An Interview with Harold Jaffe

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  • March 26, 2018

Goosestep (Fictions & Docufictions) by Harold Jaffe

Interview by Sean Coolican 

 

 

 

“There remains a privileged space to elude the mania.

Not physical but a space in the mind’s heart.

I forge a violent art out of my violent dreams.”

                                                            (Goosestep, page 24)

 

SC: I’m here with Harold Jaffe, author of 29 books that include 15 Serial Killers, Induced Coma, Revolutionary Brain, Sacred Outcast: Dispatches from India, Paris 60, Dos Indios, Death Café, and Anti-Twitter.  I’m curious about the preface of Goosestep that reads, “I am of the race that sings under torture,” a line that is repeated later in the poetic text, “Mockingbird.”  

Where does the quote come from and why did you choose to start the collection with it?

HJ: The quote comes from Rimbaud’s Illuminations and the source is cited at the end of Goosestep.

A good portion of my writing and thinking life has been devoted to the place of art in times of crises. 2018 is arguably the gravest crisis humans have faced collectively. During the most grievous times in human history—the medieval plague, the vast slave trade, the influenza pandemic in the early 20th century, Hiroshima, the Holocaust–one constant in those times was continuity. At some point the vast suffering will be (or seem) ameliorated and human history will resume.

That continuity is gone. Mother Earth is perishing; we see indisputable evidence of it every day. For the first time in human history, then, we can sense finitude. Whatever remains of the deplenished earth fifty years from now will in all likelihood be uninhabitable. Most humans will have to find other spaces to live: in the atmosphere; beneath the contaminated seas; mole-like deep beneath the ground. Brain and body chemistry will have to change radically to adapt to the new “reality.”

“Sings under torture” signifies art-making—the various truths and beauty—of art in grievous times. The implied question is can art record, witness, ameliorate great distress, preserve a semblance of humanness? Art in this sense resembles a species of prayer. I say that even though Rimbaud was virulently against religion in all its manifestations. But it is more complicated than that.

Rimbaud in effect cut a Faustian deal with Mephisto which presented him with fame and power for four years while still a teenager, after which, at age 21 or 22, Rimbaud gave up poetry altogether and became a gun-runner on the Horn of Africa, living and dying in abysmal circumstances. What I’m suggesting is that Rimbaud in a crucial sense was engaged in an imitation of Christ, even as, say, Genet was. The lower you deliberately sink into squalor, the closer you move to Jesus. Because as Nietzsche and Blake and Rimbaud himself declare: Satan and God are one.

In my non-fiction text “Crisis Art” (published in Revolutionary Brain) I detail how Welsh women fashioned an exceptional kind of installation art in response to a grave crisis:

On September 5, 1981, the Welsh group that called itself “Women for Life on Earth” arrived on Greenham Common, in Berkshire, England. They had marched from Cardiff, Wales, with the intention of challenging the decision to site 96 US Cruise nuclear missiles on Greenham Common. On arrival they delivered a letter to the Base Commander which said “We fear for the future of all our children and for the future of the living world. When their request for a debate was ignored they set up a “Peace Camp” just outside the fence surrounding the Royal Air Force Greenham Common Airbase. This surprised the authorities and set the tone for an audacious, lengthy protest that was to last 19 years.

The protesters refused to allow authorities to enter the camp, which became known as the Women’s Peace Camp and gained international recognition with imaginative images such as eggs, spiders webs and children’s toys with which they decorated the chain link fences and contested area. In the end the UK and US withdrew their attempt to site the cruise missiles in Greenham Common.

This, as I see it, is a particularly heartening version of “Singing under torture.”

