. And the odd thing is that’s all any of us have. It is the miracle of the human species.
Deborah Scroggins is most recently the author of Wanted Women: Faith, Lies & The War on Terror: The Lives of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Aafia Siddiqui. My response to Dwight Garner’s New York Times review, which contains more links and information, is also helpful background reading for this interview.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Oscillating between two polar points.
Author: Deborah Scroggins
Subjects Discussed: Salman Rushdie and the Jaipur Literature Festival debacle, India’s political sensitivity, Islamic pluralism, Theo van Gogh’s assassination, why so many intellectual figures supported Ayaan Hirsi Ali (even after revelations of falsehood), Affia Siddiqui’s fundamentalism while a student at MIT and Brandeis, Hirsi Ali’s desire to abolish Article 23 of the Dutch Constitution, Muslim schools in the Netherlands, Hirsi Ali’s belief that all Islam is dangerous, Siddiqui’s close ties to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Siddiqui’s 86 year prison sentence and murky details in the early stages of her capture, the Justice Department not trying Siddiqui on terrorism, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, how Siddiqui’s treatment has impacted U.S.-Pakistani relations, the Hague spending $3 million a year to protect Hirsi Ali in the United States, the Foundation for the Freedom of Expression, the degree of danger against Hirsi Ali in the U.S., Siddiqui’s lawyers backing off from initial charges that Siddiqui was being tortured in Bagram, Abu Lababa’s claims that Pakistan was going to come under attack from the United States, why Pakistan only selectively observed certain facts relating to Aafia Siddiqui, unchecked claims of Siddiqui has cancer and got pregnant in prison, advantages in not talking with Siddiqui and Hirsi Ali for a dual biography, Scroggins’s efforts to stay objective, Daniel Pearl’s murder, Bernard Henri-Lévy’s claims that there are ties between the ISI and the Deobandi jihadists, speaking with Khalid Khawaja, efforts to steer Scroggins away from Siddiqui, trying to find the truth given so many inconsistent stories and motivations, Yvonne Ridley‘s press conference offering further claims concerning Siddiqui, why Scroggins unthinkingly forwarded a Pakistani journalist’s email to Siddiqui’s lawyers, how lack of journalistic care puts people in danger, Hirsi Ali’s positive qualities, finding the balance between defending extreme free speech and knowing the implications, considerations of nonviolent Islam, connections between Siddiqui and Hirsi Ali, and how extremism feeds upon itself.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I’d like to calibrate this conversation with recent events in India. There was, of course, the whole Salman Rushdie affair at the Jaipur Literature Festival. He gets a report indicating that there are going to be hit men from the Mumbai underworld who are going to assassinate him. So he decides not to go. Then he pulls out. And then Hari Kunzru with various other authors actually read from The Satanic Verses, which is banned in India. Then they have to leave. And then it’s discovered that Rushdie has, in fact, been relying on fabricated police reports, which makes everything extremely interesting. And then, most recently this morning, the latest escapade reaches almost a reductio ad absurdum level in the sense that Jay Leno tells a joke and this is considered a grave offense and they want the government to step in. So all this is happening — as I’m thinking and considering your book, which deals with two key polar figures — Aafia Siddiqui and Ayaan Hirsi Ali — and I’m curious about this. It seems to me that we have an environment in which extremes beget extremes beget extremes. And I’m wondering how understanding figures like Hirsi Ali and Siddiqui leads us to contemplating more Islamic pluralism. Moderation. Or is such a thing possible? Maybe we can start off from there.
Scroggins: Well, absolutely. That could be the whole point of my book. That extremes beget extremes. And there’s no doubt that both of these women — Aayan Hirsi Ali and Aafia Siddiqui — owe their fame to their enemies. Because if Ayaan Hirsi Ali had never been threatened, she would never have been asked to stand for Parliament in the Netherlands. And then if her film collaborator, Theo van Gogh, hadn’t been murdered on the streets of Amsterdam, she wouldn’t have become internationally famous. Aafai Siddiqui, on the other hand, became famous because she was hunted by the CIA and because the CIA and the Pakistani government were actually kidnapping people and holding them in secret prisons, it came to be believed that they were lying when they said that they didn’t know where Aafia Siddiqui was. And no one would believe them, even though in this case they probably were telling the truth.
Correspondent: But how, using the lives of these two women, does a legitimate concern for radical Islam’s suppression of women transform into extremism? I mean, is it the inevitability of the present climate? Whether it be in India or the Netherlands or elsewhere?
