"Inventing caustic vats, boiling rivers, fathomless fartheaps, barbecuedinal bowges, demonic dental offices, acid enemas, and abysmal swamps in which to stick the hundreds of people Ive failed to love as neighbors is not something I aspire to do ..."
the world's longest conversation
by brian doyle
Little did author David James Duncan know when he agreed to an interview with Smokebox editor Marc Covert that their correspondencedubbed the worlds longest conversation by Duncan himselfwould cover a span of over two years; from the first set of questions sent on June 25, 2002, to the final exchange in September 2004. Much changed in the world over that span of time; by the fall of 2002 Duncan was writing essays on the war clouds looming at the time in Iraq, a war which of course took place and has no end in sight at the conclusion of this interview.
Mr. Duncan readily agreed to be interviewed when contacted in summer 2002 for permission to reprint his essay, Their Bodies Are Needles, in Smokebox. He preferred, however, to conduct the interview by correspondence rather than over the telephone, a request we were happy to accommodate. The questions were sent one at a time to Duncans home in Montana by U.S. post and his replies were returned in the same manner, typed out and printed by his wife with his notations and salutations scrawled in the margins.
A native of Portland, Ore., Mr. Duncan graduated from Reynolds High School and Portland State University, living in Portland and near the Oregon coast for many years before moving to his current home in Lolo, Montana, where he lives with his wife Adrian and their two daughters, Celia and Ellie. He also has a son, Tom, who lives in Oregon.
David James Duncan is a passionate advocate for the environment and is perhaps most at home when immersed waist-deep in one of his many favorite rivers, streams, creeks, and cricks, casting flies to steelhead, salmon, and trout, many of whom are fooled by this most dedicated of fishermen, mostly bypassing the barbecue to be sent on their way, returned to their watery haunts, hopefully a bit wiser for the experience.
Covert: In your essay Native, in My Story as Told by Water, you write:
Even the best intentioned of us techno-industrial humans are mired in cash-driven, car-propelled lives
I manage to clean up the trash in the backyard trout stream, feed and house native birds
annoy and occasionally scare off corporate industrialists with a livid pen, and write some stories that attest to native truths. But those stories are published by a global media conglomerate; I own a car, a TV, and a computer; my garden pretty much sucks, and my tribe is scattered to the winds
It seems there is no way to escape involvement, on a deep and elemental level, in the trashing of the planet and each and every life form that clings to it. We poison the planet and, not least of all, ourselves, physically and psychologically and spiritually. It seems to be purposely, consciously set up that way, in a self-perpetuating, greed-driven modus operandi. Can it really be that diabolical? How has it overtaken us and absorbed us all in such a relatively short span of time?
Duncan: The United States, flags waving, is indeed leading the nations of the world in what you call trashing the planet. But there is a new consciousness being born here, tooand alternative technologies this new consciousness will soon be marketing to improve the human and planetary plight.
Most of the people I know are involved in the use of the planet, but tend as a group to be dead set against its trashing, and theyre organizing in opposition against its trashing, too. My sense of Americans is that were a lot more self-giving and thoughtful than the corporate-owned info-tripe called daily news leads us to believe. Most of the people I know are trying to live much more lightly. Most are generally kind. Many who dont live lightly nevertheless want to. And several friends of mine who drive big stinking SUVs and invest in notorious corporations are spectacular humanitarians and philanthropists in other ways.
So I have to say, Marc: your first group of questions sets up a sense of despair and an angst that I dont truly feel. Im trying to live by heart, because its the one human organ in which Ive never lost faith. When brains break they usually seem to stay broken. When hearts break, though, a surprisingly frequent result is a torrent of newfound compassion. Im so impressed by this that in my heart I dont feel angst or despair at all. I feel a need to stand by my hearts assessment, often against the endless evidence spewed at me by my head.
Easy angst and despair feel dangerous to mefeel like assessments made by the head alone. To be born, in a headish manner of speaking, is to commence the long slow process of dying. But to be born is also to begin being alive in a body in a worldan incredible gift if, like me, youre incapable of giving birth to yourself or of creating a world. So why put it the heads way? My head tells me daily that Ive been slowly dying for fifty years now and that Buttfirst-into-the-future Republicans again run the White House and that my beloved wild salmon are vanishing and that Ill probably die painfully of cancer so it might not be a bad idea to slash my wrists while Ive got the strength. But my heart tells me that its immensely grateful for the whole unpredictable extravaganza that is life. The same essay from which youve culled a pessimistic-sounding head passage also contains many heart passages.
