Thursday, December 1, 1994

Book Review: Richard Noll "The Jung Cult"

First appeared in the Boston Globe.

Richard Noll "The Jung Cult: Origins of a Charismatic Movement" (Princeton University Press, 336 pages, $24.95)

Richard Noll's mission in "The Jung Cult" is to answer the question posed early in the book: "Who, then, is the historical Jung?" It's the kind of thing you might ask about a religious figure, and this, according to the author, is one of the reasons an intellectual biography of Carl Jung has been so long in coming. For decades, to probe Jung's roots was to violate a kind of taboo. Jung's life, like Christ's, was wrapped in the protective aura of the sacred.

Friday, September 2, 1994

Q&A: Sven Birkerts, Texts and Time

Originally appeared in The Boston Book Review: 9/2/94

Q&A: Sven Birkerts, Texts and Time

The ultimate point of the ever-expanding electronic web is to bridge once and for all the individual solitude that has heretofore always set the terms of existence.

Sven Birkerts, The Guttenberg Elegies: The Fate Of Reading In An Electronic Age (1994)

HB: Let me start with Socrates, in the Phaedrus, complaining about the newfound reliance on the written word, as opposed to speech, as an instrument of instruction. Socrates worries that the increase in literacy is going to result in a net decrease in true intelligence. “As for wisdom,” he says, “pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality; they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.”

Some 2,500 years separate you and Socrates. He laments the beginning of text-based culture, you its possible demise. Yet sometimes you seem to share a language of opposition to impending change.

SB: The electronic media can be conceptualized — and has been by Richard Lanham in The Electronic Word, for example — as a kind of swerve back to a tradition of rhetoric. That’s not how I think about it.

HB: You’re not so concerned with everything that was lost in the departure from the oral tradition. You’re much more impressed with what was gained.

SB: I am aware, as well, of the loss. It’s just that I see the trade-off as worthwhile, not to mention inevitable. Now, inevitability strikes again. We’re looking once more at fundamental transformations, and a different set of losses and gains. Nevertheless, I can’t simply go with the argument. I can’t conclude that because electronic is inevitable electronic is good.

It’s a matter of different ways of knowing and inhabiting the world. For a very long time the guiding ambition was toward a certain kind of wisdom rooted not just in language but in written language. Of course, we will never leave language behind. But if we orient ourselves less in terms of the written word, the printed book, and move to a set of supposed equivalencies — the visual image, the electronic screen, the complex and simultaneous transmission of denser webs of data — I think we lose our hold on that tradition. What’s at risk, ultimately, is the individual compact with wisdom.

Monday, August 8, 1994

Q&A Tobias Wolff: Soldiers

Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review.
( Date approximate).

Q&A Tobias Wolff: Soldiers

I turned into a predator, and one of the things I became predatory about was experience. I fetishized it, collected it, kept strict inventory . . . and of all experiences the most bankable was military service.
   In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War (1994)

HB: At the end of In Pharaoh’s Army you write “I was saving my life with every word I wrote, and I knew it.” That’s a strong statement about your early commitment to literature.

TW: It wasn’t just literature either. I think I was talking about work. Let’s remember I was coming out of four years in the army, and though the army advertises itself as the place where you go to become a man, actually it’s a place where boys go to remain boys. Everything is done for you. You never have to find a place to live. You never have to cook a meal. You never have to worry about running out of money before the end of a month. In other words, you can continue to live the life of a child in the army.

Monday, August 1, 1994

Q&A Susanna Kaysen: Fame, Pain, & Girl, Interrupted

Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review.
(Date Approximate.)

HB: So what’s worse, Susanna, fame or nuttiness?

SK: Fame.

HB: Why?

SK: There’s no outcome to fame except becoming unfamous, whereas nuttiness leads to insight. Not that you get better from nuttiness. I’m not any better than I was, but I understand myself better. I understand why I am the same way I always was.

