A Conversation with Curtis White By Heather Freese

Heather Freese: This novel does not follow a direct linear path—how do you see the structure of “Memories of My Father Watching TV“?

Curtis White: This book, like my last few books, does not have a linear plot-oriented structure, but they are books; they are not collections of stories. The stories are very much connected to each other. This particular book is divided into two sections; the first four stories are in a section called “Gloom” and the second four stories are in a section called “Glee.” I like my books to be architectural. They’re not linear or plotted, but they are very much structured. The book begins with chapters that are extraordinarily dark, deep, and basically depressive and arrives at a more ambiguous situation where possibilities for getting out of that predicament present themselves. It’s not possible to tell if this glee is the glee of insight or simply the other side of the manic coin, so there are no pure positives in the book. There is a general movement from a dark to lighter mood, although even the light parts are dark.

HF: In the chapter titled “Combat,” it seems to me that you present two different ways of relating to art in that the father absorbs the aesthetics of the television program while the son dissects the elements of the program looking for meaning. How do you relate to art or how do you feel is the best way to relate to art?

CW: There is no best way. Rather than saying that those are two ways of relating to art, I would say that those are two roles that the narrator and the father play. The father is absorbed within the story and the son, from a narrator’s perspective, is removed and is analyzing it to a degree. Although these roles are maintained throughout most of the book, there are a few stories, such as in the preface and in the last chapter, where the son is more prominent. In “The Third Man,” the son is talking to the father. But these “roles” for the father and son allow me to be both inside and outside of the narrative at the same time. Being inside and outside of the art is something I need to be able to manipulate in order to pull off the kinds of effects that I want to pull off.

HF: Your work invites readers to interpret it. How do you feel when someone has a completely different view of what you wrote or finds a different meaning in it?

CW: In recent years, people have been using my books in class and have shared papers with me. More often than not I am interested in what students come up with in their papers. I am almost always surprised. For example, I wrote a story called “History of the Great Mouth” in “The Idea of Home” and one person came up with this incredible analysis of it that related it to the early tribal myths about creation and destruction. It caused me to think about it and everything he said was perfectly accurate. I can’t remember if I agreed with his conclusions or not, but I thought that it was pretty insightful. The papers that I am shown, at least, are interesting, provocative, and I learn from them.

HF: Do you think there’s any damage in overanalyzing art?

CW: There is a certain “looseness” to what I do. I am not always sure what the relationship is between the different parts of my fiction. The fact that there are distinct parts and that you are encouraged to imagine what the relationship is between the parts is an invitation to interpretation. It is an invitation to take part in a conversation about what the work can do. It’s not as if an artist creates a work and intends something and that is its truth, and it is certainly not as if a critic reads it and tells us what it means.

To me, a particular work exists within an ongoing conversation within a culture about an enormous number of issues. My work responds to all kinds of ideas—literal, philosophical and pop cultural—which already exist within the culture. I’m taking a place in a conversation that is ongoing. That is also true from an aesthetic or formal point of view. The things that I do formally, I’m not making up out of whole cloth. They are there before me and I’m taking things from different sources in terms of putting the story together structurally. What comes after me is more conversation—people looking at the work and responding to the invitation to think about how the different parts of the fiction relate to each other. But I am very conscious of putting things in the work that make sense to me, that speak to each other, though never in a very literal way. It’s impossible to reduce my stories to a kind of easy meaning or moral. The stories are just too intuitive to work in that way. The reader’s power of intuitio in terms of relating the different parts of the stories to each other is very critical. I am not so much interested in interpretations of my work as I am in people continuing the conversation.

HF: Is that how you feel about the criticism that you do?

CW: I don’t do much criticism per se. I write essays, but the essays tend to be more polemical and political. They tend to be arguments about particular issues that are in art or literature or in the culture in general. There’s a book of essays that Dalkey’s doing called “Monstrous Possibility: An Invitation to Literary Politics”, but there is not a lot in that book you would describe as interpretive.

HF: How does “Memories of My Father Watching TV” fit in with your previous books, especially “The Idea of Home”? Is there any type of progression?

CW: It’s like my earlier works, because I am trying to create fiction that is at the same time both public and private. My work is always confessional or autobiographical and is also a commentary on the most public aspects of our shared lives. I like it when I am able to create one image that is both completely confessional and also a public critique, and I think both of these books do that. “The Idea of Home” and “Memories of My Father Watching TV” are alike because they’re highly structured. They are novels without being linear novels. They are architectural. The meaning of the work is contained in the relationship of the parts to each other.

Thematically, “The Idea of Home” was about the failure of a certain idea of home in American culture. This idea was a failure because it was incapable of examining its genocidal roots, how destructive it had to be in order to come into being, and, because of that poisoned past, how flawed its present is. In “Memories of My Father Watching TV,” the focus is a little more narrow than that. It’s really about the role of fathers, the role of television and the strength of the despair within the family that those two things create.

