Do you think success can be damaging for a writer, not only as a distraction but because it could make him seek out easy options and compromises?
It depends on how you use it. I detest and despise success, yet I cannot do without it. I am like a drug addict if nobody talks about me for a couple of months I have withdrawal symptoms. It is stupid to be hooked on fame, because it is like being hooked on corpses. After all, the people who come to see my plays, who create my fame, are going to die. But you can stay in society and be alone, as long as you can be detached from the world. This is why I don’t think I have ever gone for the easy option or done things that were expected of me. I have the vanity to think that every play I have written is different from the previous ones.
You insist in [your] early works on the natural inequality of human beings, but at the same time you lean toward socialism. How do you reconcile your social egalitarianism with the rather snobbish idea of an “aristoi” or elite few set apart from the many?
This is something of an eternal torment, or split, in my life. The idea of an elite few is, of course, nowadays something no one likes to declare a belief in. On the other hand I am absolutely sure that it is a biological, if you like Darwinian, truth. So I am torn between this “cruel” but necessary truth: that some–perhaps most strikingly in the arts and sciences–are clearly better endowed or adapted than the others, and then by that other, kinder truth which asks equality and equal justice for society as a whole. In general I confess I much prefer the company of reasonably intelligent and educated people. . . .
How long did it take you to get rid of that feeling [of persecution mania] once you landed in Austria?
It’s still around, you’re cautious. In your writing, in your exchanges with people, meeting people who are in Russian affairs, Russian literature, et cetera. Because it’s all penetrated, not necessarily by the direct agents of State Security, but by those people who can be used for that.
What do you think generally about the writer engagé? Should a writer be involved in politics, as you are?
It depends on the writer. Most American writers are not much involved, beyond signing petitions. They are usually academics—and cautious. Or full-time literary politicians. Or both. The main line of our literature is quotidian with a vengeance. Yes, many great novels have been written about the everyday—Jane Austen and so on. But you need a superb art to make that sort of thing interesting. So, failing superb art, you’d better have a good mind and you’d better be interested in the world outside yourself. D. H. Lawrence wrote something very interesting about the young Hemingway. Called him a brilliant writer. But he added he’s essentially a photographer and it will be interesting to see how he ages because the photographer can only keep on taking pictures from the outside. One of the reasons that the gifted Hemingway never wrote a good novel was that nothing interested him except a few sensuous experiences like killing things and fucking—interesting things to do but not all that interesting to write about. This sort of artist runs into trouble very early on because all he can really write about is himself and after youth that self—unengaged in the world—is of declining interest. Admittedly, Hemingway chased after wars, but he never had much of anything to say about war, unlike Tolstoy or even Malraux. I think that the more you know the world and the wider the net you cast in your society, the more interesting your books will be, certainly the more interested you will be.
Do you think that the picture of personal threat which is sometimes presented on your stage is troubling in a larger sense, a political sense, or doesn’t this have any relevance?
I don’t feel myself threatened by any political body or activity at all. I like living in England. I don’t care about political structures–they don’t alarm me, but they cause a great deal of suffering to millions of people . . . I’ll tell you what I really think about politicians. The other night I watched some politicians on television talking about Vietnam. I wanted very much to burst through the screen with a flamethrower and burn their eyes out and their balls off and then inquire from them how they would assess this action from a political point of view.
What are you trying to show?
Emotion. Savy, the biologist, said something appropriate: In the beginning there was emotion, and the verb wasn’t there at all. When you tickle an amoeba she withdraws, she has emotion, she doesn’t speak but she does have emotion. A baby cries, a horse gallops. Only us, they’ve given us the verb. That gives you the politician, the writer, the prophet. The verb’s horrible. You can’t smell it. But to get to the point where you can translate this emotion, that’s a difficulty no one imagines. . . . It’s ugly. . . . It’s superhuman. . . . It’s a trick that’ll kill a guy.
Is there an ideal audience that you write for?
