Category : Fiction
Category : Fiction
Sameul R. Delany is most recently the author of Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Growing a beard to make up for lost time.
Author: Samuel R. Delany
Subjects Discussed: Literary beards, spending the same amount of money on books as food, how many books Delany has read, developing a cataract, Jason Rohrer’s Passage, the structure of Spiders, time moving faster as you get older, Delany’s academic career, the amount of sex contained within Spiders, the male climacteric, how the body changes, About Writing, including a short story in a novel, the original version of Spiders in Black Clock, seven years contained within the first 400 pages, E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel and fleshing out the idea of “writing what you know,” Lear and “runcible,” Times Square Red Times Square Blue, the Dump vs. the Deuce, the pre-1995 porn theaters in Times Square, transplanting New York subcultures to Georgia, the importance of institutional support to a community, gay conservatives, inventing the Kyle Foundation, Goethe’s Elective Affinities, Steven Shaviro’s thoughts on Delany’s intensities, transgressive behavior, connections between The Mad Man and Spiders, pornutopic fantasies, Hogg, when pornotopia sometimes happens in reality, Fifty Shades of Grey, balancing the real and the fantastical in sexual fiction, Delany’s usage of “ass” and “butt,” how dogs have orgasms, making a phone call in the middle of dinner to find out about sexual deviancy, why Shit does a lot of grinning, Freu and infantile sexuality, the paternal thrust to Shit and Eric’s relationship in Spiders, the difficulty of reading Spinoza’s Ethica, whether a philosophical volume can replace the Bible, living a life driven by one book, Hegel, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, movies vs. books, interclass conflict, Peter Jackson’s films, how mainstream culture relates to subcultures, Jackson’s original notion of the King Kong remake as Wagnerian ambition, Tristran and Isolde, turning up the idealism dial, whether art can live up to pure ambition, the myth of the wonder decade, living through the 50s and 60s, Freedom Rides, people who are diaphanous to the forces of history, the Beatles, peasant indifference during the Dreyfus affair, the impact of not knowing the cultural canon, nanotechnology, John Dos Passos, fiction which responds to present events, life within California, living in San Francisco, how Market Street has changed, assaults on the homeless in San Francisco, the Matrix I and II programs, the gentrification of the Tenderloin, novels of ideas, whether or not genre labels hold conceptual novels hostage, market conditions that hold ambitious fiction back, Delany’s nine apprentice novels, trunk novels, and editorial compromise.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: There’s this video game art project called Passage by Jason Rohrer. Have you heard of this?
Correspondent: Okay. Because your book reminded me very much of this.
Correspondent: I’ll have to forward you the link. Basically, it’s this sidescroller. It’s in a 100 pixel by, I think, 13 pixel window. And you control this person who goes from left to right. From beginning to end of life. And you pick up a partner. In fact, you grow a beard.
Correspondent: And you die at the end. And it takes the 8-bit sidescroller and it turns it into this unexpectedly poignant moment. If you play it enough times, you can move the cursor down and actually have the figure go into this mire and collect stars, but maybe not have a partner or maybe meet an early demise there. And it absolutely reflects what life is. And I read your book, and I was extremely aware of the physicality. Not just because it was an 800 page book, but because the first 400 pages is basically these escapades of lots of sex, youthful brio, and so forth. And then, suddenly, decades flash by often when we read this. And I’m curious, just to start off here, where did the design of this structure come from? I know you’re very keen on structures. You’ve written about this many times. But how did this come about in Spiders?
Delany: Well, it came from being a person who’s gotten older. I just had my 70th birthday.
Correspondent: Yes. Happy birthday.
Delany: Thank you very much. And one of the things that does happen, and it’s a really interesting phenomena, is that time seems to go a lot faster as you get older. When you were young, time takes forever. You go to the doctor. You wait around for two hours in the doctor’s office. It seems like three months. Whereas I went to the doctor’s office this morning. I went in. And the next thing I knew, I was on my way here. And I’d been there about two and a half hours. And it didn’t seem that any time had passed at all. And I was at the University of Massachusetts between 1988 and 1999, for eleven years. And that seemed much longer than the last twelve years, thirteen years, that I’d been at Temple University, where I’ve been there from 1999 to this year, 2012. And that seems much shorter than the eleven years that I was at UMass. And there’s no way to avoid this. As you get older and older, time just begins to rush by. And I wanted to get this. So actually, the time goes faster and faster through the book. But at a certain point, you realize, “Oh wait a minute! It’s rushing along.” As one of the reviewers said, decades drop out between paragraphs. Well, that’s what happens. That’s how your life kind of goes. So in that sense, the structure of the book is based on the structure of my own experience.
Correspondent: What’s very strange though — I read the book and, actually, I started missing the sex after that 400 page mark. I mean, all of a sudden, wait a minute, they’re not having so much sex anymore. There isn’t all the snot stuff and the pissing and the corprophiia and, of course, the father-son stuff. All of a sudden, we don’t have a lot of that at all. And then you drop some, quite literally, serious bombs later on in the book. And this leads me to ask…
Delany: Well, the sex doesn’t vanish.
Correspondent: Well, of course. It’s there. It keeps going on.
Delany: I mean, the sex is there. But it’s the sex that someone older has. And one of the things that they have to deal with is the fact that your body changes as you get older. And somewhere between 50 and 60, you go through the equivalent of the male climacteric. Which is a very strange thing to go through. Quite as odd…
Correspondent: Oh god. Thanks for warning me.
Delany: Quite as odd as, what is the term for women?
Delany: Menopause, yes. It’s very much like the menopause. And somehow you’re not warned. You aren’t warned how it’s going to change. Everybody notices the body changing. From ten to twenty, there are going to be a lot of changes. But there are going to be just as many changes from twenty to thirty, from thirty to forty, forty to fifty, fifty to sixty. You konw, I’ve been with my partner now, Dennis, for almost twenty-four years. And we still have a sex life. And we’re very fond of one another and very close. But it’s different. Things do change. And that’s one of the things that it’s about. I wanted to explore what the relationship of two men who were notably older was. And so I tried to do that.
Correspondent: You have said also in About Writing, which I’m probably going to be cribbing a lot from for this conversation, that a short story’s not exactly the best thing to include in a novel. And yet this book arose out of a short story that was published in Black Clock. Which leads me back to the original query. How did this thing become structured? How did this take on a life of its own?
Delany: Well, I had to throw away the whole second half of the original short story and rewrite something that flowed into the novel. If you actually compared it, the opening couple of scenes are very similar, although not identical by any means. There were lots of changes all through it. From the very first paragraph. But I wanted to use that as a kind of jumping off point.
Correspondent: Well, that’s one hell of a jumping off point. 800 pages. I mean, why do you think that you were interested in exploring such an expansive format? Why did Eric and Shit demand this sort of attention?
Delany: Well, because I wanted to talk about a lasting relationship between two men. And a very committed relationship. They’re very close to each other. They’re absolutely fixated on one another. I mean, neither one of them could really make it without the other. Which is the tragedy that Eric is faced with at the end. So I just wanted to explore that and see what happened, and deal with all these things. The time speeds up in the first half of the book too. The first 400 pages basically take, what, about seven years. So that’s even years. That’s a good Dickens novel. (laughs) But this is a book that goes on for basically sixty or seventy years.
Correspondent: Yeah. I wanted to also talk about the location. Since my name is Ed, I have to bring up another Ed. E.M. Forster. You have often quoted the advice given in Aspects of the Novel.
Delany: “Write what you know.”
Correspondent: “Write what you know.” But your idea here is to build upon that and say, in addition to writing what you know, it’s very good to keep the writing alive and energetic if you write about something that you’ve only experienced a few times.
Delany: Right. Exactly.
Correspondent: And in this, it’s interesting because it should be evident by your Lear-like use — another Ed — of “runcible” that this Georgia is a fantasy of sorts.
Delany: Yes. It’s a fairytale. The whole book is an 800 page fairytale.
Delany: By which I mean things like Don Quixote. (laughs)
Correspondent: Of course. But my question is: You’re almost writing what you know and you’re writing what you don’t know, or only know a little bit of. Because we have to go to Times Square Red Times Square Blue, which I also read. You write about a man in that named Tommy. He wears a sleeveless denim jacket. Well, there’s a guy with a sleeveless shirt here. And he collected scrap metal. Not unlike this. You look at The Dump. It could also be The Deuce. The Opera House. It could also be the Metropolitan Opera House.
Delany: Easily. Well, it wouldn’t be the Metropolitan. But it could be one of the old porn theaters before ’95. Before New York closed them down.
Correspondent: I guess my question though is: by putting much of these viewpoints that you have raised both in your fiction and your nonfiction to Georgia, to the edge of the earth quite literally, I mean, what does this allow you to do as a fiction writer? How does this allow you to explore a subculture that, say, keeping everything in New York would not?
Delany: Well, one of the things that I wanted to show is that the kind of life that Eric and Morgan — his nickname is Shit.
Correspondent: You can say “Shit” here.
Delany: That Eric and Shit lead — as I said, besides being a fairytale, is also — well, I’m trying to figure out a good way to put this. In some ways, it’s kind of didactic. It’s almost like a Bildungsroman. They have to learn how to live their life. And it can’t be done — and this is, I really feel — and this is one of the reasons why it had to be a fairytale — it needs institutional support. Which is why there has to be the Kyle Foundation and why there has to be a certain support, a certain community support for what they’re doing. And at the same time, they’re very much on the margin of this community. They’re not in the center of this community. So that people like Mr. Potts, for instance. A very conservative man who just doesn’t want his nephew, who has come down to spend the winter with him, associating with these riffraff who use the gay-friendly restroom. Because he doesn’t like the idea of gay men using the restrooms at all.
Correspondent: Where did the Kyle Foundation come from?
Delany: It was purely out of my head.
Correspondent: Really. Because there’s a specific phrasing in their mantra: “an institution dedicated to the betterment of the lives of black gay men and of those of all races and creeds connected to them by elective and non-elective affinities.” And that phrasing recalls any number of Islamic foundations and the like.
Delany: And also the Goethe novel.
Delany: Elective Affinities.
Correspondent: So that was really more where it came from?
Delany: It came more from Goethe than it did from Islam.
Correspondent: Sure. Steven Shaviro. He has pointed out that the intensities of your pornography are never presented as transgressive. Now in a disclaimer…
Delany: Although this is pretty transgressive.
