Editor-in-Chief of Fiction International Harold Jaffe was interviewed by Robin Andreasen of Sleipnir about his novel Othello Blues. The interview will be published in Sleipnir in Fall 2014.
The following is a transcript of the interview:
Robin Andreasen: Your work in crisis art or docufiction, including incisive discussions of serial killers, prisoners, artists (the piece on Van Gogh in Anti-Twitter still haunts me), suggests that it is primarily through dialogue and engagement with the most abject, the spectral in William Spanos’ terms, that the right questions can be asked of power dynamics and moral obligation. The stakes are high in every piece you write. Rather than an abject subject, in Othello’s Blues you take on the most “auratic” of subjects, Shakespeare. Is this book a sort of interrogation of the free-floating assumptions of “canonicity” and race spanning 500 years?
Harold Jaffe: From serial killers to Shakespeare seems a leap, but 15 Serial Killers includes texts both on the remarkable-in-his-way Dr Kevorkian and the detestable “tragic” villain Dr Kissinger, who can also double as a fool, which may lessen the gap.
Academic desocialized reductions of Iago, such as the oft-repeated “motiveless malignity” summary of his characterization, were predictable. It was my combined interest in the vulnerable Moorish general and the consummate hater Iago which fueled me. That I was in the process of reconstituting Shakespeare meant little. “Icons” are always more elastic than we think; that they are addres-sed and thereby modified, not blindly venerated, is as it should be.
I think of the elderly French self-described Dadaist who twice urinated in a replica of Duchamp’s famous 1917 urinal in exhibitions in Nimes and Paris. The old pisser insisted that Duchamp would have been pleased at the intervention, and I think he is right.
To respond to your question precisely, yes, taking on “canonicity” was a factor, but my dual interest in Iago’s complex hate and the long, unjust punishment of Africans was the primary motive.
RA: Is it possible for a member of an educated elite to adequately speak to the woes and ideals of a racial and economic underclass without appropriating, thus commercializing through reification, the very racial struggles he/she seeks to diagnose and declaim?
HJ: No and yes. For example, Brecht, Neruda, and despite his ambivalence over Algeria, Camus, were able to “speak” to the underclass, whereas Whitman (not among the educated elite, as such), who envisioned his Leaves of Grass as another bible, accessible even to the semi-literate, mostly failed.
The underclass will read a book to the best of their capacities, as they consult the koran, the bible, or Buddhist sutras; but they must be convinced that the book will help them navigate a problematic world. Now, with books obsolescent, at least in the “First World,” it is a moot point.
RA: Verona is for sissies! In your dystopian future, America is alien yet all too familiar as you ask us to consider our cultural logic. Why this radical change in setting? Why is it important that you set the book in the future? Is this simply to give you flexibility as a story teller through fabulation, to use Robert Scholes’ term?
HJ: Odd happenstance. The original volume of Othello Blues was published in 1996 in a limited edition. Then, the narrative details were much closer to my declared “20 minutes into the future.” Revising the novel nearly 20 years later presented problems; technology had intervened crucially. And several of the other projected details had one way or another been realized. So I was faced with an anomalous narrative, part futurist, part present, part outmoded (if my virtual exclusion of technology counts as outmoded). After thinking about it and making numerous small changes, I decided that the hybrid quality which combines past, present and near future (without technology) might have its own peculiar purchase, and I decided to go ahead rather than try to homogenize the text as technically closer to the near future.
Including technology means getting it right, which means up to the nanosecond precision. Moreover, techno-futurism forces writing into predetermined tropes and rhythms. I didn’t want that. And, yes, setting the novel in the future give me considerably more flexibility.
RA: Othello Blues stays grounded in African-American experience through engagement with the blues. I am reminded of Baldwin’s seminal work “Sonny’s Blues.” How would you describe the way in which the blues speaks to the American experience in a counter-cultural fashion?
HJ: There was a period in the early to mid-Sixties, featuring Stokely Carmichael and the Black Power movement, where blues music was reviled as a passive acceptance of black victimization. Many other people, black and non-black, maintained that blues was more complex than that, and I agree. Not in “Sonny’s Blues” but in The Fire Next Time, if I remember correctly, Baldwin compares black vernacular to coded communication, such as black prison inmates exchanging messages by tapping at their cell walls; coded so that it could not be readily penetrated by the “Man.”
Blues is coded, but of course it could be co-opted, as, say, breakdancing has been co-opted. Still, as I hear it, Delta and later Chicago blues are derived from a history of black African grief and loving which cannot be duplicated, not even by Iago whose “black” vernacular is more extreme than any black characterization in Othello Blues.
Regarding Iago, it was only after I ruminated about how I’d inscribed him that I realized that deplorable as he was, in a dialectical sense he was close to estimable; in perhaps the way that I meant Charles Manson, in 15 Serial Killers and Jesus Coyote to be both deplorable and close to estimable.
As I often have cause to remark, this is not a triage system: one can despise a characterization like Iago or Manson for inflicting cruelty on the innocent without addressing the entire complexity of the man. The “estimable” part of Manson is his funky defiance, his insistence on staying alive while thrusting his raunchy ass into the face of institutional law and what is called justice. I think too that his chaotic-seeming discourse about the out-of-joint world has point, for those who attend to it without patronization.
With Iago, I wanted to suggest his deeper disgust with a world festering in its own corruption. That he addresses his deep disgust by displacing it, that is, by mimicking official culture’s victimization of the innocent, is, to me, beside the point.