I have in mind another human being who will understand me. I count on this. Not on perfect understanding, which is Cartesian, but on approximate understanding, which is Jewish. And on a meeting of sympathies, which is human. But I have no ideal reader in my head, no. Let me just say this, too. I seem to have the blind selfacceptance of the eccentric who can’t conceive that his eccentricities are not clearly understood.
There is still quite a lot of violent anti-bourgeois England in your early things.
I think part of it I may have got from my heroes of that time–Lawrence, as I said, and Aldington, and so on–but it’s more than just a fashionable thing. I think that, as I say, in England, living as if we are not part of Europe, we are living against the grain of what is nourishing to our artists, do you see? There seems to be an ingrown psychological thing about it, I don’t know why it is. You can see it reflected even in quite primitive ways like this market business now–the European Common Market. It’s purely psychological, the feeling that we are too damned superior to join this bunch of continentals in anything they do.
Your intention is just to describe?
Jorge Luis BORGES
I describe. I write. Now as for the color yellow, there is a physical explanation of that. When I began to lose my sight, the last color I saw was yellow, because it is the most vivid of colors. That’s why you have the Yellow Cab Company in the United States. At first they thought of making the cars scarlet. Then somebody found out that at night or when there was a fog that yellow stood out in a more vivid way. . . . Now when I began to lose my eyesight, when the world began to fade away from me, there was a time among my friends . . . well, they poked fun at me because I was always wearing yellow neckties. Then they thought I really liked yellow although it really was too glaring. I said, “Yes, to you, but not to me, because it is the only color I can see, practically!” I live in a grey world, rather like the silver screen world. But yellow stands out.
Have the humanities failed to humanize? Do you still believe that literary education may ironically foster political cruelty and barbarism?
Nazism, communism, Stalinism have convinced me of this central paradox: bookishness–bookishness, that old English word, it’s a good one–bookishness, highest literacy, every technique of cultural propaganda and training not only can accompany bestiality and oppression and despotism but at certain points foster it. We are trained our whole life long in abstraction, in the fictive, and we develop a certain power–allegedly a power–to identify with the fictive, to teach it, to deepen it (how many children has Lady Macbeth?). Then we go into the street and there’s a scream and it has a strange unreality. The image I want to use is this: I’ve been to a very good movie early in the afternoon. It’s a bright sunny day. When I walk out of the movie into the sunshine of the city afternoon, I have very often a feeling of nausea, of a disequilibrium which is nauseating. It takes seconds, minutes, sometimes longer for me to focus again on reality.
Yeats said famously that one must choose between the life and the work. Do you think that is true?
As you know, he actually said that one must choose between perfection of the life and perfection of the work. Well, writing is a life–a very peculiar one. Of course, if by life you mean life with other people, Yeats’s dictum is true. Writing requires huge amounts of solitude. What I’ve done to soften the harshness of that choice is that I don’t write all the time. I like to go out–which includes traveling; I can’t write when I travel. I like to talk. I like to listen. I like to look and to watch. Maybe I have an Attention Surplus Disorder. The easiest thing in the world for me is to pay attention.
Critics have said you have two types of heroes–one who fights against order and one who accepts it–and that the conflict between these two types is at the center of your books.
One must pose this type of question to philosophers. I am a novelist. One last time: What interests me is not the why of things but the how.
So you don’t consider yourself a philosopher?
Certainly not. I did not even take philosophy in high school. I studied mathematics. In general, I distrust philosophy. Plato recommended chasing poets from the city; the “great” Heidegger was a Nazi; Lukacs was a Communist and J.P. Sartre wrote: “Any antiCommunist is a dog. “
Do you have any idea what the end of a play is going to be when you begin?
I hate endings, just detest them. Beginnings are definitely the most exciting, middles are perplexing and endings are a disaster.
A significant strain in your work is didactic, and I don’t mean in the pejorative sense. For instance, the title of one of your books is An Explanation of America.
