Getting Right with Ron

March 26, 2010
“The true life is elsewhere.” —Rimbaud

Über lit-blogger and director of e-marketing strategy at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Ron Hogan is the author of Getting Right with Tao, a contemporary and highly vernacular riff on the philosophical classic by Lao Tzu. When you spend as much time as Ron has reading, thinking, and writing about the Tao te Ching, some of its grandeur will rub off on you. I know this to be true because Ron, bless his pure, unruffled soul, hasn’t finished any of the Pynchon novels he’s started — yet is free from guilt, shame, or embarrassment. His favorite novelists include Dawn Powell and Philip K. Dick. For more on Ron, please visit Beatrice.

BtL: How’s your inner Tao?   

Ron: I’m feeling good! I’m not perfect, not by a long shot, but getting this book out feels like a fantastic step in the right direction.   

BtL: Well, let’s start with the quandary: We can’t talk about Tao. We can’t name it, touch it, hear it, or desire it. So what the hell is Tao?   

Ron: I’m going to skip all the fancy koan answers I could give and just say it’s a process, or a way of being. I was going to say state of existence, but that implied a condition of stasis that I didn’t really think applied. And then I was going to say it was an approach to life, but “approach” implied a deliberate, conscious effort — and that’s partially true but I think when you get right enough with Tao, the process becomes more natural. You don’t do the right thing because you’re setting out to do the right thing, you do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.   

BtL: Ok, so Tao isn’t a thing. It’s not even the totality of things. But it’s a way of being. At the risk of sounding Heideggerian, it’s a way of being in the world. Not all ways of being are equally right with Tao, yeah? Some ways are better than others. Can you say something about desire and possession and how they corrupt Tao?   

Ron: Let’s frame getting right with Tao for the moment as an attitude of radical openness, a receptive stance that enables you to accept any set of circumstances or conditions on its own terms, and determine the best course of action by understanding what the situation truly requires. By that definition, desire and possession — the valuing of one thing over another —”corrupt” Tao by privileging our preferences over objective appraisal. That’s not to say that our preferences can’t coincide with objective appraisal; simply that we should be mindful not to confuse the two.   

BtL: This passage here caught my eye. It does a nice job of capturing some of the key themes of Taoism. I’ll quote it here in full as a prelude to a question.   

Get rid of sanctity.
People will understand the truth and be happier.   

Get rid of morality.
People will respect each other and do what’s right.   

Get rid of value and profit.
People will not steal if they do not desire.   

If that’s not possible, go to Plan B:   

Be simple. Be real.
Do your work as best you can.
Don’t think about what you get for it.
Stay focused. Get rid of all your crap.   

BtL (continued): U.S. consumer culture is rife with materialism. After all, without our iPod or Wii or Old Navy cargo shorts or Prius or Elmo Tickle Hands or Trader Joe’s Chocolate Joe Joe, we grow sullen and moody. Isn’t Taoism really a form of anti-Americanism?   

Ron: I can’t speak for “Taoism,” which is no more a single set of beliefs than “Christianity” is, and I suspect many people who self-identify as Taoists would say I’ve grossly misrepresented what they believe… which is probably true. But, heck, why limit ourselves to anti-Americanism when we can be ruthlessly anti-nationalist? Or maybe the point isn’t to reject national/cultural identity altogether, but to recognize its arbitrary, artificial qualities and realize that you’ve chosen to “be an American,” and you could just as easily choose to be another type of American. (Those of you reading this in other lands, feel free to substitute the relevant descriptors.) Which actually raises the interesting point of whether “U.S. consumer culture” is the most accurate representation of “being an American,” doesn’t it?   

BtL: It does, absolutely. I love the Declaration of Independence, for instance, but not the Second and Twenty Sixth Amendments, which are pretty daft in my opinion. I love Melville, Thoreau, and Cormac McCarthy but feel a twinge of fear or disgust when I hear a Republican or Democrat talking about the “axis of evil” or “hope, unity, and change.” That’s the trouble with being a “good” American — it’s not at all clear what it means. At least not to me. There’s much to love in our country, to be sure — beautiful landscapes, democratic ideals, egalitarianism, and so on. But there’s much to sorrow over, too.   

