Wednesday, April 1, 1998

Q&A Hugh Kenner: The Grand Tour

Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review
(Date Approximate)

Hugh Kenner is best known for his classic studies of literary modernism, such as "The Pound Era" (1971), and "The Mechanic Muse" (1987), but he has also authored books on technology and media, including "Bucky; A Guided Tour of Buckminster Fuller" (1973) ,and "Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings" (1994), well before it was fashionable for literary critics to tackle such subjects. His new book, "The Elsewhere Community," is a quasi-autobiographical account of the role of travel -- physical, intellectual, and virtual -- in art.

   A day's work on two sentences? "Yes," Joyce responded, "I had the words. What I was working at was the order of the fifteen words in the sentences. There is an order in every way exact. I think I have found it."
   And with Joyce counting words, compare the story of the great "Bugs Bunny" animator, Chuck Jones, sending the Coyote repeatedly over the cliff as yet one more scheme for trapping the Roadrunner goes awry. Before he hits the bottom, Jones determined, eighteen frames should elapse. More or fewer would be less effective, and Jones claimed that an error of two framed more or less was quite detectable. We're talking about a margin for error of a twelfth of a second. Word-count, frame-count, that is a mode of consciousness peculiar to our century.
   "The Elsewhere Community" (1998)

HB: You are thought of primarily, as a literary critic, a student of modernism, are you not?

HK: Yes, a student of modernism, particularly Irish and American.

HB: In my reading of your work, you are as a student of the effect of technology on the sensibility.

HK: That's part of the story.

HB: I don't know anyone else, except for your old friend Marshall McLuhan, who sees those connections as clearly.

HK: People are afraid of technology, especially in my field.

I had an interesting background. I had a grandfather after whom I'm named, Hugh Williams. He was relatively uneducated but it's clear he was a mathematical genius; the trait turns up in the family periodically. And I had to decide, when I left university, if I would go into language or mathematics. I decided I would be a competent mathematician but a much better writer. I think I made the right decision.

That's why the technology permeates my writing. I wrote a book called "Geodesic Math and How To Use It."

HB: That's not the book about Buckminster Fuller, is it?

HK: There is the book about Buckminster Fuller, but "Geodesic Math" is about geodesic domes, which I think I understand better than he did.

HB: Like McLuhan, you don't see art and technology as separate realms.

HK: I had a lot to do with McLuhan right after I graduated from university. He made me sensitive to media.

HB: Did he have your affinity for science?

HK: He knew science was there but he found people who were interested in it boring.

I had the advantage of being exposed to Marshall when he was at his most creative, and then of getting to the far end of the continent shortly afterwards, when he couldn't get me on the phone all the time. He could be awfully controlling.

He got me interested in T.S. Eliot to begin with. At the University of Toronto, where we met, the literature curriculum was based on that of Oxford University, where literature ended in 1850, and after that it's all chaos. Marshall got me past that; he got me interested in Eliot.

HB: What was his interest in Eliot?

HK: Well, that was the problem. McLuhan had a strange notion that all great writers of a given age were hiding something. Now, what were they hiding in our age? First, of all, they all were indebted to Mallarmé and then refused to talk about. Then it was something else, I've forgotten what. And then it was Buddhism. He told a mutual friend that I was hidden Buddhist.

HB: You were a hidden Buddhist?

HB: Yes, of course. That was my link with all these people.

HB: He didn't know you were really a hidden computer programmer, did he?

HK: There was a great deal he didn't know. But he had that notion that he was out to uncover secrets and that the whole of thought in a given age was based on a giant secret. It was almost paranoid, you see. As he was. Well, look, I don't want to sit around slagging McLuhan. I'm just saying that at first he was very influential, and that at a certain point it was a good thing to get clear of him.

HB: I'm thinking of a statement of yours from "Mazes," in which you are pondering the relationship between modernism, in particular "The Wasteland," and quantum mechanics, and you write: "The life of the mind in any age coheres thanks to shared assumptions both explicit and tacit, between which lines of casualty may not be profitably traceable."

HK: You have to understand that writers don't need to understand quantum mechanics. It's in the air, this is the age of quantum mechanics. It's a method of thought. Mathematicians approach it in their own, totally different language.

"The life of the mind in any age" -- there are common themes, and they have different languages.

