is always possible because everything else is possible, too.—Claudia
This is Claudia Grinnell’s bio in a nutshell:
Claudia Grinnell was born and raised in Germany.
She now makes her home in Louisiana, where she teaches at the
University of Louisiana at Monroe. Her poems have appeared in
various print and ezines, most recently in such places as Exquisite
Corpse, Hayden's Ferry Review, New Orleans Review, Mudlark, Janus
Head, and Blue Moon Review. Her first full-length book of poetry,
Conditions Horizontal, was published by Missing
Consonant Press in the Fall of 2001.
It’s a modest description of her writing
credentials; but, it yields very little about the writer behind
the work, or the work, itself. However, here is some interesting
data, (most of it culled from the internet):
Claudia has written at least eight fiction pieces
(which can be found on her home page, Command Central) and at
Able Muse; she has written several essays; her poetry has been
published in over a hundred journals not counting print journals;
she is/has been the assistant editor for Sundress Publications
and turnrow. She has been featured in several notable journals
including one of my favorites, Samsara Quarterly; she has consulted
with and translated several poems for other writers; and, she
reads and reads tons of articles, poetry journals, reviews.
The question remains, what hasn’t Claudia
done? Well she says she hasn’t been able to fly or make
herself disappear or walk on water. But the editors of Sundress
Publications beg to differ:
Claudia Grinnell was born and raised in Germany
where she lived and raised hell until she was twenty-five. Then
the German government had had enough of her antics and kicked
her out of the country. . . .Claudia is incredibly smart and
can leap tall buildings without even trying. She is wealthy
beyond belief, having made a fortune off her teaching position.
Mia: Which one of these bios, Claudia, is a
more accurate portrayal of you?
Claudia: Take your pick. I’ve
been called worse by better people. But who I am, and where I’m
from is unimportant. Bobby swears I’m the White Goddess.
And to him, at times, I am. All I know for sure is nothing. And
that changes from day to day. Nothing is a slippery bugger. Honest,
I can’t get a good grip on this answer, or maybe the question
itself. Maybe the ideal Claudia could be wealthy and the real
one poor and pious. Or the other way ‘round. The money would
be corrosive, of course. It would quickly lead to love of money.
The trouble is that the most harmful desires make
the most profound poetry. Nothing kills a poet more quickly than
the poison of piety. I have sometimes thought that the ideal life
would be to live for six months a year meditating in a monastery
in some very remote part of Spain, and to spend the other six
months being madly in love with someone with whom I wanted to
fling myself into an orgy of dancing that went on until after
dawn. Each six months would give depth of meaning to the other,
and life would be maddeningly full. And that’s something
I haven’t done.
Mia: In an interview with Jan Carroll of Round
Table, when asked, “It’s been said all poetry is political,
yet Theodore Adorno said ‘no poetry after Auschwitz.’
Can poetry, today, after September 11, still have relevance?”
I think it's useless and tainted by hubris to
make a statement like that…Hell, the whole of human history
is nothing but a bunch of horrible events strung together. "Evil-doers"
have always been around, small-scale, nation-scale, world-scale
extermination and violence are part and parcel of what we do
... maybe we should have quit writing after we exterminated
a whole set of native peoples in the conquest of the "new"
world. Or maybe after the Soviet "cleansings." Or
maybe after East Timor…Poetry is always possible because
everything else is possible, too.
Let me applaud you for your aplomb; especially,
the line which I quoted above, “Poetry is always possible
because everything else is possible, too.” I want to add
and reiterate the same question: Can poetry have relevance and
how so? Is it possible that we’re in a lull that the complaints
about “bad” poetry are any worse than any other time
Claudia: I want to take this opportunity
to repudiate anything and everything I’ve said before, whether
I said it or not. Of course, poetry has relevance. It has relevance
to people who think it has. To others, it’s a line item
in a budget that has to be evaluated in terms of cost / benefit
analysis. Some might think poetry can change the world (unacknowledged,
of course, because we Poets are so modest) or can make the world
happen (some god shitting an ur-syllable, and, presto, bingo,
we appear). Hallmark is poetry to some. And many think RAP is
it. Don’t forget those who enter contests to make the big
bucks associated with poetry. The very fact that people actually
argue about whether poetry has relevance or not makes it relevant.
