Category : Fiction
Category : Fiction
Jeanette Winterson is most recently the author of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Reconsidering the ever-shifting happy/normal life spectrum.
Author: Jeanette Winterson
Subjects Discussed: How the brain spins around, getting two marriage proposals, sleeping in a brothel in Los Angeles, people who copulate in corridors, “part fact part fiction” as a cover story, Winterson’s obligations to the facts, how a new life can be found in the form of a book, a life ending that nobody wants, how literature allows an intervention into that fateful feeling of life, imaginative freedom, adopted children and being a control freak, the cyclical nature of Winterson’s work, performance spring from fiction and performance turning into nonfiction, Witnerson World, trusting the creative process, the problems with creative writing schools, Ulysses and the return, T.S. Eliot, making sense of the whole pattern of your life, textual foundation, avoiding the term “memoir,” life imitating art, David A. Hogue’s Remembering the Future, Imagining the Past, precise measurement and comparison within Winterson’s work, the importance of detail, the benefits of seeing the world in little, Winterson’s addiction to Twitter, compartmentalizing the world, wooing online people towards books, the generation of the actual, comparisons between Kindle and phone sex, the problems with guys who watch porn, examining a stranger’s bookshelves, virtual realms, Mrs. Winterson reading Jane Eyre and reinventing the end, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Our Correspondent’s problems trying to read Jane Eyre, how containing an adopted mother in words insulates her from the reader, revealing too much of yourself through writing, eccentricity and order, Winterson’s morning bicycle routine, secret rooms in Paris, playing with all your possible selves, solitude as a necessary condition to create something, the reader impression of Mrs. Winterson as a monster, the NORI brick and the Empire State Building, reclaiming Accrington, Winterson’s connection with the North, Manchester, making space in the self for things to come back, how books are more clever than their writers, how Winterson stole a cat and used this incident to teach a moral lesson, memory, screaming as a two-year-old, being a devil baby, the absurd sound of sentences, saying yes to life, false starts and messing things up, how people are presently creating a dystopian society, and how storytelling can help people to live.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Speaking of Mrs. Winterson [JW’s adopted mother], there is a dash-driven paragraph about halfway through the book where you have her applying various charges to locations. Bestiality for the pet parlor, unmarried mothers to the day nursery. So to what degree does containing Mrs. Winterson in words help you to insulate her both from yourself and also, while we’re talking about this idea of what the reader takes away, the readership?
Winterson: Well, I think this time I let her loose. She is also the Dog Woman in Sexing the Cherry. The gigantic lonely philosophical creature who adopts Jordan from the banks of the River Thames. I’ve worked with her often. As a dream figure. As a psychopath, which I suppose she was in a way. But also as a psychopomp, which in myth stories is the strange part-angel, part-devil creature who often tells the stories. You find them in the Arabian Nights very often. There’s kind of a liminal creature inhabiting two worlds. Which in a way she did. Because she lived in end times. She was waiting for Armageddon. And that’s what she wanted. So she was only ever partly in our world. She called life a pre-death experience, which tells you a lot about her psyche. So I wasn’t insulating myself any longer. I had to do that in Oranges because that was a cover version I could live with. I couldn’t have told the story twenty-five years ago. I really couldn’t. That would have been the end of me. And it would have been a very different trajectory for me. But I can tell it now. And I wanted to release her — like the genie, like the 300-foot genie from the bottle — and give her back to the reader. Because I think the reader comes out feeling compassion for this woman. Sympathy even. And also understanding more both about me — Jeanette Winterson the writer — and also about the place that I come from. It’s not covered up at all. I think this is the most revealed book that I have ever written. Which is not to say that the language isn’t as conscious or as taut as I liked it to be. It’s important to me to work with language. But it is a completely honest book. It’s a truthful book, yeah.
Correspondent: Can you reveal too much of yourself through these particular projects?
Winterson: Yes, you can. You can get very overshary if you’re not careful.
Correspondent: How have you stopped yourself from doing this? Do you have a good team that’s going to say, “Hey, Jeanette, maybe you don’t actually want to tell the world that”?
Winterson: No. I made a choice. And it’s the center of the book. There’s one page called “Intermission.” And I say, “I’m going to miss out twenty-five years.” Which I thought would be good for the memoir anyway. Because I thought, this time, the form got a kick up the ass. It became just a bit more fluent and less linear. So I thought, well, that would give people a later clue. They won’t feel so bound to go through this from A to Z. And I did that in order not to bring in lots of people from the middle of my life, which would have turned it more into a kiss-and-tell book. And it would have been about sex and gossip and money. And I thought, I’m not letting this be hijacked by the lurid press. I’m going to tell the stories I need to tell and miss out the things which will spoil the story in a real way. By that, I mean, whether it’s a spoiler and a spoiling.
Correspondent: But where does order come in for you? I mean, you’re reading the books in the library A to Z.
Winterson: I was.
Correspondent: And this leads me to ask you — because I also know that at the very beginning of each day, instead of bicycling to work — most of us who work in the freelance world have the ideal commute. Bed to desk. Thirty seconds. Best commute in the world, right? You, on the other hand, get into a stationary bike and you start just jamming in that for a while.
Winterson: Oh no! It’s not stationary.
Correspondent: It’s not stationary?
Correspondent: Oh! You actually do ride the bicycle!
Winterson: I do!
Winterson: Yes, but I come right back to where I started from. So we may be at the start of our conversation.
Winterson: I have a studio in the garden of my house. But I will not leave my house and walk over to the studio.
Correspondent: I see.
Winterson: I have to get on my bicycle and I cycle for fifteen minutes. Because there’s a circular lane where I live. I live in a village in The Coxwells. And I just cycle round it and come back. And then I can start work.
Correspodnent: Got it. Why do you need to…
Winterson: I don’t have to.
Correspondent: You don’t have to.
Winterson: But I do.
Correspodnent: What does that do for you? Reading in sequence or going from A to Z in this case to work. It’s very fascinating to me. And this kind of relates back to my question about units of measurement. Do you need order in order to find something distinct? Something idiosyncratic? Something quirky? Something brand new that nobody else has? Do you need to have a destination to find a completely idiosyncratic journey? What’s the deal here?
Winterson: Try Flaubert, when he said that the artist needs to be ordered in his habits so that he can be wild in his imagination. That’s a good quote. That works entirely for me.
Correspondent: Calm and orderly life so you can be violent and original in your work.
Winterson: Right. If you came into my house, you know, it’s lovely. I mean, it’s ordered. It’s warm. It’s beautiful. There’s always food. You know, everything’s clean. And I like it that way. The garden’s attractive and I grow vegetables. That allows me to be completely free in my mental space. Now this isn’t a prescription.
Correspondent: No, no, no.
Winterson: By any means. But everybody who does creative work must quite soon work out the best way for that to happen and stick to it. And a lot of people imagine that there is this Bohemian disorder and somehow that’s better for them. They think it’s a kind of rock star thing. And they should just be writing the songs at four in the morning. It seems to work very well for rock stars. I’m not sure it necessarily works well for other forms of creativity.
Correspondent: But 15,000 words in two weeks.
Winterson: It’s a lot.
Correspondent: It seems to me that you’re also struck by flashes of inspiration and so you could possibly be the rock star who has an idea at four in the morning.
Winterson: Oh yeah. I have plenty of inspiration. That’s never been an issue. I’ve never had writer’s block and I’ve never had the slightest worry, even for a moment, that the thing would stop. I feel very confident there. But I do like that space. And even though I live alone — I mean I wouldn’t live with my girlfriend, because it would be terrible — but even though I live alone, I still have to have a studio space separate to my domestic space. And I have to bicycle to it. (laughs)
Correspondent: How many different spaces do you need in life? (laughs)
Correspondent: Do you have about ten?
Winterson: Well, I have my place in London. I have my shop. And then I have a place in the country. And I have my studio. And I also have a secret room in Paris.
Correspondent: Aha! Wow, that’s very intriguing.
Correspondent: I wanted to get back to the book. You are adopted, as we’ve been saying. But I’m wondering if it is an inevitable part of life that we transform in some sense to our parents. How do you deal with this? I mean, you write late in the book, “I wanted to be claimed.” Now isn’t it essential to claim yourself at some point? I mean, if you’ve always been interested in stories of disguise, in mistaken identity, how do you recognize yourself? I mean, does the disguise of truth within stories create additional problems with self-recognition here?
Winterson: No. I think it allows you to play with all your possible selves. The options. Because none of us is one thing. But sometimes it feels like that or we get forced into that because of the way society’s structured. And it’s great privilege and freedom to think, “Well, I can play with all these other selves.” It’s partly why I have a shop. That’s another life completely. That’s why I grow vegetables. You know, there are many JWs, but they all come together in the one that writes the books, which I think is the important thing. And, yes, I do feel settled now and claimed and reclaimed in myself. But, you know, I”m not free from the normal anxieties of the rest of the population. We all want to belong. We are gregarious creatures. We’re pack animals. We don’t always want to be the one who’s the outlier on the outside. We like to be inside sometimes. And it’s a very lonely place if you’re always on the outside.
Correspondent: Yeah. Do you have a finite sense of selves? Because it also seems to me that that has got to be — if you’re constantly dredging up different selves and you’re also worried about this issue of being an outsider in some sense, or being criticized by a media climate…
Winterson: Oh no! I’m not worried about that.
Winterson: I don’t care about being criticized. If you’re going to be an artist, you really can’t care about that. Because nobody is going to give you any easy ride for all of your life. Someone’s always going to come out with both guns. So that’s how it is.
Winterson: It’s not that. It’s actually much more of an existential loneliness. It’s where you position yourself on the radar of humanity. Are you in its sights? Or are you just always just being missed out in some ways? That sense of belonging is not to do with how many friends you’ve got. It’s not to do with how many girlfriends you’ve got. I’ve always had good friends. And I’ve usually been with somebody. It isn’t that at all. That’s why I call it an existential loneliness. It’s something that’s at the center of self. And possibly it always will be. I think so. Although I’m comfortable with that now. And I think that sultriness might be a necessary condition with being able to create something and comment on the world. You need that slight distance, I think.
(Photo: Chris Boland)
Tom Bissell is most recently the author of Magic Hours. This is the second of a two-part conversation. The first part establishes Bissell’s peripatetic history and gets into his recent shift into video games, and can be listened to here. The second part gets into some entirely unanticipated truths about the relationship between life and words in 2012, among many other subjects.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Making the unanticipated five year wait count for something.
Author: Tom Bissell
Subjects Discussed: How Bissell’s father was depicted in Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, being a man with the average sadnesses, how assembling an essay collection allows one to see a life history, Bissell becoming comfortable in not presenting himself as a Wallace-like buffoon, early self-serious days working at a literary house, watching Jeff Daniels make a movie, cringing at your earlier work while reading it before a large crowd, not succumbing to glumness, abandoning the puckish but tart essays, finding humor in Werner Herzog, Bissell’s confessional streak, the lightning bolts of personal revelation, being powerless to make moves in an essay, the diminishing covenant of privacy between author and reader, the creative impact of assuming that most readers are coming into an essay for the first time, unearned intimacy, John D’Agata, not writing magazine journalism in present tense, when bad boy memoirs become ghoulish in changing tense, distinguishing one’s self from the compulsively confessional, maintaining a low-key online presence, responsibility on the page, deleted tweets, when people remark upon and say mean things about you online, the perils of Twitter Search, negative Goodreads reviews, taking on Robert D. Kaplan in Chasing the Sea and in Magic Hours, being angered by Imperial Grunts, rescuing Paula Fox, the Underground Literary Alliance, Bissell’s crusading impulses, writing negative reviews in the New York Times Book Review, Scott Spencer, recusing yourself from reviewing, getting into an online skirmish with Jorge Volpi over a Season of Ash review, putting away the remnants of Bissell’s mean streak, underrepresented voices vs. bad writing, George Plimpton’s invitation to the ULA, finding ways to calm down “boors” and be inclusive of more outsiders in the literary community, King Wenclas as a room wrecker, common embitterment about the publishing system, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, good writing and sincerity, being a “literary insider,” tolerating bad behavior, needless competition within the literary world, star systems within the publishing industry, varying notions of success, the dubious monolithic stature of The New York Times Book Review, Bissell’s negative review of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, whether we should give a damn about critical culture in 2012, James Wood, Dwight Macdonald’s “By Cozzens Possessed,” whether literary culture is more healthier than ever or starving, Dan Josefson’s That’s Not a Feeling, the problems with too many long-form online critical mechanisms, how the group blog made keeping tabs on culture a full-time job, how the Internet has altered time commitments and responsibilities, the future of Bissell’s fiction, listening to the world in a smartphone age as an eccentric or subversive act, how brains are rewired by electronic interfaces, false blame on video games, A Clockwork Orange, the impact of newspaper headline editors, chewing nicotine, obsessiveness, using words like “nummular,” learning 50 Uzbek words a day, achievements and gamification, setting goals, writing about The Room, “Bissellmania,” Jim Harrison, and the creative benefits of being in a stable relationship.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: In The Father of All Things, you remarked on how your father was depicted in Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, where Caputo, he remarks that your father is very funny in telling all these jokes to the other soldiers in the face of tragedy. You wrote back then, “I saw the still normal man my father could have become, a man with the average sadnesses.” I’m wondering if assembling the essays for this collection was in some weird way an effort to look at yourself in the same way. Do you feel that you saw a younger Tom with these average sadnesses or anything like this? Some image of what your life could have become? I mean, I also note this because there’s an interesting sentence you write in “Unflowered Aloes” — the first essay, the youngest one — where you say, “For intellectuals, destiny as it applies to life is a ludicrous thought. But destiny as it applies to works of fiction and poetry goes largely unquestioned.” So do you subscribe to any peculiar destiny these days? What of this?
