Mad Hatters' Review Issue 10, Fall 2008
<< cover
Mutual Interview between
Harold Jaffe & Terese Svoboda
Harold Jaffe & Terese Svoboda
Harol Jaffe: Hannah Arendt employs the phrase "inner emigration" to characterize those writers and artists who chose to remain in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust for reasons of convenience. Though not emigrating literally, they emigrated emotionally, separating themselves from the genocide.

With your permission, let me quote some lines from my text, "The Writer in Wartime":

You live in Des Moines, Iowa, and are a published novelist with a modest reputation based on your narratives about white middle-class domestic crises. You also serve in a National Guard military police unit, and your company is called up and sent to Iraq to function as MP's in Abu Ghraib Prison, west of Baghdad. There, you observe and strongly disapprove of the unlawful abuse and torture of the inmates, many of them innocent Iraqi teenagers snatched from the streets. Do you continue to write narrative still lifes or do you bracket your customary subject in order to bear witness, to broadcast as widely as possible the unlawful, immoral treatment in Abu Ghraib?

You are an "Aryan" painter living in Berlin during the Reich. You have heard and read about the extermination camps. You have seen Nazis violently mistreat Jews and gypsies, homosexuals and the disabled. Appalled colleagues and friends--most of them Aryans like you--have left the country. You yourself are appalled at the Nazi practices. At the same time, you continue to sell your pictures--oil and watercolor renditions of rustic woodland scenes--and make a respectable living in Germany, so you choose not to leave the country, at least physically. Mentally, you have separated yourself from the ongoing atrocities. You have, in Hannah Arendt's words, embarked on an inner emigration, and in keeping with this "emigration" your art does not in any way reflect the Nazi virulence.

My question to you, Terese, is: does being silent about the US's violent infliction on Iraq constitute complicity?

Terese Svoboda: Even in highly politicized times, not all art has to be political. Those in terrible situations like the Holocaust still created music, admired the sunset and wrote about it. Art has many functions. But complete silence about terrible situations makes the artist complicit. Silence abandons his soul to manipulation, deadens him--the one who emigrates elsewhere. There is no other life than the one we are living. Sure, artists, like many others, are quickly compassion-fatigued, bombarded with images of war and grisly coverage. At least that’s been the case since Vietnam. But with Iraq there haven't been enough coverage or images to cause such fatigue. Accepting censorship is certainly complicity. Soldiers are dying; civilians are dying. Silence makes you one of those who decide on wars, makes you guilty. I'm very disturbed by the spate of movies that depict the war in Iraq as a joke. (You Don't Mess with the Zohan and War, Inc. in particular). That's using art to further deaden, that's Cabaret to the max.

My question: Is mixing fiction with fact avoiding authorial responsibility, a peek-a-boo tactic that puts the whole enterprise of the writing into question? What do you gain by saying a work is partly fiction? Does the well-made story beckon and is it for that reason you decide to fictionalize? Or is it to protect the innocent, the bystander who is made part of the story, or is it to protect the writer, the only character who is truly not innocent? What did you think of the Oulipian spy story My Life in CIA by Harry Matthews?

Harol Jaffe: Now that postmodernism is allegedly spent, it has been predictably downgraded, even vilified. Never mind its excesses, the postmodern is not entirely spent, and in any case it embodied certain crucial insights, one of which is that fiction is never absolutely fiction, even as nonfiction is and must be to some extent fictionalized.

This insight--not especially subtle on its own--was usefully applied to historiography, a species of fiction almost always written by official "experts" dependent on grants and mainstream approval. Which means that heterodox notions have to be suppressed or secreted in the text.

So-called journalism is even more palpably fictionalized than historiography, especially in times of perceived crisis.

My "docufiction," then, is intended to accomplish a few things: expose the pious NY Times or NY Review of Books journalists and fancy historiographers by foregrounding the fiction, while at the same time using the hybrid form to advance my own anti-institutional ideas.

As far as the "well-made" story, docufiction can be well-made on its own terms as, say, a documentary by Eisenstein or Costa-Gavras is well-made. But I also think that crisis-writing, even though it is rapidly composed and nominally addressed to a certain issue, has as much esthetic purchase as what Roland Barthes called "white writing"--texts about texts and deliberately separated from the world outside the imagining mind.