Covert: My Story As Told By Water also comes with a healthy dose of hope, conviction, and a dogged determination to defend what you hold dearsalmon, trees, rivers, all those marvelous beings so easily reduced to rows in spreadsheets or ten-second sound bites on CNN. But I still see a tremendous difference between what you have to say in The River Whya beautiful story with many a pointed barb at those who would destroy rivers and fish for profit, or worse yet, as an afterthoughtand My Story As Told By Water, a much more edgy work which often seems to have been written through clenched teeth. Is that the sort of writing you do at the times when the good climbing trees are disappearing and the head has finally managed to shout down the heart?
Duncan: I agree theres a big difference between the two books. Part of that reflects differences in the world. When I finished The River Why I was 28, Gus was only 21, and an actual elected president named Jimmy Carter was still commissioning RARE II Wilderness studies. In 1980, the U.S. Forest Service was not run by former corporate timber-harvesters, and even the harvesters still left seed trees on ridgelines (p. 132) and buffers between clearcuts and salmon streams. Today, its a very different picture. Today weve got a literally carcinogenic media-construct we might call King George the Bush serving as front man for a clutch of greed-crazed fatcats who are ravaging the culture, the language, and world ecosystems for their own suicidally-ill-defined benefit as fast as they can steamroll and brainwash and move. I dont feel that my heart has been shouted down by my head. I feel that Americas heart is being shouted down by its heads. As a believer in catch and release, I released Gus to be Gus back in 1980. The darkness of almost any conceivable River Why sequel is one reason I chose not to write one. To keep up with the times Ive written some more clenched-teeth nonfictions instead. But fiction is my true love, artistically speakingand Im back at it. Writing fiction is more mysterious to me, more powerful, deeper, and, I feel, more honest than writing nonfiction. The nonfiction tends to get squeezed out of me by the age of the industrial dark and the inhumanity of humanity. Hence the difference in tone.
I once heard a ten-year-old kid say that its hard to explain love to hate without sounding mean. Thats another reason for the tone of my nonfiction. I have several times had Republicans walk out on talks I was giving, when I simply listed, without comment or interpolation, a short list of the publicly-stated environmental actions of the Bush administration. By hearing a simple list of their Administrations actions, these people felt insultedfelt I was being mean. I try not to judgebut the same hero who said not to judge also said By their fruits ye shall know them. If people cant stand to hear about the fruit of the Bush Administration, perhaps its time to withdraw their support.
George W. Bush went AWOL in 1972 to avoid serving his country in the military. His administration supports our troops by cutting their health benefits and exposing them to depleted uranium ordnance that Doug Rakkethe physicist responsible for on-the-ground cleanup after the Gulf Warholds responsible for tens of thousands of cases of Gulf War Syndrome including his own. The same administration allows its cronies to evade paying their patriotic taxes by laundering money through offshore offices, leaving the working class and future generations to pay down the gargantuan debt incurred by the current $2-billion-a-day military budget. I personally dont know what patriotism means under such an administration but to yearn for the end of the administration.
My teeth are not clenched as I say this; I feel quite relaxed, really!
Covert: I recently read a long interview of Robert Kennedy Jr., conducted by David Talbot for Salon.com, and the following paragraph jumped out at me as one of the most eloquent expressions of white-knuckled outrage Ive ever read:
I believe that George W. Bush is stealing my country, that he is absolutely stealing the environment from our children, stealing the breath from my children's lungs and stealing the Bill of Rights, selling off the sacred places, and trashing all the things I value about America. Our reputation across the globe, the love and admiration that other peoples and nations once had for America, the safety of our nation, the security of our children, the economy, the ability of our children to educate themselves for the future -- it's all being liquidated by this president for his wealthy friends and contributors. And I am so furious at this man for stealing the thing I love most, which is America, my country.