Bissell: The earlier essays are the ones that I was most hesitant to include in the book at all. They’re basically — I’m sure you think this way when you look at your own stuff that’s older than, say, five years. Basically, it’s a stranger’s work, right? And I once imagined that if I ever did a nonfiction thing, I’d have all the pieces that I’d ever wrote and it would be a big chunky thing. No one wanted to do that obviously. There’s a lot of essays that I could have included, but I didn’t. Just because they were so sloppy in their thinking and they were so — what I’m saying now gets into self-congratulatory territory. Because the presupposition is that your recent work is not perfect. And that’s not what I’m trying to say. But I think you can see in the essays, and I noticed this when I was going over them, is a journey from someone who has become gradually more comfortable not presenting himself as a [DAvid Foster] Wallace-like buffoon, and actually becoming someone who is able to be present in a piece, and I hope be honest and not have these kind of ridiculous squirting boutonniere moments where you’re somewhat desperately trying to get the reader’s affection and attention. So I think I’ve become a less needy presence. And I think my interests — I feel like when I’m talking about intellectuals in that first piece, I mean, all the stuff I said, I more or less believe. I was a somewhat self-serious person then. And I was working for this literary house. And you can see the tone varies in a lot of the pieces. The tone is often directly reflective of where I was living even physically, and the experiences I’d gone through. And maybe the more average experiences I’d had until that point, I think there’s a temptation to actually make more of your experience than can really be made of it. And the Escanaba essay, which is the second essay in the book about watching Jeff Daniels make this movie about my hometown, I read it aloud at Bookcourt the other night. And I kind of kept stopping and apologizing to the audience almost for the histrionic tone. (laughs)
Correspondent: I think most writers of personal journalism or confessional essays tend to do that — especially if it’s been a long while. I know Jonathan Ames does that. I’ve seen other writers do that.
Bissell: Well, I’m glad I’m not alone then.
Correspondent: They’re embarrassed. “Oh my god. I can’t believe I wrote this about myself.” I think that’s a very human reaction. But on the other hand, I mean I have to say, if the yardstick here in comparison to your father is yourself, do you see the typical sadnesses at all that you saw as Caputo depicted your father? Or anything like that?
Bissell: I don’t know. I do know that in some of the experiences I had immediately after September 11th, then covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I became a lot more concerned with making my work as funny as possible. (laughs) And maybe that was just an attempt to not succumb to a kind of glumness about — oh, this is just veering off into territory that I’m not even sure I understand. But I became way less interested in the kind of essay I would have written — like “Unflowered Aloes.” A puckish but tart stately essay, right? And I just became more interested in stuff that puts it out there on the line emotionally, but is primarily concerned with exploring the absurd and the humorous parts of these people. And I try to do that even in the Werner Herzog essay, which — he’s not the easiest subject in the world to wring a lot of humor out of. But I don’t know. I’m not sure. I feel like I have not answered your question at all.
Correspondent: Well, this is actually all good. Maybe another way to phrase it is this. I mean, there seems to me to have always been some interesting confessional streak in your writing. I think of when you finally spill about your fiancée in Chasing the Sea. I think, of course, of the ultimate example. It’s probably the last chapter in Extra Lives. I think of your decision in the Jim Harrison essay to basically announce at the end, “I’m giving up teaching.” These are really bold — I mean, very bold, quite frankly — ways to find a personal connection into someone who you clearly revere or some thing — like Grand Theft Auto — that you clearly revere. And I’m wondering. Why do you feel this need to do this? And why has it been blowing up with, I suppose, even more extraordinary pronouncement? “Hey, I went ahead and had this coke breakdown.” Or “I am packing up my life entirely and maybe if you follow me in the next essay, I’ll tell you how things are going.”
Correspondent: It also causes, at least this reader, to say, “Fuck! I hope Tom is okay!” (laughs)
Correspondent: So my question is: is this an effort to draw either longtime or short-term readers into what you’re doing? Does it provide a greater authenticity? Is it a way of shaking off the sort of smarmy, sort of semi-self-confident guy in “Unflowered Aloes”? What of this? Why?
Bissell: I think some of this must come from having started as a fiction writer and being profoundly uninterested in nonfiction for a long time. And so when you’re writing fiction, there are these lightning bolts of revelation from your own life, your own experience, that are being superinjecting that into the story or paragraph you’re working on. It’s easy to do in fiction. Because no one asks any questions, right? But that electricity is actually what gives fiction its texture. And without that sensed personal connection between writer and material, even if it’s not autobiographical material, there’s that electric sense that this voice knows of what it speaks. And for me, informational nonfiction, nonfiction that doesn’t have an identifiable human being in it, I mean, I could not care less about reading that stuff. And so I realize I confess things in my pieces not out of any real objective or desire. It just seems to be the move that I’m driven to make. Like I didn’t have any idea when I was writing the Grand Theft Auto essay that I was even going to get into my collapse. Into cocaine. No idea. I just started writing the essay and it just started coming out. I didn’t even know that I was going to get into the quitting my teaching thing literally until the moment I got there. So, believe it or not, those moves are like — I’m almost powerless to not do them in some strange way. They’re never — and here’s my defense. Teaching doesn’t come up in that whole essay until the very end. (laughs)
Bissell: So I hope structurally I’m proving my point. And I could have gone back.
Correspondent: But in an age of Google, I mean, we can find out. The reader can find out. “Oh, Tom was teaching somewhere. Wait. What the hell? He’s no longer teaching and he’s telling us this in his essay?” I mean, part of me almost wants to say, in an age where that covenant of author-reader privacy is diminishing, where the author is now expected to tell everything about himself — because everybody is spilling everything about themselves on Facebook, on Twitter, on Tumblr, on whatever — I’m uncomfortable with that idea too. Because I feel, well, why must the author confess everything? Unless it’s pertinent to the piece. This is why I say to myself, well, the bigger leap. If you don’t know where it comes from, and it sometimes gets out there, well, it seems like you’re working in terrain that’s very uncontrolled. What do you do to make sure you don’t say too much?
Bissell: Decorum. My girlfriend. (laughs)
Correspondent: (laughs) What army? What vanguard is there to prevent you? “Hey, Tom, you can’t say this!”
Bissell: Well, I think that less than 1% of my readers are keeping track of me, right? And so in one sense, I’m assuming that everyone who reads something of mine is coming to me for the first time. And so I don’t presume that they have any concern for what’s going on before with me. And especially with my video game book, I think a lot of people read it not even knowing that I had this career as a literary writer before that. So I’m just assuming that the slate is blank. And I guess maybe these bombs get dropped in there to assert some kind of — well, I guess it’s reasserting the pact of intimacy between the reader and the writer. And that intimacy is not always there in nonfiction. It’s not even really expected. And what’s weird is that, as a nonfiction writer, you start off with this utterly unearned intimacy. Which is the intimacy that, well, I’m telling you the truth. And that’s the moral bond between the nonfiction reader and the nonfiction writer. “What I’m telling you is true.” And so you start on this very intimate terrain. And then I think a lot of nonfiction writers never really wander off that terrain. That that’s enough. And for me, it’s not enough.
Correspondent: On the other hand, the extreme version of that would be someone like John D’Agata or Mike Daisey, who basically throw that trust into the water and piss a lot of people off and perhaps, depending upon where your point of view is, destroy their credibility as someone who can share a story or who can even share some acceptable version of the truth, if that makes any sense. It seems to me that your confessional streak is both bomb-dropping but also just enough for us to maintain that covenant. Yet I know you’ve also taught About a Mountain at Portland. And so forth. So do you see yourself possibly entering into “Hey! I really wasn’t telling the truth about this. Fuck you.”
Bissell: (laughs) Well, here’s an interesting point that I will make that I will stand by. I never anymore write magazine pieces in the kind of magazine journalism present tense. Ever. I kind of loathe the nonfiction present tense. And I loathe it because — especially if you’re writing about yourself — when you write in the present tense, you are almost foreclosing any possibility of reflection. And you almost don’t have to account for your decisions or your behavior. And that’s why all bad behavior memoirs are always written in the present tense. “I slapped the hooker. And then I did another line. And then I staggered out and slept with the cab driver.” Now: “I slap the hooker, step outside. I snort another line of coke. I sit down with the cab driver.” No. I’m doing this in present tense. But you turn that into past tense and suddenly it doesn’t work anymore. Now it just seems ghoulish and there’s no sensationalistic fizziness to it. And you just have a reader that’s just saying, “Well, wait a minute? Why did you do these things?” Right? So you’ll notice that I never ever, ever write in the present tense when it comes to nonfiction. And I really, really strive when I do go into confessional mode to keep part of the partition up. I have no interest in revealing the details of my life if they’re not relevant to what I’m actually writing about. And I hope that would distinguish me from some people who seem compulsively confessional. That I would like to think that the stuff that I’m letting loose has a direct emotional bearing on the material that’s under investigation.
(Photo: Trisha Miller)
Tom Bissell is most recently the author of Magic Hours. This is the first of a two part conversation. The first part establishes Bissell’s peripatetic history and gets into his recent creative shift into video games. The second part gets into some entirely unanticipated truths about the relationship between life and words in 2012, among many other subjects, and can be listened to here.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Making the unanticipated five year wait count for something.
Author: Tom Bissell
Subjects Discussed: Living a peripatetic vocational existence, how receiving fellowships and jobs influence the city you live in, Ghostbusters references, moving and books, the joys of New York City, Bissell’s interest in recreations (film, video games, and photography), Grand Theft Auto, Uzbekistan, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Chuck Lorre, the restrictions of celebrity profiles, getting fired from My Little Pony, David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction, getting fired and removed from video game projects, writing for video games, why Bissell can’t quit video games (despite his best efforts), video game script formats, how screenplays and comic book scripts found their way into bookstores, Alan Moore’s meticulous description, communicating with level designers, attempting to form paragraphs within Excel spreadsheets, the dignified advantages of a screenplay over a video game script, the joys of playing builds, the ephemeral nature of video games, Baldur’s Gate II‘s enhanced edition, splitting duties between video game writing and nonfiction writing, Planescape: Torment, Sam Anderson’s article on “stupid games,” the addictive nature of games and smartphones, when video games suck significant portions of your time, Pac-Man’s strange perseverance, how graphical enhancement creates unanticipated obsolescence, trying to watch VHS tapes in a DVD age, the epic poem’s lifespan, when forms of communication stop being useful, downloadable content, grinding and monetization, Tribes: Ascend, finding artistic integrity within a money-making medium, Emily Dickinson, Jonathan Blow, and false impressions about teaching.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Let’s start with the first sentence of this book. I think it’s a pretty telling notion that the author’s note is: “The first essay in this collection was written by a 25-year-old assistant editor living in New York City and the last was written by a 37-year-old assistant professor of English living in Portland, Oregon.” Now this is interesting because you are now no longer living in Portland, Oregon. You are now no longer an assistant professor. I read an interview you did with Owen King and I learned that, in fact, your video game script writing is also in this tetchy peripatetic vocational mode. So my question to you is, well, what do you think accounts for this existence? Were the early roots basically set down with this whole aborted Peace Corps stint? I mean, what of this? What do you think accounts for this constant travel on your end?