 

SC: Amazing, the story about the Women’s Peace Camp, and it’s intriguing to hear what you think about art-making under duress and how powerful it can be in horrific times.  There’s certainly something there that has a healing element that we can take with us. Let’s talk about Goosestep, a title you take from the second text in the collection in which a narrator recalls a quick glance with another in a used book store long ago, a connection with someone else identified as “kin” who is also “damned” in life, until suddenly the other, sensing the moment of “tenderness,” fends off the narrator with a series of goosestep kicks.  This scene seems to sum up a point you’re making with what has happened to humanity—have we simply become more distant from each other? Are we afraid to embrace or accept moments of “tenderness” with ones who may be different from us? Aside from the parallels to our current political climate, why else did you settle on this title of the story and eventually the title of the collection?

HJ: Goosestep the volume intends to represent the heartless autocracies that are in place, in and out of the mind, precisely at the wrong time. Addressing the various ills starting with global warming and working down calls for an ethical courage and willful separation from money-lust and power. Humankind does not seem equal to the task.

The narrative “Goosestep” has to do with an ongoing theme of the volume, namely the place of fellow-feeling and compassion in this time of pain. What happens in the used bookstore is that the narrator quickly views a young woman who has an unmistakable look of suffering, and he wants, somehow, to help her. When they meet across another row of books, she is goosestepping, and the narrator, like a keenly intuitive character in a Dostoyevsky novel, immediately reads the gesture as: You are a Jewish helper of the seemingly infirm. My Nazi goosestep is to inform you that I don’t want your Jewish good intentions.

The rest of the story has an unnamed speaker interrogate the narrator’s intentions and expectations. A version of this unnamed speaker appears in much of the volume as well as in my work generally. What the speaker represents is largely up to the reader. But technically it is a writer’s stratagem to insert images and seemingly opposed ideas into the narrative without penalty.

 

SC: Yes, I wanted to talk about the pattern of binary voices that many of your works contain. There seems to be one voice that is sensitive to the human spirit and has the sense of “fellow-feeling and compassion” that you speak of, while alongside it, there is a second, another perspective that either disagrees with the original speaker (such as in the text, “Double”) or seeks clarification (which we see in “Goosestep” and other texts like “Sacred Anguish.”)  Besides creating a “narrative without penalty,” would you agree that this pattern of “unsituated dialogue” is more powerful to the reader than a text written in the third person? Do you feel that the binary voices more effectively resonate with the reader because of their candor and struggle towards an understanding?

HJ: I can’t say what generated my ongoing use of voices. I imagine there were more than a few motivations. But when I saw what I had wrought I realized its potential usefulness. Having one or two “unsituated” voices, permits me space to zig-zag; that is, defy coherence with impunity. I can suddenly employ a list, convey a memory, act out of character . . . 

Because at least one voice is unidentified, unexplained, unsituated, I have a much broader access, which is important to my writing and thinking. I want to insert unexpected images, items, data to accomplish several writerly tasks, including shocking the distracted reader to attention. On a more personal level, the other voice permits me deeper access into my own consciousness.

Where in my sensibility the other voices come from is open to question.

Some writers, like Toby Olson, for example, feel, in Olson’s words, that the voices are out of an “ancient tradition,” and seem “to talk out of dark caves . . . beyond the ‘real world.’”

A kind of Jungian notion.

In any case, the more I’ve used the unsituated voice or voices the more I have been able to do various things with it both technically and artistically.

 

SC: It seems that the unsituated voice or voices permits you more variation and freedom in what you write, whether it be by genre, subject material or dialogue.  It’s also worth noting how you consider the primary, compassionate voice to mirror your own thoughts, dreams, and experiences as you extend them into your completed texts, hence the “art-making” that we discussed earlier.  Now, Goosestep is summarized as “fictions and docufictions” and I’m interested to learn more of the “docufiction” genre.  Is it simply historical fiction, or do you consider it something more? But what I’m really interested in knowing is why include “docufictions” in this most recent collection?  From texts such as the historical account, “Osama,” to the three-story collection from Brando Bleeds to the interviews titled “Blues Minstrel” and “Sonny Boy Jive Chuck,” why take true stories and real people such as historical figures, actors, and musicians and include their narratives alongside your “fictions” in Goosestep?

