Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Back to the things themselves. Edmund Husserl
"To philosophize is not to examine the things of which one is conscious, but rather to examine the very consciousness one has of things---the mode of being which things have when we are conscious of them. Thus, to say that philosophy must examine the consciousness of things is but another way of saying that it should examine the appearance of things, i.e., the being they have when they appear." Quentin Lauer, Phenomenology: Its Genesis and Prospect.

E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "In the interview included in THE BOOK THAT CHANGED MY LIFE (edited by Diane Osen) you use the term creative philosophy. Could you define this?"

 The first person I heard describe philosophy as "creative" was Professor Garth Gillan, the advisor for my master's thesis in philosophy in 1973. He was referring to the many independent conference papers on Critical Theory that I wrote for him during the 1971-72 academic year. Later in life, my understanding of what he meant by philosophy being creative would deepen. It's important to understand that professional philosophers---those who teach in the field---are, like everyone else in this world, people who range from being geniuses to dull. Some are brilliant and deep, others mediocre and shallow. Some are best at teaching and don't publish (or at least not much). Some are good at explaining the ideas of other thinkers, but have few original ideas of their own. Some are elegant, entertaining prose stylists like Arthur Schopenhauer, and others are simply dreadful writers like Hegel.  (If you want to have some fun, read Brand Blanchard's discussion of Hegel's writing flaws in Blanchard's 1953 lecture On Philosophical Style.) And, as Gillan pointed out to me, there are some who are not creative, and some who are, using the discipline of philosophy---its history and methodologies---to explore hitherto uncharted contemporary phenomenon.

 If one's background is in phenomenology, one understands that philosophy is not something you just talk about and teach. It is something you do. In a blog/post it won't be possible for me to adequately explain, theoretically and historically, the entire Phenomenological Movement in its German, French, and American traditions (to say nothing of this approach being prefigured in Descartes, Kant and Hegel), especially if someone has no background in philosophy. But I can attempt here the hastiest of broad stroke sketches, one that I hope will lead readers to explore this subject in greater depth. (Just for the record, it took me five years to study all the important German, French, and American works in the canon of phenomenology and become skillful enough with the method to use it; one usually learns the method more quickly---a year in my case after a superb seminar with Dr. Don Ihde. Karl Jaspers once told Husserl that he was managing the method better than the theory, and Husserl said that this was as it should be and that in time the theoretical apparatus would become clear.)

 Phenomenology was conceived, first and foremost, as a method for investigating experience or phenomenon. It does not necessarily seek new knowledge, as Dietrich von Hildebrand pointed out, but instead a new and more profound realization of the knowledge that one already has. Thus, it is not system-building, but a "radical empiricism" more akin to deconstruction (to which it may be said to have given birth). One's investigation begins with the epoché or "bracketing" of the thesis of the "Natural Attitude" (Einstellung), which is the everyday, unreflective attitude of naive belief in the existence of the world. (Put another way, we take no position on the existence of the phenomenon.) This initial move is important because it "clears the field" of perception of judgments and presuppositions. This field is infinite. In principle, it contains the entire world.  Husserl's analysis proceeds to other levels of reduction (including a psychological reduction, eidetic reduction, and phenomenological reduction), but we shall limit ourselves in this post to the epoché, which functions as a demythologizing device that prepares for an intuitional demonstration of the object being studied and is implied in the work of most phenomenologists such as Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger. 

 Once the field of perceptual experience is cleared, a phenomenologist then endeavors to describe what appears in that field and without, of course, recourse to deductive and/or explanatory models, or received meanings. (Sometimes the use of neologism is necessary when attempting to describe a new meaning or what Merleau-Ponty in his posthumously published work The Visible and the Invisible called "wild Being.") Always we are only concerned with what is given during the perceptual event. Every analysis begins with first-person immediacy, a first-person intuition (the experience of that which the mind signifies in thought) by a historically situated subject (noesis) of an object (noema), which may be things or thoughts; persons or events; categories or states of affairs; numbers or geometrical figures; or works of literature. And the way one intuits something (the way it appears) is an index to a man or woman's being-in-the-world. (Dasein) The link between subject and object or noesis and noema is intentionality, for every experience implies an object and every object something that experiences. We are indebted to Franz Brenano for this fundamental insight regarding intentionality. (Consciousness is always consciousness of something; or as we read in Herbert Spiegelberg's The Phenomenological Movement in his section on Brentano, "No hearing without something heard, no believing without something believed, no hoping without something hoped, no striving without something striven for, no joy without something we feel joyous about, etc.") 

 Husserl's own approach is often called a descriptive-formal ontology because what he sought were invariant structures (eidos) in phenomenon. (In traditional metaphysics we have what is seen or appearances, and what is unseen or reality. Think of Plato's world of eternal, immutable forms and our world of appearances that "participate" in those forms. With phenomenology that distinction between phenomenon and noumenon is removed. There is only what appears for an embodied consciousness.) We come to see, as phenomenologists, that objects (noema) are always given to a subject (noesis) in a way that is perspectival, and in a series of temporally unfolding profiles. 

 If I hold up a cube before you, you will see its flat, front sides and its top. You do not doubt that it has a back side and bottom that are co-present, but at this moment the back side and bottom are perceptually absent. Merleau-Ponty calls this the "play of absence and presence." The back side and bottom of the cube (the profiles not given) are the empty intentions that constitutes the cube's horizon. I.e., what you will be able to see if you turn the cube over or around. But every phenomenon will exhibit something invariant (eidos) despite its many profiles, even if the phenomenon is a fantasy object (Imagine right now "Pegasus." You may change many details---color, background or foreground, etc., but for it to be Pegasus, the object you are imagining must be a horse with wings). What is crucial to understand is that the object before us will exhibit many profiles (appearances and meanings), some more adequate than others, and that this horizon is open-ended. It can never be brought into precise observation---it remains on the fringe of our perceptions. Furthermore, it is not possible in perception to have two profiles before us at the same time----for example, the cube seen from front and back, top and bottom simultaneously. (Some portraits by Picasso are a striking exception to this.) As one profile is called forth, the others recede from view. Thus, to reveal (a meaning) is also to conceal (other meanings). To describe an object (to say) is also to show. But that saying or showing renders other things unseen or "invisible."