Bissell: I guess — I lived in New York City for nine years with a couple stints away. One in which I spent seven months living in Vietnam. I spent a summer in the Canadian Arctic. So I’d live in New York City and then go to places and spend time there. And then I won the American Academy of Arts and Letters Rome Prize, which is a great thing. But it also kind of wrecked my life in some very curious way. I mean, I don’t want to say that to give the impression that I’m not hugely grateful and it’s not an amazing prize. But from there, I wound up moving out of New York without ever really meaning to. And then I lived in Rome for a while. And then I got this fellowship. Then I moved to Vegas. And then I decided that I wanted to move to Estonia. And then that didn’t go well. And then I decided, “Oh, I need to get a job.” So I got a job as a professor at a time where it was really hard to get them. So then when I was offered this thing, I was like, “Oh god. Gotta take it. Gotta take it.” You know, economic downturn. Apocalypse coming. Cats and dogs living together. You know. That’s a Ghostbusters reference.
Correspondent: Of course. I got it.
Bissell: (laughs) For the audience.
Correspondent: Well, unlike William Atherton, you do have a penis. (laughs) I’m sorry.
Bissell: You’ve just doubled down on my Ghostbusters reference. So I moved to Portland thinking that this was where I was going to be for a while. And for various reasons, it just didn’t take. So I recognized that this was a chaotic last few years that I had as a person and as a writer. It hadn’t felt that chaotic. Every step that I’ve taken has kind of been, well, this is obviously what I have to do. But looked at objectively, I mean, I can’t believe I’ve written anything. Considering the amount of places. Moving. As I get older, I just get more and more books. So my girlfriend and I just moved to Los Angeles. And the movers, when they greeted us, they were like very hostile right away.
Bissell: Why were these guys so mad at me?
Correspondent: Books? (laughs)
Bissell: (laughs) Yeah. Because of the books.
Correspondent: Yeah, I know. Having moved many times myself, that’s always the pain in the ass right there.
Bissell: Yeah, man. For the first time in my life, for the first time in my life, I was like, “Yeah, I think Kindles might make sense.”
Correspondent: Because you might move next year.
Bissell: Because I might move. So now, if I had my druthers, I would live in New York City again.
Correspondent: But you live in L.A. right now.
Bissell: We live in L.A.
Correspondent: How long do you think that will last?
Bissell: I’m determined to live there for at least several years. And we’ll see. We’ll see.
Correspondent: But the peripatetic picaresque instinct might actually seize you again? Is this something you can entirely tame? Do you think?
Bissell: I can’t. Because, like I said, New York is the only place that’s ever never stopped boring me. And I get bored in places. And then I want to be somewhere else. And New York is really the one city that I never got sick of. Just even going back here, walking around, it’s just the most amazing place. And every neighborhood — and I’m sounding like just a hackneyed New York-loving cliche monger right now. But every neighborhood you walk through is interesting and there’s just — you never get tired here. You never get tired of it.
Correspondent: Well, let’s look at this from another point of view through the writing. In this book, you have “Escanaba’s Magic Hour,” which demonstrates how the re-creation of this real world on film leads to some problems. Because there are these stiff regulatory pronouncements upon the Escanabans. Is that how I would say it? Escanabans?
Correspondent: Okay. Fantastic. Don’t want to be rebuked by a local. (laughs)
Correspondent: Yes! Exactly. It’s interesting that you ended up talking with Herzog when you did. Because Rescue Dawn — is that not a re-creation of a quasi-re-creation? Then you also, of course, pieced together details from your family of this photo in The Father of All Things. And then, if we go ahead and factor in your stints in Uzbekistan, the trip to Vietnam, being embedded with the Marines in 2005, much of this also involves some effort on your part to try and find a relationship with the real world. Now, with video games, much of your time, I would say, is spent working on fictitious worlds. You know, you describe the world of Grand Theft Auto IV at the end of Extra Lives: “as real as Liberty City seems, you have no hope of even figuratively living within it.” So I have to ask you about this. If Edmund Wilson said that the human imagination has already come to conceive the possibility of recreating human society, how does your imagination work? Why these efforts to take stabs at re-creation over the years? That’s a rather enormous question. But I wanted to see if we could roll the ball.
Bissell: No, no. And this is where I think you’re really onto something. I think some people — the conventionally-minded readers — would look at my interest in something like Grand Theft Auto, having started off as a travel writer to “real” places, would look at this as a kind of alarming drop in quality control on my part. But I’m really interested in travel, both literal and figurative. Right? And I’d like to think my books — and this is something I’ve consciously tried to create in my books — is a sense of realities within realities. And that photo thing that you mentioned, which is at the beginning of The Father of All Things, which is this book I wrote about my dad and my relationship, and his relationship to Vietnam, and a generational relationship to war that we both had a different version of that — and I took this photo and basically jammed a 100 page section out of just looking at this photo. And I don’t think that’s terribly different from my interest in video games in a weird way. I don’t think it’s that different from planting yourself in a place like Uzbekistan, which I didn’t really have any right to write about, you know.
Correspondent: Do you still feel that now?
Bissell: Yeah. Yeah. You know, as a nonfiction writer who’s — I’m not an expert on anything. I’m just interested in a bunch of stuff. And sometimes those interests fade.
Correspondent: But aren’t those interests enough? Isn’t that curiosity the ultimate drive that causes you to recreate in some sense?
Bissell: I hope so. Yeah. So this idea of loving worlds both real and virtual. And my favorite is I think the driving thing behind my entire goal as a writer. And I think my interest in games is finding yourself in this densely created place that human beings have populated with detail and incident, and then just running out there and finding out what’s ther4e for you. Now it may be pathetic from a certain perspective, that I’ve gone from traveling to places like Vietnam and Uzbekistan to serving these digital worlds. But I try not to think of it that way. Because I think — like what John [Jeremiah] Sullivan’s piece about Michael Jackson said — anything that is is real. And I really believe that. Because he was talking about people who had criticized Michael Jackson’s new face. No. “Anything that is is natural.” And that, I think, is a really wonderful insight. And I think it’s true. Anything that is is natural.
Correspondent: Yeah. But I’m wondering if, when you’re writing about something like a sitcom television producer, as you do in this book, and you have to hit the tropes of “Okay, here we are at the rehearsal stage,” “here we are with the joke writers trying to revise the joke so that it gets the biggest laugh for the audience” — what is interesting is the whole incident with the luncheonette at the beginning. The hard work. The failure at the beginning. Getting fired from My Little Pony. Those are very human moments. And it almost seems to me that you — particularly a guy like you, who is very much interested in the complex details of any world — it must be difficult to find a way to sandwich those moments into a profile along these lines when, in fact, you also have to meet the need of an audience who wants to know additional sordid details. Behind-the-scenes stuff.
Bissell: About Charlie Sheen.
Correspondent: I mean, how do you negotiate the human in an essay like that when it would seem to me, if that is a goal of yours, to be more difficult than, say, going into ravaged terrain and seeing a disappearing sea or seeing that there are no remnants of a military campaign from decades before. You know what I mean?
Bissell: Well, this is the one thing that I think [David Foster] Wallace did so well in his essays. Which is he turned the act of noticing things into a kind of a narrative in and of itself. That the mere cataloging of things becomes the story in a weird sort of way. And I’ve never done this to the degree that he did it. But when you read these Wallace pieces, like about David Lynch or about talk radio, he’s always more interested in the cameraman or the baton twirlers. You know, he’s always interested in the freakshow qualities of the places he goes. And if you’re profiling a hit sitcom producer, you can’t do that. You can’t talk to the joke writer as much as you perhaps want to. Chuck Lorre, the subject of the piece, has to be the focus. So it took a long time to get those My Little Pony details out of him.
Correspondent: (laughs) How long did you have to work him? Did you have to grill him to get the My Little Pony details?
Bissell: Kind of. Yeah. Because it took him a long time to open up. And if there’s anything I can say about writing profiles, which writing celebrity profiles, I mean, why even bother? They’re too canny to really open up to you. And their publicists are all on everyone’s backs. And there’s all this quid pro quo that goes on with that kind of a piece. It’s not even writing. It’s like alien anthropology, right? But someone like Chuck Lorre, who has a publicist, but I think the idea of self-protection is much less pronounced as a technician type creator, right? Celebrity type creators are — I just can’t imagine ever being interested in writing about a person like that. So Chuck Lorre, you have all this access to the ins and outs of a fringe television job that he just happened to basically become the most successful sitcom producer of the modern age. It’s really interesting. But within that journey, there are all the arcana of how one goes about becoming a successful sitcom writer. And the fact that he got fired from My Little Pony was to me — I’m glad you latched onto that. Because that was the most interesting detail in that piece to me.
Correspondent: That from such a humiliation comes the great success.
(Photo: Trisha Miller)
Jonah Leher is most recently the author of Imagine: How Creativity Works.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Brown-bagging his imaginative faculties.
Author: Jonah Lehrer
Subjects Discussed: Continuum’s development of the Swiffer, Shakespeare, whether creativity that originates from theft is acceptable, Bob Dylan, conceptual blending, efforts to defend aerosol cheese spray, bacon cocktails, Dick Crew, Don Lee, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Alex Osborn and brainstorming, Pixar management techniques, Mike Daisey, when storytelling gets in the way of the facts, Milton Glaser and the beginnings of I ? NY, the creative possibilities of Benzedrine, WH Auden’s poetry, Angela Duckworth, attempting to make banal chapters, Brian Uzzi and Jarret Spiro’s work involving the Q rating, “Collaboration and Creativity: The Small World Problem,” Y combinator startups and Broadway musicals, not bringing up Stanley Milgram, comparisons between Lehrer and Malcolm Gladwell, small world theory and hit plays, Charlan Nemeeth‘s idea of dissent’s relationship to creativity, Lehrer sandwiching dissent and complacency, “Managing Innovation,” Steve Jobs tearing people apart at Pixar, Pixar’s plussing approach, the middle ground between brutal honesty and egalitarianism, Ray Oldenburg and third places, Pixar and Lehrer’s liberties with third places, the Santa Fe Institute, Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt building an equation based on urban variables, why Lehrer placed the Homebrew Community Club into the city-based West/Bettencourt model, Silicon Valley vs. New York, Tom Wolfe, California’s non-compete clause, the Duncker candle problem, functional fixedness, Robert Adamson, leaving the country to solve a problem, William Maddux and Adam Galinsky’s “Cultural Borders and Mental Barriers,” why Lehrer doesn’t use the exact nomenclature to describe science, the origin of Post-Its, Lehrer avoiding the term “functional fixedness,” avoiding terms to attract a larger readership, the problems with mashup methods, responding in depth to Tim Requarth and Meehan Crist at The Millions*, Eric Kandel’s The Age of Insight, the fMRI and the insula lighting up, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and being hamstrung by the popular science medium.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: You put on the glasses. Have you always worn glasses? Because I noticed that was the new cover photo for this. Whereas before you didn’t have glasses.
Lehrer: Oh, I’ve been blind for a long, long time. Maybe — I forget. Maybe the photographer had me take them off.
Correspondent: They asked you to take them off. I was always curious.
Lehrer: No, no, no.
Correspondent: I didn’t know if it was a new mild-mannered Clark Kent look or…
Lehrer: No, no, no. I can assure you that these glasses actually work. They help me see.
Correspondent: Good. I’m more visible for you. That’s reassuring. Let’s go ahead and get right into it. Your book opens with this story of Continuum observing an elderly woman who is wetting a paper towel and wiping the remaining coffee grounds off of the linoleum as she was cleaning. This, of course, leads to the development of the Swiffer. Near the end of the book, you point out Shakespeare. He had a tendency to comb through the many books he read to find stories that he could use for plays and so forth. So it would seem to me — just to establish some terms from the beginning — that much of your notion of creativity involves the theft of ideas. That if you have financial or intellectual resources and you’re able to go ahead and pluck them from somebody else, then hey! You can be creative! So how is profiting off of another person’s idea a form of creation? Or art? Or what not?
Lehrer: I’m not sure I’d call it straight theft. I think Dylan actually has — I talk a lot about Bob Dylan in the book.
Correspondent: Yes, you do.
