Monday, December 1, 1997

Q&A Steven Pinker: Down To Darwin

Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review
(Date Approximate)

Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking. We cannot hold ten thousand words in short-term memory. We cannot see ultraviolet light. We cannot mentally rotate an object in the fourth dimension. And perhaps we cannot solve conundrums like free will and sentience.
   Steven Pinker, "How the Mind Works"

HB: There's been a lot of focus on Darwinism lately. As if neither Freud nor Marx are going to make the cut into the 21st century and it's down to Darwin. Are we left with two basic models for understanding humanity's place on earth, one being revealed religion, the other, Darwinism?

SP: With evolutionary biology providing the link between social and psychological phenomena and the physical world.

HB: What do you mean by evolutionary psychology?

Monday, September 1, 1997

Q&A Mary Gaitskill: Violations

The photograph loomed over the toiling shoppers like a totem of sexualized pathology, a vision of feeling and unfeeling chaffing together. It was a picture made for people who can't bear to feel and yet still need to feel. It was a picture by people sophisticated enough to fetishize their disability publicly. It was a very good advertisement for a product called Obsession. 
     "The Dentist"

HB: I was a little anxious about meeting you. I imagined myself dissolved into the kind of perceptions your characters have of each other; as when one character says, "she didn't think his languor was drug induced. It seemed more the product of an unusual distribution of self, as if, by some crafty manipulation of internal circuitry, he'd concentrated himself in certain key psychic posts and abandoned the vast regions he didn't want to be in."

It seems risky to be perceived by you.

MG: Let me tell you most of the time it's not like that. Every now and then something jumps out at me but usually I have to sit there for hours, literally hours, and think: what was that like, metaphorically or literally?

Q&A Michael Ondaatje: Swimming

Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review. Date Approximate.

HB: I have heard you describe swimming as something that could change a writing style. How?

MO: No pencil and pen, no pencil and pen out there. You think, you’re more active. During one period of my life I got into the rhythm of writing in the morning, swimming at lunch time, imagining scenarios.

But I think anything can affect your prose style. It can be something as simple as how you move within your landscape. I’m sure that’s one of the things I’ve always loved about swimming, reacting back and forth in the water.

Saturday, August 16, 1997

Q&A Robert Stone: Drugs, Ocean, Vietnam

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

 "Oh, Frank, you lamb," she said, "what did your poor mama tell you? Did she say that a world with God was easier than one without him?"
 She gave Father Hooke a last friendly pat and turned to Camille. "Because that would be mistaken, wouldn't it, Camille?"
    "Miserere" ("Bear and His Daughter")

HB: Reading you brought to mind Herman Melville's lines: "Man's insanity is heaven's sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought."

RS: That's a tremendously bitter quote. Some of my characters climb all the way to insanity. Most never really lose reason -- in a way it's part of the torture that they endure.

All the people I write about think they have some glimpse of the transcendent but can't quite keep it focus, can't quite catch hold of it. It drives them mad -- and to alcohol and drugs. As is notorious, my people are always turning on and getting loaded. My contribution to the war on drugs was to have people take it easy in "Outerbridge Reach." But it's true; my people are druggy, and drink a lot. It's a metaphor for that transcendent level of things that we have a hunger for, a necessity for, that we can't really get hold of.

Tuesday, July 15, 1997

Q&A Lawrence Weschler: Long Thoughts

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

Q&A Lawrence Weschler: Long Thoughts

Passersby, on occasion, would wander in. Many would wander right back out. But some would stay and linger. David tells the story of one fellow who spent a long time in the back amidst the exhibits and then, emerging, spent almost as long a time studying the pencil sharpener on his desk. “It was just a regular pencil sharpener,” David assured me, “it wasn’t meant to be an exhibit but he couldn’t get enough of it.”
   Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders: A Natural History of Amazement

Sunday, June 1, 1997

Q&A Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review 

Applying the Corrective

We need something we don't yet have: a way of speaking about black poverty that doesn't falsify the reality of black advancement; a way of speaking about black advancement that doesn't distort the enduring realties of black poverty. I'd venture that a lot depends on whether we get it.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Cornel West, "The Future of the Race"

HB: There's a strong sense in your memoir, "Colored People," about growing up in Piedmont West Virginia, of how much black people lost in the process of integration.

HLG: Whenever I'd go home on holiday, I'd go up to my cousin Jim's house. Jim's a mechanic at the paper mill, very articulate but also very nationalistic. He simultaneously despises white people and fears them. Through him, I understand Farrakhan getting standing ovations. Jim could never voice any kind of rage or reaction to an offense directly to a white person. He'd voice it at home. So you have a catharsis when someone like Farrakhan speaks.