Advice and instruction have always fascinated me, partly because of their pathos–so little is transmitted in any given instance of advice or pedagogy. On the one hand, there’s the idea of the quest, that wisdomis noble. On the other, the figure of the advisor or schoolmaster is nearly always comic; even Aristotle becomes comic once he is the schoolmaster to Alexander. I think of An Explanation of America not as didactic, itself, but as a weird experiment in that vulnerable enterprise of explaining or instructing. And of thinking about the future, straining to imagine it.
Will the poet always be the permanent dissident?
Yes. We have all won a great battle in the defeat of the Communist bureaucracies by themselves–and that’s the important thing: they were defeated by themselves and not by the West. But that’s not enough. We need more social justice. Freesocieties produce unjust and very stupid societies. I don’t believe that the production and consumption of things can be the meaning of human life. All great religions and philosophies say that human beings are more than producers and consumers. We cannot reduce our lives to economics. If a society without social justice is not a good society, a society without poetry is a society without dreams, without words, and, most importantly, without that bridge between one person and another that poetry is. We are different from the other animals because we can talk, and the supreme form of language is poetry. If society abolishes poetry it commits spiritual suicide.
I’d like to read you a sentence from A Way in the World: “It was that idea of the absurd never far away from us that preserved us. It was the other side of that anger and the passion that made the crowd burn the black policeman. . . .” It reminds me of the humor in your early books about Trinidad and the other side of that humor–hysteria–in the books that followed.
It’s very curious, isn’t it–the same people who burned a policeman alive would dance and sing and tell a funny story about it.
I was particularly struck by the word us–your inclusion of yourself in that situation.
It was in Port of Spain. It has to be us because one is growing up in that atmosphere. It was our idea of the absurd, which comes out in the calypso–it’s African, this idea of the absurd. It is something in late life I have come to understand–the hysteria and the sense of the absurd.
Do you feel, as Eliot did, that poetry is an escape from personality?
This has been a constant problem for me. Literature is born out of a desire to be truthful–not to hide anything and not to present oneself as somebody else. Yet when you write there are certain obligations, what I call laws of form. You cannot tell everything. Of course, it’s true that people talk too much and without restraint. But poetry imposes certain restraints. Nevertheless, there is always the feeling that you didn’t unveil yourself enough. A book is finished and appears and I feel, Well, next time I will unveil myself. And when the next book appears, I have the same feeling. And then your life ends, and that’s it.
Is there a moment in one of your plays that you really didn’t know was there?
Yes. I wrote this play called Bobby Gould in Hell. Greg Mosher did it on a double bill with a play by Shel Silverstein over at Lincoln Center. Bobby Gould is consigned to Hell, and he has to be interviewed to find out how long he’s going to spend there. The Devil is called back from a fishing trip to interview Bobby Gould. And so the Devil is there, the Assistant Devil is there and Bobby Gould. And the Devil finally says to Bobby Gould, “You’re a very bad man.” And Bobby Gould says, “Nothing’s black and white.” And the Devil says, “Nothing’s black and white, nothing’s black and white–what about a panda? What about a panda, you dumb fuck! What about a fucking panda!” And when Greg directed it, he had the assistant hold up a picture of a panda, kind of pan it 180 degrees to the audience at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. That was the best moment I’ve ever seen in any of my plays.
What about the role of religion in [your work]? Is faith in God the path to true happiness, as the sheikh suggests? Is Sufism the answer the criminal is looking for?
The Sheikh rejects life as we know it. The criminal, on the other hand, is trying to solve his immediate problems. They are in two different worlds. I love Sufism as I love beautiful poetry, but it is not the answer. Sufism is like a mirage in the desert. It says to you, come and sit, relax and enjoy yourself for a while. I reject any path which rejects life, but I can’t help loving Sufism because it sounds so beautiful . . . it gives relief in the midst of battle . . .
You mention Neruda among the writers you admire. You were his friend. What was he like?