Scroggins: Well, I don’t think it has to. I think there are thousands and thousands of women, Muslim women, working to improve women’s rights in the Muslim world who don’t necessarily see a conflict between Islam and democracy and human rights. There’s fascinating things happening as we’ve seen with the Arab Spring. So it doesn’t have to be that way. But in Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s case, she has taken the position that Islam is to blame for the oppression of women in the Muslim world.
Correspondent: All of it.
Scroggins: Yeah. So that’s her stance. And it’s been an enormously popular one in the West.
Correspondent: Why do you think it’s so popular in the West? And why do you think Ayaan Hirsi Ali has managed to attract so many notable intellectual figures? As you point out in the book, Rushdie and Sam Harris author this LA Times editorial. You’ve got, of course, Christopher Hitchens supporting her — three days later, revelations occur — in Slate Magazine. You have Anne Applebaum. And they’re still supporting her — even as it’s discovered that she has lied about her asylum application. Even as she is demanding a 50 million Euro security detail from the EC. Unsuccessfully. I’m curious how a person like this also becomes one of the 100 Most Influential People named by Time Magazine. Is it pure charisma? What is the intellectual value of a figure like Hirsi Ali?
Scroggins: Well, the idea that Islam is responsible for the oppression of women is a very old idea in the West. It goes back hundreds of years. So it’s got a lot of roots here. So when somebody says that, it basically coincides with what people believe. So that’s one reason. I think with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, what really has made her so popular is her incredibly personal story. It’s very inspiring how she tells it. Her coming to the West. Becoming converted to Western ideas. Shaking off Islam. And then being threatened with death for speaking out against it. A lot of people feel very sympathetic to her and feel inspired by her because of that. So I think that’s really why she’s gained such an influential backing. And as to why she got named the 100 Most Influential People, that came right after the murder of Theo van Gogh. And I think it was sort of a sympathy vote on Time Magazine’s part. Because prior to all this, she was a very new junior legislator in the Dutch Parliament. Not somebody who would normally be considered one of the most influential people in the world.
Correspondent: It’s fascinating to me that a good story would be all it would take to ingratiate yourself into the intellectual world. And as we’ve seen with the Rushdie thing, he also fell for a good story as well. I mean, why do you think that narrative seems to trump the investigation? Is it difficult, as you learned over the course of writing this book, to pluck away at the pores, so to speak?
Scroggins: Yes, it is. Because a lot of her story is true. And it is inspiring to people. So that’s a big part of it. Some of the things that have come out — for example, the stories that she told to the asylum authorities. You ask why haven’t her backers backed away from her on account of that. Well, I think it’s because a lot of them feel like they might have done the same thing under the same circumstances. There’s still a lot of sympathy for her, despite the fact. And she has admitted to these lies.
Correspondent: So she’s offered enough remorse in the viewpoint of many of these figures who are supporting her.
Scroggins: Yeah. I don’t know if she’s remorseful. Because she admits that if she hadn’t done it, she would never have become the person that she is today. And it’s hard to see how she would. She would have remained in Kenya.
Correspondent: Well, let’s try to swap between Siddiqui and Hirsi Ali, comparable to your book. When Aafia Siddiqui was getting her doctorate in neuroscience at Brandeis, she actually told her professors that the Koran prefigured scientific knowledge and that the scientist’s job was to discover how the laws of the Koran worked. I’m curious. How was she able to get away with this approach at MIT and Brandeis? I mean, she was able to go ahead and cleave to these religious views and still actually get her education. Can we chalk this up to a profound misunderstanding of Islam at our highest institutions? What of this?
Scroggins: Well, when she started saying these things at Brandeis, her professors were completely shocked. They told me that they had never had a fundamentalist of any description in the program, the neuroscience program at Brandeis. And they actually went back to MIT and they tried to find out. Had she had these views when she had been an undergraduate at MIT? And as far as they could find out, she hadn’t said anything in the science classes at MIT that led anyone to believe that she was a fundamentalist. So that’s one of the mysteries. Whether she sort of changed her views and became more outspoken or whether just nobody paid any attention at MIT. But at any event, by the time that she came to Brandeis, she was done speaking out about this. She was such a brilliant student. She could do all the work, the scientific work, and still make straight As. And her professors still told her, “You’ve just got to keep religion out of it.”
Correspondent: And that was enough.