Ron: I was actually thinking along these lines as I was pondering the background questions you posed me — I’d tapped Richard Rorty’s Truth and Progress as one of my all-time favorite books, in that it’s had a deep and lasting impact on my thinking even though it’s been well over a decade since I last looked at it, but while I was rifling through my mental card catalog I’d remembered another book of his, Achieving Our Country, where he explicitly links his brand of pragmatism to a particular strain of American political reform, particular visions of what American society was meant to be. Rorty’s probably my favorite late modern philosopher, when all’s said and done, because of his beliefs about what philosophy was intended to DO — I’m grossly oversimplifying, but he basically said, look, we can sit around and argue about what human nature is, OR we can decide what we want our society to be like and then go out and do things that could make it be that way. He’s about confronting the problems that are right there in front of you instead of looking for some fundamental Truth with a capital T, and I feel like that resonates with a lot of what I found in Lao Tzu.   

BtL: In your book, you point at Tao by saying what it’s not. It’s not greed. It’s not ambition. It’s not personality worship. But sometimes, you point at Tao by saying what it is. You describe it as water, wind, or rain. As a river, an ocean, or a wave. These metaphors suggest that Tao is simple, pure, and natural. But contemporary culture isn’t any of these things, mediated as it is by broadcast and social media, by mobile devices, and other pervasive technologies. What concrete suggestions do you have for simplifying our lives? How do we step out of the cultural hubbub? And does Taoism give us any norms of behavior in an increasingly mechanized world?   

Ron: “Plan B” seems like a fairly explicit norm of behavior, doesn’t it? We could approach this by pointing to Rousseau’s assertion that ALL culture has a corrupting influence on men and women (which can be mitigated by establishing the proper social contracts), and asserting that modern technology is only a more pervasive form of “mediation” — although in place of that term, I’d prefer to reference Althusser’s “ideological state apparatuses” if we’re going to be talking about cultural institutions that reinforce codes of behavior — because, as Althusser notes, ANY ideology is an expression of an “imaginary” (or, to use your language, “mediated”) framing of our existence in the material world. And once we agree that whatever ideology we’re living under now is “imaginary,” we can entertain the possibility of choosing another way to imagine our lives — and one way that we can choose is “getting right with Tao.” But, as impressive as name checking Rousseau and Althusser might have been, you didn’t want philosophical justifications, you wanted concrete steps. And the answers I have on that front aren’t especially radical, and you’ve probably heard them from other people: Honor people’s dignity. Pay more attention to what’s going on around you. Meditation helps. Alternatively, Brave Combo’s “Do Something Different” is maybe the most Taoist song I know:   

BtL: We learn that Tao is neutral, that Masters treat everyone the same. They don’t worry too much about good or evil. This sounds edifying until I’m reminded of Dick Cheney or former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, and other agents of malady. How I wish a four-star general of Tao would give them a good dressing down! Doesn’t morality require the very things Taoists caution us against, things like worry, concern, anxiety, engagement, judgment, and action?   

Ron: Taoism isn’t about sitting on your ass and smiling blissfully, and it’s not about ignoring what’s wrong with the world; there are a lot of passages in the Tao Te Ching about warriors and about going to war, for example. So it’s very much a philosophy of engagement and action… and of careful judgment. It recognizes that sometimes the solution to a pervasive problem is deeply unpleasant, but that it needs to be done — think the pivotal scene of “Old Yeller” here. The retort to this is obvious — Cheney and his cohorts believed they were executing the necessary solution to a pervasive problem — and, honestly, if I had a better counterargument than “well, they were wrong and I’m right,” I’d have laid it out and crushed their schemes with my keen intellect years ago. As for “worry, concern, and anxiety,” I don’t believe that these responses to circumstance are NECESSARY to morality, although they are certainly capable of informing it.   

BtL: You write, “If a leader gets right with Tao, people will follow him on instinct.” In a recent CNN poll, we learn that 49% approve of President Obama’s job performance while 50% disapprove. Clearly, people aren’t following him on instinct. Can we safely conclude that Obama ain’t right with Tao? What should he do to improve his Tao quotient?   