Some phenomenal objects will offer our analysis tremendous resistance. They are difficult to examine because they so closely involve our being-in-the-world. In other words, our deepest and most unexamined forms of social conditioning. Our experience of race in the life-world (or Lebenswelt) is one such phenomenon, and is as close to us as our breathing, so familiar and heavily sedimented (with assumptions and presuppositions on our side, as subjects) that its unveiling may very well be experienced as threatening.

The way something appears is the beginning of our investigation. This first stage is eidetic (descriptive) science. But what we want to do is further explore the structural, invariant features of the phenomenon. Variation is one technique for this, and it can take many forms: (1) Imaginative variations performed on the object; (2) Perceptual variations; (3) And analytic variations (logical possibilities). (In art, think of the way the impressionists employed a basic phenomenological approach by concentrating on light, i.e., Claude Monet painted objects in light dissolving at different times during the day. Think also of figure/ground reversals. Juxtapositions of context. Isolation of dominant and recessive traits. And transforming perspectives.) We also have the possibility of hermeneutic variations, i.e., telling a story. Using narrative or intersubjective language to allow the object to appear in a different way. Apodicticity (or certainty) becomes weaker with the increase in variations, and adequacy increases as the object is noematically opened (or deconstructed).

 These phenomenological investigations---especially the imaginative variations---can be considered "creative" in the purest meaning of that word. Certainly we see that creative efflorescence in the work of Jean-Paul Sartre who was in addition to being one of the 20th century's major philosophers also a novelist (he turned down the Noble Prize for literature) and a playwright (to name just a few of the hats he wore). And in the 1950s, Continental phenomenology came fully into flower with the works of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Mikel Dufrenne's exhaustive The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience.

 Later in America in the 1970s, my dissertation advisor Don Ihde, one of our clearest, most precise teachers and practitioners of phenomenology, who popularized that tradition on these shores, enriched the interface of philosophy and the sciences with several works on embodiment relations and man/machine relations that build upon and extend the work of Paul Ricoeur and Martin Heidegger: Hermenutic Phenomenology: The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur (1971); Sense and Significance (1973); Listening and Voice: A Phenomenology of Sound (1976); Experimental Phenomenology: An Introduction (1979), which was a best-selling work; Existential Technics (1983); Technology and the Lifeworld (1990); Postphenomenology: Essays in the Postmodern Context (1993), and other works since these were published.

  And in this new century, right now, philosopher George Yancy is creatively using phenomenological methods to bring to his readers a fresh, deeper seeing into the experience of race, which is perhaps the one phenomenon in our lives that presents the greatest "coefficients of adversity," as Bachelard and Sartre would say. Among his many highly creative and ground-breaking books that use phenomenological principles and techniques to perform an archeology on race, Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race (2008) and the forthcoming, Look! A White! Philosophical Essays on Whiteness are of particular importance.

 So this is why I say philosophy at its best is creative.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller says: "In the interview included in THE BOOK THAT CHANGED MY LIFE (edited by Diane Osen) you use the term creative philosophy. Could you define this? Also in this interview one of the books you list that shaped your writing life is THE COLLECTED SHORT STORIES of D.H. Lawrence. What do you like about Lawrence's work?"

I'd like to divide my answer for this question into two posts. In this one, I'll talk about D.H. Lawrence. 

I didn't become interested in Lawrence until I took a course at SUNY Stony Brook with English professor Homer Goldberg, who didn't have us study one of his major works, but instead The Plumed Serpent. Of that work Katherine Anne Porter wrote, "For sheer magnificence of writing, Lawrence has surpassed himself. His style has ripened, softened, there is a melancholy hint of the over-richness of autumn. Who looks for mere phrases from him? He writes by the passage, by the chapter, a prose flexible as a whiplash, uneven and harmonious as breakers rolling upon a beach, and the sound is music. His language rises from the page not in words but in a series of images before the eye; human beings move in vivid landscapes, wrapped in a physical remoteness, yet speaking with a ghostly intimacy, as if you were listening to the secret pulse of their veins. All of Mexico is here, evoked clearly with the fervor of things remembered out of impressions that filled the mind to bursting. There is no laborious building up of local color, but an immense and prodigal feeling for the background, for every minute detail seen with the eyes of a poet. He makes you a radiant gift of the place."

Lawrence sensitized me the possibilities of poetic description in prose, especially for landscapes. (He was one of many writers who did that.) I encountered his work in the year between the acceptance of Faith and the Good Thing for publication in fall, 1973 and its release a year later in 1974. And after that encounter I was so dissatisfied with the descriptive work in my manuscript that I rewrote 20% of that novel---mainly descriptions---based on what I had learned from Lawrence.
When I discover an author who interests me, I binge on that writer's work. I read everything in print. I gorge myself on it. (My wife will tell you I have a tendency to do that with everything that interests me, that I'm excessive or obsessive that way until I exhaust my interest.) And I'm especially delighted if that author has a large body of work that is highly diversified across different fields of creative expression. (I've done this binge exercise with quite a few authors over the last 40 years, among them and to name just a few, Charles Dickens, John Gardner, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Hermann Hesse, Herman Melville, and certainly the philosophers I had to study.) So over the course of my first year in Stony Brook's doctoral program, I read all of Lawrence's novels. All of his short stories. (The short stories were one of my evening pleasures for months after a day of classes.) And in my writer's notebooks I took pages and pages of notes on his techniques, his narrative strategies, the workings of his mind when it came to creating metaphors and descriptive passages, what he chose to show and not show, and how he showed it.