Lehrer: And he’s got this wonderful phrase where he describes his process as one of love and theft. That first you fall in love. Whether it’s a Woody Guthrie-style. Whether it’s a Robert Johnson riff. Whether it’s, say, old Irish lullaby from Ireland which you turn into “Blowin’ in the Wind.” So you love it and you love it. And you try and understand it and map out the intricate details and connections and then you steal it. And you make it your own. So this isn’t straight theft. This is, in theory, Shakespeare, who, as you point out, was doing pretty well for himself. He came from very humble beginnings. His father was a glover. He signed his name with a mark. But he did his dad proud and made lots of money. So he didn’t just steal Hamlet. He didn’t just steal the plot for Romeo and Juliet. And he didn’t just steal almost all his plots. Shakespeare did not like inventing his own stories, of course. He made them his own. He reinvented them. I think it’s the same thing Bob Dylan did with that Robert Johnson riff. It’s the same thing Continuum did with watching that elderly lady wipe up the coffee grinds that they actually spilled on her floor. That she didn’t invent the Swiffer. They invented the Swiffer. That triggered an insight which then led them to combine the mop, which they spent nine months studying and realizing that mopping’s a terrible idea. Because you spend more time cleaning the mop than you do the actual floor. And in that, her simple act, I mean, they had all done themselves countless times, simply triggered their breakthrough. So in a sense, I mean, I think you’re right to point out that all creativity involves a theft from somewhere. I think creativity is ultimately just a new connection between old ideas. So you are in the most literal sense thieving ideas which already exist. But the connection itself is new. At least it should be new. If it’s not new, then it actually is straight up theft. And that’s not the kind of creativity I’m interested in.
Correspondent: What is the creativity you’re interested in? Because I want to actually distinguish from an elaborate or high-class pickpocket. You know what I mean?
Lehrer: Yeah. You know, I think it’s very easy to get lost in lots of circular discussions about how to define creativity. I think creativity, as far as I’m concerned, is a bit like porn. You kind of know it when you see it.
Correspondent: Oh yeah?
Lehrer: Yeah. Or at least that’s what the Supreme Court says. You know, I think creativity is just the invention of something new. I’m not saying new in some kind of pretend sense. I’m saying something genuinely new which doesn’t exist in the patent office, doesn’t exist in the world, that other people find useful. So that’s as fancy as I get in defining creativity.
Correspondent: Well, let’s get into conceptual blending, which you get into. People exchanging ideas across different disciplines. When you take two concepts and mash them together, which seems applicable to this notion of what is creativity, I mean, it has given us some regrettable and fairly negative ideas. I think that we can both agree that aerosol cheese spray, the car alarm, telemarketing, the Pet Rock.
Lehrer: Yes. Oh come on.
Correspondent: These are things that also come from conceptual blending. So…
Lehrer: Aerosol cheese spray? I’ll go with you on the Pet Rock, but Cheese Whiz? That stuff in the can? That fueled me for much of my childhood.
Correspondent: Yes. “Childhood” being the key.
Correspondent: We’re talking about adulthood.
Lehrer: Okay. Okay.
Correspondent: I mean, we’re talking about ideas that really changed the world. That really have a revolutionary impact. Such as the iPhone or something like that. I mean, you commend Dick Drew as this innovator. And I’m fairly certain that a lot of terrible ideas have also come from 3M. And with the bartender Don Lee, you point out that most of his experiments were utter failures. His attempt to carbonate a cherry didn’t exactly work.
Lehrer: Yeah. And even his Bacon Old Fashioned is very divisive. Like I’m not sure how I feel about it.
Correspondent: Have you tried it?
Lehrer: I have. The first sip is delicious and then it’s kind of unsettling. I think it’s more about my limitations as a consumer than as an eater. And a lot of people don’t like it. So that’s a…
Correspondent: Well, who ultimately determines whether it’s creative or not? I mean, I can just go ahead and spend an evening being completely stoned out of my mind and come up with stupid ideas and that can also be conceptual blending.
Correspondent: I mean, what is the distinguishing quality here?
Lehrer: Well, that’s why I think when defining creativity, one has to invoke the second life of the idea. One has to invoke this notion that it has to be useful to yourself and other people. So you know, one of my favorite stories and moments of insight — I talk about moments of insight in Imagine and the neuroscience of it. And why they happen when we least expect it. But there’s this great story of an insight by Oliver Wendell Holmes when he first took laughing gas for the first time. And he’s stoned out of his mind. High as a kite. While high as a kite, has this big epiphany. He solved the world. This grand solution. Writes it down on a cocktail napkin. And they can’t find the cocktail napkin. And he wakes up the next day. He’s hungover. Searches everywhere. Finally finds a cocktail napkin. So excited to read it. And what it says is: “The world smells like turpentine.”
Correspondent: Yeah. But there are failed economic theories that are also written on cocktail napkins. You know what I mean?
Lehrer: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, no. So that’s why I think one has to separate the phenomenology of the idea. To use a ten dollar word. Like the feeling of the insight. Like “Oh my god, I made this great connection.” And I think we’ve all had the experience — many of us have had the experience of being stoned or high and being “That was such a brilliant epiphany.” Then you wake up in the morning and you realize it’s useless. So I think when talking about creativity, one should talk about the second life and hopefully not just in the brute financial terms. I don’t think we should get in the business of just measuring creativity by how many books you sell or whether or not it can be monetized. Etcetera etcetera. But we should talk about the second life. Cause that I think is the ultimate way our ideas are measured.
Correspondent: Well, to go ahead and get into some of what you write in the book, late, you write that Alex Osborn’s idea of brainstorming was in fact wrong. That’s been pointed out by numerous people. Why then does your book skim over the really terrible ideas? I mean, how do we reconcile Osborn with the Carson/Peterson/Higgins study involving 86 Harvard undergraduates in which those who considered the irrelevant details were seven times more likely to be rated as “eminent creative achievers”? Now being ranked as an “eminent creative achiever” is a lot different from, oh say, inventing the iPhone or coming up with something that is actually helpful.
Lehrer: Of course. So their ranking of creativity — and what I liked about this study is that it was real world creativity. A lot of limitations of the way scientists study creativity are creativity tests. So it’s tests on divergent thinking, coming up with uses for a brick, finding ways to study traffic in the Bay Area. Stuff like that. But it’s not about the real world. So what I liked about that study was that it was real world achievement. So to get back to your question about why I don’t spend a lot of time on the failed ideas….
Correspondent: Because that would seem to be important, you know.
Lehrer: Well, one of the subplots in the book — at least that I tried to engineer into the book — is this notion that there’s no success without failure, that one of the defining features of successful creators is the way they’ve learned how to fail successfully. One of my favorite lines in the book is Lee Unkrich’s quote — the director of Toy Story 3 — about the secret sauce of Pixar is failing as fast as possible. You know, you go through iteration after iteration. So I’ve got that whole chapter on the importance of revisions and drafting and the conceiving process and going through drafts, looking for your failures, and trying to fix them. So, you know, hopefully I’ve made it clear that all good ideas emerge from the litter of lots of bad ones and that even the best epiphanies, you still have to edit them. You still have to fine tune them and perfect them. So hopefully it’s implicit in the book that part of coming up with a good idea is this entangled relationship with bad ideas. As for why I don’t talk a lot about failed ideas in the book, why I don’t harp on those inventions that never work, I don’t know. I mean, to be honest, I’m sure as a storyteller, it’s easier to tell stories of success. That’s what interests me more. No one wants to buy a book that’s all about…
Correspondent: You’re more of a Mike Daisey type than a New York Times guy?
Lehrer: How’d I go from wanting to tell success stories to being a Mike Daisey type?
Correspondent: Well, because we’re talking about facts vs. storytelling. Which is an ongoing debate especially in 2012. With John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s The Lifespan of a Fact. With Mike Daisey.
Lehrer: Well, what are facts vs. storytelling?
Correspondent: The point I’m trying to make here is if you are telling a story where everything could be a conceivable success, I mean, there are some things that are inevitably failures. John Carter is probably by every standard a failure. It’s lost more money than any movie.
Lehrer: Yeah, but how does that? To get back to your question about facts and stories, how does that — I’m trying to talk about creativity and where it comes from. I think that one of the defining features of creativity — like I said before — it’s a new idea that people find useful. So there are obviously lots of ideas which people don’t find useful. Lots of failed ideas. In my book, I try to make clear that failure is a part of the creative process. One should learn how to deal with it. But one doesn’t have to write a book about creativity to talk about all the bad ideas that don’t work out. That would be a very, very, very, very long book, and I think fairly incoherent. So that’s why most of the stories I tell in the book are stories where, because that’s part of what creativity is, that’s how I define it. It’s a new idea that works. So I tell the story of new ideas that work.
Lehrer: But I don’t quite understand how that means I’m Mike Daisey.
Correspondent: Well, because Mike Daisey took facts to fit his larger narrative. And while from a liberal standpoint, I suppose you could argue that looking at Shenzhen, even if the facts aren’t entirely airtight, might be a good idea, there’s still…
Lehrer: Well, which facts am I eliding to make my larger narrative? I guess that’s my…
Correspondent: Well, when you say you can learn from every failure and there’s a success from there, I don’t know if that’s entirely the truth.
Lehrer: I’m not saying you can — I don’t say that anywhere in the book that all ideas are created equal. In fact, the whole point of why brainstorming doesn’t work — you brought up Alex Osborn’s failed idea — is that it treats all ideas as equal. I mean, the whole point of brainstorming is all ideas are useful. All ideas are good. And as I point out, the reason brainstorming doesn’t work is because groups that engage in criticism and debate and dissent, groups that point out, “That idea is actually a piece of shit,” they do much better. They come up with more ideas and those ideas are better. So hopefully a theme of the book, as I’ve been trying to make clear, is this notion of being honest about which ideas are good and which ideas are bad, identifying failures and fixing them, and out of that process, which is often dismal and unpleasant and insufferable, out of that long process, you will hopefully get a good idea. But there is no shortcut around it.
Correspondent: You talked with Milton Glaser, the graphic designer who came up with the I ? NY logo. You mention WH Auden and how he was hopped up on Benzedrine to produce his poems. You say that it was persistence, this determination to solve the problem of how to rehabilitate the image of New York City, which led to Glaser’s solution. But aside from Earl Miller’s recursive loop, his dopamine findings, I’m curious what science you have to back up this idea of the value of persistence to the creative mind. I mean, is it not possible that maybe Glaser’s idea caught on because, well, New York was kind of stuck with it? Because I ? NY was everywhere? Know what I mean?
Correspondent: And also there’s this troubling idea of, well, do we have to be hopped up on Benzedrine to be a poet?
Lehrer: No, no, definitely not. As Auden himself would discover, there’s a reason why Benzedrine is now illegal. We no longer prescribe it for asthma. It’s incredibly addictive and, as I point out in the book, comes with all sorts of terrible side effects like horrible constipation, insomnia, and heart arrhythmia, and you definitely don’t want to advocate Benzedrine, no matter how much you need to edit your poetry. In terms of the science on persistence, yeah, there’s a lot of interesting research. A lot of which has nothing to do with the brain, at least not yet. Which I think demonstrates that persistence — the technical term for persistence that psychologists study is grit. This is primarily the work of Angela Duckworth. She’s at Penn. I’m actually writing about her now. Writing an article about her. She’s shown in many domains that grit is the single biggest predictor of success. More than IQ scores. So if you’re trying to figure out which 12-year-old will win the National Spelling Bee, it’s about grit. Who’s going to last at West Point? It’s about grit. Who’s going to last at Teach for America? Which amateur golfers are going to make the PGA tour? She argues that grit also plays a very important role in the creative process. She always quotes the Woody Allen line that 80% of success is showing up. Well, grit is what allows you to show up again and again. The two components of grit — and it’s important to point out, it’s not just about persistence. And I think this is an important caveat. It’s not just about persistence. You also have to have the right goal in the first place. So I may want to play in the NBA. But you’re looking at me. It’s not going to happen. So I have to have someone tell me early on hopefully that all the grit in the world, all the persistence in the world, won’t turn me into Spud Webb. Find a different goal. So I think sometimes one of the problems we have is we’re not willing to help people — you know, dreams will come true if you simply try for it. That kind of talk. It sounds really good, but it’s not entirely honest. And I think we need to be honest about it not being honest.
Correspondent: Now that’s a completely reasonable assessment. Why then would you put WH Auden on Benzedrine then in the book? And is this sort of the worst case scenario? Even though he ended up coming up with a number of great poems. If we’re talking about reasonable applications of what we’re talking about here for people to find their creative roots, why would you go for these more extraordinary examples?
Lehrer: Why I chose that in particular?
Correspondent: Yeah. I’m just curious. Why did you include a Benzedrine addict? Genius as he may very well have been.
