Monday, 4 June 2012

'Miss McCarthy Explains'...Nature is Dead.... (Part 1)

May 16, 1971 NYT

Miss McCarthy Explains 
Jean-Francois Revel
Jean-Francois Revel, author of the recent "Neither Marx nor Jesus" (a great success in France, to be published here in the fall) mandated this interview with Miss McCarthy in her apartment near Gare Montparnasse. "In seven years," M. Revel said, "I had been in Mrs. West's flat [Miss McCarthy is married to James West] only at night, for parties and dinners. It looked strange to me in the daylight--smaller, quiet and provincial." He used a tape recorder, which, he said, gave "a professional, 'technotronic' side to our conversation." M. Revel also pointed out that although he has taken part in many interviews this was the first in which he was the interviewer.]

In your new novel "Birds of America" what made you choose a young boy, an American student, as the main character of the story?

It just sprang like that out of my mind. I sat down and started typing out notes to myself about a new novel, and then notes begin: "On Equality. . . ." They ramble on about the question of equality and suddenly (I've got these notes still) there come the words, "The action should begin with a young man." A student, in Rome, and so on. But the boy just sprang there. In reality he's based on several boys but especially on one I knew here who was going to the Sorbonne. He had a plant that he took for walks. The other thing about him that I never got into the book was that he was very anxious to procure a skull. He's been to an exhibition of engravings by Bresdin at the Bibliothèque Nationale, which made him want to learn to draw, and he decided to start by drawing a skull. He wanted us to tell him how to get one, but I don't think we ever succeeded. We could find skeletons but not skulls. So, anyway, the boy was just there in the middle of the subject.

It is also a kind of philosophical novel. At the end, Immanuel Kant himself speaks to the young boy, Peter, and tells him, "Nature is dead." Is that the philosophical meaning of the novel? Do you think yourself that nature is dead?

It believe it. Moreover, I agree with Kant, if I understand Kant. You remember that quotation at the end about the beautiful things in nature proving that man fits into the world, etc. If nature--in the beautiful form that we normally think of it: that is, the outdoors, plants, farms, forests--if all this were to disappear, which it's doing, there'd be nothing stable left to stand on, no ground for ethics. Then you'd really be in a Dostoevskian position: why shouldn't I kill an old pawnbroker--because there's no longer a point of reference or a court of appeals. Nature for centuries has been the court of appeals. It will decide one way or another. Not always justly, but nevertheless (especially in our Anglo-Saxon tradition--it's very strong in Shakespeare), the appeal is always to this court, to Nature's court. And if this is gone, we're lost. And I think we're lost, I'm not an optimist.

What do you think about the reaction against the ruination of nature? Today people look more and more for natural products, natural life, don't they?

I really believe that Gresham's Law is operative in these things. I don't think there's a natural selective process in masses of people that causes them to choose the better product. Well, I'll take the example of a turkey. I just bought a turkey at the U.S. Commissary. It was a frozen turkey. I don't like frozen food, anyway; but normally American frozen turkeys are better than French fresh turkeys. But I read all this literature on the outside of the turkey, and it explained that this turkey had been "deep based" with vegetable oil. The corpse had been injected (the word "basted" of course is hilarious in this context) with vegetable oil. Now I'm sure that next year or two years from now you won't be able to buy a turkey that this hasn't happened to. And the reason is not that it tastes better--I thought it was rather poor actually--but that you don't have to baste it in the oven. So people would rather have an inferior turkey and not have to work.

take your turkey as a symbol for the biosphere, your conclusion would be that the destruction of nature is inevitable?

I think that's going to happen and I think that in general bad products drive out good.

Nevertheless, your novel is about a culture at least as much about nature. There are not so many birds in it, except at the beginning. Peter seems preoccupied by social, political and literary or artistic matters, isn't he?

Of course, one simple reason is that he's living in the city. There's nature in the beginning; but, after that, once he's living in the city, he isn't much in contact with Mother Nature. What in essence Peter is trying to do is lead a natural life and to try to find some natural life of the mind that would be common to everybody. It would be like an environment that everybody could live in.


