The Conversation Continues
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To return to my December 2002 Barbaric Yawp interview with John Berbrich, click here.
To read our original 2001 interview, click here.
William Michaelian: John, welcome to my humble corner in cyberspace. It doesnít really exist, but the rentís cheap. In fact, Iím thinking of moving here altogether ó or at least until my creditors figure it out. Anyway. Youíre looking good. A pixel out of place here and there, a few corrupted files, but all in all I can see youíve been taking care of yourself. So, tell me. At the end of our interview ó just before you went into that frightening trance and we rushed you to the emergency room ó you quoted Emerson, who said that every word was once a poem. Iím wondering. Do you think itís possible that every word still is a poem, but that weíre too busy to notice or remember the fact?
John Berbrich: Well, Bill, I think thatís the heart of the matter. Poets all along have tried to convince us to return to some sort of golden age. I think that a simpler and a less complex way of life is what theyíre looking for. Itís like they want us to stop looking in all directions and see deeper. Deeper into each word, each moment. Have you read any poems by Richard Kostelanetz?
William Michaelian: As a matter of fact, I havenít. Whatís he all about?
Tim Hinshaw: Hey, J.B. Am interested in that Black Mountain School. Do I have to send in boxtops to join? If so, how many, what kind, and do I get a secret decoder?
William Michaelian: Uh, sorry, John. Youíll have to pardon the intrusion by my friend there. But youíd better answer him. He can be rather insistent.
John Berbrich: Well, Kostelanetz is an art and literary critic, and also an experimental poet. He wrote a series of verse entitled ďmonopoemsĒ in which every poem consists of just a single word. At first I thought this is just ridiculous, but I gave it a chance and found it was an enriching experience. For example, one poem was simply the word ďthan.Ē Meditate upon it and youíll find yourself sinking into a world of comparison, of relativity. You start making connections, and youíre back to Emersonís line. As to Mr. Hinshawís question, I think he has it backwards. You send Black Mountain a secret decoder, and they send you the boxtops. Only the decoder is a metaphor for a poem, unlocking the secrets of the universe.
William Michaelian: Either that, or Black Mountain is really an order of monks who spend their time chanting one-word poems. Personally, I prefer longer poems that sound as if they mean something but really donít. Probably because thatís the kind I write. But something tells me Mr. Kostelanetz has delved into that area as well.
John Berbrich: Kostelanetz has written some highly erudite literary criticism. As for his poetry, all that I have seen has been of an experimental nature. As I said earlier, we need guys that push the language just as much as we need guys that preserve it. He does both.
William Michaelian: Looking at it another way, pushing it is preserving it. At least in the sense of keeping language fresh and viable. Of course, anyone who pushes language also hopes to increase its effectiveness. What amazes me, though, is how liberating language can be, and how it can also imprison us. Words have great power ó the power to hide, the power to destroy, the power to awaken. On the other hand, we allow words to act as a substitute for our moment-to-moment experience. Through words, someoneís prior experience becomes our own, keeping us at least one step removed from the real thing. Itís convenient, but dangerous.
John Berbrich: You covered a lot of ground there, Bill. Youíre right of course, about the yin and the yang of it: the necessary, eternal dancing of opposing, complementary forces. In the beginning was the WORD. What will be there at the end?
William Michaelian: Quite possibly the LIE, or maybe the ADVERTISEMENT. Or maybe even the SECRET DECODER, as Mr. Hinshaw so slyly suggested. At least that would set things up for a nice money-making sequel ó unless eternity is a hoax and the end really is the end, in which case it would be hard to find a producer.
John Berbrich: I like the idea of a SECRET DECODER at the end of the universe. It is something to look forward to and hints at an absolute purpose, the implications of which are fascinating.
William Michaelian: Yes, one of them being a cosmic sense of humor ó something Iíve suspected for a long time. Wouldnít it be interesting if the universe itself was the punch line to a primordial joke?
John Berbrich: A dirty joke, do you think?
William Michaelian: If the entertainment industry is any indication, it would almost have to be. On the other hand, life on earth might be the bad movie the rest of the universe refuses to watch. Talk about poetic justice.
John Berbrich: And if Nietzsche is right about his theory of Eternal Recurrence, itíll be nothing but reruns forever. . . .
William Michaelian: In fact, if Nietzsche were writing today, his theory might actually be called the Eternal Rerun. You know, itís funny. I used to like Nietzsche, but itís been so many years since Iíve read him, Iíve forgotten why. I know about his theory of Eternal Recurrence ó or Recurring Turbulence, as I like to call it ó I know he went nuts, and I know some people think he greased the wheels of Nazi thinking, but beyond that all I really remember is that great picture of him with his piercing gaze and huge mustache. Of course for me, thatís usually enough. But it does make me wonder. What unknown or unrealized influence might our forgotten readings have on us? What residue is left behind? And not just our readings, but any other forgotten experience.
John Berbrich: That reminds me of something I read in a book by Carl Jung. He was walking through the countryside with a friend, in deep conversation, when the friend suddenly found his mind flooded by powerful memories of his youth. He could not understand the reason for this inundation. They traced their steps back along the way they had come and realized that they had passed by a sheep farm. The friend told Jung that he had grown up on a sheep farm and it was simply the smells that had awakened the slumbering memories in his mind.
William Michaelian: Iíve had similar experiences myself. But what I want to know is, how does one pass a sheep farm without realizing it? That must have been one whale of a conversation they were having.
John Berbrich: I was thinking the same thing. Still, itís a great example of how experience is stored in the brain and its release is triggered at unexpected times. For myself, music brings back many memories and images.
William Michaelian: It does for me, too. Really, I think music is one of the best things we have. Itís probably the closest weíve come to having a universal language. Also, many times, Iíve written stories and poems to music that was playing in my head ó and by music, I mean music of my own fabrication. Now, though, I couldnít tell you which stories and poems they were. It was just a thing of the moment. Likewise, I canít remember any of the melodies. No doubt this is all just a product of my loose wiring.
John Berbrich: No doubt. But, you are right about music. It seems to cut behind the intellect and hit you right in the guts. When I was younger, I lived in a gritty mill town in Connecticut where they had a great library filled with old albums. I took them out and copied them onto cassette tape ó songs of Russia, of Japan, of China, of Africa. None of them were in English, but I loved the music and the sounds of the voices and the mystery of the unknown words. When I listened to them, some people looked at me like I was nuts. But, I love those old tapes.
William Michaelian: What a lucky thing, finding music like that. Someday Iíd like to hear those tapes of yours. Speaking of tapes, have you ever listened to books or stories on tape?
John Berbrich: No. But, about five years ago, when our daughter Kendra was in high school, I recorded Dickensí entire Great Expectations on cassette tape for her. It filled nine tapes. She is dyslexic and has trouble reading, but she profited from my tapes and aced the course. Iím thinking about donating them to the local library. I enjoyed the book.
William Michaelian: That would be a great donation. Have you read a lot of Dickens? Heís on my list of Authors I Will Someday Thoroughly Read. What are your impressions?
John Berbrich: Letís see. Besides Great Expectations, Iíve read The Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, plus I think we read A Tale of Two Cities way back in seventh grade. Dickens is an excellent wordsmith, accurate and variegated. His plots tend to be melodramatic and most of his characters are cardboard or flat. But still, he somehow keeps his readersí interest, at times even arousing passions. Heís on my list too, to read the rest of his works someday. Who else is on your list?
William Michaelian: Oh, my. There are so many. Carl Sandburg. H.L. Mencken. Langston Hughes. James Joyce. Nelson Algren. Oscar Wilde. Emily Dickinson. E.E. Cummings. Thomas Wolfe. Almost every day, someone is added, and no one is ever removed. Last night, I found an old paperback that contains Stephen Craneís The Red Badge of Courage and several of his short stories. So I read a couple of chapters and added him. Dante. Goethe. Kafka. What about you?
John Berbrich: Well, of course I have to read all the classics Iíve missed thus far. This would include Dante. Iíve only read half of The Inferno; the translation was a convoluted and absolutely unreadable affair, but it is on my list. Along with the longer works of James Joyce, Dostoyevsky, and a few others . . . I also need to finish The Life of Johnson of which Iíve read the first two hundred pages ó only eight hundred to go. But lately Mencken has been driving me crazy. I must find some Mencken or Iíll go nuts. I donít know why, but trust me, this is an imperative!
William Michaelian: In that case, Iím sure you would enjoy a piece by Mencken I just read. Itís called ďThe Days of the Giants,Ē and itís an absolute riot. I found it in a 1942 anthology called This Is My Best, in which ninety-three American authors choose their favorite pieces. I wrote a little about the anthology in my Favorite Books & Authors section. But Menckenís piece is great, and nowhere near politically correct.
