At the 2005 PEN World Voices Festival in New York, Eliot Weinberger talked about the emergence of the Post-national writer. What does this mean when we read his work? Weinberger combines an avant-garde approach to the essay with an internationalism. His writing branches out across cultures and back through time to our earliest archaic beginnings. Reading Weinberger leaves you with a sense of the world’s inherent sacredness. Everything is alive. From a grain of sand between one’s toes to the mechanics of the universe above. It’s as if the whole human endeavor has left its mark on his work. Many of Weinberger’s readers find that his work leads them down paths to the Ancient Mayans, Tang poetry, 20th century Modernism, Latin American poetry, Ancient Indian philosophy and other great cultural achievements of our shared humanity. It’s a fascinating read.
Jeffrey Errington: Your essays are about a wide range of topics. Why are you not writing ‘what you know’ (middle class, white, America, etc), but reaching out across different cultures and right back through human history? What is it that you are interested in?
Eliot Weinberger: I’ve never understood that writing school mantra, which strikes me as terrible advice, especially for the young. It should be: “write what you imagine.” (Or, for non-fiction: “write what you don’t know, but want to find out about.”)
But the appeal of American realist fiction similarly eludes me, with its precise evocations of consumer products. That is, I’d rather talk to the kind of people I know than read about them. I’ve always preferred books that take me to the other worlds out there, geographically or historically or imaginatively. It’s a way of trying to see what is right here.
JE: Richard Pevear started out as a poet and then became an important translator of, in his case, Russian prose. He started to translate as “English prose had become textureless, flavorless, flat, naive, a kind of dull first person. ‘I woke up. I saw the window. I felt bad. The sun was rising over the hills.’” Pevear hoped that by translating Dostoevsky he could “help energize English itself.” What drove you to work as a translator? Is there something in Latin American and Chinese writing that may energize English?
EW: As much as I love the Pevear-Volokhonsky translations—particularly the Dostoyevsky—I can’t say that I agree. There’s interesting prose being written in English, and it’s not all imitation Carver (or, more exactly, Carver-Lish). I’ll avoid a list, but one could start with the writers in India and the Indian diaspora—collectively, more or less, the source of the best novels in English these days.
I should also say that I am not a translator the way Pevear and Volokhonsky are. I’ve translated some things—most of them many years ago– but just as there are pianists and people who play the piano, there are translators and those who translate. Burton Watson is a translator; I’m a dilettante.
But to get to your questions: There is always something in any foreign literature that can energize the literature of one’s own language: it’s just a matter of a certain something that unexpectedly strikes a certain writer. In the two cases you mention, American poetry of the 20th century is inextricable from the lessons it learned from classical Chinese poetry. And in the 1960s, especially, Latin American poetry was enormously influential on various camps of American poetry, who otherwise had little in common. In fiction, it’s safe to say that the single most imitated novel in the second half of the century, everywhere in the world, was One Hundred Years of Solitude. Not to mention the Borgesians…
In my own case, when I was 13, I began translating the poetry of Octavio Paz and some other Spanish and Latin American poets as a way of learning to write poetry. It is—along with systematic reading—the best personal writing school. Then, at 19, someone sent my translations to Paz, who asked me to translate his book of prose poetry, Eagle or Sun? (He had no idea I was a hippie nerd.) I had dropped out of college after a year and wasn’t doing anything. So now, at least, I could tell my parents I had something to do… And that was the beginning of my relationship with Paz, which went on for some thirty years, until his death.
JE: I’d like to talk about your book An Elemental Thing. For me this is an incredible work. If I run my eye along the subjects of the essays in An Elemental Thing I see “Wind, Wrens, Bone, Spring, Fall, The Vortex, Tigers, Stars, Muhammed,: etc. Is this book “about” elemental things? By that I mean is the title hinting that these essays can be read as some kind of building blocks? Or is the entire book itself an elemental thing? By that I mean are you commenting on how much of the world is actually built through imaginative literature.
EW: I was trying to take the long open-ended serial poem—a form, by the way, that is uniquely and inexplicably American—and apply it to the essay. That is, it’s open-ended (doesn’t end); the subject matter keeps changing from section to section, but many images and even phrases repeat.
The story of its origin is that I woke up on my 52nd birthday in February 2001 and decided I wanted to write a book called “An Elemental Thing.” I didn’t know what the title meant. (Though years later I realized that the phrase is in one of Robert Duncan’s war “Passages,” so no doubt it had become embedded from there.) That day I wrote the preface, about the Aztec “New Fire” ceremony, which occurs every 52 years. I had no idea what would come next, what it was a preface to.