Then I read works about him like D.H. Lawrence and His World by Harry T. Moore and Warren Roberts (The Viking Press, 1966). I read his poetry, his travel pieces, sketches, and his letters (there one sees the uniqueness of his literary style even in his quickly composed similes), his book reviews, introductions, and miscellaneous pieces in Phoenix II: Uncollected Writings of D.H. Lawrence, edited by Warren Roberts and Harry T. Moore (The Viking Press, 1970). I took a look at his drawings and paintings (e.g., "Boccaccio's Story" and "Red Willow Trees"), comparing the visual workings of his imagination to its operations when his medium was words. Such a total examination of a creator's oeuvre is helpful for a young writer because you see an artist at his best, technically, and less than best, by which I mean you see him fall just a hair (or a great distance) short of his finer performances, and that reveals the logic of his intention, what he was trying to do. You see him repeat himself, trying with varying degrees of success to nail down a particular feeling or image. You see him when he is handling his literary tools clumsily, and sooner or later you understand how to use such tools yourself. 
I also read his essays. And it was with one of his racist essays, "On Being a Man," which appeared in the June, 1924 issue of Vanity Fair that my disappointment and disillusionment with Lawrence began. In his time he was controversial for his frankness in regard to sexuality; and he had champions who regarded him as a "towering genius." But after the Civil Rights Movement, and especially the rise of feminism and the Women's Movement, his literary stock has taken a real---and much deserved----beating.

I've always been saddened to discover racism, sexism, intolerance or the like in the work of literary writers I learned something from in terms of craft, or in the writers I admired for their storytelling prowess. But it is almost impossible not to stumble on something like that in white, Western authors working before 1970. Like us, they are creatures of their time, often guilty of the myopia and limitations of their moment in history. But my feeling is that we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water. I wouldn't want to take a cross-country bus trip sitting next to D.H. Lawrence. (He could be a rather nasty fellow.) And these days I have no interest in reading his work. Yet and still, I do appreciate what I was able to take away from the experience of his work when I was in my mid-twenties.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "In a 2006 interview with Shayla Hawkins you mention how writers should take emotional risks. Does this require a teacher or mentor? Does emotional risks differ from the risks a writer makes in regards to form or structure?"

In my writing workshops, whenever it was necessary to discuss the issue of characterization, I would explain to my students what they needed to know about their main or central characters in a story. Some of my advice was standard fare. For example, that one's protagonist (and the story's reader) should not come out of the story as clean as when he or she went in. The conflict and its development will force the protagonist to undergo change, to evolve. I told my students they must know as much about their character as Lajos Egri indicates in the biographical questions he says writers must ask in "The Bone Structure" section that appears in his classic work The Art of Dramatic Writing (1942). As an exercise, I'd ask them to write their main character's obituary. And then I'd ask them to do something that always caused a few students in the room to visibly squirm.

I asked them to determine what their protagonist most feared in this world. I told them I didn't mean snakes or spiders. No, I meant his or her deepest social fear. The one situation they most dreaded experiencing. The one event they would prefer to die than have to face. Then I told them they should maneuver their protagonist into exactly that situation to see what happens---if, in fact, he or she is destroyed by it, or is changed by it and in what ways. Everyone in class knew what doing that would require. They knew what I was asking of them. They would have to delve deeply into the most tender, raw, and painful places in themselves and identify their own deepest social fears.

In some of my novels and stories there are moments---passages---when I've had to do that. When the story demanded that. I.e., to give to one of my characters an excruciatingly painful experience from my past or the life of someone close to me. There is such a passage in my story "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," and when I wrote it tears were falling from my eyes onto the typewriter keys. (Earlier in my life, there was nothing more dreadful to me, a good Confucian son, than the thought of failing my father and mother, letting them down after all the sacrifices they had made for me, and in this story that is exactly what the protagonist must suffer through.) There is another in Dreamer---a passage where one of the main characters (Matthew Bishop) remembers when he and his mother traveled South during the era of segregation, were hungry, and the humiliation she received (that any black person would have received) at a white, roadside diner, but even that, Matthew sees, cannot diminish his mother's dignity and innate nobility. To a somewhat lesser degree, writing about the details of my mother's death in a recent E-Channel post entitled "Death Is A Bridge We All Must Cross" (July 17), and the feeling I had of being orphaned, was a small step in the exercise of deliberately bearing one's soul on the page. 

These are emotionally important moments in fiction. I believe they transcend what normally passes for analysis in literary criticism (for example, structuralism, semiotics, deconstruction) because they are so raw, and in no way cerebral, or intellectualized. Their power is primal. Pure unadulterated feeling beyond concepts. Beyond theory. No teacher or mentor can help a student achieve this. These are intentional risks of the heart, not craft. They are a giving on the page of what is not easy to give. It seems to me that most of these moments take place in our childhoods, when we were most vulnerable. Describing those episodes, a writer must open himself or herself, become emotional naked, brutally honest, and trace with infinite care every laceration, wound, and scar to the best of his (or her) ability in order to get it right, to finally externalize it on the page and liberate himself from it. And all of that is, of course, in the service of the story. In the greater service of literature.
This kind of writing takes a certain kind of courage. (And also, I think, takes a toll on the writer, takes a chunk out of him or her, emotionally.) And I am not as good at this as many writers I admire. Foremost among these is James Alan McPherson. For I will never forget one of his essays in which he describes the denial of his father's genius during the era of segregation (he came up with an invention whites would not allow him to give to the world), the devastating toll that took on him, and a scene toward that essay's end when father and son are literally united by electricity---his father is repairing a light fixture, sticks one hand into the socket, has his son's hand in the other, and the son is holding an object to ground them both. If either one of them lets go, the other (or both of them) will die. And in that transcendent scene, as electricity and the elemental power of the universe courses through them, the black father looks down at his son, and quietly says, "I would never hurt you."
McPherson has achieved this kind of leave-you-shattered-in-your-seat magic time and again in his short stories and essays. Little wonder then that on October 12, 2012, he---a recipient of the Pulitzer prize for one of his short story collections, and one of the first MacArthur fellows---will be honored with a tribute at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City when he receives the first Paul Engle Award, which "honors an individual who, like Paul Engle (a long-time director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop), represents a pioneering spirit in the world of literature through writing, editing, publishing, or teaching, and whose active participation in the larger issues of the day has contributed to the betterment of the world through the literary arts."

