Q. Being a student, and working for a student publication, it seems logical to ask a little bit about your education. I understand that you graduated from Loyola, but you attended a few other universities before that. How much time did you spend at Loyola and what brought you to this university?
A. After graduating from Creighton Prep (a Jesuit school in Omaha), I went to St. Louis University, where I had a scholarship from the Writers Institute (an offshoot of the Honors Program but now no longer extant as a separate entity). I took off a semester to study abroad with the Institute of European Studies (then quite a new venture) at the University of ViennA. After another semester at SLU, I left to enter the Trappist monastery at Gethsemani, where (quite by accident) Thomas Merton was then the novice master. Although he naturally gave no hint of this to the novices, he was feeling severely oppressed in the Trappist life and was trying to win a release from his vows; this may have influenced his decision to return me to the world.
In these ancient days, it did not yet seem to be acknowledged in academic circles that writers know something about writing that English teachers don't; there wasn't a single writer on the WI faculty, and I have to say that in the time I spent there, I learned no more about writing than I'd knownbefore. Since it was still my ambition to write, I saw no particular benefit to sticking to the Writers Institute.
Meanwhile, two Chicagoans who had been in the Institute with me had come to much the same conclusion and had returned to Chicago and were enrolled at LoyolA. (One of them was, in fact, the editor of the literary magazine, Cadence). It seemed to me that Chicago and Loyola made more sense for me than St. Louis and the Writers Institute. I spent my first semester at the Lake Shore campus but found the atmosphere a bit too conventionally collegiate for my taste and so transferred to the Lewis Towers campus downtown, where I complete my bachelors degree, graduating in the spring of 1957.
Q. It sounds as though religious institutions were a constant presence in your younger years, and the fundamentals of Christianity (specifically catholicism) seem to provide a foundation for the discussion of the problems of civilization in much of your writing (re-interpretation of the Adam&Eve creation myth in Ishmael, doubting priest as main character in The Story of B). How has your extensive contact with religion in general (and the Romish church in particular) influenced your distinctly non-Christian worldview?
A. Christian mythology, built directly on the foundation of Hebrew mythology, depicts the central events of cosmic history as occurring in a relatively brief period of time. The creation of the universe was followed in short order by the Fall of Adam, which was followed after a few thousand years by the appearance of a divinely-sent redeemer who reopened the gates of heaven to fallen humanity.
Archeological research over the past two centuries has made the Fall (which condemned Adam to live "by the sweat of his brow"--that is, by agriculture) a datable event. People in the Near East (clearly Adam’s locus) began to live by the sweat of their brows about 10,000 years ago. Therefore, in Christian mythology, the two most important events in cosmic history--the Fall and Redemption of Man--occurred within the last 10,000 years (within 8000 years of each other).
There came a point in my life when I had to ask myself: Where exactly do the previous THREE MILLION years of human history come into this mythology? There’s just no way to squeeze them in anywhere. In Christian mythology, God has a tremendous interest in human history--but only in the last 3% of it. The 150,000 generations that came before our 500 generations simply have no role to play in the seminal Christian tale of Fall and Redemption. The tale of these generations is as irrelevant to the Christian tale as the Trojan War is to the tale of Little Red Riding Hood.
But who cares, since this period of human life was just one long void? It’s this bland assumption that’s under challenge in my work. In fact, it seems a void to us precisely because it’s nowhere included in our mythology. Our mythology (Christian or otherwise) doesn’t tell us what this period MEANS--and so it seems to mean nothing at all. That 98% of the human story should seems meaningless to the vast majority of us is a very, very strange situation (and one I’ve been trying to change).
Q. If our mythology is the problem, do you think we need a new mythology? Or should we do away with mythology all together? And, looking at the ubiquity of mythology in human history (including pre-civilization) is the elimination of misleading mythology even possible?
A. Mythologist Joseph Campbell (The Power of Myth, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and others) famously lamented the fact that our culture HAS no mythology. In truth, however, our culture DOES have a mythology, though it is one that is unrecognized and unacknowledged AS mythology. This isn’t Christian mythology, though it’s supported and amplified by Christian mythology.
Before discussing the mythology of our culture, however, you have to understand what I mean by "our culture." You can use this rule of thumb. Wherever you happen to be, you can be sure you’re among people of our culture if the food is under lock and key and people have to work, steal, or beg to get it. Their style of dress, social customs, and religious beliefs may differ wildly, but their way of keeping themselves alive (which is the most fundamental element of culture of all) is the same. They must work, steal, or beg (or be on "welfare"), because the food is all under lock and key. If you find yourself in a place where the food is NOT under lock and key (and all you have to do is go get it), then you are distinctly NOT among people of our culture. (You’re probably among people like the Yanomami Indians of Brazil or the Gebusi of New GuineA.)
