I conducted interviews with Franz Kafka and Joe Strummer on separate occasions recently, in preparation for my first interview with Joe Bageant. We're roughly the same vintage, me just pre- and him just post-Nagasaki. Same diff between Kafka and Strummer, with just a wider range. But one thing we all have in common is -- from grave complaint to mild musing -- our collective tsk tsk tsk vis-à-vis America's momentum/abominations.
The fascinating rascal-sage, G.I. Gurdjieff, in All and Everything, provides some words that are a good introduction to the continuation of my interview with the marvelous Bageant:
“The sole means now for the saving of the beings of the planet Earth would be to implant again into their presences a new organ...of such properties that every one of these unfortunates during the process of existence should constantly sense and be cognizant of the inevitability of his own death as well as the death of everyone upon whom his eyes or attention rests. Only such a sensation and such a cognizance can now destroy the egoism completely crystallized in them.”
I understand you spent New Year's Eve at a classic East Coast literati
party, at the Willa Cather abode. Happy so-called New Year, by the way, Joe.
Well, my first question for this Part II has to do with her nostalgia
respecting lost or unfulfilled love. To wit, Cather suggests in A Lost
Lady and My Antonia that there's an illusion of happiness that
we think we've seen, which we never find. Are there any illusions of love
that lost leftists harbor, puppy love waves they're riding, that we should
bring them home from the sea on?
Regarding “puppy love waves” and “illusions of lost love” held by the left, I wish to hell there were that much sentimental capability these days. I wish we were all that human. There is a connective tissue of the human community that has been completely obliterated in the U.S. and much of the supposedly advanced Western world. Lest you think “connective tissue of the human community” is just another grandiose liberal phrase, think about all those cities in Asia that have no street names or street addresses, yet the mail gets accurately delivered every day to hundreds of thousands because there is a web of humanity functioning, breathing and making the city work as a living thing. Now how the fuck does that mail get from the post office to all those people without addresses and street names? Because people know people who know people and everybody knows the people in their neighborhood. Or at least someone knows all of them. They are not plugged in at the brainstem to media that drives them to consume, make war, believe state ideology and live in fear of those they do not know. The state is a myth perpetuated to make people believe it is in their interest to support the wars of the rich and the powerful interests of commerce. All that exists are human beings and their environment. Everything else is a manufactured belief system, propaganda of one sort or another, to marshal human energies in one direction or another. The best we can hope for is to marshal them conservatively for the planet and expansively toward the self-realization of all men. Maybe we are under illusions. The entire notion of a real left in this country is an illusion. But hell, the whole world is an illusion. As Edwin Arnold said in “Light of Asia”:
Sink not the string of thought into the
I'll take my own illusion, thank you. It took a lot of dope, heartbreak and fast living to create it, so I am going to go down with it.
ROX: Oh...I think this is gonna be a gooood interview. On that note of illusion, what about the Hickey Factor? As in Hickey of The Iceman Cometh...when we're simply getting into a “talk” with a neighbor, or stranger at a pub, and trying to bring someone around. What about the everyday resistance one encounters, short of a barricades situation? Whereby you don't want to lose them ‘cause of a shock to the system, but you want to engage. What do you advise there?
JB: Please don't paint my ridiculous political and philosophical flatulence as “advice”. I have no advice for anyone. Just a big mouth and a lot of opinions. As for “bringing someone around,” in this bitter age of hardened political battle lines, I don't think that is about to happen. At least not very often. The business of productive political dialogue between opposing views is mostly capitalist state generated illusionary horseshit. That doesn't happen any more. Yet the illusion is maintained that it is still part of the process. The lines are drawn, the neo-conservatives are slipping on their brass knuckles and hoods, while the left is playing dialectic games at Starbucks and weeping like a bunch of mock turtles about the elections. It was all over long before the elections.