I worked on the book for the next six months, and then 9/11 struck. After that, I was mainly writing articles for foreign newspapers and magazines about what was happening in the USA. This went on for some years, until I finally got sick of writing about Bush and being immersed in the news, and wanted to return to, well, elemental things, before I went crazy. The book came out in 2007, but I’ve been writing more sections since.
To answer your questions: I can’t. Many things in the book were of course deliberate, but many things were not, and I discovered them much later. What is strange is that it’s all factual; nothing comes from my “imagination” (of which I have little, which is why I write non-fiction—I’m like a fat man obsessed with the ballet). And yet there are these connections . . . But I don’t believe, as some do, that the world is a library. The lines in a book are one path, among many, for making one’s way through the world.
JE: I never knew that reference to elemental things was in Duncan. I always thought it came from Hugh MacDiarmid’s “On a Raised Bench”: “We must reconcile ourselves to the stones/Not the stones to us./Here a man must shed the encumbrances that muffle/Contact with elemental things . . .”
EW: Not exactly a reference, as it wasn’t conscious. And MacDiarmid: I hadn’t thought of this, though it is one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets. These things have a way of getting stuck somewhere in the brain. Anyone’s work is full of these kinds of resonances, which are not necessarily helpful. I’m thinking of Christopher Ricks’ edition of Eliot’s early poems, where, for example, when Eliot mentions a streetlamp, Ricks comes up with every possible streetlamp in a work of literature that Eliot might have read—but seems not to consider that it just might be a real streetlamp on a real unwritten street.
JE: You once quoted Guy Davenport “what was most modern in our times was what was most archaic.” What role does the archaic play in An Elemental Thing?
EW: Davenport was a national treasure, and like most treasures, he remains hidden . . . But it’s true that, except for the various kinds of Futurists, nearly every modernist was simultaneously trying to make something new and recover something old. Apart from a few survivors, this seems to have dropped out entirely from American poetry, with its current preoccupations with either autobiography or the so-called “surfaces” of language. Obviously my affinities are with a kind of “mythopoetics” or “ethnopoetics.” The books I happen to read are in anthropology or the history of religions, and not critical theory. So the sentences I happen to write—this being non-fiction—tend to come from there.
JE: I am so glad that you raised ethnopoetics. I was hoping we could update a prediction you made back in 1991. The event was Jerome Rothenberg’s 60th birthday. And you finished with (I will quote it at length):
“At this moment of the breaking-up of nations and the end of the ideologies, the disaster and threat of the next decade and the next century will be ethnocentricity, nationalism, all the forms of excluding that other. Ethnopoetics—a poetics not of “the people,” but of “peoples”—could be one of the ways out. American poets, in worse isolation that ever, symptomatic of the times, have stopped talking to strangers, stopped listening to the news from elsewhere.”
Now, 20 years later, how to you react to this?
EW: Well, that statement was made twenty years ago, during the time of ethnic wars and before the rise of the unimaginable Internet. And, in American poetry, a time when the poets—with the exception of a few old hands like Rothenberg—had more or less stopped translating poetry.
As I’ve written elsewhere, translation flourishes when there is a national inferiority complex or national embarrassment, and in the sense of the latter the Bush years saw a boom in translation. (Though shockingly not a boom in political poetry—another topic.) Intellectuals finally became sick of their American selves, and started wondering what other people were thinking. And some younger poets are once again starting to get out in the world—though most remain in the sensory deprivation tanks of the writing schools. This, of course, should be extremely healthy for poetry—what its effects will be remain to be seen.
But the mythic sense, the sacred sense, the sense of poetry at its origins is largely absent (again with a few, mainly older, exceptions). To read something like Robert Duncan’s The H.D. Book (which has finally just been published, nearly fifty years after it was written) is like finding an artifact from a lost civilization. This is what American poets used to think about; this was the way they talked.
I was always disappointed that ethnopoetics, of which Rothenberg was the tireless ringmaster, never had a second generation—never went beyond the parameters (however wide-ranging) that Jerry set, never evolved into other forms. Perhaps it will happen: auto-therapy or irony only take you so far. “When it all comes down, you’ve got to go back to Mother Earth.”