But isn't the novel essentially about education? About how to become an adult in our time? Peter belongs to an intellectual family. He studies first in America and then in Paris and Rome. Why?

I think I've forgotten. Well, I tell you, what takes place in the main body of the book is the equality theme. Peter keeps drawing up plans to send to General de Gaulle or Kosygin or whoever. He's bitten by the desire to solve the world's problems. But always, underneath this, is the desire to create balance and equality. That is, the plan for making sewer workers the best paid class in society. Which is very rational--it may not be practical but it's the product of rationality or over-rationality. For instance, Peter is struck by all those headless statues, decapitated during the French Revolution, hence his reflections in his letter to his mother, where he says the French Revolution didn't go far enough--that we should chop off the head of language too. Of course, he's right, you know; and at the same time it's impossible. Unless maybe they do it in China. It's the only place in the world where they seem to be trying to create a biological mutation. By the changing of the Chinese language and the destruction of almost all the Buddhist temples and shrines. They'd like to destroy their artistic heritage in the interest of starting over. The clean slate. Well, anyway, Peter's story takes place before the cultural revolution; but the thought of such a purge crosses his mind. He thinks, "I don't know whether I could stand it, but this is what should be done."

The very existence of culture seems to him an obstacle to equality? Or does it?

Yes. At the same time, being intelligent, he sees all the obstacles to any scheme he puts forward. Like when he gets wound up in the question of tipping, seeing all sides. The categorical imperative, as he says, doesn't seem to work very well in that situation.

Of course, but he still behaves like a born aristocrat. He can't stand ordinary people.

I wouldn't say aristocrat. Rather he's a misanthrope. At home, though, he wouldn't be against ordinary people, the people who work in the Portuguese grocery store or the filling station, or the kids who play baseball. And he won't join the beach club. Ordinary people in their natural setting he doesn't object to. He liked grade-school teachers when he was a kid much better than fancy masters in private schools.

But isn't that super-aristocratic behavior? You know, when one loves peasants and fishermen but cannot stand middle-class people? Since we are living in an age where almost everyone is middle-class, isn't that a kind of snobbishness? Take, for example, the visit Peter pays to the Sistine Chapel: he is almost sick because of the many American tourists there. These tourists are, after all, ordinary people; they are the people.


Yes, but my point is that anybody, a grocer-store-keeper, who had any eyes--that is, who had any real reason to be in the Sistine Chapel--would be just as annoyed as Peter by all that mob. The real problem hits him in the Sistine Chapel. Everything breaks down for him, his principles abandon him there. That is the whole point of the Sistine experience. He finally comes out and says, "There ought to be an entrance exam, it's the only way." At that point, he's become reckless and maddened, he expresses his true feeling, and, being Peter, he reasons about it at the same time. But that has been a most conclusive challenge to his principles. It goes back to what he tells his mother in the letter, where he says that art and equality don't mix, that "the world will have to get rid of the people like you, Mother." In the Sistine Chapel they try to mix. It's the opposite of the previous chapter, where he's happy, having fallen in love with the works of Borromini, the 17th-century architect that nobody else cares about seeing. Borromini of course is nature. I mean that Borromini's world is a kind of fantastic forest. So that Peter has solitude, nature, art, contemplation there--everything he likes.
All through this boy there has to be (I don't know why) this paradox of lover-of-solitude and misanthrope who is passionately concerned about equality. This happens to be a regular human type, of course--the misanthrope-philosopher, but I didn't conceive it that way.

So the philosophical lesson would be that nature is dead and that culture must die, for the sake of equality?

But I didn't write the book to make a conclusion like that. Furthermore, the thing he says in his letter--which perhaps is really what's at the bottom of the book--is this feeling about the idea of equality once having been entertained, nobody can get rid of it. This I have thought for years--that once the egalitarian notion was discovered, say some time in the 18th century, there's been a continual flight from it. Eventually we're going to have migration into space to escape equality. At the same time any person with a child's fairmindedness cannot help thinking that equality's a good idea. If we lose this fairmindedness of children, then we become monsters. In the Middle Ages you weren't a monster if you took inequality for granted but now you are.

