Sunday, February 03, 2008

Words of Power Interviews Erica Jong: "We think that history will proceed in a straight line. Nothing could be further from the truth."

Erica Jong, Photo by Marion Ettlinger

I will not hide.
I write in the nude.
I name names.
I am I.
The doctor's name is Love.
Erica Jong, Autobiographical

Words of Power Interviews Erica Jong: "We think that history will proceed in a straight line. Nothing could be further from the truth."

In the 1960s and 1970s, a great spiritual and political awakening took place in the USA. But the murders of three leaders, (JFK, MLK and RFK) succeeded, over time, in snuffing out that promise.
That's not a fairy tale or a myth, that's a hard cold fact.
In 1980, when Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were sworn into office, the Wheel started to turn the wrong way.
Ever since, we have been slipping farther and farther from the hard cold strength of facts and the scintillant light of reality, in which facts are forged.
As I write this, the USA is approaching Super Tuesday.
On the Democratic side, the candidates who took the boldest stands on the toughest issues, i.e., former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), have been forced out; furthermore, the candidates with the most gravitas and relevant experience, i.e., Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM), Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) have also been forced out of the race.
Big money interests and the corporatist news media chose our choices for us before the primary season even began.
That too is a hard cold fact.
We get to pick between an ambitious former First Lady and a charming man who spent most of his public life in the Illinois state legislature.
I do not wish either ill on Sen. Hillary Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL). I do not underestimate them. I pray for their success (against what I perceive are long odds) and for their moral and intellectual honesty if and when their moment of greatest trial comes, i.e., if and when one or the other (or both) are sworn into office.
You do not raise the many hundreds of million dollars you need to dominate a race for the White House by confronting media monopolies, or the campaign finance system, or the promoters of the so-called “free trade” agreements, or the insurance industry, or the oil, coal and nuclear lobbies.
And yet, these special interests must be confronted to bring any meaningful “change.”
Just as those in the current administration who have conducted high crimes against the US Constitution and international law must be confronted.
Yes, another hard cold fact.
And on the Republican side ...
Well, over the last several years, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) had numerous opportunities to make a profound difference in the course of this country’s national security and moral standing in the world. Instead, he choose to ingratiate himself to the very men who dragged him and his family through the slime of South Carolina primary in 2000, and worse yet, to espouse the tragically flawed world-view of the neo-cons.
He is not the McCain that you once admired.
And Romney? Well, "there is no there there.”
So instead of trying to game out Super Tuesday or looking into the narrowing gauntlet of the next ten months, I felt I should get some perspective on where we have been over the last forty years, what brought to this unfortunate place, and how best to cope with its consequences.
To mirror this perspective back to me I reached out to a great American writer, Erica Jong, who has recently taken to blogging at the Huffington Post.
When she burst upon the literary scene with Fear of Flying in 1973, Erica turned everything upside down. She made everybody nervous and/or excited.
And she has been true to her magnificent entrance ever since. In her writings, Erica is always pushing herself to her own edge, and then sharing the experience with brutal, delicious honesty.
Erica Jong broke barriers.
She exposed the profane in the sacred and embraced the sacred in the profane.
Of course, women have been doing that since the dawn of time, but she was the first one to do it on the New York Times bestseller list.
As Fat Tuesday approaches, here is the Words of Power Interview with Erica Jong.
-- Richard Power
Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life
Words of Power: Had I not lived through it all myself, and paid close attention to all of the treacherous twists and turns along the way, I would not have believed that the USA could spend the first decade of the 21st Century beating back a religious fundamentalism that has caused us to waste these desperately important years struggling to defend evolution against creationism and "intelligent design" (i.e., creationism in drag), struggling to protect Terri Schiavo's right to die with dignity, struggling to fund stem cell research with federal funds, struggling to snap the body politic out of the disinformation-induced denial about global warming, and struggling, of course, to defend the reproductive rights of women. Why did the popular culture of the last several decades have less to do with Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land than LaHaye's Left Behind?

Erica Jong: When we imagine the future, we think that history will proceed in a straight line. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact periods of futurism are frequently followed by periods of reaction. Think of the French Revolution, the Enlightenment, The American experiment, the feminist movement. All born of the 18th century passion for individual rights, each has ebbed and flowed in the past 300 years.
Modern feminism goes back at least to Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill, yet we are still fighting for many of the rights they took for granted—the right of women and men to live separately, to conduct their own households, not to be obliged to serve each other financially or culinarily, to be sexually unbound—if they wish. All these ideas derive from the Enlightenment—as does our republic.
You can have your republic, Ben Franklin famously said, if you can keep it.
Republics are hard to preserve.
As for feminism, the twin of the rights of man, it had to cope with Mother Nature and her ferocious Kalii-esque predilections.
Ironically, Mary Wollstonecraft died in childbirth, giving life to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley—another revolutionary who married a revolutionary.
People are so afraid of change, so wedded to the past that they often fight the very ideas that could improve their lives. The greatest success of the feminist movement of the 70s—the so-called second wave—was male parenting. Men take greater care of their kids today—not because they were forced to—but because they enjoy it. Men of my father and grandfather’s generation were not allowed to, for fear of being thought queer. They were shackled by false ideals of masculinity
But my grandfather, by his sixties, liberated himself. He did for his granddaughters what he never did for his daughters—walked us to school, taught us to paint (he was an artist who made a living as a portraitist), made us breakfast and lunch, sang us to sleep.