JE: I adore your essay “The Falls.” It charts the role of fear and hatred of other people through history. We can see how recent acts of genocide have roots leading back to our earliest history. And the richness of that essay comes in part, I believe, from the depth of its research. After reading it I was wondering, “how did he get a hold of all those details?” Can you talk a little about how you begin an essay and then what kind of reading/research you undertake?
EW: So glad you liked that . . . I think it’s one of the better ones, but no one ever mentions it. It was my farewell to the 20th century, finished at the end of December 1999.
Many of my essays begin with a question. In this case, it was two questions—and two possible essays—which I quickly realized kept intersecting. One was: Why did the Nazis think they were Aryans, the same as a bunch of brown people in India? And the other was: In the ethnic genocide of Rwanda, why did the Hutus think that the Tutsis were the descendents of Noah’s son Ham—and, because of that, must be sent “home”? This took me through some three thousand years of racial categorization.
As for my “method”: I don’t use libraries. I use the books I have lying around, books I buy, academic articles on JSTOR, and lately Google Books for older things. Since I’m not writing a scholarly article—and am afflicted with torpor—I don’t feel that I have to have read everything on the subject—if I can’t find the book, I just ignore it and move on. I pay a lot of attention to footnotes and bibliographies—one book leads to another.
It’s a kind of dorky version of the old path of the hunter, following the tracks, not knowing where they lead. Which became, in turn, a metaphor in nearly all religions: the path, the way, the pilgrimage. The character for “tao” is pictographically a head and a road: or, as we’d say, heading down the road. And I’ve always thought that the famous first line of the Tao Te Ching should be translated more concretely as “The path that is already a path is not the Path.”
Of course many of those paths lead nowhere: I’m a trash heap of abandoned ideas and essays that will never be written. Or the path suddenly branches off into something completely different. As Jack Spicer used to say, you sit down to write a poem against the Vietnam War and end up writing a poem about spring.
JE: Another fascinating essay of yours is “Louis-Auguste Blanque as Copied Out by Walter Benjamin” and I would like to ask you some questions about it. Benjamin included Blanqui’s “Eternity Through the Stars” in his “Arcades Project” but his version is different from yours. Did you return to the original source?
EW: Wow—you’re the only person who knows this . . . It’s just a few pages in the book. Blanqui, in prison, imagining what we would now call parallel universes. Then Benjamin, in the Bibliothèque Nationale, copying down Blanqui. And then I copied it . . . But it turns out that Benjamin left out some sentences, so I put them back in.
It’s like that Hasidic parable that Martin Buber loved: In heaven, the room you’re in now will be the room you’re in there. That table will be there, with the candlesticks on it. The chair you’re sitting in will be the chair you’re sitting in. The curtains, the wallpaper, the chandelier—everything will be the same, just a little different.
JE: So a hall of mirrors of people hunched over manuscripts and engaging with each other’s work. Why did you include a bibliography in An Elemental Thing?
EW: Well, not exactly a hall of mirrors, but since Blanqui was writing about parallel universes, and it ties in with other things in the book, it seemed to lend itself to a Pierre Menard moment.
Perhaps this is the place to say that it’s often assumed that my essays are collages of found texts. But it’s not true: They’re sometimes collages of information, but except for things placed in quotation marks (and not even then, when it’s a translation), and this particular essay, I write every sentence . . . Writing sentences is what I’m trying to do. So it bears no relation to the current practices of Google cut and paste.
As for the bibliography, after the book Outside Stories, some people asked me why I was “hiding” my sources by having no bibliography. I just thought it was part of its non-academic nature, along with the absence of footnotes. But after that—at least in Karmic Traces and An Elemental Thing—I included a bibliography as a way of demonstrating that I hadn’t made anything up, and, more important, because one of the functions of a book is to point the way to other books.
JE: I would like to ask you about your relationship to the work of Montaigne, especially his famous piece “On Cannibals.” Montaigne talked about the need for “self-examination.” Your concerns seem a little different. Are you consciously trying, in the words of Walter Benjamin, to “found a genre, or dissolve one?”
EW: Funny how, if you write essays, you’re always asked about Montaigne. If you write poetry, you’re not asked about Edmund Spenser. It proves how, unlike poetry, little has changed in the last four or five hundred years. Of course Montaigne is a master, but for the formative first-person essay, I’d go back another 500 years to the women of Heian Japan. Or move ahead a few hundred years to something like Shen Fu’s Six Records of a Floating Life—the way he organizes the information in telling his life story.