Ron: I said “people,” not “everyone.” OK, nitpicking aside, “getting right with Tao” isn’t like having an on/off switch where you’re out of whack and then, click, you’re aligned with the cosmos. It’s a process, and some days are better than others, and progress doesn’t prevent you from making mistakes. Now, a man who went from being a state legislator to the president of the United States in four short years clearly appeals to more than a few people on an instinctive level. Does that mean he’s perfect? Of course not. What could he do better? I risk presumptuousness, but I believe that Obama’s otherwise noble desire for consensus-building has, in some cases, impeded progress. Yes, we would probably have had a long, drawn-out fight over health care if the Democrats had built their strategy around a simple majority rather than the filibuster-proof “supermajority.” But that fight could have been helpful in revealing peoples’ characters, which in turn might have changed other peoples’ perceptions. So I guess my advice would be: People gave you this power for a reason; don’t hesitate so much about using it.   

BtL: Are you troubled that a Nobel Peace Prize-winning President is escalating a war in Afghanistan and expanding it into Pakistan?   

Ron: The irony is obvious, but I wouldn’t say I’m “troubled” by it – I mean, one ought to have sufficient grounds to question the wisdom of this particular policy without invoking the mythology of the Nobel — a mythology that was invested in President Obama without any anticipation or expectation on his part. Frankly, if there’s a disconnect, the root cause to me wouldn’t be “President Obama is not conducting himself like a Nobel laureate ought,” but “This Peace Prize was awarded in a manner inconsistent with the Nobel tradition.”   

BtL: You write, “Masters get their point across without saying a word.” Interestingly, that’s all novelists use — I mean words, sentences, and other tricks of the narrative trade. If language is often a barrier to higher truths, how do master novelists elicit transcendent experiences? Who among them helps us grasp the eternal mystery of Tao? What works of theirs should we read?   

Prose,—words in their best order; poetry,—the best words in their best order.

Ron: I feel like this is starting out with too simple a conflation, although part of that is my own fault for writing such stark passages as the one you quote or “those who talk, don’t know.” That said, it’s good you qualified that question with the word “often.” Maybe it would’ve been more accurate for me to have said “Masters get their point across without saying any more than they have to,” although that’s not quite as exciting, is it? What’s the Coleridge line about prose: words in their best order? I don’t know that I can do to improve on that — the more I think about this topic, frankly, the more I find myself dwelling on the idea of “eliciting transcendent experiences” and eliciting imitations or impressions of transcendent experiences, and extending this beyond the novel to other art forms, and then at some point circling around to the Stargate sequence from 2001.   

BtL: I agree. Music, painting, and movies can work amazing magic. But let’s stick with novels, if you don’t mind. Besides hitting absinthe and Scotch like it’s 1999, novelists are also very good at using words, at describing things, at evoking people, places, moods. But language and the things it describes, the stories it tells, and the characters it creates aren’t Tao. In your opinion, which novelists are especially good at helping us get right with Tao? What novels have profoundly impacted you in this respect? Of course, I worry that these questions are bogus, Ron. But what I’m trying to get at, and having precious little success, I worry, is the connection between Tao and the readerly life, a life that’s devoted to sentences, characters, and stories. Perhaps you can say something about that connection?   

Ron: There’s a passage in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon that has stuck with me since I read it about 15 years ago, which I’d like to share with you:   

If we read the Western Canon in order to form our social, political, or personal moral values, I firmly believe we will become monsters of selfishness and exploitation. To read in the service of any ideology is not, in my judgment, to read at all. The reception of aesthetic power enables us to learn how to talk to ourselves and how to endure ourselves. The true use of Shakespeare or of Cervantes, of Homer or of Dante, of Chaucer or of Rabelais, is to augment one’s own growing inner self. Reading deeply in the Canon will not make one a better or a worse person, a more useful or more harmful citizen. The mind’s dialogue with itself is not primarily a social reality. All that the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one’s own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one’s confrontation with one’s own mortality.   

Ron (continued): Maybe that’s a form of getting right with Tao; it sure feels like one to me.   

Beyond that, the novel I’ve read more times than any other in the last quarter-century is Masks of the Illuminati by Robert Anton Wilson — and I keep coming back to that book because I think it’s one of Wilson’s best articulations of the need to constantly question one’s experience of “reality,” to understand how that experience is being framed and to train oneself to see what is outside those frames. And, as loose as it is, it’s still the sharpest fiction Wilson produced. I once proposed that it was the greatest American novel of the back half of the 20th century, and I was not being facetious.   

BtL: Can I confess something?   

Ron: Absolutely.   