Lehrer: Sure. To be honest, the reason I chose Auden is because I’ve long been an Auden fan. I’ve always been fascinated by why you look at his most anthologized poems — and my favorite Auden poetry is actually his late poetry. So absolutely after he weaned himself off Benzedrine, and that was a brutal process, but I actually like “In Praise of Limestone” — his later poetry — which is a little messier, a little more chaotic, a little more personal. But if you look at his most anthologized poems, they really come from this three year window when he was really on Benzedrine, “September 1,” “In Memory of Yeats,” etcetera etcetera. And I was interested in why that is. What allowed him to, in this narrow window, produce poems that were spare and precise and transparent and really, really popular and have resonated with people for decades. And so that’s why I chose Auden. Both because I liked the man and I have this lingering interest in this particular phase of his career. So that’s why I chose him. I wasn’t trying to pick an extreme example. You know, for me, it was the storytelling challenge in this chapter was — in the end, the point I’m trying to give readers is incredibly banal. And I’m sure that — I think most readers will realize that, in the end, the point of that chapter is “Sometimes you have to work really hard.” Not the most exciting idea. And so for me, the reason I chose Auden is cause drugs, Benzedrine, and that struck me as a slightly more interesting way to, in the end, make this point that creativity is also about hard work. And Milton Glaser’s motto says it best. “Art is work.”
Correspondent: But wait a minute. If the underlying point of the chapter is banal, then why stretch out a chapter? I’m not saying that…
Lehrer: Well, because that’s an important part of the creative process. I wish I could write a book in which the whole point was “Take showers when you’re stuck.” Get relaxed. Which is part of the process too. I think there’s good evidence for that. But when you talk with creative people, and I’m trying to tell the story of creativity as I see it from talking to people in the business and from the perspectives of scientists who study it. A big part of creative success is showing up, is putting in the work, is going after the drafts. That’s not the sexy stuff. But that needs to be in there too.
Correspondent: But isn’t it your job to sex it up, Jonah? I mean, you’re a guy — we were cracking up about aerosol cheese spray, right?
Lehrer: Oh, I do my best to sex it up. Which is why I begin the chapter by talking about Benzedrine. That was my attempt to sex up a very banal chapter. Hopefully the chapter itself isn’t banal. The idea in it is — you know, if you’ve ever done anything worthwhile in your life, you know it takes work, right? So my challenge as a storyteller in that chapter was, gosh, I’ve got to put this in here. Because that’s a huge part of the creative process. There’s no getting around it. But how can I make it interesting? I can’t just talk about hard work. That’s a chapter I wouldn’t want to write and people wouldn’t want to read. So the way I begin it is by talking about this poet who is an incredibly talented poet. I’m not saying that if we all take Benzedrine, we’ll pump out “September 1st, 1939.” Having dabbled in amphetamines myself, all I got out of it was several nights of insomnia. But I think it does, within the context of Auden, help show how this drug modulated his poetry a little bit.
* — In The Millions‘s comments, Lehrer responded to a lengthy criticism of Imagine offered by Requarth and Crist (namely, Lehrer criticizing the limitations of fMRI in a Wall Street Journal column, while simultaneously relying on similar data elsewhere):
I honestly can’t cite a popular brain book that either 1) doesn’t cite fMRI localization studies at face value at some point or 2) engage in speculative links between neural mechanisms and complex mental phenomena. For instance, I’m currently in the midst of Eric Kandel’s wonderful new book, which has many chapters on fMRI data combined with musings on aesthetics and beauty. Is this inappropriate?
Fortunately, Our Correspondent also happened to read Kandel’s book. In chapter 30, Kandel does cite fMRIs too. But he doesn’t just cite fMRIs. He is careful to write this in Chapter 30:
The two techniques for measuring brain activity complement each other perfectly: EEGs, which are superior for pinpointing when an event occurred but poor at identifying where it occurred, have good temporal resolution but poor spatial resolution, whereas functional MRIs have the inverse and weaknesses.”
In fairness, Lehrer, at the beginning of Imagine, writes:
By combining both techniques — fMRI and EEG — in the same study, Beeman and Kounios were able to deconstruct the epiphany.”
But inexplicably (and this is also the point of contention with Requarth and Crist), he merely applies the fMRI results in relation to jazz improvisation. Kandel did not make this slip at all in The Age of Insight. The issue here is whether Lehrer, who was good enough to talk out this problem at length during this program, is omitting essential data in an effort to appeal to a popular audience. This conversation begins at the 43:44 mark in the program.
Steve Erickson is most recently the author of These Dreams of You. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #180.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contriving plans to join a community of one half.
Author: Steve Erickson)
Subjects Discussed: Writing a novel around short bursts, plagiarizing the future, The Sea Came In at Midnight, the novel as kaleidoscope, rationale that emerges midway through writing a novel, losing 50 pages in These Dreams of You, not writing from notes, Zan’s tendency to hear profane words from telephone conversations, the considerable downside and formality of being dunned, fake politeness and underlying tones of contempt, not naming Obama, Kennedy, or David Bowie, Molly Bloom in Ulysses and Molly in These Dreams of You, Erickson’s commitment to the ineffable, letting a reader find her own meaning, defining a character in terms of story instead of public and historical terms, listening to David Bowie to get a sense of Berlin, Erickson’s cherrypicked version of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, not capitalizing American and European throughout Dreams, using autobiographical details for fiction, Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, “part fact part fiction is what life is,” dating a Stalinist, why fiction is more informed by real life, how invented details encourage a conspiracy, the dissipating honor of being true to what is true, the last refuge of a bad writer, what a four-year-old can and cannot say, bending the truth when it sounds too fictional, Kony and Mike Daisey, combating the needs for believability and readers who feel defrauded, authenticity within lies, kids and photos who disappear in Dreams, striking a balance between the believable and the phantasmagorical, fiction which confounds public marketeers from the outset, postmodernism’s shift to something not cool, limitations and literary possibilities, the burdens of taxonomy, living in a culture that wishes to pigeonhole, why Zeroville and These Dreams of You gravitate more toward traditional narrative, reviewers who are hostile to anything remotely unconventional, writing a novel from the collective national moment, the relationship between history and fiction, being a man “out of time,” thoughts on how a private and antisocial reading culture is increasingly socialized, having an antisocial temperament, writers who cannot remember the passages that they write, the pros and cons of book conventions, and being “a community of one.”
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Erickson: We do live in a culture that wants to pigeonhole things. I don’t know whether that’s a function of late 20th century/early 21st century culture or is a function of American culture, or some combination of the two. In Japan, for instance, they don’t seem to worry about that when it comes to my novels.
Correspondent: But with Zeroville and with Dreams, we have moved a little bit more toward traditional narrative. I mean, maybe the impulse was always there. But do you think this has just been symptomatic of what you’ve been more occupied with of late? Fusing that traditional narrative with, say, some of these additional ideas of disappearance, of inserting words into sentences, and so forth?
Erickson: Right. Well, it’s hard for me to know. There are still a lot of people out there who would read this novel, These Dreams of You, and think it’s a pretty damn unconventional novel. They may not have read Our Ecstatic Days and thereby see this novel as whatever you want to call it: more accessible. But I can tell from the reviews I’ve gotten on this novel, which have largely been somewhere between good and better than good, nonetheless there are reviewers out there who really don’t quite know what to make of even this particular novel, which I think you’ve rightly said steers a little bit toward the conventional than earlier novels. And in the case of Zeroville, again, I had a strategy from the beginning, having thought about this novel for a while. I had started the novel at one point and I was writing it differently. And I was writing it — I don’t mean differently in terms of my earlier books. It was written more like my earlier books. And I stopped. I threw it out. Because I felt that this novel is about loving the movies, being obsessed with movies. It should have some of the energy of a movie. It should follow some of the narrative laws of a movie. So you had a lot of dialogue and a lot of the story being told in external terms. Being told in dialogue. Being told in action. Not a lot of motivational stuff. The main character in that novel, we never quite know where he’s coming from. We never know if he’s some kind of savant, or socially and mentally challenged. We never know.
In the case of this novel, I was aware at some point that, first of all, I was writing a story about a family, which I had never done. And, secondly, I was writing a story that it became clear to me, really from the first scene, that addressed the national moment and a moment that any reader could recognize in a way that none of my other novels quite had. Los Angeles was not submerged in a lake or covered by a sandstorm. It was out of that opening scene of the novel, which was the real-life scene that led to writing the novel. I merged a story that I thought would be recognizable to most readers. And I didn’t want to completely lose that. There are a lot of times in the novel that I think that is challenged. That recognizability. Or that recognition rather of the contemporary moment. Halfway through the book, the story suddenly changes track. But even as I was taking the reader, even as three quarters of the way through the book I knew the reader was going to be saying “Where is this thing going?” I didn’t want to lose that connection between the book and a moment of national history. It’s a history that’s still going on. It’s not a history of the past, but of the present. I didn’t want to lose that connection.
Correspondent: But why did you feel at this point, with this novel, that you needed to respond to the national moment? I mean, history is something, especially as it is unfolding, that one doesn’t necessarily feel obliged to respond to. So now you’re getting into questions of, well, is it possible that you are giving into the reader somewhat? In light of the conditions that we were describing earlier. Where did this need to respond to the 2008 climate come from?
Erickson: Well, I think it was completely personal. I was sitting on the sofa watching the election in November 2008 — Election Night — with my black daughter. And I knew this was a singular moment for me. And I knew this was a singular moment for her. And it was a singular moment for the country. And it was one of those cases where the story made itself manifest to the point of screaming at me. Here’s a story that not many other people are in a position to tell, given the circumstances of their lives as those circumstances were coinciding with the circumstances of the country.
Correspondent: Sure. I wanted to actually go back into the intertextuality within the novel. You have this character — J. Willkie Brown, the Brit who invites Zan over to give the lecture on “The Novel as a Literary Form Facing Obsolescence in the Twenty-First Century, Or the Evolution of Pure History to Fiction.” Now if we call journalism the first draft of history, it’s interesting that you also describe that “Zan’s single triumph over Brown is that, in time-honored journalistic tradition, the world-famous journalist always longed to write a novel.” It’s also interesting that Zan must return to his American roots: the original British origin point, right? To collect his thoughts on how he has dealt with words. And I’m wondering how much this relationship between history and pure fiction is predicated on Anglo-American relations. Can any novel or any life entirely deflect “the crusade against gray” that you mention?
Erickson: The crusade against what?
Correspondent: The crusade against gray. It’s when you’re describing Ronnie Jack Flowers and the specific content of his views. I wanted to talk about him, if it’s possible too.
Erickson: Yeah. That’s a big question. Early on, Zan wonders — or actually an omniscient narrator wonders by way of Zan — if this is the sort of history that puts novelists out of business. And I’m not sure I’ve got a sweeping cultural answer for all this. At some point early on in my life, well before the 21st century, I knew that I was a man out of time. I knew that the great art form of the 20th century was film. And I still believe that. And at the same time, popular music was rendering other media obsolete or, in terms of relevance, was usurping all of these other forms. But my talent and my temperament is to write novels. You know, and I should probably have been born fifty years earlier. And so as much as I would love to convince myself that I am operating in the central cultural arena of the time, I know I’m not. I know that fiction becomes not a fringe form, because too many people still read. And not even a secondary form. But a form that becomes more private. That is not shared with the culture at large. I mean, people read novels in private. Whereas they still tend to watch movies in public. Even as we watch more and more movies by ourselves at home. Even as they tend to respond still to music in public, whether they’re in the car with their sound system. So it’s just…it’s what I do. And it’s what I’m stuck doing. And the relevance or significance of fiction in relationship to history or journalism is almost beside the point for someone like me.
Correspondent: So working in a cultural medium that is below the mass culture omnipresence is the best way for you to negotiate these issues of history and fact?
Erickson: Well, I think…
Correspondent: A more dignified way?
Erickson: No, I think, Ed, it’s the only way I know. That’s all. I don’t know that it’s the best way or the more dignified way. I mean, I can’t rationalize it in those terms. In a way, I would like to be able to. You know, at some point early on, I thought a lot about filmmaking. When I was in college, I was actually a film student.
Erickson: But I recognized at some point that, for better or worse, whatever talent I had — I felt I had some talent writing fiction. I had no idea whether I’d have any talent making movies. But perhaps even more importantly, temperamentally fiction is the province of a loner. Fiction is about locking yourself up in a room and having as little social interaction with other people as possible, and living in this world that you’ve created. There is nothing collaborative about it in the way that film is, or even making music is. So the answer to your question is entirely personal. It’s entirely personal. It’s what I was just meant to do.
Correspondent: You just have an anti-collaborative temperament.
Erickson: Absolutely I do. I mean, it’s more than that. I have an antisocial temperament. I teach in a writing program back in California and I have a lot of problems, actually, with writing programs and writing workshops. And I tell my students this. I say, the thing is, the paradox is that a writing program socializes what is really an antisocial endeavor. There’s something very strange about shutting yourself off from the rest of society to create this world or reality that’s completely yours and that you don’t share with anybody until it’s done, and even then you share it on a very private basis. If someone’s sitting across the room, and they’re reading one of my novels, I’m going to leave. You know, I don’t want to be there. Because even though I know that the public has complete access, what I did still remains so private to me, I don’t want to be around when somebody’s reading my work. Except for cases like this, I don’t especially want to have casual conversations about it. Perhaps strangest of all, and I’ve heard a number of other writers say this — I heard Jonathan Lethem say it a few weeks ago — people will come up to me, for instance, and ask me about a section of a book and I have no recollection of what they’re talking about. I have no recollection of writing it. I have no recollection of what I was thinking when I wrote it. I often have to ask them to show me what it is. Because I was utterly immersed in that, and then it’s done, and I need to leave it behind.