The book I’m working on now is even more focused. So one way of looking at the relationship between these three books might be that “The Idea of Home” is very, very broad; “Memories of My Father Watching TV” is a little more narrow and focused in its analysis of what’s wrong with American culture. The book I’m working on now is extremely specific. It is about the alcoholic family system and the broader idea of environmental pollution. In some ways, the toxicity or pollution that alcohol represents in the family is a metaphor for the general deterioration of the natural environment. These are two things which I see as being very related. It is an indifference to a notion of health, which is typical of both an alcoholic family system and of people who wantonly poison the environment. Think of alcohol as an internal toxin you take into your body, like dumping raw sewage or chemicals into a river.

ON AUTOBIOGRAPHY

HF: Speaking of this book and “Memories of My Father Watching TV” could you tell me a little bit about your father or your family?

CW: I would really rather not talk about my family in relationship to these books, because it just muddies the water. In my mind, I know what aspects of my own experience are in the book. The books are so, in a certain sense, critical and negative, if they were presented as depicting my family it would completely distort it, because it is not as if my experience or my family\ies was entirely negative. These problems exist within my family just as they exist within other people’s family. They are not my problems, they are social problems and they’re pervasive. Television is a pervasive social problem, in my opinion, especially how it interacts with families. Alcoholism and depression are also certainly pervasive social problems.

HF: How does your family feel about it?

CW: They haven’t seen it and I don’t know if they are going to see it. They might see it and they might not—we haven’t crossed that bridge yet. This is a problem that artists and writers have when using, to whatever degree, material that is more or less autobiographical.

When you are writing fiction, you are not really trying to be fair. You are trying to use aspects of your experience to provide a certain kind of effect, in my case, an often harrowing effect. Now, if you translate that back into ‘is this a fair or accurate account of your experience with your family,’ it’s not fair. The problem is you cannot expect it to be fair, because that’s not what art does.

I would never claim that this book is an accurate, faithful or truthful representation of my family. I might feel anger, as I obviously have, about certain aspects of my relationship to my father and certain things I experienced when I was young, but so do a lot of people, and those emotions color the factuality. They are two different things altogether, so, as much as possible, I just have to pass on that question. The fiction is the fiction and my family is my family. It is wrong to talk about them at the same time as the same thing.

HF: What is the role of Freudian theory in this novel?

CW: Not much really. I did read quite a bit about depression in writing this book. In one story in particular, “Highway Patrolman,” I stole psychoanalytic language to use mostly for a comic effect. That’s just typical of me. I’ll steal from any source and turn it into humor. This novel has a heavy subject matter, but in most cases the stories really work because of humor more than anything else.

ON DEPRESSION

HF: We were talking about depression earlier and I noticed many aspects of depression in this book. How do you feel about the use of Prozac and other psychotropic drugs to treat depression?

CW: A friend of mine said, “our generation shouldn’t be called the baby boomer generation it should be called the medicated generation.” I am one of the huge percentage of my generation that, at one point or another, has taken medication for depression. As my psychiatrist said to me—”better living through chemistry.” My experience with antidepressants is that they work. I don’t care why they work, they just work and they have helped me in many periods of my life when I needed help.

There have been studies done about people with either depressive or manic-depressive disorders and their creativity. There are a lot of artists who are depressive and/or manic-depressive. The biggest worry about this disorder is not whether or not it’s treatable, because, although manic-depression is more difficult than unipolar depression, they know that it is treatable. The big problem is getting the therapy to people before they kill themselves. The problem is really suicide. People are killing themselves because they’re depressed.

Now Prozac has become, in a certain sense, almost a lifestyle thing. It’s like you’re not hip if you’re not taking Prozac. I don’t know what to make of that. It’s almost like you’re not really “with it” unless you’re depressed. You can’t really claim to be a serious or deep person unless you’re taking Prozac. That part of it I don’t understand. Is there a Prozac-chic the same way there’s a les-gay chic? Some young people want to seem a little bit les or a little bit gay because that’s cool, even if they’re not. Everybody wants to seem a little bit depressed, even if they’re not, especially young people. It is really amazing to me the degree to which depression is a mark of hipness or coolness among so many young musicians. I certainly have noticed it in talking to my daughter. The young people all seem to be very conscious of depression, like depression is something they’re dealing with all the time.

Nobody quite knows if this generation is more prone to depression. Depression in our generation is just off the charts. Why is that? Why are so many more people complaining about it? Is it because they’re more aware of it? Is it because it’s become more chic? Is it because there are toxins in the environment that are messing with people’s brain chemistry? Is it because of the influence of things like television, which is what I’m particularly looking at in this book? There’s a strong correlation between television and depression and we’re not quite sure why that is. That’s why I don’t have a television anymore.