BtL: I wanted to criticize your book. I mean, I wanted to read your book in order to criticize it. I’ve read it now many times and was bound to find something to niggle over. But, initially, the wanting to find a problem was very important to me. And guess what—I found it, the problem. Your book isn’t the Tao te Ching. Not by a country mile. But then I realized that the Tao te Ching isn’t the Tao. And if the Tao te Ching isn’t the Tao, what does it matter if yours isn’t the Tao te Ching. It doesn’t. Neither catches Tao like a monkfish in a net. They’ve got that in common. This realization was very liberating. It allowed me to read and re-read your book, enjoy its observations, its simplicity and humor, and come away from it pleasantly reminded of the things that matter most. So thank you. I feel well shriven!   

Ron: Thank you! I’d be the first to admit what I’ve done isn’t Lao Tzu; my goal was more to give voice to the inspiration I found in the Tao Te Ching, and to do it in a voice that could convey that inspiration effectively to a contemporary audience. I hope anyone who reads my version treats it as a starting point rather than a culmination. And by that I don’t just mean that you should go read a translation by somebody who actually knows Chinese — I hope readers will think about Lao Tzu’s advice and how it might apply to their own lives on an ongoing basis.

Literary Prose in C Minor

March 14, 2010

A soprano and pianist, Barbara Rathbone is a classical musician with a unique and interesting gift — I’ll let Barbara explain. And although her gift may be difficult for others to grasp (I know I can’t), one thing is abudantly clear: With a deliciously Dickensian name like Rathbone, it’s not surprising that she has fingered the keys of language and written a novel, which is currently in search of a publisher, called The Conductor’s Wife. It’s an exploration of the inner experience of a musician and synaesthete. “Syna-what?” Read on…

BMRWho are you?

I am a musician — a classical singer and pianist who writes. I write because there is so much music in words.

What was the last book you read? How did you like it?

The Order of Things by Michel Foucault. It’s dense, thought-provoking and fabulous.

We often praise people for their perspective. But in your case, you really do have a unique perspective on the world. Can you explain synesthesia for our readers here at Between the Lines and describe how it affects your experience?

Synaesthesia is simply an overlapping of the senses. It is not that uncommon and there appears to be a link to creativity. Some synaesthetes “see” letters and numbers in three-dimensional space, some even taste the flavours of different words or sounds. Some see musical notation and units of time in three-dimensional space and/or in colour. In my case, I “see” music in coloured patterns; words, letters, musical keys have a particular colour and I also “see” units of time in colour and three-dimensional space. My synaesthesia is known as cognitive grapheme synaesthesia. For me, it adds a sensual intensity to my experience of the world around me, particularly an added depth to my experience of music and the sounds of words and language. Sometimes it is distracting but only in a very pleasant sense! It is natural to me but when I describe it to some people it seems to them entirely alien.

Of course, I’m dying to know which of your favorite novels evoke the most colorful experiences.

All words provide me with colour but I have always responded to poetry in particular. I like language to “paint” pictures and soundscapes which lift one emotionally. I like dark, rich-coloured words and novels with a full range of human experience; the types of books that stir the soul. I loved the Brontës as a teenager, particularly Emily and Wuthering Heights of course. I also love prose poetry and epic poetry such as Dante, Byron and Eliot. Russian and French literature have always had a strong appeal. Unsurprisingly, in this respect both Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina affected me profoundly. There is a theme there! One of my favourite writers ever is Milan Kundera, whom I have read in English and French but not in Czech! I love his perspective — searching, philosophical, full of aphoristic wit. A short novel I have always adored is Utz by Bruce Chatwin — Prague set, skillfully observed and very alluring, like the Meissen figurines the eponymous hero collects.

If literature were music, whose body of work is Beethoven’s
Symphony No. 9?

That would have to come under the banner of the romantics – Byron, Schiller (he wrote the “Ode to Joy,” so why not?!) but also later writers/thinkers and poets in that vein — Walt Whitman perhaps. It brings us big ideas and humanism.

What are three books you wish everyone would read? Why?

Plato — The Republic. All life, all ideas — sophistry and faith in the work of humanity to create of itself. 

Milton — Paradise Lost. For sort of similar reasons. Great story too!

T.S Eliot — The Wasteland. Everything you would expect from a master craftsman of words. A voyage into the shape, strength and caprice of the English language.

Do you have any quirks, pet peeves, or superstitions when it comes to reading?