Mario Vargas LLOSA
Neruda adored life. He was wild about everything, painting, art in general, books, rare editions, food, drink. Eating and drinking were almost a mystical experience for him. A wonderfully likable man, full of vitality–if you forget his poems in praise of Stalin, of course. He lived in a nearworld, where everything led to his rejoicing, his sweettoothed exuberance for life. . . . I still remember what he told me then; something that has proven to be a great truth over the years. An article at the time–I can’t remember what it was about–had upset and irritated me because it insulted me and told lies about me. I showed it to Neruda. In the middle of [his birthday] party, he prophesied: “You are becoming famous. I want you to know what awaits you: the more famous you are, the more you will be attacked like this. For every praise, there will be two or three insults. I myself have a chest full of all the insults, villainies, and infamies a man is capable of withstanding. I wasn’t spared a single one: thief, pervert, traitor, thug, cuckold . . . everything! If you become famous, you will have to go through that.” Neruda told the truth; his prognosis came absolutely true. I not only have a chest, but several suitcases full of articles that contain every insult known to man.
Auden was concerned that the quality of the English language be preserved, and he hoped to help to do that with his writing.
I think it’s nonsense. Do you think that Ausonius should have written in Burgundian? . . . Ausonius is an excellent Latin poet, who was surrounded by what he regarded as barbarous Burgundians who put butter in their hair, a characteristic that he thought foul. What he chose to do was write lovely pale imitations of Virgil. Highly successful. In a kind of Latin that almost nobody was speaking then. Few people could have appreciated how good he was. Should he have learned a Germanic language, or Burgundian? Perhaps. I’m just trying to say that whoever you are, you’ve got to start from where you are. If you’re a sailor, and only know sailor’s language, well, write in it, for God’s sake.
So many of your books, like The Rat, The Flounder, From the Diary of a Snail or Dog Years, center on an animal. Is there some special reason for that?
Perhaps. I have always felt we speak too much about human beings. This world is crowded with humans, but also with animals, birds, fish and insects. They were here before we were and they will still be here should the day come when there are no more human beings. There is one difference between us: in our museums we have the bones of the dinosaurs, enormous animals that lived for many millions of years. And when they died, they died in a very clean way. No poison at all. Their bones are very clean. We can see them. This will not happen with human beings. When we die there will be a terrible breath of poison. We must learn that we are not alone on the earth. The Bible teaches a bad lesson when it says that man has dominion over the fish, the fowl, the cattle and every creeping thing. We have tried to conquer the earth, with poor results.
You’ve said that you didn’t think your books could be written in the world that existed before the Kennedy assassination.
Our culture changed in important ways. And these changes are among the things that go into my work. There’s the shattering randomness of the event, the missing motive, the violence that people not only commit but seem to watch simultaneously from a disinterested distance. Then the uncertainty we feel about the basic facts that surround the case–number of gunmen, number of shots and so on. Our grip on reality has felt a little threatened. Every revelation about the event seems to produce new levels of secrecy, unexpected links, and I guess this has been part of my work, the clandestine mentality–how ordinary people spy on themselves, how the power centers operate and manipulate. Our postwar history has seen tanks in the streets and occasional massive force. But mainly we have the individual in the small room, the nobody who walks out of the shadows and changes everything.
You [think] that not only should a writer have enemies but that he should actually cultivate them?
Camilo JOSE CELA
Yes, so that they help him move up the ladder. I would love to be able to say what a certain powerful Spanish general of the nineteenth century once said. He was regent, a captain general, and president of the government. When he was on his deathbed, the priest who served as his confessor said, “General, do you forgive your enemies?” And the general responded, “No, no, I don’t have any enemies.” “But General,” the priest exclaimed, “what do you mean you don’t have any enemies after holding the positions of power that you have held?” The general responded, “No, I don’t have any enemies because I’ve brought them all before the firing squad.” I would love to be able to say the same thing, but no, I haven’t had the strength to do so. I’m just a poor, simple man, no?
Have you ever been bored?
Yes, in my childhood. But it must be pointed out that childhood boredom is a special kind of boredom. It is a boredom full of dreams, a sort of projection into another place, into another reality. In adulthood, boredom is made of repetition, it is the continuation of something from which we are no longer expecting any surprise. And I . . . would that I had time to get bored today! What I do have is the fear of repeating myself in my literary work. This is the reason that every time I must come up with a new challenge to face, I must find something to do that will look like a novelty, something a little beyond my capabilities.