We have to ask ourselves how in the hell can the classes in America live in such parallel universes? The rich liberals and neoconservatives, the West Coast lefties and the massive unacknowledged working class in this country? How can we remain so oblivious and unconnected with our fellow Americans? Answer: Americans, rich or poor, now live in a culture entirely perceived through, simulacra -- media images and illusions. We live inside a self-referential media hologram of a nation that has not existed for quite some time now. Our national reality is held together by images, the originals of which have been lost or never existed. The well off with their upscale consumer aesthetic, live inside gated Disneyesque communities with gleaming uninhabited front porches representing some bucolic notion of the Great American home and family. The working class, true to its sports culture aesthetic, is a spectator to politics -- politics which are so entirely imagistic as to be holograms of a process that has not existed for decades in America, if ever. Social realism is a television commercial for America, a simulacrum republic of eagles, church spires, heroic firemen and “freedom of choice” between holograms. America’s citizens have been reduced to balkanized consumer units by the corporate state’s culture producing machinery. We are all transfixed on and within the hologram and cannot see one another in the living breathing flesh.
ROX: Those have to be among my favorite Bageant lines. Including the Buddhist “big-boat/little boat” thing, and the business of “We may go together, we may go alone, but the important thing is to make the journey” clarifies a lot too. Yet I know readers will cling to old Starbucks paradigms. I've often thought that new models for action won't emerge until those disgusted with The System embrace what Rimbaud was getting across in, to go back to the sea, The Drunken Boat: “Bathed in your weary waves, I can no longer ride In the wake of cargo ships of cotton, Nor cross the pride of flags and flames, Nor swim beneath the killing stares of prison ships.” Did you read Stan Goff's piece in Counterpunch this past weekend, and, if so, do you think he's taking that stance, or simply doing a Starbucks dance with his Two-Year Pedagogical Plan for “getting citizens to come around?”
JB: I don't think we should drag personalities into this. It's just not worth the effort. Ah, The Drunken Boat! He was marvelous wasn't he! Let's talk about the myth of the middle class. What gets me is the power of illusion, when it comes to the class divide in this country. The entertainment media, which is to say the most important one, television, leads us to believe that most Americans are in the middle class and that the middle class is some kind of majority in American society. Which of course is bullshit. Most of America is working class. A broad look around us confirms that the middle class by television's definition can't be more than 20-25%. The working class would necessarily be defined as those who work for wages rather than salaries, have a boss and do not choose when we work or how we do our work. As opposed to the salaried middle class, professional middle class, or the professional managerial class, entrepreneurs. By that definition 70% of us are working class. One of the slickest things that ever happened was how capitalism convinced all those working slobs they were middle class. As in, “Your car is being fucking repoed, you don't have any health insurance, your kids don't know shit because their schools are shit, you are overweight and one payday away from being homeless…WELCOME TO THE GREAT GIUILDED AMERICA MIDDLES CLASS! (You dumb nose-picking fools!) News media used to call them the “traditional working class,” and the political left used to be right down there on the picket lines getting their noses broken alongside the working mooks. Now the working class lives with its mindscape wired into NFL bread and circuses and the soft little eunuchs in the political left grope one another on the internet in interviews like this one. It ain't pretty. But what the hell can ya do?
ROX: I'm fine with not dragging personalities into the fray here. But I would like to address the business of “what can you do?” in light of what many on the left suggest: that one only needs the 25% (middle class contingent) to force change. And my concern there is also coupled with suggestions from some quarters that guns can make a difference here if push comes to shove. However, you may have put all that to bed already, and as a courtesy, to be respectful and bowing to the possibility that my Alzheimer’s may be kicking in, I'll ask you to decide whether or not you'd prefer to pick up a ball you threw in my court a short while back instead. To wit, you said something beautiful -- while reminiscing about the ‘60s -- about how consciousness was the only thing that mattered.
JB: Well, all you guys are far more intellectual about these things than I am. Not knocking it, just acknowledging it. To address the points in the order you presented them:
This last election proved the fallacy of going after the middle class vote to force change. We also hear that if the left had registered more working class nonvoters Bush would not have won. But from what I see out here in ordinary America, if more working class folks had voted, Kerry would just have gotten his ass kicked much harder. It is a precious myth of the left and liberals that there are millions of lefties and “progressives” out here waiting to be registered. What I see are a bunch of mindless ass scratchers who would have voted for Bush if they had the motivation to get up off the couch and register. Liberals are afraid to call stupid stupid, but I'm not. I was raised white trash and these are my people and I must say that they have been reduced to the dumbest goddamned mob of sports loving, beer sucking nitwits imaginable. They would have voted for Bush. Hell, Bush only got 19% of the fundamentalists. Right? Imagine if they had all voted!