Why did you make Peter an epitome of Western civilization? His mother is American and a first-class musician, his father is an Italian Jew and a scholar, his stepfather a German physicist, the third husband of his mother is an internationally known art historian.

I don't know why. I know I made Hans a scientist to make an opposition between Peter and science. Maybe some sort of melting-pot idea--I think it's really that. And America, after all, was supposed to be the land of opportunity and, well,the melting pot.

To my mind one of the most lively parts of the book is Peter's French experience. An obvious failure. Is Peter's a representative case of young Americans abroad, as it is now, according to you?

I'm really trying to be faithful to the experience of these kids over here--98 per cent of them feel that--and they're so lonely. It's not Europe, it's France. I met a young Dane the other day who told me he'd lived here as a student and he said, "Exceptionally, I got something out of it; but the loneliness was so terrible." They all say that. This business of going to the same cafe for six months and even the waiter won't speak to you. Henry James had exactly the same experience. When he left Paris, he wrote a letter to his brother William James and said, "It would be ignoble to stay in Paris just for the restaurants." But I think it's gotten worse. I remember, right after the war, in the 40's, when I was teaching, I had students who later came abroad on those Fulbrights and, though they were often very poor, they had a much better time and they enjoyed it in those years.

Are there formal problems for you, a problem of the form of the modern novel?

I think about them in connection with other writers, that is if I'm doing a criticism or a review. But when I'm writing a novel I don't look at it as some event in the history of the novel. The only formal problem I think about when I write is the formal problem of a sentence or a paragraph. I can't write any differently from the way I write.

Do you feel any esthetic pressure on you of the new theories of the novel, or of the well established theories of the new novel?

I do believe in a sort of "Tel Quel" doctrine, that you must listen to the language, that language tells you what you want to say. If some word is sticking out of a sentence, say, and it looks ugly, it is telling you what you don't want to say. Language is continually giving you messages, because language is a repository of everything on the verbal level that's been experienced by human beings.
What you magnanimously call the "Tel Quel" doctrine is that language has no content, no meaning, the content of language is language itself. Do you agree?

That I don't believe. Nevertheless it's obviously not a question of just sitting down and copying something that's out there with the best means in your possession. At least half of it is going to be coming from something that is happening in language, including your own.

There is no plot in your novel. But there are normal sequences which are close to traditional realistic writing. Isn't that so?

Well, actually I think the form of "Birds of America" is rather strange. Because it isn't a realistic novel. Anybody who thought that was a realistic novel would be crazy. Still the oddity is only conveyed by tone--only by tone and not by the exterior formal devices.
That's true. "Birds of America" is no more a realistic novel than is "Lolita," for instance. But there are in it situations and characters, and you always indicate who is talking to whom.

I suppose we all do it less than we used to because of the modern novel, even the people who write traditionally. We indicate who is talking much less than we did, simply by osmosis from the avant-garde novel. The reader also has gotten used to having to work a little harder to identify speakers. In Nathalie Sarraute's novels, it's always clear really who is speaking; but you have to work for it and you sometimes have to do a repeat to be sure. I remember when I first started to read "Ulysses." I got up to, I think it was page 56--I couldn't get any further. And I tried again and it was always page 56. Then suddenly one year I sat down and read the whole thing, and it was no longer difficult, and this was because so much Joyce had gotten in the atmosphere that Joyce himself suddenly became transparent.

Do you think Joyce is really transparent now for the average reader, the public who is not professionally or passionately devoted to literature?

I have a marvelous idea. People do not any longer expect to understand. It's really a very frightening development. They pick up some book and they really think it's all going to be normally unintelligible. This expectation leads to a loss of ability to understand, so when people come to something that is understandable they no longer get it and make the most incredible misreadings. This reading impairment is a product of la nouvelle litterature. Have you given any thought to what it is in people that makes them want a story? Because this is a very deep thing--obviously--and I don't think anybody has ever posed the question, that I know of anyway. I've posed it to myself but not very seriously. It would be a rather interesting subject for speculation and might mean that you could rescue the plot.

Part 2 of this interview tomorrow