Your energy and variety of output is astonishing. One hesitates to talk about death, but it is a subject you tackle in your poetry. Is it because poetry, like love, is a way of transcending death?
Death is what conceptual language represents negatively, like a hole, a void, but poetic speech can invert this, make it positive. I agree with you. Since thanks to poetry the world is closer, and its unity more perceptible, we feel more part of that unity: like the leaf of a tree, even if it falls off the branch, in an instant that is eternal. So what is death? But I have to add that all this is true only in theory. Poetry would be just that–transcending death–if it were not inaccessible; we can only try to approach it.
Can a successful therapy ever be . . . closely allied to a reading of Freud?
I take it that a successful therapy is an oxymoron.
It’s always interminable?
I do not know anyone who has ever benefited from Freudian or any other mode of analysis, except by being, to use the popular trope for it, so badly shrunk, that they become quite dried out. That is to say, all passion spent. Perhaps they become better people, but they also become stale and uninteresting people with very few exceptions. Like driedcheese, or wilted flowers.
Some artists put such an emphasis on their work, on creating something that will last, that they put it before everything else. That line by Faulkner–“The ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”
I hate when art becomes a religion. I feel the opposite. When you start putting a higher value on works of art than people, you’re forfeiting your humanity. There’s a tendency to feel the artist has special privileges, and that anything’s okay if it’s in the service of art. I tried to get into that in Interiors. I always feel the artist is much too revered: it’s not fair and it’s cruel. It’s a nice but fortuitous gift–like a nice voice or being leftThat you can create is a kind of nice accident. It happens to have high value in society, but it’s not as noble an attribute as courage. I find funny and silly the pompous kind of selfimportant talk about the artist who takes risks. Artistic risks are like showrisks–laughable.
You seem to shun literary society. Why?
I don’t, do I? Here I am, talking to you. In leaving New York in 1957, I did leave without regret the literary demimonde of agents and would’be's and with-it nonparticipants; this world seemed unnutritious and interfering. Hemingway described literary New York as a bottle full of tapeworms trying to feed on each other. When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teenboy finding them, and having them speak to him.
The supernatural keeps cropping up in practically everything you write, particularly your short stories. Why this strong concern with the supernatural? Do you personally believe in the supernatural?
Isaac Bashevis SINGER
Absolutely. The reason why it always comes up is because it is always on my mind. I don’t know if I should call myself a mystic, but I feel always that we are surrounded by powers, by mysterious powers, which play a great part in everything we are doing. I would say that telepathy and clairvoyance play a part in every love story. Even in business. In everything human beings are doing. For thousands of years people used to wear woolen clothes and when they took them off at night they saw sparks. I wonder what these people thought thousands of years ago of these sparks they saw when they took off their woolen clothes? I am sure that they ignored them and the children asked them, “Mother what are these sparks?” And I am sure the mother said, “You imagine them!” People must have been afraid to talk about the sparks . . . [but] we know now that they were real, and that what was behind these sparks was what drives our industry today.
How come you’ve never written about Jesus? You’ve written about Buddha. Wasn’t Jesus a great guy too?
I’ve never written about Jesus? In other words, you’re an insane phony who comes to my house . . . and . . . all I write about is Jesus. I am Everhard Mercurian, General of the Jesuit Army.
What’s the difference between Jesus and Buddha?
That’s a very good question. There is no difference.
But there is a difference between the original Buddha of India, and the Buddha of Vietnam who just shaves his hair and puts on a yellow robe and is a communist agitating agent. The original Buddha wouldn’t even walk on young grass so that he wouldn’t destroy it. He was born in Gorakhpur, the son of the consul of the invading Persian hordes. And he was called Sage of the Warriors, and he had seventeen thousand broads dancing for him all night, holding out flowers, saying you want to smell it, my lord? He says Git outta here you whore. He laid a lot of them you know.