HJ: It’s been fifty years or so since meta-journalists like Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Truman Capote, and others began to fuse “real” (that is, alleged real) data and undisguised subjectivity. Thompson called his version Gonzo journalism.

The genesis was the realization that what was identified as “news” and “real” was more often ideology and propaganda. 

I do not identify with any of those writers with the possible exception of Mailer, but my project to some extent overlaps with theirs.

Because my writing points outward, addressing the culture in a socially active sense, I often work with published texts that I reconstitute, teasing out the subtext.  

I’ll present an example here that professed to be a news item but actually was xenophobia. 

The first version is how the datum was reported in the news—Reuters, in this instance.

An Iraqi man living with his family in the refugee area of Calais, France, dropped his two children from his flat two stories high because his wife said she wished she was a European woman. The children survived; the father was imprisoned.

(Below is my reinscription which supplies a probable subtext for what clearly came across as a cruel, even insane response, by the Iraqi father).

An Iraqi family uprooted by the US invasion has been forced to live in exile in a foreign country in humiliating circumstances for the last 16 months, without knowing the language, without there being a mosque to worship in, without the husband being able to work at his profession as accountant. The mother and wife, ill and anxious, remarked in haste that if she were a European woman she wouldn’t be living in such circumstances. The father and husband, in frustration and anxiety, feeling that his religion was unexpectedly betrayed, dropped his two children from the second story explaining that he wanted to save them from the same disgrace. Children survived; father was jailed.

I employ what I’ve labeled “docufiction” for several reasons, notably to mount an esthetic-progressive assault on “real-time” ideology and propaganda.

 

SC: I see, and you even include Mailer as a character in your first of the Brando pieces, “Provincetown,” where his machismo leads him to a bout in a boxing ring with Brando eventually.  The dialogue in the piece is strong and witty, yet I sense a subtext through Brando’s care for his friends and Tennessee Williams’ words towards his lover.  The sense of “fellow-feeling” that you spoke of earlier certainly comes through in this and your other docufictions. There’s something different, however, with the final text, “8”, that is more personal and deeply sentimental to you.  It isn’t docufiction, and it doesn’t seem to be similar to the other works of fiction either. Instead, it feels almost autobiographical and, aesthetically, is one of the most beautiful pieces in Goosestep.  Why end the collection with this, and how does it add to the overall purpose of the book?

HJ: Norman Mailer, my older compadre whom I often tease, remarked once that, “sentimentality is the emotional promiscuity of those people who lack sentiment.” He was referring specifically to Lyndon Johnson who wept sentimentally when an American infantry battalion warring in Vietnam returned to their Maryland base after suffering heavy losses; while he (LBJ) lacked the basic feeling or sentiment to respond to the thousands of murdered innocent Vietnamese and Cambodians.

I like Mailer’s distinction, hence would refer to “8”, the last text in Goosestep, as, among other things, an attempt to convey sentiment. Yes, it was more personal than the other texts, with the exception of the title story, “Goosestep.” And there is no reason beyond the fact that it was, it seemed, a felt necessity to write personally, even autobiographically, at that juncture.

 

SC: Well, those two pieces, “Goosestep” and “8” are certainly strong texts to bookend the collection.  Let me ask, do you ever worry about coming across too strong in some instances?  Goosestep covers notably controversial topics: “Snuff Yourself” includes a somehow comical dialogue about the best mode of suicide, while “Ash” involves a satirical conversation around using cremated remains in both sex and drug-taking.  Do you ever worry about any backlash from overly sensitive readers? In today’s world of writing, have you ever given pause or thought twice about taking things too far in the subjects you write on?