Emotional honesty such as we find in McPherson's well-crafted work is an achievement more than deserving of such honors and awards.

Friday, September 23, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "At one time we didn't have creative writing programs to support. Are these programs responsible for developing better writers?"

I taught in a creative writing program for over 33 years. Obviously, I feel such programs have value. And the CW program at the University of Washington is especially distinguished (ranked once among the 10 best out of nearly 300 such programs in America), having on its faculty of about 10 writers four who are MacArthur fellows. (Richard Kenney, Linda Bierds, Heather McHugh, and myself before I retired.) Those writers, and their predecessors, are master teachers and have assisted countless students since creative writing classes were started at UW shortly after World War II (I think the year was 1947) by poet Theodore Roethke, a two-time recipient of the Pulitzer prize.

But I was never a product of writing programs. In terms of education, I was a product of Journalism and Philosophy. Historically, as I mentioned, creative writing programs in America did not exist until after World War II. And you only find such programs in America. Europeans I've spoken with find such classes to be baffling, like an oxymoron, insofar as the general notion across the EU is that literary creativity---such things as imagination, vision, etc.---cannot be taught. And I agree with that judgment. We can't teach imagination and vision. What creative writing programs do teach when they are at their best is technique and aspects of craft. Also they place apprentice writers in direct contact with established ones, who can serve as their mentors. In those programs, many often have the chance to serve as editors on a literary journal, and to teach beginning poetry and fiction workshops. For their thesis, they must, ideally, produce a publishable work---a novel, collection of short stories or volume of poetry. Again, in terms of the ideal, these theses would be sufficiently professional to secure the young writer an agent and/or his or her first book contract. Unfortunately, in too many cases that I've seen what many MFA students mostly want after graduation is to get a tenured job teaching creative writing themselves, like their professors, rather than devoting their energies to writing and publishing prolifically.

So we have an important question before us: What would aspiring writers do if there were no creative writing programs? I think they would learn the rudiments of their craft, the essentials, in the same place that writers in the 20th century did before 1945. Namely, on newspapers. (Or perhaps now at our 21th century equivalent to dead-tree journalism.) What writerly virtues does newspaper journalism teach that are of value to a fiction writer? In my professional experience, there are four:

        (1) First, a writer for newspapers is conditioned from his or her first week on the job to write a lot and on many subjects. Typically, a journalist files 3 or 4 (and perhaps more) stories a week. You learn to write fast, and to not even think about that fact because it is a job requirement. In other words, you learn to make your first drafts clear and well-structured. (Inverted Pyramid-style paragraphs for straight news stories, but more literary approaches are possible for features and longer form journalism.) You learn that you can't afford to flinch before a writing assignment---a feature, a news story, a weekly column, a book or movie review, an editorial, a lengthier op-ed opinion piece, an in-depth investigative series---and you certainly can't afford the luxury of that strange psychic condition called a "writer's block." (Try telling that to your editor, "Gee, boss, I've had a writer's block for the last two weeks." Anyone who says that will be soon sending out his resume and seeking employment elsewhere.)

        (2) You learn to write for the broadest audience possible. An old rule of thumb was that news stories in The New York Times should be understandable by someone with a 12th grade education (for lesser papers the target was an eighth-grade education, but that rule was made back in the 1960s when our public school system was in much better shape than it is now, and when we did not have at least 1 out of 5 Americans---and almost 50% in Detroit---being functionally illiterate). Once, we called newspapers the Fourth Estate, an essential feature of any democracy because citizens who have the franchise, the right to vote, need reliable information to guide them in the decisions they make on election day. So being able to write for everyone---to communicate with everyone who can read---is something a journalist learns from day one on the job.

       (3) On newspapers, a writer learns to do research. He or she learns to ask the six most important storytelling questions: Who, What, When, Where, How and Why? You have the library of news stories previously published by your paper---the morgue---to draw upon. But, more importantly, you learn how to interview people, to shut up and listen, and how to ask good questions. Remember: the quality of the answers we get in this life is based on the quality of the questions we ask.

       (4) And, lastly, you learn not to see your prose (or copy) as sacred. Or carved in stone. What you write is just copy. It can always be improved by revision. When you're done writing, it goes directly across the room to your editor, who will delete, add, and change what you wrote, sometimes in ways that might make you want to scream and pull out your hair, because your by-line will still appear on that piece. In other words, being a staff writer for a newspaper teaches a writer humility. There is no place for prima donnas in the newsroom. Only for professionals who know how to get the job done and by or before its deadline.

       These are not always the virtues emphasized (by the threat of being fired) that MFA students encounter in their more gentle, nurturing two-year programs. But the experience of writing for newspapers obviously served well generations of fiction writers from the late 19th century through the first half of the 20th. I recommend this experience for apprentice literary writers today. Such an experience of writing every week from the trenches, so to speak, will only serve to make them better professionals when they turn to producing literature and working as writers who can take on any assignment that comes their way.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


"Every assertion contains some truth, for unless the person making the assertion is 'anti-human,' he has detected something that is the case---however one-sided, fragmentary and partial his perception of it may be. Hence, according to Hegel, what is called for is not a legal verdict that decides between conflicting assertions; what is called for is a formula, or concept, that reconciles the assertions by expressing what is true in both without also asserting what is false and one-sided in each." W.T. Jones on Hegel in A History of Western Philosophy: Kant to Wittgenstein and Sartre.