ON TELEVISION AS MYTH

HF: The characters in these chapters seem to be rather mythical. How do you believe television relates to myth in our culture?

CW: There is no question that television shows become mythic. They become ways for us to look at and understand our own lives. There is also a degree to which they are disposable myths, because they last such a short period of time. One of the problems I’m having speaking about this book is that these shows are common currency in my generation, but they don’t necessarily mean squat to the present generation unless they watch the Nostalgia channel on TV or Nickelodeon. Why would they know about “Maverick”? Why would they know about “Have Gun Will Travel” or “Highway Patrol”? These are all icons to the baby boomers. I think that is a real problem in our culture, because there’s no continuity.

“The Iliad” was a central narrative fixture for hundreds and hundreds of years. Dante was still writing about Virgil and the “Aeneid”. Those characters and events and their meaning were something everybody shared as part of a narrative background. But for us, what is our shared narrative background? The background is changed every three years as shows come on and off television. Nobody reads any sort of common literary text anymore. Even as recently as the ’20s and ‘30s, just about everyone would have known what William Faulkner or Ernest Hemingway was writing as well as all the texts that they had read before them. Since there is nothing like that now, television shows do take on a mythic function in becoming a narrative context for thinking about our lives. However, they are more like disposable myths and that’s another danger that television provides: a short shelf life.

HF: Television obviously has evolved since the ‘50s and ‘60s with the advent of cable TV and now Web TV. In using television as a mirror for society, how do you think the current form effects the way we see ourselves?

CW: The thing that comes to mind is something everyone is saying, which is that television tends to fracture concepts into ever smaller units, between which there is very little linkage. There is very little capacity for structured thought. Thought has to have space in order to develop itself. That’s the most alarming thing about the digital culture, in general. Western civilization certainly has not always been such a wonderful thing, but when it was good its virtue was in its capacity for sustaining thought. If you look at any great literary or philosophical text, it is an enormously complex and sustained examples of human thought. It might take hundreds and hundreds of pages for a thought to completely flesh itself out. Read Kant or Hegel or Heidegger. What the hell do you do with Heidegger in digital culture?

It’s all sound bites. Even the people most fond of it will admit that. They very often use hypertext as an example of what’s right about digital culture, or what’s really promising. To me, hypertext is a dwarfish version of something we always had which is a complex interconnection of ideas. In hypertext, these interconnections are all arbitrary. There is no reasoned relationship between those parts. If you look at the work by a person capable of sustaining human thought, there will be relationships going all over the place, but they will be “thoughtfully” related. I don’t think hypertext can survive without this context that sustained human thought provides. That context is what everybody, including myself, is worried about losing. The irony is that hypertext is so busy undermining our capacity for creating that context.

ON EROS

HF: In the current issue of “Mother Jones”, there is an article that discusses how American public life has become so sterile, how we divide sex from ordinary life and from religion. The author writes: “Artists, always intimate with religion, intuitively perceive the relation between sex and religion and try to give the Eros a prominent place in their work, but since art, too, has become marginalized, we misjudge sexual imagery in art as irreligious and pornographic.” How do you feel about that statement?

CW: This is so sad to me. For some reason, Americans seem to be terrified of sex. They seem to be terrified of Eros, and Eros is something that can mean more than just sex. When Erich Fromm or Herbert Marcuse talked about sex, they were talking about the eroticization of life. This means that you make an entire life out of an expression of a certain kind of desire: a desire for beauty, a desire for pleasure, a desire for love, a desire for a kind of harmonious unity. I think that that is probably the saddest thing about American culture.

Americans think that sex equals the sex act. The anxiety of the sex act itself leads to a general starving of the rest of life’s erotic capacities. To me, this includes architecture, landscape, an attention to pleasure, beauty, and creativity in every aspect. Look at the way we build buildings. They’re just pieces of shit—purely functional. They are a response to the pragmatic and performative aspects of the human brain and that is it. The erotic aspects, the desire for pleasure, beauty, creativity, or the desire for happy humans within this environment is completely obliterated. That means America is not only anti-sex, it’s anti-life, it’s anti-art, it’s anti-beauty, it’s anti-pleasure. It’s the culture of “just say no” and that’s so profoundly saddening I don’t want to think about it.

Basically, I proceed with my life as if this were not the case. In my own view, there is no clear distinction between my art as a writer and my life. I try to make my house, my yard, my relationships with other people, and my relationship with everything erotic in the sense that it’s about pleasure and beauty and creativity and being alive. God, Americans are afraid of that.

