Jiu-Jitsu 101.

During junior high, my parents got divorced and things got a little messy. It was the early eighties, and after my dad read the self-help book Your Erroneous Zones, by Wayne Dyer, I think he suddenly realized how unhappy he was —and that was that. He and my mom never figured out how to make it work. They were both warm, caring people, but neither handled the divorce well. For reasons I never quite understood, they fought in and out of court for years— until everyone was broke. I was lost and scared. At one point, I started shoplifting with the secret hope I would get caught so that I could finally have an excuse to yell at them: "This would never have happened if it wasn't for this divorce!" (Sadly, I only got caught once, and when Macy's couldn't reach my parents by phone, the store Iet me go.) It's hard to be a teenager witnessing your parents at their worst. This was way before the days of "conscious uncoupling." This was war. I remember thinking to myself at one point, Well, I guess my parents' advice can't be any good—just look at how they are handling this situation. I need to figure out how to support myself financially and emotionally.

Oddly, that pain and fear became the fuel in my tank. It inspired me to work hard and has led to every success and good thing in my life. It worked so well that today, a parent now myself, I am frying to figure out how to fuck up my daughters just enough that they, too, develop outsize dreams and the desire to get the hell out of the house.

JA.png

The elitist nature of ink.

We live in a very visual world today. Do words have any power left?

I was at a symposium some years back with my friends Joseph Heller and William Styron, both dead now, and we were talking about the death of the novel and the death of poetry, and Styron pointed out that the novel has always been an elitist art form. It’s an art form for very few people, because only a few can read very well. I’ve said that to open a novel is to arrive in a music hall and be handed a viola. You have to perform. [Laughs.] To stare at horizontal lines of phonetic symbols and Arabic numbers and to be able to put a show on in your head, it requires the reader to perform. If you can do it, you can go whaling in the South Pacific with Herman Melville, or you can watch Madame Bovary make a mess of her life in Paris. With pictures and movies, all you have to do is sit there and look at them and it happens to you.

Many years ago, you said that a writer’s job is to use the time of a stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted. There are a lot of ways for a stranger to pass time these days.

That’s right. There are all these other things to do with time. It used to be people would wonder what the hell they were going to do for the winter. [Laughs.] Then a big book would come out – a big, wonderful book – and everybody would be reading it to pass the time. It was a very primitive experiment, before television, where people would have to look at ink on paper, for God’s sake. I myself grew up when radio was very important. I’d come home from school and turn on the radio. There were funny comedians and wonderful music, and there were plays. I used to pass time with radio. Now, you don’t have to be literate to have a nice time.

You’ve stated that television is one of the most viable art forms in the world today.

Well, it is. It works like a dream. It’s a way to hold attention, and it’s awfully good at that. For a lot of people, TV is life itself. Churches used to provide people with better company than they had at home, but now, no matter what your neighborhood life or family life is like, you turn on the television and you get relatives, family. I don’t know if you’ve heard about this, but scientists have created baby geese that believe that an airplane is their mother. Human beings will believe in all kinds of things that aren’t true, and that’s okay. And TV is a part of that.

jr.png

"Life is very unpopular here."

The most horrible hypocrisy or the most terrifying hypocrisy or the most tragic hypocrisy at the center of life, I think, which no one dares mention, is that human beings don't like life. Bertrand Russell skirted that, and many psychoanalysts have too, in talking about people lusting for death. But I think that at least half the people alive, and maybe nine-tenths of them, really do not like this ordeal at all. They pretend to like it some, to smile at strangers, and to get up each morning in order to survive, in order to somehow get through it. But life is, for most people, a very terrible ordeal. They would just as soon end it at any time. And I think that is more of a problem really than greed or machismo or anything like that. You know, you talk about the dark side of life: that's really it. Most people don't want to be alive. They're too embarrassed, they're disgraced, they're frightened. I think that's the fundamental thing that's going on. Those of you with your devotion to peace and all that are actually facing people perhaps as brave and determined and resourceful and thoughtful as you are on some level. And what they really want to do is to have the whole thing turned off like a light switch.

(...)

When I'm engaged in any action I have to take into consideration that many of the people on either side of me don't care what happens next. I am mistrustful of most people as custodians Of life and so I'm pessimistic on that account. I think that there are not many people who want life to go on. And I'm just a bearer of bad tidings really. You know, I just got born myself and this is what I found on this particular planet. But life is very unpopular here, and maybe it will be different on the next one. 

(...)

It seems to me the whole world is living like Alcoholics Anonymous now, which is one day at a time, and it seems to me that President Carter is living that way too. Every night when he goes to bed he cackles, "By God, we made it through another day! Everybody said I was a lousy President, and here we've survived another day. That's not bad." We are living day by day by day now, but there seems to be very little restraint in the world. What an alcoholic does every day is not take a drink, and only not take a drink for a day. But I see no real restraint with regard to warlike actions. If we were truly interested in surviving, and having sobriety, each day we would congratulate ourselves not for merely having gotten through another day but for making it without a warlike gesture. But there is no such restraint. More weapons are manufactured every day and more arguments are gladly entered into and more enormous, dangerous lies are told, so there is no restraint. It would be truly wonderful if we could live as alcoholics do, to be unwarlike for just another day. We don't. We're totally warlike, and sooner or later something's going to go wrong. The book I'm working on now is about a kid, he's grown now, grown and in his 40s and his father was a gun nut. It was a house with dozens of guns in it. At the age of 11 this kid was playing with one of his father's guns, which he wasn't supposed to do, put a cartridge into a 30-06 rifle and fired out a goddamn attic window and killed a housewife, you know, eighteen blocks away, just drilled her right between the eyes. And this has colored his whole life, and made his reputation. And of course this weapon should not have existed. He was brought into a planet where this terribly unstable device existed, and all he had to do was sneeze near it. I mean, it wanted to be fired; it was built to be fired. It had no other purpose than to be fired and the existence of such an unstable device within the reach of any sort of human being is intolerable. 

rm.png