Thursday, December 16, 1999

Q&A Susie Bright: Girl Sloth

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

Susie Bright is a performance artist, author of books about sexual politics and sexual mores, editor of anthologies of erotica, and columnist for Salon, Her newest book is "Full Exposure Opening up to Sexual Creativity and Erotic Expression."  

   Titillation makes an art form out of teasing  -- and teasing is perfectly sweet, but it can never be called satisfying eroticism, because its very nature is to withhold what we dream of and place it permanently out of reach.  . . .
   Commercial titillation has the gimmicky personality that fits perfectly with our obsession with making real sexual pleasure either an enigma or a sham. Titillation is the American standard: first offer a peek, then slap the hand that seeks to touch.
    "Full Exposure Opening up to Sexual Creativity and Erotic Expression."

Wednesday, December 15, 1999

Q&A Robert J. Lifton: Gurus

Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review
(Date Approximate)

Robert J. Lifton's new book, "Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism," is a study of the Japanese group that attacked the Tokyo subway system with poison gas in 1995. Previous books include "Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism; A Study of Brainwashing in China," "Death In Life: Survivors of Hiroshima" and "The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide."

Altered states resulted from intense forms of religious practice -- especially from the oxygen deprivation bought about by yogic rapid-breathing exercises -- and, later on, from the use of drugs like LSD. But they were all attributed to the guru's unique spiritual power and so were considered indicators of one's own spiritual progress. There was nothing more important to disciples than to hold on to those mystical experiences, for which purpose they could numb themselves to immediate evidence of violence around them -- or join in that violence.
   "Destroying the World to Save It"

HB: "Destroying the World to Save It" seems to be a kind of culminating work for you. It brings together so many of your concerns.

RJL: It isn't that I decided that now I'll do a culminating work; it was rather my encountering Aum Shinrikyo and sensing very quickly it seemed to live out all the horrors that I've been studying in one way or another.

HB: How well-known in Japan was Aum Shinrikyo prior to the poison gas?

RJL: It was very visible and, at the same time, not well-known at all. It was visible in that it was aggressive and dramatic, and Asahara was a television personality who had various brushes with the law. On the other hand, when the sarin attack on the Tokyo subway took place, Japanese scholars were inundated with phone calls and requests for information and very few them knew much about the group.

Wednesday, December 1, 1999

Q&A Wendy Kaminer: Seance and Sacrament

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

   Some atheists will make the . . . argument that religious rituals endorse and encourage irrationalism. You can hardly praise religion for keeping people sane, they say, when it sanctifies their delusions. But that wrongly assumes that it is possible for us to rid ourselves of all supernaturalism. I'd treat religious cravings homeopathically. The cure is the disease, in small doses.
   "Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety" (1999)

HB: We've had calls for a new spiritualism for a long time now. Do you think it might be time to call for a new anti-spiritualism? Do you think this country has enough religion?

WK: Obviously, we've been in a revivalist period for the last ten or fifteen years and what is frustrating about it is the media really has put a kind of tacit ban on being critical of religion.

Q&A Janet Malcolm: Daydreaming

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

Janet Malcolm's books include "Psychoanalysis, the Impossible Profession" (1981), "In the Freud Archives" (1983), and "The Journalist and the Murderer" (1990). Her latest book, "The Crime of Sheila McGough" (1999), tells the story of Sheila McGough, a lawyer who has been convicted, wrongfully in Malcolm's view, of working with a client in a swindle.

 I know I have never before behaved so badly to a subject. I have never before interrupted, lost patience with, spoken so unpleasantly to a subject as I have to Sheila -- to my shame and vexation afterward. I have never before dreaded calling a subject on the telephone as I have dreaded calling Sheila. To my simplest question she would give an answer of such relentless length and tediousness and uncomprehending irrelevance that I could have almost wept with impatience.
     "The Crime of Sheila McGough"

Monday, November 1, 1999

Q&A James Gleick: On Speed

Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review

James Gleick: On Speed

James Gleick is the author of "Chaos: Making a New Science," and "Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman." His new book is "Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything".