About guns making a difference when push comes to shove: yer goddamned right, buster! I mean, let's use our fucking heads here. Just how far are we willing to let these repressive bastards beat on us? At some point violence DOES enter the picture, doesn't it? I have absolutely no problem with committing a violent act against despotism under the right circumstances (as in, can I get away with it!).
Consciousness? Well god almighty son! Ain't that all we have? Praise the lord and pass the peyote buttons! Ain't no big deal.
ROX: Well, now that we've put THAT baby to bed, I'd like to get back to eunuchs groping one another in interviews like this. What think you about the Publish or Perish Syndrome, whereby writers/activists must decide whether or not to go for survival bucks with established publications or put the word out to as many -- as quickly -- as possible, with virtually no recognition, no $$$ exchanged in Virtual Land? Is there any way for a self-respecting activist to carve out a career with the pen these days? I know you've got loads of experience on this count, and miles of bumpy roads you've gone down on this.
JB: Oh hell! You've punched a hole in the dike with that one! It is goddamned near impossible to make a living saying anything meaningful in print in this country. Oh there are a few good mags left, Harper's, Mother Jones, Free Inquiry, etc. But these days anything written and published is a “commercial product,” aimed at certain demographic consumer groups as perceived by a goddamned bunch of pud pounding bean counters in management, whose literary experience is limited to a fifth grade book report on Mice and Men and one chapter of Tocqueville in college. I have been in and out of the magazine business for 30 years and I've never seen things worse. It's come down to sports, pussy and personalities. I have published hundreds and hundreds of magazine articles in my time, but have published nothing but paint-by-number garbage since the mid-1980s. That is all you can sell. So now I say screw the money. Give me the web. Any time I want to speak the truth, as I know it, I do it on the web.
Any activist who thinks he can make a decent living with the pen these days had better be pretty goddamned good. I haven't seen anyone do it right since the advent of Ralph Nader decades ago. I find it interesting that Nader could publish his scathing indictments of corporations in all the major magazines back then. Now all you have is Mother Jones and one or two others. When you look at the magazines of the 1960s with the excitement of what they were calling “the new journalism,” and the sheer fun of the novel ideas . . . well, it makes today's magazines look like damned newspaper inserts written by ditzy advertising hacks (because they are). It's too bad people started getting degrees in journalism, too bad the universities managed to set up hack writer factories to serve the corporate state. I liked it better when writers and reporters were tough guys knocking back shots and hammering out the truth as they saw it. I saw the end of that era and I'm here to tell you that today's reporters and writers are mostly a bunch of gutless pussies by comparison.
Like I said, give me the web. There may not be any money in it, but by god that's where the big dogs run these days. That's where the real balls and ideas are, and that's where ALL the young talent is today, if you can wade through the tripe to find them.
ROX: In the January 3rd issue of The Nation (I usually hate to give that rag a plug, except for Cockburn's contributions, and a very few others), William Deresiewicz points out that Faulkner, Joyce, Miller, Nabokov and Burroughs all had watershed works in English -- published first in France. I know you mentioned last time the possibility of going overseas for personal reasons. Is there still good reason for writers/activists to venture abroad, so that they don't have to have 15 years worth of lag time (in getting “recognized”) like Faulkner?
JB: Yes, Mother Jones is getting limper these days. It's the American publishing environment. It eventually dilutes or co-opts all resistance. As far as “lag time in getting recognized” as a writer in the U.S., I say fuck 'em all. To hell with the celebrity obsession and being recognized in this country. That's how this system nails your ass. I'd rather just do good work. Interestingly though, the French do seem to respond well to what I have to say. Which is not much, so god bless the friggin French! I really want to have some kind of scene abroad. Something creative, full of ideas and dynamic people exercising their creative energies. I haven't seen that in years.