Consider the revolutionary posters of May '68 in France, or Gran Fury's anti-homophobic posters and artwork in the HIV 80s. They were done hastily, situationally, in response to crises. Fifty years from now, assuming the world is functioning, these crises responses will not seem any less "artistic" than the "well-made" fiction or poem allegedly hors de combat.

In either case--whether "white writing" or engaged writing; whether John Ashbery or Brecht--fifty years later the context will be effaced and the contemporary reader will have to extrapolate from his/her own inevitably different context what either Ashbery or Brecht was about.

I haven't read Matthews' book, but I am familiar with the Oulipian impulse, which is yet another way to constrain the writer to write within prescribed boundaries. Not so different from the poet who writes a sestina or villanelle or Petrarchan sonnet. The imposed boundaries can open previously ignored areas of the imaginative sensibility.

It is documented in Frances Stonor Saunders's The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (The New Press, 2000) that any number of writers and artists: TS Eliot, Peter Matthiessen, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Andre Malraux, Stephen Spender, Cszelaw Milosz, Bertrand Russell, Robert Lowell, George Plimpton, Mary McCarthy, George Orwell, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko . . . were in the employ of the CIA, who were searching in their incomparably moronic way for "cultural" communism. Matthews might very well have been one of them.

Rather than ask another question, Terese, do you have any response to my instant analysis?

Terese Svoboda: I always start backwards responding to emails. It's where the conversation left off.

My Life in CIA subverts the spy genre as an autobiographical novella that blends into fiction, in which the writer's friends decide he is with the CIA and he can't convince them otherwise so he tries to act as if he is. Although Matthews has made Oulipian work, this is not one of them except in its elision of fact/fiction on the meta-level of genre. Only the writer, as the protagonist, is affected by this elision. That is, it's only his reputation at stake by this interpretation of his life as opposed to work that tells the stories of other people without revealing the writer's alignment. Of course the sly conflation of fact/fiction with autobiography is the motive for re-writing the genre itself. I thought the book's premise was the ultimate fact/fiction elision.

To me, the 50's documentary film, derived from the authoritative newsreel--indeed, the term "documentary" itself--loomed large over any telling of fact until New Journalism erupted. Having made a number of experimental documentaries, I always return to Chris Marker's Le Soleil which I first saw in the early eighties at Film Forum. So clearly was the dialogue separated from the image that I suddenly saw how manipulated the documentary could be. But that space was less audience-betraying than poetic, that is, it opened up a metaphorical resonance between fact and fiction that revealed a new kind of truth about the moving images. I'm interested in truth. My encounter with the memoir genre taught me that truth is the only lens that the writer has to stand behind.

I am not familiar with your use of the term "historiography." The French historiographer who provided me with information about MacArthur's postwar Japan dug up some of the thousands of documents--they were called SCAPINS--that MacArthur issued that were archived all over the world, and quoted them verbatim. Many of these documents were not available in the U.S., such unavailability resulting in a skewed kind of "fact" being put forward by scholars here. In other words, fiction made in the void of information, not truth. I believe this is a situation we both deplore.

How is "white writing" similar to the French "pensee?" Your Paris 60 reminded me often of Pascal, writing that excites because it touches the brain in the act.

Harol Jaffe: Ah, viewing Sans Soleil in the Film Forum. When I lived in NY I was often there; when I come to NY now, once or twice a year, I often find myself going there to see a revival and breathe the air with cinephiles.

Sans Soleil is, I think, a good example of deliberately eliding or bending the genres of fiction and "docufiction." However, the "truth" you say you are after, Terese, is deliberately elusive. Instead there are "truths."

For me that is an important distinction. What is the truth of "Jihad" and suicide bombings? In Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers (yet another docufiction), the captured FLN leader, when asked incredulously by the French colonel how he could condone exploding bombs in working class cafes and murdering innocent people outside the fray, responds to this effect: "Give us your tanks and aircraft so that we can kill people from above the cloud line without hearing their cries, without smelling their blood, and we will no longer bomb as we have been constrained to do."