Correspondent: Well, of course. I want to talk about this. Because in a disclaimer to The Mad Man, of which we see statues of something that crops up in there appearing in this, you called The Mad Man “a pornotopic fantasy: a set of people, incidents, places, and relations among them that never happened and could not happen for any number of surely self-evident reasons.” Well, there is no such disclaimer for Spiders and we see much of the same stuff, as I said. Piss-drinking, shit-eating, you name it. I’m wondering. How does a pornotopic fantasy — how does one of these, whether it be The Mad Man or Spiders or even the infamous Hogg, how does this help us to understand or come to terms with the realities of sex and what the present limits are? What some people might call deviancy today or perhaps yesterday.
Delany: Well, literature is divided into genres like that. You have the world of comedy, the world of tragedy. And you have the world of pornography. And each of them is a kind of subgenre. And sometimes they can be mixed. You can go from one to the other. And I think pornotopia is the place, as I’ve written about, where the major qualities — the major aspect of pornotopia, it’s a place where any relation, if you put enough pressure on it, can suddenly become sexual. You walk into the reception area of the office and you look at the secretary and the secretary looks at you and the next minute you’re screwing on the desk. That’s pornotopia. Which, every once in a while, actually happens. But it doesn’t happen at the density.
Delany: At the frequency that it happens in pornotopia. In pornotopia, it happens nonstop. And yet some people are able to write about that sort of thing relatively realistically. And some people aren’t. Something like Fifty Shades of Grey is not a very realistic account.
Correspondent: I’m sure you’ve read that by now.
Delany: I’ve read about five pages.
Correspondent: And it was enough for you to throw against the wall?
Delany: No. I didn’t throw it. I just thought it was hysterically funny. But because the writer doesn’t use it to make any real observations on the world that is the case, you know, it’s ho-hum.
Correspondent: How do we hook those moms who were so driven to Fifty Shades of Grey on, say, something like this?
Delany: I don’t think you’re going to. I think the realistic — and there’s a lot that’s relatively realistic about it and there’s also a lot that isn’t. Probably less so in this book than in, let’s say, The Mad Man, which probably has a higher proportion of realism to fantasy.
Correspondent: I also wanted to ask you — what’s interesting is that there is almost a limit to the level of pornography in this. There’s one funeral scene where something is going to happen and they say, “Nuh-uh. You’re not allowed to do that. Show some respect.” And roughly around the 300 page mark, I was very conscious of the fact that you didn’t actually use the word “ass.” And you were always using “butt.” (laughs)
Delany: I didn’t even notice.
Correspondent: And so when “ass” showed up, I was actually shocked by that. So I’m wondering. Does any exploration of sexual behavior, outlandish sexual behavior or sexual behavior that’s outside the norms of what could possibly happen, whether it be frequency or density or what not — does it require limits with which to look at it? With which to see it in purely fantastical terms?
Delany: Well, I think one of the things that you need to write a book, especially a book this long, is you need a certain amount of variety. And I think that this is perhaps a failing. There are only so many things that you can do. I think I give a good sampling of them. But every once in a while, I’m sure it probably gets somewhat repetitious.
Correspondent: Well, it’s a good variety pack. But it’s also: “Okay, reader, you have to get beyond these first 350 pages and then, by then, you are actually able to get into totally unanticipated territory and I’ve already locked you in.” How did you work that out?
Delany: One of the things is that you try and keep telling interesting things about the sex. I mean, things that can be observed about the world that is the case. I mean, I tried to talk about the sex in terms of — I don’t think most people know how a dog has an orgasm.
Correspondent: How do we find this out? (laughs)
Delany: Uh, there’s a wonderful website. (laughs)
(Image: Ed Gaillard)
Timothy Noah is most recently the author of The Great Divergence.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Holding onto the remains of his wallet.
Author: Timothy Noah
Subjects Discussed: The 1984 “Morning in America” ad, why the American public gets suckered into the American Dream panacea, the Kuznets curve, the decline of the bank teller, Obama’s 2012 State of the Union speech, closing the skills gap as the present Democratic position for increasing jobs, the WPA, high school graduation rate decline and skilled labor demand in the 1970s, universal early education, the high school movement, Richard Vedder’s notion of janitors with PhDs, college tuition being priced out of reach for the middle crisis, the 1% vs. the 99%, the American inability to grapple with income inequality, overseas jobs, Germany’s ability to hang onto its manufacturing sector, the decimation of the American labor movement, Alan Blinder’s ideas about an increase in skilled overseas jobs, the Lewis Powell memo, Bryce Harlow, Wal-Mart’s war upon unions, the dismal dregs of union culture in 2012, Occupy Wall Street and anti-activist regulations, Walter Reuther, the gender gap in higher education and with job income, decline of the male median income, closing the gender gap in income, sexism’s strange legacy, how women have exempted themselves from the great divergence, how immigration developments during the 20th century impacted 21st century labor, Paul Samuelson’s views on immigration, the benefits of unskilled labor, high school dropouts and declining wages, the recent Mexican immigration dropoff, checking up on Jim and Ann Marie Blentlinger, Bob Davis and David Wessel’s Prosperity, upward mobility and government jobs, the collapse of the US Postal Service, the brief benefits of computerization, being honest about the decline in upward mobility, and the expiration date of American exceptionalism.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: What about overseas jobs? I mean, two-thirds of all the people who made or sold iPods in 2006, as you point out in the book, were located overseas — most in production jobs. One of your solutions in the “What to Do” section at the end is to import more skilled labor. What of these Apple production jobs? I think I’m returning to what we were talking about earlier, about the difference between skilled labor and unskilled labor and moderately skilled labor. Surely, there needs to be some sort of infrastructure in place. Some patch till we actually get to this great skills gap solution which we seem to be talking about. I mean, it just seems to me that we’re trying to fight a very difficult problem with a form of idealism that is just incompatible with that reality.
Noah: Well, it’s very hard to compete globally for low skilled jobs. Because it’s a race to the bottom. You end up engaging in wage competition with some of the poorest countries in the world and that’s not going to make anybody prosper. If you look at a country like Germany, they’ve managed to hang onto their manufacturing sector. But the way they’ve done it is they have gone after the highly skilled manufacturing jobs. Of course, they also have a much more healthy labor movement. Here in the United States, we’ve had the labor movement been decimated or down and out. 7% of all employed workers. So another part of the solution is to rebuild the labor movement. I’m not saying that it’s going to be easy to address these problems. But in talking about ways to address them, I decided there was really very little point in pretending that tiny little solutions were going to do much. I think it’s time to start a discussion about some of the more ambitious things we can do.
Correspondent: But as you also note, “If you have a job that you can perform from home, it’s worth asking yourself whether an English speaker could perform the job tolerably well from halfway around the world at one thirtieth the pay.” Do you think that America has the obligation to give everybody a job? That that might actually be the solution in some way? Or do you think the labor force really needs to revert to its inherent skills? Or skills that they can actually acquire to get those jobs? I think I’m trying to get an answer from you in terms of whether it’s actually the corporations’ fault or whether it’s education’s fault or whether it’s the people who are unskilled — whether it’s their fault.
Noah: Well, I don’t know whose fault it is, per se. I mean, I think our workers need to acquire those skills one way or the other. And anything we can do to encourage that would be good. Because offshoring is a real problem. Although interestingly, the projections from here forward are that offshoring will have a bad impact on our economy. But it won’t continue probably to have a very bad impact on income inequality. And that’s because those other countries are now coming after the skilled jobs. And it will be very interesting politically to see how that plays out. There are a lot of affluent people who, when you talk about other countries eating our lunch in manufacturing, they say, “Well, we need free trade. You have to have capital flow across borders. Otherwise, we won’t have prosperity.” Well, I wonder if they’ll still be saying the same thing when suddenly you have, for example, American radiologists competing with radiologists overseas. You’ve already got a bit of that. And there are any number of very highly paid jobs that could be performed offsite. And Alan Blinder, an economist at Princeton, he says that he actually thinks that slightly more of the offshore jobs of the future will be skilled rather than unskilled.
Correspondent: Wow. Well, in 1971, Lewis Powell wrote a memo: “The American economic system was under attack from Communists, New Leftists, and other revolutionaries,” as well as “perfectly respectable elements of society.” So this memo results in this tremendous flurry of pro-business lobbying from organizations and so forth. Various consumer-oriented laws are killed through this effective lobbying. And that was forty years ago. Now pro-business lobbying today is arguably more pronounced than then. You point out in the book the figure — that the Chamber of Commerce spent $132 million in 2010. As you point out, not a single labor union could be found among the top twenty lobbyists. So how then can any pro-labor organization make a serious dent with these particular states? I mean, what hope is there for a modern day Walter Reuther in this post-Taft-Hartley age?
Noah: Well, it is true that the corporate power in Washington has vastly increased. And it increased not just because of the Powell memo, but really throughout the late ’60s and the 1970s, you had corporations absolutely flipping out at the rise of the regulatory state and counter-culture politics and Ralph Nader. And one person I write about in the book a great deal is Bryce Harlow, who is best known as a White House aide in the Nixon White House, where he was kind of a good guy. He was trying to keep Nixon honest. Failed at that, but he was considered one of the few honorable men in the Nixon White House. That’s all true. But he had a separate role where he spent most of his career post-1960. And that was as the Procter & Gamble representative in Washington DC. In 1961, when he came to work for Procter & Gamble, there were just a handful of corporate representatives in Washington DC. And Harlow looked around and thought, “We need troops here.” And he started going around the country and evangelizing and giving speeches saying, “We need to build up corporate power in Washington.” And one of the things I really like about Harlow is that he didn’t mince words. He identified the enemy as a movement towards greater equality. Sometimes people say, “Well, what does the rise of corporate influence in Washington have to do with equality?” Well, Harlow himself made the connection. And he succeeded. And Lewis Powell wrote that memo in ’71. Succeeded. Over time, corporations were bestirred to increase their presence in Washignton. Increase their lobbying. And they get a lot more done actually through lobbying than they do through campaign contributions. And as a result, you saw a change in our politics. It hurt the consumer movement. And it hurt the general movement towards greater equality. So, yes, that makes the task a lot more difficult. But I don’t think there is a bigger, more important challenge to liberalism right now than to find a way to rebuild the labor movements somehow.
Correspondent: Do you have any ideas on this? Because it’s pretty decimated and gutted. As you point out, the Walmart situation is terrible.