John Berbrich: Sounds great! It is so refreshing when an author chooses to be honest and tells his reader exactly how he feels, not how heís supposed to feel. This is a quality we look for when selecting pieces for Barbaric Yawp. If nothing else, a barbaric yawp must come from the heart.
William Michaelian: Absolutely. In fact if it doesnít, it is apt to be a pathetic yelp. And this brings us, in a roundabout way, to Walt Whitman. Iím eager to know what you think about the original yawpster, that self-made giant of American letters.
John Berbrich: Your choice of the word ďgiantĒ is quite accurate. When Iím reading Whitman, I feel like a colossus, shouting at the top of my lungs, striding from mountain top to mountain top. Itís energy, spirit, enthusiasm. He can hardly be equaled. I love also his prose. Specimen Days is a fascinating collection of diary and journal entries. Whitman is the monstrous whispering ocean moving eternally beneath the full moon, waves lapping the sand.
William Michaelian: Beautiful ó and so true. For me, Whitmanís confidence is like Beethovenís. They were geniuses, creatively bursting at the seams. Their defiant laughter shakes the universe. These days especially, with the news dominated by petty minds cultivating lies, I think we should declare an international Whitman holiday and observe it for at least a year. During that time, we can take stock of ourselves, and perhaps emerge with a higher aim and purpose.
John Berbrich: A great idea, this Whitman holiday. Where I grew up on Long Island there was a shopping mall named after him. There is something sick about that. And, regarding holidays, how do you like this one? I propose that all technological inventions be declared illegal for at least ten years, thereby giving us perhaps a chance to catch up a little bit. This time period may be extended if necessary.
William Michaelian: That makes perfect sense. And even more could be accomplished by doing away with television. As for the Whitman mall, that shows how necessary these new holidays are. There should have been a huge public outcry over that. What kind of people are we, that we would name a place of generic commercialism after a national treasure?
John Berbrich: Speaking of national treasures, Iím reminded of an article I once read about Japan. The government had selected something like ninety-six old people, all of whom were experts in selected fields, such as wood carving, playing the koto, writing poems, and so on. The government designated all of these people as national treasures. I donít know if this designation included any kind of stipend. What do you think about trying this in the USA? What sort of people do you think would be selected? Computer nerds? Captains of industry? Genetic engineers?
William Michaelian: I shudder to think. Maybe professional athletes and talk show hosts. But you bring up a fine point. Such an endeavor would, of course, be tainted by politics. In fact, even the selection of the selection committee would be tainted by politics. I donít know. Perhaps cynicism should also be recognized. Imagine having a cynic laureate. What a cultural distinction. But seriously, there are people worthy of such an honor. And maybe recognizing them would help remind everyone that there is more to life than making money and dropping bombs.
John Berbrich: Yeah, but I doubt if a real cynic would accept the award. Nietzsche once said that when people are cynical, it is their closest approach to honesty. There is something to that, I guess, but I prefer good old fashioned skepticism. How about a skeptic laureate? He might accept it, but would probably reserve judgement. Youíve heard of think tanks. If we put a bunch of skeptics together, is it a skeptic tank?
William Michaelian: Ha! It is ó and Iím all for that as well. So letís see, then. What have we come up with so far? A year-long Whitman holiday, a ten-year moratorium on technological inventions, and a skeptic laureate. All are fairly progressive ideas. But it seems we also need something we can do now, as a kind of warmup, while these other things are being organized. For instance, what if we set aside a day for reading, or a day for visiting with oneís friends and neighbors, or even a day for being alone, not talking, and taking long walks?
John Berbrich: Bill, I think you are talking about real progress here. Not the phony technological, noisy, smelly, clanking nonsense that passes for progress. Tell me, how do we get from here to there?
William Michaelian: Well, unfortunately, Iím the wrong person to ask. Cynic that I am, I know thereís no way it will work. But Iíd be happy to shoot down any suggestions, as long as theyíre constructive.
Tim Hinshaw: You guys are both full of crap. I donít know who is the fullest of crap between the two of you, but one of you is. I, on the other hand, an Oregon provincial possessed of impeccable insight and a firm grasp of whateverís at hand, am convinced that Nietzsche was one of the greatest linebackers ever to play the game and would have done even better if he wasnít missing his front teeth to bite more guys with. I like the ďskeptic tankĒ idea. Has a ring to it. Where do I sign up, and howís the dough? Seriously, though, as you two try to make sense of it all in this chronicle, please remember what a wise man (I think it was Socrates) once said: Scroom. Congrats on a fine ďWhite IssueĒ of the Yawp, J.B., and ditto on the newest addition to your website, Willy. Your journal, ďOne Hand Clapping,Ē is mighty fine reading.
William Michaelian: Great ó here we are, having a sane and sensible conversation, and now this. But I must say, your revealing ďinsightsĒ are appreciated. Itís true, Nietzsche was a gridiron force. His personal philosophy changed the game, and also the way it is perceived by fans. This has directly effected the way we live our lives. Oh. About my journal? Thanks. I am now officially concerned.
John Berbrich: Yeah, Bill, but on the other hand ó wait a minute! wait a minute! I feel a presence beyond this circle of rocks and broken bottles. A spirit from beyond is attempting to materialize. Itís, itís . . . Henshaw . . . or Shamshaw . . . or something like that. Wait! ó itís Hinshaw . . . Oh. Heís already here. And I remember a Rams-Packers game in which Roman Gabriel trampled Nietzsche. But nobody noticed.
William Michaelian: Not only that, but ó hold on, I think weíre losing him . . . yes, the manifestation is beginning to fade . . . but maybe if we concentrate . . . I think we can . . . bah! Nice going, J.B. Roman Gabriel, indeed.
John Berbrich: Did you see those eyes? Weird! But as I was saying ó what was I saying? Itís snowing here in cyberspace, but maybe thatís just fuzz in my brain. I wonder who else we can summon from the Great Beyond?
William Michaelian: Who knows? Maybe Nietzsche himself. Unless weíre in the Great Beyond, and are the ones being summoned. In other words, I find this Hinshaw business quite upsetting. When we started this conversation, I didnít think weíd be heckled by an Oregon loon posing as our conscience ó though I confess he does have a good sense of humor. Say, I wonder. Do you think this is whatís meant by learning to face oneís demons?
John Berbrich: Iíve heard that one must overcome his demons. Tell you what ó if Hinshaw shows up again, Iíll grab him and you punch him.
William Michaelian: I see. In other words, one must gang up on his demons. Hmm. An interesting thought. Or is that threat? Either way, Iím sure Mr. Hinshaw would rather we set aside the violence for now and move on. In fact, letís forget everything weíve said so far and set off in a new direction. As an editor, writer, and reader, youíve been actively involved in the small press for quite some time now. In your opinion, what is, or what should be, the role of the small press in the lives of writers and readers?
John Berbrich: The same as that of any press ó to provide a forum for art and the expression of ideas. The big difference between small and big press is that big press is concerned with big money, hence must reach a vast readership. The beauty of small press is that money is of minimal importance, so the artists are actually running the show, not the financiers. A cool breath of fresh air.
William Michaelian: When you say the artists are running the show, do you mean that most small press publishers are also writers?
John Berbrich: Thatís exactly what I mean. And since most presses are one- or two-man operations the publications inevitably embody the personality of the publisher.
William Michaelian: Hmm. Sounds dangerous to me. Are most readers of small press publications also writers?
John Berbrich: I think so. Out of all of our subscribers, very few do not send us submissions. But, we do have some subscribers who pay for our magazine just to read it, apparently. It seems that the entire small press is primarily writer-driven. It is a fairly kind world for writers just starting out. And, it does include serious writers as well.
William Michaelian: So one strength or benefit of the small press is that it helps writers keep abreast of the work that other writers are doing. At the same time, Iíve read many worthwhile things in the small press that so-called major publishers would never touch, due to ďmarketĒ considerations. Itís a shame more readers donít have a chance to experience that kind of writing. Is there something small press writers and publishers can do to remedy the situation?
John Berbrich: I donít see a solution. Almost always, when things get big they get stupid. To maintain absolute integrity, one must remain small. But then, one reaches fewer readers. Like I said, I donít see an answer.