E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "Why do you think America has been having cultural wars?  What's at stake here?  Is this about controlling or owning the American narrative?"

Today's question is so large and complex that a proper answer would require a multi-volume critique of America dating back to at least the Civil Rights Movement but most likely to the founding of the republic. Therefore, because some of my answers this month have ran a bit long, I think it best to keep this post brief, limiting it to basically one central idea I'm comfortable with and certain about---an essentially Kantian and Hegelian idea that is, believe it or not, compatible with both the spirit of Buddhism and Taoism.

Here is that idea:
The opposite of a truth is not always a falsehood. Rather, the opposite of a truth may often be another compelling and equally justified but different truth. In both law and philosophy we refer to these as antinomies, the latter being "a contradiction between two statements, both apparently obtained by correct reasoning." What is at stake here? I would answer: the conflict of interpretations (or narratives about what America is and should be), which is as old as the human species itself. And I'm afraid we cannot turn to nature for the adjudication of ethical questions without committing the Naturalistic Fallacy, pointed out by G.E. Moore, of deriving ethical conclusions from non-ethical premises or of defining ethical notions in non-ethical terms. 

A Seattle Times reporter once told me, "If I don't have a conflict, I don't have a story." Our media thrives on just that (hysteria-drenched headlines), and daily caricatures both sides of the so-called Culture War with all too easy and convenient labels and language for sharply distinguishing between progressives and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, the left and right, etc. Media interpretations tend to be disjunctive, cast in an either/or formulation. But there can be no question, at least to me, that there are on both sides of our present cultural, political, and ideological Divide ideas, narratives, and interpretations that are silly and empirically unverifiable and also ideas that are antinomies: opposing visions that each contain propositions that appear indubitable. America has been a place of opportunity and a country that until recently systematically oppressed its non-white racial minorities; it does have a history of "exceptionalism" and a dark history of imperialism. Indeed, American history can be defined by its disagreements. (At a dinner in April, 2008 at the University of Michigan, I made the comment that it seemed to me that Americans simply don't like each other these days, whereupon writer Nicholas Delbanco, whose life has been spent in both England and America, immediately replied, "Americans have never liked each other." Sadly, I have to agree with his more bluntly honest revision of my observation.)

In the social and political world perhaps the only way to escape antinomies is by the creation of societies like Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's Iran or Mao's China, where the conflict of interpretations is adjudicated by force, i.e., the side that wins the argument in the marketplace of ideas is the one in control of the police. Supporters of the opposing view are simply suppressed or extinguished. But if we believe in democracy, and if we accept the thesis that as long as human beings exist on this planet they will have a tendency to interpret in different ways the mysterious and ambiguous universe in which we find ourselves, then it is inevitable that an on-going Culture War involving values and moral visions will be our very human----perhaps all too human---way of life. Certainly every year of my life has been lived in a country, indeed a world, torn by the endless, at times fatiguing but also profoundly human conflict of interpretations over what is and ought to be. And I suppose I have to say I prefer that messy, nerve-wracking condition of perpetual disagreement to the kind of "unity" in ways of seeing that every form of fascism seems to favor.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Style is never simply technical choice, but evolves from how a writer sees the world...(To embrace) a readily identifiable prose style without being aware of its tyranny and inevitability of voice...(is to embrace) a ready-made point of view. Linsey Abrams, "A Maximalist Novelist Looks at Some Minimalist Fiction."

E. Ethelbert Miller asks, "Writers talk about finding their voice?  When did you find yours?"  

In the late 1960s when I was a Journalism major, I had a professor who was fond of giving his students a copy of a decades-old newspaper article, with the author's name removed, and asking them to identify who wrote it. Just as art history students are tested on recognizing an anonymous painting, and music students on naming a composer based on an unidentified scrap of his music, so too, this professor expected us to determine the newspaper man who did this piece by its style and voice alone. A couple of class members rose to the occasion. (I was one of them but only because I had a friend who took this class before me and told me the answer.) The piece in question was an old news article by Ernest Hemingway. If you knew his fiction, you were certain to recognize the personality and linguistic decisions in this newspaper story.

For many readers and writers "voice" is a dimension of writing that proves to be elusive, intangible, and difficult to define. Often some people will just say, as they do of pornography, "I know it when I see it." But when we don't see it, which is usually the case with student fiction and much of published writing, we must judge that work of fiction to be unvoiced or voiceless, and therefore lacking in one of literature's more subtle and important dimensions. But, yes, this subject is difficult to discuss, for in order to do so we must talk about an artist's individual vision, his unique approach to language, and viewpoint in fiction.

Jean-Paul Sartre was spot-on in Saint Genet when he observed that "The word is the Other." In his analysis, he pointed out that, "Language is a nature when I discover it within myself and outside of myself with its resistances and laws which escape me: words have affinities and customs which I must observe, must learn..." Language precedes us. We find it "out there" in the social world, and we must learn its rules, its logic and the way that, as Sartre says, "words sometimes display surprising independence, marrying in defiance of all laws and thus producing puns and oracles within language; thus the word is miraculous." 

In developing a voice what the writer does is transform or personalize the expressive instrument---language---adapting and individuating it to fit his experience, his vision of the world. Voice and vision, these are two sides of the same phenomenon. And I would venture to say voice is absent in apprentice writing precisely because the writer has yet to develop for himself (or herself) a vision of how the world works.