Noah: Yes. In part of the book, I have a narrative about the attempt to unionize a Wal-Mart in Colorado. And the extent to which the deck is stacked against labor is not to be believed. It is literally true that nobody has ever managed to unionize a Wal-Mart, except for once when the meat cutters in some place in Texas managed to get themselves declared a bargaining unit. And they voted to unionize. And what do you know? About a week later, Wal-Mart said, “We’re not going to be cutting meat anymore. We’re just going to be selling prepackaged meat.” So it is very, very difficult. But there’s an interesting idea that’s been put forward by Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation. Part of the underlying problem is simply a matter of law. I mean, laws favor management over unions. And the ultimate source of this is the 1947 Taft-Hartley law. Which was passed right before the peak of the union movement. But it acted as a slow-acting poison on the labor movement. So you need to roll back Taft-Hartley. And you need to revitalize the National Labor Relations Board. And Kahlenberg’s idea is: he says, “Look, nobody seems to really — it’s been multiple generations since anybody got really excited about workers’ rights. So rather than frame this as labor rights, why don’t we frame it as a civil right? Why don’t we pass a law saying that it is a civil right protected by the Civil Rights Act to organize a union?” It is actually illegal for a boss to fire somebody for trying to form a union. But the law is so weak that, as Kahlenberg says, it’s actually economically irrational for bosses to obey that law. But if you were to extend protection of the Civil Rights Act, then workers would be able to take their bosses to court and sue them. And that might change the equation. That might help.
Correspondent: I agree with you. But unfortunately, as we saw with the healthcare debate, framing anything as a civil right creates a protracted battle and constant gridlock and endless concessions. And as you pointed out with the Wal-Mart example, businesses are pretty much free to do whatever they want. If someone’s going ahead and being an irksome worker, well, we’ll go ahead and whack that part of our operations out. So is there any hope for labor when you have legislation against them and you also have this anything goes, unfettered approach from Wal-Mart and the like?
Noah: Sure. There’s always hope. There’s always hope. There was a time. If you go back to 1932, things were looking pretty bleak then too. And we got a government that was pro-labor And really the growth of labor unions was largely a result of the New Deal. So government could make it happen again. It’s very difficult in this environment, I will grant you. There is a huge amount of demonization of labor. I was talking with a liberal economics writer the other day. And he was saying, “The problem with labor unions is that labor unions in America, they have this culture that’s so adversarial.” And I said, “Culture? Culture? They’re down to 7% of the private sector workforce. You can have any culture you want. Because they’re going to be starting from scratch.” So I think there needs to be — as I say, it is the most difficult challenge. But I don’t think you’re going to see any substantial improvement towards equality without empowering workers. There’s just no reason for bosses to pay workers a lot of money if they don’t have to.
Correspondent: Do you think any movement that would actually amend some of these problems is not being adversarial enough? I mean, even Occupy Wall Street has to be careful. Because you have the police issuing all of these crazy regulations, as we saw with Federal Hall. And now you have competing statutes of how they can protest. The world’s most exclusive club at 25, as we saw. So the question is, well, they have to remain calm. Which is totally unprecedented if you look at our history. If you look at bombs going off in Wall Street decades before. So maybe the economics writer who you were talking to might, in fact, be right. That the problem is also cultural as well. Do you think that?
Noah: Well, you just need to be strategic about the proper methods to use. I think there are certain situations where an adversarial approach is called for. There are other situations where a cooperative approach is called for. One thing that distinguishes European — Western European — labor unions from American ones is they are more cooperative. They have a part of a three-part partnership between industry and labor and the government. Walter Reuther, who was I think maybe the greatest labor leader who ever lived, was the president of the United Auto Workers in the 1940s, the 1950s, and the 1960s. And he tried very hard to establish something like that European model here. And it’s fascinating. He was a brilliant man. And he was constantly proposing things to management that would actually help the company. He would say — for example, after World War II, he said, “My workers will sacrifice some pay because we need to worry about postwar inflation. They will sacrifice some pay. But they have to see that management will show some restraint too by not raising the price of cars.” And this was a time when auto sales were oligopolistic in the United States. It didn’t have a lot to do with supply and demand. So you could knock the price down of the car and still have plenty of profit. Reuther would say — there’s actually one instance — I can’t remember if it was that instance or another one — where he was actually told, “You know, Walter, that’s a really good idea. But because it’s your idea, we’re not going to do it.”
Florence Williams is most recently the author of Breasts.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contemplating a new career in unique dairy products.
Author: Florence Williams
Subjects Discussed: The history of breastfeeding, formula ushered into the industrial age, artificial selection and breasts, 19th century mothers who raised infants on oatmeal, infant mortality, contaminants within breast milk, the recent Time breastfeeding cover controversy, finding flame retardants in breast milk, why formula isn’t a particularly pure product, public breastfeeding laws, lactating moms with pitchforks, phthalates, the difficulty of studying the effects of industrial chemicals on humans, chemicals untested on humans, California’s Proposition 65, being helpless in the wake of Beltway indifference to industrial chemicals, the increase in breast cancer, the Komen for the Cure controversy earlier in the year, breast cancer awareness, increased rates of breast cancer in China, Zena Werb’s molecular research, the Burke and Hare murders, murdering the poor and selling organs to anatomists, burking, John Landis films, the Anatomy Act of 1832, studying breasts at the cellular level, studying rat mammaries to understand humans, the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, ideas on implementing Google Maps for milk ducts, breast apps, knowing more about the cow diary industry than human milk, red wine, the human milk demographic, thought experiments on a human cheese market, making money from human milk, prebiotics, the human breast milk black market, how to confuse vegans with breast milk, imagining a world where one can pick up a gallon of human milk in a bodega, breast enlargement, Dr. Michael Ciaravino and his Houston breast augmentation factory, breasts and patriarchal associations, pornography being ratcheted up, boosting the self-esteem of girls, the virtues of small breasts, Timmie Jean Lindsey and the first breast implant, the problems with objectification from several angles, the problems with early silicone implants, the Dow Corning class action lawsuit, women with breast implants who lose nipple sensation, the marketing of breast implants, the inevitability of living with toxic dust and radiation, and the Stockholm Protocol (and the United States’s failure to sign it).
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I wouldn’t to actually get into the history of breastfeeding. Before the 20th century, of course, breastfeeding was the main method of feeding babies. Then we have postwar life ushering in formula and so forth. It has been pointed out, as you say in the book, by evolutionary biologists that 6,000 human genes relating to lactation are among our most stubbornly conserved ones and, if natural selection as even Darwin has pointed out is in favor of lactation, my question to you is: why is artificial selection through industry so very much against it? Just to get things started here.
Williams: Oh, that’s a big question. Well, you know, there have always been women throughout history — even in our deep evolutionary past — who didn’t want to breastfeed or who couldn’t breastfeed. Of course, many women died in child birth. There were lots of breast infections, as well as other infections related to child birth. And so sometimes women couldn’t produce enough milk. And so as I point out in the book, actually wet nursing is one of the oldest professions known to humankind. You know, humans are very flexible and picky in their feeding habits. And some populations wouldn’t wean their infants for years. Three, four years. The recent cover of Time Magazine was so shocking because it had a three-year-old on the cover. But, in fact, the human race would not be here if it weren’t for toddlers breastfeeding in our deep evolutionary past. And then there have always been populations that wean their young earlier. So when formula came along, many, many women thought this was a great liberating phenomenon and invention. And, you know, they went for it with greater and lesser success, I would say. You know, in the 19th century, women sometimes tried to raise their infants on oatmeal, basically, and cow’s milk.
Correspondent: That was sort of the formula of its time.
Williams: That was the formula of its time. It was often a total disaster.
Correspondent: I would imagine oatmeal wouldn’t be exactly quite the same constituency.
Williams: It’s not really everything you need. And so infant mortality was really high among infants who were not breastfed. Fortunately, now, formula is pretty good at approximating the nutritional needs of the infant. But as we’re learning more and more all the time, breast milk isn’t just a food. It’s a medicine.
Correspondent: It’s a way of life.
Williams: It’s a way of life. (laughs)
Correspondent: Sorry. But it is actually a way of life — in all seriousness. As you point out in this book, there’s also a good deal of adulterated breast milk that is running around right now. We’ll get into the whole phthalates and plastic chemicals in just a bit. But I’m wondering. Why aren’t we considering this? I mean, I guess your book is a starting point. Or is this, in fact, one of the serious issues that scientists are presently looking into? Or is it?
Williams: Oh yes. It is. You know, breast milk now has been known to have contaminants in it from the industrial world. I tested my breast milk while I was breastfeeding my second child and I found out that I had flame retardants and jet fuel ingredient. Trace amounts of pesticide.
Correspondent: That’s what you get for having a pilot career.
Correspondent: Oh, you didn’t have a pilot career! I see.
Williams: Oops! I didn’t have a pilot career.
Williams: We all have these substances coursing through our bodies. Unfortunately, some of them really collect in fatty tissue in the breast. And then the breast is really masterful at converting these substances into food. So it ends up in our breast milk. But I would point out that I did continue breastfeeding. I was convinced that the benefits still outweighed the risks. And, of course, formula is not a completely pure product either. It’s also contaminated with heavy metals and pesticides and whatever else is in the water that you’re mixing it with. And then, you know, of course there are sometimes these scares that come out of China where you find melamine and other weird additives in the formula. So unfortunately, I feel that we’ve taken this miraculous evolutionary substance and we’ve degraded it to the point where you can really now almost compare to formula.
Correspondent: So we can, in fact, compare sullied breast milk of the present industrial age with the formula of yesteryear that infants relied upon. Is it safe to say that we can determine which is the greater threat these days? Or what?
Williams: I still think the benefits of breast milk are incredibly profound and amazing. You know, we’re just learning more and more all the time about how breast milk boosts the immune system. And there’s some evidence that despite all the pollutants in breast milk, it still protects the infant possibly from the effects of other chemicals. You know, it boosts the IQ and it helps teach the human immune system what’s a good pathogen, what’s a bad pathogen. So there are all kinds of great reasons to still use it. Of course, unfortunately, in the United States anyway, we don’t really support breastfeeding. As you can tell from the reaction to that Time cover, we’re still deeply uncomfortable with it.
Correspondent: There are still public laws, however, that permit women to breastfeed their children that we’ve seen more and more of in the last decade or two. I think there’s — well, we’re in New York City. So we can be a little hubristic about this.
Williams: You can do anything. (laughs)
Correspondent: You’re coming from Colorado. So I think it’s a little more challenging there.
Williams: Well, there’s always these stories in the news of women who get kicked out of the shopping mall because they need to breastfeed their infant. And sometimes that creates this big reaction. And sometimes lactating moms will come and have protests.
Correspondent: Lactating moms with pitchforks. I love it! (laughs)
Williams: Stay away from them. They’re dangerous!
Molly Crabapple is most recently the author of The Art of Molly Crabapple Volume 1: Week in Hell.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he can start a Kickstarter campaign for someone to send him tequila money.