HJ: “Too far?” What can that mean in a culture where the porn industry, which has tens of thousands of participants world-wide, includes the most extreme sexual practices imaginable? And much or all of the porn industry is owned by Disney, Fox, and other shadow corporations that are also the leading movers in the new morality movement, which these days includes “political correctness?” What I am saying is that Disney, for example, owns ABC and ESPN and is unforgiving about employees committing the slightest deviation. That is offline.

Online, on their porn platforms, they promote the very inverse of what they promote offline. The #MeToo movement is primarily about men in power sexually abusing their underlings. Online the underlings, such as teen daughters, are graphically seducing their fathers, teachers, and priests. Result: Disney-Fox and the shadow bigs make their billions both online and off.

You know the quote from Blake: “If you dig a hole deep enough people will step around it.”

I’ve tried to dig the precise holes I need to dig in order to affect thinking and feeling minds. If I’ve miscued it has been with good intentions.

 

SC: Great quote from Blake, and it sums up the methodology of the risk-taking in your writing.  Hal, I’ve always admired how your work constantly bends towards giving a voice to the voiceless and stirs up attempts to make positive change in the world.  Your writing doesn’t simply shatter the glass or blow up the page.  Instead, you find ways to implant new kinds of learning into your readers’ heads.  For new, emerging writers out there, what can you share in building them into greater social advocates?  How should writers “forge a violent art out of (their) violent dreams?

HJ: Don’t avert your eyes is my primary recommendation to younger writers and artists who exercise, or want to exercise, their heart-mind. Once you dare to look at other people and creatures’ suffering, it changes you indelibly.

It is lamentably true that the suffering globally is so vast that, as Brecht wrote, it falls like rain. That is, we are compelled to view the almost limitless number of humans and animals suffering as a natural occurrence rather than as the result of merciless cruelty by countries and institutions.

We are rarely allowed to view any of the estimated 15 million refugees from the subject position, or even to view them at all. The fact that nearly all of the refugees are non-white and a large portion are Muslim has changed the face of Europe. The UK, The Netherlands, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, with more countries to follow, have all bent to the Right and to the Keep the Immigrant Out dictum. East and Southeast Asia are responding likewise.

There is little that sole writers can do about the intolerable refugee situation, about the countless wars, about climate change. But writers and artists can do other, smaller things, such as calling attention to the homeless in our own cities, joining the fight against racism, defending unions and flagrantly underpaid workers, turning their attention, or a good part of it, away from themselves and facing outward toward the harshest time in our collective lives. In which instance these younger artists will be among those “who sing under torture.”

 

SC: Wonderful advice, Hal.  Truly fantastic.  I have one last question for you, and it’s quite simple really.  To have written almost 30 books throughout your career is quite an achievement.  How would you describe the progression in your writing over the years, and what might we see from you in other future works? 

HJ: Between 1979 when I published my first novel and now the culture has altered dramatically.  Because of several factors, principally the electronic rev- or devolution, most young people who constituted my primary audience no longer are engaged in what has been called “deep reading.” Nor have they been culturally educated in what used to be thought of as traditional ways. They are familiar—often intimately familiar—with the current technology, but they know much less about art, serious music, important international films, other languages, even literature.

Mainstream publishers, with many alternative publishers following suit, have appointed business people rather than writing professionals to run their publishing operations and they make decisions largely based on selling potential rather than literary merit. That major alteration in cultural consciousness is a principal reason that I switched to writing very brief texts with Anti-Twitter, Paris 60, Induced Coma and other books. The idea was to impact the prospective reader before s/he became distracted by multi-tasking.

The upshot for serious younger writers, in my view, is to write the best you can without pandering, but also without the expectation of anything resembling a commensurate reward, or even response. I have attempted to take that same hard-to-swallow advice.

 

SC: Hal, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions so comprehensively.  I wish you the best with Goosestep and all your other future works.  Keep on fighting the good fight.

 

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER:

Sean Coolican is a writer and graduate student in the MFA Creative Writing Fiction program at San Diego State University.

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