Besides poets, critics and the public at large have always complained
that they are living in a time in which the poetry is bad, or
getting worse (it’s the grass was greener in the golden
age complex, I suspect).
I don’t see poetry being much worse or much
better now than 10, 100 or 500 years ago. We can’t say yet
what will survive from what we write today. I bet that ninety
percent or more of what was written 100 years ago sank into oblivion.
It could quite well be that some of what critics today deride
as crap-- langpo and the MUCH derided pomo stuff—may quite
well surprise us, survive, and be praised. Who knows. It’s
probably good that we won’t find out. For one, I’d
hate to lose these extremely entertaining beefs about the quality
of poetry today (what else would bloggers and other culture priests
exercise themselves about?); and, for two, it keeps the individual
poet guessing. Imagine the ego of someone knowing he/she will
be famous. It’s already nearly impossible being in the same
room with most famous poets.
Mia: Is all poetry political and if so in which
respect? How about this one: Can poetry be about the politics
of the self?
Claudia: All poetry is political
because everything is political, especially the self. The body
which gives shelter to the self, lives in the city, in the polis.
When you have two or more of these bodies, you have a city, and
thus the beginning of a narrative. Something begins to happen.
Sometimes that something is interesting and demands itself to
be remembered. Writing, first employed to keep record of economic
interests, extends itself to keep a record of the self. The more
ambitious selves write what we call history. There we find the
celebration of a positive attitude toward life: the cheerleaders
of the life of the mind do twirls and jumps. Particularly interesting
are the histories of other people. Because, to our great surprise,
they are word for word the same: war, poverty, fear, love. That
stuff is interesting. Because no matter how cynical you get (and
more about that later), what Carlos Drummond De Andrade wrote
holds true: “A time comes when death doesn’t help.
/ A time comes when life is an order. / Just life, with no escapes.”
In the “good” poetry of the political, i.e. involved
world (how can you not be, in this material world, a material
girl; after all, Mater = mother) that is something that needs
to be encountered.
I mean, *this* war happened. And I don’t mean
*this* war; I mean *any* war. We all lived after that war. The
results, the consequences, that were expected (planned) from this
war, truly came into existence. Every chance, every moment to
plan something, every instant, came thanks to those results. Causes
and conditions. That is the order. In this order, the self has
a chance to wake from the sleep of the jargon (i.e. history, the
question of “authenticity” or relevance), and do something
new: it can look away from the screen and look inward. Away from
the political. Remember I said only “All poetry is political
because everything is political, especially the self.” I
didn’t say that that was a good thing.
The act of thinking, and if it is necessary, the
act of thinking for nine years against a wall in a stone cave,
must take precedence over the what’s the matter with matter
question. Life-based, culture of life—all that huge smokescreen
over the fact that we value life more than thought.
The apolitical self, i.e. the self that is,
at least momentarily, not part of the whole, enlightens, or delightens,
in any event, brings light.
Mia: In that same interview, you wrote:
A good poem is one that is not read or praised
on Oprah. A good poem is one that is not trotted out as "representative"
Okay. So far you’ve stated what makes a good
poem by what it is not: “not read or praised on Oprah,”
and “not representative of ‘o-how-wonderfully-creative-and-resilient-the-human-spirit
is.” Both of these imply your “moving target”
theory that a poem is constantly evolving, and therefore cannot
be defined so neatly. If I’ve misunderstood you, can you
elaborate more on what you consider is a good poem?
Claudia: Again, I want to take
this opportunity to repudiate anything and everything I’ve
said before, whether I said it or not. Memory. Man, I tell you.
It does stick around in the worst possible moments.
What’s a good poem?
I really don’t know.
No. That’s not true. I do know.
A good poem is one that makes me think thoughts
I haven’t thought before, or not thought in that order,
or not thought to that degree or intensity.
I think that is my definition for any type of “good”ness.
I’m glad I thought of it.