When I read this I was immediately struck by how clearly Kennedy expressed his fury with the Bush administration without going over the edge into an out-and-out rant. Ive noticed the same thing in your nonfiction work, which I think lends it a great deal of conviction and credibility. Can eloquence, passion, and morality (combined with a good dose of humor) win out over ignorance, greed, and outright thievery (combined with a good dose of smugness)?
Duncan: Win out? As in achieve lasting victory for the forces of good here on earth and in America? Thats a question for God, not me. Im not sufficiently informed on that level! The best I can do is parrot Mother Teresas answer to your question. She said, God doesnt ask us to win. He asks us to try.
I take the statement Love thy neighbor as thyself as an example of us being asked to try. And one of the great challenges in my life, at present, is my attempt to love a neighbor named George W. Bush. Whatever the personal problems of this man, and however dismal the personal past that sculpted him, he is at present a deadly force. To increase the allowable mercury, arsenic, and other air and water pollutants for Americas children, for example, is tantamount to telling our kids: Your early death is good for bidness. You should be proud young Americans to make that sacrifice.
Its hard to love that position! But the mistake Kennedy is makingthe mistake all Bush-haters including me in my weaker moments, makeis to believe that George W. Bush himself is single-handedly doing all these dark deeds.
The guy whos been helping me come to terms with Bush is Leo Tolstoy. In War and Peace (at the beginning of Part IX if anyones curious) Tolstoy defines history as the unconscious life of humanity in the swarm. This unconscious swarm, he adds, makes every minute of the life of a king (or president) its own, as an instrument for attaining its ends.
Picture a queen bee. There may be no more important bee in the hive, and her drones may fight to the death to defend her, and journalists may run over each other to ask her what she thinks about the global pollen market or the OPEC-price-fixing of honey. But if you watch that queen for a few minutes, crawling laboriously across the comb, lovelessly pugging egg after egg into the appropriate slot, her life starts to seem more like a prison sentence than a life. She may be queen, but her life is less spontaneous, her actions more predetermined by hival need, and her movements less free, than that of any other meadow-wandering peasant-bee in her colony.
Bush Senior was a queen bee. Bush Junior is too. Tolstoy writes, The higher a mans place in the social scale, the more connections he has with others, and the more power he has over them, the more conspicuous is the inevitability and predestination of every act he commits. The king is the slave of history
In historical events great menso calledare but the labels that serve to give a name to an event, and like labels, they have the least possible connection with the event itself. Every action of theirs, that seems to them an act of their own free will, is in an historical sense not free at all, but in bondage to the whole course of previous history.
Peasant that I am, Marc, I am free to go wander the meadows and sniff the flowers every day of my life. Does Bush have that freedom? What do you think would happen if George W. Bush had an epiphany, and decided to stop being a slave to the ignorant, smug, greedy, thieving forces to whom he is enslaved? What would happen if he suddenly started expressing the vision and values of, say, an Amory Lovins, a Gary Snyder, or even a Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.? My guess is hed be sedated and committed, or worse, within days.
Bush is a slave to history. Hes what Tolstoy calls a label. His speeches are not his own words. His life is a series of calculated photo-ops. Hes called Commander in Chief yet was afraid, when it was his turn as a young man, to serve even one day in the military. I definitely pity him. And in trying to love himtrying to honestly figure out what Id do if I were him, to help him find a little peace and happinessId begin by quitting my job, growing a beard or some kind of disguise, ditching my various drones, guards, and handlers, and go wander around America to see for myself what this country and its people are really like.
Covert: In the time between the September 11 attacks and the outbreak of Operation Iraqi Freedom you wrote a series of essays that, in hindsight, painted a pretty clear picture of where this country was headed. In When Passion Becomes Dissent you wrote:
Though I pray Im wrong
I still fear that the U.S. may go to war soon, and that this war will be brief but devastating, that many more children and civilians will die, that we will never be told their numbers, just as we were not told the numbers killed in Afghanistan or the Gulf War, and that many Americans for this reason will pretend that no such dead exist.
Now were over a year into a war that has cost the U.S. over 700 soldiers lives, not to mention civilian contractors, and who knows how many Iraqi soldier and civilian deaths. You obviously spent a great deal of time thinking about our path to war and trying to come to grips with it; what are your thoughts now that we are mired in the conflict you feared was coming?