According to the mythology of our culture, the world was made for Man to conquer and rule--and Man was made to conquer and rule it. Man is eminently fit for this job, and "humanizing" the world (for example, by clearing a formerly untouched habitat and putting it to the plow to produce human food) is a blessed thing to do. According to our mythology, humans represent a separate and higher order of being from the rest of the living community (which of course Christianity confirms). According to our mythology, the world is a human possession, to be used as suits us; it has no intrinsic value, no value outside the human frame of reference. Songbirds exist to provide us with musical entertainment, and if we decide we can do without that entertainment, we’re free to dispense with songbirds. Faced with a stand of trees, the only question to be asked is, "Would we rather leave it as it is and have a park or level it for a shopping mall?"
According to our mythology, we are humanity itself, and those who lived before were merely "savages" (like the Yanomami and Gebusi), which is to say, something less than human. We live the way people were "meant" to live from the beginning of time, and everyone in the world should be made to live the way we do. According to our mythology, there is one (and only one) right for people to live, and we have it (which is why it must be imposed on all others). Because we live the way people are "meant" to live, we must cling to it even if it kills us. At the same time, according to our mythology, humans are deeply and irremediably flawed, and this accounts for the fact that so much of what we do turns out badly. The fault is not to be found in the way we live, therefore, but in human nature itself. And since we are the ONLY true representatives of humanity, we need only look at ourselves and our own history to discover what "human nature" is.
Mythology arises among people spontaneously--and only spontaneously. The UFO-invasion mythology of the last half century has sprung up in response to the "invasion" into our lives of sciences and technologies that seem increasingly "alien" to us. In the fifties, the growth of Soviet military power terrified us, and UFO mythology responded with endless stories of combat encounters with militarily superior UFOs. As the Soviet threat faded and health care became increasingly depersonalized and incomprehensible, UFO mythology began to concentrate on abduction stories about people being taken into spaceship hospitals for mysterious and painful tests they didn’t want or understand, administered by medical scientists who were oblivious or indifferent to the suffering of their "patients." As incomprehensible genetic manipulation by human scientists began to loom as a threat, UFO mythology began to assign convoluted genetic motives to UFO abductors. (You ask if we should "do away" with mythology, but you can no more do away with mythology than you can do away with anxiety or hope.)
And you can’t create "new" mythology by fiat. You can, however, expose mythology AS mythology, which is the task I’ve undertaken in my books.
Q. You point to the control of food distribution as the primary difference between our culture (the people you've labeled Takers in your books) and cultures that live sustainably (Leavers). You also place a great emphasis on the dawn of agriculture as a pivotal event commencing the civilized world's complacent trek toward self-destruction. Why are the means by which a people obtains food so central to its cultural beliefs? Do you believe that's it's possible for a society dependent upon agriculture to live sustainably?
A. Food DISTRIBUTION is not the issue. Nor is "dependence on agriculture" the issue. Just as the people of our culture believe that we are humanity itself, we have the idea that the agriculture we practice is agriculture itself. Let’s start with that. Agriculture is simply a means of promoting the regrowth of the foods people favor. In that sense, virtually all Leaver peoples practice or practiced agriculture. But merely promoting the regrowth of the foods you favor doesn’t automatically make you totally dependent on agriculture. One people may grow very little; another may grow a bit more; another a bit more still; another quite a lot. There is no single degree of production that makes you an agriculturalist. (Even we don’t grow 100% of our food.) Leaver peoples around the world have lived for thousands of years as agriculturalists (to answer your question about whether it’s "possible for a society dependent upon agriculture to live sustainably").
We practice a unique form of agriculture that I’ve called Totalitarian Agriculture, which is based on the idea that, since the world itself belongs to us, all the food in it belongs to us as well. In other words, we can (1) take any food formerly available to other species and lock it up for our exclusive use, (2) destroy any species that competes with us for our food, and (3) clear any piece of land of food formerly available to other species and use that land to grow food for our exclusive use.
Totalitarian Agriculture began to be practiced among us at a time when the world wasn’t thought of as having any limits. It was assumed (even if it was never explicitly so stated) that the world was of infinite extent, and if this were the case, there would be no problem. In fact, however, the world is a place of distinctly finite limits. There is only so much food-bearing land (land that will sustain life) and only so much food-bearing water. We can’t increase either of these commodities (though we can reduce them and ARE reducing them), and we can’t increase the amount of sunlight that falls on our planet, from which ultimately all life (and therefore all food) derives.