Mia: Fair enough. I won’t hold you accountable
for any answers you provide here or elsewhere, provided that you
tell me why money and poetry are NOT mutually exclusive? This
matters to me because I’d like to see more government funding
for the arts and less money allocated to studying the mating habits
of arachnids in the Amazon, or any number of pork-barrel-spending
Claudia: I’d like to see
more government spending on various “good” projects,
projects that don’t have to immediately yield profits or
votes. But that might not happen. What I meant when I said that
money and poetry aren’t mutually exclusive I meant that
we need to get away from the notion that poetry is somehow “pure”
or beyond those worldly concerns. I want poetry to be on par with
plumbing. I pay my plumber if he fixes a problem. If a poet delights
me, I want to be able to pay him/her. So, I’d like to see
community involvement—it’s beginning to take root
in some areas, and I think the spoken word community had a good
influence in that direction—in poetry events. Pass the hat.
Pay up. Poets should shamelessly promote themselves, their work.
What’s wrong with that? McDonald’s has an advertising
budget of I don’t know how many millions. A good burger
and a good poem should be able to compete in the marketplace.
And for those who would say, oh, but it would commercialize the
poetry, make it part of the entertainment industry, I’d
say, come on—wake up: you ARE already part of it (Adorno
knew it). The only question you have to answer, or reckon with,
is this: have you written the best poem you are capable of writing?
Mia: Going back to that interview once more,
you speak about euphemisms:
operation infinite freedom, crusade, root out
evil, smoke 'em out, collateral damage etc etc--all those pet/pat
phrases really serve to make permissible and even embraceable
a continual/continuous state of war, destruction, death, disaster.
Just like (re)naming a wife beater a "domestic abuser"
so does calling civilian death or injury "collateral damage,"
do great in-justice to language and thereby our sense of reality.
. . . When we begin fudging with language, we fudge up our sense
of reality, which, essentially should be renamed "operation
During the presidential elections, where the politics
of fear played a huge role in leading us into an extended war
with Iraq, it felt like watching a bad rendition of a Warner Bros
cartoon. In your opinion, what is the reality of that situation
and how did language play the voter’s hand?
Claudia: It’s not euphemisms,
actually but framing—and that technique is as old as the
hills. I mean, nobody, unless he’s a psychopath (and even
there I have my doubts) will willingly, gladly, and accompanied
by marching bands and weeping mothers, go and bash in some other
guy’s head just for the fuck of it? No. No. No. Someone
has to start a rumor that that other guy probably (we’re
not sure, but, jeez, just LOOK at him) eats babies freshly ripped
from their mother’s womb. But that’s not the worst
of it. Oh, no.
(we must interrupt this for an important message
about vaginal hygiene, the danger of 4 hour erections, and some
low carb beverage that apparently makes dewy young things swing
their blonde hair from side to side)
This guy apparently lies about other stuff too.
Clearly, a candidate for surveillance. (can’t
be too careful. Disasters loom everywhere. Sharks, too)
And then, sooner or later, this guy just becomes
unacceptable and gets taken out.
Now, take out the t.v. commercials, every war, every
where, every time begins like that.
This operation works so smoothly, clicks along in
our consciousness with the precision of Kabuki theater.
Mia: I’ve been reading your work many
years. It’s useless to categorize or describe poetry by
genre any more, but the thought occurred to me that your work
leans toward the metaphysical: i.e., “characterized by an
intellectually challenging style and extended metaphors comparing
very dissimilar things.”
I also think that your work is witty, wickedly
funny and anything but cynical. I find your work to be reality-based
which doesn’t mean that it’s realistic or truthful;
I simply mean that it doesn’t extend to the idealistic,
fantastical beyond belief, and yet it’s highly inventive.
Do you honestly believe that your work is cynical? Then, how
would you best describe your work?
Claudia: I’ve heard that
cynical thing before. Some time ago, it was used as a label for
some thing I wrote, and then every thing I wrote all of a sudden
was cynical. A certain section of my readers started reading every
thing I write as cynical. I assume that this isn’t a good
thing, judging by the tone that usually accompanies the use of
the word and the various other negative comments bunched in there
with the word. And sometimes the poem is simply bad because it
is cynical. In symbolic rendition, it would appear as: cynical
= bad. I may have made a logic error here, or the reader may have,
but there you have it. It does not concern me overly much how
some readers label what I write or even what I am. If anyone ever
gets to a point where everything he does is in concern of or response
to another’s ideology, he’ll be completely insane
or perhaps a saint. I have no desire to be either.