Words of Power: And I'll add in a follow-up too, liberal evangelist Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners Magazine told Jon Stewart "the dominance of the religious right over our politics is finally finished." Do you sense that the tide has turned at last?

Erica Jong: The tide has turned, but who knows how long that might last. The fears of the human race are often more powerful than their loves (including self-love). George Orwell and Aldous Huxley knew that most people are more comfortable being slaves than being free. George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde knew it too. These were the writers I adored in adolescence. Along with the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and the satirist Dorothy Parker.
In college I fell in love with the Byron of Don Juan, with Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. My deepest wish was to be a satirist and poet. I hope that’s visible in my novels and my poems.
I started a PhD in 18th century English lit, got my MA, but the fierce sexism of Columbia Graduate School in those days and the pull of my imaginative writing made me drift away.
William Blake has also been a greater influence on my work than I’d like to admit. Poet, artist, satirist, visionary, revolutionary, possibly mystic—that’s the winding path I most admire.
I do think we still treat artists like shit in the United States. Everyone’s always auditioning, raising money for the next project, genuflecting before “funders” (as Charlie Rose calls them), provosts, tenure committees or
Commercial publishers. We are the first to be cut from any budget, while war profiteers go on from generation to generation like the Bush family. From Prescott who supported Hitler, to George the First who sponsored Saddam Hussein, to George the Second who supported Halliburton, Blackwater and the oil cartels, there’s always money for ‘bidness’ but never for art.
It’s truly sickening. Also the destruction of public education (I started my teaching career at CCNY when it was tuition free). We have enforced a worse class system than the UK with its public schools and hoity toity accents—and it’s all about public money being plundered by the rich and the rich rich. Just like Russia, we have oligarchs who make billions with the public’s airwaves, energy and natural resources and the poor slobs don’t even get it.

Words of Power: The "Sexual Revolution" was an overarching theme in the 1960s and 1970s, so were the Watergate scandal and the war in Vietnam. The narrative that many of us lived by for many years afterward was that as wrong and ill as the kulchur and the body politic were we would never make those mistakes again, no President would so brazenly abuse his executive power, and no Congress would ever allow us to commit to a dim-witted, open-ended military occupation, but over the last seven years both tragedies have repeated themselves, and indeed this time at least in regard to the abuse of executive power the "high crimes and misdemeanors" are far greater. The litany of lawlessness goes on and on: over nine hundred false pre-war statements about Iraq uttered by the President and his national insecurity team, millions of missing e-mails that may well reveal treason, obstruction of justice, corruption, etc., current and former White officials who simply refuse to honor Congressional subpoenas and yet as of this date have still not been cited for contempt. You too remember the nation of Sen. Sam Ervin, Judge John Sirica and Attorney General Elliot Richardson, a nation that rose up in conscience, with courage and clarity of mind, to resist an abomination growing in its midst. I would love to hear your impressions and perspective on where we are, how it is we arrive in this desolate place and whether or not we will survive it as a nation that any of us would recognize?

Erica Jong: The authors of The Federalist Papers had no illusions about how easy it was to maintain free speech, separation of church and state, habeas corpus, human rights. The greatest glory of our country is our Constitution, an Enlightenment document if ever there was one. Presidents and vice-presidents, judges and other pols swear to uphold it. But then they add signing statements and undercut it at every turn. Keeping a republic is much harder than founding one, as Franklin knew.
We were naive. We thought sexual freedom implied political freedom and intellectual freedom. The Mafia wanted to sell porn. They made out like bandits while the American public overreacted against the intellectuals and artists and yearned to bring back virginity, purity, abstinence. They turned against us in reaction rather against the Nixons, the Bushies and Cheneys who were plundering their resources. They were sold a bogus myth of “the sixties” by the mass media. It stressed “bra burning” (which never happened), drugs and sex and rock n’ roll. Now Brokaw is peddling the same myth. The talk of “sexual freedom” scared the wits out of boobus americanus (Mencken) so he did what he always does—cowered in fear and embraced reaction.
Journalists used to ask me brilliant questions like—now that you’re a mother, how do you feel about free sex? As if I were ever for indiscriminate sex just because I described the fantasy of it. In a novel.
I reluctantly came to believe that most people are dumb and dumber. In the days I taught at City, I found my students often rough hewn but smart and adventurous of mind. They were poor but they wanted to read Chaucer and Shakespeare and they wanted to improve themselves. Now Starbucks is supposed replace the longing for literacy. Oy.
The sexual revolution was a convenient distraction for the poor slobs. We wanted Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Ulysses, but got Deep Throat. First the Mafia took over the wank films, then TV and the Internet. Books they let us keep because the masses don’t read real books anyway. And commercial publisher increasingly don’t want them.
One of the secrets of the repugnicans—like CheneyBush --is to keep the populace too uneducated to realize what’s going on—hence the cuts in State and City education. Also to keep them working three jobs to survive so they have no time to read even if they could. Then feed them garbage via Viacom, Disney, Bertelsmann, Hachette, News Corp, etc. and they’re too obsessed with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton and Tom Cruise to get the big picture. Which is that they’re being fleeced.