William Michaelian: Well, maybe there isnít one. Or maybe Iím not asking the right question. Maybe the small press is really big, because it has big ideas, and the big press is really small, because it has small, safe ideas. We also need to place some of the responsibility on the shoulders of readers. Either people are satisfied with celebrity gossip and fluff, or they will seek out something better. At the same time, though, I think small press publishers and writers would do themselves and everyone else a favor if they would work as if the entire world had access to what they were doing. I know many already do. But Iíve also witnessed a certain amount of narrow-minded club-like mentality ó Iíll publish you if you publish me and so on. Not that this isnít some pretty basic human behavior. But I think striving for excellence is important because there is always the chance, due to whatever odd combination of personalities and events, that people will become aware of what the small press has to offer. And when they do, the big press will begin to reflect that as well.
John Berbrich: Well, weíll see about that. I donít expect it to happen any time soon. We just keep doing our best ó in our small press way ó and fully expect to grow into a world empire eventually. Iíll appoint you the Minister of ó oh, weíll think of something. I just hope we donít turn stupid. I like what you said about the small ideas in the big press and the big ideas of the small. Big ideas keep us going.
William Michaelian: Absolutely. And as Minister of Whatever, I hereby declare ó well, never mind that. What about the Internet? Are small press publishers migrating toward ďe-publishing,Ē or are they sticking with paper?
John Berbrich: Well, I know of some that went strictly electronic. A few of those quickly went under entirely. But some have survived. Personally, I like to hold the book or magazine in my hand when I read. I think that the paper world and the electronic world can coexist in peace. I donít see any reason why one has to destroy the other.
William Michaelian: Not only that, they should be able to help each other. What about readers? Assuming a person is new to the small press, what is the best way to find out what is available?
John Berbrich: There are several different market books, each listing two or three thousand small press magazines. These can be found at most bookstores. Theyíre designed primarily for writers who want to find markets for their work, but theyíll work fine for readers as well. Willie, you should start a list of journals on your website as a service to your readers.
William Michaelian: Oh, great. More work. Actually, I think you should start a list of journals. You know a heck of a lot more about the small press than I do. But itís something we could talk about. What I think readers would find most useful, for instance, and also more interesting, would be to offer short reviews of small press publications, and to provide links to publishersí websites if they have them. I have done this to a tiny degree in my News and Reviews and Highly Recommended sections. What would be nice for readers would be to give a taste of what the small press has to offer. Thatís why, in my Favorite Books & Authors section, Iíve been so keen on providing excerpts. Good writing is its own best ambassador. What I canít do, unfortunately, is devote enough time to the project. Besides, as I said, I think it would make more sense for someone like you, because youíre immersed in the small press. It is certainly something to think about. With your dedication, background, and knowledge, you could have a great small press website. And from what Iíve been able to make out from our discussion, such a site is definitely needed, especially from a readerís standpoint.
John Berbrich: I try to do that with my From the Marrow review sheet. Itís a monthly thing in which I review seven publications complete with ordering information. I donít have a website, but youíre the electronic partner of this duo, Willie. Perhaps you could morph my Marrows into cyber-stuff. I am planning to write a small book in 2006, compiling, listing, and reviewing all of the small press chapbooks, magazines, novels, journals, and reviews Iíve gathered from 1995 to 2005. This will be a delightful challenge for me and possibly of use to many small press readers and writers.
William Michaelian: Thatís amazing. Here you are, planning three years out, and Iím wondering whether or not Iíll make it through the day. Okay, Iíll ponder the idea. To fit the mood of the website, it would need to be preposterous and overblown ó otherwise I wouldnít be interested. In the meantime, how can people receive From the Marrow? Do you charge an arm and a leg and require membership in several underground organizations?
John Berbrich: Nah. All it takes is an SASE. Thirty-seven cents for postage. Thatís it. Send it to me at BoneWorld Publishing, 3700 County Route 24, Russell, New York 13684. I send them to all our subscribers and contributors, and anyone who buys one of our esteemed chapbooks.
William Michaelian: Well, thatís it. I knew it would be expensive. And you said the small press wasnít about money. An envelope and a stamp! How can you live with yourself? Still, I will add this information to my list of recommended publications. But I warn you, I expect a percentage of the profits.
John Berbrich: How about you, Willie? Didnít you once tell me you were starting up a magazine about . . . elves or dwarves or something?
William Michaelian: Oh, that. Yes, itís an idea thatís been on the back burner for some time. But itís not about elves. Rather, itís called Burnt Elves. Another name I was considering was Sidetracked, but Burnt Elves won out in the end. Both came from a story I wrote several years ago, in which a dejected young writer secretly in love with a college student named Leanne Earle writes for the above-named entertainment rags under the pen name of Milo Freeman. When they finally get acquainted and Leanne asks him what his real name is, he says Wendell Grimes. When she doesnít believe him, he tells her Al Rollins, then Emanuel Lathmore. Finally he confesses that itís Dave Jensen. Looking back, I think itís safe to say Dave was the original burnt elf. He had keen insight and a deeply caring personality, but was brushed aside because he didnít fit in ó not unlike the story itself, which was rejected dozens of times, until I finally stopped sending it to editors due to a shortage of stamps. But excuse me for getting sidetracked.
John Berbrich: I think that a lot of people with keen insight and caring personalities just donít fit in. Why is that, do you think?
William Michaelian: Good question. I think itís because they generally donít accept what is acceptable to many, and are therefore unable to focus on meaningless things like making money. That trait alone is enough to disqualify them from the club. Of course they go on caring, because insight and caring go hand in hand. Not that this prevents them from having a good laugh at the expense of the pompous and the obscene. After all, no sense in wasting a good target.
John Berbrich: Sounds like the birth of satire. In that field, can anyone top Jonathan Swift?
William Michaelian: I donít know who it would be. His essay, ďA Modest Proposal,Ē is a classic, if not the pinnacle of the form. Which reminds me ó Gulliverís Travels is also on my list of books to reread. I was far too young the first time around, and hardly remember a thing about it.
John Berbrich: I last read that one about three or four years ago. It was delicious, remarkable, insightful, satiric. I found a scene in there that I had overlooked before. I swear that the film, King Kong, is based upon this particular scene. You read it right away and tell me if Iím right. If Iím wrong, donít tell me.
William Michaelian: Okay. Iíll either get it at the library or find it in a used book store. Iíve been buying quite a few used books lately. Essays by Emerson, poems, plays ó the material is stacking up. But Iíll move Gulliverís Travels to the top of the list. What else do you recommend? Are you reading anything exciting these days, other than your incoming Yawp material?
John Berbrich: Recent reading includes Roughing It by Mark Twain, Harold Bloomís book on Genius, a selection of the philosophical writings of William James, and selections from Menckenís notebooks. Iíve got quite a pile stacked up on the shelf too. Emerson is always worth reading. You have fun.
William Michaelian: I intend to. And Iím glad to hear you snagged some Mencken, since that was high on your list. What do you think so far?
John Berbrich: He is delightfully politically incorrect. His prose crackles like blue sparks. He is not necessarily a deep thinker, but he sees the obvious so well. This is good cleansing reading, something like Nietzsche. In fact, some of Menckenís work sounds like Nietzsche mixed with a little water. As far as Emerson goes, let me recommend his English Traits. It includes his impressions of a trip to England and is some excellent reading.
William Michaelian: Well, youíre just determined to add to my list, arenít you? But thatís great. The more books, the better. Now, if only I had time to read them all. In fact, my wife and I were talking about this just the other day. I said, wouldnít it be nice if we could spend a few months in a fire lookout like Kerouac did, and catch up on our reading? You know, relax and be a couple of dharma bums. The thing is, she is a fast reader. In the space of a single summer, she could mow down a whole library, whereas I would probably read for two or three weeks and then decide to write a novel. But maybe I wouldnít. Maybe Iíd have the sense to take advantage of the time away. Right now, sheís reading Seabiscuit ó enjoying it, too. Itís amazing and sad to hear what some jockeys have put themselves through, the various forms of self-torture, in order to keep their weight down and be able to ride. So now I have to read that book as well. Letís see. What else? You mentioned William James. Didnít he also write The Varieties of Religious Experience? I read that about twenty years ago, but itís pretty vague.
John Berbrich: Yes, James did write The Varieties of Religious Experience. What I like about James is that he is a solid empiricist ó in fact, he called himself a radical empiricist, meaning that he takes the facts of experience and builds upon them, rather than constructing theories about the way he thinks the universe should behave. And, religious experience is a fact, regardless of theological truth or falsity. And, remember that a radical empiricist knows that future facts will and should alter present theories, and he will leave room for that flexibility.