No, I don’t think how I write is cynical;
what I write about often is. At least, that is my perception of
it. I find our current times cynical; everyone wants salvation
on the cheap, Dr. Phil and Oprah, a few dead, a quick snort of
spiritualism, shooting up the good Book, or least portions of
it. It’s sort of like the Reformation without Martin Luther
to keep things real, but a Remodernism with the dudes on American
Idol telling you your mom wears combat boots. I mean, come on!
The whimpering confessions of middle aged men and women, until
the last one standing. Excommunication by way of being voted off
This whole competitive paradigm?
My God, intelligent design? Where’s the evidence
of THAT? This is the best He could come up with.
And you call me cynical?
Mia: You once wrote, “I'm really in this
poetry gig to explore what language can do.” What can/should
language do? And what discipline, the Humanities, the Sciences,
Math or Art should it pursue? By this question I mean to say that
Math has always been accepted as the purest language of symbols—
the one that all mathematicians and science can speak fluently.
Claudia: Yeah, I’ve always
liked that myth. It gives me the warm fuzzies to think that there
is this pure conceptual system that transcends the limits of language.
Man, this sounds like the rationalist position in the latest space
alien movie: "Why don't they just speak English," to
which Jodie Foster replies, "Mathematics is the only universal
We think that because our puny little brains have
taken us this far. We are actually so arrogant to think that math
is a pure symbol. Unsullied of what? The touch of mankind? Our…gasp!...orthodoxies,
concepts, causes and conditions?
What we want, what we need, and what inevitably
changes--none of these things are within our control or reason,
yet they are with us from the time we are born to the time we
die. We cannot, thus, be rid of our emotions any more than we
can be rid of our reasoning faculties. For some reason, this is
still considered an "extreme" position.
It is interesting, and undeniable, that Math or
the desire to speak fluently and across all dimensions springs
from emotional need (to recede from chaos). But that, at least
to this point, takes us back to the economics of it all. And look
what we’ve made of that. We can’t afford ourselves
Also ironic is the fact that obsession with the
whole (or All), the pure idea of all phenomena (all fruits of
the garden), leads one to a lopsided emotional state, an antiplatonic
fragment (obsession). A system like Math or logic or language
is merely the expression of any single obsession. We can justify
anything with logic. The Greek rhetoriticians did. The writers
should do it. That’s what language can do.
Mia: Just for fun, I’m
going to list nine “trigger” words, separately or
in pairs. Write the first word or words/paragraphs that come to
your mind: Six, Salt, Soul, Rubicund, Artemis, Rent, Finesse,
Rubicund tough to work into a conversation
Artemis being a goddess of contradictions
Rent not any more
Finesse isn’t that a shampoo?
Casualties if your attack is going too well, you have walked
into an ambush
Obsession for men, for men, for god, Jesus: Jesus
was just some poor guy from the boondocks who believed that
he lost his supernatural powers when he came into contact with
menstruating women. The guy who founded the new cult that we
now call Christianity was a fellow by the name of Saul of Tarsus,
later known as Paul, then eventually as Saint Paul. He hated
his physical body, which he saw as the locus of all sin. Nietzsche
called him the dysangel (the bringer of bad news, in contrast
to the evangel, the bringer of good news). Paul's message was
so bizarre that he knew it would make Jesus turn in his grave.
That's why he told everybody that Jesus was no longer in his
grave but had ascended to heaven. Jesus, you had to get me started?!
Mia: No, really, Jesus didn’t have anything
to do with the above exercise (smile). I picked words out of the
air at random in ten seconds. All I wanted to do was engage in
a mental exchange of words with you, no holds barred, no motive,
no objective in mind—a tabula rasa, so to speak. I simply
wanted to see what your answers would divulge. Only after I put
together the list did I come up with a few reasons:
1) I was looking for cultural relativism in the loosest sense:
any association that could be made via exposure to a certain
pop/culture, (demographics even) through branding, assimilation
and influence. I found possibilities in soul food, saltine,
and finesse. Here’s how they paired up:
Soul/food=southern influenced dialect.