I am not good at reading when I am writing myself — so, apart from poetry, I tend to avoid it. I will always listen to music when I write and that way the words fall before me like ripened fruit.

What novel should replace the Gideon’s Bible in hotel rooms worldwide? Explain.

Anna Karenina, a great long, satisfying slice of all life. I wish I could read it in Russian!

Against Bullshit

February 28, 2010
When you see the world aright, every road leads to Damascus.

In case you’re wondering, there are eleven kinds of readerly desire. There’s pleasure, always a powerful motive, and humor and curiosity and insight. Then there’s change or enlightenment or spiritual transformation, call it whatever you’d like. I’d name the six remaining types of desire, but as you can see, it’s not always easy to call things by their right name. Besides, when you behold the crown jewel of readerly desire—grace without God—you lose interest in numbers, in counting this, that, or the other thing. Instead, you search for a book that entangles you in the world and makes you better for it. Which brings me to this week’s guest. Meet Warren. In the long ago, Warren had a conversion experience while coming through a field of golden rye…

Who are you?

I am a super physically active person, so when I am not moving, I am reading. How many peoples’ reading habits destroy their romantic relationships? I wonder. I have been skateboarding for about 25 years. My friends and I have traveled all over the world in search of new skate spots. Mexico, Europe, Russia. Addicted? Confirmed. Surfing for about the same time. Addicted? Guilty. Extended wilderness trips backpacking, kayaking, cycling. My friend and I rode our bikes from the west coast to east coast the summer of 2007. I hiked 170 miles of the John Muir Trail in the Sierras solo. Spent two weeks of autumn in the Apostle Islands of Lake Superior kayaking and camping. I recently swam from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park for a South End Rowing Club event.

Do you read on your adventures?

During my travels, I always have a book with me. Sometimes I will take something like Jack London (Martin Eden, Smoke Bellew, The Call of the Wild, Burning Daylight, The Sea Wolf) or Hemingway (For Whom the Bells Toll, Islands in the Stream, To Have and Have Not). These are some of my favorites of all time. Other favorites include Hemann Hesse, Fitzgerald, Salinger, Maxim Gorky, Edward Abbey, Steinbeck. God the list goes on. A guilty pleasure of mine is to take a fantasy/sci fi book as well. Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, Robert Howard’s Conan, George R.R. Martin. That stuff will blow your mind when you are alone at night in a tent and two days walk from civilization.

As a backpacker, your gear better have dual purposes. What’s the most creative use to which you’ve ever put a book, besides reading it?

Most times I use the books I bring along for a pillow and a camera stand. Sometimes I might use the endpages as fire starter. Have you ever read the Count of Monte Cristo? One time I used that beast to guy out my tent after I lost some tent stakes.

Working at one of the finest used book stores in the Bay Area, where you see hundreds of thousands of books, how the hell do you decide what to read next?

Well, you ever notice how books seem to find you? It’s like that except books are like wolverines, and you are stuck in the snow with no place to hide. Actually, I just keep my eyes and ears open. Say that a person brings in three boxes of books to sell. Well, if I start seeing books that I have read, I start looking at the other authors and titles they have. Bingo. Sometimes regardless of subject matter, I’ll read the first page and if I like the writing style, that’s all it takes. Style is what gets me.

Any recent wolverine attacks?

Have you ever read Kirby Wilkins? He teaches at Cabrillo College. Vanishing is a collection of his short stories that points a crooked finger at the futility of existence, and laughs in its face. He has style for miles. Another fantastic author I recently read is an Everyman’s Library collection of novels by Richard Yates. Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, The Easter Parade, and Revolutionary Road. This is easily the best stuff I have read this year. You have got to check this guy out. He will kick you in the balls and then make you grateful for it. Great, great stuff.

Is the bookstore your library, or do you squirrel books away at home?

Working in the bookstore is absolutely brutal for my financial status in this world. I spend a money weekly in order to feed my habit. But, believe it or not, I do not collect books. I have maybe 20-30 titles at a time that I trade in or lend out (you never really get books back, do you?). Sharing is caring.

If you could meet a character on the halodeck, who would it be? And what would you do?

It’s a toss up between Jack London’s character Burning Daylight, racing across the Alaskan tundra on a dog sled to the next gold stake; Rafael Sabatini’s Dr. Peter Blood on the high seas, or Robert Howard’s Conan, sneaking into some evil sorcerer’s castle to rescue a kidnapped princess.