Correspondent: Running away from people who are reading your books. I mean, does this create any problems for you to go about your life? If you’re interested in the types of things that Steve Erickson readers are likely to be interested in, this could create some intriguing social problems.
Erickson: Well, as uncomfortable as it may make me to be in the same room, I would love to tell you that my life is littered with scenes of people reading my books everywhere I go. But that’s not the case. So it doesn’t happen that often. But I don’t have a lot of conversations with people who are casual friends about my work. And I don’t want to. So in that sense, the antisociability — is that the right word for it? The antisociability of the writing and the work, it does go on. It bleeds outside the lines of the life of that work, and it bleeds into areas of my other life, where I don’t, even though I’m always a writer, I don’t want to be interacting with people as a writer.
Correspondent: So is there any place for community? An increasing term used, I find, in writing. We have a “literary community” and so forth. Is this a logical extension of what some people find in, say, AWP or MFA workshops? Is there any possible place for community for you? Or that you find of value?
Erickson: For me, not especially. For other writers, perhaps. And I’ve been to AWP. And I’ve been to book conventions. The LA Times Festival of Books. And I can even drive a certain amount of pleasure for 24 hours to meet other writers. But the only community that gets any writing done is a community of one. And at the point that it becomes too much a salon, then I check out of it.
Correspondent: So for you, being antisocial is the truest temperament for an artistic writer.
Erickson: Well, I don’t know how you can be anything else. Certainly at the moment that when you’re doing the work. For me, that’s true, yeah. I can’t speak for other writers.
(Photo: Stefano Paltera)
Nancy Cohen is most recently the author of Delirium: How the Sexual Counterrevolution is Polarizing America.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Getting in touch with his humanist side.
Author: Nancy L. Cohen
Subjects Discussed: Rep. Darrell Issa and the contraception hearing, Komen for the Cure, when the Republican Party was better about women’s rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, the McGovernik principle that has crippled progressivism, challenging Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, the 2010 special election in Massachusetts in which Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s seat, Stanley Greenberg and Reagan Democrats, why gay marriage is only accepted in certain states, Prop 8, the Defense of Marriage Act, civil unions, the Democratic reluctance to embrace gay marriage, Chris Christie, parallels between civil rights and gay rights, Howard Dean’s early efforts to embrace the Internet, Democrats who “run into the present,” Reagan’s nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor, Reagan’s silence on AIDS, conservatism as a three-legged stroll, silly attempts at a political Theory of Everything, Phyllis Schlafly, Ford’s support of the ERA, Carter blaming the feminists, political pragmatism as an excuse for diffidence, reproductive rights as a core right, Carter’s personal opposition to abortion, the Tea Party Express’s financial contributions, the influence of money on politics, the Arkansas Project, David Brock’s Blinded by the Right, why birth control hearings is now a wedge issue, the Tea Party as a rebranding of the Christian Right, efforts to dismiss Hillary Clinton, Gail Sheehy’s attacks on Hillary, attracting mythical male voters through the Margaret Thatcher strategy, motivating young people to vote as a winning progressive strategy, Obama’s timidity on reproductive/gay rights, the clown car of presidential candidates, the lingering effect of Sarah Palin, whether Republican women voters can be courted by Democrats, Lieberman as the first Democrat to denounce Bill Clinton about Lewinksy from the Senate chamber, Sen. Moynihan settling a score with Clinton, the mythical conservative middle, the problems with the 2000 Presidential election, Gore’s centrist campaign, the influence of the far right sexual fundamentalists, Mitt Romney’s effect on the sexual counterrevolution, and women’s rights in 2013.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Your timing is quite impeccable. Because I’m talking with you the day after Representative Issa to basically not allow a woman to testify at the all-male hearing on contraception. I’m talking with you a week after Komen for the Cure initially pulled its funds from Planned Parenthood, saying, “Well, we can’t support any organization that is under congressional review,” and then changing this to be “Well, we can’t support any organization that is referring out its mammograms.” So I gotta say, maybe this might be the opportune time to discuss how we got to this point in American political history. How does this constantly wavering excuse fit into the political strategy of the religious right and the forces of what you identify as the sexual counterrevolution? How did this come into play?
Cohen: Well, I’m an evil genius. And when I came up with this idea a couple years ago, I planned for these hearings to take place.
Cohen: No, seriously, the first line of my first chapter is “Perhaps if the pill hadn’t been invented, American politics would have turned out very differently.” And at the time, it was kind of a literary allusion. A way to get some history down. So what we’re seeing is really the logical end point of what I call the sexual counterrevolution. Delirium tells the story about how a small group of reactionaries who want to control sex have hijacked American politics. And what we’re seeing this week, and last week, is really the essence of the Republican Party. The id of the Republican Party coming out to play because they are so intoxicated with the power that they got in the last elections.
Correspondent: Yes. Well, the id wasn’t always there. As you point out in the book, I mean, it’s become increasingly id-like over the years. What of the sensible conservative idea? What of the rational reactionary?
Cohen: The sensible conservative ideas Back in the ’60s and the ’70’s, the Republican Party was the small government/personal freedom party. They actually meant it. They were better on women’s rights. They were better on sexual freedom really. Even before the sexual revolution, the Republican Party was better. But what happened was, with the sexual revolution and feminism and gay rights, a group of people — surprisingly mostly women — were appalled, freaked out about all these changes and sexual life and women’s roles and gays coming out of the closet. And they organized on a grassroots level against these changes. And so they went up against the Equal Rights Amendment. And they won. And then they went after publicly financed child care. And they won. And then they took civil rights away from gays. And they won. And then they methodically started taking over the Republican Party from local, state, and county committees on to the school board until 2008, when they had one of their own, Sarah Palin, on the presidential ticket.
Correspondent: Let’s get into this. You point out that George McGovern is one of the key figures responsible for Democratic timidity in relation to the sexual counterrevolution. You suggest that McGovern losing his temper, telling a voter to kiss his ass — that was one factor. The really terrible decision he made involving ordering milk with a liver sandwich in a Jewish deli. Not exactly the smartest choice. There was also this idea that McGovern, because he encompassed this cultural radicalism and failed, that this was what encouraged the Democrats to backpedal. So I’m wondering to what degree is this political temperament and to what degree is this, I suppose, a cultural radicalism that Democrats are afraid of? I mean, 2004, you have Howard Dean’s famous scream. And even before that, everybody was like, “Wow, this guy’s finally standing up for progressivism.” I mean, it seems to me that if you have a situation where the Democratic presidential candidates are limited in what they can say and how they can act, that this kind of progressive idea of, say, supporting something like the Equal Rights Amendment, you’re almost not allowed to do that. So how did this state come to be and what solutions do we have for the future?
Cohen: Good question. So the sexual counterrevolution has affected both parties. And in the Democratic Party, it’s really about their overreaction to every time they lose. And the way it goes back to McGovern’s election is that they convinced themselves that the reason McGovern lost by a landslide is because of all the gays and feminists and multiculturalists that he associated himself with. And so there’s this idea that Democratic progressives alienate mainstream America. Mainstream America is conservative. That idea is a fixation of the Democrats. But if you look at the studies of elections and you look at the studies of public opinion, it’s not true at all. Democrats have actually won elections for being the more culturally progressive party on women’s issues and gay issues and race issues. And so Democrats, I believe, would actually do better if they did embrace their voters’ live and let live attitude about people’s personal lives and stood on principle for civil rights for every American. But Democrats are timid and they have convinced themselves that they lose on this issue. So it would be good for them to start to recognize that it’s a winning issue.
Correspondent: But what data are they using? I mean, it can’t just be McGovern that’s the linchpin for this.
Cohen: No. So what they generally look at is exit polls and focus groups. And to get a little wonky here…
Correspondent: Sure. Feel free.
Cohen: What I looked at in the books so that no one else really has to — except maybe Democratic strategists can start looking at this stuff — is a lot of research by political scientists and sociologists that do regressions of public opinion polling and elections, and conclusively show that all the things we think are true — you know, that the white working-class man is an economic populist, but a social conservative? Wrong. It’s the reverse. He’s pro-choice and doesn’t like the Democrats’s economic policies. That Bush won the election on gay marriage? Wrong. No evidence. That Democrats lose elections for being pro choice? Wrong. Clinton won the election in 1992 on a huge upsurge of pro-choice women and pro-choice men.
Correspondent: You challenge Thomas Frank’s ideas in What’s the Matter with Kansas? by saying that he was condescending in believing that Kansans were duped into voting for more right-wing candidates and so forth. How do we go ahead and factor in, oh say, scenarios like Scott Brown in Massachusetts? Which is very much a scenario in which arrogance and technocratic approaches tend to destroy a Democratic seat. I mean, how does this play into the sexual counterrevolution? And how do you reconcile this, what seems to me, legitimate Thomas Frank idea with this?
Cohen: So I do criticize Tom Frank for being condescending. But I also criticize him for having no empirical evidence for his argument. And that’s the main case. His idea is premised that, one, the working class doesn’t vote for Democrats. They actually do. It’s premised on the idea that Kansas has been some bulwark of Democratic politics. It’s actually been a bulwark of right-wing evangelical fundamentalism. So there’s a number of other factual errors. I actually went into the book assuming that I was going to extend Tom Frank’s thesis. And I found that it actually went back to this anti-McGovern idea and discovered that there was no evidence for it. And that’s when I started moving in this other direction on the sexual counter-revolution. So an election like Scott Brown’s, a lot of health care money went in there. A lot of the people that they say are white working-class populist men are actually middle income or better off people. So what you have in a lot of these elections, like 2010 and the Scott Brown election, is you have very low turnout from poor Democratic groups. Young people. Single women. Low income people. And so when the exit polls do show a surge of white men, they often don’t figure out, well, where are these men economically? And I do agree that the smugness of the Democratic candidate in that election.
Correspondent: Who we don’t want to name. (laughs) And you didn’t name in the book and I won’t name on this show.
Cohen: I think she’s probably reformed. So I do think that was a case of a sense of the Democrats being entitled to a seat and didn’t really see this both right-wing and corporate money coming into that election that year.
Correspondent: If Tom Frank is so wrong with his evidence, then why is that book constantly cited? Why over many decades does the idea of the McGovernik still hold within the Democrats? I think that’s the thing I really don’t get. If all of the scientific evidence says otherwise, then why are serious Democratic leaders going by this?
Cohen: Well, actually, serious Democratic leaders aren’t going by it anymore.
Correspondent: It only took them several decades. (laughs)
Cohen: Yes, well, they read the polls and they read exit polls and they do their own political polling. They don’t necessarily read the academic literature. But the key person who articulated this idea of the McGovernik, about the Reagan Democrat: Stanley Greenberg, who I hear is a wonderful man and has done a lot of good work for progressive causes, was one of the people who kept this idea alive. And he runs a polling company. And he uses his own polls. So just after, since 2008, he’s basically said, “You know what? The Reagan Democrats aren’t the key voting bloc anymore. Democrats need to go for this multiethnic, cosmopolitan, progressive base and they’ll pick up enough of these white working-class men to win elections. So it is Tom Frank — and I haven’t read his new book, so I don’t know how he’s amended his thesis. But there has been a shift among the leadership of the Democratic Party. And I think you see with Obama not defending DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act], right? Saying, “I think it’s unconstitutional.” This is a sign that they’re starting to see that good principles are good politics.
Maggie Anderson is most recently the author of Our Black Year: Our Family’s Quest to Buy Black in America’s Racially Divided Economy.
[PROGRAM NOTE: The universe did nearly everything in its power to prevent Ms. Anderson from appearing on The Bat Segundo Show. On the day that I was scheduled to meet Ms. Anderson in New York, I suffered from an acute and especially debilitating case of gastrointestinal poisoning. I was forced, much to my great dismay, to cancel our meeting at the last minute. Nevertheless, I felt that the book’s subject matter was important. So I made a rare exception to my “in person only” rule and talked with Ms. Anderson over Skype. But then this appointment was delayed — in large part because the universe conspired with similar health interventions against Ms. Anderson’s family. I am pleased to report that we did end up talking and that all parties are hale and hearty. And while the subsequent conversation was a fun and fruitful one, I should also note that Skype sent out an inconsistent signal for much of the conversation. My apologies to Ms. Anderson and the listeners for any lapse in quality.]