Salt/ine=a type of cracker invented in Missouri.
Finesse/shampoo, (branding). I was looking for verb association.
2) I wanted to see if six would be read as a number or would
it hold some kind of superstitious meaning as in numerology.
I have to say, six/tynine was pretty clever. It threw me off
several times: tynine isn’t a word I’ve ever used
in any conversation, but sixty-nine…
3) That leaves:
Rubicund=a throwaway because it was a dictionary word that
Artemis=I was looking for literary influence: “Artemis
Fowl” but goddess of contradictions sounds good to me
Rent=tough one. I was looking for a verb as in, to rip.
Casual~ties=the one that most interested me. I was wondering
if you would pick this up as a noun plural, “casualties”
or as two words, “Casual Ties.”
4) Then, Obsession. I thought you would say perfume.
Surprise, surprise. This should teach me, or anyone, not to project,
have expectations or impressions about one’s language. Cognitive
After all is said and done, what did you get out of this exercise,
Claudia: Chalk it up to reader
response! Well, see, on obsession I started with perfume –you
know, Obsession for Men—and then this whole free-association
thing kicked in, and before you/I knew it, Jesus arrived on the
scene. What I got out of it is that I apparently react badly to
emotionally loaded words like obsession. I mean, think of it:
we name a perfume obsession. Probably one of the worst kinds of
emotional traits a person could have. And then we design an ad
campaign around it. And we sell that stuff by the gallon. Amazing,
Mia: At what age did you learn English? Was
the transition an easy one from German to English?
Claudia: Thanks to the rigorous
tracking of German students from age six, at age 10, I entered
the Gymnasium, and began learning English.
At first, according to my then English teacher,
Mrs. Brown, I was a horrible student, with an almost incomprehensible
pronunciation and nonexistent grammar skills. That state lasted
about six years. My poor desperate parents employed tutors, and
finally, it was decided that I might never master the language
to any passable (in the grade sense) degree. Then I had the good
sense of falling in love with an American Adonis who worked at
the local pool. Dennis (and I know Bobby will want to know much
more) was all I needed to jumpstart my latent English skills,
and that year I had an “A” in English on my report
card and an irrepressible desire to live in the USA.
Although another eight years passed and Dennis wasn’t
the reason for the move, I did move here, only to make a monstrous
discovery: people in Louisiana were unable to understand me, and
I was unable to understand them. What they had labeled as “English”
in an obviously altered state in no way resembled what I had so
labored so many years to “get.” And then it took me
another good number of years to “get” American. It
continues to be a source of great joy to me to “get”
a language and to have the privilege to express myself in it and
to play with it and have other people engaged in that game as
Mia: Do you consider yourself more of an aural
or a visual poet? I read your poems and I tend to think you’re
very, very much visually-oriented.
Claudia: If you mean by visual,
reading in the widest sense, yes. I read voraciously. Not just
text, but signs, houses, faces, grass, coke labels, eyebrows,
lightbulbs. Everybody, of course, does that. After reading, I
get tempted to translate what I read into another text, another
medium. And one of the more interesting questions I’m sometimes
trying to entertain is McLuhan’s last, from Laws of Media:
When fully utilized or pushed to its extreme, what will the medium
reverse into? In other words, where can I push the envelope, knowing
that I am in one?
Mia: Actually I wasn’t alluding to reading
or the act of observing, or even the topography of words/line
breaks on a page. It’s one thing to take in ‘images’
visually and aurally, but it’s another to see how those
images float into the writer’s consciousness and ultimately
end up in the reader’s visual field. You’ve used sounds,
mnemonic devices, and repetition in your poems, but those kinds
of poems don’t stay with me: The ideas get lost in the sonics,
rather than solidifying into images—tangible “things”
I can push against. I’m sure it’s a failing on my
part as a listener. However, let me make one thing clear, your
work is not just about visual imagery; there’s attitude,
voice, thought and a host of other things going on with your writing.