William Michaelian: Actually, thatís something I think of each morning when I put on my socks. Approaching the universe through oneís needs, wants, and desires is a great way to miss the point ó if there is one ó which is to say, we tend to construct theories based on the way we want things to behave, including our own children, whose presence, in my humble opinion, constitutes one of the highest forms of religious experience ó not that experience, religious or otherwise, should be so crudely categorized. That we are all children, however, is a possibility that is lost on people of all ages ó especially those whose grotesquely exaggerated ego-investment allows them to believe that people and things exist solely for their entertainment and benefit. That Iím an idiot, on the other hand, is a fact upon which everyone can agree. It has even been used on occasion as a rallying point by certain members of my family, who think my tendency to go on and on is ó well, never mind. Tell me. Do you discuss these things around the dinner table, or do you pretty much stay in your room?
John Berbrich: Well, you never know whatís going to come up at meal time, especially when all the boys are around. The women seem to think that the conversation often becomes, how shall I put it, barbaric. The subject of semantics is very popular, especially with our youngest, when it comes to explaining exactly what someone meant when he/she said such and such or proclaims that he/she didnít say such and such or meant to say this and that . . . but you know what I mean. Often both volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary are hefted onto the table and closely examined with the magnifying glass. How about your place? Or do they just send you to wash the dishes?
William Michaelian: I must admit that I do my fair share of dishes, but by that time the damage has already been done. We, too, have a habit of picking apart each otherís utterances and examining them for loopholes and double meanings. My mantra is, ďSay what you mean and mean what you say,Ē but of course this is purposely ignored. We even have discussions based on which syllables of words should be stressed, or which words in phrases. For instance, in conversation, someone will refer to a rubber band, and I will correct him or her, saying, ďOh, you mean rubber band,Ē and so on. But in general we leave the dictionary out of it, because I hate being proven wrong. If itís not being too personal, may I ask what you had for supper last night?
John Berbrich: Grilled steaks, homemade potato salad, and fresh green beans with watermelon and ice cream for dessert. I canít remember any arguments. We were discussing intelligence and the amazing prevalence and relevance of ancient Greek philosophy. OK? We also talked about our new dog.
William Michaelian: New dog, eh? I assume his name is Aristotle. But something tells me youíre holding back. For instance, you mentioned no seasonings, and you didnít say where the watermelon was grown. But thatís okay. Iím not the kind of person who pries ó though there is another question Iíd like to ask: what is your definition of intelligence?
John Berbrich: The dogís name is ó well, it depends who you ask. My daughter, Sarah, the dogís real owner, calls him Bailey. I disagree with this name and call him Bongo Macho, sometimes just Bongo, sometimes Bango. My wife, Nancy, calls him Sugar Bear. At times heís Evil Dude. Regarding intelligence, thatís a tricky question. You could easily write a fat book on the subject. I think that there are different types of intelligences; Howard Gardner wrote about them. A general definition would be this: the ability to absorb, integrate, and synthesize information. Intelligence is useless or even dangerous without the addition of some wisdom. An intelligent person might build a bomb powerful enough to blow up Earth, but to blow up Earth would not be intelligent (as far as Iím concerned).
William Michaelian: No, it wouldnít. But my basic defintion of intelligence also includes wisdom. I think true intelligence cannot exist without compassion. Intelligence also assumes the desire to see and to understand, and to recognize that this is a life-long involvement, rather than an ultimate destination. There are many smart people, in terms of I.Q. and ability and so on, who willingly engage in destructive, dishonest behavior that brings them money and admiration, but it is my feeling that they are not intelligent. Such people can be found in all walks of life, the scientific, the artistic, and so on. But youíre right, itís a tricky question. You mentioned different kinds of intelligence. What do you mean, exactly?
John Berbrich: Well, do you believe in Artificial Intelligence? By that I mean a type of intelligence created by humans and bestowed upon machines. Computers can record information, but do you think a thing like wisdom can be programmed?
William Michaelian: It seems unlikely, since the path to wisdom includes so many variables. Also, it seems that if we actually understood ourselves, such things wouldnít be necessary. Of course I know very little about the actual subject, and rely instead on Genuine Ignorance. But I think part of AI includes the idea of machines being able to ďlearn.Ē What they learn is based on highly advanced record-keeping, consulting those records, comparing them with what is currently happening, and then making adjustments toward better efficiency. This could be a handy thing in the medical profession, just to name one. But it wouldnít be the same as thinking. Or would it? I donít know. Do you think it can be done?
John Berbrich: I have to say NO, in capital letters. I think that the best of us can understand how a computer works, but I canít say the same for the human brain. And I think that the brain may have potentialities far beyond our expectations. I doubt that the same could be said for a machine. I may be all wrong on this, but it seems we must explore the universe ó internal and external ó on human terms. We could write fat books on this subject, Willie. Wanna try?
William Michaelian: I have long felt that the brain has great, untapped potential. I also think itís possible that there is one brain, and that our individual brains are part if this brain, not unlike cells of an organism ó dying, multiplying, rejuvenating, carrying out their appointed missions. Granted, this idea may have come from watching too many episodes of Star Trek. But sometimes itís fun to think in these terms. We could write books, yes. But I think we should wait until weíre old and wise and have great-grandchildren eager to know whatís flitting about in our shaggy gray heads. Thus motivated, perhaps we will write the greatest bedtime stories the world has ever known.
John Berbrich: Maybe. I bet theyíll be terrifying. Regarding the one brain theory, it reminds me of something I read in Epictetus years ago. This ancient Stoic philosopher said that each of us contains a small piece of the spirit of Zeus ó and that is our soul. In this way weíre all connected, both to each other and to the Supreme Godhead. I wonder if the spirit of Zeus is being depleted with so many people in the world.
William Michaelian: Funny youíd say that, because I saw someone who looked a lot like Zeus walking along the freeway the other day. He seemed to be looking for something ó possibly stray fragments of himself. Hey, that sounds like a pretty good bedtime story right there. Iíd better make a note of it ó unless youíd rather write the story. In fact, I think you should, because something tells me youíre well versed in Greek mythology. Am I right?
Tim Hinshaw: You fellas are getting way too uppity, with all this talk about artificial intelligence and Greek mythology. I like the one-brain theory. Not having a whole one to myself, itís comforting to think that I might have a small piece of a big one and can therefore chip away at any rationality that might be contained therein and, with any luck, get away with it. J.B., what Willie didnít say about his Zeus sighting the other day is that Willie ran over him. The papers just said an unidentified Greek was found expired, lying along the freeway. Several people in the immediate area who identified themselves as ďlesser godsĒ were subsequently held for questioning by the Salem Gang Member Task Force. Homeland Security has been notified. Willie took a powder. Meanwhile, back to that pecksniff Mencken, who spent his sheltered life in Baltimore: I lived a year in Baltimore one month (actually, it was three months) and found that nothing good ever came out of that city except for Edgar Allan, and look what they did to him. But Iím rambling. Willie, your website is increasingly exceptional, and J.B., congrats on another outstanding Yawp. I particularly enjoyed Rabbert Pauís ďBuckle UpĒ poem, but thatís the kinda guy I am. Ciao, boys. Iíll weigh in the next time I can understand what youíre talking about. Or not.
John Berbrich: Quick ó grab him! Oh, heís gone. . . .
William Michaelian: You know what this reminds me of? It reminds me of two plays by Kahlil Gibran. Lazarus and His Beloved and The Blind both have as one of the characters a madman who sits away from the action, but in full view of the audience. Every once in awhile, the madman interjects a witty, illuminating comment, but the rest of the characters are unaware of his presence. Only in this case, we are aware of Mr. Hinshawís presence, or whatever you might want to call it. Obviously, something happened to the poor boy in Baltimore. Maybe he ran into Menckenís shadow. Now, where were we? Or does it matter?
John Berbrich: Well, I donít know that it matters, but you had asked me about the Greeks. Iíve read most of Plato and Aristotle, most of Aeschylus, some of Euripides and Sophocles, and very little of Aristophanes. Also Homer, I love Homer. All and all, I must say that it is very penetrating and worthwhile stuff. As far as the mythology goes, Iíve never studied it, but Iíve picked up a lot. And I hate olives.
William Michaelian: If you hate olives, itís because you never tasted the ones my grandfather used to cure. Gramp was famous for his olives. Even when he was in his eighties, people would take him their olives and he would cure them. And I donít want to hear any wisecracks about the olives being sick, either. He made both kinds ó the black, ultra-salty, wrinkled kind, and the green kind kept in liquid. But back to the Greeks. Once upon a time, I, too, read Plato and Aristotle. You see the good it did me. And Homer. I really loved the Iliad and the Odyssey. I read them in Penguin editions, translated by E.V. Rieu. At the moment, the good news in our house is that our oldest son, Vahan, just started the Iliad. Heís a reading fiend, that boy. And, unlike his father, he retains what he reads. Which reminds me ó when he finishes Homer, I think Iíll have him read your chapbook, The Shade Returneth. I am still amazed by that one. It truly is a legitimate continuation of Iphigenia in Tauris, by Euripides. Great poetry, too. How long did you work on that one? Was it hard to write? Were you under the influence of mind-altering drugs?