HB: And you translate between those languages. In "Mechanic Muse," you wrote a Pascal computer program that basically conveys the meaning of a passage from Samuel Beckett. You did that to show that some passages by Beckett anticipate the strictly imperative mood of computer algorithms.

HK: I knew I had to meet Beckett after reading one sentence on the first page of "Molloy": "You grow dumb as well and sounds fade. The threshold scarcely crossed that's how it is."

I said, my god, I've got to meet him. I'd not heard of him when I made my grand tour, you see. The next year I made a special trip, a special trip to France to meet Samuel Beckett. We got on very well.

HB: It's fascinating to think of Beckett writing in algorithms before anybody had heard of computer languages. How does that pertain to what many of us find to be the despair in Beckett?

HK: I think the fact that I approach Beckett without the word absurd in my mind is a good thing. When people start thinking "Theater of the Absurd," that's all they can see. There was nothing the least bit absurd about Sam. He was the sweetest man I ever knew, period.

HB: I find some of Beckett funny.

HK: He is very funny, much of the time.

HB: Do you think some of his humor comes from the way he portrays people as if they were cybernetic organisms?

HK: Yes, it's a kind of humorous game.

HB: The way, say, Chaplin is funny when he shows people acting like machines in "Modern Times."

HK: It ought to be seen as a humorous game, not as looking down in sarcasm.

HB: Where do you think the label of Beckett as despairing comes from?

HK: Theater of absurd is the kind of label you put on something you don't understand if you want to be able to brush it aside. There's an awful lot of that, an attempt to narrow the field. I'm always trying to widen it.

HB: I also want to allude to your enthusiasm for the Internet.

HK: It begins, again, with not being afraid of technology. I got a computer way back; I built a Heathkit. I played with it and learned more and more things I could do. And then it what it got to making connections over telephone wires, that was very interesting also. And it made for communication around my impaired hearing.

HB: Say a little more about that, please.

HK: I lost most of my hearing at the age of five. Hearing aids couldn't do anything for me until I was in my forties. Hearing aid doctors didn't even understand deafness, they thought it was inattention. So I just became accustomed to a world in which I got on by understanding what people were probably saying. It's amazing how far that would take you.

The nice thing about the Internet was that I didn't have to hear anything. I'm hearing you quite well on the telephone. We have a telephone with an amplifier. I'm hearing you fine. We have a good deal of technological help around me. I also have a wonderfully understanding wife, who knows when I'm not hearing.

HB: How did you come by the column you wrote for Byte Magazine, which, in the 1980s, was the basic computer magazine? What was a literary critic doing in a magazine for engineers and hackers?

HK: They just asked me to do it, and I had a good time doing it. I would get a few books in the mail; they would sort of trickle in during the month, and then I would decide what to write the column about. I'm sorry Byte faded. What happened at the end is that they couldn't seem to survive on anything but endless reviews of new products, which is just like an expanded manufacturer's catalog. At that point, they told me they didn't need any more of my reviews.

HB: Around the time that Byte faded, Wired magazine came in

HK: Don't you find Wired kind of crazy?

HB: Yes.

HK: So do I. I have a son who writes for it. But he's not crazy; he's versatile.

HB: Am I mistaken in thinking you used to write about things like the national characteristics of computer languages? For instance, C is so obviously American. The way it looks on the page is the way William Carlos Williams's poetry looks.

HK: That's interesting. Did I write that? I don't think so.

HB: I'm thinking of Pound's statement that artists are the antennae of the race. Reading you I thought, Pound got it slightly wrong: The artist is the beta-tester of the race.

HK: Beta-testers are the people who check the technology out, see if they can find bugs. But I feel the artist is not so much a tester as an interpreter age, giving you a way to look at it. Look at the age of meaningless violence in "Waiting for Godot."

You know what the story in back of Godot is? Beckett was in the French resistance. During the occupation by the Nazis you had people wandering around the streets, driven from their houses because the Nazis had a use for the house and had driven them out. And you see, in "Waiting for Godot," periodically people just go by, loaded with furniture, all their earthly belongings. They are based on refugees uprooted by the German occupation.

These are Resistance snapshots. What Beckett discovered was that if he just removed all pointers to the Resistance, it becomes fascinating. It's a theory of the universe; obviously it was the Resistance universe. I hate the phrase, Theater of the Absurd, but that's one label to pin on it.

"Let's go. We can't. Why not? We're waiting for Godot."