Here’s another way of saying this: at any one time, there’s only so much biomass on earth (biomass being the mass of living material). The amount of biomass varies, but only over very long periods. When we cleared the Great Plains of all the plants and wildlife that was living there and converted this land to the growth of human food, we didn’t increase the biomass of this region, we merely converted the biomass that was already there into human food (and ultimately into human MASS).
Three million years ago, the percentage of biomass that was human mass was negligible (perhaps equivalent to the biomass of gorillas today). Ten thousand years ago the percentage of biomass that was human mass was still very small. But with the advent of Totalitarian Agriculture, that changed very rapidly. Humans (of our culture) now account for a very sizable percentage of the earth’s biomass (and that percentage increases daily). It’s estimated that, with our population at six billion, as many as 200 species become extinct every day as a result of our impact on the world. When these species become extinct, their biomass doesn’t disappear; it’s simply converted into human food and ultimately into human mass. When we cut down a million-acre rain forest to put the land to the plow or to turn it into pasturage for cows, its biomass is turned into human food and ultimately into US. As our population increases, the number of disappearing species will increase (and probably geometrically).
Even though there are hundreds of millions of species, it can’t be imagined that eliminating 200 every single day is a sustainable way to live. The community of life as a whole is what makes this planet livable, and it’s absurd to imagine that we can reduce that community to ourselves and a few hundred food species we like to eat. We’re like people living at the top of a tall building who every day go downstairs and knock 200 bricks out of the walls here and there. For a time (since there are hundreds of thousands of bricks in those walls), no change appears. But if this goes on long enough, the structure itself must inevitably collapse--and not in a gradual way. We live in a period of mass extinctions, brought on by our own actions, estimated to be a thousand times greater than in normal times. The victims of this mass extinction are not just going to be species we imagine we can live without (hornets, rattlesnakes, gophers, sharks, rats, poison ivy), they're going to be species upon which ALL "higher" life forms depend--including us. It isn’t as though we’re able to pick and choose which species are to disappear. Ultimately, if we go on in this way, the human species will disappear along with the rest, leaving the cockroaches in command.
This by no means answers all questions on this topic. Those who want more information might have a look at FOOD PRODUCTION AND POPULATION GROWTH, a three-hour video I produced with conservation biologist Alan D. Thornhill, available at http://www.ishmael.org/ntv/market/.
Q. You mentioned earlier that you had ambitions to be a writer during your college years. Have you always wanted to be a writer?
A. I thought of being a writer when I was in my midteens, just as many kids do that I hear from today, without any clear idea what this really means. Writing isn’t taught in school as a craft but rather as a general life-skill that everyone needs (which everyone does, of course), unlike art, design, dance, film-making, music, and acting, which are either taught as crafts (usually in special schools) or not taught at all. Like many people then and today, I thought that the writing I would do as a writer was like the writing I was doing in school (and some people have a lot of trouble giving up this idea, especially if they’ve gotten good grades for their writing in school).
I was very lucky, when I left school, to get a job in which I could learn the craft of writing (though it wasn’t fiction-writing, of course). Eventually, through this experience, I began to see that if I hoped to write fiction, I had to approach it as a craft and to learn it as a craft. This meant adopting a different approach to READING fiction. Instead of asking of a novel or a short story, "Is this literature?" or "Is this good?" (as one is taught to do in English courses), I began asking, "How did the author accomplish this?" You can’t learn painting techniques this way; you can’t look at a painting by Vermeer and figure out how he produced it; the techniques he used are completely invisible, and you can neither detect them by examination nor deduce them. In writing, on the other hand, there are no hidden techniques whatever. For example, if you like the way an author got a character out of a hotel room and into a taxi, you just have to look at what he or she wrote; it’s right there on the page. This is why T.E. Lawrence, the author of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, described writing as "the techniqueless art."
Q. Who are your favorite authors?
A. I’ll always have a look at a new novel by Gordon Lish, Emmanuel Carrère, or Robert Irwin, though their recent books haven’t filled me with the same excitement as their earlier ones. Joyce Carol Oates, who writes everything under the sun, occasionally writes something I like very much. David Thomson, famous mostly as a writer about films, wrote one of my favorite novels of all time, Suspects, but it achieved no great success, and he seems not to have wanted to pursue a career in fiction. Angela Carter wrote a great novel in Nights at the Circus. Susan Hill wrote the best ghost story of all time in The Woman in Black (and I wish she’d write another). Patrick Suskind seems to have written himself out with his masterpiece Perfume. Alasdair Gray can always be counted on to produce something strange and wonderful. I’d be excited to find a novel by Friedrich Durrenmatt, Gert Hofmann, or David Ely that I hadn’t read. I’d leap out of my socks if someone found an undiscovered cache of stories by Franz KafkA. As you see, this is more a list of favorite books than of favorite authors (and a very mixed lot it is).