There are writers possessing a very strong temperament, and for them the specificity of their individual voices is one of the delights of their fiction, just as much as their stories (for their voices are the vehicles by which their stories are delivered with panache). For that reason they never change voices from one book to another. Just as with their speaking voice, their literary voice has its individual tics, quirks, and eccentricities. An example? At the moment I'm thinking of P.G. Wodehouse, Kurt Vonnegut, and perhaps I'll throw in D.H. Lawrence, too, but you can easily add other authors to this list of the kind of writer I'm talking about. It's possible, even likely probable, that my non-fiction falls into this category, especially when I'm writing about Buddhism. But, as a storyteller, I tend to deliberately practice what some have called "narrative ventriloquism," or changing my voice to fit the story being told. Think of this as being like the way a puppet-master switches voices for a Punch and Judy performance. Or, if you like, just think of it as putting on a mask for the duration of a fiction.

Changing voices is de rigueur for writing first-person stories, if the teller of the tale is not the author himself or herself. (Every actor not just playing himself on stage is adept at this form of shape-shifting; and I could open up this discussion to say a few words about how the very ability to put on a mask is itself an indication that we do not have a static, unchanging, enduring "self" but instead the ontological condition of emptiness or shūnyatā as Buddhists say---would acting even be possible if the self was a substance or essentialist or an unchanging Parmenidian entity?--- but we should leave that lecture for another time.) Consider the opening---tone, diction, personality---of the nameless Professor who opens my story “Alēthia”:
        "God willing, I'm going to tell you a love story. A skeptical old man, whose great forehead and gray forked beard most favor (when I flatter myself) those of that towering sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, I am hardly a man to conjure a fabulation so odd in its transfiguration of things, so strange, so terrifying (thus it now seems to me) that it belongs on the pale lips of the poetic genius who wrote Essentials and that hallucinatory prose-poem called Cane."

Now compare that opening to the one for my story "Exchange Value," where the narrator is a teenager named Cooter living on Chicago's South Side:
         "Me and my brother, Loftis, came in by the old lady's window. There was some kinda boobytrap---boxes of broken glass---that shoulda warned us Miss Bailey wasn't the easy mark we made her to be."

Obviously, neither one of these voices---one from the Academy, the other from the street---can be called my normal voice. Yet ironically (and in a way that Sartre called "miraculous"), they briefly became my voice and temperament during the time of each fiction's composition. (Potentially, we all have many voices within us. Think for just a moment about the black scholar, a Ph.D., who can lecture on nanotechnology one moment, then cuss you out the next moment if you make the mistake of stepping on his shoes.) This is how first-person in fiction operates. I should also point out something else. In my post dated September 6, 2011, entitled "One Minute Past Midnight," I mentioned that a minor character in my most recently written, third-person story speaks in Cockney slang. Were he to become the narrator for that story, then I, as a writer, would have to compose every sentence so that each becomes a window onto his unique world of experience.

All of the above should be obvious for when one writes in first-person. But that same sense of voice and personality should resonate, I believe, in third-person narratives as well. In the tale-telling tradition, this is fairly easy to do, as in the opening for my story, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," for it employs a traditional and familiar stock voice:

           "There was time, long ago, when many sorcerers lived in South Carolina, men not long from slavery who remembered the white magic of the Ekpe Cults and Cameroons, and by far the greatest of these wizards was a blacksmith named Rubin Bailey."

But a third-person voice that isn't stock can also cling to every sentence---and word choice--as in my story, "The Education of Mingo." The following example describes farmer Moses Green's efforts to "educate" a slave named Mingo. 
         "Now Moses Green was not a man for doing things halfway. Education, as he dimly understood it, was as serious as a heart attack. You had to have a model, a good Christian gentleman like Moses himself, to wash a Moor white in a single generation. As he taught Mingo farming and table etiquette, ciphering with knotted string, and how to cook ashcakes, Moses constantly revised himself. He tried not to cuss, although any mention of Martin Van Buren or Free-Soilers made his stomach chew itself; or sop cornbread in his coffee; or pick his nose at public market."

Here we have third-person narration limited to Moses Green. It is as if we as readers are perched on his shoulder, seeing everything from his point of view. And so the narration at times (or most times) is flavored with his speech patterns and diction, just as it would be in his dialogue. We've hardly exhausted the discussion of voice in this post. But I hope some of these reflections and examples are helpful.

Monday, September 19, 2011


"It is my belief that the artist's first allegiance is to the imagination, as opposed to any prevailing dogma...When artists submit to being told what to write---if that telling comes from anyone but themselves---they have abandoned the history that gave them birth and sustained their lives in the first place." Clayton Riley, The Demands of Craft, an address presented at the 1978 Howard University Black Writers Conference.

E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "How important is it for black writers to talk about a black aesthetic? Do you think there is one? Some young writers mention the post-soul aesthetic, what does this term mean to you?"

The single most disastrous and disappointing course I taught during my entire career in higher education was called "The Black Aesthetic." This course I took on during my second year of teaching as a doctoral student at SUNY Stony Brook. The previous year I had taught a course in the Philosophy Department called "Radical Thought," a survey that included everything from Marx's "1844 Manuscripts" to Critical Theory. But that year Faith and the Good Thing (1974) was published, and so the Department of Comparative Literature asked me to teach for them (I had taken several graduate classes there, some with the late Polish theater critic and Shakespeare scholar Jan Kott.) 

Things went well enough during my first semester when I taught a course called "Third World Literature," which I inherited from visiting professor Kofi Awoonor, who in 1975 returned home to Ghana to head the English department at the University of Cape Coast and, sad to say, was imprisoned without trial for helping with the escape of a soldier accused of trying to overthrow the military government. (On Stony Brook's campus several of us faculty and students held a reading from Awoonor's works to protest his incarceration.) Then I was asked to teach something called "The Black Aesthetic."