Several truths circulate here; the French, like the US and Israel currently, do not imagine themselves as terrorists, even as they are certain of the suicide bomber's terror. Whereas, the FLN leader sees so-called "licit" terror as more devastating than the much smaller scale, of-necessity response, which his adversaries label terrorism.

I often talk about wanting to leave my readers pent rather than purged in the Aristotelian sense, so that they will have to continue to think and feel even after they've stopped reading. Continue, that is, to sort out truths from quasi-truths and falsehoods. If this sounds like a kind of relativism, then I admit to it. I like to think of it also as a willing suspension of disbelief. Rather than denounce the suicide bomber or kamikaze or Mau Mau, I'd rather try to view the world from their vantage.

With all my intellectual veneer, I am primarily an intuitive writer, and when I first came across Pascal's Pensees in college, I was immediately attracted. His willing himself to believe represents a kind of anti-logical truth, which is similar to the heroic communist Gramsci declaring himself a "pessimist of the intellect but an optimist of the will." Again, "truths" rather than truth, as such.

Terese Svoboda: Truth with a capital T. Capitals have been banned.

In your Paris 60, cellphones appear as your bette noir. Pre-cellphone, the anthropologist James Clifford wrote about immigrants living in a kind of elsewhere, investing their emotional lives in telephone calls to their home country and just going through the motions in their adopted country. Where do these new cellphone people live? Because my husband invents ways of expanding the use of the cellphone into all aspects of our everyday existence, I am acutely aware of how the object--more and more used as a miniature computer rather than a telephone--is focusing our intellectual as well as our emotional lives. These users (in the drug sense) are no longer with us. Complete disclosure: I use a cellphone myself only in emergencies, and do not own one.

How do this ubiquitous cellphone use affect the literary life? I can only think, that like the downside of email, less time is available for deeper thought.

Harol Jaffe: Were this 35 years ago, I think that many of the very bright young people invested in "high" technology would instead be writing and ruminating about mind-expanding drugs. Right brain, Buddhism, the flesh and blood body, jouissance vs left brain, calculation, the virtual body, material advancement.

Different Zeitgeist, different accommodation.

EF Schumacher has written of "intermediate technology," that is, of employing technology insofar as it aids in inhabiting our bedeviled planet. Instead, the predictable response has been: If it can be done, let's do it. Irrespective of its, so to speak, ethical relevance.

The mobile phone and advanced technology in general circumscribe vision, substituting, as Paul Virilio puts it, motility for mobility. Instead of the "real-time" body moving and witnessing, we have the fingers on the mouse or on the screen promoting virtual movement. And witness is of course limited to what the screen bequests. "Technocave," is how I put it in a recent book.

Another crucial aspect of the electronic paradigm is speed, though often without any clear direction, as such. Even intelligent graduate students are incapable of reading 100 pages a week of a George Eliot novel, let's say. So wedded are they to the current paradigm, most students need--crave--space, short-hand, small captioned units. And these students--and people generally-- are always "busy." How often can we reach a person on the (land-based) phone, let alone have an unhurried conversation with her or him?

Hence the mind and "deeper thought" . . .

The entire notion of what defines intelligence and sensibility has altered and has very little to do with what formerly was called culture.

Final point: In the US, an entire population of elderly people are marginalized, even eliminated, because they are outside the technology loop. Around the world, continents of "third world" people are further segregated because they cannot afford to purchase the ever-new technology.

What we have in sum, I believe, is a new version of totalitarianism, global variety. Like the old forms, it is a totalitarianism that, while imposed by official culture, is made to seem immanent--the way things are.

Terese Svoboda: One only has to pull the plug, something that global warming will facilitate. Your comments about time are so apt. But has this shorter attention span produced just shorter works, or more poetic works? The rise of "flash fiction"--or your Paris 60? I am curious about its form. Did you stake out an Oulipian structure for them, in time or so many words? Baudelaire would have gone on.

Harol Jaffe: Like other "Holocausts," it is very difficult for the majority of people to comprehend the urgency--let alone irreversibility--of global warming. The rapidly melting ice floes on the two poles, the radically deviating weather patterns, the sudden erasure of animal and plant species . . .