But in your book, Conditions Horizontal, most of the poems are
visualized. Ideas are given identities. In the poem, “The
Fortune Teller,” the future is a toothless, small and mean
woman kept in captivity. Death is an executioner in, “The
End is in Sight”.
I knew when everybody left
My executioner would come back…
he showed me his orders
I felt the seal: it was too dark
to read but I trusted him,
didn’t try to please or plead
didn’t tell him, I am
innocent. He would have laughed,
would have filled the room
Then in the poem, “Conditions Vertical, Conditions Horizontal,”
a pregnant woman is the owner of a complete house:
I was the owner
then slow infestation
heartbeats, blood, oxygen
for more space. Certain foods
were out of the question,
denial of fried bacon.
A baby doesn’t get any more visual than those lines. Why
does the poem stay with me? Because a word like, “infestation”
isn’t a word I would “normally” associate with
a baby. Termites, parasites? Maybe. Your visual imageries are
often so phantasmagoric, that they become indelible in my mind.
A line such as, "shall we their fond pageant see" (from
Shakespeare), in your poem, “The Collapse of the Wave Function,”
let’s face it, is not as riveting as, "motherfuckingcunteatingsnotsuckingbastard."
But even at that, your images are what really push the envelope:
Cupid lets another one fly, misses Monsieur Duchamp's heart
by a bicycle wheel, but creates a useful hole at the top of
a window of opportunity, so to speak…a young woman with
unnaturally red hair whose tongue probes Monsieur Duchamp's
hole. An odd scene, surely, and a passing mother speeds up,
dragging her boy by his lengthening arm.
And I’m not saying that I am drawn to these images because
they are grotesque to me. I’m drawn to them because these
images form lives, real or imagined, dreamed or disparate. The
poem, “Even Now, This Wanting” you describe the lives
on the pages as weighing the possibilities, and this is what I
do as a reader of your poems:
I thumb through the fiction, the lives
on the pages. I weigh the possibilities:
a romance (so much lifelessness,
as if after an earthquake, as if people
do not yet dare to move), a book
of poems (people and words, here too,
standing pushed against the margins,
the walls, quiet), a biography (a singular
life: recalled, but the condition in which
it appears is beyond dead because death
is being denied by picture, by image,
by tiptapping across the letters
of a keyboard).
As for McLuhan’s question: When fully utilized or pushed
to its extreme, what will the medium reverse into? Who is to say
that the medium will ever be fully utilized or pushed to its extreme
unless one believes in the pendulum theory?
Claudia: Before I go into that
answer, I must admit that I find McLuhan to be a brilliant analyst
of media…I know, I know, much derided, and as an academic,
I won’t probably be able to publish a paper that mentions
his name, but if you read his stuff, and I mean, read ALL of his
stuff, you can’t help (well, I can’t help) but think
that he knew the hole we were digging ourselves into.
The medium will never be pushed to a final
extreme. These are merely stops on a way, a path that is being
discovered as we are writing it or mediating it. But that does
not mean, we can’t push, prod or rattle the envelope.
Wittgenstein in Zettel: “Do not forget that a poem, even
though it is composed in the language of information, is not used
in the language-game of giving information.”
Mia: How do you feel about this overview by Theodore
Dalrymple in his article, “The Specters Haunting Dresden”
(City Journal: Winter 2005):
Collective pride is denied the Germans because, if pride is
taken in the achievements of one’s national ancestors,
it follows that shame for what they have done must also be accepted.
And the shame of German history is greater than any cultural
achievement, not because that achievement fails to balance the
shame, but because it is more recent than any achievement, and
furthermore was committed by a generation either still living
or still existent well within living memory.
Claudia: I want to get to the issue
of shame first: it’s not useful as an individual learning
tool. Shame will not teach better behavior. It might extinct one
particular behavior, but not with what I would consider the learner’s
A correct understanding of guilt, however, would
be desperately needed. We ARE all guilty. If you are alive at
a certain time in history, you are guilty for whatever happens.