Author: Molly Crabapple
Subjects Discussed: Daily walks to McNally Jackson, the logistics of setting up the Week in Hell experiment, the logistics of sneaking people and materials in a hotel, eluding maids, Philippe Petit, the similarities and differences between photographers and visual artists, conversation and dreams as inspirational forces, aerial hoops, the Internet as an idea source, prototypes of the Week in Hell experiment, the necessity of changing up artistic routine, Susan Sontag, education as a birthright vs. education as an adult, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Dick Clark’s death and those who shamed people on Twitter for not knowing who Dick Clark is, the infinite storehouse of online knowledge, the benefits of accordion players in producing art, Kim Boekbinder, how performers inspire Crabapple, drawing faceless girlthings with parasols, Crabapple’s tendency towards the curved line, Scarlett Takes Manhattan, drawing an undersea Algonquin roundtable, Alexander Woollcott, illustrating in response to current events and the Arab Spring, the Wikileaks squid, Occupy Wall Street, pigs and depraved nightclubs, the first animals Crabapple was drawn to, the allure of drawing grotesque items, allegorical pity parties, bitching about people who are more successful, a thought experiment involving Napoleon having a pity party, despair, self-pity, and depression as inspirational forces, Kay Redfield Jamison, not having down time, avoiding repeating yourself, Damien Hirst, unethical business practices, saying no to certain corporate clients, feeling bad about drawing a topless picture of Hillary Clinton for a conservative publisher out of financial desperation, the lines between the artistic and the commercial, whoring out your heart of hearts, the myth of artistic purity, Howard Roark and the Randian ideal, nude modeling, the need for expensive promotional campaigns, how a young and emerging artist who can’t do nude modeling can survive when she first starts out, retail jobs, New York as a place hostile to certain strains of art, Zoe Strauss, being declared “not a real artist” by The New York Times Book Review, Luc Sante’s Low Life, whether research bogs down art, and the value of lipstick planted upon art.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I wanted to ask you about the logistics of this Week in Hell experiment. The first thing I have to say, in seeing the television covered up and in seeing the thermostat on the wall, what negotiations were there with the hotel management to actually allow this to happen?
Crabapple: Oh, we didn’t ask the hotel.
Correspondent: (laughs) Oh, you didn’t? They found out while it was happening?
Crabapple: They didn’t find out at all.
Crabapple: This was entirely surreptitiously.
Correspondent: Wow. (laughs)
Crabapple: I will probably send them a copy of the book. The reason was that we initially wanted to do it at another hotel and we had all this money from the Kickstarter. And we were like, “Golly, mister, here’s $4,500 to do our crazy art project.” And they were like, “Oh no! You must speak with our creative directors to see if you’re in line with our creative vision.” And I thought that was bullshit. So I just dressed up like a fancy person and borrowed a Ralph Lauren suitcase to hide all those rolls of paper in.
Correspondent: Really? (laughs) It’s like a bank heist.
Crabapple: We totally ran it like a bank heist. Snuck everything in. Told the maid not to come all week.
Correspondent: Was that the 57 minutes that you spent eluding the maid, which you refer to?
Crabapple: Yes! Exactly!
Correspondent: Wow. So you actually had to plan this like a bank heist. I mean, I understand. I’ve done some of these interviews in hotels and I’m told that I can’t actually sit down with these microphones with another person. Just having a conversation. So why did you have to go ahead and do this almost like you were shooting without a film permit? What steps did you take to plan this bank heist?
Crabapple: So me and Melissa, who’s my amazing assistant.
Crabapple: Who is actually the brains behind all of my harebrained ideas. We made a long list of everything that could possibly go wrong. We did everything from testing the right type of tape to hold the paper off, that wouldn’t peel off the paint, to getting the right fancy people suitcases. So we wouldn’t look all sketchy sneaking into the Gramercy Park Hotel with duffel bags.
Correspondent: Did you have any consultants say, “Hey, you actually look professional enough to pass muster with the scrupulous guards”?
Crabapple: (laughs) What was so funny was that I had this whole outfit, which can only be described as rich people’s whore.
Crabapple: It was all Alexander McQueen and Louis Vuittons and shit. And I went in and everybody is wearing sweatpants. And I was so disappointed.
Correspondent: Well, these tests about not peeling the paint off the walls. And the paper itself. The specific markers you used. I’m wondering. What were the logistics here? I’m really curious.
Crabapple: The paper and markers?
Correspondent: Yeah. How many types of paper did you have to go through?
Crabapple: We didn’t go through types of paper. Because I got that sponsored.
Crabapple: It was more — Melissa’s whole wall was covered with different strands of paper being held up with different types of tape.
Correspondent: Fantastic. What other logistics were needed aside from this? Anything else that you’re missing?
Crabapple: We had tons and tons of friends sneaking in the entire week and we found a back staircase for them to sneak up. Because we didn’t — I mean, especially when we had the wild closing party.
Correspondent: This is like Philippe Petit walking across the World Trade Center. How he had friends gradually get all the supplies up over the course of several weeks in advance. Was it similar here?
Crabapple: It was kind of like that. I even had one of my friends go into the hotel, looking super-sketchy so that he could see how much scrutiny he would get.
Correspondent: (laughs) Oh really? Did you have any input into his skeeziness?
Crabapple: No, we just went with his natural dress.
Correspondent: Oh, I see. I got it. Now for many of the visitors who came into this hotel room during this week, I’m wondering if you asked permission to draw them. I mean, this raises an interesting question for me. Because you have one particular drawing that’s part of this elaborate project where you have the photographers, who are drawn like lizards to your friend. Because they’re ogling her with their cameras. And so I’m wondering. This made me think. How much is any artist, who illustrates or sketches or paints, different from, say, a photographer of any stripe? What are your thoughts on this? And what are your thoughts in terms of drawing people at will who happen to come into the room? Or was that the agreement for anyone who came through the room?
Crabapple: Well, people usually want to be drawn by me. But that’s actually an awesome question. I’ve always thought that the instinct of the photographer and the visual artist are very similar — in that we’re generally twitchy weirdos who want to hang out with the cool people and we use our camera or our sketchpad as a way to kind of bribe the cool people to hang out with us. But the thing is that photography has become so ubiquitous that people don’t feel impressed anymore by having their picture taken. And, in fact, it can become like really grabby and soul-stealing. Like — I used to march a lot at the [Coney Island] Mermaid Day Parade and sometimes there would be such a crush of photographers — like yelling at you how to pose and demanding that you arch your back this way or demanding that you look at them — that it wasn’t a fun thing at all. Whereas most people only get drawn a few times in their life. So it still has a novelty to it. And I’ve always kind of used my sketchpad as this key to sneak into scenes where I really didn’t belong.
Correspondent: But stealing another person’s soul. It seems to me that you’ve always been very conscious about this. Even from the Dr. Sketchy stuff. So my question is: how do we return the balance so that the person who is photographed or the person who is drawn actually feels comfortable and doesn’t feel as if she has her soul stolen through the process of art?
Crabapple: Well, with me, what I always try to do is I always try and capture the person’s personality, as well as just how hot they look. Like when I did the picture of Stoya on that door, I’m talking to her. And I do like her beautiful, beautiful, perfect, mathematically perfect face. Then I also — since I’m friends with her, I draw her making her own costumes — she’s a brilliant costumer — and on her aerial hoop. And then I talk with her. And she complains about obnoxious photographers. And so I draw them swarming around her.
Correspondent: So much of the input came from what she was telling you. As you were actually drawing her.
Crabapple: Exactly. It was just as much a portrait of our conversation.
Correspondent: In terms of the hoop, that was based off of memory. Did you have any source material for that?
Crabapple: That was based off of memory. I’ve seen a lot of aerialists in my time.
Correspondent: You note that you were drawing the top of the wall at the very beginning of this. So that you would have some inspiration for your dreams. And it seems to me that between that and the influx of stories that you had plenty of inspiration. This leads me to ask, well, what do you do if you run out of ideas to sketch during this situation?
Crabapple: I asked the Internet. I had a livestream going along. And my livestream audience would be saying, “Draw hippos on the moon! Draw undersea Algonquin round table!” And I would put that in if I was running out of inspiration.
Correspondent: So did you feel that sometimes the list of suggestions was too intrusive a presence? Or there were a lot of bad ideas sifting through this? Were you playing Beat the Clock because you had only a week to cover this entire surface?
Crabapple: There was a certain amount of Beat the Clock going on. I drew pretty much every waking hour. Like in the back of all my glamorous friends partying, there was usually me standing up on top of a shelf frantically sketching things.
Correspondent: Really? Well, were there any trial runs of you sketching things? Like say in your bathroom for half a day? Or anything like that?
Crabapple: I was at Stumptown Comics Festival. They had me as a guest. And I didn’t want to sit behind a table and sign things. Because I don’t know. I felt like I was at a craft fair or something. So instead I was like, “Why don’t you just hang up a giant piece of paper where my table would be and I’ll just draw on it over the course of the convention”? And I did a six foot by six foot drawing.
Correspondent: So that was the trial run.
Crabapple: That was where I got the idea.
Correspondent: Were there any other runs before that? Maybe three by three?
Crabapple: (laughs) That’s just my career.
Correspondent: Exactly. So what do you need often to keep your routine changed up? I mean, you suggested that this was the end of a particular period in your life. It was sort of your renouncement of pen and ink. How often do you need to change things up in order to stay fresh as an artist? I’m curious. Do you anticipate the next move? Does it come organically? Do you just do it and it becomes ambitious by default?
Crabapple: I’m not a very thoughtful person. And I’m incapable of thinking in Five Year Plans. And also I’m kind of young. So I don’t really know — like I just don’t have that many periods in my work. I don’t know. I was in this deep fucked up almost clinical depression when I was 27. And I don’t know why. My brain was just wonky. And I needed to do something to do violence to all of this stuff in my art that I was tired of. And this was how I did it. And I’m sure I’ll need to do it again. But I don’t know when or how.
Robert A. Caro is most recently the author of The Passage of Power.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Expressing his determination to keep the forward thrust of America began with notable historians.