Duncan: I wrote the essay you cite in the fall of 2002.
I take no pleasure in the accuracy of its prophecy.
I do, however, take pleasure in the shift in consciousness that is taking place among truly compassionate conservatives. The thoughtful Republicans I talk to today (June, 2004) feel, as I did in 2002, that the Bush Administrations modus operandi is distressingly well summarized by the bumper sticker, No Billionaire Left Behind, and that, beyond that, they have little vision of, or regard for, the past or future. I feel especially sad for World War II veteranswho are dying off now at a rate of about a thousand a daywho felt they fought and died for something truly great and lasting. These people united and fought and sacrificed for an America which, as De Tocqueville put it, is great because its good. Its got to hurt like hell to see the other part of De Tocquevilles statement coming true: When America ceases to be good, it will cease to be great.
The Bush Administrations selfishness, lack of vision, lack of morality, surfeit of swagger, and general incompetence are not just collapsing ecosystems and the economy: their inability to understand Muslim culture, or the fundamentalist threat (both at home and abroad), or Europes and the U.N.s importance to us, or the place of true diplomacy in national security, or the place of infrastructure in national security, or the place of honesty and faith and cooperation and kindness and self-sacrifice in national security, have deepened the danger of every person in the U.S. In the empty name of protecting us, this Administration has shot us in no time from being the most admired country in the world to being the most hated. The military under Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld has now used so much force trying to kill other human beings that they are literally out of ammo, and are importing bullets from Canada. Meanwhile I have friends in Oregon and elsewhere who are destitute because of the cost of the drugs their family members need to surviveand these people are not allowed to buy cheaper drugs from Canada. Were being savaged by our leadership.
But damn it, Marc. Im a novelist, not a political analyst, and a contemplative, not a Beltway insider. As such, I feel a daily responsibility to move to levels of thought very different from the sort that are dominating this interview.
If the Bush Administration does not make you angry, I fear you might be a sleepwalking zombie. But if it makes you uncontrollably angry, they youre descending to the level of an animal. Whereas, if it makes you angry and you can control that anger, direct it, burn it as fuel in the doing of good works, then youre making the best of a bad situation.
Its the third response I try for in myself. Theres a subtle but real difference between honest and fair criticism, and rabidly speaking ill of othersand to my ears the Kennedy quote you cite comes uncomfortably close to crossing this line. Have we moved so far from the verities of the Gospels or the Buddhist Sutras that it is impossible for us to criticize others with kindness? I dont believe so. I believe the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu are two living examples, both recently here in the Northwest, that a Gospel-aware, Sutra-aware, loving criticism of our enemies is alive and well in the world.
I feel, vividly, that I have a higher self and a lower self. I feel my lower selfs urge to wring the necks of those who persecute the meek, weak, and helplesschildren especially. But my higher self doesnt want to wring any necks at all. It wants the impossible. It wants to turn its other cheek seventy times seven times. It wants to empathize with enemies as much as with friends. It wants, as Mama T once put it, to have its heart broken so completely that the whole world falls in. It wants to loveeverywhere; everyone; all the time.
And the truth is, this higher self feels damned sorry for George W. Bush. Dont you, too, sense that Georges relationship with his father was always distant and remains empty? And that he is not a bright fellow and never has beenwhich is the genetic hand he was dealt, and not his fault? And that hes been ordered around or manipulated by devious people much of his life, due to his familys connections? And that almost no one likes him for who he is, apart from his position of power? And that he, in fact, barely knows who he is?
And doesnt all that make you feel for him, at least a little? Even as your lower self wants to wring his neck?
I dont want to be my lower self any more than I have to, Marc. So I believe I am called upon to like this manno matter how much I dislike the harm his words and actions unleash. I believe, as a novelist and contemplative, in the effort to jettison my habit of attacking, with malice, those I see as harmful. I do lament the deep division this administration, and neoconservatism in general, has caused this country and the world. But internally, and in my art, Im fighting with all my might to resist these divisions and reach across gulfs.