John Berbrich: No mind-altering drugs for that one. They might help occasionally with a short lyric, but not with a lengthy work like The Shade Returneth. I wrote that in about three or four weeks, with only minor revision. However, the idea haunted my mind for months before I ever picked up a pen. Writing it was like inspiration or something. It seemed as though my pen made all the right moves ó like it couldnít make a mistake. As though it was guided by something, something other than my conscious brain.
William Michaelian: It could be that those haunted months were when the drama was actually lived and written. In which case, putting the words on paper might be likened to the gathering of fully ripened fruit. No matter how it happened, though, there is an obviously high level of knowledge and skill involved. And as I think about what I just said about the drama being written and lived, I realize that the lived part must go back much further, even to the beginning of your life. In other words, you had to cross and burn many bridges before you could have written The Shade Returneth. Does this make sense? Or am I missing the point entirely?
John Berbrich: Iíve always tried to build more bridges than I burn. Although, one must always leave something behind. The Shade Returneth was actually inspired by Thersites, who in the Iliad questions the authority of Agamemnon. If for no other reason, Odysseus is a hero of mine because he slapped Thersites upside the head at a time when dissention would have been disastrous, although the entire enterprise was a disaster anyway. Thersites represents for me the typical whining liberal, always questioning authority without any real plan to replace it. So, it became a work of political and social commentary.
William Michaelian: Poor Thersites. Iíll bet Odysseus is chuckling now. I know I heard someoneís laughter when I read the play. But before we go any further, I want to mention that The Shade Returneth, a 37-page drama in two acts, is available for only four dollars from BoneWorld Publishing, 3700 County Route 24, Russell, New York 13684. Librarians? Are you listening? As companion reading, I also recommend Iphigenia in Tauris, by Euripides. Itís an abrupt change of gears if your recent focus has been John Grisham or Stephen King ó or Mencken or Poe, for that matter ó but very enjoyable and worthwhile. Now. Back to bridges. In terms of writing, it seems most of the bridges I have built, I have later burned, though some of them simply lie in ruin. Looking back, I see how necessary this process has been. It would certainly be embarrassing if I still wrote as I did in junior high. But I can say the same for my life and the way I think in general. It has been one long path of destruction, with questionable results. So, maybe this should be taken as a warning. Any thoughts on this?
John Berbrich: Well, of course as one grows and matures, one leaves behind childish things. But then we often rediscover some of our childhood joys and realize that we cannot live without them. Iíd say that I straddle the present with one foot in the past and the other stretching into the future. That sounds like a human bridge.
William Michaelian: I think thatís what it is. You know, itís interesting. It has been said that all we really have is the present. In a sense, this is true. The warning is, beware, donít live in the past, the past is dead. This is also true. And of course the future doesnít exist, except in our minds. But at the same time, our present is obviously a result of our past. And so in that sense, the past is carried forward, and we are its embodiment. The future, meanwhile, is the inevitable result of things that were set in motion by our actions long ago. It steadily reveals itself as the present, and then, just as steadily, it becomes part of the past. To complicate matters, our interpretation of the past, present, and future changes according to our experience, and according to our wants and needs at the time. Anyway. There. Now that I have made a complete mess of our discussion, maybe you can bail us out by changing the subject to something I can handle. Or, to put it another way, where is Hinshaw when you need him?
John Berbrich: Invoking the demon to your aid, eh? All I can say is this: All of life is one grand balancing act. Period. Are you sure we need Hinshaw?
William Michaelian: That, my friend, is a profound question of cosmic proportion. By the way, I did read Gulliverís Travels, and you were right about King Kong.
John Berbrich: Iíve never heard anyone else mention it. Do you think it could be a coincidence? What a great book; it is unfortunate that it has become a book only for children, who do not understand it at all. Swift is a stunning, startling talent.
William Michaelian: And his observations still carry their full weight. The book should be required reading for adults, especially those who occupy or are planning to run for office. Iím dreaming, of course. What about Voltaire? I think I read Candide, but if I did, it was so long ago it doesnít matter. I guess he knew a thing or two about satire and sarcasm himself. Do you know much about him? Any reading recommendations?
John Berbrich: I read somewhere that Voltaire drank an amazing amount of coffee daily. I suspect that it was not decaf. As for his books, Iíve read Zadig, Candide, and one or two other novels. I prefer his philosophical works. They are entitled Philosophical Dialogues or something like that. Behind the words of Voltaire can be discerned the smile of Reason. He surveys the history of philosophy, examining the thoughts of various philosophers ó Locke, Spinoza, Descartes, Bishop Berkeley ó with clear, simple reason. Many philosophers try to prove with tortured logic the truth of their own pet theories and core beliefs, for the most part religious. Voltaire examines these beliefs with calm clarity, holding the various ideas up to the light of Reason for inspection. Heís basically skeptical ó and can be pretty satirical too. He can cut with a word, as they say.
William Michaelian: I just read on the Internet that Voltaire left behind him over 14,000 known letters and over 2,000 books and pamphlets. I doubt he could have accomplished that without coffee. Apparently, he consumed between fifty and seventy cups a day. Also, the subject of Voltaire gives me the opportunity to mention a good website that features a huge number of author biographies, including Voltaireís, which can be found at http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/voltaire.htm. The site is based in Finland, and the biographies were written by Petri Liukkonen, who was kind enough to reply to a few of my e-mails several months ago. The site also features a neat authorís calendar, where you can enter your birthday and find out which authors were born on that date. Speaking of coffee-drinking, Balzac and I were born on the same day. Howís that for a useless tidbit?
EstyBoop: Hello, I am looking for literary criticism on Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens. Do you have anything of the sort? Thanks.
William Michaelian: I havenít read Nicholas Nickleby, but I found an interesting website that might be what youíre looking for. http://www.online-literature.com/dickens/nickleby/ contains a searchable version of the entire book, plus excerpts from ďAppreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens,Ē by Gilbert Keith Chesterton. Not too far down the page, Mr. Chesterton writes at some length about Nicholas Nickleby. And near the bottom of the page, visitors have left comments about the book and other works by Dickens.
John Berbrich: Regarding Nicholas Nickleby, I wonít be much use as a critic. I read the book over twenty years ago and remember only the character, Smike, a few scenes, and that I liked the character, Nicholas Nickleby. I do recall it fondly, although from a great distance. G.K. Chesterton is another author I have enjoyed a great deal. Iíve read four or five of his books and have always appreciated the clarity of his writing and his love of paradox. Apparently, he engaged in a series of debates with George Bernard Shaw. I wish I could have attended these.
William Michaelian: Well, thatís interesting. I have a book of plays by Shaw Iím trying to get to, and I havenít read a bit of Chesterton. The same website I mentioned does have a Chesterton section, as well as one for Shaw. In the short biography of G.K., it said he went through a ďcrisis of skepticism and depressionĒ around 1893, and that this led him to experiment with the Ouija board. Also, he became fascinated with something called ďdiabolism.Ē I have no idea what that is. What Chesterton books did you read? Iíd like to give him a try.
John Berbrich: Iíve read, Whatís Wrong With the World, St. Francis of Assisi, Orthodoxy, and some of the Father Brown mystery stories, as well as his biography by Dudley Barker. I have two more Iím trying to get to, Heretics and The Man Who Was Thursday. I didnít know about the Ouija board. My wife always warns me about things like that.
William Michaelian: Thatís good to hear. Does Nancy have time to do much reading, or is keeping you out of trouble pretty much a full-time job?
John Berbrich: Nah ó She yanked me off the Clown Bus years ago. So, I donít need such careful watching now. She reads mostly studentsí papers these days, sad to say. Thereís a story behind the Clown Bus thing, if you want to hear it.
William Michaelian: Iíd be a fool to resist. Were you the driver, or one of the passengers?
John Berbrich: A passenger. It goes like this: They sent me off to kindergarten when I was four years old. The Long Island town I grew up in had four or five school districts. The one I attended for kindergarten had two buses, east side and west side. I lived on the east side. On the first day my mother drove me to school. She told me to get on the deer bus after school, not the clown bus. These were the days when you didnít need to know your numbers to attend kindergarten. You didnít need to know much of anything. Thatís what kindergarten was for, to teach you the fundamentals of learning and socializing. So, at the end of the first day, I refused to board the bus with the stupid picture of the deer on it. It was the clown bus for me! I ended up on the wrong side of town, the last one on the bus. The driver and I just looked at each other, wondering what would happen next.