And then—I don’t, obviously, write personal essays. (In fact, I’ve probably used the first-person more in this interview than in all my essays combined. It’s the nature of the game that one is stuck talking about oneself.) I’m certainly not trying to “dissolve” the form, in which there are so many great works, but merely to suggest that—like poetry, like fiction– there are many other ways an essay can be written. And I’m certainly not “founding” a genre, as there are already models on where the essay can go.
JE: Which models interest you the most? We’ve already talked about Davenport.
EW: At the beginning, the two books that opened my eyes to what an essay could be were Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature and Artaud’s The Theater and its Double (and later his other essays). The Lawrence because I had never imagined that “literary criticism” could be written like that. The Artaud, not only for the indelible image of the witch burned at the stake, signaling through the flames, but how a book, ostensibly about the theater, could open with a plague ship.
From there, the essayists who expanded those horizons tended to be poets: Pound, Olson, the Williams of In the American Grain, and more recently Susan Howe. And, along with Davenport, one who wasn’t a poet: the largely forgotten Paul Metcalf. But mainly my models—if you can call them that—were poets. I try to write many of my essays in the way that one writes poetry: listening to how it sounds, juxtaposing images, making leaps, and so on. My “models” for the compression of large amounts of information are both poets: Lorine Niedecker and Charles Reznikoff. And, for the more narrative essays, the Icelandic sagas: the way so much plot can be conveyed in so few sentences.
JE: Did you travel to Mexico as a young man to meet and talk with Paz? What did he teach you about poetry, politics, mythology, etc?
EW: We met when I was twenty. He had resigned his post as the Mexican ambassador to India after the massacre of students before the Olympics and had bizarrely landed in Pittsburgh, where he was teaching for a few months. I had already translated his book Eagle or Sun? At our first meeting, he was shocked that I had never read Vicente Huidobro and I was shocked that he had never read George Oppen.
Our relationship was not exactly father/son, but more like favorite uncle/favorite nephew. I went to Mexico many times, and we also gave many readings together in the U.S. Because I was not Mexican, he could talk to me of things about which he would have to be more guarded in Mexico, with its Byzantine nets of gossip and intrigue.
What was astonishing about Octavio was his synthesizing mind. He seemed to have read everything, have total recall, and the ability to relate it to everything else. Walking down the street with him, he noticed everything, and had a joy in everything he saw. Certainly I’ve met other poets who’ve had that enthusiasm for life, but no one else who had the erudition, the contextual foundations, the understanding.
There have been many requests, especially from Mexico, to write a memoir of Octavio, but I’ve always refused. I didn’t want to join the ranks of the professional mourners—many of whom barely knew him—which arose after his death. But mainly because I don’t write about my personal life—and Octavio, in so many ways, belongs more to my personal rather than literary life.
JE: Let’s finish by returning to Davenport. He always asserted that we do not live in an epoch; we live between epochs. You have talked about writing under the influence of Modernist poetry. The Modernist revolution occurred three, or even four generations ago, yet it still feeds our writing. What is missing to enable the next epoch to begin?
EW: I suppose it’s true, in the sense that we are obviously forever teetering between the past and the future—and both past and future are continually being rewritten and reimagined. I don’t think the present moment is “postmodern,” mainly because its artworks—once one takes away the critical theories propping them up—don’t seem much different from those produced a hundred years ago. I’d say we are entering a phase of late Modernism where the story moves away from Europe and America and Europeanized Latin America to Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and indigenous Latin America—revolts against, and continuations of, traditions that were not part of Modernism as we’ve known it so far. Obviously, at the moment, different parts of the world are at different stages, but it’s already visible, already tremendously interesting and exciting.
And one never knows: There’s that scene in the Mahabharata where two men go the wise and honest Yudhisthira to settle a dispute. One had bought some land from the other and then found a chest of gold buried in it. The buyer insisted that the gold must be returned to the original owner; the seller insisted that it was finder’s keepers and the gold now belonged to the buyer. Yudhisthira excuses himself to go the bathroom, and when he comes back, the two men are at each other’s throats, each now claiming that the gold is his own. What had happened in those few moments when Yudhisthira was away is that the times had changed.
Jeffrey Errington was born in Sydney, Australia. He studied at Sydney University and Cornell University. He currently lives in South Korea, where he teaches English at a nuclear power plant.
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