Author: Robert A. Caro
Subjects Discussed: Lyndon B. Johnson as a great reader of men, Horace Busby, Johnson talking with people until he got what he wanted, Johnson’s misread of John F. Kennedy, the 1960 Presidential Election and Johnson’s self-sabotage streak in seeking the nomination, Emmett Till and Autherine Lucy, passing the 1957 Civil Rights Act, Jack Kennedy’s use of television, Johnson having his staff calculate the odds of a U.S. President dying in office, “power is where power goes,” Sam Rayburn, Johnson’s mode of desperation vs. Steve Jobs’s “reality distortion field,” Southerners as Presidents, Johnson’s decisiveness in the Senate, John Connally, Johnson’s fear of failure, Sam Houston, Johnson not wanting to be like his father, Johnson’s inability to stare physical reality in the face, smoking and fluctuating weight, challenging Arthur Schlesinger, Johnson being shut out from many of the key Kennedy meetings as Vice President, Johnson’s humiliations, LBJ being reduced to a “salesman for the administration,” the spiteful rivalry between Robert Kennedy and LBJ, character being a defining quality of politics, the importance of vote counting in Washington, Johnson as Senate Majority Leader, Johnson’s preying upon the loneliness of old men, Richard Russell, the Armed Service Committee, Johnson’s manipulation of Russell on civil rights and the Warren Commission, how Southern Senators were duped into believing that Johnson was against civil rights, the phone call in which Johnson forced Russell into the Warren Commission, how Johnson preyed on older men to get what he wanted, Kennedy’s tax bill, how Johnson worked on Harry Byrd, how Johnson dealt with human beings, the impact of personality on policy, Johnson’s terrible treatment of Pierre Salinger, Johnson bullying his subordinates, what Caro found the hardest to write about, triumphs of willpower, Johnson’s involvement with Bobby Baker, the Bobby Baker scandal, the surprising sensitivity with which the media handled Johnson’s corruption after the Kennedy assassination, the Life investigative team on Johnson (as well as Senate investigation), the lowering of the Presidency because of Johnson, some hints about Volume V, and Johnson’s legacy.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: You challenge in this book Arthur Schlesigner’s long-standing notion about the relation between Kennedy and Johnson. Now Johnson is in the vice presidential seat. Schelsinger’s idea was that, well, Kennedy was absolutely fond, genial, and generous. The vice president was included in most of the major meetings. And then, of course, we read this chapter “Genuine Warmth” and we find out, well, wait a minute! That’s not always the case. According to Ted Sorenson, Johnson was shut out from a pivotal ExCom decision, a decision meeting relating to the Cuban Missile Crisis. And that also is in large part because Johnson is a bit hawkish to say the least. So my question is: why has the lens of history been so keen to favor the Schlesigner viewpoint? And what was the first key fact that you uncovered that made you say to yourself, “Well, this isn’t exactly true”? What caused you to start prying further and further? That caused you to think, well, things are not all wine and roses.
Caro: Well, you know, part of it was that as soon as you start to look at Johnson and the Kennedys, you hear about the nickname that the Kennedy people called him. “Rufus Cornpone.”
Correspondent: That’s right.
Caro: “Uncle Cornpone.” “Uncle Rufus.” You know, they coined phrases for Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird. They used to call them “Uncle Cornpone and His Little Pork Chop.” Then you ask someone like Ted Sorensen, who helped me immensely. He was the person probably closest to Kennedy in the administration.
Correspondent: You spent a lot of time with him.
Caro: I spent a lot of time with Ted. And he said, yes, as has previously been said, Johnson was included in all the big meetings, the Cabinet meetings, the National Security meetings. But in the Kennedy government, those weren’t the meetings that mattered. The meetings that mattered were the small little groups that Kennedy would convene. And Johnson wasn’t invited to those. You know, when the 1963 Civil Rights Act is introduced by the Kennedys and Johnson has to say to Ted Sorensen — we happen to have a recording — “You know, I don’t know what’s in this act. I have to read about it in The New York Times.” The greatest legislator possibly of the century, the greatest legislator of the 20th century is not consulted on Kennedy’s legislation.
Correspondent: Why then has the Schlesinger lens been allowed to proliferate for so long? That’s the real question.
Caro: Well, I don’t know that it’s just the Schlesinger lens.
Correspondent: Or this idea.
Caro: I really can’t answer that question. But when you talk to the surviving Kennedy people — like Sorensen — when you read their oral histories, you see it’s simply not true. I mean, Horace Busby talks basically about going to see Sorensen one day and asking, “Well, what role do you want Lyndon Johnson to play in this administration?” And Sorensen says, “Salesman for the administration.” I mean, this is Lyndon Johnson, who is to be the salesman for the administration. Johnson says to an aide, Harry McPherson — you know, they’ve turned the legislative duties over to Larry O’Brien. Johnson says, “You know, O’Brien hasn’t been to see me to ask advice once in two years.” So it’s undeniable that Johnson was shut out from Kennedy’s legislative processes and from the Cuban Missile Crisis — the key meeting of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He’s not invited to it.
Correspondent: I know. It’s really amazing. One of the other great showdowns in this book — the great clash is between Bobby Kennedy and Johnson. I mean, you want to talk about cats and dogs, these two guys were it. You have their first meeting in the Senate cafeteria in 1953 where Kennedy was glowering at Johnson and forced to shake his hand. Then years later, Johnson is Vice President. And he’s largely powerless as we’ve been establishing here. He serves on the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. And Bobby Kennedy shows up late, humiliates him over two meetings.
Correspondent: And then on the Saturday after the Kennedy assassination, there’s this misunderstanding over how the West Wing is going to be cleared out and ready for Johnson. There’s this very tense meeting not long after. But Johnson is in this interesting predicament of having to maintain the Kennedy faction all through Election Day in 1964. Yet he also tests the waters a bit with the Thomas Mann nomination. So my question is: was there any hope of Bobby Kennedy and Johnson putting aside their differences? What factors do you think caused Bobby to acquiesce to Johnson for the good of the nation while Johnson was President?
Caro: Well, he doesn’t always acquiesce.
Caro: We see him breaking with him strongly over Vietnam in 1967 and 1968 and running for the nomination. I mean, when Bobby Kennedy enters the race, Lyndon Johnson bows out basically. You know, people don’t understand, in my opinion, enough. And I try to explain in my books how personality, how character, has so much to do with politics and government. And with Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, whatever the reasons are, at bottom you have this personal hostility. You talked about the first meeting. You know, this first meeting is when Lyndon Johnson is the Leader. He is the mighty Leader. Bobby Kennedy — I think he’s 27. And he’s just gone to work for Senator Joe McCarthy as a staffer. So Joe McCarthy — the Senate cafeteria is on the second floor of the Senate Office Building. And every morning, Johnson goes in there to have breakfast with his aides. And Joe McCarthy is sitting every morning at this big round table near the cashier with four or five or six of his aides, you know. And every time Johnson comes in, McCarthy jumps up as everyone does to Johnson and says, “Hello, Mister Leader. Can I have a few moments of your time, Mr. Leader? Good work yesterday, Mr. Leader.” One morning, there’s a new staffer there. It’s Robert Kennedy. Johnson walked over. Senator McCarthy jumps up. And so, as always, do all his staffers. Except one. Robert Kennedy, his 27-year-old staffer, sits there glaring at Johnson. Johnson knows how to handle situations like this. He holds out his hand to everybody sort of halfway out and forces Bobby Kennedy to stand up and take his hand. And George Reedy said to me — I said, “What was behind that?” George Reedy said, “You know, you ever see two dogs come into a room that never met each other and the hair rises on the back of their neck immediately and there’s a low growl?” That was the relationship between Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Of course, there were other reasons. Robert Kennedy was very attached and devoted to his father, Joseph Kennedy.
Caro: And Johnson, who was close to Roosevelt, was always repeating these stories about Roosevelt firing Joe Kennedy, tricking him into coming back to Washington from England, and then firing him. Making him look bad. So I think that Robert Kennedy hated him for that. But it’s not too strong a word to use hatred for what was going on between Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. And, you know, at the convention, one of Johnson’s assistants, Bobby Baker, he thinks everything’s just politics. So he’s having breakfast in a coffee shop in Los Angeles at the convention. He sees Bobby Kennedy come in and says, “How about sitting down?” He’s Bobby Baker, sitting with his wife, having breakfast. Bobby Kennedy sits down. But within two minutes, he’s up. And he throws money on the table. And he says to Baker, “Don’t worry. You’ll get yours when the time comes.” Well, the time came. Johnson was Jack Kennedy’s Vice President. Bobby Kennedy has, in effect, power over him. And he makes life miserable for Lyndon Johnson.
Correspondent: What you said at the beginning of this, about character being a defining quality of politics. I mean, Johnson, as you establish in this book and in Master of the Senate, is a master vote counter. He has his tally sheets when he’s in the Senate. He’s going ahead and making sure he knows exactly how things line up. In this book, you point out during the wheat bill that not only does he want enough votes to make the wheat bill [an amendment from Sen. Karl Mundt banning sale of surplus wheat from Russia] die. He wants it murdered, as he says. So the question I have. He may have been a master vote counter. But how much character did he need to go along with that? Was vote counting enough for him? Was that relentless drive just as much of a quality as the sheer statistician approach that he had?
Caro: It was never a sheer statistician, of course.
Correspondent: Of course.
Caro: He was a great legislator. Listen. A key thing in politics is the ability to count. And Johnson was the great counter. He’d send aides to find out how senators were going to vote. So sometimes someone would come back. Usually they didn’t do this more. They said, “I think Senator X is going to vote this way.” Johnson would say, “What good is thinking to me? I need to know.” He never wanted to lose a vote. So vote counting. He was the great vote counter. He’s a young Congressman. He comes to Washington. He’s 29 years old. He falls in with this group of New Dealers, who later become famous. Abe Fortas. Jim Rowe. “Tommy the Cork” Corcoran. These are guys who live and breathe politics. And do you know what they do when they have a dinner party on Saturday night? They get together for dinner. They count votes. They say, “How is Roosevelt’s bill on this going to be?” And Johnson, they said, was always right. We might think this Senator was going to vote this way. Johnson always knew. He was the greatest vote counter. And when he was in the Senate, he was the greatest vote counter of them all. But that’s not all of why Johnson was great. Johnson was this master on the Senate floor. He got through amendments. And there’s the base. And there’s shouting back and forth. He can seize the moment. He sees the moment where he can win. And he acts decisively. He says, “Call the vote.” And he’s Majority Leader. And he would stand there at the Majority Leader’s desk. So he’s towering over everybody else’s front row center desk. He’s got this big arm in the air. And if he’s got the votes, he wants the vote fast before anyone can change. Or maybe some other people on the other side are absent and not there. He makes little circles on his hands, like someone revving up an airplane, to get the clerk to call the rolls faster. And if one of his votes wasn’t there, and he was being rushed from somewhere in a car across Washington, he would make a stretching motion with his hands. He ran this. There were a lot of things that went into Johnson’s dominance of the Senate.
Stewart O’Nan is most recently the author of The Odds. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #161. You can also read our lengthy conversation by email in 2011. This 2012 talk was recorded before a live audience at McNally Jackson. My gratitude to Michele Filgate, Langan Kingsley, Holly Watson, and, of course, Stewart O’Nan for their help in putting this event together.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Inexplicably hungering for Wendy’s hamburgers.
Author: Stewart O’Nan
Subjects Discussed: [forthcoming later this afternoon]
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Niagara Falls. Here is a location that’s loaded with all sorts of associations. Joyce Carol Oates wrote a book there.
O’Nan: The Falls.