What’s one of the most important lesson you’ve learned from reading?

That’s a tough one. I guess aside from teaching me how to relax and let go of all the bullshit, reading has taught me to see the world with my imagination. If you turn your back on imagination, you lose it.

Apropos of Salinger’s death, when did you first read Cather in the Rye? What kind of impact did it have on you? And what do you remember most about it?

Oh man, Salinger. I was 25. I actually read Nine Stories before any of his other books. After the first story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” I was hooked. I read the Catcher in the Rye along with Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, that same week. Holden Caulfield, with his sarcastic, bitter voice, became an instant hero of mine. He made me want to walk away from everything. To be free. To thumb my nose at society and its inane rules. In a way, I did. I quit my job, I ended a two-year relationship, I moved to another house. I vowed to live differently—and did. Mr. J.D. Salinger, for the well being and integrity of the literary world, I hope, when they bust open his vault, they find nothing, except maybe a picture of him showing the world his middle finger.

Why do you read?

I think books have kept the wheels turning and my imagination hungry for the next adventure. This is why fiction lures me in. It is the adventure. The thought that it just might be real. The feeling, that you don’t know what is around the next corner. It might be the love of your life or the Grim Reaper in a recliner tipping a pint.

Transgressing the world

February 14, 2010
Toughest to travel is the distance between two people. —Fiona Sze-Lorrain

What’s in a hypen, that great unsung hero of punctuation? Well, in the case of Fiona Sze-Lorrain, a lot. Fiona is a writer and an editor. She is a bridge between Asian-French and American cultural landscapes. And she lives in both France and New York City and is a translator and a solo zither concertist, to boot. In addition to connecting these seemingly different worlds, Fiona is also a poet whose work was recently published by Marick Press. Water the Moon is a slim, elegant volume of poetry marked by a yearning for intimacy. Of course, before anything else, before being a concertist or a poet or a taut hyphen between two cultures, she’s an eclectic reader who enjoys novels, memoirs, folk tales, historical narratives, and mythologies. For more on Fiona, please visit  

Who are you? 

I don’t know who I am, but what I am, yes! A wife of an authentic, exigeant Frenchman who has been leading a profound and artful life since the 1960s, live in Paris, divide time in New York, born in Singapore, of mixed cultural heritages, an aspiring cook and baker who tackles different facets of French gastronomy, conscientious about saving every tree, plant and paper, “analyze” first-edition books, write poetry, edit a magazine, pluck an ancient Chinese zither and play Bach for a couple of hours everyday, practice script calligraphy, in the midst of working on a French critical monograph on Gao Xingjian’s theatre aesthetics…  

What was the last novel you read? How did you like it?  

Against the Grain (À rebours)

There were a couple of books that I just finished reading; a French novel, a Russian memoir (translation), and two other English titles: À rebours (1884) by J-K. Huysmann, which is a hallucinating and mystical classic; the humbling and inspiring Hope Against Hope by Nadezhda Mandelstram; Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin by Maeve Brennan (whose lucidity I enjoy), and a thick but worthy biography on Victor Hugo by Graham Robb.  

How important are imagery, meter, repetition, and other poetic devices in your enjoyment of novels?  

Poetic devices? I’m unsure how exactly, though I’m sure somehow and somewhere they do play a role! Power of images, an attractive and confident voice, the style of embedding narrative moments within paragraphs… these help me to better enjoy novels.  

Can you say a little about your interest in “subversive” literature — and perhaps suggest a book or two (or three) for global citizens to read?  

Perhaps we may have different understandings of the notion “subversive” — by that, I do read and mean it as “transgressive.” Any form of literature that is pacesetting, I believe, must transgress. What is “subversive” and what is not — beyond cultural differences and time difference? Who should decide the definition of “subversive,” when the word itself carries a world without limits? Is André Breton’s Nadja subversive? How about Marquis de Sade? Lolita? D.H. Lawrence? Writings by Karl or Groucho Marx? One of my all-time favorites is Living My Life (1931) by Emma Goldman. Try the Bible. Is it “subversive”? Well, I have four copies of it, in three different versions and languages. I do not recommend The Little Red Book of Mao Tse-tung.  

Who is one of your favorite poets, and what does he/she do with language and experience that a novelist like Gao Xingjian or Virginia Woolf does not?  