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Becoming more conscious about his volatile spending habits.
Author: Maggie Anderson
Su0bjects Discussed: The Empowerment Experiment, the decline in African-American owned grocery stores over the past few decades, how far the dollar goes by ethnicity, median wealth and income disparity by race, the decline of black labor in Milwaukee, African-Americans targeted by advertising in the 1970s, WEB Du Bois’s The Talented Tenth, the increasing popularity of Polo Ralph Lauren among blacks, Quiznos’s exploitation of franchise owners, the burden of attempting to persuade blacks to support black business, the Venn diagram between supporting black businesses and independent stores, buying local, Oak Park affluence, trying to rehabilitate the Chicago West Side, attempts to keep Karriem Beyha in business, the fading of black entrepreneurs, class divisions within the black community, the Washington Post‘s Eugene Robinson, class and race, the disintegration of black solidarity over the last few decades, hypocritical pride, factors that help create a racially divided economy, Magic Johnson’s business savvy, the problems in spending $48,943.89 to buy black over the course of the year (as Anderson did in her experiment) which cuts out working-class blacks, the privilege of shopping where you want, subscribing to The Chicago Defender, gentrification, Hyde Park and Bronzeville gentrified, attempts to find unity between working-class blacks and middle-class lifestyles as prices go up during gentrification, efforts to start a progressive chamber of commerce in Bronzeville with Mell Monroe, trying to balance progressive idealism with realism, securing affordable services in the black community, the original name of the Empowerment Experiment (Ebony Experiment) and legal threats from Ebony Magazine, interactions with Linda Johnson Rice, Bill Cosby, and hateration.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: You are responsible for a rather amazing idea called the Empowerment Experiment, which you document in this book, in which you spent the entire year buying from nothing but black-owned businesses, frequenting them and so forth. Just to get the ball rolling here, I want to discuss why this is necessary. You point out in the book that there were 6,339 African-American owned and/or operated grocery stores in the United States in the early decades of the 20th century. And then, by the time we get to the new millennium, only 19 African American owned grocery stores existed in the U.S. So a number of questions come to mind. First off, what specific figures are you relying on? Is this from the 2002 Economic Census? What ultimately accounts for this dramatic decline?
Anderson: Well, the numbers are so important to us. And we’ve got to let your listeners know that we fashioned this as an experiment. It was, of course, a stand. But we really wanted these important numbers to be injected into the national dialogue. Those numbers. How we used to have so many businesses in the country in our community. We had hotel chains, department stores, hardware stores, drugstores. We don’t have any of that now. Grocery stores. And that when we have those businesses, our community didn’t suffer. We didn’t have the high unemployment. Our kids weren’t choosing gangs over college. We didn’t have all this drug abuse and violence and recidivism. So we really wanted to bear out that correlation. That when we had strong black-owned businesses, our community didn’t suffer. So if we can find a way to do little things to bring some of those businesses back, maybe we can counter the social crises that disproportionately impact our community. We wanted to show the numbers. The big number that we wanted to talk about was our $1 trillion in buying power and that less than 6% of that makes it way back to the black community.
Anderson: If we can just get a little bit more of our own buying power to be recycled in our own communities, maybe we can bring those jobs numbers up. The other number is that black businesses are, by far, the greatest private employer of black people. Black unemployment, we know, is three times the national average of our white counterparts. Highest among any ethnic group. And in some places like Birmingham and Cleveland, we’re at black unemployment like 15, 16%. So maybe if we start supporting more black businesses that employ black people, we can stop black unemployment. So it was really just about making sure the conversation about the black situation in America is thorough and comprehensive. We can’t just keep talking about black unemployment and then not talk about black buying power and the fact that black businesses employ people and that none of our buying power is going to black businesses. So the numbers that we depended on — to get back to your question — you know, it’s just kind of known in our community how we don’t support each other. How if you walk up and down the street in a black neighborhood, none of the businesses there are black-owned except for funeral parlors, barber shops, and the braid salons. It’s just kind of known that most of the products on the shelves, none of the retailers in our community, none of the franchises are black. So we just kind of know that and joke about it. It hurts, but we just accept it. But it’s so hard to find data to bear that out. My roommate jokes about it. But we did find an interesting study — I think it was an economist, John Wray. Who did a study based out of DC that proved this horrible statistic about how long the dollar lives in different ethnic communities.* This statistic is used a lot in this conversation when people talk about “leakage,” economic leakage, recycling wealth in minority communities, that kind of stuff. This is a well-known statistic. That in the Asian community, the dollar lives close to 28 days. In the Jewish community, I think it was 19 to 21 days. Hispanic communities: 7 days. But for black people? The dollar in the black community lasts six hours.
Anderson: And it’s like, no wonder we live at the bottom! So we’re just so frustrated. And no one talks about that six hours. Because if you want to talk about the six hours, then you’re basically saying that all of these horrible things happen in the black community as a reflection of our propensity and our potential. Not a byproduct of how there’s a lack of support from black consumers — it’s our fault! — or black businesses. Sorry about the long-winded answer.
Correspondent: Oh no.
Anderson: I can’t leave that out. It’s such an open-ended…
Correspondent: I know. No, this is all very good. And there’s a load of threads to start from here. Actually, I’m sure you’re familiar — there was a study in 2010. A rather alarming study from the Oakland-based Insight Center for Community Economic Development, which revealed that the median wealth of a single white woman in the prime of her working years — roughly 35 to 49 — was $42,600. And the median wealth for a single black woman was only $5!
Anderson: Yes! Yes!
Correspondent: Yeah. I’m sure you’re familiar.
Anderson: I’m onto that one. I’ve heard about that. That’s just — man! The one that really blows me away. There’s the other one where I think we’re at 3% transferable wealth or whatever the definition of wealth. 3% compared to the white purse. [NOTE: I believe Ms. Anderson is referring to Arthur Kennickell’s “A Rolling Tide.” (PDF) The economist revealed that African-Americans had less mean wealth than white non-Hispanics.] But that thing about the single black woman, that’s ridiculous. I mean, we’ve been here 400 years. We have a black president now. We have folks like me.
Anderson: We have living manifestations of the American dream at work. You know that my family’s an immigrant family.
Anderson: You know, we have all of this and we still have that. And it’s going to be hard to make that kind of number a fair number. It’s going to be really hard. But at least, if everyday consumers like me were to try and find the businesses that were going to employ that woman or give her a fair wage or give her community a chance and invest in her community instead of just making money from that community and taking it away, maybe we can do something about that number.
Correspondent: And the statistics actually get slightly better when you account for marriage or cohabitation. The white woman has a median wealth of $167,500 and the black woman has $31,500. So better than $5. But still really troubling. I guess the question I have, since we’re talking about the idea of a black dollar not going so far, what do you think ultimately accounts for this failure to have the wealth reinvested in the community? In black neighborhoods? How can they be expected to invest their wealth in any concentrated matter? I mean, what are the underlying issues here? I’m curious.
Anderson: Right. And it’s so funny. Because when people just hear about the essence of our experiment — black families say they’re only going to support black businesses — there’s accusations of racism. And people will assume that the book is this thing of taking it to the Man. And getting back at Charlie. And all that stuff.
Correspondent: Getting back at Charlie. (laughs)
Anderson: The white man Charlie. But anyway, the book is really — if I’m yelling at anyone, it’s at black consumers. Because there’s a lot of history here that contributes to the bad situation we’re in. I’ll be really quick. A lot of it has to do with integration. Of course, we love what integration did in this country. Of course, we fought for it. But it had some really negative impact. Some deleterious impact into the black economy, if you will. Because we’re forced to, because we’re segregated, we built up our own businesses. We had a strong sense of entrepreneurship in our community. And we recycled our wealth. So that was just the fact. That was the way it was. And the University of Wisconsin just did a study** that showed in 2009, when there was over 50% black unemployment in Milwaukee, in the same area, where there used to be black businesses flourishing in the 1950s before integration, there was less than 7% unemployment. So it really bears out that when we have the businesses where black people work, black people are employed. So after integration, we were so anxious to be enfranchised. We were so happy to have that opportunity to shop at Woolworth, to go to Walgreen’s, that we did it in droves. And it was just kind of our way of saying, “Yeah! We’re going to show you that our money is just as good as white people’s money and we’re going to show you how important we are and how equal we are by spending as much money with you as we can!” And in so doing, we kind of abandoned our would-be Woolworth’s, which were already providing quality goods and services in the community. All of our consumers just left those local black businesses that helped our community shine to go out to these big corporations where we were denied the right to shop before. So that was the first punch. And then the second punch came in. Because these corporations started seeing the value of the black consumer dollar. So they started to market to us very positively. Another term that I’ll bring up, which is kind of funny. We used to say “colored on” at one point. Colored on. We were so excited if GM were to show a black family coming out of a house, driving their Cadillac to the family vacation. Or McDonald’s, where you’d have a black family enjoying a black family meal. We were so happy when we saw that and that was the best way for them to market to us. And we returned that honor with our dollar, with our loyalty. So that was the second punch. They started marketing to us more aggressively. And we started spending more money with them, with their businesses. And then the third punch was they started to recruit us. So when I was coming up — I’m 40 — so in the ’70s, when I was coming up, the big deal for black mothers, for black parents, for black grandparents, was for me that kind of shining star, that smart kid that hoped to get out of the ghetto, was for me to find a great job at a big white company. That was the goal. It wasn’t like with our Asian counterparts, even our Hispanic counterparts, to continuing the family business, to start a business, to stay in the community. No. It wasn’t that. It was get out and do so by getting that great job. So the would-be entrepreneurs or the Talented Tenth, if you remember that.
Anderson: We didn’t do our Talented Tenth duty. We left the community and we gave all our talent to big corporations. All of these things contributed to the lack of support for black business and our lack of entrepreneurship in the community. The big deal is to get a good job, not be an entrepreneur. So the entrepreneurs we do have don’t have the capital or the training to compete. So we can only survive in the industries where no one else can do it better. And that’s by braiding hair, cutting black hair, and providing funeral services in our community. So that’s where we can still have a stronghod. Even in black hair, in beauty supplies. Even in all that kind of stuff, we’ve lost those industries. That was kind of the fourth punch when immigrant groups basically started to leverage this wonderful phenomenon of a whole class of people that loves to spend money outside our community. They set up shop in our communities. Not racist. Not trying to steal our wealth. But they set up shop there and did well there. And now we’re upset because we can’t find quality black businesses in our own neighborhoods when basically we invited the intrusion by not supporting the black businesses we did have. So all of this has led to the demise that we have now. So some of it, yes. Some of it, our racist history. A lot of it has to do with our consumers, our people, kind of seeing our own businesses in a negative way. It’s a real difficult thing to talk about outside the black community. It’s just kind of cultural. But the definition is another term. White man’s ice is colder.
Anderson: Why go to a black business when you can go to a white business? The way we show that we’re equal is by buying Polo and Hennessy. By living in the white suburbs. That’s how we demonstrate our equality. Not by buying black products and supporting local black businesses. I know it’s kind of a disgusting thing to say, but that’s the truth.
Correspondent: Well, as an effort to unpack much of what you just said — for example, in this book, among the businesses that you include in the Empowerment Experiment are, for example, a black-owned Quiznos. But my understanding is that a white guy named Rich Schaden is the principal shareholder and that he and his company have this history of ripping off numerous franchise owners. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Quiznos franchise holder, Bhupinder Baber. He killed himself over this. So, yes, I agree that a black-owned Quiznos, it may indeed hire more black employees. But if the parent company is exploiting its franchise owners, I’m wondering if this cycle of exploitation has a negative impact on a black neighborhood or a black community. Shouldn’t one also consider the independent nature of a business as well? How does a black-owned Quiznos help a community more than, say, an independent family restaurant?