Correspondent: Yes, exactly.
O’Nan: Yes, I was introduced the other night as “the author of The Falls.”
O’Nan: And I was like, “Not that prolific.” Not nearly.
Correspondent: (laughs) Well, you are churning them out one a year.
O’Nan: Oh thank you. Churning them out. You said cranking before.
Correspondent: Crafting! Cranking, churning. All right. But they’re short! They’re short.
O’Nan: They’re tiny.
Correspondent: There’s craftsmanship in there. Don’t worry.
O’Nan: I understand.
Correspondent: But I’m wondering. You’re taking a location that’s loaded with all sorts of cultural baggage. There’s that Marilyn Monroe/Joseph Cotten film.
O’Nan: Gotta love it.
Correspondent: But I’m wondering. Here you are taking two characters and putting them in a touristy location. I’m wondering if you did that to work up against limitations and see what kind of behavior you could mine based off of that. I’m wondering why you chose this. What was the process of selecting the Ice Bridge or the details of the customs location? What went into nailing Niagara?
O’Nan: Well, it’s a ready made stage. Usually when I take on an area or a setting, it’s virgin territory in a way. Conneaut, Ohio. Kingsville in Songs for the Missing. No one’s ever written about that in any kind of novel. Western Pennsylvania. Butler, PA in 1974. So I always say I’ve written the best Butler, Pennsylvania novel ever written.
O’Nan: Or Avon, Connecticut. Usually these are overlooked places. Like New Britain, Connecticut, that Last Night at the Lobster takes place in. I write in that interzone, that nowhere America of strip malls. It has been kicked around forever. But in the new book, I thought, let’s focus solely on the characters and put them on a stage that everybody knows. So I don’t have to do that disorienting, here is the place that you don’t know and now I’m going to tell you about it. So I had a little less responsibility to the setting and I could spend a little bit more time on the characters.
Correspondent: I have to ask you about the odds as chapter headers for all of these. Some are, in fact, true. “Odds of a black number coming up in roulette: 1 in 2.06.” I Wikipediaed that. Some are unscientifically true. “Odds of a marriage proposal being accepted: 1 in 1.001.” So I’m wondering. How many odds did you collect? I mean, I’m wondering if you were sitting on a bunch of odds sets.
O’Nan: Yes. Yes.
Correspondent: You were?
O’Nan: Yes, I was. And I was trying to figure out: How do I weave these into the book and what effect are they going to have when I get them in there? And they seemed to me to work. When I thought of using them rather than chapter headings, in the way I did with, say, Emily or in Songs of the Missing, I saw them as how the chapter headings are in something like Blood Meridian or in, say, 19th century fiction work, which is “In this chapter I am eaten by sharks.” And before you even get into the chapter, you’re like, “Oh sharks! This could be cool!” So it kind of brings the reader and it gives them an expectation of what may happen in this chapter. Not necessarily has to happen. But it may happen. The odds of dying in a bus crash. Whoa! There might be a bus crash. I’ll stick around and find out.
Correspondent: It’s interesting. Because here you are in one sense messing with the reader for the first ten pages, repelling them, and then on this, you’re subverting their expectations. It’s actually, “Ooh! I want to continue to read this chapter.”
O’Nan: Well, you hope.
Correspondent: What of this bipolar approach to fiction writing?
O’Nan: Flannery O’Cononr. Flannery O’Connor said, “Distract them and hit them over the head.” Absolutely right. Absolutely right. Give them a reason to come into the place. A Prayer for the Dying. The opening sections are very — it’s a terrible thing to say, very beautifully written. I use the language. I make the beauty of the language a key thing to hang into. And so the reader gets rewarded somehow. And by the time they have to go through the book, they’re kind of stuck. They’re like, “Well, I don’t really want to hang around and watch this guy go crazy while I’m inside of his mind.” Well, it’s too late. So like Poe, say, in “The Black Cat.” Once you get them in the door, then after a certain point, they’re kind of yours. They have to follow along. Or you hope so. You always hope so.
Correspondent: I’m curious if the odds sets actually were methods for you to riff off of Art and Marion. If you were stuck at a certain place. Is this a point? I mean, you’re a former engineer. I presume that this was either heavily designed. Or were there false starts? And did the odds help you in anything?
O’Nan: No. There weren’t a whole lot of false starts. I knew the characters very well before I opened up. It’s also a small novel. It’s very much sort of a drawing room novel in a way. It’s the one weekend. You’ve got the unity of place. The unity of time. You’ve got a lot of pressure on them from the memories. This is their second honeymoon. They’re in Niagara Falls. And you have the time pressure of, well, at some point, they’re going to have to put their money down on the wheel. And they’re always kind of at odds with one another. They’re always picking at one another. So I had a lot to work with. The plates were already spinning when I started getting into it.
Correspondent: I wanted to also ask you. One interesting thing that you also do with Marion is body image. She doesn’t like Art to see her undress. And in one of the passages you’re going to read tonight, the only thing you mention is her stomach. We actually don’t really know what she looks like physically. So I’m wondering if this is a method for you to not reveal certain details to the reader or this reflects your relationship to the reader. Is this your way to protect your own characters? To not divulge all? Or is this your way to encourage judgment? Perception on the reader’s behalf?
O’Nan: This is more to encourage the reader to join in the process of creating the work. And I don’t say what the character looks like unless it’s really necessary to the arc of the story there. So what the characters look like is completely up to the reader there. And I leave judgment to the reader. I don’t try to steer the reader too much in terms of who’s good, who’s bad, who’s right, who’s wrong. And it’s always sort of that inkblot that shows how generous the reader can be or how, on the flip side, how stingy they can be. “I hate Marion. I hate her so much.” It’s like, “Easy there, lady. Easy there.”
Correspondent: Have you had this happen before?
O’Nan: Oh yeah.
Correspondent: Wow. Really?
O’Nan: In Wichita of all places.
O’Nan: “I didn’t like her.” Well, that’s good. That’s your prerogative. That’s fine. That’s you.
Correspondent: You know, one of the interesting things — I’ve read a number of reviews of this book. And they actually don’t mention, for example, Karen or these two characters who are having affairs with the couple. And I’m curious about this. Maybe this relates to this issue of giving the reader something. Maybe they don’t want to talk about this aspect of Art and Marion. What do you think of this?
O’Nan: Yeah. I think they want to key more on Art and Marion and just say, “Look, there are problems in the marriage.” And this is how they work them out over this weekend. Or don’t work them out.
Correspondent: Inevitably, because you do deal with Heart, I have to bring up celebrity gossip.
Correspondent: So in late 2010, Nancy Wilson and Cameron Crowe initiated divorce proceedings. It was a great shocker to certain waves.
O’Nan: So sad. They had everything going for them, didn’t they? They did.
Correspondent: Yeah. I’m wondering if you including the Heart concert before or after you heard this news. Or if you possibly predicted this dissolution in anyway. I mean, what of this?
O’Nan: I don’t know.
Correspondent: Some sort of angle here.
O’Nan: No. I don’t know. It’s accidental subtext, I guess. I guess it happens from time to time.
Correspondent: Another silly question. Wendy is a character. And I have to ask you, and I know this is really pedantic, but I have noticed in all of your books — nearly all of your books — there’s a moment where someone eats Wendy’s. A Wendy’s hamburger.
Correspondent: But not, not in The Odds. The last time I saw this was Last Night at the Lobster. There was a Wendy’s moment. It was the Stewart O’Nan Wendy’s moment!
O’Nan: He doesn’t go to Wendy’s.
Correspondent: Oh, he doesn’t go to Wendy’s?
O’Nan: He decides not to go to Wendy’s.
Correspondent: But he does actually consider it!
O’Nan: This is a climax. This is a climax in an actual work of fiction. “Want to go to Wendy’s? Nah.”
Correspondent: Do you eat at Wendy’s quite a bit?
O’Nan: No. Maybe that’s it. Maybe I want to eat at Wendy’s more. I can see my biographer doing a lot on Wendy’s now. A map of all the Wendy’s around my house.
(Photo credit: Here)
Annalena McAfee is most recently the author of The Spoiler.
[PROGRAM NOTE: In the first few minutes of the conversation, one of the microphones decided to blow out. And while Our Correspondent was equipped with two microphones, the microphone that blew out wasn’t the one on Our Correspondent’s voice, but the one that was on the author’s voice. Ms. McAffee’s words can be detected during this program, but if her voice sounds like it’s coming out of a small radiator, well, you now know why. Many apologies for the low quality to Ms. McAfee and to our listeners. We have done our best in post-production to preserve this conversation despite this setback.]
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Selling his scandalous tales to the highest bidder.
Author: Annalena McAfee
Subjects Discussed: The journalism novel’s long tradition, Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, P.G. Wodehouse’s Psmith, Journalist, Guy de Maupassant, the number of women working as journalists, Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning, the lack of women journalists in Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, Nellie Bly, Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons, using phrases as “nasal plainchant,” how style and language allows one to escape tropes, plucky newsboys, formality, balancing characters, botching an interview, Tamara Sim’s entitlement, finding redeeming value in characters who don’t comprehend basic journalism, how to counter your own biases when writing fiction, providing what the newspapers want, narcissistic protagonists, 1997 as a cusp moment in journalism, journalistic ethics, the desperate scramble to be first with a story, cash for stories, single-source Fleet Street exposés, prostitutes and TV presenters, Tory MPs and tabloid scandals, the impulse to tear people down as a journalist, including a virtuous side character, the Conservative Monday Club vs. a fictitious Monday Club, Sherman Duffy’s idea of a journalist being “somewhere between a whore and a bartender,” the differences between US and UK journalism, whether or not cultural journalism is a slightly higher form of tabloid journalism, David Simon’s Q&A comments being needlessly dissected by short-sighted journalists, the problems with celebrity journalism, Ian McEwan as in-house editor, Amsterdam, Enduring Love, being grilled on television through personal connection, Marguerite Higgins, women war journalists, the infamous hostile showdown between Gloria Emerson and John Lennon, how Higgins inspired two novels, what journalism has lost because of the Internet, needless length caps applied to present-day journalism, Kindle Singles, the influence of Maxim in the early noughts, aggregate sites, The Browser, Twitter and the move to individual curators, obsession, and internal pressure for journalists.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
McAfee: In terms of tearing people down, I did not work in that world really. I worked on The Financial Times. It’s a fantastic paper and the probity is unimpeachable. I worked on The Guardian on the culture. I founded and edited The Guardian Review. Again, that’s a paper that’s on the side of angels. I was very, very lucky. I had a spell on the Evening Standard. But I was arts editor and theater critic. And I suppose in my capacity as theater critic, sometimes I might have been less than kind. But it certainly wasn’t the kind of sustained bullying. Or I didn’t have that opportunity. And I hope that if I did, I would be able to resist it.