Poetic voices that return to me constantly over the years are many: Wislawa Szymborska, Pierre Reverdy, W.H. Auden, W.S. Merwin, Pablo Neruda, Hai Zi, Theresa Cha, James Wright, Zbigniew Herbert, Anna Akhmatova, André Breton, Su Dongpo… Poets whose work inspire me greatly happen to be very strong prose writers, too. Breton’s Poisson soluable (The Soluable Fish) is a strong example. At first glance, novels and poetry are entirely different beasts, but they’re really looking for the same piece of meat. Perhaps a poet goes for intensity and concentrated visuality, while a novelist exercises patience of unraveling narratives and poeticism over varying moments of originality, impulses, instincts, and addiction. Virginia Woolf, for instance, clearly explores poetry in her novels, aesthetically and contextually. The Waves, for me, is a hybrid work, meandering between prose poetry and fiction. How her language delves into conflicting streams of consciousness (or narrative voices) and blocks of musicality rendered purely by language work is totally unpredictable. Each different read brings different surprises and discoveries. Ultimately, I guess a novelist, just like a poet, seeks time (with a capital “T”) and timelessness in terms of an experience, both from the perspectives of a writer’s and a reader’s. Honestly, I hedge the question a little simply because both a poet and a novelist are writers, concerned with writing as a process. They believe in language as a bird with mighty wings, even though they see different skies.  

How do you bookmark pages, leaf, string, feather, dog ear, shoe lace, or some other newfangled device?  

I bookmark pages with colored pens, pencils, crayons, teaspoons, chopsticks… and tiny pieces of paper like outdated receipts and metro tickets. No, I do not dog ear. I think that is a sin (!), an act of negligence and disrespect to a book as an organic object that has a life and dignity of its own. That said, guess what?! I have indeed committed this crime/sin before … to secondhand books, for example, and worst, to books that I borrowed from public libraries! (I have confessed and have turned over a new leaf since those times of “delinquence.”)  

What are the ideal conditions for you to read with enjoyment?  

Quiet moments of solitude in a winter afternoon, by a fireplace, in my lavender armchair, with the biggest mug of richly textured chocolat chaud** (i.e. the kind you find at Brasserie Lipp) and magnifique, palm-sized macarons à la noisette bought from the artisanal Viennese pâtisserie at rue de l’École de Médicine in the Latin Quarter. Alas, I don’t think I am capable of reading with undivided attention in Jardin du Luxembourg, where Parisians dogwalk or jog half-naked, with our American counterparts (i.e. tourists) exclaiming in the heart of the city. 

Is there an author you wished had the ear of President Obama?

J.K. Rowling (the left ear) and Li Po (the right ear).  

Do you ever kiss a line, a page, a cover of a book?  

No. The smell of a book is something sensual to me, though. A book is like a man, a lover, a night… n’est-ce pas?  

Why do you read?  

I read to escape; I write to confront.  

# # #  

**Like most addicts, I don’t play favorites with my obsessions. Between my love of books and 72% cacao, I’m a happy, go-lucky bigamist. So when Fiona drizzled “chocolat” in her description of solitary bliss, I got hungry. In case you did, too, here’s Fiona’s favorite recipe:  

Chocolat Chaud  

–1.5 cups of milk
–6.5 ounces of good quality, semi-sweet chocolate, finely powdered or chopped
–A teaspoon of brown sugar
–Coarse salt (optional)
–Whipped cream

1. Heat up milk mixed with chocolate and a teaspoon of brown sugar and dash of salt until boiling.  

2. Then simmer and stir thoroughly, adjusting heat as needed. Simmer for three minutes for a rich texture. Serve with whipped cream, sugar, and walnuts, to taste.

The Plot’s the Thing / Wherein We’ll…

January 31, 2010

When I look back on my life, at the teachers and professors who have profoundly influenced me, I can trace with my finger, like so many bright points in the sky, a constellation of people stretching from 1st grade to graduate school. There’s Pat—simply Pat, because that’s how we rolled at the OK Program—and there’s Mr. Burns and Mr. Amlin. Then there’s Moses Moreno and the Dr.’s triumvirate: professors Kaye, Mirvish, and Rich. And finally there’s professor Daryl Koehn (pronounced “cane”) who helped me uncover the splendid treasures of Plato’s dialogues. To read The Republic or The Crito or even The Statesman with Daryl is to develop a whole new appreciation for the glories of literary technique and the luminosity of philosophical argument. What I wouldn’t give to be in a seminar with Daryl right now, reading Plato and teasing out the implications of an ethic of thoughtfulness!