We have learned a visual language made up of images and movements instead of words and syllables. It has its own grammar, abbreviations, cliches, lies, puns, and famous quotations. Masters of this language are the artists and technicians, Muybridge descendants, who create trailers for movies and thirty-second commercials and promotional montages of film clippings. And we in their audiences are masters, too, understanding the most convoluted syntax at a speed that would formerly have been blinding.

"Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything"

HB: What do you think someone from an earlier generation, even an earlier television generation, would see if they saw, say, an MTV video or a rapid fire ad?

JG: I think they would see a sort of blur. They would see something that's just not quite comprehensible to them. As the great film director Barry Levinson points out, in the past, television commercials were like sagas, like epics, compared to the commercials of today. There would be one shot and someone talking into a camera for 60 seconds. Now, it's a thirty second spot with twenty or thirty images, or forty images less than a second long. It's right at the edge of comprehension. In a way, the makers of those commercials are involved in the science of perception. Their stuff has to work or they're dead. They know when we understand and they know when we get bored.

Q&A Nathan Englander: Torah All Day, TV All Night

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

The response is hidden somewhere in your makeup, building up for a lifetime, waiting with its own biology, its own need to be born. For me, it started with synesthesia. I'm outside walking and it's a bright day. Summer. And I can see the grass. And it's green. And I can smell the grass but it's not grass smell, it's green smell. And I can taste it and hear it and everything, my whole me was green-grass green. It lasted a minute or a second or an hour. But I saw what I could do.
  "The Reunion"

Nathan Englander is author of "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges" (1999), a collection of short stories.

HB: A friend made the observation that unlike characters created by earlier Jewish-American writers, your characters don't start from a position of alienation. They're not displaced. They can assume connection to other people

Tuesday, June 1, 1999

Q&A: Jonathan Weiner

 Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review. Date Approximate. 

With the discovery of the clock gene, the sense of time, mysterious for so many centuries, was no longer a mystery that could be observed only from the outside. Now it could be explored as a mechanism from the inside. The discovery implied that behavior itself could now be charted and mapped as precisely as any other aspect of inheritance. Qualities that people had always thought of a somehow floating above the body, apart from the body, as if they belonged to the realm of the spirit and not of the flesh, as if they were supernatural, might be mapped right alongside qualities as mundane as eye pigment.
   "Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior"

Science writer Jonathan Weiner is author of Pulitzer Prize winning, "The Beak of the Finch." His new book, "Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior," is about biologist Seymour Benzer's work with fruit flies and the development of modern genetics,

HB: Seymour Benzer seems like a guy who followed his own instincts. If the crowd was going in one direction, he was likely to go the other way.

JW: Always. He started out in physics, doing work that led to the invention of the transistor, then got out of there, because it was getting too hot, almost immediately. All of his friends said, you can get rich. He didn't want to get rich. he wanted to get to the next mystery. On to the gene.

Wednesday, May 5, 1999

Q&A Antonio Damasio: Homunculus Phobia

Originally appeared in The Boston Book Review

Q&A Antonio Damasio: Homunculus Phobia

By the time you get "delivery" of consciousness for a given object, things have been ticking away in the machinery of your brain for what would seem like an eternity to a molecule -- if molecules could think. We are always hopelessly late for consciousness and because we all suffer from the tardiness no one notices it.
   "The Feeling of What Happens"

HB: There can't be too many neuroscientists who allude to Derrida, as you do in your writing.

AD: I grew up with the idea that there's really no separation between professional activity in science and culture. I grew up reading a lot that was not professional -- novels, poetry, philosophy. I think that kind of reading is very helpful -- unless you're in some profession where the world of the mind does not count.

HB: Peter Brook blurbed your book. As you know, his last two plays -- "The Man Who," and "I Am a Phenomenon" -- are based on neurology.

AD: He's a brilliant figure and a very good example of a crossover of interest. He is involved in theater and in film-making because he's interested in human behavior and in the human mind, and he's involved in neuroscience because that amplifies his interests in the human mind. This has been long-standing. If you look at "Marat/Sade" he was already interested in mind and in disturbances of mind. Brook is a phenomenal intellect and who has been very interested in our work. We met a few times and helped him with the last play, which is about memory.

HB: Why is there so much interest in neuroscience these days?

Saturday, May 1, 1999

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.