Correspondent: So you were really perhaps comparable to the Monitor‘s books editor the morning after the party.
Correspondent: Where everybody else was completely trashed and their heads were throbbing and they were incapable of any conversation. And meanwhile, those who chose not to imbibe in this debauchery, they were able to seize the reins here, so to speak. (laughs)
McAfee: Well, books editor do debauchery too.
Correspondent: Of course. Most people do. We all know this.
McAfee: There’s no character assassinations or kiss-and-tells on my particular beat, thankfully.
Correspondent: Sure. I wanted to go back to the question of character balance. Because you have this confident young woman named Tania. She’s dutifully reading books. She’s researching her subjects.
McAfee: She’s called Tamara. But the old woman gets her name wrong and calls her Tania sometimes.
Correspondent: I’m sorry. I’m talking about — anyway, she even is very nice to respond to the quip.
McAfee: Oh, Tania.
Correspondent: Tania. That’s who I’m saying. Tania.
McAfee: You know my book better than I do.
Correspondent: I know that Honor, in a joke, actually calls her Tania. And that’s the clue that there is actually something askew because she completely insists on Tania. You have that email joke. Okay. Now that we’re on the same page, so you’ve got Tania.
Correspondent: She’s this erudite person who’s incredibly capable and she’s even kind enough to offer this tinselly chime that you describe when Tamara says, “Oh, well, the future is unisex jumpsuits and time travel.” But this does not exactly help us in warming to Tamara. I was reading this book and I’m saying to myself, “You know, Tania, this woman’s got her stuff together.” But I’m wondering how you worked out your method of parceling out Tania’s appearances throughout the book. Because they tend to be somewhat sparse near the beginning. And I almost got the sense that, as you were working on this, you wanted to have not so much of Tania. Because then all of a sudden, we’ll really not like Tamara. I’m wondering how you balanced the Ts here.
McAfee: Well, I did kind of concede Tania as the future. The only capable young woman journalist. Brilliant and completely ahead of the game as far as technology. And, of course, as I say, that was a time — 1997 — it was still possible to believe that the Internet was a passing fad. And indeed some of our great commentators said so. “It will be over soon. It’s like Citizens Band radio. It’s like Esperanto. It’s a craze. It will pass.” I use a quote from one of our great commentators saying exactly that in January 1997. So that’s what Tamara and all her colleagues are thinking. But gradually I hope that as a young woman who runs a website, as the future makes itself plain, as we see what direction it’s going in, that was the aim. That ultimately the future belongs to Tania and she claims it.
Correspondent: But did you worry that she might, in fact, be too virtuous? I mean, you’ve got two characters who have issues with Tamara and Honor. You’ve got Tania, who has not a single bad bone as far as I know. So how do you deal with this balance? Because if you have too much of Tania, then it gets away from the two central characters here. And so I’m wondering if there was more of Tania in an earlier draft perhaps or you had to say to yourself, “Well, I have to wait twenty or thirty pages before she appears again.”
McAfee: Well, no, there wasn’t more of Tania. And actually, again, I’m trying for complexity. And to be perfectly honest, I find Tania’s virtuousness and her capabilities slightly irritating. She’s the person who does one’s own job better than one can ever do and is always the last to leave the office. And she doesn’t laugh much. Her tinselly chimes are part of a game rather than a sense of humor.
Correspondent: No, it’s more of a polite gesture, I thought. I mean, here, she has been just totally insulted and instead of actually allowing herself to be steamrolled, she decides to respond with some grace. The tinselly chimes.
McAfee: Grace? Well, the tear of the victor.
Correspondent: Here’s the other thing about Tania. I mean, I know people like this. They go ahead and they work very hard, but they have a dark side. So I was reading this book thinking, “You know, Tania’s probably doing something we don’t know.” But we never actually get there. So I’m wondering: why? (laughs)
McAfee: Well, that’s true. That is probably true. And, in fact, she does move in on people.
Correspondent: That’s true.
McAfee: She’s incredibly attractive. That’s another of her irritating virtues.
McAfee: But she uses it and is jockeying for position and is not afraid to use her sexuality.
Correspondent: Nevertheless, you find her irritating.
Correspondent: The successful woman is irritating. Wait a minute here. (laughs)
McAfee: She doesn’t have warmth, I suppose. And that’s really it. She’s hard to read and she doesn’t seem generous to her colleagues.
Correspondent: I see.
McAfee: She lacks generosity.
Correspondent: She moves in on the territory and she does so without really seeing what the pecking order is.
McAFee: As I say, she’s got the ambition of a young person.
Correspondent: That’s an annoying quality. I’ll give you that. So it’s interesting that you have the Monday Club in this book. Because it’s far more liberal than the conservative Monday Club. Because you have the Twisk Foundation fighting child exploitation wherever it is to be found. You have the war correspondent. And I’m saying to myself, “You know, this is almost a Bizarro World Monday Club.” And so I’m wondering why you decided to go for a more progressive form of something that is a conservative institution in the UK.
McAFee: Well, they meet on a Monday. But I chose…
Correspondent: It could have been the Tuesday Club. (laughs)
McAfee: But I quite liked it. And I think I do say an ironic reference to the conservative, right-wing thinktank of the same name. Or whatever. So I quite liked playing with that. I mean, these are bien-pensant liberals and they’ve taken the name of the arch factory of Thatcherism.
Correspondent: Do you have any personal experience with the real Monday Club at all?
Correspondent: Any efforts to peek in there?
McAfee: No. Not at all. I can’t think of any.
Correspondent: So Sherman Duffy — he was a reporter friend of Ben Hecht’s — and he has this very famous maxim. He said, “Socially a journalist fits somewhere between a whore and a bartender.” Wonderful, wonderful line. Now in the Monday Club chapter, you not only have Tamara serving canapes to these affluent types. But you also have Ruth, Honor’s publisher — she’s actually engaged in this service sector activity as well. She’s unpacking the pastries on the plate and so forth. So I’m wondering if you were thinking of the Duffy maxim when you were considering this. This is a natural extension. Is there any way that fiction can help us and assist us in rehabilitating a journalist’s social status from somewhere between the whore and the bartender?
McAfee: Well, I mean, journalists are happy to see themselves as mavericks. Aren’t they? Certainly British journalists. I know that American journalism is a more honorable tradition.
Correspondent: Really? (laughs)
McAfee: I was talking to a friend about this the other night. And she said that there’s more of a public service attitude. And it can make for more solemn journalism. But in the UK, it’s well, you know, anything can go.
Correspondent: So you would say that journalism in the UK has declined considerably in the last ten years.
McAFee: Oh no.
Correspondent: Or twenty years.
McAfee: I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. I mean, I think there’s marvelous stuff going on. Absolutely marvelous. In fact, all that’s changed is the medium really. My war correspondent is not — she’s a bit of a dragon. And she resents the fact that the world has turned and she is not the top of the pile anymore. In fact, if she’d looked around, she would have much to celebrate. Particularly women in journalism. Women like Marie Colvin, the late Marie Colvin. In Russia, Anna Politkovskaya, as she died in the cause of her work. There’s marvelous reporting going on. But there’s also a lot of dross. That’s all mainstream. I don’t get celebrity journalism. I just can’t understand the appeal.
Correspondent: But some would argue that cultural journalism is, I suppose, a classier version of celebrity journalism. What do you think?
Correspondent: I ask myself this question too. I mean, look, I’ve read the book and I’m trying to tie it into a culture here. And I don’t want it to be about gossip. But at the same time, is this conversation also part of the problem? Even though it’s slightly higher on the brow? (laughs)
McAfee: Somebody said that novels were higher gossip.
Correspondent: (laughs) Yes.
McAfee: That’s the level of celebrity journalism that appeals to me. But yeah, TV stars. Reality TV shows. I mean, I don’t want to go on to that. But that seems to be cheap television and cheap journalism. And I don’t think there’s anything edifying that one gets from it.
Correspondent: Well, the problem we have here too — and this is really frustrating. David Simon, for example, recently said some things in an interview. He didn’t quite express himself very well. But he basically implied that people who didn’t watch The Wire from beginning to middle to end were not watching it according to his vision. And I can totally understand his sentiment. But from my standpoint, I was saying, “Well, this is really nothing to get all that worked up about.” But, of course, television journalists completely flipped out over this and said, “David Simon is being an ass.” And Simon then has to spend an hour of his life talking to this TV critic named Sepinwall, basically clarifying what he was saying, where he was coming from. And this, to my mind, is the epitome. This says nothing about The Wire. It says absolutely nothing about the actual relationship to art. And there were several people — including a New Yorker TV critic on Twitter — who were going off about this. And I was saying to myself, “You know, why are you devoting so much of your energy to try and systematically dismantle and deconstruct a quote that really has no bearing on what David Simon is doing as an artist?” The suggestion I’m making here — and I’m going off on a total tangent and we will get back to your book — is that, well, do you think that cultural journalism might be suffering from the same problems that reality TV, this sensationalistic journalism, is?
McAfee: Oh yes. I do. I find that a lot of interviews — and I know we’re having an interview.
Correspondent: Yeah, I know. It’s very meta here. (laughs)
McAfee: They concentrate on rehashing old stuff. Rehashing cuttings basically. Inquiring, as Tamara does, about affairs, about the personal life and not about the work. And when I was on the Guardian, we started a profile which was an essential interview about a writer or an artist. And the one rule was it was about the work. We don’t care about the personal life. If anyone cares about the personal life, they can read it. They can look it up. They can read it elsewhere. But what’s really interesting is the work. And I find that so much more enriching.
Correspondent: There is one question I have about your husband [Ian McEwan] and you, and it has nothing to do really with the personal. Although it may have something to do with the personal. But we’re talking about purely artistic terms. Okay. One, you’ve got an in-house editor. I’m really curious about how you two work as in-house editors. And, two, I noticed that this book had quite a bit in common with Amsterdam. You have a photo that is released. You have editors who are sacked. And so I wondered first of all if Amsterdam was hovering over you as you were writing this and, second, how do you guys edit each other’s work? That’s all I care about.
Correspondent: Or do you? Or do you leave each other alone?
McAfee: Yes. We do read. I read his work. I’m his first reader with a pencil. And he returned the compliment. In terms of Amsterdam, which I love — it’s a great newspaper novel actually, though it’s guys again. I hadn’t reread it for a while. But I guess any newspaper novel about modern journalism is going to have this scandal element to it. And, in fact, what you ask me is a fairer question, less compromising. When I was on the FT, I was editing the arts and books page. I was invited to the BBC. And it was around the time of the Booker Prize, when the Booker Prize was just going to be announced. The shortlist was going to be announced. And I was asked to come on as a literary editor of the Financial Times. So I turned up. And I’m very nervous on television. And I’m in absolute agony. And I turn up in this bright lit studio. And the guy turns to me and says, “So did you help hubby write the book?” Oh, what do you say? I said, “He’s perfectly capable of writing it himself. Thanks very much. But, nope, he wrote Amsterdam by himself. Unassisted.” As I wrote The Spoiler.