It’s why Americans were most afraid of the counterculture and hippies in particular, because that’s what they were saying. That was the most important thing they were saying. That’s why hippies are so trivialized now. They had this logic at work in what they were trying to do and it was very threatening. Marcuse was a big influence on hippie logic. It was an attempt to make beautiful, erotic and pleasurable the entire human environment. People are so afraid of the sex act itself, the depiction of it, God knows why, that their fear and anxiety of that will allow them to completely butcher the rest of life as well.

ON AMERICA

HF: In the chapter “Bonanza,” you remind me of Allen Ginsberg’s “I AM AMERICA.” I was thinking about the love/hate relationship so many of us have with America. It seems like Americans have an identity crisis, in some sense, in identifying with America.

CW: I basically never have identified with America. There are aspects of American life that I like, that I find interesting, but basically I have never been very comfortable being an American. The first really formative intellectual experiences I had in my life were condemning just about every aspect of American culture: consumerism, politics, imperialism, genocide, murder, power-greedy people—like various presidents we’ve had—most of our politicians, the ugliness and sterility of the environment we live in. I have occasionally thought of myself as a San Franciscan. There are aspects of being a San Franciscan I can approve of, but San Francisco isn’t really America. And now I live in Normal, Illinois. Is that supposed to be funny?

ON POSTMODERNISM

HF: The other day I heard someone say “I don’t believe in postmodernism, I am postmodern.” How would you respond to that statement? Do you think that’s possible?

CW: It depends on how you understand postmodernism. If you’re understanding it in a literary context, it’s one thing. If you’re understanding it in a pop-cultural context, it means something else. One way of understanding postmodernism is in a very negative way. Postmodernism isn’t always something cool. Jean-Francois Lyotard, for example, referred to it as performative, meaning postmodernism is about an extremely fragmented function, where everybody has a function and everything gets turned to a particular end. There are no longer any master narratives to give what we do meaning, coherence or context. There are only all our little functions. For example, when we are told by the Board of Higher Education that we, English professors, need to be concerned with making sure that people are literate when they go to work, we are being given an extremely narrow and performative task with no context. This means that postmodernism is part of the history of capitalism, which is what Fredric Jameson thinks.

So postmodernism is not something that’s all good or cool. There can be ways in which you use postmodernism and its tendencies in art and turn it into something that’s more creative and critical, which is I think what most postmodern artists do. I don’t think that many artists think of postmodernism as this good, great, cool thing. They think of postmodernism as something that happens within a particular cultural context and it is a way of responding to that context. Now, a lot people in the youth culture, the popular culture, MTV-style postmodernism, think it’s just all this kind of cool thing: rapid images, fragmentation of reality, juxtaposing dissimilar things, but that’s a very superficial way of thinking about what postmodernism is.

HF: I don’t think she meant she was happy about it.

CW: If she didn’t like it, then that’s actually a very good thing to say. She didn’t believe in it, she didn’t necessarily want it, but she is it. It’s like having a zeitgeist. Every historical moment has something that defines it and if you’re in a moment and you’re defined, then you are defined. You can think against the current of that definition, but you can’t really escape it. We are postmodern, like it or not. The question is whether we, as a culture, can become sufficiently conscious of what it means to be postmodern in order to think it in a way that it changes again and we become something else. But at this point, I would say that the culture is being thought by capitalism in a way that’s entirely out of our control as individuals. We might get involved in it in certain ways, like we might have e-mail or we might have computers, but if we think we are in control of it, we’re crazy. It is 95 percent controlling us.

ON OPPRESSION

HF: What do you think is offered for alternatives? Is there any way to reconcile the situation or change it? Do you think it is totally beyond control now?

CW: Oppressive social situations are always beyond any individual’s control, and I think we basically live in an oppressive social situation. These conditions are most powerful when people aren’t aware they’re being oppressed. That’s definitely our situation. The only way to begin to confront this or present alternatives is first to be conscious of your oppression, and that’s just textbook Marxism. First, you have to have an analysis of your condition; you have to know where you are, how you got there, and what the problems are. Then you critique that and propose something different. Otherwise you’re just filling in the form—you have no choice but to fill in the form. You are part of the system, whatever system it might be, until you can get critical distance between yourself and the system so you can describe it, critique it and propose an alternative. The only way that we are going to get out of this situation that we’re in is to get smarter, to know more.

The problem is that part of the system has always been to make being smart uncool. Anti-intellectualism in this culture is a strong as it ever has been. In the same way, there’s the fear of sex. So, you can see how powerful the oppression is in this culture. It’s so powerful that it has made us terrified not only of sex, but of the idea of eroticizing our life, of making our life beautiful, of making our lives creative, of making our lives important. Oppression is so powerful it makes us afraid of the potential of intelligence, and that’s the only thing that can make us understand where we are and whether or not we want to be there. The job that artists and intellectuals have is to try to keep those two possibilities alive—but they do it against enormous odds.

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