In the same essay you cited, for example, I tried to man my post as a novelist and reach across gulfs when I wrote:
To be a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, is to immerse oneself in unstinting fiction-making. Christs words Love thy neighbor as thyself, to cite a famously ignored example, demand an arduous imaginative act. This deceptively simple line orders me, as I look at you, to imagine that I am seeing not you, but me, and then to treat this imaginative me, alias you, as if you are me. And for how long? Until the day I die! Christ orders anyone whos serious about him to commit the Neighbor = Me fiction until they forget for good which of the two of themselves to cheat in a business deal or abandon in a crisis or smart-bomb in a warat which point their imaginative act, their fiction-making, will have turned Christs bizarre words into a reality
Mahatma Gandhi insisted that he was Christian and a Hindu and a Muslim and a Jew. He also blessed, while dying, the Hindu fanatic who murdered him. In the Middle East, Balkans, Pakistan, India, New York, Bali, we begin to see why. True, the ability to love neighbor as self is beyond the reach of most people. But the attempt to imagine thy neighbor as thyself is the daily work of every literary writer and reader I know. Literatures sometimes troubling, sometimes hilarious depictions of those annoying buffoons, our neighbors, may be the greatest gift we writers give the world when they become warm-up exercises for the leap toward actually loving them. Ernest Hemingway made a wonderful statement about this. Make it up so truly, he advised, that later it will happen that way.
That is, I dare say, Christ-like advice, not just to those practicing an artform known as fiction writing, but to anyone trying to live a faith, defend the weak, or love a neighbor.
Covert: Shifting gears here a bit, what are you up to as a novelist? I heard youre working on something called Nijinsky Hosts Saturday Night Live.
Duncan: Ive changed that titleor moved it into the interior of the novel. The fifth section of the book is now called Nijinsky Hosts Saturday Night Live, but the title page at present reads like this:
Non-Rhyming, Non-Catholic Western-American-Dialect
The Reincarnatio is a very out-of-the-closet title. Its a blunt reference to Dantes Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, and an even blunter reference to reincarnation. I like the out-of-the-closet approach because the novel Im writing is a comedy about human folly and human holiness. Its chief aim is to make people laughbut purgatively, not just caustically or bitterly. And the story sincerely posits reincarnation and karma as the invisible means of converting human folly into holiness. Reincarnation, in other words, replaces the purpose served by purgatory in Dante.
Pretentious as it may sound, Ive believed all my life that Dante is in serious need of an update. Being a fan of Dante is a bit like being a fan of the New York Yankees: plenty to lovebut plenty to hate. I love Dantes political fearlessness, his courageous figurative broiling of some of the more disgusting popes, and the painful exile he endured as a result. I love the passion of compassion that is the climb up Mount Purgatory. The Purgatorio is, in fact, one of the great climbing stories to this day, and comes closer to naming what contemporary destination climbers seek in a summit than almost any of these climbers have so far managed to express.
But Dantes comedic hero, at his worst, strikes me as a gifted but vindictive Italian egghead singing dyspeptic opera about a specifically Roman Catholic afterlife. And us Duncans were originally Highland Scots, not Roman Catholics. We didnt care much for opera eitherand some of us still dont.
I also take serious issue with a believer so parochially Roman in his so-called catholicism that he sticks his non-Catholic betters in hell. Dante condemns the likes of Ovid, Horace, Electra, Hector, Aeneas, Aristotle, Diogenes, Achilles, Empedocles, Orpheus, Ptolemy, Helen of Troy, Hippocrates, Avicenna, Plato, Zeno, Averroes, Homer, and SocratesHomer and Socrates for Christs sake!to perdition for being pre- or non-Catholic!!!! Whats with that? The word catholic means universal. Dantes dogmatism makes him about as universal in his judgments as a Freudian shrink from Manhattans Upper West side.