Correspondent: I would have said, “Did your wife help you with that question?”
McAfee: You know, that’s good.
Correspondent: So you guys edit each other’s work. Is there a point where you say, “Hey, hands off, Ian, I’ve got this”? I mean, does he become too vigorous with the pen? Or do you become in turn too vigorous with the pen? How do you keep each other’s hands off? What’s the deal with you guys?
McAfee: Well, it’s very companionable and decent. We both make suggestions and we both know that we’re at liberty to ignore them. Which is what happens. But when I read his first — the first book when we were together was Enduring Love. And I read that. And he asked me. “Be as free as you like and put pencil marks wherever there’s any kind of doubt.” And I was very tentative about it. I mean, I was used to editing for a living. But I was very tentative about hurting things. And I’ve written children’s books.
Correspondent: Yes, I know.
McAfee: I had a children’s book that was just coming out. And so he said, “Oh, I’d like to see that.” And he went through it. And there were pencil marks and suggestions.
McAfee: I thought, “Right. That’s how it’s done. No holds barred.” I went back to Enduring Love and pulled no punches.
Correspondent: (laughs) Wow. Did you pull no punches on the opening scene? I’m curious. No one can…
McAfee: There was no work required. Absolutely. It’s superb.
(Photo: Richard Saker)
Eric Kandel is most recently the author of The Age of Insight and was the 2000 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Checking his brain in for artistic purposes.
Author: Eric Kandel
Subjects Discussed: The interdisciplinary possibilities in Vienna 1900, Gustav Klimt, Berta Zuckerkandl, how Rokitansky’s leadership at the Vienna School of Medicine influenced Freud and numerous others, Kokoschka, Egon Schiele, how the beholder plays into artistic representation, Semir Zeki and the Kanizsa triangle, how the brain distinguishes between artists based on cues, the effect of Klimt’s Judith I upon the brain, unity between the science and the humanities, Leonardo da Vinci’s reliance upon anatomy, two-directional relationships between art and neuroscience, the region of the brain that is devoted to facial representation, prosopagnosia, autism and empathy, theory of mind, Freud’s “Leonardo da Vinci, A Memory of His Childhood,” Freud and art history, Alois Riegl’s historic and critical innovations, external coherence, the futility of psychoanalyzing an artist when he’s dead, Ernst Gombrich, modern cognitive psychology emerging from Freud, an artist’s biographical details in the relationship between art and neuroscience, Kokoschka’s The Wind’s Fiancée and Schiele’s Death and the Maiden, recruiting different parts of the brain to respond to different emotional states, how the brain responds to exaggeration and hands, faces and the inferotemporal cortex, caricatures and the brain, autism and responding to bodily motion, James-Lange theory, Walter Cannon, Hugo Critchley, how much we presently understand the insula, top-down processing, the universal functions of art, Dennis Dutton’s two views of art (the mind as a blank slate, art as an instinctive evolutionary trait), Arthur Schnitzler’s interior monologues, whether art can be on the same evolutionary level as the opposable thumb, retinal ganglion cells, Stephen W. Kuffler and on-center and off-center neurons, Mach bands, the dalmatian illusion, how the brain uses contrast, Ramachandran and peak shift, gestaltian intake of faces, the symbolic value of Velázquez’s Las Meninas, and when reductionist approaches to science are helpful.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: You point out quite early on in this book that there was something about the liberal intellectual spirit in Vienna 1900 that permitted all these fascinating interdisciplinary possibilities. You have the Vienna School of Medicine, which becomes this vital part of culture for Viennese artists and intellectuals. You have Klimt, who’s studying biology informally with Berta Zuckerkandl and he also has these amazing three panels that he does for the University of Vienna. As you point, they are rejected for being too radical, too pornographic, and too ugly. So just to start things off here, and we’ll get into the science in a bit, what specific factors do you feel allowed this golden age of collisional ideas to happen? I mean, from the vantage point of the 21st century, what lessons can neuroscience and biology take away from this really flourishing period?
Kandel: I think what is really so important is, as you pointed out, that there was an interaction between science, literature, and arts that was really unusual. And this began with the School of Medicine, which had great leadership at that time. Under the leadership of a guy called Rokitansky who introduced modern scientific medical practice by developing clinical/pathological correlations to a more systematic way than it had ever been. He felt that when you listened to a patient’s heart and you hear an abnormal sound, you don’t know which valve it’s coming from or exactly what is the disorder of the valve. And so he collaborated with a clinician. And the clinician described the patient’s sounds from the heart and the lungs in great detail. But if the patient died, they collaborated together to do an autopsy on him to figure out exactly what valve was involved and how. And that gave rise to the scientific medicine we now practice. And Rokitansky realized that the truth is often hidden from the surface. And you have to go deep below the surface to get there.
And that is a metaphor that influenced Freud, that influenced Klimt, that influenced all of these people. That surface appearances are misleading. They were also influenced by Darwin and they realized that humans are wonderful creatures, but they involved from simple animal ancestors and we have instinctual drives that we share with other animals. And Freud picked this up — he was sort of the Darwin of the mind — and realized that when human beings interact, they interact through surface appearances. There are a lot of processes that are hidden from them. The unconscious mind, which he really developed in great detail. And these ideas were also picked up by the artists. They were in part influenced by Freud, but in part on their own. So Freud had a very good understanding of many aspects of the human mind, but didn’t understand female sexuality at all. Klimt had a very profound understanding of female sexuality and in his drawings of women, which are absolutely just marvelous, he depicts women having their own independent sexual life, masturbating, pleasuring themselves without the presence of a man, without feeling obligated to look out at the viewer, as if that was the necessary thing for satisfying them. They could have their own fantasy life. And also that eroticism could be fused with aggression, as in a very famous painting of Judith and Holofernes. So he had tremendous insight into the human psychology. This was carried further by Kokoschka and Schiele, two of his disciples if you will. Kokoschka focused this self-analysis on himself. This analysis on himself showed how his own unconscious processes were recruited, realized that he could depict adolescent sexuality. He was the first artist to depict adolescent female nudes, pointed out sexual struggles between really young children. He has a very famous painting of the Stein children. A brother and sister. Both aggressive and erotic components involved in their interaction. And then finally Schiele, who studied himself almost exclusively, using himself as an object for exploring unconscious mental processes. Just an extraordinary period.
Correspondent: Sure. Well, let’s talk about Egon Schiele. His self-portraits in the book, many of which expressed, as you were saying here, this eroticism, this anxiety. In the case of Self-Portrait with Striped Armlets, it depicts him as a fool. He depicts himself as a fool. So his anxiety may very well evoke this fear in the beholder, or the viewer. But there’s a difference between what Schiele experienced and what he chose to express. So it’s possible that he may have exaggerated or distorted.
Kandel: Oh, there’s no question. I mean, I think what he tried to depict is the essential anxiety of modern man. And he depicted this in a lot of artificial ways in order to bring them out. He was very much influenced by Charcot and the postures that people could assume while under hypnosis. And he actually postured in order to convey these emotions. And also he was shocking. He painted himself masturbating in the mirror in order to make clear that no emotion is alien to him. And he’s willing to share that with the beholder.
Correspondent: Well, if a painting is a buffer between the artist and the beholder, how do scientific developments account for what the artist withholds or decides to distort? Or what the beholder might in fact misinterpreted or be tricked into interpreting? There are many illusions in this book too.
Kandeel: This is, of course, true. The sign of a great painting is its ambiguity. It allows you and me to bring different things to bear on it. And depending upon our relative sophistication on a particular subject, or a particular sub-subject, we would interpret it in different ways. So I think this is part of the greatness of art, that it allows different people to bring their own experiences to bear on it in an individualistic way.
Correspondent: The key element in assessing the relationship between art and neuroscience is the beholder. Now Semir Zeki has argued that the Kanizsa triangle, where we see these three…
Kandel: These illusory contours. They’re not there. We make them up. Zeki, of course, one of the pioneers in visual perception, is in an ideal position to point out that the brain is a creativity machine, which art historians in Vienna 1900 began to appreciate. That we don’t reproduce in our head what we see in the outside world. That’s not a detail of reproduction. We construct it. We take it apart. And we build it together again. So the beholder undergoes a creative process that parallels what the artist undergoes. It’s an amazing set of insights.
Correspondent: And that Zeki experiment is one example of the beholder responding to cues. Zeki also discovered in another experiment that no matter what type of art was presented to the subject, the same areas of the prefrontal cortex are going to light up. So if the biology of beauty, as you write, has varied very little over the centuries and also across cultures, my question to you is why are these cues and our biases so universal? I mean, how does the brain distinguish between, say, Klimt and Hopper?
Kandel: Well, it clearly sees different forms. But that does not mean that those two painters can evoke certain common responses. And what you’re seeing is the common responses. There are also distinctive elements between the two. So there’s a loneliness that Hopper depicts that you never see in Klimt.
Correspondent: You are very precise when speculating upon Klimt’s Judith and its effect on the brain. You write that the gold hues, the soft body, and the colors trigger the release of dopamine and that Judith’s sadistic gaze might release norepinephrine. And this demonstrates that art has an effect on neuroscience. But it also seems to imply that this connection is almost a one directional flow. In light of E.O. Wilson’s hope for unity between biology and the humanities, and in consideration of the impact of Freud’s ideas have had on the Viennese Secession, I’m wondering how 21st century neuroscience has an effect on art in the other direction.
Kandel: You mean, how neuroscientists are likely to influence the arts?
Correspondent: Exactly. Anything on the level of how they influenced in Vienna.
Kandel: As you pointed out, it’s very easy to see how art influences science. Neuroscientists consider it as one of the great aspirations of the field to understand how we respond to works of art, how artists and how creativity takes place. What can art historians and artists take away from neuroscience? Well, Leonardo da Vinci spent a lot of time dissecting bodies when he was interested in getting a realistic depiction of human form, of people walking, of just how the various bones go together in order to form the body, and he learned an enormous amount by studying anatomy. So the hope is that as we know more about the biology of creativity, we know more about perception, we will excite artists to think about new art forms that may bring those things out even more effectively. Also, if they learn one of the kinds of stimuli that really turn on different regions of the brain, they might be able to play upon their skills to bring out those things even more. So one would hope this would be a dialogue that would go in both directions and have some impact on art as well.