There is no exit. Or something similar to what Cioran said: "You’ll
always kill yourself too late.” To which you add Parker,
“might as well live.”
Now that you do, and now that you are guilty, what
and whose orders will you fulfill?
In between all that, "what is" gets created
or imagined as each day arrives. I wouldn’t want it any
Other than that, Dalyrmple is unfortunately 20 years
behind the times, a very unfortunate place to be for a historian.
The Zeitgeist in Germany changed, and if he hasn’t noticed,
he must be living in his own private Germany. A new generation
of Germans has grown up who are quite able to feel collective
pride. It will now be very interesting to see what they make of
it and whose orders they follow.
Mia: How long have you been practicing Buddhism
and how does it (or does it) reconcile with your being a lapsed
The reason I have a problem with Pope Benedict XVI’s newly-minted
phrase, “the dictatorship of relativism” is not because
of where he’s from, or what he’s done in the past.
Like you said, everyone is guilty and it’s not that clear
to me to what extent his involvement was with the Nazi party.
I think the word, “dictatorship” is rather harsh.
Are we really dictated by relativism, so that we prescribe to
whatever interpretation of the Bible is most convenient to us—for
I think I’ve pretty much exhausted everything I wanted
to discuss, and probably exhausted you. Thank you, Claudia.
Claudia: Thank you, Mia, this has
been a stimulating and “good” (as by my newly adopted
I’ve been a practicing Buddhist for about
13 years now. The fact that I am a lapsed catholic (and I stole
that phrase from one of Hemingway’s characters) and the
Buddhist practice go together nicely. Buddhism does not make onerous
requests of its converts or adherents. I find its practice helpful,
consistent with my belief system (that wasn’t the case with
Catholicism as some point I began to question an orthodoxy that
puts a creator god at its center, which creator god then gives
authority and legitimacy to authorities, i.e. kings, queens, dictators
of every stripe. In other words, this creator god perfumes the
creation of the civilization we live in to a degree that authority
is pre-assumed, right down to the familial level: Father is always
right!, and eminently practical in terms of providing a context
and philosophy for everyday living. For example, in general I
have found that I can alter my feelings about things by an act
of willfully looking at it in a different light. It seems to me
that about 95% of Buddhist practice (I might be rounding up a
bit) consists in willing oneself to look at things from a different
perspective. The other 5% is going with the perspective that gives
one the most inner peace and makes one the most harmonious with
other sentient beings.
So much for the Buddhist stuff.
The catholic church, like most doctrinaire organizations,
believes in absolutes, must believe in it. For the pope and people
like him nothing is worse than relativism. His newly minted phrase
“dictatorship of relativism” is on par with pronouncements
on “secular humanism.” Relativism is the big bugaboo
of the moment. Uhhh, you are being relative. My god. How awful—like
those unwed welfare mothers and the UN or taking prayer out of
Anyhow, so the church—shorthand for any organization
that needs, for one reason or another—to have absolutes
(good, evil are the usual ones). Those are written then in capital
letters pontificated upon.
Much of the railing against postmodernism is based
on this (mis)perceived relativism. Well, gee, those people don’t
believe in good or bad. How can we trust them? And what about
that clitoral stuff they do in Africa? Do you think that’s
I mean, I’ve had those discussions.
First, nobody says there is no bad or no good. It’s
actually pretty simple: the criterion in deciding whether one
is wrong or is acting badly is whether or not oneself or someone
else experiences suffering as a result of it. Implicit in what
I have said is that deciding what is right and wrong in one's
beliefs is essentially subjective rather than objective. The test
of rightness is not correspondence to facts but an assessment
of how one feels internally.
Nietzsche famously said something along the lines
of most people being able to handle only a certain amount of reality
before they resort to comforting fantasies. I assume that the
belief in absolutes is one of those fantasies. It’s just
too bad that so many wars have to be fought over them.
Let me be even clearer: Good and Evil do not
exit as absolutes. They exist in the good and evil acts we perform.
They are not a priori anything or anyone. They come into existence
with us and they leave existence with us. I can’t speak
(and won’t) for other life forms. They have their own troubles.
But I’m fairly certain I’m not related to them.