William Michaelian: Wait, donít tell me. The bus driver took you home and cared for you, until you were old enough to be released into the wild.
John Berbrich: My memory is kinda frazzled, but I rather thought that the bus driver was you, Willie. Tell me, what do you remember from that fateful day?
William Michaelian: Boy, your memory is frazzled. But, since you asked, here is what I recall. I remember wondering why, at the age of three, I was being allowed to drive a great big school bus. I also remember having difficulty while making turns, because there was no power steering. And there was one other problem. Having just arrived from California, I had no idea where anything was, or where anyone lived. I was just as lost as you were! I didnít let on, of course. And since none of the other kids knew either, it worked out okay. I just dropped them off wherever the mood struck. For all I know, they are still out there somewhere, wandering around. I was fired the very same afternoon. But you will be interested to know, out of all the kids on that bus, you are the only one I remember. There was something about you, even then. You wore a proud, defiant expression. This served you well in the many bars we hit that night, and on our subsequent train-hopping journey that took us across the country. Anyway. I could go on and on. Surely, something here must ring a bell?
John Berbrich: Well, I do sort of remember waking up with a headache in a Reno hotel room, with only one of my sneakers. Did you take my other sneaker, Willie? I hitchhiked, limping, back to New York, where I was in emotional rehab until I was thirteen. For some reason I was terrified of dwarf Armenian bus drivers with big mustaches and scraggly beards. But, Iíve put all that behind me now. I wrote about it in my chapbook Balancing Act. Have you read that?
William Michaelian: Yes. Not long ago, I was going through some of my things from those days and it fell out of my rucksack ó along with your shoe. You cover many illuminating miles in that poetic work. And Iíll say this: the Clown Bus episode on Page 18 takes on greater meaning against the backdrop of Balancing Act as a whole. I particularly enjoyed the poem at the top of Page 24, which began with the single line, Your primary reality, and continued, And now / Years later / Considering what is happening / Looking at the horror in front of you / You wonder if maybe / You didnít make it quite back / To where you belong / Perhaps you miscounted / So many years ago / And you wonder if maybe / Thereís still some way / To make it / All the way home. I think everyone feels that way now and again, even the hairiest of Armenian bus drivers. While weíre on the subject of poetry, Iím sure youíre familiar with the late Charles Bukowski. Iím finally getting around to reading a little of his stuff. What do you think of his writing?
John Berbrich: Honestly, Iíve read very little of Bukowski. The few poems I have seen were very effective, with their blunt lines, bleak atmosphere, and rough shabby humor. I feel that Iíve been avoiding Bukowski, possibly due to the fact that he is so popular. I generally give iconic figures plenty of room. This is not done out of any ideological program, itís only what my guts tell me. What do you think of him so far?
William Michaelian: I understand your reason for avoiding him. I tend to do the same thing, and have in his case. But curiosity finally got the best of me. From the dozen or so that Iíve read, which span many years, Iíd say his poems are good, but they donít have an irresistible quality that makes me want to come back for more. I appreciate the bluntness and humor, but somehow it all seems limited. I realize his harsh reality is something many identify with, or would like to identify with for one reason or another. But from what I can make out, that latter form of identification runs contrary to his message.
John Berbrich: I donít know what his message is. His followers always seem to have a self-destructive quality about them. One tires easily of reading about drunks puking and soiling themselves. Of course, if one leads a life of squalor then one needs a good sense of humor in order to survive. Many people are leaned upon heavily by the world, and many toss themselves into the mud.
William Michaelian: Oink ó you put that well. The message I was referring to, basically, is that one shouldnít be a follower, that he should instead find his own way, on his own terms. I donít see Bukowskiís poems as advocating his lifestyle, necessarily. But I think he was posing in them to a certain degree, knowing full well what the result would be ó like most writers, in other words. The bums.
John Berbrich: Yeah, but if everybody was like me, the world would be so cool. . . .
William Michaelian: Well, certainly. But thatís because youíre special. Youíre unique. Youíre . . . youíre . . . oh, what is the word Iím looking for?
John Berbrich: Iím not sure thereís a word in the English language that is quite suitable without being blustery or foolish. I think perhaps in the Japanese language the term wabi might come close. This is an artistic word and somehow seems to fit. What word or phrase might fit you, Willie?
William Michaelian: I donít know. The first word that comes to mind is ďguilty.Ē The second is ďsincere.Ē The third is ďmisguided.Ē Is there a word that combines all three?
Artashes Emin: Is ďasinineĒ in any way synonymous with ďcallipygousĒ? As for books, Trevanian (aka Jack Hashian) is also good.
William Michaelian: Callipygous? At the risk of sounding asinine, I will say this: if youíre asking that question, then you already know the answer. Also, as far as I can remember, I have never heard or seen the word callipygous used in a sentence. But maybe I go to the wrong kinds of bars. I havenít read Trevanian. What is a good title to start with?
Artashes Emin: Start with ďThe Summer of KatyaĒ then go on to ďThe Main,Ē then ďIncident at twenty mileĒ then ďShibumi,Ē then switch to the Hashian alias and read ďMamigon.Ē ďHot night in the cityĒ by Trevanian is a good place to stop. That will do. Report progress. What about Peter Najarian, read any?
William Michaelian: Only in bits and pieces, as I have come across them in Ararat Quarterly, where in brief fits of editorial weakness a few things of mine have also been published. But I havenít read Daughters of Memory, for instance, or The Great American Loneliness, although I must say that I like both titles, especially the latter. These days, I donít read nearly as much as I would like. At the moment I am pecking away at Thomas Wolfeís Look Homeward, Angel. Have you read anything by him?
Artashes Emin: Daughters of Memory is his best so far. I have translated bits of it into Russian and published. Wolfe is OK, but I like the other Thomas (Pynchon) much better (not Vineland). These days I do not read at all (since about ten years ago) and miss it badly. I read a nice graffiti on a fence, though, a few days ago. Hereís an attempt at a translation from Armenian: A brave fart is better than a sneaky puke.
William Michaelian: Interesting. The graffiti here is illiterate, nowhere near as good as prehistoric cave art. Much of it is in some sort of code, understood only by members of rival gangs. Their main purpose, it seems, is to mark their territory, the way dogs do with doses of urine. Unfortunately, there is little in the way of social commentary, though it is desperately needed.
John Berbrich: I remember Auden said that people like their own handwriting the way they like the smell of their own farts. Iím not sure just how germaine that observation is at the present time, but I believe itís not too far from the mark.
William Michaelian: I am unfamiliar with Audenís statement, but something tells me it made more sense in its original context. Something also tells me I donít want to know what that context is. On the other hand, if Auden went around saying things like that out of the blue, that would be something different altogether.
John Berbrich: I think that Auden liked to be different and he liked to shock. But, that was fifty years ago ó it would shock no one today. And now, being different is the norm ó or is it really?
William Michaelian: No, because if one is genuinely different, he is not in the norm. To put it another way, if being different is the norm, then everyone is the same. But I suppose this is a trick question, and you were only trying to see if Iíd take the bait. Well, I did.
John Berbrich: Iíd never try to trick you, Willie. But, it is sort of a dumb question. Look at the Sixties, all those hippies in their jeans, trying to be different. Humanity generally looks like a herd, any way you look at it. And thatís probably the way it should be. Salvadore Dali once said something like the world couldnít handle one hundred Dalis. We require a broad base of mediocrity, which is one reason why I have trouble with people who think that the bane of humankind is work and labor. Most people, if they had more free time, would waste it anyway. This is just how it seems to me. I suppose then that Iím an elitest in some sense, which is OK since I donít include myself in that select group.
William Michaelian: Well, I donít know if humanity actually requires a broad base of mediocrity, but mediocrity is definitely the rule. The herd mentality is easy to fall in with, and difficult to overcome. It is also easily manipulated. Look at advertising. It massages peopleís egos by calling them individuals, then it tells them what to buy in order to maintain their individuality. So, what would you do if you had more free time?
John Berbrich: Iíd waste it. Seriously, my wife says that I would read and write more. If I knew for sure that I had lots of free time, I would probably take the opportunity to undertake big creative projects that I canít squeeze in now. Like reading and writing big books. Possibly a waste of time, but I hope not.
William Michaelian: Iím sure not. But what if the opportunity doesnít present itself? Do you think you could write a big book without having available lots of free time?
John Berbrich: That would be mighty tough. Particularly with BoneWorld Publishing requiring as much time as it does. If I tossed the publishing out the window I could write a lot of big fat books. As it is, I write a few skinny ones. But some day . . .