What's behind that phrase in the play is that in the Resistance you knew only the real names of the people just above and just below you, so if you were captured you couldn't betray more than a few people. You knew everybody else by code name. So you're going to go out and you're going to meet a man and if he shows up fine, and if he doesn't show up, you wait twenty-four hours and try again. During that twenty-four hours, you have to do nothing, and be as inconspicuous as possible because you're in a strange place, and just being strange there, you're likely to attract attention. So that's what's going on in much of that play. They're trying to do nothing as inconspicuously as possible. It's an absolutely realist portrait of the occupation.

HB: You know this because you knew Beckett?

HK: I know that he was in the Resistance. I know that he was a clearing house for all kinds of messages because his French and English were equally fluent, and he could communicate with the British with great accuracy.

I didn't want to insult him by saying this is the real secret of Beckett, but I'm telling you that. It's simply the way a man can use a historical situation in which all the responses are cliches. You simply remove the clues to what the situation is. And so nobody realizes that "Waiting for Godot" is simply a quite realistic way of looking at things.

I saw Sam over a very long period. The last time I saw him was about two months before he died. The result is I'm the one person none of his biographers talk to.

HB: Interesting.

HK: Isn't that interesting?

HB: Why do you suppose?

HK: I have no idea. Most of the people who were interested in Beckett, or many of them, came in quite late in his life. I came in surprisingly early. You get a kind of community of Beckettians, of which I'm not part. Their books are OK so far as they go, but they don't know the Beckett I knew.

HB: You've long been associated with the National Review and William Buckley. Do you agree with those politics?

HK: Large areas of those politics. I'm not a blind fellow traveler by any means. There's a strand of intelligent conservatism I'm all in favor of.

HB: I theorized you were drawn to National Review because nobody else respected your efforts to promote Ezra Pound.

HK: I've told the story many times of Marshall McLuhan and I meeting Ezra Pound. The difference between me and Marshall comes out there. I suddenly knew that I was in the presence of the center of modernism. Marshall, meanwhile, on the ride home, was disagreeing with almost everything Pound said: "He was just, you know, a crank."

I made friends and I kept going back. And then one day Pound said, "You have an obligation to visit the great men of your time." I didn't realize it, but he was sending me on a grand tour. He said, I could make the list. I would make the list, and then if he could help me with any names and addresses, he would do so.

The one address he offered me that I couldn't use was Hemingway's, the reason being that I was based in California, and it would have meant a trip all the way to Cuba for one visit, whereas with the European ones, you could do a string of them, and absorb the expenses as you went along. I was very fortunate. I contacted Georgie Yeats, Yeats's widow. She had some manuscripts in plastic wrappers. You could handle them and you could try to read them and your fingerprints didn't get on the paper. I'm on the fourth line of some poem. She hears me muttering; she snaps: "Oh, he never could spell." But she said it with such affection.

She was a discovery. So were a lot of people I met

It was Donald Davie who took me to meet her because he was at that time in Dublin, and I had a bit of correspondence with him. You see, you get these strange connections, and one leads to another. You're very grateful to the person who supplies the connection but you don't necessarily let that person supply the interpretation.

That was the problem with Marshall. Marshal knew the interpretation before he went there. I wanted to see what I would find.

HB: What is left of modernism now?

HK: That's a good question. People ask me about who they should go and visit. I don't know what to tell them.

HB: They should visit you. You better be ready. You're going to have a lot of people at your door.

HK: But really, I don't know what the state of modernism is now. It's possible that a movement reaches a point where it begins to feed on itself. And that may be what's been going on.

HB: Would you say that science and art are drawing closer together because of computer?

HK: They're getting to be. That's part of the problem. We may be in the midst of a transition that isn't sufficiently realized to be recognized. We're getting a new relationship to technology, I agree. And that means technology is changing -- because we make it.

You and I are two people who have never met one another, having this long conversation over a medium -- and I'm not going to say the medium is the message -- that is part of the way we are in touch. I don't know what you look like. That's part of how we size people up. The whole Internet is based on not knowing what people look like. You don't even know if anything they tell you about themselves is true. And you find you don't ask. I may be in the presence, here and there, of gender reversal, and never know it. We are at least connected by voice at the moment. But on the Net, voice is gone. We're entering a new universe. What it will be like when it defines itself, I have no idea.

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