ROX: Got a Big Thing blooming at present in Paris, vis-à-vis Underground Theatre et plus; I'll keep you and others posted. However, your reference to peyote took me back to Burroughs and the hallucinatory carnival that he delineates. The incessant traffic that he injects into Naked Lunch, the maelstrom of activity and stimuli there, has really taken over our lives today. It’s become quite clear that everyone is overwhelmed by air, disease, others’ words, images -- culture itself, and I'm wondering whether you can say anything to readers to instill hope vis-à-vis the “connective tissue” you alluded to earlier, so that there's some sense of being able to move in solidarity, internationally. No one seems to have time for bonding. Are we doomed to do our dance alone? In Jackson Browne's For a Dancer (written out of his wife's suicide), he says, “No matter how close to yours another's steps have grown...In the end there is one dance you'll do alone.” I see people on the left, leaving one another, out of step with one another, alone, long before their individual ends. This is not at variance with what you've said here, oui? By the way, I won't drive you crazy with too much more, maybe one or two more, as you like.
JB: I think one of the big aspects of our modern alienation is that as a social animal we can no longer answer a very basic human question: “Who are my people?”
As an old line, ancestor obsessed Virginian, I have always been much more aware of who my people are than most modern Americans. Aware of the chain of blood and history, raised in close traditional family and friendship ties. There was 250 years of connective social tissue that linked everyone in this town and county in one way or another. I saw the end of the agricultural era and its values here. We were intensely dependent upon one another, on each other's help in getting things done, kids babysitted, cars fixed, rides to work. People did not own so much, it was still that post-war era when if a person had a TV, a car, a fridge and a couple decent changes of clothing, he was an average middle class American. People lived near each other practically all their lives and for generations on end. It was a neighborhood, a culture and a society with fairly natural underpinning. Connective social tissue.
And I am convinced that America has now completely destroyed the connective social tissue that is inherent in man in his natural social state. Our differences between one another are merely what we consume. A yuppie liberal is as defined by what he consumes as the gun toting redneck with his truck. And living here among the reddest of necks, I can tell you that these days rural and small-town people are no warmer, nicer or better connected with their neighbors and relatives and families than the most career obsessed urbanites. Big spook America done gobbled de hearts out of all her chillun. We're talking night of the living dead, only the dead don't know they are dead because they cannot remember ever being alive. Even older people's memories have been cleansed. I remind my elderly mother of the way life was then, and she can barely find the memory. When she does she cries. Some younger people suspect it should be a lot warmer and more fun around this joint called the U S of A, but they have never seen proof it ever was so. Only the bullshit propaganda of the movies. It's a cold-assed place and getting colder, spookier and more ominous by the day. But Americans seem to be accepting it. We few who feel otherwise are seen as odd, as aliens. Unpatriotic. Eventually we will be classified as dangerous.
ROX: And so, you've answered one of the questions that at least one of your fans, writing to me to ask you, has been losing sleep over: the possible potential of linking up with the likes of Bloods, Crips -- or anybody -- to do anything in solidarity. The neighborhood/connective tissue talk brings up so much of Ward Churchill's words about what plagues the indigenous and what, perhaps, they have to offer. Permit me to conclude with pointing out that some Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale, who I also detest giving a plug to, has said Beckett provided a Purgatorio to Kafka’s Inferno, making up two-thirds of a 20th century Dante, suggesting that's all that's now available to us, that Paradiso can't be posted, published or prevail. When Moliere's Alceste (from The Misanthrope) rejects his society, his only rock-bottom sustenance, and takes off toward solitude, risking insanity, we have reason to believe he'll be back on traditional terms. Going about change like the RCP, Code Pink, MoveOn and the various million-person marches is what I'd call traditional. But, today, far removed from the realm that so many of us have been so influenced by, so much traditional possibility dead, is all that remains the madness of art? Its personal payoff?
JB: You lost me.
ROX: Fair enough, Joe, this “losing you” what with all the blah blah. Put another way, now that I've put out a lot of intellectual play/contortions for readers to digest at their leisure, do you see any light at the end of the tunnel? Or, better yet, to use Faulkner's Light in August as a point of departure, when Lena Grove, one of his characters in that novel anticipates giving birth, the idea is that she'll be the “light in August” when the baby comes. Do you see any baby being born in the near future? Do you see any hope whatsoever? Any relief in sight? Can we conclude our Game of Eunuchs here, with any sweetness?