William Michaelian: Ah, yes, a familiar phrase. Itís one Iíve uttered many times. But it represents a big gamble ó that is, if we accept the arrogant assumption that I have something worthwhile to write. Either way, itís amazing how much must be thrown overboard to keep the writing ship afloat.
John Berbrich: Yeah. Some guys, like Balzac, start writing at midnight and go all night, sleeping for only a few hours. And he wrote a hundred books. And, some guys have a family, like Isaac Asimov, and write over three hundred books. I like the idea of the tormented artist, the guy who doesnít care if he eats or not, or where he sleeps, so long as he has a bottle, a pipe, and a pen and paper. Sure, itís self-destructive, but the image retains a romantic appeal. Of course you die young. But look at George Bernard Shaw. He was a vegetarian, with good habits, and he lived to be ninety-four, writing right up until the end. Yeah, I gotta find more time to write.
William Michaelian: I think itís a matter of using the time one has, and not waiting for the perfect moment or situation. My own approach has been to give writing top priority in the dayís activities. I write first, then tend to my other responsibilities later. And, I am ashamed to say, some responsibilities I neglect altogether. This creates an undercurrent of self-loathing that lashes me on. But what I have learned to do is to expect interruptions and take them in stride, and to not let what I am working on melt into the background and lose its urgency. That way, whether the interruptions last for hours or for minutes, when they end I am usually able to quickly resume writing. Granted, everyone hates me and the results are of questionable merit. But a guy canít have everything.
John Berbrich: I notice on your web page that youíve been reading some Hemingway, specifically A Farewell to Arms. That book was OK, but I much preferred The Sun Also Rises and especially For Whom The Bell Tolls. Another good one was A Moveable Feast, which recounts his days in Paris and in whose pages writers like Ezra Pound and Blaise Cendrars appear. Have you read any of those?
William Michaelian: Nope. Quite frankly, the little I have read of Hemingway over the years has left me cold. But I want to give him another chance, especially the longer works you mentioned. I did pick up a volume of his letters several months ago and enjoy poking around in that from time to time. At the moment, though, Iím between books. I just finished Tristram Shandy. That was quite an ordeal, but a pleasant one. Assuming I recover, I might tackle Sandburgís Remembrance Rock. Then again, I might read Fieldingís Tom Jones. Or, who knows? I have a pile of books, and I keep collecting more. Itís fun to jump around. Who is Blaise Cendrars?
John Berbrich: Cendrars was a French poet and all around author who lost a hand during WWI. Hemingway mentions several times in A Moveable Feast that every time he saw Cendrars in a Parisian bar he was always talking about his missing hand. By the way, Henry Miller thought very highly of Cendrars. I forget his exact words, but Henry placed him up there with the Titans of twentieth century literature.
William Michaelian: There is a biography of Cendrars at http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/cendrars.htm. Blaise Cendrars was the pen name of Frťdťric Louis Sauser. His father was Swiss, his mother Scottish. Among other things, the page talks about his restless wanderings and dedication to writing. Interesting. I wonder who youíll come up with next.
John Berbrich: Well then, let me tell you about my favorite authors. They are, at this point, in no particular order: Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, John Steinbeck, JRR Tolkien, and actually a host of others. I have so many. I also think that NY State is fortunate to have Billy Collins as state poet laureate. I think his stuff is excellent.
William Michaelian: You live in New York? I thought it was BoneWorld. For many years now, my favorite author has been Dostoevsky, though there are many others I like almost as much. For instance, when I finished Thomas Wolfeís Look Homeward, Angel awhile back, it struck me as easily one of the best books written in the twentieth century. Of course he died young, and thatís just one work, as is Don Quixote, which I also think is great. And then thereís Tolstoy, before he cracked up and started preaching. Books like War and Peace and Anna Karenina are pretty hard to beat. And what about Grapes of Wrath? Or Les Misťrables? And on and on we go. I almost hate to bring any of them up, because I know I am leaving out many more. And when Iím in the middle of reading one of them, I am astonished, and I feel lucky to be alive. I know nothing about Philip K. Dick. What has he written?
John Berbrich: Philip K. Dick was a science fiction novelist who died in the early 1980s. He wrote over thirty novels, several of which won major awards in science fiction, like the Hugo and the John W. Campbell award. He was heavily into drugs and wrote some severely brilliant and demented books. The movie Blade Runner was based on his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Also, the movie Minority Report was based on his novella of the same name. I think also The Terminator was based on one of his books. Hereís a funny story. When I lived in Connecticut I used to steal his novels from the library in the next town. Of course when I was done, I always snuck them back in and placed them in their proper places. I didnít realize that my library card for my town was good in all state libraries. He is truly one of the greats, although his technical skills are not very strong. The plotting and the ideas are spectacular.
William Michaelian: It sounds like youíre a model criminal. Not only do you return what you steal, but youíre well read. And thatís a mighty appealing description of Philip K. Dick. Iíll have to read something of his. It has been years since Iíve read science fiction anyway. Letís see. I read Dune, and that other one ó what was it called? Stranger in a Strange Land? Seems like it had something to do with Mars, and the word grok. . . . Jeez, no wonder I donít remember. I read those books thirty years ago.
John Berbrich: So did I. But Iíve read Dune maybe four times now. It is indeed a classic. The entire Dune series I think has six books and Frank Herbertís son has co-written I believe five or six prequels, based upon papa Herbertís notes. Heinlein, too is excellent, grok to you. For mainstream science fiction, what do you think of Kurt Vonnegut?
William Michaelian: Not a thing, because Vonnegut is still on my to-read list. Iíve read about him, and about some of his experiences. Based on this it seems highly unlikely that his books could be dull or bad. Tell me more. A few recommendations would be welcome.
John Berbrich: Some of Vonnegutís books are exaggerated to almost cartoonish proportions, while others are written pretty straight. In every one there is usually something incredibly hilarious and unexpected. I think my favorites by him are Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan, and a collection of short stories entitled Welcome to the Monkey House. Iíll mail you a copy of the short story ďHarrison Bergeron,Ē and you tell me what you think.
William Michaelian: Okay, Iíll look forward to that. Thanks. And Iíll see if I can find the other titles. But you know, itís awfully hard to find anything when you never leave your room. I guess I should get out a little more, but each time I do, Iím shocked by the strange things going on. It bothers me, for instance, that the driver of every Hummer I see is holding a lattť. Why is that, do you think? Why would someone pay big money for a military vehicle and then use it to drive around town and buy coffee?
John Berbrich: Willie, youíre living in the wrong place. Iíve never seen a Hummer around here and no one drinks lattť. Usually itís one or two guys on a four-wheeler guzzling Budweisers. The East Coast is a lot better, let me tell ya.
William Michaelian: In that case, Iíll drive my bright-yellow Hummer to your house for a nice long visit. What flavor lattť do you like? Iíll bring you a gallon jug of malted almond ultra-fizz ó and thatís just for your hair. Although, I must confess, I donít know what Iím talking about, because Iíve never had a lattť. I drink coffee ó black. And I have been known to guzzle a beer or two on social occasions. Luckily for me, social occasions happen every day, even when Iím alone. Iím a very sociable person. With the help of a little beer, I get along even with myself ó and thatís no mean feat. Bah. Anyway. Where were we? Oh, yes. The East Coast. Do you think we should move? I kind of like it here ó I mean, as long as I stay in my room.
John Berbrich: Well, we have plenty of rooms here, on the East Coast. And Iíve never had a lattť either. And I like my coffee black also. So where does that leave us? This is a nice place, but I think that the winters are a lot colder here than on the Oregon coast. Did you get Harrison Bergeron yet?
William Michaelian: I did. It was a good story. Very good, in fact. The strange thing is, it seemed so familiar, I was wondering if I had read it before. I donít know. Maybe I have. Or maybe it was just that Vonnegutís America of 2081 bears a frightening resemblance to America today. And he manages it quickly and effortlessly. Also, his lighthearted way of telling the story made the sad ending all the more effective. I see on the copy you sent that the story first appeared in 1961. What do you think of the piece?
John Berbrich: I almost want to call it amazing. And frightening. Also prophetic, although that sort of equality nonsense was just getting underway then, I think. Itís told so perfectly, with a sense of humor that, as you say, heightens the effect of the ending. You might want to read his book, Palm Sunday, which is basically an odd autobiography, but not quite as odd as Nietzscheís autobiography, Ecce Homo. It relates some of Vonnegutís experiences in World War II which led to the writing of Slaughterhouse Five. Includes a lot of funny stuff too.
William Michaelian: Maybe those works belong in a separate genre ó ďoddobiography.Ē Okay, sorry, bad joke. Anyway. You said Steinbeck is also one of your favorites.