I was simply the wrong young man for that job. It was too early in my teaching career. Furthermore, in 1976 I was not convinced there was anything we could universally call a "white aesthetic" or a "black aesthetic." (Or for that matter, an "Asian aesthetic." Wabi-sabi may be an aesthetic concept for those Japanese people oriented toward Zen, but certainly not for everyone in Japan; or China, or Thailand, where my 1997 Microsoft-sponsored research on the Thai sense of beauty revealed that beauty for many Thais has a significant relationship to the concept of riabroi, which has no Western equivalent.) My Stony Brook class emptied of students until I was left with only one who showed up---a young woman who was an acquaintance of Amiri Baraka and his wife---to argue with me. From my perspective as a Ph.D. student in philosophy in the mid-1970s, the writers who presented the case for a "black aesthetic" were sloppy thinkers, too subjective, more inclined to emote than provide analysis that was trustworthy, mired in essentialist thought, poor at defining their terms, offering evidence that was apodictic, and reasoning in a fashion that was systematic. Now it must be said---and since then I've said this often (see my 1986 essay "A Phenomenology of On Moral Fiction")---during the 2500-year history of Western philosophy, aesthetics tends to the scandal of the discipline, the bastard child who, despite our best theories, remains in the realm of opinion and prejudice. The subject itself cannot be quantified (nor should it be) and so often defies objective treatment.
So during winter, 1976 I learned my lesson and never again attempted to teach a course on a "black aesthetic." (And I have no idea what a "post-soul aesthetic" is supposed to be.) Other black writers in the mid-to-late 1970s were facing the same problem I had in 1976 with race-based aesthetics (and this problem, which dates back to the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, led, of course, to my 1988 book, Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970, which was my Stony Brook dissertation). In his 1978 address at Howard University's Black Writers Conference, Clayton Riley stated that, "Craft is, in my view, the perception and application of excellence." Then he says:

        "The way things are written, or otherwise constructed as examples of the impulse to share information, has often been subordinated to that which many people have come to feel is the more significant---in fact the only significant---testimony of what has been formulated as a writer's evidence of conscious commitment to tribal ethics. We have, as Black writers and artists, contested this point at conferences such as this one, and at numberless other gatherings."

Riley bemoaned the situation of those artists who "commit the latter-day, 20th century sin of living as an 'incorrect' person who has, by such inclinations, betrayed those brothers and sisters whose fundamentalism derives from the certainty that political stimulation and activity remain the bedrock of any truly human sensibility."

He quotes from Albert Murray's beautiful essay "The Social Function of the Storyteller," where that distinguished writer notes that, "It is the writer as artist, not the social or political engineer or even the philosopher, who first comes to realize when the time is out of joint." Then Riley concludes with these words on craft and vision:

         "Artists seek to find out, to explore, taking on in the process the risky business of knowing what is not easy to know---the danger of discovery. In this, writers most especially, have an entire world---not just the fractured universe of American racism and psychic social disorder---to employ in structuring systems and methodologies to make up new planets, new societies, new ways of being eminently more human. Craft is the vehicle to convey us through another sky, one in which we can come to realize that form is a vital dimension of content, not an isolated point on someone's broken political compass."

All I can say is that I wish I'd been able to invite Mr. Riley to my Black Aesthetic course two years before he wrote "The Demands of Craft." He would have given my students a great deal of wisdom and perhaps saved me a good deal of grief.


"Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" Henry James, The Art of  Fiction.
E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "Is it important for a creative writing teacher to encourage his/her students to study critical theory?"

 It is difficult for me to imagine a student in one of the nearly 300 creative writing programs in America (and we only seem to have these in America) not having the requirement of taking a certain number of literature courses. In those courses it is today nearly impossible to escape the interpretative or hermeneutic approaches we gather under the general term "critical theory." 

As a philosophy graduate student in the early 1970s, I was immersed in works by Marxist-oriented authors considered to be the principle theorists of critical theory---the "Frankfurt School" philosophers (Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer, Habermas) Foucault, and Barthes. With my early emphasis on phenomenology and aesthetics, it was also inevitable that my literary studies were influenced by not only the New Criticism of the 1940s and '50s, but also structuralism, feminist theory, and to a lesser extent by deconstruction. Every well-educated student of literature should be acquainted with these approaches.
Lately, or perhaps I should say since the 1980s, I find my interest moving toward certain aspects of Critical Race Theory (CRT), specifically toward the area called "Whiteness Studies," i.e., toward examinations that show us how "race" is historically constructed with the intention of perpetuating white supremacy and dominance. Very exciting work in this area is coming our way from philosopher George Yancy. In the brilliant introduction to his forthcoming book, Look, a White! Philosophical Essays on Whiteness, Dr. Yancy "flips the script" by inviting white readers to see themselves through the eyes of people of color, to see how "whiteness is the transcendent norm in terms of which they live their lives as persons" and how this recognition is so very "threatening to a white self and a white social system predicated upon a vicious lie that white is right---morally, epistemologically, and otherwise." Look, a White! is a book I recommend for all readers.

But Whiteness Studies is no longer limited to the world of the Academy. A recent article by Jen Graves in Seattle's The Stranger, entitled "Deeply Embarrassed White People Talk Awkwardly About Race," reveals how progressive whites are embracing the Critical Race Theory critique of whiteness and attempting to address it through organizations such as the Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites (CARW), which meets every month at the downtown Y in Seattle. There, members confront what CARW cofounder Scott Winn sees as the truth that,"Whiteness is the center that goes unnamed and unstudied, which is one way that keeps us as white folks centered, normal, that which everything else is compared to—like the way we name race only when we're talking about a person of color...We can name how some acts hurt people of color, but it's harder to talk about how they privilege white folks...I think many white people are integrationists in that 'beloved community' way, but integration usually means assimilation...As in, you've gotta act like us for this to work."
 Graves says that, "I grew up in a middle-class white suburban neighborhood. Although we never had a black family over for dinner, every house on our street hosted black men doing perp walks through our living rooms on the news. I didn't realize the contradiction until much later—that our seemingly all-white existence was predicated on keeping other people other." And in this lengthy article she shares Mab Segrest's observation that in terms of the lived-experienced of whiteness, "Women are less white than men, gay people are less white than straight people, poor people less white than rich people, Jews than Christians, and so forth." Jen Graves's challenging article can be read in its entirety at http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/deeply-embarrassed-white-people-talk-awkwardly-about-race/Content?oid=9747101