Q. That's quite a range--how do you spend your time when you're not reading or writing?
A. I suspect you mean how do I spend my time when I'm not reading, writing, or otherwise working (since I have a lot of work to do besides writing--such as answering the large volume of mail I receive from readers). We (Rennie and I) knock off work around 8 and spend the evening in relatively frivolous pursuits like watching movies or going out to dinner. Occasionally (pretty rarely, I'm afraid) I'll take off a week or two to work on an art project. I'm not really happy unless I'm working on a book, and once I start working on a book, I tend to lose myself in it completely till it's done. (And that's when I usually take off a week or two to create a mask or a piece of sculpture.)
Q. Do you have any writing projects in the works right now?
A. I don't think of myself as a prolific author (like, say, Stephen King, who seems to be able to turn out a new thousand-page novel every six weeks), but I'm going to LOOK like a very prolific author during the next two years, when I'll have three and possibly four new books coming out. The first of these is a novel called After Dachau, which I finished almost a year and a half ago but which (for reasons too lengthy to go into) will not appear until February 2001. The text for a graphic novel called The Man Who Grew Young was written in 1997, but the art was only finished this spring, and this will come out in August 2001. In the year and a half following the writing of After Dachau I wrote another new novel called The Chosen, which is scheduled for the spring of 2002. This will give me plenty of time to finish yet another novel I've just begun, called Render, in time for the fall of 2002.
With what I think of as the Ishmael trilogy (Ishmael, The Story of B, and My Ishmael) and Beyond Civilization, I feel that I've articulated what I have to say as a "cultural critic" or "world philosopher"--whatever you choose to call me on the basis of these works. I don't mean that this articulation is perfect or 100% complete. No thinker in history has ever achieved an articulation that is perfect or 100% complete, which is why tens of thousands of books have been written FURTHER articulating the ideas of Aristotle, Jesus, Luther, Darwin, Freud, Marx, Jung, and so on.
Although the books that will be appearing in the next two years (as well as the novel I'm working on now) are not irrelevant to my earlier work, they nonetheless represent an entirely new direction for me as a writer. Some fifteen years ago (long before the appearance of Ishmael), an early reader of my work said to me, "You're not a writer, you're a thinker" (as if the two are mutually exclusive). With the publication of these four new books, I trust that any lingering notion that I'm "not a writer" will be dispelled for good.
Q. I don't know if you remember this, but I was reading an essay appearing in Cadence 1956 (v. 11, no. 1) and noticed a line that you wrote, saying"The writer, with his imagination, imposes order on the individual experience in such a way that the experience can stand for the whole of life." Now, as a successful author, would you agree that that's what you've attempted to achieve in your work?
A. One doesn't stop to consider the possibility that a statement one makes at age 21 may come back to haunt one 40-odd years later. I'm afraid I not only don't remember making it, I'm not even sure what it means. In any case, I wouldn't make such a statement today. Nothing I write "stands for" anything but itself.
Q. That seems perfectly reasonable--I just wanted to bring back a glimpse of your collegiate self. I'd like to thank you for taking the time to answer my questions and leave you with one more--is there any advice (or comments for contemplation) that you'd like to offer to today's generation of collegiate fools and would-be writers that you wish you'd known at our age?
A. Young writers are often blocked by three fundamental misconceptions (as I was myself). The first is that publishers will be impressed by the same kind of writing that impressed your creative writing teachers. To get on track in the real world of writing, you must understand the difference between what publishers are looking for and what your teachers were looking for. To find out what publishers are looking for, you only have to look at what they actually publish (as opposed to what you may imagine they publish). The second misconception is that writers become writers by waiting. People know that dancers become dancers by dancing, singers by singing, skaters by skating, and painters by painting, but they somehow have the idea that writers sit in a trance-like state for five years or eight years, then suddenly one day exclaim "Aha!" and only then begin to write. One of my very long-term students (he's been my student since 1988!) has the undoubted talent to be a writer, but in fact writes almost nothing. Instead, he waits--month after month, year after year--for "an idea" (which never comes, because he isn't writing). A third common misconception among young writers is that they should (if they're any good) be able to hit a home run their very first time at bat. They get one rejection slip and become discouraged. At the beginning of his career, one of the most talented story-tellers of our time, Ray Bradbury, wrote a story a week for a full year before selling his first one. Then he wrote a story a week for two MORE years before selling his second! Success doesn't come easy (which is why the great French novelist Gustave Flaubert called writing "a dog's life"), but it's definitely worth it (which is why he went on to call it "the only life worth living").
Thanks for a great interview, Mary!