JB: Geesh, you're strange! Well, Tim Leary used to tell me that the key to moving on with one's evolution is the same as the key to a good acid trip: not to cling to anything you see. Let it all go. He believed you cannot stop the forward roll of evolutionary events and that the earth is destined to become a used-up dead cesspool at some point. Consequently, he was into space migration during the later years of his life. I think down inside everyone understands the finite limits of the ecosystem now. Even the dumbest, meanest Republican has a less-than-confident look on his face now when he tells you global warming is a myth. Nearly everything from the Christian “Left Behind” book series to movies and ecological predictions have an apocalyptic tone these days. But there is a mentality among some people, particularly the rich- -- which is to say most Americans compared to the rest of the world -- that says, “Grab all you can. Build armed and gated communities, deploy the armies to loot resources, and let the rest of the world starve in the dark if need be. Kill'em if they come over here.” Do I see any hope? Do you? We're all in the same boat. We're all looking at the same seas before us, the same probable outcome for humanity. The difference is in how we deal with what we see. To my mind, it is best to see it like that little starving Buddha with the ash in its eye sockets and the candle in its chest, which is to say with eyes as cold as ashes and a compassionate fiery heart.
ROX: Gotta follow up on that strange stuff some time. To conclude with the O'Neill work I invoked earlier, however, when Hickey shows up for his semi-annual bender, he's a changed man. He has sworn off liquor, yet instead of crusading temperance he is on a higher mission — to convince the booze-soaked burnouts that guilt-cleansing “truth” is the only deliverance from “the lie of the pipedream.” On the other side of the bar is aging anarchist Larry, who counters that it's raw truth that beats men down, their happiness hanging on a desperate need for illusions/fantasy. You don't have to touch any of that, but I sure as hell would like to know what percentage of American citizens, including the left, you think are “soaked-burnouts” on something. I come across cartons of clinical cases myself, daily. I'll say my goodbyes now, leavin' you to say au revoir to one and all for the both of us, after you respond. It's been great, Joe. I've learned a lot from you before and during the interview process, and I look forward to getting more from you in the future, driving you crazier. Drive carefully, people are strange when you're estranged behind the wheel, but do violate some rules.
JB: Well...I just get lost trying to find what you are getting at. Got a simple one-line question?
ROX: No problems; it's easy to understand how I can make things difficult. Here's one for the road: To what extent do you think that the personal baggage that leftists carry around precludes there being anything significant, by way of national movement in solidarity, being carried out?
JB: Heck, why pick on the poor old lefties about that one? We all have personal baggage, deep unresolved problems. The goal is to understand them and turn them toward something constructive. For example, I know that being raised poor made me obsessed with class and money and inequity. And I know that being raised up under the police court judge Christian Jehovah made me fearful and moralizing. And I know that a constant sense of alienation made me become a writer in a desire to communicate. To me, it's not about the load you are born to carry, but how you carry it in this short life. Yeah, I know that sounds sophomoric. But it's sho' nuff true
ROX: Hey, call me Freshman, freshmaniacal! Got one last personal ditty to run by you. Can't help but ask if any of the mail you received on our Part l said anything about me. I've been getting huge amounts of the good and the odd. This is just so's I can leave here and go look in the mirror at my own baggage with a little perspective.
JB: I only got two emails. Neither commented on you or me, just that they were glad to see the interview. Remember, my email address wasn't on the article.
So what did you get that was “good” and “odd?”
ROX: Well, I won't go into the good...”cause I'm hopin’ that's obvious for one and all. But I will note, in closing, that some have questioned my sanity. “Are you crazy?” asked one.
JB: Questioned your sanity? Big deal. I much prefer the company of mad men. (1)
Richard Oxman, The Mad Ox Disease, can be reached at email@example.com. He is currently trying to put together a Grand Affair in Paris OR Hoboken, NJ, whereby interested individuals worldwide would come together for “Meetings with the Mad,” for a weekend or so, with opportunities to mix madly on an interpersonal level with the likes of Non-mainstream Monkeys. Mad music, plays and play too. The Ox's “biography” is available at MWC.News Magazine. Some of his recent writing can be found in his Arts & Entertainment section and Features (under Social) there.
is a writer and magazine editor living in Winchester, Virginia. He may be
contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(1) On this point, I recommend Henry Miller's Time of the Assassins, particularly the Afterword, in which he delineates how hard it was for madmen/artists in the 19th century; 2005 is not a helluva lot different in that respect.
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