 Needless to say, Critical Theory and Critical Race Theory will not help an apprentice writer learn anything about techne or craft. Furthermore, during the creative process, which is one of discovery, theories and explanatory models should be set off to one side, if a writer hopes to create on the basis of his or her own unique voice and vision. However, an acquaintance with Critical Theory and Critical Race Theory fulfills Henry James's advice to a young writer (see epigraph), and in ways that James himself was probably unaware of. Every writer, student---and citizen---should know something about CRT. For the illusion of "race"----the racial I, self or personal identity---and its everyday construction are difficult to thematize because they are presuppositions so ingrained in our cultural conditioning in the white West that they are almost invisible, and are as close to us in our daily, lived-experience as to go unnoticed like our breathing. The beauty of CRT investigations is that, at their best, they deconstruct such lies, illusions, and fantasies, forever changing---in a true phenomenological fashion (and one also compatible with Buddhist self-examinations)---the way we experience and create moment-by-moment our world.

Friday, September 16, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "Let's talk about the essay form.  What makes for a good essay?  Where have the ideas for your essays come from?  Do people (magazines/newspapers) request them?  Have you been moved to write an essay because of something that you've read or an event in your life?  What is the relationship between the essay form and black intellectual thought?  Who do you admire or respect when it comes to the essay writer? What is a good length for an essay?  What role might philosophy play in shaping the content of an essay?

Let me start my answer for this question by repeating something a reviewer said of my essays in Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing. He said I was superior essayist, but not a great one. I think that judgment is fair. The essay as a literary form comes easily to me. About 50% of my body of published work is non-fiction (or the essay) and the rest is fiction. Remember: when I was a freshmen in college, I'd write the essay assignments (or term papers) for people in my dormitory (who wanted to party over the weekend) for $5. an essay, money-back guaranteed if they didn't get an "A." I never had to refund anyone's money. (Today I always tell students that this unethical exercise during my wayward youth led to my becoming a writer while the people who paid me to write essays for them never learned how to write.) These brief essays for E-Channel also come easily for me, because once I start thinking about a subject it's natural for me to write down my ideas. And one idea always leads to another, like a tree branching out. For me, the experience is very much like dhārana or the one-pointed concentration that is the first stage of formal meditation.
 But I'm not a great essayist, nor have I worked at being one. A truly great American essayist is someone like James Baldwin, who gave us perhaps a dozen essays that will forever define a certain dimension of the American experience. (Like many critics, I feel his essays are superior to his fiction, though his first novel Go Tell It on the Mountain is worth discussing for historical reasons.) Baldwin's essays, in addition to being beautiful performances of language, pack a rare emotional power. I work to get emotion into my fiction, but in my essays and articles I'm not emotional. Just professorial in my effort to clarify a subject, first for myself, then hopefully for a reader. At best, my work in the essay form might just be called meditational.

This work came about probably as an extension of my background in journalism when (briefly) I was a newspaper reporter, columnist, and features writer in Illinois in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Philosophy is also a contributing factor to the essays I've written insofar as in the early 1980s I made a strong effort to teach myself how to write philosophically for popular magazines, in other words, finding ways to express often esoteric concepts without using the tribal languages employed in philosophy seminars and academic publications for specialists. I believe the first work where I  managed to successfully do that was "Philosophy and Black Fiction," published in Obsidian in 1980. And, of course, in the essays I've written for popular Buddhist magazines what I attempt to do is present with accuracy and clarity  philosophical concepts and experiences in a way that is reader-friendly. What Edgar Allen Poe said of the short story probably applies to the essay: namely, it most likely works most effectively as an experience if it can be read in a single sitting. And for me, what I value in the essays I read (and hope occurs in the ones I write) is the fact that the writer has offered me the opportunity to carefully and methodically think or reason along with him or her about a particular subject.

It is accurate to say that most of my articles and essays have been works requested by a publication's editor, for example, "A Sangha by Another Name" was a piece Tricycle's founder and publisher Helen Tworkov asked me to do. But other essays were originally written as public addresses (like some of the works by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frederick Douglass) or key-note speeches. "The End of the Black American Narrative" was written that way and delivered for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday at Washington and Lee University.

 What pleases me about writing in the essay form is that some of these assignments, like the recent introduction I wrote for The Photographs of Gordon Parks, or earlier introductions, prefaces or forewords such as "A Capsule History of Blacks in Comics" in Roland Laird's Still I Rise: A Cartoon History of African Americans, and the introduction for John Gardner's On Writers and Writing, can become stand-alone pieces that are collected and reprinted in books like Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing (2003); I Call Myself an Artist: Writings by and about Charles Johnson (1999); and the brand-spanking new book just published by Authorspress in India, Charles Johnson: Embracing the World (2011).

One of the most famous quotes we have from Karl Marx is "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it."
When I first read that as a young philosophy student I enjoyed its activist thrust, but somewhere in the back of my mind I kept thinking, "Just how well have we interpreted this world?" That, in essence, is what I try to do daily as an artist---the effort to interpret and better understand the world around me, to bring it some clarity. Sometimes the interpretation is best rendered as a short story. Sometimes as a novel or drawing. Or in essay or screenplay form. I've never privileged or prioritized one form of expression over another. And, as a footnote to Marx, I think we can say that artistic (and philosophical) interpretations have down through history changed lives through the liberation of perception.