Given Matthew 7 verse 1, I wonder what business he had judging others at all. I try to be fair. I know Dantes art aims to point out error, and so make the reader a better person and the world a better place. But I feel he also judges, at times, to give himself the same kind of subliminal woody that Inquisitionists get from standing in pious judgment over their fellow man (especially sexually appealing, sexually active women and men). Dante judges with relish. He lambastes and condemns to eternal torment every panderer, seducer, flatterer, sorcerer, thief, falsifier, hypocrite, suicide, glutton, horder, rager, spendthrift, scam artist, and false counselor that he can imagine, categorize, and name. Then he calls it divine comedy. This gives me the creeps. The pretentiousness and unfunniness of doing this myself would scare me shitless. To wake up in the morning, go to the office with my cup of coffee, and spend years, in the name of God, inventing caustic vats, boiling rivers, fathomless fartheaps, barbecuedinal bowges, demonic dental offices, acid enemas, and abysmal swamps in which to stick the hundreds of people Ive failed to love as neighbors is not something I aspire to do.
So Dantes not a role model to me. At his best he writes wildly metaphysical, though provincially Roman Catholic, poetry. But at his worst he writes op ed opera. The man cranked out hundreds of verses in the same mood RFK Junior is in over Bush. Ive already said Im not comfortable with such moods in myself.
Covert: But doesnt your goal of updating Dante imply judgment? Even a certain pretentious arrogance? How will you avoid some of the same pitfalls youre pointing out?
Duncan: Ive been too hard on Dante. The man was brave. Many thought, when The Divine Comedy was first penned, that he was a madman. It carried no weight then. It was a new thing. It wasnt as if everyone thought Dante nailed the hidden truth. I expect a comedy that did the same, now, with reincarnation, will be seen by many as similarly outrageous. Im comfortable with that. Dantes work, at its best, was inspired by his intuitive sense of what the hidden truth might actually be. These intuitions were so far removed from the political, social, and religious realities of his day that the difference between those temporal realities and the poets intuitions were in extreme tension. At his best, Dante plays this tension like a guitar. Thats what I truly love in him. And thats what Im trying to do with some American tensions between temporal and intuitive/metaphysical realities.
Heres my deal with this novel:
I believe mirth rhymes with Earth for a reason.
I believe the word comedy implies funny.
I believe the word divine implies God.
I believe karmathe spiritual repercussions of our words and actionsare as inescapable as death and taxes and as utterly real as rocks and trees.
I believe, as a writer, in Mother Teresas dictum that we can do no great things. Only small things, with love.
Combining these five beliefs, the divinest possible comedy of which I can conceive does not lead out of this world to hell or paradise. It just awakens a few of its own cynical, jaded, and otherwise munched modern characters to the feeling that Earth has a God, that His synonym is love, that that this love is a force so free and unconditional that we the loving are free to love even Edward Abbey for his aphorism, God is Love? Not bloody likely!
Other founding concepts of a renovated divine comedy:
Meister Eckhart: God laughs and plays.
The Upanishads: There is no joy in the finite. There is joy only in the Infinite.
Walt Whitman: I understand God not in the least.
Mother Teresa: I do not know the ways of God.
Herman Melville: Might as well to convert bricks into bride-cakes as the Orientals into Christians. It is against the will of God that the East should be Christianized.
My comedic hero, one Thomas Soames, is a novelist from Montana on a literary business trip to New York. He has been de-rhymed, de-catholicized, dumbed down, cheered up, and plunked onto U.S. pavement to wrestle with this life, not the next one. A woman can and does inspire him. There is sex as well as love between themwith all the resulting tensions and confusions that Dante polevaults by worshipping Beatrice as some kind of disembodied Higher Principle. The Dantean scout and sidekick, Virgil, rides again in the form of one Dr. Wesley Steinberg, a Jungian analyst lost amongst the Freudians on the Upper West side. I roast no popes. My only pope is utterly admirable: he is Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. I condemn no one to perdition. I invent no caustic bowges. I portray no one more Satanic that we ourselves.
In terms of vertical trajectory, I do contemplate the skyline of Manhattanwhich has never looked so fragile as it does to all of us today. But my protagonists vertical journey, in Dantean terms, only goes,
1: Earth as Purgatory.
2: Earth as Even More Complicated & Painful Purgatory (but with a growing sense that life is somehow well worth it!)
3: Earth as Even MORE Intensely Complex and Excruciating (tho sometimes hilarious) Purgatory (but now with a DANG strong hunch that it is all utterly worth it!!!)
That ought to sell like hotcakes, huh Marc?
But you know what? It might be funny.
And now Ive got to finish it!
Thanks for talking with me.