Again, people are fastened to their dead animal--media technology--which assures us the situation is far from grave, etc.

The reconfiguration of "time", as I witness it, has had these influences on art making: Writing, which apes the paradigm of the computer page, is comprised of shorter units, usually captioned, and contains a great deal more "negative space."

Where the writing unit is longer, say novel length, it has many more breaks, and/or fits into a particular niche. Niche art is increasingly important in an increasingly homogenized world.

Visual and plastic art interfaces a great deal more with technology, and that is in principle good, because our job as artists and thinkers is, as I see it, to humanize the culture that encompasses us; even as some of us, at least, want to explode or more palpably subvert that culture.

When I published Madonna & Other Spectacles in 1988, the individual units were long, energized, run-on.

Now I use much more negative (positive)space in my work, not as a capitulation to the dominant culture, but as a stratagem to modify, deconstruct, reconstitute the givens.

Have you, Terese, made any "accommodations" to the rapidly changing culture in your work?

Terese Svoboda: To answer your question about my own accommodations to the technology-driven media--I think my background as a poet using condensed narratives has made my work more easily transferable to new media than most, except maybe to the cellphone. I've seen some fabulous student work with words and images on the cellphone but they were really more about design than writing. That's another brain. Compression, an interest in imagery and white space--that's the poet's forte and I was delighted to extend it into fiction. I'm impatient, another New Yorker asset appropriate to these tech times. Reading poetry online, however, is an entirely differently struggle. And I have to admit that I have not fully mastered Finalcutpro so my video output has been derailed. It seemed as if I had to learn a new program every year in the nineties and I was, in the end, more interested in ye olde English.

Harol Jaffe: An evocative paradox about innovative artists is that while they cultivate unpredictability in their work they tend to like things outside art-making to be stable and unchanging. I think of Giacometti occupying the same tiny studio for 40 years, eating at the same cafe every day at the same time and ordering the same meal always accompanied by two glasses of robust vin de maison.

A few generations ago, most serious published writers had agents who were committed to their clients and did the leg-work and preliminary marketing.

Now in our new millennium with Technology as Queen Mother, artists are encouraged (nay, compelled) to master the ever-changing technology and codes that go along with it so that we can advertise ourselves online.

Makes it hard for the introverted right-brain types with fertile imaginations, who have trouble tying their shoelaces.

Artistic introversion has been transformed into an interior frontier that like the exterior frontiers is being drilled for fossil fuel.

Terese Svoboda: Stable and unchanging certainly does help the work. Read the Paris Review interviews and you will see that most artists work in the morning and they do it everyday.

You would have thought technology would make the publicist more efficient rather than nonexistent! More disturbing to me is an interview in Poets and Writers with the prominent agent Nat Sobel. He used James Ellroy's Black Dahlia publicity strategy as an example of what authors need to do to sell books. That was to put most of whatever advance they get back into publicity. In other words, don't pay the author. In more civilized places, libraries send remittances to authors whenever their books are checked out—in addition to advances.

I know, I know--no one pays the avant garde. But when no one pays the mitte guard, there's fire, not just smoke.

Harol Jaffe: The new dispensation can't readily distinguish between innovative and quasi-innovative, but it has a paranoiac awareness of any writing or art which slips outside approved categories or niches.

Some of the most endowed libraries--UC Berkeley and Univ of Texas Austin, for example--has each, as I understand it, mostly stripped its main library of books and inserted technology. The books and even the most fragile mss have been displaced to other sectors of the campus.

Hard copy imaginative writing is obsolescent; but--and this is a crucial point—the obsolescence is not inevitable. As I mentioned earlier in my brief discourse on postmodernism, it is essential that we not confuse fiat with transcendence. That fact that imagining, thinking, language itself are being flattened, globalized is an imposed not an inevitable outrage.

Artists have to learn to conceive and work collectively so that they can fight back; like Act Up and Gran Fury during the virulent HIV demonizing of gay males in the '80s and '90s.

Terese Svoboda: Everybody has to get organized. 1984 has passed.

Edgy and Enlightened Literature, Art and Music in the Age of Dementia
to top
last update: October 14, 2008