Anderson: Right. And this is a huge point that I have to contend with when I push this supply diversity franchise rediversity message into the community. And here’s how it goes when I’m talking to black folk who I’m trying to get to support black businesses. It should not be that tough of a fight, but it is. When I say this to them, they come at me, generally with stuff like “Well, we tried to Karriem [Beyah]’s grocery store. He didn’t have the thing that we wanted.” Or it wasn’t like going to our Jewel, the big grocery store chain around here. Or you can go to this black franchise. But I didn’t see a bunch of black employees there. Or how do I know Quiznos is a good franchise to be supporting? So I get a bit of a challenge. Then I say, “Well, you know what? How is that? I mean, what are you doing now?” Basically, we’re just out there supporting anybody. Not thinking about what the businesses are doing for us. Polo. I mean, Polo blew the lid off of black consumers. We have black Polo parties that we have for our kids. I mean, it’s just ridiculous how addicted we are to the Polo brand. I have nothing against Polo Ralph Lauren. But I did have a friend who works writing for the CFO of Polo, and I asked her to do some research for me. She’s a conscious consumer like me. HBS grad. Very well connected in the company. And she thinks they talked with the marketing folks, the procuring folks, everybody about buyer diversity. Do you do business? How do you invest in the black community? We have so much money coming in from the black community. And their answer to me was, “Well, our label comes out of Indonesia.” And it’s unbelievable. That’s the best we can do to reciprocate the loyalty that the black community’s giving you? So it’s like, “Yeah. Maybe.” And you’re totally right about the Quiznos thing. But the first answer to them is, “But you’re supporting Polo. And it’s not like you’re stopping in support of Polo.” And I’m not saying don’t support Polo. But if you’re so discriminating with how you spend your money, there’s a lot of things that we shouldn’t be doing that we ought to be doing.
* — This study can also be found in Brooke Stephens’s Taking Dollars and Making Sense: A Wealth Building Guide for African-Americans. There seems to be no online version of this.
** — After reviewing the study (PDF), I believe Maggie’s slightly off — that is, if she’s referring to the Marc Levine findings from January. But black unemployment is absolutely a problem a Milwaukee. There was a huge hit in the last several decades. 1970: 84.8% employment rate for metro Milwaukee black men in their prime working years. By 2010, that figure had fallen to 52.7%. Here’s the important paragraph from Levine’s report:
The city of Milwaukee, where almost 90% of the region’s black males live, has lost over three-quarters of its industrial jobs since the 1960s. As Table 5 suggests, this manufacturing decline has disproportionately affected the employment prospects of African American males. In 1970 54.3 percent of Milwaukee black males were employed in 1970 as factory operatives, more than double the white percentage. By 2009, only 14.7 percent of black males were working in Milwaukee factories, about the same percentage as white males. By 2009, in fact, even though working-age black males outnumbered Hispanic males by 55 percent in Milwaukee, there were more Hispanic male production workers (7,200) than black male production workers (4,842) in the region, a sign of the degree to which manufacturing is no longer the bulwark it has been historically for the Milwaukee black male working class.
Alain de Botton is most recently the author of Religion for Atheists.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Seeking pragmatic forms of belief.
Author: Alain de Botton
Subjects Discussed: The difficulties of turning other people onto enthusiastic concepts, why religion draws extremists on all sides of the debate, attempting to fight capitalism through a new belief system, the Agape Restaurant, Susan Cain’s Quiet, including introverts within community-based ideas, the Day of Atonement, mandatory voting in Australia, attempts to reach people who are not inclined to forgive, voluntary mediators, a temple for atheism, the need to feel small, feeling small through extra human forces, the power of awe, aesthetic uses of science, being awed by the city and knowledge, the mass appeal of Proust and Tarkovsky, South Park, competing notions of awe and boredom applied to the same idea, religion as a populist medium, the upside of vulgarity, high and low culture, Tarkovsky as a joke high culture figure, superbia, egotistical notions in getting to know someone through prosaic conversational questions, social status as a way of fending off other people, dependence, religious distinction through coherent brand identities, role models, reductionism and marketing, responding to architecture, touching people through their senses, São Paulo’s prohibition of advertising, religion’s reliance upon advertising, making a public claim for certain states of the soul, the Kony 2012 campaign, the pros and cons of shame, how humans can be more interesting than a smartphone, how technology forces humans to relearn essential concepts, and how human life is in permanent competition with superficial biases.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Your books very often have this moment where you describe a very funny yet sometimes socially awkward encounter where you attempt to impart some concept or some amazing idea in your head that you are excited about and that the person who is receiving this intelligence often expresses some dismay. I think of, for example, your long speech at the Mojave Airport Graveyard in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work or your attempt to pitch yourself as a writer-in-flight to the British Airways head honcho Willie Walsh. Obviously, I think, based off of this, you are aware that some of your excitement is being misperceived. So in light of trying to consider a scenario along the lines of what you’re preaching in Religion for Atheists — where you’re trying to have certain concepts stick in other people’s heads and religion is more fraught, more sensitive than the norm — how do you get through to these people? I mean, if you’re aware of these things, you’re probably going to have moments even more extreme than the two I’ve cited. So what of this predicament? How do you go ahead and convert these people over to your side?
De Botton: Well, I suppose, when it comes to religion, you’ve got extremists on both sides of the debate. You’ve got religious believers who are very fervent in their belief and think that anything else, anything besides full conversion to their creed is not acceptable. And at the same time, you have very fierce atheists who think that any involvement with religion is evil and to be resisted. And I’ve tried to write a book that’s somewhere in the middle of those two. It’s a book that tries to say that, as an atheist, you can nevertheless engage with aspects of religion. And indeed those aspects may be very enriching for your understanding of secular society. So it’s a weird book. Because it really is fairly in the middle of something that most people would consider to be incompatible, which is atheism and religion. It’s arguing that atheism should engage in, and can engage, with aspects of religion. And it can be shot at from both sides. But I also think there is a silent majority that is actually in sympathy with the approach I’m taking. But that is a silent majority that don’t have the pulpits.
Correspondent: But if the movers and shakers, such as the man at the graveyard, require twenty dollar bills to advance things, I’m wondering how you can instill these ideas into a new belief system if everything is centered around commerce, centered around capitalism, centered around the need to get ahead, centered around some unusual man asking to see the airplanes and so forth. I mean, this, I think, is one of the interesting takeaways I get from your book. So how do you solve this?
De Botton: Well, I think that the proposals that I make are aiming to get secular capitalist people in secular capitalist societies to rethink their positions on things. I’m arguing that there are certain things missing from modern society. Though we’ve been fantastically good at delivering material improvements and supplying material needs in the developed world, there are some other needs, which you might call spiritual — and I use that word without any supernatural implications. But spiritual, psychological needs have been left slightly unattended. I’m thinking here of things like our need for community, our need for moral structure, our need for certain guidance through the challenges of life. These things have not been so well done by the secular world and I’m arguing that one of the ways which we can plug some of the gaps in the secular world is to look back at the lessons of religion. And my book is full of examples, of concepts, of practices, of rituals that one might rescue or at least learn from as atheists in a secular world.
Correspondent: Well, there’s one idea — the Agape Restaurant — where you have different types of people sitting at the same table, sharing their stories and so forth. But I’m wondering what safeguards you have in place for people who are shy or who are introverted. There’s a new book by Susan Cain called Quiet that gets into the amount of social energy one has to exert if one is introverted or even ambiverted. And so this also leads me to ask — well, if I go into a situation and I’m asked to share my most intimate secrets with a stranger, I’m not certain if I would want to do that. Because maybe someone there might want to steal my identity or so forth. We would enter such a social arrangement with understandable suspicion. And if you’re an introvert, you may be very scared or it may actually be a little intimidating to be asked to engage in this extroverted activity. So what of these kinds of problems here? What are your solutions? What are your workarounds?
De Botton: I guess my starting point is that the modern world is not so good at community building. There’s a lot of loneliness. Because much of who we are doesn’t get an expression in social life. And this is surprising. Because with Facebook and other social media, we were supposed to have cracked this. But I think people will still complain that in many areas, we don’t have good communities. And religion’s unparalleled at building communities. Now how do religions build communities? One of the things they do is they gather people around a table every now and then and get them to break bread together and get them to talk. That’s how early Christianity started. It started as a series of meals between the followers of Jesus who remembered his lessons and got together to eat. And, as I say, you find this in all faiths. That somehow the stranger is invited to the table and is welcome to the table and a stranger is turned into a friend. It’s a beautiful idea. A simple idea. And I couldn’t help but contrast this with the modern world, where we’re obsessed with eating. And newspapers and media are full of places to eat. The restaurant world is high on the agenda. But what’s never really spoken of is the meal as a source of a social engagement. As a source of discovery of another person. And that is really what interested me. And so with the example of religion in mind, one of the things I do in my book is to suggest how we might learn from the tradition of communal dining of religions, and precisely set up meals between strangers. Now, of course, some of them may feel uncomfortable. And some people like to eat on their own. So it wouldn’t be for everybody. But I think in many of us, there is a desire to shed the armor which we normally have to wear in daily life and to eat with others and to discuss our shared and common humanity.
Correspondent: But what I’m saying is that the introvert who is very fond of, say, one-on-one exchanges, as opposed to mass group exchanges — I mean, how does such a communal dining experience account for that? They may feel very uncomfortable. There may be a lot of social energy. You’re saying that they should go ahead and answer very deep questions about what they fear. And so how do you account for them?
De Botton: Well, look, it’s not for everyone. As I say, if someone wants a one-on-one meal, if someone’s not interested in community, then it might not be for them.
Correspondent: Well, how do you get them involved in the community? If the ideal here is to get everybody on the same page, how…
De Botton: Well, it doesn’t have to be everybody. But it has to be those among us who hunger for community, as many of us do.
Correspondent: But introverts do hunger for community. They just go about it in a different way.
De Botton: Yeah. Well, I couldn’t speak for them.
Correspondent: Okay. Early in the book, you bring up the Day of Atonement — the moment on the Hebrew calendar where Jews must identify all those who they have hurt or behaved unjustly towards. Now those who are part of the Day of Atonement are inclined to forgive any offenders for annoying them or causing them grief. But it is an undeniable truth that very often when you apologize to someone in the secular world, well, they’re not exactly going to have the same degree of understanding sometimes. In fact, your apology may aggravate the other person further. So I’m wondering. To get something along the lines of a Day of Atonement for a secular or non-religious group, I’m wondering: Does it take a specific secular rite? For example, in Australia, if you go and vote, 95% of the people turn out. Because if you don’t vote, then you’ll actually get fined. So I’m wondering if a Day of Atonement along the lines of what you’re talking about would require something like a government mandate for everybody to apologize to everybody. What of this dilemma?
De Botton: Well, I don’t know. I mean, what strikes me as a secular person is how intelligent religious communities are at realizing that community is a very nice thing in many ways. But it’s also very challenging. And you find, throughout the history of religion, mechanisms to ease social tensions. And it struck me that the Jewish Day of Atonement was particularly clever and insightful in recognizing that what holds communities back is grudges. Things that are undigested in the past. And what it encourages people to do is to both accept that another person may have a grudge to bring up, but also that it behooves you not to drag out that grudge. So there’s a kind of mutual responsibility on both sides not to drag out an argument and to move towards forgiveness. And the underlying assumption is that God is the only perfect being. And anyone else is going to be flawed. And so we have to forgive on the basis of our fragility and flawed natures. And I think that’s a very beautiful idea. Look, the specifics of how an atheist might do this can yet be worked out. But it’s food for thought. I think, for me, what’s interesting here is that the psychological mechanism of forgiveness based on a recognition of imperfection. And this is something that the modern world struggles with.
Correspondent: How do you reach, though, someone who is not inclined to forgive? Or who may not in fact be on the same page? I mean, I’m all for you. I would love to see everybody forgive everybody for their sins or their errors or their sleights or what not. But the fact is that a lot of people are just not going to. So what does it take to really bring people around? Does it take constant promotion of idealism along the lines of what you’re saying or what?
De Botton: Well, in the Jewish Day of Atonement, what gets people motivated is a sense that it is normal both to forgive and to have a grudge that you need to bring up. And I think that too often when people annoy the mood for discussing issues, of discussing grudges, it’s because they feel that they’re not going to get a proper hearing, that it might be embarrassing to do this, and that dialogue with another is impossible. So it’s a kind of pessimistic position. And sometimes we may need a bit of help. We may need a third person.
De Botton: Mediators.
Correspondent: Voluntary mediators.
De Botton: And that, in a sense, was the role that God was playing in the Jewish community at that point. He is a mediator.
Correspondent: Yeah. So in addition to having a temple for atheism, we also need to get a mediator army of volunteers. Would this also help to spread further good will and bonhomie?
De Botton: I think you’re focusing a little bit unfairly on the practical aspects of this. I’m really writing as a psychologist. I’m interested in psychology of religion and the psychology of the dynamics that are being explored. So how exactly this might apply, how a secular person might absorb this into their life is capable of many different interpretations?
Correspondent: But aren’t pragmatics important when considering the psychological possibilities of what human beings are capable of?
De Botton: Sure. Absolutely. Absolutely But we don’t have to decide today.
Correspondent: I’m just picking your brain here.
De Botton: Sure. Of course.