Sometime between 1975 and 1980, I'm talking to Jim and he said, "You know, I think that TJ" -- his son -- "would have done much better at Howard High School," which was the black school in our county. Then he said, "We lost a lot because of integration." We were drinking beer, eating grilled squirrel -- yeah that's rural, we all were raised hunting -- and I pressed him. He said, "the first thing is they fired all the black teachers except the principal of the elementary school and the principal of the high school."

Monday, May 5, 1997

Book Review: Bondage To The Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust by Michael Steinlauf

Originally appeared in The Boston Book Review

Bondage To The Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust by Michael Steinlauf
Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, 1997
189 pp. $ 16.95

It is a tradition at Passover Seders I attend to sing “Zog nisht keynmol” (“Don’t Ever Say,”), the Yiddish anthem of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis, when the poorly armed, starving remnant of Warsaw’s Jewry held off German troops for a month before the Ghetto was razed entirely. We were singing this, as is the custom, several years ago, when the rendition was transformed, made unforgettable for me, by the presence among us of someone who had seen the Ghetto burn.

As a boy, Jurek joined onlookers on the Aryan side, watching in pain, knowing, without knowing why, that a part of him was burning behind the wall. Jurek was a Jew — though he did not know it at the time — whose mother, in an act of what he called “shamanistic foresight,” deposited him in a monastery several years before the war broke out. By the time of this seder, he had long since been aware of his origins, which is not to say the process of reconciling Jew and Pole was — if it ever would be — complete. I found myself caught in the machinery of reconciliation when I made a careless, accusatory remark about the role of Poles in the Holocaust to which Jurek, moved as he had been by hearing the song of the Warsaw Ghetto sung in Massachusetts, nevertheless took immediate exception.

Saturday, March 1, 1997

Q&A Eva Hoffman: "Polish Polish, Jewish Jewish"

Originally appeared in The Boston Book Review.
Date approximate.

. . . Several decades after the Holocaust, there is a danger, for those of us who did not live through it, of a kind of automatism of Jewish memory; of reiterating narratives of tragedy without any longer bothering to think about them; of identifying with martyrdom without having earned the right to it; of remaining fixated on the most awful moment so that we don't have to look back to the more ambiguous past -- or forward to the troublingly uncertain future.
     "Shtetl" (1997)

HB: What led you to write "Shtetl"?

EH: Many things. It was initially commissioned as a sort of companion book to the television documentary, "Shtetl." But, of course, I took it on because I had my very personal and quite impassioned interest in the subject.

Wednesday, January 1, 1997

Q&A Adam Phillips: A Post-Freudian Commonwealth of Quotes

Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review
(Date Approximate)

   The banal is a cover story. . .
   Psychoanalysis, like religion and medicine, turns panic into meaning. . .
   If we banned the word love it would be interesting to see what we found ourselves saying (and doing) to each other. . .
   A phobia, like a psychoanalytic theory, is a story about where the wild things are. . .

HB: There's such a stripping down of Freudianism in "Terrors and Experts," the reader can wonder, what's left? What makes your work Freudian at all?

AP: I'm certainly a believer in, take seriously, transference, dream work, repression, all the defenses, certainly the centrality of sexual desire, so no, I would think of my work as very Freudian. But that doesn't imply obeisance to Freud. My interest in Freud is to have something I can use to make something of my own with.

Q&A Phillip Lopate: Dodging Beckett

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

   One Saturday morning when I was about ten years old, we were all hounding him [his father] because he wouldn't take us anywhere; and this time I joined in the assault. Suddenly he lashed out at me with rabid fury: "You! You stay out of it, you're a cold fish." . . .
    "Cold fish" is an awful judgment to hang on a ten-year-old kid. But give him his due, he could have had a prescient insight: I often think there is something cold and "fishy" about me. Or perhaps he was really saying, "You're like me, detached, unemotional." An inverted compliment.
   So I became a writer.
  "Portrait of My Body"

HB: Let me start with the very last piece in "Portrait of My Body." You've just become a father and describe the experience as "so shocking and strange; on the other hand, so typical, so stupefyingly ordinary." That seems to me an emblem for the personal essay as you practice it.

PL: I care about daily life. The surrealists were always trying to find the miraculous in the ordinary. I'm not looking for the miraculous but for the puzzling, the intriguing, the spin on daily life. What is more common than birth? All of us have been born. Yet there is something violent about it.