RA: Do you think that your fiction provides the sort of “counter-memory” Toni Morrison calls for? As the Dickinsonian dictum runs, tell the truth but tell it slant. Often, your work asks us to revisit key cultural moments and figures in order to find what the official record cannot or will not say, giving your reader the dread of the abomination, the rough contours of some forgotten theater of cruelty. In Othello’s Blues, we see familiar names, but are constantly displaced, much like your vision of Iago. This displacement is the chief virtue of liars, who break our ties to the known and give us false harbor. In Morrison’s sense, we must engage in counter-memory to reclaim a lost and spectral history. Is such a reclamation possible through the art of fiction?
HJ: Institutional memory lies by definition. Street rebellions by the poor are labeled riots. And longer term rebellions, such as mounted by the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, the American Indian Movement, and the 1968 student uprisings have been blithely devalued into the violent play side of Woodstock Nation–our counter-cultural circus.
When official culture finally conveys a portion of truth about social activism, as in the 2014 French-American film (The Activist) about the 1973 Wounded Knee uprising, it comes 40 years too late, when contemporary tragedy has become a kind of archeology. Movie viewers are prompted to feel virtuous as they watch the US government violently abort the Native American uprising, but 40 years later the Pine Ridge reservation is still foundering in South Dakota, and the valiant Oglala Sioux Leonard Peltier is still in prison for life despite the recantation of witnesses.
To what extent fiction or even non-fictional discourse can “reclaim” the institutionally disappeared history is a grievous question. The short answer is it cannot. Even if planet earth were not seemingly in its death throes, writing itself would be useless without collective social action.
It is true that Sartre’s influence was crucial in France’s decolonization of Algeria, but that was in 1961 when thinking and writing, perhaps especially in France, were sometimes efficacious. In any case, France had decolonized Morocco and Tunisia and was about ready to give up on Algeria.
I’ve often cited Antonio Gramsci’s self-appraisal—that he was a “pessimist of the intellect, but an optimist of the will.” Now it is nearly impossible to will yourself to optimism. Myself, I try to write in the Buddhist sense of “right vocation,” without any expectations. It is not easy.
In the late Fifties, Frantz Fanon, the Martinican psychiatrist, writer and social activist, was making a speech in French-controlled northwest Africa about the necessity for a pan-African movement, when he broke down and nearly wept. A sympathetic listener remarked that after hearing a series of pro-forma platitudes from African heads of state to suddenly be confronted with this brilliant analyst who dared to show his heart in such an inhospitable setting was shocking. I sometimes feel that that is all we have left—to dare to weep in anguish no matter what the setting.
Anguish need not mean fear. John Berger writes of the Palestinians’ “despair without fear.” Their Semitic cousins, the Jews who fought back in the Warsaw Uprising, seemed also to possess despair without fear. Nonetheless, fear is eminently justified, especially in these dark days.
RA: Your connection of Iago the puppetmaster and Manson, whose cult status and personal charisma built his distorted “family,” is intriguing. Iago as military Machiavellian and Manson as cult guru seem like opposed types in some ways. Shakespeare’s Iago refuses his foes even an explanation, whereas as Manson gave nothing but grandiose justification. To ask the broad question that every age wrestles with in futility, what do you see as the nature of evil in our increasingly complex, relativistic, global system?
HJ: My tendency, with Rousseau, is to believe that “evil” is generated by culture. We are finite and dependent on official culture to supply our basic needs. Univer-sity students these days accrue large debts, so they are scarcely in position to contest the culture, to think and feel broadly, to move laterally, as they should while in college. The more time spent learning, the more money they owe.
Most humans are similarly enchained; it is much easier for them to be complicit than to rebel with the likelihood of losing what relative civilities they possess.
RA: As I write this, I spent the day listening to grim news of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, culminating with footage of a university reduced to rubble. In what ways besides art and our work as teachers do you believe dissent and resistance are alive and well, our cultural “funky defiance” (the Duchamp urination story is priceless, by the way)? How are we empowered to resist the excesses of power in the 21st century?
HJ: That holocausted European Jewry has devolved into Israel is one of those fateful ironies that pains the heart. The inescapable fact that Israel has “verminized” their Semitic cousins in ways that recall their own denigration by the Third Reich is both lamentable, and, given the historical and geographical circumstances, not entirely unexpected.
The Dutch were not genocided, but an Afrikaans in a black culture is not at all like an Amsterdammer. Notice, though, how even “liberal” Western Europe is moving toward despotism, which they attribute to impoverished, immigrating Muslims whom they have demonized.
When I speak of official culture, I mean to include the vast problems of over-population, rapidly diminishing resources, and omnivorous capitalism, with its republican guard of corrupt government, media and maniacal technology.
John Kenneth Galbraith, the progressive Canadian economist who served under several democratic presidents, was asked what it would take for Americans to finally recognize their servitude and act autonomously on their own behalf. His provisional response was that a concatenation of three large-scale human tragedies might prod humans into waking up and directly addressing their institutional slave-keepers. But Galbraith’s response came long before electronic media virused the globe.
Consider: global warming proceeding more rapidly than scientists could imagine; the endless-seeming tragedy of Fukushima murdering people and animals and poisoning the Pacific Ocean; and devastating wars with the ongoing threat of nuclear weapons all over the world. Still, electronic media informs us that all is as it should be, even as circuses of frenzied “entertainment” metastasize to confirm the institutional lie.
Edward Snowden is indispensable, and he seems to have the courage of a martyr, but because of his privileged proximity to top-secret data, his is a special instance.
What are the rest of us to do? Locate the seams in the culture, penetrate them purposefully, subvert collectively. Where that is not possible, screw up the courage to weep.