Sappho’s Leap
Words of Power: One of the great challenges before us all is whether the USA will choose reason or madness in 2008 (and of course whether its actual choice will be honored or not, after all it wasn't in either 2000 or 2004). I felt very strongly, as many of us did, that if the Democrats had not taken control of Congress in the 2006 mid-term all would be lost. Despite the weakness of their hand, and how poorly it has been played, I still believe that we are far better off than we would have been otherwise. We would know even less about the many scandals, in particular the politicization of the DoJ and the suppression of science related to the impact of global warming. The "conventional wisdom" (almost always wrong) expressed by the Democratic Party leadership and its many ineffectual consultants is that we all must focus on winning the White House and expanding the margins in the House and Senate in the 2008 election. Ah yes, but here we are, with a final showdown between a former First Lady and a African American, with less than one term in the US Senate. I wish them both well, and I think they are both better public servants than the weight of the money that they must raise makes of them. But either way, something miraculous must happen, a nation which has been dumbed down and driven backward into its basest fears and biases must shake off what has befallen it and elect the first woman or the first African American. How did we end up here? Is it that no one who is willing to speak the unconditional truth could get anywhere near the nomination of either major party? Has the campaign finance system and the corporate monopolization of the mainstream news media brought us to our knees? How do you see 2008 unfolding, what are your impressions so far?

Erica Jong:Obama’s appeal—which I readily see--may not a president make. Fresh air, a new face, a new generation—yet he’s not above invoking that scumbag and bad actor and red-baiter Ronnie Reagan. So how come Barack’s so pure? How come he’s “not a politician”? I am skeptical.
Hillary makes me skeptical too. When I asked her at a fancy fundraiser in Greenwich CT (where we gave biggish bucks) why the Iraq resolution, she gave a good answer in person. But then she signed Lieberman’s disgusting Iran reso. For a long time, I said, she’s triangulating just like any pol—and maybe she is. I will vote for her in the primary—but I will not love her unconditionally. Hey—that’s the two party system. But I will work for the dems no matter what. I always have. And I will pray Ralph Nader drops dead before he enters the race.

Words of Power: But, of course, the worst of times are often the best of times. Which brings us to your most recent novel, Sappho’s Leap (2003), and your latest book, Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life (2006), tells us what they means to you, what stories they tell, what energies they carry, and how do they relate back to Fear of Flying? So much can be revealed about the journey -- both past and future -- by contrasting the starting point with where we have arrived on this particular day.

Erica Jong: I was so disgusted with the Bushevics and their profiteer pals that I decided to go back to ancient Greece in which a women singer invented the poetry of love. I sank into Herodotus (whom I adore), Homer, Aesop, the pre-Socratic philosophers—and what did I find? The more things change the more they stay the same. The dictator, Pittacus of Lesbos, went to war whenever people started to lose interest in his greatness. War covered a multitude of sins and created wealth for a new generation. Sappho may well have been a revolutionary and a love poet—not an unusual combination. (Think of Emma Goldman).
So I told the story—based on the lyrics and testimonia—of a woman about whom very little is known. Of course she became a version of me. All writing is somehow autobiographical.
Seducing the Demon began as a book on writing and morphed into an intellectual memoir. I hope it inspires new writers and I hope they find it honest.
All my novels, poems, non-fiction have common threads—how can a smart woman fulfill herself intellectually, maternally, erotically. It’s very hard to do, but not impossible if you have loads of energy, a room of your own and some money for housekeepers and nannies. You also need a lover who loves your brain and your body both. And who is smart enough for you. And has a sense of irony. Love is hard, but worth it. We all wind up dying alone anyway, so we might as well dance.

For more information on the writings of Erica Jong, click here.

Richard Power's Left-Handed Security: Overcoming Fear, Greed & Ignorance in This Era of Global Crisis is available now! Click here for more information.

To explore the Words of Power Interviews archive, click here.

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