Wednesday, June 15, 1994

Q&A E.L. Doctorow: Reduced to Art

Originally appeared in The Boston Book Review: 6/15/94 
Q&A E.L. Doctorow: Reduced to Art

HB: For various reasons, including difficulty in categorizing a book I was writing, I became interested in the issue of genre in contemporary literature. That led me to your essay, “False Documents,” a superb piece I’ve returned to again and again.

ELD: I wrote “False Documents” because I was astounded by some of the reaction to Ragtime. People seemed to think it was somehow a transgression to incorporate historical figures into a fiction although I had spent my youth reading books that did just that. The Three Musketeers has Cardinal Richelieu as a character. In War and Peace, Napoleon and all his generals appear. What, then, was so transgressive about what I’d done in Ragtime?

I felt what was being called into question was fiction itself. Somehow a reduced notion of fiction’s legitimate territory had become prevalent. I didn’t subscribe to that notion. “False Documents” — Kenneth Rexroth’s marvelous phrase, for which I credit him in the piece — was a useful way for me to articulate my own presumptions, and to understand that fiction was, in fact, a system of knowledge that might even be superior to the social sciences or any of the other disciplines that incorporate its techniques without admitting it.

HB: In your view, fiction is not advancing. It is trying to hold its own against an onslaught.

ELD: Exactly.

Monday, May 23, 1994

Book Review: Black Betty by Walter Mosley

Originally Appeared In The Boston Book Review

Black Betty by Walter Mosley
W.W. Norton & Company, NY, 1994
255 pp. $19.95

The impact of the first shot knocked him four feet backwards, big hands thrust out in front of him like a cartoon sleepwalker. This shooting occurs in the nightmare gripping Easy Rawlins on the first page of Black Betty. There’s a shooting on the last page of the book, as well. In between, there are no lack of fatalities due to a variety of unnatural causes. The cast of Black Betty has to be large to withstand a rate of attrition this high, and it is.

Easy Rawlins, the narrator and central figure of the novel, the fourth in which he is featured, is a black man trying to raise two adopted children in L.A.. Kennedy has been President for a year. The name of Martin Luther King rings across the land. The issue of race, never moot so far as Easy is concerned, is more volatile than ever now that desegregation is on the agenda.

Friday, April 1, 1994

Book Review: David Mamet, "The Village"

David Mamet
The Village
(Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1994. 248 Pages, $21.45)

The most obvious thing about The Village is that we are not in venues usually associated with the author. This is not David Mamet’s Chicago or any other big city. There’s a distinct absence of underworld types. Nor are there con jobs, cabals, sales pitches, or games within games within games.

Saturday, January 1, 1994

Q&A Umberto Eco: Cults

Originally appeared in The Boston Book Review, 1994.

They landed then at a sixth island, still farther to the west, where all the natives talked among themselves incessantly, one telling another what he would like the other to be and do and vice versa. Those islanders, in fact, could live only if they were narrated; if a transgressor told unpleasant stories . . . the others would cease telling anything about him, and he would die.
     Umberto Eco, The Island of the Day Before

HB: I’ve read an interview with you in which you denounce interviewing.

UE: My theory is that the interview has taken the place of the review. Newspapers are so full of interviews that once they have interviewed the author they forget to review the book. In a review you trust that a person will give you an opinion about a book; in an interview the author is usually advertising himself. The interview is unfair for the reader. And the author is at his best in the book, losing years and years to it. In the interview, he gives his worst, so you also get the worst of the author.

In the present state of Italian press, the interview has become a way to fill up the newspaper. In Italy, every writer and scholar can be disturbed during the day — I don’t answer my phone — “Ingrid Bergman is dead. What is your opinion?” What opinion can you have about it? You say, obviously, I’m sad, a great actress. “There was a flood in your native city. What is your opinion?”

HB: You’re against it?

UE: Obviously. And today Italian politics is made up of fake interviews in which they ask somebody something, then change it slightly or isolate a sentence in order to get a response from other politicians. It’s a sort political discussion made up of mutual misunderstandings.

HB: Of course, as a journalist, you regularly interview yourself for your own opinions.

UE: That’s true. It was understood from the beginning that my column would not have to be bound to events. If I had read Homer the night before, I would be free to write about Homer.