Who are you?

If you mean “What is your job title?”, I am the Executive Director of the Center for Business Ethics in the Cameron School of Business at the University of St. Thomas. If you mean “Who are you simply?”, I suppose I’d have to say “I don’t know.” We spend our entire lives finding out who we are. “Know thyself” is not an easy injunction to fulfill. Plus, to some extent, others get to say who we are. As Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are discovering, much to their chagrin, they don’t get to control how history remembers them.

What’s the best book you’ve read this year? Why did you like it?

White Tiger by Aravnd Adig. The book gripped me from the opening pages, and I continued to think about the plot and the book’s tone for weeks. On the one hand, we know from the start of the book something of what is to happen. On the other hand, I was completely mesmerized by the unfolding answer to the question of why this entrepreneur does what he does. The book explores all sorts of dimensions of the idea of the entrepreneur and raises questions about whether entrepreneurs in modern capitalistic systems are amoral or perhaps even immoral. I also learned a lot about how the caste system functions in India, a subject about which I knew next to nothing.

Do you have any superstitions when it comes to reading?

No, but I have a strong prejudice in favor of plots. I think Isaak Dinesen was on to something when she said that we are witnessing the destruction of the novel, for many modern authors increasingly do not understand how to reveal character through plot. Instead, they settle for building stories around character tics, and I’m not much interested in “quirky” personalities per se. I find that American novelists are especially enchanted by character traits, and so I generally prefer British or other foreign novelists to most American authors currently on the scene.

Do you analyze, size up, or generally interrogate someone’s library when you visit their home? What’s your modus operandi?

I suppose I register whether books are a large part of the person’s life. If the person is a good friend and so won’t mind my snooping, I will browse his or her collection, looking for off-beat titles or for books published by foreign presses.

As far back as Plato, there’s been an uneasy relationship between poetry and narrative fiction, on the one hand, and philosophy, on the other. What can the philosopher, in particular, the ethicist, learn from novels?

Well-plotted novels show us that activities have their own trajectories or internal logics. As I argue in my book The Nature of Evil, evil has a quasi-mechanical quality insofar as people get caught up in trajectories that possess logics of their own. In initiating the trajectory, the agent might be said to act from within. But evil has an external dimension to the extent that the activity or behavior takes on a life of its own. For example, once Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s protagonist, takes on the identity of the man he has murdered, he can begin to tell himself he has done nothing wrong. He certainly hasn’t killed anyone because he is Dickie Greenleaf, so how could he have murdered Dickie? His action—the plot—itself makes this logic available to him.

What does Henry James’ novel Turn of the Screw teach us about the nature of evil?

Again the work reveals how and why it is way too simple to equate evil with malicious intention. The governess acts to preserve the authority she must have if she is to be the governess she has been hired to be. We are never told her name—only her title. Without giving away the plot line, I would say that evil—if that is indeed what James is portraying—arises from the individual’s identification with a false self (in this case, a role). That role makes certain choices and actions available to the governess—she can plausibly defend her actions and others are willing to go along with those actions as long as these deeds conform with the social definition of the role. Since each of us is always more than a role, this identification with the false self is inherently unstable and thus anxiety-producing. Yet if we have not opened ourselves up to some other non-ego based form of selfhood, we will cling ever more tightly to the false self, seeking to shore it up with increasingly desperate measures. James is brilliant at showing how that sort of mechanism might work.

Is there a book that’s been raved about by many, even by people you respect, but just didn’t get what all the fuss was about, even to the point of questioning your own literary standards?

I’ve tried to read Cormac McCarthy but just couldn’t get into his books. I guess I found the writing a bit wooden—too much repetition of pronouns with a choppy cadence. But that’s not to say I might not try him again later. Don’t you find that sometimes a book just doesn’t suit your current mood? Years later, one’s mood has altered, and suddenly a previously shunned work seems luminous with meaning and relevance.

What novel should replace the Gideon’s Bible in hotel rooms worldwide? Explain.

Novels aren’t works of religion, so I don’t think any novel could ever “replace” the Bible.