John Berbrich: Yes, Iíve greatly enjoyed his novels, particularly Cannery Row, Tortilla Flat, and Sweet Thursday. Sweet Thursday is one of the happiest books Iíve ever read. Strange but true, I havenít read The Grapes of Wrath yet. So I still have something to look forward to.
William Michaelian: Thatís funny. One doesnít usually associate Steinbeck with happy books. Or at least I donít, maybe because I havenít read Sweet Thursday. Iíve read Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Winter of Our Discontent. There is definitely humor in each, but they were not happy books. And yet I was extremely happy while reading them, because theyíre so good. Unfortunately, the ending of The Winter of Our Discontent didnít quite cut the mustard. But overall, I thought Steinbeck was eloquent in that one. In The Grapes of Wrath, though, he was much more than eloquent. He was powerful. What is Sweet Thursday about? What makes it so happy? When was it written?
John Berbrich: Sweet Thursday is a follow up to Cannery Row. Some of the book is sad, but the ending and the whole spirit behind it is poetic, beautiful, and happy. But read Cannery Row first ó it also is a first class novel. I agree, Steinbeck is a writer of power, probably one of the finest American novelists of the twentieth century. Anyway, check these out and let me know what you think.
William Michaelian: I will. But first I have to finish reading Mademoiselle de Maupin, by Thťophile Gautier. Iíve read two chapters so far. I keep jumping around according to what I stumble on in used book stores. And while weíre on the subject of twentieth century American novelists, if you havenít read Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, I urge you to do so. Itís a great novel. I wrote a little about it in Favorite Books & Authors.
John Berbrich: OK, OK. I promise Iíll read Look Homeward, Angel. But how about movies? Have you seen Spiderman II? A pretty girl, a nasty villain, what more could you ask for? And theyíve set themselves up for Spiderman III.
William Michaelian: Well, heck. What am I doing reading all these stupid books when I could be watching Spiderman XIV? I had no idea there were so many spidermans. Youíve heard of the famous astronomer-scientist, of course, Yevgeny Spiderman? Invented black holes, I believe. Or was it gray matter? Anyway, I read Cannery Row, and you were absolutely right, itís a great book. Then I read The Great Gatsby, which comes nowhere near Steinbeck or Wolfe. We did see a movie recently. It was the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera. And once every couple of years we watch Doctor Zhivago. Thatís another book worth reading, by the way.
Anita: Gíday William and John. My name is Anita and Iím a sheila from Down Under. I thought Iíd find you guys hanging in the kitchen, so Iíll just put this slab of VB in the fridge, and crack open a tinny. So whatchaí talking about? Say, I heard about this new movie that is causing a bit of a stir up your way. Isnít in the cinemas down here yet. Itís called What the Bleep? Thereís a bit of a barney going on about it in another group I am in. A couple of people are slugging it out over whether it is science or just a piece of New Age ballyhoo. Iím just on the sidelines taking bets from the crowd. Any of you two seen it or know much about it ó read the reviews? I got a great link to it . . . itís in here somewhere . . . (tipping contents of bag on table) . . . ah, here it is . . . see http://www.whatthebleep.com. Grab a tinny you guys, donít be shy . . . the beerís on me. You got any pretzels, William?
William Michaelian: Anita? Hi. Sit down, relax, take your shoes off. No sense in being formal. Oh. Your shoes are off. Well, then. Great. Anyway, I ó hang on a second ó let me take a swipe at that puddle first. There we are. Sorry Iím out of pretzels. But youíre welcome to everything else. John? I ó John! Wake up! Weíve got company. Oh, well. Heíll come to eventually. The thing is, Johnís the movie expert, not me. In the meantime, I am hoping VB stands for Victorian Bitter, because thatís something Iíve wanted to try for a long time. Right, John? John? Oh, well. Tinny, barney, sheila, slab ó these are all words Iíve heard many times. The funny thing is, I thought I knew what they meant. Now Iím not so sure.
Anita: Well, if thereís no pretzels how about some shakarish or some of that walnut fudge your wife makes? Actually, I wouldnít mind getting the recipes for both of these. Got it one, William, Victorian Bitter. Carlton Draught Cold is also quite nice, and Iím partial to Steinlager, which is a Kiwi brew. What do you think tinny, barney, sheila, and slab mean? Go on, tell me, I could do with a good laugh. There is one word you use up there for a certain part of the anatomy that means something quite different down here in Australia.
William Michaelian: Oh? Iím afraid to ask what it is. As for the other words, okay, Iíll give it a burl. It seems likely that slab is a quantity of beer, most likely a case, the term used here for twenty-four cans or bottles, although Iíve also heard it called a rack. And your Victorian Bitter must be in cans, since you said we should grab a tinny. Iím guessing sheila means woman, and barney means something like a good-natured argument. So, how did I do? Are you gobsmacked?
Anita: Gobsmacked? Not at all. I noticed that old Crocodile Dundee video on your shelf there as I came in. What gobsmacks me is that you also paid good money for Crocodile Dundee 2. *snort*
William Michaelian: Bloody oath! I must have been off my face. I honestly donít remember buying either one. So, tell us. Who are some good authors from down your way? Thereís a short story called ďThe Gray HorseĒ by Katherine Susannah Prichard in an international anthology of stories I have, but I havenít read it yet. The anthology came out in 1947, though. Something tells me a few authors might have come and gone since then.
Anita: Good Aussie authors, ay? How long have you got? Two books I have read over and over are: My Brother Jack by George Johnston and Come in Spinner by Dympha Cusack and Florence James (1951). I love the quote on the front page:
ďAnd, sometimes, ĎCome in Spinner,í laugh the gods.
Yet the felled tree ever
sprouts from the lowly butt.
And, ĎCome in Spinner,í laugh the gods again.
ĎWell, whoíd believe it ó tails!í my empty pocket cries.
But still there blooms my unabated spring.Ē
ó Ian Mudie
William Michaelian: That is nice, indeed.
Anita: Mini-series were made from both these books in the Eighties and they were excellent and faithful to the books. Other memorable books are the ďHarp in the SouthĒ novels by Ruth Park, of which Poor Manís Orange is one of the three. I read a lot of the classics in my teens: Such is Life; The Fortunes of Richard Mahony; For the Term of His Natural Life; A Fortunate Life. I have read most of the books on this website listing the Top 40 Australian Books. Illywhacker was just so quirky, I still donít know if I understood it. Would like to re-read the classics now that Iím older and have a different perspective.
William Michaelian: I am trying to do that myself. Anyone else on your list?
Anita: Well, Colleen McCullouch has been most prolific, and I love her First Man in Rome epic series from 110 B.C. Rome. I suspect she will end the series with the death of Julius Caesar, who is an historical leader I enjoy reading about. Historical fiction is my favourite genre and Colleen has done her research very well. Of course, you may have heard of her earlier book, The Thorn Birds? She also wrote Tim, which was made into a movie. A very young Mel Gibson at the beginning of his career nailed the character of Tim ó lovely little book, lovely little movie. And, let me see, Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson deeply resonated with me. Cloudstreet by Tim Winton was worth perservering with. Breaker Morant by F.M. Cutlack (1962) is another classic, as is Power Without Glory by Frank Hardy (1950). Not forgetting Thomas Keneally, who wrote Schindlerís Ark, which became the movie Schindlerís List, and his Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is also good. And I should also mention Sally Morgan, who wrote a lovely book, My Place, that changed my perception of aboriginals in a big way. And Cecelia Dart-Thornton wrote a stunning fantasy-fiction trilogy called The Bitterbynde Trilogy. I thought it was better than Tolkien.
William Michaelian: Fascinating. What about earlier authors?
Anita: Hereís a website of older aussie authors for you to surf. Bryce Courtney made his name with The Power of One. Donít particularly care for his later books, but have been told that Matthew Flinderís Cat is good, and The Potato Factory. Germaine Greer of course is Australian, and wrote The Female Eunuch and other feminist texts. The books by Sara Henderson were an interesting autobiographical series and look into life on an Outback cattle station. The subsequent books written by two of her three daughters were more interesting in terms of telling the real story about their mother, who had a very good PR agent. Aaahh . . . so many books, not enough time.
John Berbrich: Hey, Iím awake ó did I miss anything? I read The Hardy Boys schoolboy mystery thrillers when I was a kid, but I didnít realize that Frank was a novelist. Did Joe write too? But, now that I think about it, they lived in New Jersey.
William Michaelian: Did you miss anything? Why, I oughta ó well, Iíll tell you what I oughta do. I oughta continue this on the next page, because this one is getting way too long.